Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Andrezji Mirga
Chairman - Ethnic Relations Romani Advisory Council

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Hearing before the

Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

on

Kosovo’s Displaced and Imprisoned

Washington D.C.

February 28, 2000

Testimony of Andrzej Mirga,

Chairman, Project on Ethnic Relations Romani Advisory Council, and
Co-Chair, Specialist Group on the Roma of the Council of Europe


THE OTHER KOSOVO DISASTER: THE PLIGHT OF THE ROMA

1. During a recent field trip of the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) to Albania, Kosovo and
Macedonia, I went to the Stankovec II refugee camp in Macedonia where there were nearly 3000
Roma from Kosovo. On that day, the Roma refugees started a hunger-strike in the camp. One of
their demands was to have free access to the media. They built a pyramid of stoves in several
places in the camp and hung up a sign with the hand-made inscription "NO COMMENT?" In that
action there was something tragic and, at the same time, grotesque. Tragic, because they did it in
desperation, and grotesque, because no media came to report it.

2. On their behalf, and on behalf of many others who had no chance to make their voice heard, I am
bringing their grievances, their tragic experience and their claims to share with you at this hearing.
Not having a political lobby, not having an influential Romani intellectual class who could make the
case for the Roma, not having a state to stand by them, the Roma are at the mercy of others.
Feeling abandoned by all, unable to attract public attention to their cause and fate, foreseeing no
hope for the future, these are feelings as destructive as the Roma’s war experience. Therefore, I am
here to raise your awareness and concern, to lobby for subsequent action that will give the Roma of
Kosovo hope and prospects for the future.

3. For the Roma of Kosovo, caught in the ethnic war between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, there
was no right choice to be made. Whatever choices they made were wrong. The position of the
Roma reflects the dilemma of a minority that has no reason whatsoever to be involved in an open
conflict but is used and forced into it by both sides. Either choice that is to be loyal to Serbs or to the
Kosovo Albanians brought subsequent retaliations for the Roma. Serbs were using the Roma in
Kosovo for their political objectives - to prove that Kosovo is multi-ethnic and to show that there are
fewer Albanians, whereas Albanians tried to push the Roma to identify as Albanians and demanded
loyalty to them and their cause.

4. In the context of the former Yugoslavia, the Serbs encouraged the cultural revival of the Roma in
Kosovo starting in the 70s. Prizren and Pristina emerged as centers of cultural and political life of
the Romani community, and some Romani activists became public and political figures. The
majority of the Romani population remained however, politically unengaged. In fact it was not their
alleged involvement in crimes and atrocities against ethnic Albanians, but rather the political
standpoint of the Romani leaders concerning the status of Kosovo prior to the NATO attack on
March 24, 1999 that contributed to the Kosovo Albanians retaliation against the Roma.

5. In 1989 some Roma in Belgrade demonstrated under a banner stating "We are behind you,
Slobo" in support of abrogation of the autonomy of the Kosovo province. The Roma and other small
Kosovar minorities like Turks, Gorani and "Egyptians" were involved in peace negotiations on the
initiative of the Serbian government. The Temporary Executive Council for Kosovo and Metohija,
founded by the Serbs on October 3, 1998 included a Romani Secretary for Information - Bajram
Haljiti, editor of the Roma program on Radio-Television Pristina. The Draft of the Framework for
Political Self-governance in Kosovo prepared by the Serbian government instantly rejected by
Kosovo Albanians has been supported, among others by the Roma in a declaration signed on
November 25, 1998 in Pristina. One of the signatories was Koka Ljuan, representative of the
National Community of Roma in Kosovo. Mr. Koka later attended the negotiations over the status of
Kosovo in Rambouillet, France as a member of the Serbian delegation. These facts contributed to
the building up of an image of the Roma as loyal to the Milosevic regime, therefore, to be regarded
as enemies of the Albanians. Feeling of betrayal, accusation of collaboration and of large-scale
involvement in Serbs atrocities against ethnic Albanians during the NATO bombing were the result
of this image.

