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July 2, 2020
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"This is not life!" - Roma dream of a new start in Gjilan, Kosovo

Gjilan, Kosovo, 17.5.2011 19:05, (ROMEA)
Welcome in Abdulla Preševo!  (FOTO: Lukáš Houdek)

Shiny shop windows full of brand-name clothing and ordinary knick-knacks, streets full of young students from the local branch of Prishtina University, lots of traffic and a pleasant, small-town atmosphere – this is an afternoon in Gjilan, an attractive town of 100 000 people about 40 km from the capital of Kosovo. To reach the Roma mahala of Abdulla Preševo, all you have to do is get off the main avenue and travel a few dozen meters. During that brief journey, the eye-catching shop windows are gradually transformed into burned-out homes without doors or windows that are covered in graffiti - political slogans and threats. The dismal weather contributes to the impression that this is a ghost town.

"Is anyone even living in these ruins?" we sheepishly ask each other. At that moment, two teenagers pass through the tin gates of one of the houses. We can hear them speaking Romanes despite the loud shouts of the Albanian children kicking a ball around between the relics of homes and newly-constructed villas.

Gjilan, the promised land

Before the 1990s war, Gjilan was the center of Roma education in Kosovo. Many local Roma people graduated from colleges here, some of whom actively participated in the emancipation of Roma people as an ethnicity, building up the position of the Romanes language. One year prior to the NATO invasion of Kosovo, OSCE statistics reported that more than 3 5000 Roma people lived in the town. More recent estimates list the Roma population as between 350 and 500. Where did the other 3 000 Roma people go during the last 12 years?

50 marks to get to the Macedonian border

"Come, sit down here," says Esma, who is almost 50. "Forgive me, I don't have things properly set up here yet. We are borrowing this house temporarily from our friends who are in Germany, so we are only furnishing it a bit now," our host explains apologetically, referring to the lack of places to sit.

Before the war, Esma was in charge of payroll accounting at a large local factory. In 1999, when NATO started bombing the town as part of its operations, she left her home with her children and husband to seek refuge in Macedonia, one of the only countries accepting refugees from Kosovo.

"I feel that horror still today. The UÇK [the extremist Kosovo Liberation Army] went from house to house doing their best to push us out of town under threat of death. When the bombing started, I immediately tried to get a place on the bus to Macedonia. It was almost impossible. The ticket prices were inflated and there were very few places," Esma says bitterly when we ask why she left Gjilan. The bus traveled only as far as the border, where the refugees disembarked and arranged for further transport on their own. Esma's husband Shpend was not allowed to cross the border with his family - he says refuge was being provided only to children and women. He therefore spent the entire 88 days of the NATO invasion in the Abdulla Preševo mahala.

"It was only men here. I remember the endless fear when something swished by in the air. I also remember eating with friends and suddenly hearing the bombs fall. We jumped down to the floor and prayed for a happy ending," Shpend tells us, gesturing expressively.

Esma lived in the Stenkovac refugee camp in Macedonia with the children for several years. She did not see her husband again until 2003, when she returned to her hometown of Gjilan. Her joy at returning dissolved when she found out their house was just a pile of debris. The family started borrowing houses from friends who were seeking fortunes in Western European countries, but once the friends returned, they had to look for a new home once more. They are not alone. More than half of all the Roma in Gjilan are estimated to be in a similar situation.

Your house? What about it?

An OSCE report published last year says only 10 % of Roma people living in the Abdulla Preševo quarter live in their own homes. The others lost their residences either during the violent attacks committed by individual Kosovo Albanians or UÇK forces in 2002 (as well as during the 1999 NATO bombardment), or their homes were occupied by Kosovo Albanians while the Roma people were living in refugee camps abroad. The report says there are as many as 60 illegally occupied Roma dwellings in the Abdulla Preševo settlement alone. This is obvious from a cursory stroll through the locality, which long-term residents say was 100 % Roma before the 1990s war. Today an ordinary observer would estimate the proportion of Roma people here at about half.

"The Roma are not so organized and strong as to be able to push out the people who are occupying our homes," a 35-year-old man in a red striped sweater says of the reasons for the lethargy of some Roma residents in the locality. "Moreover, most of the police are Albanian. They won't take action against their own people. It can't be resolved," he says, waving his hand.

Roma people often do not have the necessary documents to prove their claims on the real estate that has been taken from them. Many of them never possessed such documents before the 1990s war, while others lost them during the dramatic events at the turn of the millenium and are therefore not entitled to their own homes today. It is very problematic for either Roma or Serbian people to prove their ownership of any real estate taken by returning Albanians in the aftermath of the NATO intervention. Nevertheless, according to some employees of transnational organizations focused on this topic, the problem is not unsolvable. The greatest obstacle is often Roma people's fear of corrupt police.

