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May 20, 2019
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Prizren in the shadow of aircraft

Prizren, Kosovo, 16.6.2011 20:36, (ROMEA)
Photo: Lukáš Houdek

Two grimy workshops stand next to one another on the main avenue of the quarter called Terzi in the historic town of Prizren. Different kinds of grating and metal products are leaned against their beige plaster exteriors. Two fire-weathered men are still working on some of them. One is heating iron with an electric soldering device, the other curling a malleable, red-hot metal into the shape of leaves within a matter of seconds.

"How long has your family been making a living through metal work?" I automatically ask the brawny 35-year-olds in Romani. "We can't even remember. Since time immemorial. We're from a tribe of blacksmiths!" they respond. An older man comes out of the workshop and smiles at me: "Hajde [come on], come have a bit of meat. You must be hungry! You're not just going to stand there. Hajde!"

An impressive anvil to which a horseshoe has been affixed for good luck stands by the window. The older man who invited me to lunch gently bangs on it to complete the final shape of a small pick-axe. The hearth on his right-hand side smolders. His sons spread the table with sliced paprika sausage on an improvised grill.

"Here's your coffee for now. Have a seat and talk to us," says Čenan, one of the smith's three sons. Their grandfather forged traditional items, and his portrait has been framed and placed on a shelf in the workshop, where it gives them energy and good fortune in their work. "We are some of only a few people here in the Romani mahala to have the good luck, thank God, of always finding work," explains curly-haired Zuber, Čenan's older brother, his palms pressed tightly together.

The main promenade through the Terzi mahala, the largest of the six Romani agglomerations in the town of Prizren, starts at the corner of the building where Čenan and Zuber's workshop is located. Today as many as 6 000 Romani people call this place home. The street is paved and the small white-plastered single-family homes have more than one floor. Along the sides of the road, older people sit on the stairs leading to their homes, schoolchildren jump over chewing gum stuck to the streets with their backpacks still on, older boys are standing around a small stone fountain and shouting at their peers as they pass by. There is a good mood here, almost reminiscent of the Mediterranean. Unlike localities such as Gjilan or Plemetina, the first impression is that there is no feeling of emptiness or obvious fear coming from the local Romani people. Why is that, and is it really the case?

A mistake means death

On 28 April 1999, just after 11 PM, NATO aircraft appeared in the skies over Prizren, just as they had been appearing since 24 March of that year over other places in Kosovo with a certain regularity. The famous Romani author Kujtim Pačaku was at home with his family that evening, just like any other, when his house was hit by a blast wave from one of the dropped bombs.

"Yes. My home was destroyed by the bombing. No one has ever given me any compensation for what happened. On 28 April at 11:15 PM, bombs started falling on our neighborhood. One fell about seven meters away from my home," says the almost 70-year-old Kujtim, shaking his head. Several days later the streets of the town, including the Romani neighborhoods, were bombed again. Many Albanians and also 12 Romani people died as a result of the 1 May NATO bombardment.

"They say it was a mistake, but I keep asking one and the same question: How could NATO make such a mistake? It's nice they apologized for it, but no one shot up their homes, their innocent people didn't die. When you're [dropping bombs from] the air, a mistake means death. No one has answered this question for me," Kujtim says. These days he has been living in the homes of people who have been loaning their residences to him while they go abroad.

Even though some of the Romani streets in Prizren were the target of those fatal NATO flights, at first glance the Terzi mahala appears calm and in fairly good shape. There are no burned-out homes or destroyed walls in sight. Even during the mass violence of 2004, which affected all of society in Kosovo and during which many Romani people lost their lives, the situation for them in Prizren was evidently not so tense.

"Naturally, the Albanians ran around the mahala and pulled Romani people out of their homes and ordered them to leave immediately, but there was no violence here like there was in Gjilan and elsewhere," says 85-year-old Isaac. He is not alone in making this response to my suggestively posed questions - Romani people throughout the Terzi mahala agree with him. "Romani people here in the mahala never served in the Serbian Army and they did not significantly participate in any collaboration with the Serbs. That's why the Albanians did not treat us too brutally. Thanks to that, our houses are still standing today," Isaak says.

The small group of men surrounding him, leaning against the low wall enclosing one of the homes, take a seat and nod their beards in agreement. "A Muslim will not kill another Muslim, that's clear," one of them says. Romani people in this mahala follow Islam, but did this rule apply in other localities of Kosovo? That is hard to say.

Let everyone see it!

