Ad petitionem Vlachi et Vitani Egyptiorum...
In Ragusa- now Dubrovnik, Croatia- late fall is overcast. Clouds choke the southern Adriatic; hard rains hit the walled city, overflow from the gutters and pound the smooth cobblestones below.
Rom men were donkey-drivers, bridle-makers, leatherworkers, blacksmiths, sieve and brick-makers, livestock traders and animal trainers. Roma musicians played instruments their ancestors had first picked up in Armenia and Persia. They led dancing bears on chains. Their women wove baskets, told fortunes, begged, read palms and sold herbal remedies. They were nomads- a suspicious lifestyle for settled European communities used to invasions, be it from the steppe or other lands. The Roma found business among Europeans; the animal traders knew about cross-breeding and the health of livestock. The blacksmiths worked cheap and well. The musicians were always welcome.
A Roma Dervish
-M. Edith Durham, High Albania,1908
-Ivo Andric, The Bridge Over the Drina, 1946
Roma are no longer lynched- in an organized, state-sponsored manner. The Second World War’s end saw Eastern Europe’s Roma barred from traveling, bartering and plying their trades. They were forced by the new communist authorities to reside in fixed locations. New Mahalas grew outside the capitals and major cities of every east European state. Šuto Orizari, Macedonia- Shutka to those who live there- began as a refugee camp for Roma when Skopje was leveled by an earthquake in the 1960s. Shutka is the largest of these Mahalas, with a population of 40,000, and is the only Roma ‘town’ in the world.
Some nations tried to assimilate them. Others tried to eliminate them by passive means, such as (then) communist Czechoslovakia’s Roma sterilization programs. The fall of communism has given rise to nationalist, right-wing movements that find natural targets in the Roma among them. Economic stagnation makes it easy. Attacks on Roma grow, by both skinheads and ordinary citizens enraged by the idea of gypsies- ‘petty criminals’ and ‘welfare recipients’ among them that are not of their blood. From Germany to the Czech Republic, from Slovakia to Romania, Roma have been beaten and killed. Their settlements have gone up in flames, often under the eyes of police who don’t care to stop what they see. Ideas of the rights of minorities find little resonance in those that commit these acts against a people who do not even possess a native word for war. Roma borrowed the word from Turkish.
Roma unemployment in Europe averages 30-40%. This is the direct result of Roma educational levels; most Roma who are employed work as menial laborers. In Eastern Europe’s new states, Roma are the last to be hired and, in times of economic downturn, the first to be fired. Traditional outlets for grievances related to hiring and firing practices- complaint boards and civil courts- are often off-limits for Roma due to the institutionalized racism found in these outlets. Roma illiteracy and lack of proficiency in the state language doesn’t help. In countries where racism directed at Roma is much more extreme, legal bodies take no action against abuses directed at Roma, and police sometimes actively condone or even participate in those abuses.
The Roma situation in Europe led a Macedonian Roma political party to write a letter to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, urging the creation of a Roma country, to be called Romanistan. The Macedonian media regarded this as a joke.
It wasn’t; it was a naïve, last-ditch attempt to rectify generations of exclusion and abuse. Roma are the only nation that has not even the semblance of a country. They are strangers in every land they were born in. The Kurds can define Kurdistan; the Roma cannot even say with absolute certainty where, in India, they are from.
In Kosovo, the Roma were always better assimilated. Unfortunately for them, the Albanians viewed them as being assimilated into the Serb side; their children attended Serbian schools after the Albanians were banned in 1989, when Kosovo’s autonomy was revoked by Belgrade, and when Albanians were fired en masse throughout Kosovo, the Roma weren’t.
After the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia ended in June of 1999, a new Porrajmata began there. It continues.
Europe’s Roma population is impossible to estimate. Reasons for this range from deliberate undercounts by government census takers to the desire of some Roma to distance themselves from their ethnicity by adopting a different one.