Roma people in Gjilan do not usually report the various misdemeanors committed in their neighborhood. They are deterred by previous experiences of contact with the police. "When you go to the police to report that an Albanian person attacked you, the police start investigating you, because the Albanian testifies that you attacked him - that's all it takes," Esma and Shpend say.

The March Pogrom

"I was surrounded by KFOR and police because [the Kosovo Albanians] thought I was Serbian. I asked for protection because I had heard [the Kosovo Albanians] wanted to do something bad to me because of my cooperation with KFOR and the police their during investigations of crimes committed against Roma people. At the time I was working in Prishtina. Once when I was traveling home to Gjilan on the UNMIK bus, [the Kosovo Albanians] stopped us on the road and asked whether there were minorities or Serbs on board. The other passengers knew who my husband and I were, that we are Roma, but they didn't denounce us. Thanks to them, we are alive today. [The Kosovo Albanians] would have killed us," says Hana (41), recalling the events of mid-March 2004, when she was cooperating with the international forces as a mediator with the Roma community.

After a moment of silence, Hana continues to recall that March with tears in her eyes: "When we made it to Gjilan, we saw an UNMIK car on fire, and as we drove up to the houses we saw a group of people heading for the mahala to attack the Roma there. I witnessed with my own eyes how [Kosovo Albanians] murdered Serbs. When we finally made it home, we found our children crying. They were scared to death because [the Kosovo Albanians] had been walking from house to house threatening to burn down every home in the mahala. We found them in a corner of one room, sobbing. They thought [the Kosovo Albanians] had come to murder them... My son was in second grade at the time. Because of the extraordinary situation, the teachers were supposed to let the children go home early, but when they left the school, the assailants ran up to them yelling: 'You Gypsies! We'll kill you!' Can you imagine what that is like for an eight-year-old child? Kids that little don't even know what a 'Gypsy' is... There were many problems. Each one of us has suffered multiple health problems because of the stress. I have terrible migraines, for example."

Over the course of three days, Kosovo Albanians committed massive attacks against Roma and Serbian people not only in Gjilan, but throughout Kosovo. The attacks were revenge for the murder of three Kosovo Albanian children in Kosovska Mitrovica in the north of the country. At least 4 000 Roma and Serbian people were forced from their homes across Kosovo between 17-19 March. Their homes were set on fire, as were dozens of Orthodox churches and schools. These events in Kosovo history are referred to as the March Pogrom. Officially, 11 ethnic Albanians and eight Serbs died during the events.

Living in tension

It's noon. A Roma boy carrying a smooth white ball comes out of one of the partially repaired homes in Abdulla Preševo. His mother waves to him. He is going to school and will be back by five. Suddenly he is surrounded by his young Albanian neighbors, who start kicking and pushing him. Various slurs are heard. His mother runs out of the house and starts defending her boy, getting him away from the surveillance of the aggressive gang and accompanying him to school. After a while she returns home and closes the gate forgivingly behind her. How could she do otherwise? It's just an ordinary routine - but impossible to get used to.

The events after the NATO intervention have visibly marked inter-ethnic relations in Kosovo, on both sides. Some Albanian people were embittered by their many years of harassment by the Serbian government on the territory of Kosovo, governance that was performed in contravention of basic human rights. Before the NATO military operation, Serbian Police murdered the Albanian residents of Kosovo. On the other hand, Kosovo Roma and Serbs charge local Albanians with committing mass attacks and murders after their return to Kosovo following the NATO intervention. However, as most people will tell you, not all of the returning Albanians participated in those brutal attacks. It is necessary to know how to distinguish those who committed violence from those who didn't. Nevertheless, it is very hard to avoid generalizations and the practice of collective blame in everyday life.

If it's in Serbian, close the windows

"Look, there's a Roma boy on Talent. What's he doing?" Esma points to the computer monitor, which is running a video clip from a talent show. "They show this on Serbian television. We watch the Serbs. We speak Serbian, after all, we don't speak Albanian very well. Our neighbors can't find out, so we always shutter the windows. That would be bad!" she explains in a whisper.

Our interlocutors often start whispering in situations when we don't understand each others' Romanes and need to speak Serbian instead. Even tourist guidebooks warn visitors not to use Serbian in towns occupied by Kosovo Albanians. However, the Serbian language is still in lively use in numerous enclaves. There are several adjacent to Gjilan. In some of these villages it is even possible to pay with Serbian dinars and schools are in operation there financed by the Serbian Republic. The Roma school in Gjilan is also financed by the Serbian state.

