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Project Background


"We don’t have anything that is our own. All we have was taken by other nations."

-Ibrahim Eljšani, Prizren, Kosovo

Prizren's Terzi Mahala: April 2003

Prizren's Terzi Mahala

 

This project was implemented between January and July of 2003 in several Kosovar Roma communities. It started long before that.

In November of 2001, we conducted a random interview in Gracanica to see what it would yield. We picked the mother of the middle-aged blacksmith next door, who we’d paid to weld iron bars over our windows. His mother, on sunny days, would slowly walk outside her small, well-kept home, to sit in the sun. She brought a small stool with her and placed it on the edge of the dirt road that ran up to the unused railroad tracks and the Serb homes beyond. On every sunny day I exchanged greetings with her on the way to or from work.

Adem Osmani interviewed her. She was almost 90 years old- she was sharp and lucid, she cracked jokes and occasionally she smoked a cigarette. She revealed to us a world none of us knew about; the woman spoke of growing up in Pristina’s Moravska Mahalla in the 1920s, when the Serbs were rare and the Turks were still the elite of the town. She spoke of the smells, the languages, the Turkish markets, the politics, and her best friend who she played with despite the fact that they shared no common language. She learned Turkish in order to better play dolls with her. She talked about Italian officers and the German occupation forces; she spoke of Roma traditions that we’d never seen or heard of- not even from the Roma we knew around Gracanica.

She was not the inspiration for this project; she was confirmation that it was worthwhile. We were going to showcase her, and others her age, and we would dig into them- sell them the project idea and the value it could possibly have. Through eighty or more interviews, a broad picture would eventually emerge; a history of people who no one had ever been too interested in before. Roma have been studied exhaustively- by some that hate them, by some that treat them as pets, and by some that are simply curious. Only a few scholars paid attention to Kosovo’s Roma- Crowe, Duijzings, and others- and it wasn’t enough.

We’re not scholars. We thought that we would paint a picture of a world that no longer existed. We’d find Roma that could remember a southeastern Europe before the borders were solidified, and later sealed. We got romantic; it was naďve, and it was stupid and wrong.

 Father and Son: Kosovo Polje 2003

Father and Son: Kosovo Polje

No such picture emerged. We were lucky with the first interview, but we didn’t record it. We laid down improvised shorthand in a child’s soiled notebook. And when we secured the funding for this project, we went back to that old woman who used to sit in the sun before the winter came on and the power died and we were all buried in snow until March.

She didn’t survive the winter. Her son told us that she went to sleep one night and never woke.

Since then we have not found others as lucid or revealing as her. Her generation is functionally dead. Their stories died with them.

Roma bride: Obilic, circa 1960's

Roma bride in Obilic, circa 1960s

 

Occasionally we thought we’d get lucky again. We discovered a 101-year-old woman in an Ashkalija Mahala in Kosovo Polje.

She was deaf and blind. We interviewed her son; he could tell us nothing about what she had told him; maybe she never told him anything at all. She sits in Kosovo Polje now, still alive, with a shawled head full of memories she’ll never speak of.

Roma appearances are deceptive. Life in Kosovo’s tough. It wrings the beauty out of the women and the ambition out of the men, because ambition here was never rewarded unless, depending on the decade, you were a Serb, or an Albanian, or a communist or a nationalist. We found elderly Roma in every site but in the end, many of them weren’t so elderly- 55 years old on average. We discovered older Roma who wouldn’t talk, or couldn’t talk, and we found Roma that wished to speak with us but couldn’t recall how many children they had. And while they told us some things, what we really wanted- the memories of their parents, of their stories- came out to a paragraph or two.

Maybe the memories were painful, whether good or bad, because they represented poverty, desperation, racism, and times past that may have been better than the Roma situation now. We asked Kosovar Roma to share stories, events and histories at a time when those memories may be exceptionally painful to recall.

This project is a document of what has been lost. It’s about a language choked with foreign words; traditions often followed by rote; a people removed from their past, trying to preserve the things they have left that make them Roma. It’s about a people who have lived in Kosovo for hundreds of years and have never been afforded a true place there by others. It is said that the Roma version of history is simply the earliest memory of the oldest member of the community. And when they die, they take their history with them. This project began as an oral history collection and ended as a critical cultural assessment. Many of the elderly people we tracked down couldn’t or wouldn’t speak to us. Those who could but decided not to did so for security reasons. Others were senile, or claimed to be. Many interviewees really wanted to speak, but they didn’t have answers to our general questions. They didn’t have that much to say about their parents, and many couldn’t recall details about their own grandparents. They seemed to question the validity of their own history; many did not understand why we cared about them, and why we asked such questions. And the more we got into the 1999 war, and the stories resulting from it, the more we realized that the war was the most telling and damaging thing that the Kosovar Roma have every collectively dealt with. It had to be focused on. This made us interview much younger Roma as well- who spoke about their futures in light of the current situation in Kosovo, and the difficulties of the past four years.

Destroyed Roma Home. Kosovo 2003

Destroyed Roma home: Kosovo 2003

 

Kosovo’s Roma live precariously. Many say they sided with the Serb military. Some call them Shqiptarët I dorës së dytë- Second-hand Albanians (see Denied a Future: Save the Children Kosovo Report, London: Save the Children Press, 2001). Many Albanized Roma in western Kosovo have declared themselves Egyptians- before, to reclaim their culture, and after the NATO war’s end, to offset the tremendous violence that was collectively directed at Roma after June of 1999.