-Hazbije Vickolari, Prizren, Kosovo
In Kosovo, Roma often registered themselves as Albanian or Turkish, while others now claim Ashkalija or Egyptian as an ethnicity. Many Roma living in Serbian areas, especially those Roma that follow the Orthodox Christian faith, declare themselves to be Serbs. This classification- “Srpski Cigani”- has its origins in the Vojvodina and northern Serbia, where many more Roma are Christian than in Kosovo.
Between five and ten million (estimate in Denied a Future: Save the Children Kosovo Report, London: Save the Children Press, 2001), and perhaps as many as twelve million (estimate from Henry Shikluna, Council of Europe Coordinator for Roma Activities) Roma call Europe home. The majority of these Roma are found in Eastern Europe. According to United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates, Roma- including Ashkalija and Egyptians- now total 1.8% of Kosovo’s population. Many scholars and activists agree that Roma, before the 1999 NATO campaign, were roughly 5-10% of the Kosovar population (estimate in Galjus, Orhan: Roma of Kosovo; the Forgotten Victims, Patrin Web Journal April 1999).
"There is a story about one prophet in the Koran who God punished. God told this prophet, don’t be afraid of war, and don’t leave your home. You must stay in the place where you are from. And I’m afraid that we are actually descended from that kind of people."
-Azem Beriša, Kosovo Polje/ Fushë Kosovë
Roma emigrated from the northern Indian subcontinent in successive waves of migration, beginning roughly 1100 years ago; the first records of Roma in Persia appear in the 11th century. The linguistic evidence shows the route Roma traveled to Europe by the quantity of loan-words they adopted from other languages on the way, and Romanes now uses many words of Farsi, Armenian, Turkish and Greek origin. Romanes bears distinct similarities to the Indo-European Punjabi, Dardic and Gujarati languages of northern India. Romanes is closest to ancient Punjabi/ Hindi.
Roma are very similar to the Dom group of Indian tribes: Dom is a Sanskrit term for an achuta (untouchable) sub-caste whose members traditionally made their livings as musicians. Dom now engage in the cremation of dead Hindus; untouchables have cornered this market due to higher caste prohibitions against touching the deceased. The Hindu castes are, from high to low; Brahmans, the priests; Kshatriyas, the kings and warriors; Vaisyas, the commercial classes; and the Sudras, or menial workers. All castes are further divided by sub-castes. Hindu mythology states that each caste was born from the body of a legendary being, except for the achuta, who came from nothing.
The most striking linguistic link between Dom and Rom are their names, both meaning ‘man,’ or ‘us.’ Most Roma accept the Indian link; a minority of Roma claim other origins, including the Egyptian theory put forth by puzzled medieval Europeans. Still other Roma theorists accept their Indian origins, but claim that they are the descendents, not of achutas, but of migrating warrior Kshatriyas (Fraser 1992:26).
There is little evidence in the historical record to explain why the Roma abandoned their homeland. War or famine are the likely culprits, but, much like the question of why the Scandinavian tribes suddenly began raiding Europe’s coastlines a thousand years ago, the concrete reasons have been lost. Romanes only became a written language a half century ago; the little we know of early Romani history was always written by others.
Roma ventured into modern-day Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo along with, and often ahead of the Ottoman advance; Byzantine scholars had already made note of their presence in modern-day Greece. A likely-inaccurate historical assumption placed Roma in the Balkans by the 1350s; most scholars now agree that the Persian phrase Cingarije simply denoted shoemakers, though that word eventually evolved into the pejorative Serbo-Croatian phrase Cigani. Besides Ragusa in 1362, Roma were first noted in Zagreb, Croatia in 1373, and villages of sedentary Roma in Western Bulgaria were noted in 1378. (Malcolm, 1998:205)
Roma appeared in the city-state of Ragusa (Dubrovnik, Croatia)- described by Noel Malcolm as the 'Hong Kong of the medieval Balkans'- in the 14th and 15th centuries. These Roma settlers bore Slavic surnames- evidence of considerable time spent among Serbs or Bulgars. They likely fled from Ottoman-ruled Serb territories. In Ragusa Roma found work as servants, along with their traditional trades of blacksmithing and music. Ragusan records in the Historijski Archiv indicate that Roma, though in low standing compared to the Ragusan elite of rich families that dominated sea-borne and inland trade, were never subject there to the abuses they would soon encounter in the rest of Europe. Some Roma even owned homes within the town.
