The seldom-heard testimonies of Roma people who fled to Serbia because of the Kosovo war and its violent aftermath show how this marginalised minority is still suffering the consequences of the conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbs.
Kosovo’s Roma people became victims of both the Yugoslav and Serbian authorities and the ethnic Albanian-led Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA during the 1998-99 war, but they have mostly been excluded from historical narratives about the conflict.
During the war, Roma people were subjected to mobilisation, forced labour, robbery and vandalism, forced child labour, torture, abduction, murder, and rape.
They were also discriminated against during the distribution of humanitarian aid and pressurised to provide political support for the authorities, which included voting for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
To find out how they see their own situation, in-depth interviews were conducted with 20 Roma people who were displaced from Kosovo from 1999 onwards and now live in an informal settlement in the Veliki Rit neighbourhood of the Serbian city of Novi Sad.
The interviews were aimed at providing a greater understanding of Roma people’s suffering during and after the Kosovo conflict, and how their vulnerable social position made them more susceptible to abuses. Most interviewees asked to speak anonymously in order to protect their identities; the others were also granted anonymity because of safety concerns.
‘You do as they say’
Kosovo’s Roma minority were already at risk of social exclusion and discrimination on multiple levels before the conflict began in 1998.
At that point, the Roma population in Kosovo numbered over 150,000. They mostly lived in the municipalities of Djakovica/Gjakova, Pristina, Urosevac/Ferizaj, Vucitrn/Vushtrri, Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosove, Mitrovica and Pec/Peja.
Although a large community, research data showed that the Roma’s social position was poor. Some of them had jobs in agricultural cooperatives or factories, but mostly they were recipients of social welfare and dependent on state aid, which often meant that they came under the influence of the authorities in what was then a Serbian province, and were politically exploited.
“At the first election, we voted for Milosevic. I [voted] for him too. I didn’t have an opinion, but they asked us to,” said an 88-year-old Roma woman from Pec/Peja.
“Some of our influential Roma did that and they told us that we should do it, and then you don’t think [about it] much. You do as they say,” she added.
The Serbian authorities in Kosovo often abused the Roma population’s existential vulnerability by forcing them to vote under threat of losing social benefits. Because of this relationship with the authorities, some Kosovo Albanians perceived the Roma as collaborators with the regime during the war.
“I had a good position, but my family had problems because of my job. I was in the Serbian police, and when the war started, they [Albanians] attacked my house and my family,” a 50-year-old Roma man from Vucitrn/Vushtrri said.
“Because our mahalla [neighbourhood] was small and surrounded by the houses of Albanians, during the war we were afraid. But we had no problems with them before the war,” said a 35-year-old Roma man from Pristina.
The man, who was a child at the time of the conflict, said that during the war he witnessed his neighbours being beaten and taken away by the Serbian police, and saw an elderly man being killed with a knife.
The Serbian police used Roma people to carry out certain tasks, many of which were related to violence against the Albanian population. Roma were used to help with the transportation of victims and their burial, under the supervision of Serbian forces, as well as for transporting stolen goods from ethnic Albanians’ homes.
“I was a teenager when they [Serbs] said to help them with carrying some stuff. My father was in the Serbian army. We were living with our mother in poverty. It was important to find a way to survive,” a 40-year-old man from Lipljan/Lipjan recalled.
Displaced Roma people who were interviewed in Novi Sad also spoke of being subjected to forced mobilisation, forced labour and forced child labour, being forced to be accomplices to robbery and vandalism, and being discriminated against by the Serbian authorities during the distribution of humanitarian aid, when Serbs were prioritised.
‘God saved me’
After the Serbian police and Yugoslav Army withdrew from Kosovo at the end of the war in 1999 and ethnic Albanian refugees returned, local Roma were subjected to severe repression. From the point of view of some of the ethnic Albanian community, Roma were Serbian collaborators because they were mobilised to fight against the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA during the conflict.
