Roma History: Kosovo from 1989 to the Present
The Albanians fought back passively, through the political leaders that emerged during the protests. Ibrahim Rugova, a professor of French literature at the University of Pristina, became the leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). The LDK withdrew Albanians from Kosovo’s public life; a parallel state was formed, with alternate schooling and healthcare facilities. Parallel government teachers and doctors were paid from a voluntary 3% yearly tax on Kosovars, both at home and in the Diaspora. Albanians boycotted Yugoslav elections; one thing that both the Serbian opposition and the ruling socialists could agree on was that they didn’t like Albanians, so why bother? The 1991 census went unanswered by Kosovo’s majority; the Serbs had to estimate how many Albanians were there, or more appropriately, how many they had to deal with.
Rugova and his deputies believed that, by peacefully withdrawing from Serbian administrative and political structures in Kosovo and simultaneously drawing international attention to their cause, the Serbs would eventually have to accept the will of the Kosovar majority. The Kosovar parliamentarians who had lost their jobs upon the revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy declared Kosovo’s independence at a secret meeting in Kacanik in June of 1990.
Due to international sanctions, the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, and absurd economic mismanagement, the Kosovar economy plummeted. In the boom days of the 1970’s, Kosovo remained stagnant; it was the poorest area of Yugoslavia, and the majority of internal development money earmarked by Belgrade for the poorer republic disappeared into it. In the 1990’s Kosovo’s economic mainstay was remittances from Kosovars working abroad. Meanwhile the militia leader, Serb nationalist, mobster and later ICTY indictee Željko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic was elected to the Yugoslav federal parliament- as the Pristina, Kosovo representative. His campaign slogan: this is Holy Serbian Land. Arkan forced local mobsters to give him greater kickbacks; he recruited for his Bosnian private army, the Tigers, or Arkanici, at the Grand Hotel Pristina. And Serb police went on witch hunts through Kosovo, searching for spies and rebels. The Albanian population was collectively choked; Serbian police and Ministarstvo Unutrasnjih Poslova (MUP) troops subjected them to arrests for no crime; ‘informative discussions’ that turned into months-long periods of detention without charge; random beatings, and even extrajudicial executions. Traffic cops pulled Albanians over for imaginary infractions. Albanians called the traffic cops Daj Mi- Give me’s- for the deutschmarks that had to hand over with every stop.
In an effort to stem the tide of Serbs leaving the province, Belgrade made it illegal for Kosovar Serbs to sell their homes. Serb refugees from Bosnia and Croatia were forcibly settled there. Many of them were dumped into cot-filled school gymnasiums and left to fend for themselves. One busload of Krajina Serbs was told they were being sent to Niš; upon realizing that Kosovo was their destination, the Serbs revolted. One man held a gun to the driver’s head and forced him to return to Belgrade.
The Albanians had put their trust in Rugova; he did not deliver what he promised fast enough. When the 1995 Dayton accords failed to address Kosovo’s status, some Albanians looked for quicker means of getting rid of the Serbs.
The Kosovo Liberation Army (Ushtria Çlirimtare ë Kosovës) initially formed in the Drenica (a rural region of central Kosovo) as early as 1993. The KLA- a 'spontaneous uprising of village militias,' according to Alan Little- had little organization or coherent hierarchy. At its core were several extended families, including the Jashari Clan of Prekaz- famously killed in a three-day shoot-out with the Yugoslav army on March 5th, 1998.
The KLA agreed with everything the LDK wanted; they discarded the passivity, and began small-scale attacks on isolated police outposts. Their attacks grew with the sudden influx of cheap small arms that accompanied the Albanian government’s 1997 collapse, when that country’s weapons depots were thoroughly looted. AK-47s now went for 5 dollars a pop in the Tropoja arms bazaars; donkey trains of weaponry snaked their way through the Prokletije Mountains. Training camps were established in Albania by the KLA and their rival, the LDK-affiliated Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosova, or FERK. FERK was soon destroyed in what some called a Kosovar Albanian guerilla’s civil war, waged in Albania proper.
The KLA succeeded in internationalizing the Kosovo issue in a way that Rugova was never capable of. But according to Chris Hedges, before the end of the NATO campaign in June of 1999, the KLA killed more Albanians (marked as collaborators with the Serb regime) than it did Serbs.