The first reliable source placing Roma in Kosovo notes the presence of Christian Gypsies in Prizren in 1491; their main trade was smithing.(Malcolm, 1998:206) This vocation survives among them; in Prizren’s Terzi Mahalla, there were 65 blacksmith shops up until a few decades ago, and in Prizren there is a street called Fatatarde- Blacksmith Street.
Those ‘Christian gypsies’ converted to Islam long ago. In the Ottoman lands, most Roma converted to Islam, along with a significant portion of the Bosnian and Albanian populations. Coastal areas of Albania proper avoided the near-thorough Islamization of some ethnicities in the interior because of their proximity to Italy, Montenegro and Greece, and the priests that found their way to them. In Kosovo, most Albanians and Roma converted. The Ottoman millet system decreed different rates of payment to the empire for Christians and Muslims; conversion came with financial benefit, as well as the right to ride horses and bear arms. Muslim Roma were still subject to Christian taxes. This may be because the Ottomans did not take their supposed Muslim beliefs seriously.(Crowe 1995:198)
The Ottomans viewed Roma as an unruly, albeit harmless population; the process of ghettoization- confining Roma to specific neighborhoods, first called Ciganluk, and later, simply Mahalas- began under them, as did increased taxes for Roma of no fixed employment (privat, in today’s terminology). The Ottomans felt uneasy at the idea of nomads within their territory, though they themselves began their history as nomadic raiders under the ruler Osman; the seasonal wanderings of the Muslim Bijeli Cigani- White Gypsies- were banned. A Roma census carried out by the Ottomans in the 1520s noted 164 Roma families in Pristina, and 145 in Novo Brdo; many of them had Serbian names.(Malcolm 1998:206)
In the north, Serbian blacksmiths pressured Roma into not plying trades that put them into competition with the Slavs. The Turks taxed them more heavily. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Roma population of the former Yugoslavia grew, fuelled by Roma slavery in bordering Moldavia and Walachia (modern day Romania). Escaped Roma slaves made for the border, where the only thing they were subject to was taxation. Many Roma settled among the Serbs; in the north, they adopted Orthodox Christianity, and many lost the Roma language in the next few generations, leading to the group now referred to as Srpski Cigani (Serbian Gypsies) by both Serbs and Muslim Roma.
Serbia became officially independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 (recognized as such at the Congress of Berlin). The nomadic Roma lifestyle was officially banned in Serbia a year later. This rule did not become truly enforceable until the end of the Second World War; southeastern Europe’s borders were porous, and the Serbian attitude towards Roma lacked the brutality found in neighboring Romania and other areas of Europe. The Serbs regarded the Roma as unruly children, as opposed to heretics and, in tales from Western Europe, the forgers of the crucifixion nails. This attitude was not shared by Kosovar Serbs; when Kosovo was absorbed into Serbia in 1912, the Roma there were, like the Albanians, regarded as leftovers of the Turks. Many were driven from their homes and killed.(Crowe 1995:209)
Who We Were, Who We Are: Kosovo Roma Oral Histories
©Bobby Anderson 2003-2009. All rights reserved.
This project was made possible by the generous financial support of the Open Society Institute Roma Culture Initiative.
Additional thanks to all other
donors & implementers
This study may be freely distributed, in whole or part, so long as the source is cited:
Who We Were, Who We Are: Kosovo Roma Oral Histories © Bobby Anderson 2003-2009
Is there something you feel we're missing? Do you have any comments, suggestions, or need additional information? Please write Bobby Anderson at email@example.com