Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
Roma of Kosovo: the Forgotten Victims

by Orhan Galjus
Fifteen-years-ago at one of the elementary schools in Kosovo there was a lesson in the Serbo-Croatian language for the first-year-pupils. Because it was their first week at school, their teacher asked them to introduce themselves once again:

"What is your name?"

"My name is Merita Muharemovich." The teacher paused at her desk for a while, and tried to correct the mistake Merita had made by giving her family name the way she did, since, in the class register it was written simply "Muharemi."

That same afternoon, having learnt about Merita's introduction in her class, all the members of her family were laughing loudly at her "sophistication." You see, Merita was the only Roma first-year-pupil at her class.

This is only one little piece of the mosaic that is Merita's eight-year-long school life. But it illustrates very well her wish to identify herself with the other children in the class. This situation was the same too for other little Roma children in the Albanian school district.  Here, Merita's family name would have been Muharemi, the name, incidentally, formally registered in the official city records. Then again, if she were to belong to the Turkish section, her name would be put down as Muharemsoy, with the Turkish ending -soy.

It is well known that the Turks and Albanians who worked in former socialist/communist administrative departments in Kosovo, and who wished to increase the numbers of their minorities, entered "official" Albanian and Turkish-sounding family names in the books registering new born children. They were also changing the names of almost all of the registered Roma citizens.

One very strange, even incomprehensible -- though finally "accepted" phenomena (according to Roma) was their partition among the inhabitants of Kosovo. Even after the Second World War, Roma had to change the family names in order to be recognized (e.g., Kalo). During this period, Roma were given family names of Turkish, Serbian and Albanian origin, and whose meanings were often degrading: one of those still existing is "Delibalta," which, translated from Turkish means "A Crazy Axe," or, e.g. the name "Vragovich," which in Serbian means the "Born of the Devil"; "Choulanjee" refers to Roma as being of peasant origin, though in a very pejorative way, and the family name "Karach," widely popular among Turkish administrators, is equivalent to the English word  "Negro."

The most-widespread surname amongst Roma families, which has somehow incorporated some Albanian influence is "Berisha." Generally, it was not only simply a matter of using Roma for the purpose of creating more Turks, Albanians, or today's old-fashioned Yugoslavs.

It was also the practice to attack Roma in order to break Romani identity in the region of Kosovo. This allowed Romani families to be divided in the same way as the non-Roma families, from day to day creating more and more nations and nationalities within Kosovo.

It makes most sense to conclude that in the states of the former Yugoslavia, during the whole time that they were in turmoil, changing and re-forming, during all the warfare, Roma were, and still are, divided by religious and ethnic partition; and that's why they couldn't be seen as being politically homogeneous -- why they couldn't take a strong stand against the fratricidal war.

Ever since Roma came into Yugoslavian territory, recorded for the first time in 1362 in Dubrovnik, the Balkan peoples have been violently fighting against the "easiest" nation, playing their war games in order to establish their own national states. Such symbiosis and assimilation of Roma (as well as others) resulted in the country of Byzance in the Middle Ages, particularly during the Turkish period. This procedure was further exacerbated, even by way of force, because the Roma, depended on their environment. Many also moved into different ethnic groups in order to hang onto the bare necessities of life or, depending upon their situation, were forced to migrate to western European countries.

One of the political games intended to destroy Romani identity and to make scapegoats of the Roma occurred in Prishtina in October 1990. The news media reported that in the capital of Kosovo and in Metohia, there was held the inaugural meeting of the Association of Egyptians of Kosovo. Many citizens were amazed, asking "where did the Egyptians in Kosovo come from?" At the Association of Egyptians' meeting, it was announced that no political ambitions were entertained by the Kosovo Egyptians, but instead their principal aim was to watch over their national identity and, in particular, to protect it from Albanization, to which the members had been subject over the years. However, a certain number of them declared themselves Roma. It appears that in Kosovo there live about 100,000 "Egyptians."

Ali Krasnichi, the notorious Romani writer and Rom activist from Kosovo, said: "It is public knowledge here, that the Ashkalie are those Roma who have been Albanized in earlier times so that now, their mother tongue is Albanian. I knew that a certain meeting of Egyptians was held in Belgrade in early October, 1990, related to the celebration of one of their holidays, at the Egyptian Embassy, and that there was also present besides the 'Council of Egyptians' from our country; those from Ohrid in Macedonia. For we Roma, this event was very painful. Hitherto we fought for our own affirmation, and today, individuals are assigning us to other identities. From that time we have consistently appealed to the Serbian authorities, in order to obtain for we Roma from Kosovo and Metohia, the status of nationality and thus avoid that division among us."