The NATO campaign against Yugoslavia began on March 24, 1999. It ended after 78 days of bombing. In that time, Yugoslav forces expelled roughly 800,000 Kosovar Albanians, and killed thousands in the process. The West thought it would take years for the Albanian refugees to return.

It took weeks. Returning Albanians- and the Kosovar Albanian community at large- turned on Kosovo’s Serbs and Roma. The Kosovar Albanian perception of Roma- collaborators, spies, looters and gravediggers- was accepted as fact. And Kosovo’s Roma were beaten, raped, murdered, expelled, robbed, burned out of their communities and driven into fast-established enclave areas. Those that avoided this fate fell back into their Mahalas- neighborhoods- where most continue to suffer at the hands of the majority community. Some Mahalas- in Mitrovica and Pristina- were entirely burned and destroyed.

No matter that it was not their war. In the end they, as the weakest minority in Kosovo, were shattered.

The killing continues. Kosovo's remaining Serbs are the primary targets. In July of 2003 A Serb man in Skulanevo, Kosovo went fishing. He caught a bullet in the mouth. A day or so later Serb children from the Gorazdevac enclave went swimming in the Bistrica River. They were sprayed with 7.62 millimeter rounds.

The Skulanevo killing was ignored. It wasn't too unusual. Dead children was another matter. Rumors started- it was a Serb Government plot. Other rumors- the kids were fishing with electricity and got zapped. These rumors are accepted by the majority, despite an international coroner's report that stated A) that the children were killed by 7.62 mm rounds, and B) that those rounds were fired from an Albanian area on the other side of the Bistrica river.

The security situation for Roma has improved. For the Serbs, it grows worse. Attacks are less passionate and more organized. Roma have begun to venture into majority areas again. They have gotten smarter instead of the hatred getting lighter. Roma know the neighborhoods they are safe in, and they know the ones to avoid. They know where they can speak Romanes or Serbian, and where they must remain silent. Kidnappings, assaults and murders have taught lessons in new geography. Roma refugees are slowly returning; this is a long, slow, and oft-times hazardous process. Roma are now visible in Pristina; some of them beg, others recycle, and a few entrepreneurs have set up squeegee businesses by the UN-installed traffic lights; they’ll clean your windshield for 50 Euro cents or one Euro if you drive a big white car.

They’re all smart enough to make themselves scarce after dark.

The NATO campaign ended four years ago. Most Roma still speak of it in the present tense; it has not stopped. They also don’t refer to it as ‘the war,’ or ‘the NATO campaign.’ They simply call it ‘the bombing,’ as that’s all it really was for them. This shows an incredible level of political detachment. With Serbs and Albanians, Roma were in the middle. Both sides courted them, neither liked nor trusted them, and all thought the Roma were a notch beneath them. So the Roma were pushed, pulled and broken between the two, and many of them were expelled along with the Albanians, while others were bombed along with the Serbs. Mythology has solidified into history for many Albanians; they were on the side of the oppressors, and that’s that.

 
Bullet for Enemy: Graffiti, Pristina 2003

Bullet for Enemy: Pristina Graffiti, 2003


"My son was killed. He was 44 years old, and now his wife is a widow with three children. He was murdered by the Serb military; they thought that he was someone else, and they shot him. My other son found him, and when he saw him he collapsed."

-Azem Beriša, Kosovo Polje/ Fushë Kosovë, Kosovo

History has no need for simplicity or clarity; it recognizes no such things. But people who seek explanations for the terrible things that they suffered and witnessed- the massacres, the violence, the expulsions, the ten years of apartheid- do. Humans aren’t good at history; we seek to categorize. And many Albanians have categorized the Roma as fifth columnists.

No matter that they were forced to dig graves. No matter that looting- an accusation most commonly leveled at Roma- is a trait, not of the Roma, but of the poor, and that every ethnic group in Kosovo has engaged in the practice. No matter that Albanian-speaking Roma were forced by Serb militias into Albania and Macedonia only to find themselves assaulted by Albanians, themselves expelled, in the camps; they were intimidated into registering themselves as Albanians, and were refused humanitarian aid by local NGO employees- both Slavs and Albanians. No matter that some joined the KLA, while the KLA murdered others. No matter that some were killed by Yugoslav troops, or that when they fled to Serbia, many were expelled back into Kosovo as undesirables. No matter that many of their women were raped and deal now with the trauma of not being able to mention it because they’ll forever be regarded as unclean by their own. No matter that, as a suspect people and a nationality with no nation, they have always had to gravitate toward those that are in power, and those that own the scaffolds, truncheons and whips. Kosovo’s Roma are now scapegoats for one side and manual laborers for the other. Or better, as a Roma in Gracanica told me:

To one, we’re dogs. To the other, we’re pet dogs.

Bullet holes in a Roma home: Pristina's Moravska Mahala
 

Who we were; Who we are is the result of two and a half years of work with the Kosovar Roma. This project was thoroughly shaped by their suggestions and ideas. After all, it’s their story.

Here’s to them.

Bobby Anderson, Project Director

to the interviews

Kosovar Roma History




©CSD 2003-2009. All rights reserved.

For more information email bobby@balkanproject.org