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December 14, 2019
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Kosovo: How not to build a homeland

Plemetina, Kosovo, 24.5.2011 23:11, (ROMEA)
A house of soucial flats for Roma in Plementina (foto: Lukáš Houdek)

Take a seat in a comfortable armchair, rest your hands on the leather armrests, close your eyes, and try getting lost in the following dream: Imagine that, as the result of a war that was not yours, you have lost your home. Add to that the loss of those closest to you and the fact that you live in an inconveniently small space, a far cry from your previous standard of living. Some of you might want to imagine that you have experienced deportation from a Western European country in response to your efforts at a new beginning there. Imagine six tall chimneys constantly emitting thick, dark brown smoke full of poisonous substances that will help most of you to die just after you reach 50. Welcome to Plemetina, a former camp for Roma IDPs in Kosovo.

The Plemetina refugee camp was one of many constructions intended as a temporary solution to the results of the Kosovo conflict, which ended in June 1999. Thousands of Roma, Egyptians and Ashkalija across Kosovo were forced to leave their homes. Hundreds of them found temporary refuge in the camp on the outskirts of Plemetina municipality in Obilich district. The camp was created out of several simple temporary buildings and included a community center and nursery school for the local children, but that did not sufficiently improve the situation in which the camp residents found themselves from one day to the next through no fault of their own. Despite the efforts of international organizations, life in Plemetina remained more than inconvenient.

In 2005, the administration of Obilich, with the significant aid of international donors and organizations, built social housing for the refugees. Two high-rise buildings, spatially isolated from the rest of the community, were built to hold all of the Roma, Ashkalija and Egyptians living at the temporary Plemetina camp. The existential problems of the Plemetina Roma were solved - but only for a few days.

The high cost of electricity

Through the greasy little window of the suburban bus from Prishtina to Obilich it is fairly easy to see the dark shadow cast by one of Kosovo's two main power plants. We get off at the end of the line in this district town and after getting advice from local taxi drivers, we surprise them by heading for Plemetina on foot. A taxi ride would cost two euro, and the bus does not stop in the locality. After a moment of brisk walking, the second of the infamous local power plants comes into view, spewing a cloud of smoke like its older sister. A pair of young Roma boys enter this fascinating panorama. One is riding a dented red bike, the other has just managed to overturn a little wagon full of old iron he was pulling to the scrap metal station in Obilich. "Boys, where do the Roma live here?" we call to them, offering our hands. "Over there, do you see the two big buildings?" they answer. The apartment buildings look good. They have colorful plaster and look as good as new from a distance.

On the way to the high-rises we pass by three narrow single-story houses. Laundry lines strung around them are decorated with comforters, laundered clothing and wet carpets, which are washed here in every kind of weather. We speak with the small children until their parents gradually start to call to them from the windows. This is not surprising. Refugees have too much experience with foreigners, especially journalists. From one of the houses a 25-year-old blond woman wearing a red sweatsuit comes out to dump water from a wash basin. We greet her in Romanes and ask which settlement this is. "You speak Romanes?" she asks in disbelief. Other Roma people gradually come out of the houses.

I have no home to return to

"No, this is not life. I tell you, I would pack it in here right now if I could," the blond continues. "Before the war we lived just outside Obilich. We had a nice little house there, a garden, but then we had to flee and we eventually ended up here in the camp. Most of the people moved into those buildings five years ago, but we stayed here. Take a look for yourself. Is it possible to live like this?" she asks, turning with arms akimbo and pointing to the Turkish toilets and sinks that the five families living in a single temporary shelter all share.

"What happened to your house? Have you gone to take a look?" we ask.

The girl fixes us with her gaze and replies after a moment: "There's nothing left of it. We don't have a home to return to. I would like to go take a look at it someday, but in the first place I don't have a car, and in the second place I would be afraid to go there." Other residents of the other three barracks in the former camp confide similar stories to us. Since no solution has been found for them, the temporary buildings have been preserved. According to an OSCE report from last year, the Obilich municipality, at the request of the Kosovo Health Ministry, was supposed to have found appropriate accommodation for the people living in these unhealthy conditions, but the town hall has yet to take any effective steps.

Water and more water

The five and six-story buildings can be seen from the temporary structures of the former camp. From a distance we can make out people's silhouettes. Some are just standing in front of the buildings, others are washing carpets or playing cards. The buildings' illusory newness slowly disappears the closer we come to them, just as the initial enthusiasm of the residents dissolved shortly after they moved into them.