And more: the well-known Sadriya Avduli (54) didn't hide his fate at that time by wishing to declare himself as an Egyptian: he said "We, the Roma in Kosovo, have experienced a great many things; do you wonder why I wish to declare myself 'Egyptian'? It means I'll procure jobs for my family, I'll obtain more rights here! And believe me, I don't know for what other reasons I would declare myself Egyptian." Meanwhile, such political immaturity has created the most incisive costs for the Roma. It is absurd to speak about "one nation representing four nations" (Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Egyptians) since the majority of the people knows that these are perhaps "the gates to fortune." In this pyramid of lies, nurtured between Macedonia and Kosovo, only those who engage in the dangerous trading of political and religious deceit, are called "Roma." In Kosovo and Macedonia, this initiative found much larger support than the Romani emancipation idea. And it is not difficult to find the answer to what purpose might be of use for the "Pharaonic Group"--members in Kosovo who sowed their origins with the seeds of lies ... "which will serve the purposes of the human and national zoologist classes once their time has come." Roma activists in Kosovo find the most serious damage of Roma unity in Kosovo to be the inventing of the Egyptians. In the 1990s the "inflammatory" Kosovo witnessed a situation in the town center in Prishtina in which a Romani girl who had stopped at the entry, when a racist Albanian nationalist came up to her, poured gasoline over her hair, and set her on fire. With this act, the "inflammatory" stage rose to a higher level.

The "cold war" between the Serbs and the Albanians of Kosovo is already well known to the international public. During the demonstrations  in 1989 as well as afterwards, many Roma were forced (or misled) into siding with the interest of Albanians and, like the Albanians were also persecuted by Serbian police and politicians and deprived of the right to work. And Roma who didn't want to or didn't participate in the "Albanian Affair", were put under psychological pressure by Albanian community, even by their colleagues and friends ... Yet at the same time, Serbian authorities recalled Roma to respect the Serbian-Yugoslavian state affair. Avoiding complication of a political situation in Kosovo, the Serbian police concentrated on watching the political system and the integrity of the region. Kosovo Albanians changed to a more "peaceful" way to solve the political conflict, by leaving their jobs as a "protest against the introduced political regime."

At this moment it is important to remind how the generally proclaimed "brotherhood and unity" of Yugoslavia survived from the 1960s and later, promoting the idea of a multicultural policy, although the results of periodically taken censuses always had serious political implications. Considering censuses to be the "ethnic keys" pertained especially to the regional and local levels of state administration.

This was implemented by creating ethnic quotas for manipulating resources such as jobs, scholarships, apartments or key positions in administration which were proportionally divided among different nations and nationalities, depending on their individual national percentage: if, for example, a factory in Kosovo needed ten workers, from ten unemployed people there would be taken five Albanians, three Serbs, two Turks and one Rom - meaning a person merely declaring to be a Rom, or a "real" one. As it might seem, the structure of the "ethnic key" was created in order to divide the sources properly and to weaken old ethnic tensions. At the same time this way was not universally beneficial. Actually, it created the "political base" for assimilation of Roma by Albanians, Turks and Serbs in order to have "a piece of bread." Many officials in important positions in Kosovo preferred members of their ethnic group to others. Inter-ethnic relations were getting worse from day to day, causing frustration among Serbs and political agony for the Roma. It was increasing  the policy of revenge from Albanians during the time of Rankovich's regime (the fifties and sixties) which was a very difficult time for them. Since the nineteenth century until today in Kosovo there has been a model of inter-ethnic relations that always results in the domination of one nation over another. Albanians as well as Serbs were exchanging their leading positions back and forth, each time preferring theirs and discriminating against the others.

Today's events are the result of more than twenty years of an Albanian population explosion in Kosovo.  It is their numerical domination which has caused Kosovo's being "overpopulated" by Albanians, from the Serbian perspective.

The background of Roma has never been really clarified. Roma adapted themselves and consequently identified with the dominant Turkish-Albanian culture. In censuses Roma were registered as Albanians; since 1990 the Yugoslavian Egyptians have interrupted the  process of the Albanization of the Roma, since they claimed that they preferred to be "Egyptians," not Albanians anymore!

Identification of Roma with the Albanians was "a free, positive choice," especially after the Second World War. In the beginning, Roma acted as the population that could be easily identified with the Albanians. Though if we pay more attention and consider why it was so, we might say that this identification was caused by economic, social and political pressures upon the Roma.

We have to acknowledge the numbers of Yugoslavian Roma registered in the census during the seventies to be able to say with some irony, but at the same time very strongly conclude, that "many of the officially registered Romanians, Albanians, Turks, Slovenians, Serbs, Macedonians and others have a very obvious Romani physiognomy." These are the ways in which Roma are hiding their origin behind more respected identities, and because of this they are creating a better chance for survival. But despite this sort of  "mimicry" Roma are never fully incorporated or totally assimilated into the group they identify with. I want to remind about the official information of the census from the year 1981, when in Kosovo 34,000 people declared themselves to be Roma.

