From Thu Mar 15 09:43:32 2001
Date: Wed, 14 Mar 2001 22:30:53 -0600 (CST)
From: AIM Maillist Server <> (by way of Greek Helsinki Monitor <>)
Subject: [balkanhr] AIM: Romanies in Serbia
Article: 116815
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Romanies in Serbia: Life on the margins of society

By Olga Nikolic, AIM, Belgrade, 29 February 2001

Two years have gone by since the skinheads went “hunting” for Romanies along Belgrade streets, beating a Romany boy to death at the time. Once again these days, Belgrade is confronted with racist hatred directed at its Romany fellow-citizens. Only this time, Jews have been added to the list. Graffiti with fascist symbols and offensive slogans have appeared on the walls of a popular cultural meeting place of young people in Belgrade, the Rex, where, under the patronage of Radio B92, a multimedia exhibition on Romanies is in progress for a month now. Public denouncements and apologies, including one made by president Kostunica himself, followed. But the bitter aftertaste of the fascist outburst lingers on.

The incident occurred precisely at the moment when a new federal law on national minorities and ethnic communities regulating their rights - including the “Romany issue”—is about to be adopted.

Of the thirty odd ethnic groups and communities living in Yugoslavia and 38 existing confessions, Romanies are by far in the most difficult position. In the clash with harsh reality, the romantic image of Romanies as portrayed in cult films such as “The gatherers of feathers” and “Romanies fly to the sky” has been smashed to pieces. In real life, these people lead miserable lives on the margins of society, barely surviving in a losing battle against poverty and deprivation. According to incomplete data, there are around 450 thousand Romanies living in Yugoslavia. Representatives of Romany non-governmental organizations claim that the figure is in fact as high as 800 thousand. Precise numbers will be known following the forthcoming April census.

Romanies form the youngest portion of the population in Serbia—over a half, 62 per cent of them, are under the age of 25, while only 4,1 per cent of them are over 60 years-old. The said age structure is accounted for by experts as the result of high birth and death rates and a low average life expectancy. According to some statistics, the average Romany life span is 10 per cent shorter than is the case when all other citizens of Serbia and Yugoslavia are concerned.

Dragoljub Atanackovic, the president of the Romany Congressional Party, claims that 90 per cent of Romanies live in extremely insanitary conditions and that in Belgrade itself there are 60 enclaves with over 90 thousand Romanies living in wretched circumstances. “The social position of Romanies is exceptionally difficult. But three per cent of the population of working age are employed, only 31 per cent have primary school education, the rest are half-illiterate or illiterate. We do not have a single newspaper in our mother tongue or a radio and TV program financed by the government. To top it all, our social and legal status is horrid because the constitution defines Romanies as an ethnic group, not as a national minority… Sadly, but while this is the 21st century, and while some five-year-olds are playing around with their computers, some other fifteen-year old kids do not even know how to write down their own names. What are they to hope for then, if not to turn into collectors of old newspapers and scrap-iron or street cleaners?”

According to Dr. Aleksandra Mitrovic, professor of the Belgrade Faculty of Arts, the Romanies are, in fact, caught in a vicious circle of poverty: “They are poor because they are unemployed, they are unemployed because they are uneducated and they are uneducated because they are poor. This vicious circle generates poverty carried over from generation to generation and the only way out of it lies in education, a feat which can only be successfully carried out with governmental support.”

According to statistics, the rate of unemployment among Romanies is four times higher than is the case with the country's majority nation and in the past ten years the negative ratio has doubled. Every fifth Romany of working age is illiterate and every third has merely primary education. A fifth of all Romany families have no earnings whatsoever, while the majority barely survive by doing odd jobs in the black market sector, such as selling contraband cigarettes and similar smuggled goods or by collecting secondary materials.

The number of illiterate Romanies is the best illustration of the effects discrimination against them has resulted in. Almost 80 per cent lack full primary school education, only 9 per cent have completed secondary schooling, while merely 0,2 per cent have college and university diplomas; a single member of the Romany community has a doctoral degree and not one has ever won a master's degree which only goes to prove that, compared to all other ethnic groups, Romanies are the least educated portion of the population.

Discriminative practices are evident in the employment sphere, too. Romanies are not only as a rule unemployed but, when they do find work, only the least paid and most scorned posts are reserved for them. In general, they are the bulk of the street cleaners' and grave diggers' work force in towns all over the country.

Nevertheless, the most detrimental facet of the comprehensive discrimination of Romanies is without doubt the one having to do with education. According to the findings of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, merely seven per cent of Romany children attend preschool institutions, up to 37 per cent do not speak Serbian at all before enrolling in elementary school, while 46 per cent are only partially familiar with the language of the majority population before the start of their primary education. Because of this, the Helsinki Committee maintains that—although mentally normal—a number of Romany children underscore on enrollment tests for primary schools and end up in classes for underachievers and mentally handicapped children.

Those who go to school are subject to various humiliations on the part of some teachers and children. Just recently, newspapers here wrote of the existence of “only Romany school benches” and “Romany drinking fountains” in some schools. Researchers believe that this kind of behavior contributes to the isolation of Romany children and the high dropout rate among them.

This summer in Sabac, where the Romanies are somewhat of an institution because they have lived in this town for centuries, are well-to-do and are considered to be the creators of culture in the region, a local leader of the Radical Party put a ban on the admittance of Romanies to the town swimming pool.

Our interlocutor, professor Mitrovic, warns that in the future, if nothing changes, new generations will “reproduce” new illiterates, thus further generating those socially handicapped for integration into contemporary trends of modern society: “Recent democratic changes should bring about a turn for the better when the social status of Romanies is concerned, too. One of the ways to achieve this is to recognize Romanies as a national minority. They should be granted that status because they meet the majority of prerequisites prescribed. “In recent years, there is a growing feeling among the Romany population itself that the granting of these rights would improve their legal and social situation. The proposal that Romanies be recognized as a national minority has therefore been incorporated into the draft bill of the mentioned law on minorities, along with the request for the application of the principle of “positive action”.

Life in insanitary settlements, the so-called “Romany mahalas”, deprivation and lack of education, have resulted in an almost complete social isolation of these people. Not only are they left to tend for themselves but also—mainly originating within certain rightist circles - a thesis that, if educated, Romanies may, because of their numbers, “turn into another problem for us” is being brought up in public. Vigorously opposing this view, sociologists appeal to the public not to succumb to such provocation, stressing the need of offering Romanies assistance on the road to their “awakening”. The said “awakening” will largely depend on the willingness of the government to move things away from the standstill they are at at the moment and help the integration of Romanies into the future civil society.