Date: Sat, 14 Aug 1999 01:19:17 -0500 (CDT)
From: (Rich Winkel)
Organization: PACH
Subject: RIGHTS-KOSOVO: Gypsies—‘The Most Unwanted’
Article: 72716
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <>

/** ips.english: 463.0 **/
** Topic: RIGHTS-KOSOVO: Gypsies—‘The Most Unwanted’ **
** Written 9:04 PM Aug 12, 1999 by newsdesk in cdp:ips.english **

Gypsies—‘The Most Unwanted’

By Vesna Peric-Zimonjic, InterPress Service, 12 August 1999

BELGRADE, Aug 12 (IPS)—Caught in the middle of the Balkans' strife, the Gypsies of Kosovo have the absurd privilege of being “the most unwanted” in the land of ethnic hatred.

The entrance of a NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) into Kosovo in mid-June, followed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees, prompted a mass exodus from the southern province.

But not only of Serbs had to leave to avoid retaliations, but also Kosovo's most underprivileged—the Roma (Gypsies), who find themselves rejected in Serbia proper, as well as other Balkan and European countries.

Two months after the KFOR entry in Kosovo, Roma associations in Belgrade point out that their people belong to “the most unwanted” part of the population on both sides of the new border.

“Nobody wants us. The Albanians forced us out from Kosovo and Serbia does not want us to stay” says Nemdji Ukic, who fled the town of Kosovo Polje in June.

“The Kosovo Roma were loyal to the state of Serbia and that's why they are victims of KLA revenge now” he adds.

The KLA and ethnic Albanians blame the Kosovo Roma population, along with the Serbs, for the atrocities committed in the province during the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) air attacks against Yugoslavia.

“It was always hard for poor and simple Gypsies in Kosovo” says Rasid J. (54), a refugee from Prizren, in southern Kosovo. “We had to chose sides…In Kosovo it meant siding with the authorities, the Serbs…Now we’re paying a high price even if we did not do a single bad thing.”

According to the Roma Congress Party (KPR), a leading political organisation of Roma people in Serbia, some 150.000 Gypsies lived in Kosovo until June.

“We can say that, at best, only 10 to 15 thousand of them are still there,” KPR's leader Dragoljub Ackovic told IPS. “Literally thousands of them were forced by KLA to leave in a hurry, being given only ten minutes or a half-hour to pack. Only the very old and the ill stayed.”

Statistics provided by the Committee for the Protection of Roma Rights in Serbia show that 7,000 Gypsies abandoned Prizren, 35,000 fled from Djakovica and around 13,000 from Pec.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 came to Belgrade, while another 20,000 managed to flee into neighbouring Macedonia.

“Serbian authorities force Roma from Kosovo to leave Belgrade or Serbia proper” says Gordana Vladisavljevic, who heads the Committee.

“They want to have nothing to do with them. But people can’t go back home—more than 1,200 Roma houses were burned down in Pristina only. Before that, the houses were looted by KLA and ethnic Albanians” she adds.

“There is no place for the Gypsies in Kosovo now…For example, the town of Kosovo Polje had a Gypsy population of more than 6.000. On July 7 our Committee received a call from Nemzi Lakic who said he was the last Roma in the town and that he was leaving”.

“A survey among Roma expelled from Kosovo shows three intentions.” Ackovic says.

“About 70 to 75 percent would like to go home, but they know their homes don’t exist any more. Some 15 to 20 percent want to stay in Serbia proper and the rest of them definitely want to emigrate into third countries” he says.

Many Roma have gone from Serbia to Montenegro, the Yugoslav federation's other republic, from where they expect to reach the Italian shores, a short but dangerous sail across the Adriatic, for which they have to pay up to 1,200 US dollars per head.

“Like the Chinese from Vietnam who became boat people, the least wanted people here—the Roma—are paying their price for freedom drifting into the uncertain Adriatic seas” Ackovic says.

Since the beginning of August, the Italian authorities have intercepted several boats coming from Montenegro. Some small ships carried up to 1.000 exhausted people who have been taken to refugee camps in Italy.

The Italian government, however, has not granted the new wave of refugees from Kosovo the same status as the ethnic Albanians fleeing the Serbs during the NATO air campaign. Gypsies and others are just “illegal immigrants.”

Remzi N. (36), a Roma from Prizren, waves his hand when asked about a possible trip to Italy. Living with his 11-member family in a tiny cousin's home in one of Belgrade's poor neighbourhoods, Remzi says he had to pay some 300 dollars per person to the KLA just to be allowed to leave Kosovo.

“Five thousand German marks, that was all I had—for so many of us. Where would I find the fortune I need to go to Italy?” he asks.

Serbian authorities do not classify Kosovo Serbs or Gypsies as refugees. They are officially termed “internally displaced persons” who are due to return to their homes in an unspecified period of time.

In the meantime, such status means they will receive no humanitarian aid, no enrolment of children in schools and practically no jobs.

The department of Roma studies at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) held a two-day seminary at the end of July, in an effort to attract the authorities' attention to the problem, but the event was virtually ignored by both local and international media.

The seminar's report deals mostly with the humanitarian aspect of the Gypsies' situation both in Kosovo and Serbia, stressing that the main responsibility for their safety lies on both KFOR and the Serbian authorities.

“KFOR did nothing to protect the property and lives of Roma people” says the document, a copy of which was obtained by IPS. “At the same time, Serbian authorities have done nothing to make the circumstances of living of Roma refugees any better.”

“Hunger, poverty and incredibly bad living and health conditions those people face are worsening every day” the document says, calling for substantial international aid.

In the meantime, the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also issued an 18-page report on problems of non-Albanians in Kosovo.

The report, based on numerous interviews with victims, eyewitnesses, and local officials in over a dozen villages and towns, describes direct and systematic efforts to force Serbs and Roma out of their homes, including arson, looting and the destruction of property.

“The majority of the abuses have been committed by men dressed in KLA uniforms, although it remains unclear whether there is an organised KLA campaign against minorities,” the report says.

“Prominent among explanations for these abuses is the desire of some ethnic Albanians to take revenge for atrocities committed by Serb security forces prior to KFOR's entry into Kosovo,” HRW says.

“While the Serb minority is the most obvious target of this retaliatory drive, Roma, too, are at risk, as they are commonly perceived by ethnic Albanians as having been willing collaborators in Serb abuses” the report says.

It also concludes that “the response of KFOR and the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to abuses against minority populations has been belated and uneven”.