6. Basic work of documentation has to be done to reach a just assessment of the extent to which the
Roma were involved voluntarily in atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. While there is
evidence that some of them were involved in such actions, there is also evidence that they were
forced by the Serbian military and paramilitary forces to cooperate. Being citizens of the Federal
Republic of Yugoslavia, the Roma did not have any choice in avoiding forced conscription into the
army or the police forces. However, many tried to do so by simply escaping to neighboring
republics or countries. I met a few men in the Stankovec II camp who bribed doctors and obtained
medical certificates proving that they are unable to serve in the army. As those testimonies reveal,
the Roma were used to bury the corpses of ethnic Albanians or were forced to burn and loot their
property on behalf of the Serbs. With the withdrawal of the Serb forces, ethnic Albanians retaliated
against the Roma. Their involvement was equated with that of the Serbs, irrespective of the fact, that
the Roma were far fewer in inflicting atrocities against the Albanians, and in most cases, were
forced to do so. The stand-point of the Roma on this issue is clear - those who did, or were involved
in committing crimes and atrocities against Albanians of their own free will should be subjected to a
fair trial and punishment. However the entire Romani community should not be held responsible and
bear the stigma of collective guilt and thus be subjected to violence and expulsion.

7. The Kosovar Albanians retaliation against the Romani community is more a policy than the
actions of vengeful neighbors. In a number of testimonies the Roma reported that those involved in
committing atrocities against them were predominantly members of the KLA forces. Reported
cases of killings of Romani men, rapes of Romani women, kidnapping, detention and torture
confirm the same fact. Those detained by uniformed KLA members were forced by beating and
torture to acknowledge what kind of atrocities they committed against the ethnic Albanians, whom
they killed, whose houses they looted or burned. They were forced to confess that they took part in
the ethnic cleansing of Serbs during the war, that they were part of Serbian forces and police units
and even to provide the names of other Roma who took part in such actions. In several cases the
detained Roma were questioned about the Romani political leaders, especially Mr Koka Luljan.
Eventually they were liberated but also warned not to report to KFOR forces. Finally they were told
that they should leave Kosovo.

8. That conduct aims at raising fear among the Roma to such a level, that they will see no alternative
but to leave. Setting Romani houses on fire, looting or expelling the Roma involves groups of young
men motivated as much by vengeful feelings against the collaborators as by KLA extreme
nationalists' instigation to force out those minorities who politically sided with the Serbs. This policy
seems to work. In November 1999, the United Nations' special representative on human rights in
the former Yugoslavia, Mr. Jiri Dienstbier reported that " the spring ethnic cleansing of ethnic
Albanians accompanied by murders, torture, looting and burning of houses has been replaced by
the fall ethnic cleansing of Serbs, Roma, Bosniaks and other non-Albanians accompanied by the
same atrocities" (New York Times, Monday, November 22, 1999).

9. Contrary to the widespread belief that the Romani community began to flee Kosovo just after the
NATO bombing halted and the ethnic Albanians returned in large numbers and therefore, they
remained and sided with thy Serbs, the evidence below proves otherwise. They fled Kosovo
following the escalation of clashes in early June of 1998. As early as June 12, they were reported in
central Serbia (ten families from Drenica and Decani), and in Novi Sad - at least 1,500. In
Montenegro the local Red Cross organization reported 2,142 Romani refugees on July 21, 1998. In
mid-August, in Podgorica there were around 1,700 Roma IDPs in the Romani neighborhoods of
Konik and Rybnicka Vela. It can be estimated that at least some 6,000 Roma left Kosovo prior to
March 24, 1999. The major influx of Romani refugees into Serbia proper occurred in late March and
early April of 1999, that is the first phase of the NATO bombing campaign and by the end of May
there were already around 20,000 Romani IDPs. In April, around 2,500 Roma were reported in
Skopje, Macedonia. In the Republic of Montenegro, by June 1, 1999 - 7,800 Romani refugees were
officially registered as IDPs. Some larger groups of Romani refugees appeared also in Banja Luka
and Mostar (Bosnia) in April 1999. The early wave of Kosovo refugees to Albania included also 860
Roma.

