Kosovo: Four Years After UN Intervention
By Marie-Pierre Lahaye
†† Albania has become a no man's land for Roma (Gypsies). The† predominantly Serb-speaking Roma had to resettle in and around Serb majority areas after the US-led UN police action in the Balkans. No longer able to enjoy freedom of movement and access to services Roma now depend on community Serb structures. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), Roma situation mirrors the one of the Serbs, with limited income-generation prospects and rampant poverty as a result of severely restricted freedom of movement.
††† The term Roma is preferred to the most commonly known but rather pejorative appellation "Gypsies" because it is the term in the Romani language used worldwide by this people to refer to themselves.
† The three subgroups of Roma in Kosovo are: Roma, Ashkaelia, Egyptians with the latter two groups, Ashkaelia, Egyptians generally not considering themselves Roma. Both the Ashkaelia and Egyptians tend to have Albanian surnames, speak only the Albanian language, although commonly they understand some Romane and Serbian; they are exclusively Muslim. A Gorani is a Muslim Slav.
The story of Cakiís family
†† Cakiís family home was burned about 10 days after the war ended along with 110 other houses from Crkvena Vodica, a village in which many Roma lived in peace with their neighbors. They stayed in their home during the 78 days of the bombing, and once the ethnic-Albanians were victorious, they fled the village and left behind all their belongings. The father stayed. He watched the ethnic-Albanians setting houses on fire while KFOR (The Kosovo Force (FOR) is a NATO-led international force
responsible for establishing and maintaining security in Kosovo) was present. Cakiís family has since moved more than seven times. Today, they live in a Romani settlement in a Serbian enclave. They occupy a house some Roma, now refugees in Italy, let them use while they are away. Community survival and solidarity are the only help Roma can rely on. In the almost four years since the war ended no NGO or governmental agency has ever inquired if they needed help. (NGO are non-governmental organizations associated with the United Nations). Cakiís father is now busy writing the story of the family war experience and his children translate it into English.
Life in the camps and in the settlements
†† Seeking collective security, Roma tend to congregate in compact settlements, villages or neighborhoods. Life is particularly harsh in the winter when it is cold. While in Kosovo, we stayed in Preoce, a Romani settlement located in a Serbian enclave a few kilometers South of Pristina. We slept in the cozy home of Ajsa and Sadri. They live with their daughter, her husband Hisenn and a newborn baby because Hisenn's family home was destroyed after the war. Today, the five of them share a small habitation composed of two rooms, each the size of a handkerchief. The family life and the chores of the house all take place in these two small chambers: cooking, eating, washing, cleaning, sleeping, visiting, working, calling, watching TV, smoking, listening to the radio. It is a miracle what happens everyday in such a tiny space. Sadri and Ajsa's son living nearby, he and his wife, and their two young boys also hang out most of the day in the winter in the grandparents home to save on wood because there isn't money to heat two houses.
†† As in every single Romani home or camp I went into, the environment is warm, cozy and superbly clean. Everyone entering a house systematically leaves their shoes outside. Immediately after each meal, a woman collects the (homemade of course) bread crumbs lying on the ground in order to keep it at all times perfectly clean because, as Sani will explain to me later, the ground symbolizes the earth from which all food rise. There was no water inside the house of Ajsa and Sadri, only outside. Yet their house was cleaner than most American homes I visited when I lived in the USA. Please, do not talk to me ever again about "dirty Gypsies."
†† The Plemetina Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp is located outside the municipality of Obilic, in an industrial zone with no public transportation to the nearby centers. The area is quite desolate and depressive. The camp has been built along a railroad track and behind a power plant. According to the billboards set by the European Agency for Reconstruction, this is also the environment the European Agency chose to rebuild homes for minorities. Mother Teresa, a Pristina-based NGO run by ethnic-Albanians, administrates the camp which is now home to 91 families. When we visited the camp, we came across a family whose mother has been diagnosed with a heart disease that could only be cured at the Pristina hospital. Terrified at the idea of being cured by the very same people who had caused her family the loss of their home, the mother preferred to stay in the camp. We found her lingering in pain on a mattress with her four children running around while her 17-year old responsible daughter-in-law was running the show in her place. VOR managed to take her to the Serbian-run Mitrovica hospital where she received the papers needed for a transfer at a Belgrade hospital where she eventually could be cured.
†† The warehouse in Leposavic is another IDP camp. It is located in the northern sector of Mitrovica, a city still divided by ethnic-hatred. Many of the IDPs come form Fabricka Street, "Roma-Mahala" in the Albanian-dominated south Mitrovica which was the largest pre-conflict Roma settlement in the municipality. It was home to 67.000 mostly Romani families, but is now abandoned, destroyed. As we drove by to film what is left of the "mahala" we came across some school kids who were tearing down what still could be saved from these rugged houses. Today, the Albanian population and the municipal leadership continue to resist the return of the Roma, Ashkaelia, and Egyptian population in the "Roma-Mahala."† Gusani Skender, the Leposavic camp Director, is very worried because since December 12, 2002, the camp no longer receives aid. 200 persons live in the camp: 39 families, 3 Egyptians, 1 Serbian and 35 Romani.