"Life here is really hell. They gave us apartments that were really nice, but they aren't nice anymore. Would you like to look inside?" asks 24-year-old Orhan, who is wearing a beige jersey. We slowly walk through the common areas of the buildings. The ground floor of the larger of the two apartment buildings is covered with a centimeter-high pool of water running from an apartment that is completely destroyed. The apartments opposite are in a similar state. Orhan takes us to see the cellar of the second building, filled with water up to the ceiling.

"What happened here? How could that much water get in here?" I ask in great surprise. "Well there was some sort of leak here. No one came to fix it, so the water filled up the entire basement," Orhan explains.

The locals tell us that once both apartment buildings were completed, they were handed over to the new owners of the apartments without enough assistance to prepare them for the transition from their below-average standard of living in the camps to life in these above-average buildings. The constructions were a one-time, quick solution meant to silence loud calls for effective steps to be taken. There is no long-term, thought-through plan in place for including the frustrated local residents into the larger society.

Both of the five-year-old buildings house people from three distinct groups, the Roma, the Ashkalija, and the Egyptians. Even though the apartment owners say there are no problems between these communities, the groups do have different cultural features and ways of life. If they were able to freely choose, they evidently would prefer not to live in a shared space. They evidently also would not have chosen any of the troubled neighbors assigned to them by the higher-ups. Given the social and spatial exclusion of the locality as a whole and the significant technical flaws that have come to light in the buildings and have never been resolved (e.g., a flawed electrical line which caused a fire several months after the buildings were opened, or the water leak problems) it is no wonder that most of the tenants of Plemetina's social housing do not have a closer personal relationship to their new home. Moreover, they have no money to repair the defects that have come to light. Almost 100 % of them are unemployed.

No life without work

"The worst thing of all is that we have no work, so we can't get back on our feet and start over. We have these buildings, but what good are they without electricity or food? Are we supposed to start eating the walls?" agree a small group of men standing in front of the local tobacconist's, where the residents of the newly created ghetto can buy a few basic - and overpriced - staples.

The biggest problem local Roma, Egyptians and Ashkalija grapple with is almost 100 % unemployment. Only five people out of a total of approximately 400 people living in the social housing and adjacent temporary buildings are permanently employed. The others collect welfare benefits that are so low they can't be lived on, and only families with children under five qualify for them. A five-member family receives a benefit of between EUR 50 and EUR 70 per month. They are forced to make up the shortfall through petty jobs such as collecting old iron or working under the table as day laborers. For 12 hours of drudgery on a construction site, the family budget can rise by EUR 10, but most locals are living in a profound state of existential crisis.

"We have no electricity here. We couldn't pay the bills so they cut us off. How is a person supposed to pay for electricity when he can't even afford food?" asks Orhan, throwing up his hands.

There is very little hope the situation will improve. Speaking in the documentary film "Never Back Home" (directed by Sami Mustafa), the former Vice-President of the Obilich district tells the camera that the town hall is not able to find work for most people. The overall unemployment rate, irrespective of ethnic affiliation, is 70 % in the district.

Fuck you, Kosovo!

"Sprechen Sie deutsch?" ["Do you speak German?"] we hear from the little tobacconist's in the corner of one of the buildings. A young man in a red baseball sweatshirt is sitting on a small wooden chair in there. "Ein bischen,“ ["A little"] we respond diplomatically, exhausting all our energy for switching from Romanes to German, which we haven't used yet. "I'm Tomáš and this is my brother Burim," the young man says. We shake hands. "Hajde, come to our place for coffee!"

We enter a studio apartment. An armchair and couch beneath the window, across from them a heater. A gas cooker stands in the middle of the room, and Burim uses a flowered Turkish coffee-maker with a long handle. The floor is muddy and the guys do their best to give it a last-minute sweep.

"Look at this! I look like a pig. You can't even wash your clothes here properly, but none of it matters," Burim says, pointing bitterly to his dirty black sweatsuit. "Fuck you, Kosovo!" he suddenly yells. "This is not life. This is shit. If something doesn't change, I'll kill myself. I swear I will kill myself," he says.

When Tomáš was two years old, his family moved from the Obilich area to Germany. The family lived for 20 years in Freiburg. They were integrated and both boys attended elementary school and then worked, but as a result of the economic crisis, they lost their jobs. Tomáš was deported to Kosovo two years ago, his brother Burim was sent back to Kosovo as soon as he achieved majority, approximately a year ago. Their parents and two siblings were permitted to remain in Germany. Their mother is seriously ill and their brother and sister are considered sufficiently integrated by the authorities. Before their repatriation neither young man spoke either Albanian or Serbian. They spoke German and Romanes at home.