Vuk Karadžić would be amazed

We are informed that the Roma school is located in the Ivo Lola Ribar mahala. Various materials indicate we will recognize it by the specific colors of the entrance - it's not called "the school with the blue doors" for nothing. We walk down the narrow alleyways behind the bus station and do our best to find this other Roma quarter, for starters, but no burned-out houses can be seen. "This is probably not it," I say with a resigned grimace to my colleague Zdenka.

Suddenly a small group of Roma girls emerges in front of us, and a few meters further on there are some older Roma women sitting outside. They point to a gray (not blue!) tin gate behind which we hear the clamor and shouts of children. Aha! It's here!

An elegant 35-year-old woman looks us over searchingly at the door. She offers her hand and asks us in Serbian what we are looking for. She is one of four Roma teachers working at the Roma school named after the 19th-century Serbian linguist Vuk Karadžić.

The school in the Roma residential quarter was built in a villa provided by one of the local Roma residents and has to contend with a lack of space for the various needs of its pupils. For example, its physical education classes must be satisfied with a small courtyard holding a single basketball net. "We have to make do with what we have. However, we are very grateful we can have a school here for our children," one of the Roma instructors explains.

Because Roma people in Kosovo have lived in symbiosis with the Serbian community and have attended their educational institutions for as long as anyone can remember, this Roma school is financed by the Serbian Government and most of the faculty are Serbs from the surrounding villages. The languages of instruction are Romanes and Serbian.

The school runs a kindergarten for Roma children where in addition to basic preschool material, they perfect their Serbian language skills so they will not have a problem with understanding the material at elementary school. The usual instruction takes place in two small class groups, one for first through fourth grade and one for fifth through eighth grade, in two shifts. In order to fit the total population of 100 pupils into the limited space of the school building, the pupils are divided into two groups. After completing elementary school, the children must then travel to the Serbian villages on the outskirts of town to continue their education at various types of middle schools. In Gjilan such institutions are 100 % Albanian, given that Kosovo Albanians comprise the vast majority of the population.

I don't want your plate

Most of the conversations we had with the Roma inhabitants of the Gjilan mahalas started with the sentence: "We can't live like this!". Even though in the Ivo Lola Ribar locality, unlike in Abdulla Preševo, Roma people live in well-maintained and painted single-family homes, they face the same difficulties in their ordinary lives as the residents of Abdulla Preševo. More than 95 % of Roma people in Gjilan (as in other localities) have to contend with unemployment. Given that many families are not entitled to social welfare benefits, a large number of Roma families live a bare minimum existence through no fault of their own, and no wonder - overall unemployment in Kosovo is 40 %.

Even though many Roma people from Gjilan have high school or university diplomas, the majority population refuses to employ them in their businesses. "It's clear, they do their best to employ their own people and there is no room for us," one of the Roma men from Abdulla Preševo says.

"I tell people in town: I don't want your money or your plate of food. Give me a job, or tell me what I'm supposed to do!" laments a desperate mother of three who, like dozens of other Roma people in Abdulla Preševo, has had her electricity cut off because she couldn't pay the bill. There is no choice, the situation seems unsolvable. "Before the war we all had work. There were doctors, lawyers, town councilors among us. Now we are nothing. We don't have food to eat. We can't afford electricity and water," she continues. "This is not life!"

Can this be understood?

During my daily walk through the ruined Abdulla Preševo quarter and my conversa ions with various residents, I ask myself whether these people will ever escape this situation. The relations between Albanian and Roma neighbors are extremely tense 12 years after the end of the war. People who live next door to one another often do not greet one another and intentionally cause one another both physical and psychological harm. Roma children almost never play with Albanian children.

"We never did anything to anyone. My children now will be traumatized for the rest of their lives just because we are Roma. I hate the people who burned down our homes. People still hate us today, our own neighbors. They won't even speak to us. They pretend we don't exist. The only reason they don't speak to me is because I am Roma. I will never understand it," Roma activist Hana says with such sincerity that it takes your breath away.

Too much has happened, and the atmosphere is full of unsettled scores. Nevertheless, I believe in the possibility that communication channels can be found that would improve the life of all the residents of this ill-fated town. The building of friendly relations between some Albanian and Roma families who help one another out is testament to that. Some Albanian neighbors have even learned to speak Romanes on their own accord. The strength of the residents of the local Roma mahalas is also testament to that possibility. These people, despite everything bad that has happened, are overcoming obstacles and doing their best to fight on in the conditions life has brought them.

Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

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