†† The Macedonian refugees camp of Sutka is located in the Romani district of Skopje. UNHCR administrates this camp. We had to smuggle in our camera to do the interviews because UNHCR does not allow anyone to film. As we were listening to the refugees, we soon understood why.† After four years there are still no bathrooms, nor restrooms for the residents of the camp. No schools for children and adolescents who haven't had the chance to go to school in the last four years. What kind of future can these kids aspire to? Let's not even talk about their diet. "The food is so scarce. We do not know what to do," commented a middle-age lady with a Da Vinci Madonna face, before asking us with no reproach but† without hiding her distress either, "Are we supposed to eat it or to give it to our kids?"
The tyranny of power cuts
†† As we arrived, I was really surprised to find out that life in Kosovo is now punctuated by power cuts. For four hours with electricity, two ensued without. It used to be even worse, shortages would go unannounced and could at times last more than 24 hours to the point that Serbs were so enraged that they blocked the highway from Pristina to Skopje for three consecutive days. I did not recall Kosovo having power shortage in the past. As a matter of fact, I remember Kosovo selling electricity to neighboring countries. Could it be that electricity is now used as an instrument of tyranny to pressure minorities to leave the province? In its 2001-2002 Annual Report, the Ombudsperson Institution in Kosovo noted: "The provision of public utilities (electricity, water, etc.) to [Serbian and Romani] ghettos is at much lower standard than to the rest of the population."
The international civil and military presence
†† What strikes anyone arriving to Kosovo since the province has become a UN protectorate is to see the overwhelming presence of the West. The defiling of KFOR armored vehicles and 4X4s with logos of governmental and non-governmental agencies is relentless, and in sharp contrast with local population old means of transportation. Pristina has become a very cosmopolitan place where it is now possible to find a daily paper in more than eight different languages. At the UNMIK (United Nations Interim Administration) registration office, 2200 NGOs are registered, 600 are international and 1600 are domestic which more than likely are funded by Western interests since 60% of Kosovo population is unemployed. Who else could fund these civic and humanitarian initiatives?†
†† But the international influence can also be more indirect and ingenious. It is noticeable for instance in the vocabulary everyone now uses to comment on the present situation or on the solutions the country needs to implement. In Belgrade, I met with Miljenko Derenta, a dynamic middle-aged man, President of Civic Initiatives, a Citizens' Associations for Democracy and Civic Education. In an impressive hotel of the Yugoslav capital, Derenta was leading, for the 4th consecutive year since the bombing ended, a Conference of civil society leaders gathering more than 370 organizations throughout Yugoslavia. Like many Serbs I met before who eventually surrendered to the western discourse he sounded apologetic not to say guilty when he explained to me the goals of his organization. One of them was to establish "democracy schools" he said and added as to justify his statement "because we don't have a democratic tradition."† Another objective was to develop inter-ethnic programs. But I ask myself: who really needs lessons of democracy today? Which country was more multi-ethnic than Yugoslavia before the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and its austerity measures stirred up ethnic rivalries and the CIA and its German counterpart armed ethnic rival groups? Do they replace events in their geopolitical context in the "democracy schools" which the West subtly directs and heavily funds?
Significant anecdote with a Gorani entrepreneur
†† While in Skopje, we stopped one day at a Balkan style fast-service restaurant for lunch. The owner was a Gorani from Kosovo who fled his native land in June 1999. A week later, as we drove by his neighborhood, we decided to stop for coffee. It was Bajram, a Muslim holiday. On this occasion, in honor of the dead, Muslims kill a sheep for peace. We found him standing in front of the restaurant in the company of his father. He greeted us as he recognized our faces. Never mind the restaurant was closed, he opened it for us and served us. He did not want us to pay, because it was a holiday. More importantly, he wanted to show Sani that war did not change anything between them.
My first encounter with UNMIK
†† On my first day in Kosovo, I got a terrible flu and the next day felt even worse. So I decided to consult a doctor and was taken by my hosts to the nearby clinic operated by UNMIK. Upon my arrival, the doctor immediately declared: "That's what you get when you stay in the Gypsy camp!"† "You mean Roma," I replied and then I asked my translator to explain to her I had just arrived and more than likely got that nasty virus in the USA or on my way to Kosovo.
Interview of Kosovo Ombudsperson, Marek Antoni Nowicki
†† Generally speaking, the Ombudsperson is by far the most honest official we interviewed . He did not try to deny the bad living conditions under which Roma have to live nor to embellish the situation. "When we speak about Roma community, the situation is extremely bad, and here there are additional elements making it even worse. Their extremely restricted freedom of movement has serious repercussions on all aspects of normal life's access to employment, medical care, schools, and public service generally," Nowicki commented.
