Paul Polansky

Writer describes ethnic cleansing in war-torn Kosovo

By KRISTIN BUEHNER, Of The Globe-Gazette

Kosovo Romas – Life behind bars

Roma History and their Caste System

A Survey of Their Communities After the War

The main purpose of this survey was to find where the Kosova Roma and Hashkalija lived before the war, and how many have remained. In addition to population figures, categories for caste , houses before and after the war, food aid, medical aid, whereabouts of people today, and resistence to resettlement shed light on their situation today.

This survey was started in August 1999 and finished the second week of November 1999. All 29 districts (municipalities) in Kosova were visited and researched. Every attempt was made to personally investigate the almost 300 Roma/Hashkalija communities identified, but in some instances that was impossible due to a lack of roads, hostilities by local Serbs, refusal of cooperation by local Albanians, and homes still in flames. Many Roma and Hashkalija warned against visiting certain areas because of the danger posed by Albanians who were kidnaping and killing anyone helping Gypsies.

Roma and Hashkalija communities in this survey were located mainly by word of mouth. Although the 1991 Yugoslav census purportedly listed all Roma communities in Kosova, it became apparent very quickly that the 1991 census in fact contained only about two-thirds of the Roma communities and very few of the more numerous Hashkalija communities. The 1991 figures for the Roma population were very unreliable and nearly always on the low side. These errors in the census can probably be explained by the fact that since Kosovar Albanians did not participate in the 1991 census, most Hashkalija and many Roma (who associated themselves with these Albanians through religion, language and customs) did not participate in this census either.

A little Roma boy wounded by Albanian extremists
Romas have almost been completely exterminated and driven away by Kosovo Albanians

As KFOR attempts to patrol every village in Kosova, it was hoped that lists of Roma and Hashkalija communities would be available from regional military commands. But finding Gypsy communities from KFOR sources was typical of the experience with the Dutch KFOR in Rahovec. A captain interviewed there was confident his troops had found only one village where Gypsies lived in the district of Rahovec. Our investigation found fourteen villages in that district where hundreds of Hashkalija/Egyptians/Maxhupi are still living.

In 1993 the Hashkalija conducted their own census in Kosova. No copy of this census is known to have survived the war. But according to Querim Abazi, who was in charge of this census, his census takers found about 87,000 Hashkalija living in Kosova. Although the 1991 census for Roma was on the low side (43,474), the two censuses give a combined total of approximately 130,000 Roma/Hashkalija in Kosova five years before the war. Therefore, the figure of 151, 126 Roma/Hashkalija/Egyptians/Maxhupi, which this survey found living in Kosova before the war, appears reasonable. Unfortunately, an empirical figure will probably never be possible to calculate.

A Roma camp under KFOR protection

I started this survey interviewing displaced persons in the Roma/Hashkalija camp by Krushevac (Obilich). Most of the central districts of Kosova were represented in the camp. Frequently, I was able to visit these districts with people living in the camp who wanted to return to their community to see if their home had been destroyed (it always was), or to see if relatives were still living there (seldom more than a few). From these interviews I obtained a list of all Roma/Hashkalija villages in their district. Every effort was then made to visit each of these villages to see if Gypsies were still living there.

Although I found almost 300 Roma/Hashkalija communities, it is possible that I missed a few, unknown to my informants. Many Hashkalija told us that every village in the district of Gjakove has a “few” Gypsy families. Time did not allow me to visit every village in that district or to visit every village in all the other districts. But it is reasonable to assume that every farming village in Kosova had or still has a Roma Kovachi family since their aste/profession is that of blacksmith and every farming village has always had a blacksmith. The only district where I did not find Roma or Hashkalija was in Dragash.

This survey was confronted with many difficulties apart from the long and uncomfortable road journeys. The most common problem was the denial by Albanians that Roma and/or Hashkalija still lived in their Albanian community. Especially in the Lipjan area, I was constantly told by local Albanians that their community never had “Gypsies” or that their Gypsies had all left during the war. Yet inevitably I found ten or twelve houses with anywhere from fifty to one hundred and fifty “Gypsies.” In the end, I stopped asking Albanian adults and only asked children riding bikes or walking in the street. The Albanian children never lied to us. In fact they often showed us where the maxhupi lived. No Albanian child was ever afraid to enter the maxhupi part of town.

In the larger cities it was always easy to recognize the Gypsy part of town because the roads were never paved and the sewage system was often above ground in an open ditch. For those who contend that there was no discrimination against Roma and Hashkalija before the war, here is a prime example of municipal services seldom being made available to those in the ghetto.