"Write it all down there! Tell them everything! Let everyone see what's going on here," Visal, a 53-year-old single mother, calls to me. She and her daughter Libjana, who is 16 today, fled to Belgrade after the war broke out. Even though, as she herself says, the situation in Prizren was not as dramatic as it was elsewhere, local Romani people were afraid of what would happen during the war and preferred to leave their homes. Visal went to Belgrade and settled there for 10 years, but recently returned to the Terzi mahala with her daughter, moving into a two-story house she has built together with her brother. She lives there today with her nephew, who was recently deported from Germany after becoming a legal adult. His parents have remained there.

"Even though I have a roof over my head, our life is worth nothing. It's impossible to find work. My nephew is in the same boat. We have to eat, so I get EUR 50 a month from the state. We really cannot live on that. Moreover, Libjana has started high school. That costs a ton of money," Visal laments.

She is describing the basic problem of the local Romani people. Other residents of the mahala are also able to unequivocally identify the problem. Just like in other localities in Kosovo, there is almost 100 % unemployment among Romani people. Discrimination on the labor market is a significant factor even in traditionally multi-ethnic Prizren. "If there were work, that would be everything. I'm not asking anyone for anything, just work. I don't want money," Visal says, summarizing her thoughts.

Before the war, the vast majority of local Romani people, whose numbers reached as high as 8 000, were employed full-time like the rest of the surrounding population. Ever since the end of the 1960s, the region had abounded with dozens of Romani scholars, some of whom achieved prestigious work positions. Others worked in local factories and in services, but the Kosovo war struck an unexpected blow to the flourishing living standards of Romani residents in Prizren. The factories were shut and people lost their jobs from one day to the next. A large number of them sought refuge in neighboring countries.

"I was working in a hotel in the center of town. When the war started, the management came and said we had to pack our things, we don't work there anymore. They didn't even pay us what we had honestly earned, nothing. The Albanians then started to purge the neighborhood of the enemy, so they banished us from town. We fled to Macedonia," says a 34-year-old woman who lives in a small one-room apartment in the middle of the Terzi mahala today. After returning from exile, however, people encountered yet another obstacle. The local factories never reopened. A period of hunger began, even though the war was over.

Silence brings hunger

An enormous black screen is lying in front of Čenan and Zuber's sooty workshop. The two brothers are soldering a flower-and-leaf motif to it. "Won't I be disturbing you? You have a lot of work," I apologize to the older brother.

"No, come, sit down. We have a lot to do today, which is good. This is the only way we can keep our heads above water," he says, handing me a small chair and putting on a protective visor.

"If we didn't have metal work I don't know what we would do," Čenan says, watching Zuber weld. "The Albanians won't give you a job, you hear the same song again and again here," he says, waving his hand. "Now it's better, but before we couldn't even go sit in a café, they'd start yelling at us immediately. They attacked us. You can still find an idiot like that here from time to time today, but not as often," he sighs.

Visal never heard that speech of Čenan's, but she continues the theme later that afternoon from behind the enormous tin gates of her home. "My girl Libjana is going to Albanian high school now. Sometimes the Romani children are harmed at school. Some women from the mahala couldn't take it anymore, they preferred to take their children out of the school," she complains. "However, we can't compare the situation today in the least to what it was like several years ago, that's a big truth. Back then we were afraid to go shopping," she says, pointing towards the center of town. "The worst thing is that no one is coming here to help us. The organizations ignore us because they see our homes weren't destroyed. They have the impression there are no problems here." After a brief silence, she continues. "When will this change? When will things get better for us?" I tell her better times will certainly come, maybe in a few years.

Her neighbor, who has been with us in the room the whole time, gives me look of shame and says: "I won't make it if that's true. I'll die of hunger before then."

A candle for Libjana

It's Thursday, 26 May, and we are sitting in Prizren's municipal theater. The program is a show of the dramatic creations of a local Romani youth, whose name we have unfortunately forgotten. Even though the dramaturgic value and quality of the whole play is very weak, the expressiveness and sincerity of the child actors relating their experiences from the war and the postwar period is chilling. The children confide their experiences to an enormous church candle, which is snuffed out after they tell their stories in the form of a prayer. Even though the production as a whole was of dubious quality, its impact might be something more than just the enthusiastic response of the audience. The performance assists these young people, afflicted by the results of the war, in putting up with the harms they have lived through, in articulating those experiences to the public and to themselves, and in gradually accepting and handling their fate as the lost generation that was subjected to those harms.

Libjana, Visal's beautiful daughter, whispers her story into the candlelight onstage. Libjana, the bright high school student, who sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night with a pounding heart. Aircraft are flying over Prizren again, if only in her mind.

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