One displaced Roma man in Novi Sad, a 52-year-old from Istok/Istog in Kosovo, said he was mobilised even though he did not want to go to fight. When he came home after Serbian forces left Kosovo, he was kidnapped by KLA members who physically abused him in a house where he was held for a few weeks with other captured civilians.
“They came into my apartment, started to beat me and shouted: ‘Speak! How many Albanians did you kill? Where are the arms, where is the gun? Give us [the gun],’” the man recalled.
“I told them I did not kill anybody, but they didn’t care. It was scary, terrible. God saved me,” he said.
There are no complete figures on the number of Roma people who were the victims of wartime crimes, but international watchdog organisation Human Rights Watch said in 2001 that it believes that hundreds of members of the Roma minority were victims of crimes such as physical abuse, torture, abduction, murder and rape. Data from the Humanitarian Law Centre NGO in 2003 registered that 543 Roma people were murdered and 593 were missing.
A 37-year-old woman who lived in Pristina with her family said that after she moved to a house in a village near the city with her relatives during the summer of 1999, armed fighters with KLA insignia on their uniforms started to burn and destroy the houses.
She and her family ran away into the woods, but her mentally disabled uncle refused to leave the house. “He stayed and when they later set fire to the house, he died there,” she said.
A 40-year-old woman from Vucitrn/Vushtrri remembered how three men in civilian clothes, who she recognised as local Albanians, came armed to their family home with the intention of seizing the house.
The men started beating up her father-in-law, threatened to kill the whole family, and finally forced him to sign over the ownership of the house to them.
“After that torture, we left the house. At least we are alive, it was unfortunate and very cruel, but God sees everything,” the woman said.
All 20 of the displaced Roma who were interviewed in Novi Sad said that they or members of their extended families had experienced physical abuse, including beatings, kidnappings and torture. Some of them became disabled as a result, and some said that family members who were abducted are still missing.
Their stories showed that although they had often declared themselves to be pro-Serbian, they had also often become victims of abuse from the Serbian authorities.
‘I am afraid all the time’
The displaced Roma voiced discontent over a series of problems that are still affecting them as a consequence of the war – disabilities or health issues, the lack of medical care or welfare assistance, unrecognised discrimination or the lack of legal support in the reintegration process.
Several of them said they have psychological disorders which they said were caused by other economic or social difficulties in their lives.
The Roma who were interviewed initially focused more on the problems they are now encountering in their everyday lives than their memories of their experiences in Kosovo, although they related their current problems to their past suffering.
“I was young then, and I am not emotionally attached to our house, but I am sad about my father and all the traumatic things around me. I’m not good in the head and I can’t function in day-to-day life,” said a 39-year-old man from Kosovo Polje/Fushe Kosove.
“I can’t go there [back to Kosovo]. The house is worthless, but it is ours and I’m sorry [about losing it] even now, but I left it behind me; like another life,” the 52-year-old from Istok/Istog said.
Because they lost their homes in Kosovo, their already low social status fell even further, as they were forced to live in illegal settlements in Serbia.
“I am afraid all the time about forced displacement. This land is owned by the city, we have no [property] papers for this tiny house,” said a 35-year-old women from Pec/Peja.
The interviews in Novi Sad highlight how the Roma have suffered from social exclusion and poverty since the war, leaving them at particular risk in an unstable society and making them potential victims of other problems like gender-based violence, precarious work and human trafficking.
Their experiences show how the authorities haven’t yet established policies to enable their social inclusion, or to create a culture of memory that is sensitive to their suffering during and after the Kosovo conflict.
Despite what happened to them in Kosovo during and after the war, however, some of the Roma people now living in Novi Sad expressed the desire to return.
“My parents had problems there, I remember that but those are not my things,” said a 40-year-old man from Pristina. He explained that he had been back to stay at his cousin’s house and now wants to become a citizen of Kosovo.
“We had a tragedy, but the war is over, I was born there and I made connections with people,” he said.
(c) 2023, Balkan Insight