"I don't know what to do. We really miss them all. We can't return to Germany for five years," says Tomáš, looking at Burim, whose eyes are glued to his arm, where the name of his favorite niece is tattooed. "My brother is completely nervous here. It's been a really long time. There's no food, no work. Sometimes I help out at the tobacconist's but that is not enough to make a living," Tomáš says. He is not alone. We found several other forcibly returned people, including entire families, in Plemetina.

Fields of sunflowers

Even though the war ended 12 years ago, relations between the various ethnic groups are still tense in some localities. While there may no longer be the direct threat of physical attack, there can be hidden hatred. In the case of Roma people, this means hatred from both the Kosovo Albanians and the Serbs. Such hatred can make itself felt, for example, when Roma are not provided with employment opportunities. They are then forced to live at the bottom of society and inter-ethnic relations deteriorate even further over time.

The Roma living in the mahalas of Plemetina - which, unlike the buildings for the IDPs on the village outskirts, have existed here since time immemorial - maintain mostly friendly relations with Serbs. During the post-war violence, Roma and Serbs defended their village together. However, some of the Serbian parents remain aloof and do not like their children to work with Roma children. This is why the local branch of the Kosovo organization Balkan Sunflowers works with children of both groups, doing its best to facilitate shared experiences so they can intermingle. In addition to the usual help with their homework, they have the opportunity to surf the web or make something in one of several artistic workshops.

"In the beginning, the Serbian parents did not much want to collaborate with us. They considered us a Roma organization and stayed away. However, once they saw their children too could benefit from us, more Serbian children started coming. The children don't see different nationalities. They're just children. Our hope for the future is the building of friendly relations and good collaboration between various groups of people. That can solve some problems in the long term," Driton Berisha, the Roma coordinator, describes the mission of the recreation center. Like some of the children who visit Balkan Sunflowers, he grew up in one of the local Roma mahalas.

Good weather, bad situation

It's Sunday, 15 May. Rays of sunshine pour over the three remaining temporary buildings of the former refugee camp. It is finally a nice summer day. The children have made a small swing out of old sweatshirts and trousers and are swinging from the power line pole. Everyone is in a good mood. A crowd of people can be seen outside the social housing. Even from a distance we can see them gesturing.

"What's going on?" I ask Asman, a 26-year-old father of two.

"They are talking about putting up some tents here in the meadow," he says, pointing to a 50-meter long wall along which the local Roma and Ashkalija have decided to erect temporary summer dwellings.

"Ciao! I haven't seen you in a while," a smiling Tomáš welcomes us with a handshake. "We were worried something had happened to you," he adds, patting me on the shoulder. "Look at the building. Look!" He imitates the building by holding one hand higher than the other. "It's completely lopsided. The water has soaked in completely. People are afraid it will collapse any minute," he explains.

Yes, the building is a bit lopsided. The ground-floor apartments into which water has constantly been flowing, creating that ubiquitous centimeter-high puddle, have evidently disturbed the stability of the entire building and people are afraid to stay there. The nice weather has made it possible for them to implement their plan. They also want their gesture to be one of protest against the town's failure to address the emergency in the five-year-old buildings. There is very little hope of success.

A farewell coffee

"Come, let's have coffee, do you want some?" Tomáš leads us into his blue apartment. His brother Burim is washing their clothes in the bathtub. Tomáš can't help because his arm is broken. He and his brother got into a fight the night before with Albanians in Obilich who yelled anti-Gypsy slogans saying they were not allowed in town.

"Forget it, man. Mom will send us a hundred euro tomorrow and we'll pack it in. We won't stay here. We can't ove into Obilich, it's not safe for us there. They'd beat us up like yesterday. We will try to get across the border and see where we can go," Tomáš says, exposing his swollen arm.

"It's too much," says Burim, exiting the bathroom with a puffy face. "Maybe we'll meet up in Mitrovica tomorrow. When are you leaving?" they ask as we head out the door.

As the sun sets we depart the meadow in front of the social housing. We never did get a chance to say goodbye to Burim and Tomáš, to wish them luck. We leave quietly, wondering how the whole demonstration of dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs will turn out. What will happen when the residents of the last three temporary shelters at the former camp are moved out, what will happen to the wife of one of our friends living in that waterlogged ground-floor apartment, who now has severe asthma thanks to the catastrophic conditions?

"Ačhen devleha!" we call to one of the larger groups of Roma as we crawl through the hole in the chain-link fence around the children's playground. Yes, God be with you all.

Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

Gwendolyn Albert, Lukáš Houdek, Lukáš Houdek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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