The number was so small because during the census there was strong pressure upon Roma not to declare themselves to be such. According to estimations made by Roma activists and organizations, at that time in Kosovo there were four or five times as many Roma living there. Under pressure from the majority of the inhabitants, Roma hid themselves by posing as members of  other nations and nationalities. As a result, when there is a discussion about the number of Roma living in Kosovo, the most realistic estimate seems to be that that they make up 10 percent of all the inhabitants there, a figure confirmed by Roma intellectuals, associations and activists as well.

Regardless of who the instigators of the Yugoslavian wars have been, again history is repeating itself. It has yet to be said that Roma from Serbia are fighting against Croatia and Bosnia in the ranks of Serbian army, and by doing are fighting against their own brothers, against their own Roma -- just in different parts of Yugoslavia.  Or, is it necessary today to ask what would happen if there is a war with Kosovo, or larger, more serious, common escalation of armed conflict ... would Roma be in between or are they already in between two very different groups of interests. The latest events, which actually happened in this period of fighting in Kosovo, showed Roma murdered at their own homes while doing their every-day work in villages or in their homes.

Although Roma dress just like the other villagers in Kosovo, during the last conflicts between Albanians and Serbian police, in Drenica and other villages there were blameless Roma killed directly in the yards of  their own homes. Roma in Kosovo aren't armed, just as they weren't armed in Bosnia: when one of the state representatives of Saudi Arabia was asked why his country doesn't help Roma Muslims in Bosnia he answered, that it was impossible since there are also Roma living in Christian Serbia!  This kind of opinion couldn't be heard in the early nineties when Muslim societies (individual Muslim states) greeted with pleasure the "Egyptians" living in Kosovo and Macedonia -- at a time when Yugoslavia was not yet split up.

It was supposed that Islam would have a stronger influence among Roma, if Yugoslavia survived transition. This sort of speculation about Roma doesn't come only from the Islamic side. Roma, according to their number are, in the broadest sense of the word, minimized in Kosovo.

Who would be able to say that a pupil Merita Muharemi, according to her name and surname, is not an Albanian? Roma, from earliest times, have been forced to change, to alter their personal names. Since the time of Great Albanian chauvinism and nationalism in Kosovo it was easiest to "convince" Roma to change their names and surnames. If the latest concerns in Kosovo should rise to new intensity, we might suppose that Macedonia would very soon fall victim to the similar process of distracting the political architecture and this would be fatal for all southeast Europe. Multinational war would destroy the already very unstable Roma; the solution would be infinite and a new genocide of Roma would begin.

If there is a war in Kosovo, Roma would once again be blamed, the same as in the Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian one, for their massive non-participation in national-ethnic-civil war. Regardless of who'll be the final winner in Kosovo, Roma would be stigmatized as deserters, traitors, people who don't want to fight ... but why, and for whom, don't Roma want to fight in those kinds of war? Until when could Roma keep their neutrality, according to general concept of war?

Bosnian Roma, returning back home after a long time, having been moved out against their will and wish, found their houses robbed, sometimes demolished by their own neighbors ... unlike other Muslims, Roma are not welcome, they are ignored and hated, they can hardly communicate with their former co-inhabitants. Sometimes it seems more difficult then it was before the war, there is really great fear among Roma about picking up their lives again in their native towns.

During these days, when there are difficult nights and days in Kosovo, Roma are not safe from dangerous situations and happenings. A Rom from Prizren was brutally murdered by his Albanian friend under quite mysterious circumstances. There's a rumor among Roma telling about the murdered Rom who was too close to Serbian police and so as such he betrayed his Albanian friend.

Many Roma women don't feel safe going outside their houses, since they are more and more often attacked by the Albanians. The beaten women have nobody to complain to. Serbian police don't react to incidents connected with Roma and they are not sufficiently protected by the very police who "watch the public order and peace" ... there are also Roma amongst the latest refugees from Kosovo but again, just like in the Bosnian war, they face incredible difficulties by being recognized as the ones whose lives are endangered as well as the others and accepted by a host country. Roma in Kosovo don't have any organizations to protect them. Right now there are the voices saying that "they have no right to leave Kosovo, there is no place for more refugees in Albania and Macedonia." They are not organized enough to deal with this very serious issue. If we speak about any political power, Roma don't have any in order to influence the current situation, regardless of the fact that most of them voted for Miloshevich and his party. It's important to note that Roma couldn't build such a powerful structure since they were under very strong pressure from both sides. Let's go back in time a little way to the beginning of the seventies, and remind ourselves about the Yugoslavian Constitution which since 1974 guaranteed autonomy status for Kosovo. After one and half decades, in March 1989, "Belgrade arbitrarily rescinded the status of autonomous province that it had according to Yugoslavian Constitution of 1974." Shortly, Kosovo is again connected and by law unified with Serbia. Thanks to this act the situation got more dangerous for the future of the region, according to the situation in Bosnia. Roma weren't involved in the big game but  "somebody" counted on their service. It can only be supposed who is preferred by Roma in Kosovo.