10. The Romani community in Kosovo has been estimated up to 150,000 before the conflict
erupted. According to current estimates there are up to 30,000 Roma left in Kosovo. From this
figure those who are internally displaced are in a majority. Significantly, many of the Roma contest
being categorized as being anything other than ethnic Albanian. A survival strategy for others is to
claim an “Egyptian” or “Ashkaelia” identity, however, for ethnic Albanians they remain Maxhupet,
that is - Gypsies. Both groups are Albanian speaking and of Islamic faith. Among those who remain
in Kosovo the Ashkaelia are dominant. At the moment their survival depends on the protection of
the KFOR forces. The Romani refugees and IDPs are located mainly in Serbia proper, at least
20,000; in Montenegro - up to 10,000; in Macedonia - at least 6,000 (in the Stankovec II camp alone
there are around 3,000); Italy - several thousands. These data are far from complete. Out of fear of
persecution many Romani refugees pass themselves off as Albanians and don't want to reveal their
identity. Some did not register their status as displaced persons or refugees and stay among the
Romani families, as for example in Serbia proper. How many of them reached Western countries is
unknown, however, many of those who tried were unsuccessful since they were holding passports
from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and they were refused entry visas.

11. What is the future for the Romani minority in and outside of Kosovo? To answer it first we have
to know - what kind of Kosovo will there be in the future? Building a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo
seems to be difficult and a long-term process. Taking into consideration the level of societal hatred,
ethnic resentments, and attempts to cleanse out minorities by ethnic Albanians, one can wonder if it
is possible at all. Bosnia serves here as an example; a multi-ethnic society seems non-existent on
the ground and its prospect remains undetermined. “Cantonization” or the partition of Kosovo is
excluded by the international institutions at this time. The ethnic Albanians aim at having their own
nation-state so they will do everything to accomplish that goal. In such a Kosovo overtaken and run
by extreme nationalism, the remaining Romani communities will be forced to hide their identity and
to prove their loyalty to the Albanian cause. Those unwilling to do so will be threatened, expelled or
persecuted. Since the majority of them are displaced and their houses and property burned out,
destroyed or taken by Albanians, their reintegration in the original communities will be extremely
difficult. The extent of the problems to be solved reveals, for example, the case Kosovska Mitrovica:
out of 7,000 to 10,000 Roma, some 200 remained and, the entire settlement is burned out.

12. The most devastating effect on minds and feelings of those belonging to minorities is the fact
that the same atrocities which were associated with Serbs during the conflict are taking place now
in the presence of international forces. Much effort and real commitment is needed to improve the
situation there to change these feelings. Until civil society, rule of law, and moderation are achieved
it is hard to believe that these minorities will feel secure. Even then however, without real investment
in reconstruction that would animate the local economy and provide jobs, not much would change.
To be in camps as displaced with limited freedom of movement, with no access to basic services
like schooling, health, work, to be condemned to live on humanitarian aid is a devastating
experience that can not be prolonged forever. Most of the Romani community that remains in
Kosovo faces such a reality.

13. If the multiethnic society in Kosovo is the only prospect to be defended and accepted by the
international institutions, then, the Romani community and other minorities should be encouraged to
remain there. Much more concerted action, however, and pressure on ethnic Albanian leadership
should be exerted to promote tolerance and peaceful coexistence rather than resting with or
accepting its "politically correct" statements. The moderate forces within ethnic Albanian
leadership should be strengthened and encouraged. At the same time, the impact of its extreme
nationalists should be limited. Particular attention should be paid to forthcoming local elections; to
enable those displaced to vote, to create an environment for participation of minorities and to
counter the danger of ethnic violence that can evolve during the elections.

14. It seems unlikely that the Romani refugees and IDPs who are outside Kosovo province will
voluntarily seek to return back soon. First, they have nothing to return to. Second, out of fear of
persecution they would prefer to stay somewhere else, including even Serbia proper if the
possibility for receiving asylum in the West will be closed. Third, they do not see any conditions for a
safe and decent life in Kosovo. Those remaining in Montenegro and Macedonia as IDPs or
refugees strongly object to the prospect of being returned back to Kosovo out of a reasonable fear
of persecution. Therefore, the international community should consider the possibility of their
integration into those societies supposing that substantial financial support for such solution would
follow. Otherwise, the possibility of their resettlement in the West or providing them with temporary
refugee status, as it was during the Bosnian war, should be considered. For the largest group of
Romani IDPs that stay in Serbia proper and who live there under precarious conditions the
necessity of humanitarian aid reaching them should be examined.