†† We also discussed at great length the question of immunity of the whole international presence in Kosovo. It is very ironic to note that while the main responsibility of the international security presence deployed in Kosovo should be devoted to "establishing a secure environment in which refugees and displaced persons can return home safely," many complaints the Ombudsperson received dealt with KFOR and UNMIK's taking and continuing occupation of the private property of individual residents of Kosovo, and about the impossibility of obtaining compensation for the occupation of that property. Since both KFOR and UNMIK personnel, including locally recruited personnel, are immune from legal process in respect of all acts performed by them in their official capacity, the Ombudsperson has basically no recourse in face of those violations. Although Nowicki addressed the issue and argued towards the UN SRSG that the Status, Privileges and Immunities of KFOR and UNMIK and their personnel in Kosovo(UNMIK Regulation No 2000/47) is incompatible with† recognized international standards, as well as with the European Convention on Human Rights, his claim, filed in April 2000, has not yet been answered.
Asylum Countries threaten to begin large-scale return of ethnic minorities
†† According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) the vast majority of Kosovo Albanians (184,074 as of December 31, 2002) who fled in 1999 have returned home and benefited from reinstallation and reintegration support. But the return of ethnic minorities is still pending three and one-half years later. As of January 31, 2003, UNHCR figures attest of 6,226 returns belonging to minority ethnic groups. Considering that the population of ethnic-minorities that fled after the bombing amounts to be 230,000, this does not even represent 3 percent The majority (56.4 percent) of them are Serb while only 10.4 percent (645) are Roma.
†† Several countries of asylum have now announced their intentions to begin large-scale returns of ethnic minorities to Kosovo in Spring 2003. Germany is one of them and is threatening to start the forced return of 30,000 refugees. The international community in Kosovo is alarmed by this new policy but its actors do not seem to agree on how to tackle it. The Ombudsperson is of the opinion that governments should be convinced to suspend this policy because the conditions do not exist to receive such a big influx of deportees and the security situation of minorities presently in Kosovo continues to be a major concern. UNHCR's position is more mitigated. Although they say that minorities should continue to benefit from the international protection in countries of asylum, UNHCR stresses that returns should only take place on a voluntary basis with integration being supported through assistance in order to ensure sustainability. UNMIK is more pragmatic. Peggy L. Hicks, Director of Office of Returns and Communities believes "that both with the minority and the majority community we can create a window of opportunity for returnees to come back."†
†† A newly appointed Washington bureaucrat with three-years experience on the matter since she was transferred right from Bosnia to Kosovo, Hicks already secured a budget of 32 million Euros and has some kind of plan in mind. Convinced that security problems have improved in certain locations, she intents to begin a repatriation program in these locations first. She also plans to work with local municipalities and to condition the rebuilding of bridges and roads to the returning and hiring of ethnic minorities. She also asked donors for financial assistance in order to improve the reintegration of families when they return in order to encourage others to do the same. The news propagated fast in the aid community. NGOs are now busy multiplying contacts and efforts to see which one of them will get the new business. If that is a sign of hope for the Romani community who could at last receive a bit of assistance for suffering inflicted to their people while none of them has ever had anything to do with the current conflict, it remains to be seen if credits will be confirmed and if the strategy implemented will allow aid to reach Roma.†
†† Governmental and non-governmental agencies need to start by hiring Roma to implement the programs they specifically design for them. They need to show the example, otherwise how can they reach out to Roma and how can they convince others employers to do so? The Swiss liaison office in Pristina recently funded an ESL program that Paul Polansky and VOR run in different settlements and camps throughout Kosovo that proved to be very successful. Reputed to be talented with languages, Roma can pick up a new one very fast. Thanks to this initiative, there is now a pool of multi-lingual Roma who can be trained to implement the programs that will serve their community and rebuild their future.
"I want you to tell the world† how much we suffer here"
†† "Do you see how minorities have to live here?" Dragan asked me one day. The owner of a restaurant where we used to eat in a Serbian enclave, said, "We are like animals in cages." He offered, "I invite you to stay in my house as long as you want, no costs, but I want you to tell the world how much we suffer here."
†† If you want to meet Dragan, and find out by yourselves the horrific conditions under which† ethnic minorities still live nearly four years after NATO "humanitarian" intervention began,† come and join an international delegation of peace inspectors to Kosovo this Summer. You will visit camps and settlements, you will meet with leaders of all ethnic minority groups as well as with key representatives of the governmental and non-governmental organizations. You will also experience Romani community life and get to know Ajsa and Sadri's beautiful family. For more information, you can contact the author at <[email protected]> <[email protected]>.
About the author:
†† A native from Belgium, Marie-Pierre Lahaye is a social and cultural anthropologist and activist who has traveled to Yugoslavia several times in the last 5 years. Her articles have been published in France and in the United States. She is currently working on a book in which she discusses how the ideological and financial support that the US-led West provided in Yugoslavia for building and organizing civil society was used to convince the Yugoslav people to trust the Western model calling for the sovereignty of the market.† She is a founding board director of Voice of Roma.