Besides the fact that it's possible to analyze Roma inclination, whether it is towards Serbian or more to the Albanian side, in this case I'd say Roma are inside a sandwich ready for very hungry "wolves and eagles." The opinion of Roma is occupied by one complex question: what will be the status of Roma in Kosovo, if Kosovo and Metohija stays "under Serbians" and again would be given its autonomy from the Constitution in 1974; or what would be their status if the Albanians bring to reality their dream of legal, accepted Republic of Kosovo?

Roma don't have adequate answers and, guessing, they have confused thinking about their legal position, citizenship, what state's citizens are they going to be?  Would they face the destiny of Czech Roma (born in Slovakia) who lost their citizenship and ongoing questions without answers? Maybe it's easier for understanding this problem which makes Roma so scared if I can give several details of life in Kosovo directly connected with Roma what could also provide some answers to Roma about their future everyday life.

After the 1989 year when Kosovo was "returned" to Serbia, the everyday life was many times bringing Roma into mat-position: everything switched to the official Serbian language, Roma who got Albanized or who used to be educated in, until yesterday legal, language of one of the nations (Albanian, Serbian or Turkish) had to face unexpected problems. Roma who didn't speak the Serbian language - which was again established as the only official one, Roma who lived and are living in using the Albanian language at once forbidden somewhere, so those Roma faced similar problems to the Albanian ones. In this time, Serbian physicians used to send Roma patients to the Albanian ones who, protesting against new status of Kosovo, were fired from their former working places.  Serbians didn't stop on this level of assimilation of the Albanians: by "simple" restricting of usage of the Albanian language they changed the score in that match; there was a time when the Albanians promoted the Albanian language as "the most important one of Kosovo"; people had to speak the language of God, i.e. Albanian.

Roma, living since the early nineteenth century, surrounded by competitive assimilation, living between two parallel state structures - official Serbian and the illegal and clandestine Albanian administration, Roma lost the fight for time and space which would let them get politically organized in Kosovo. They are between two fires.

Thinking about eventually organizing themselves is not characterized by being parallel with anything at all, but there is a growing dissatisfaction related to both sides. The latest form of  "a state inside of a state" and the situation in Kosovo destroyed the tiniest hope and belief of Roma in a democracy ruled by Miloshevich and Rugova. During the nineteenth century Serbs created their own educational system, one never accepted by the Albanians. On the other hand the school system organized by the Albanians is the most astonishing achievement of the illegal Albanian administration. Roma received one more blow; the generation educated in the Albanian language disappeared into thin air, and many Roma children who had to switch to new Serbian schools got lessons about the "low-quality education" Albanians have provided since the early seventies, when education in Albanian was legal. In such situations there is no place for Roma pupils and students because of the "war conditions" of Albanians, who also made stricter criteria for their illegal schools and universities. There was strong competition among the Albanians themselves for getting to the parallel Albanian university, separated from the Serbian one. Entrance examinations used to be very difficult and rigorous. For Roma wishing for an education in the only possible alternative -- the Serbian language -- it seemed to be just a bad dream or a lost hope.

Roma students could no longer reach their aims of life. Those of them educated in Albanian learned Serbian as minor, while those learning in Serbian were profiting in the time, but what would be the future ... An extreme situation which, since the early 1990s has been worsening from day to day: Serbian and Albanian families who had good relations lost them for an indefinite time, Serbian and Albanian neighbors now ignore each other as if they had never known each other. Polarization of the society is visible, and can be seen in the streets, walking areas are divided by lines to sectors for individual nationalities. At markets Serbians buy goods from the Serbians, Albanians only from the Albanians regardless who sells more cheaply. Cafeterias and bars are divided into Serbian and Albanian. To avoid an explosion in Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, the chairman of the officially unrecognized Republic of Kosovo, had already asked representatives of  the world-most-powerful states for special protection through UNO in 1994.

Roma activists in Kosovo haven't yet started talking about the protection of Roma in Kosovo. But the hidden exodus of Roma has started again. Today's conflicts in Kosovo seem similar to those first seen in Croatia, Bosnia and elsewhere, but also to the ones in Israel and Palestine: that sort of inter-ethnic, civil war will burn down the guiltless Roma who, in those dangerous war games in the Balkans, have no place or even responsibility.

Orhan Galjus works with the Open Society Institute's Regional Roma Participation Program in Budapest. He has worked on Romani radio programs in Belgrade and Amsterdam and was the publisher of the original bilingual Romani magazine Patrin. He was awarded the Pralipe (Brotherhood) Prize in 1996.

Posted 07 April 1999.

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