Kosovo Roma refugees on their way to nowhere

Another problem in conducting this survey was the difficulty of being accepted into the Roma or Hashkalija community and obtaining their trust to collect data. Since I had interviewed more than one hundred Roma holocaust survivors in the Czech Republic several years ago, I did have the experience to know that this survey would be impossible without a Roma or Hashkalija translator. My translator was Hisen Gashnjani, a Kovachi Rom who befriended me in the Krushevac camp. Although many Roma and Hashkalija recognized him immediately as a Gypsy, his skin color was not always our passport to enter their community until he declared that he was a “maxhupi.” In the Lipjan community of Mali Alas our request for an interview with the Hashkalija leader there was actually turned down despite the fact that we had driven up in a UNHCR marked car. These Hashkalija were desperate people who had received no food aid since the war and had suffered a hand grenade attack only three days earlier. They were not prepared to talk to outsiders until Hisen told the Hashkalija leader that he too was a “maxhupi.” Then we were readily accepted and invited in for tea.

The most depressing part of this survey was to find so many Roma/Hashkalija (the great majority) in such deplorable conditions. In Prishtine I found more than 30 families who out of fear of being kidnaped and killed had not left their homes in more than seven months. In the Peje district I found most families still being threatened with death by their neighbors if they didn’t leave the country immediately. At one Hashkalija farmhouse in Brezhanik we heard three land mines go off during the hour we were there, as a warning, we were later told, that our visit was not welcomed by the local Albanians. In Dobroqana (Gjilan) I found a family who was always stoned if they went out shopping, while in Obilich and in many other communities the Roma and Hashkalija are turned away by local shops.

Thousands of Serb and Roma homes have been set on fire after the war

It is not only the local Albanians who are discriminating against the Roma and Hashkalija but also the major aid agencies in Kosova. In Obilich, Kosovo Polje, Lipjan and many other districts I found Mother Teresa Society openly refusing to deliver food to “Gypsies.” Islamic Relief also seems to have a policy of not providing aid to Gypsies although the Roma and Hashkalija are Muslim. Even at Oxfam, who have done more for the Roma and Hashkalija than any other aid agency in Kosova, deliveries to minorities are sometimes delayed for long periods by local Albanian staff. Urgent requests for food aid for hungry Gypsy families made to several major aid agencies months ago have gone unfulfilled. Although the Roma and Hashkalija are the second largest minority in Kosova (and may soon be the largest minority at the rate the Serbs are leaving) no aid agency including UNHCR and OSCE have hired a Kosovar Rom or Hashkalija although many speak passable English.

Attempts to get food aid to Roma and Hashkalija communities have also been thwarted by Serbs who on numerous occasions have threatened Albanian drivers working for aid agencies. In the community of Plemetina, food aid for the Roma there was stopped for several months when local Serbs refused to let ration cards be handed out to the Roma because these cards were written in English and Albanian.

KFOR has also played a role in preventing aid reaching the Roma and Hashkalija and discriminating against them, although this seems to be more of a regimental problem rather than overall policy. In Obilich my translator and I were detained by British KFOR forces for more than two hours on our way to distribute food in Plemetina because an officer shouted at his soldiers at the checkpoint, “That’s the American who works with the gypos!” However, the British RAF security forces in Radevo (Lipjan) have become a legend among the local Hashkalija because of food and medical aid provided beyond the call of duty by the RAF paratroopers.

Hopefully, this survey will enable the aid agencies working in Kosova to find Roma and Hashkalija still here and help them at least to survive the winter. If the same aid that reaches the Albanians is given to Roma and Hashkalija, then the prospect for a multiethnic society is still possible. But demanding that Roma and Hashkalija remain in a country where they are not allowed to leave their homes or their villages to go shopping, to go to school, to go to work, or to go to the doctor without fear of being kidnaped and killed is the same as telling the Jews before WW II that they should not leave Nazi Germany.

Since the arrival of KFOR forces and the return of ethnic Albanians to Kosova, more than 14,000 Roma/Hashkalija homes have been burnt. As seen by the results of this survey, most Roma/Hashkalija have left Kosova to save their own lives. They are not economic emigrants as some UNHCR staffs depict them, but people desperately trying to survive. From my interviews in the refugee camps in Macedonia and Montenegro, most want to return when it is safe to do so. It is in their culture, their heritage and their tradition that Roma are buried in the homeland of their ancestors. For at least seven hundred years, Kosova has been their homeland.

(In the Original reports there follows a detailed list with figures on situation of Kosovo Roma in pre-war and post-war Kosovo)


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