The KLA grew more brazen; the Serbs cracked down. The KLA seized Orahovac town; the Serbs retook it and shot the place to bits. The Drenica- the KLA's birthplace- was ripped up. Villages were burned and massacres occurred that had no beginning provocation. International organizations became increasingly involved in the conflict; Belgrade allowed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Kosovo Verification Mission into Kosovo to monitor a ceasefire in the fall of 1998. The alternative would have been earlier military involvement. The KVM's activities were extremely curtailed; the absolute freedom of movement that they had been assured of never materialized.
The Racak killings of January 1999 were denounced by KVM's head, William Walker, as a massacre of civilians by Serb police. Walker was ordered to leave the country, and one last meeting between Albanians and Serbs was called- in Rambouillet, France. Any agreement that resulted from Rambouillet would be enforced by an international military presence in Kosovo; Miloševic refused on the basis of a newspaper referendum for the Serb public, with the question- 'Do you support foreign troops on Yugoslav territory?'
Because Rambouillet did not address the issue of Kosovo's independence, the Albanians also refused to reach any agreement. The Albanian delegation, in the end, reluctantly agreed with the conference's terms; it took the heavy convincing of Madeline Albright for them to sign. The Serbs answered their failure to sign at Rambouillet by intensifying their operations to destroy the KLA. By the time of Rambouillet's end, tens of thousands of Albanian IDPs were scattered throughout Kosovo. Operations in the Drenica region intensified. The KVM withdrew.
A day or two before the war began, satellite photos of western Kosovo looked like burning leaf piles on a windy day.
The NATO War: March- June, 1999
The bombing of Pristina
"Before the bombing started, I thought everyone was kidding."
- Djezida Emini, Prilužje, Kosovo
The NATO campaign against Yugoslavia began on March 24th, 1999. The Serbs answered with mass expulsions of ethnic Albanians. Within the first six weeks of the campaign, 723,000 Albanians (Figures from UNHCR) were driven from the province. Thousands were killed in the process. Another half million Albanians were soon internally displaced- hiding in the woods at the end of winter; many starved while others died of exposure.
Deaths in the Kosovo conflict are a point of contention between countries and international agencies. During the war, CNN and other western media outlets reported that up to 100,000 Albanian men were separated from refugee columns and taken away by the Serbs. The implication was that they were to be exterminated. This did not happen. At war’s end, western governments kept reducing the number of Albanians killed. The accepted figure now stands at a minimum of 6000, and a maximum of 15,000, killed.
After the war, two Mitrovica Serbs were convicted of genocide by a Kosovar Albanian court; their convictions were overturned by a majority-international higher court due to the finding that genocide, according to the internationally-accepted definition codified in the 1948 Genocide Convention, did not occur in Kosovo. This is of little consolation to the dead.
Miloševic thought that NATO’s will would break before his resolve did. He was wrong. NATO attacks intensified; the military targets became scarcer. Infrastructure targets came next; electricity grids, bridges and secondary government buildings. The bombing continued for 78 days; the war ended with the NATO- Yugoslav Military-Technical Agreement, signed in Kumanovo, Macedonia.
The bombing halted in June of 1999. Serb military units withdrew, and NATO’s Kosovo Force, or KFOR, established control over the province. 45,000 KFOR troops provided security for the province; the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo was established to govern the province. UNMIK’s first duty was to remove the KLA from power, with the help of KFOR; the guerilla army had attempted to establish its own state in the days that separated the Serb withdrawal and KFOR’s entry.
After a few months of passionate looting and killing, attacks against minorities became less frequent, and more organized. The worst attack was the ‘Niš Express’ bus bombing of February 16th, 2001. Eleven Serb civilians, including a two-year-old girl, were killed, and eighteen others injured when 200 pounds of TNT stuffed into a culvert was detonated as their bus ran over it. Hand grenades have been thrown onto playgrounds; Serb buses have come under sniper fire and been hit with rocket-propelled grenades; car convoys have been ambushed. Others- close to a thousand minorities- have simply vanished. Most recently, in June of 2003 a Serb family in Obilic town was beaten to death, in their beds; their house was then burned down.
Pristina, 2003. Photo by Kieran D'Arcy
A February 2000 confidential UN report presented to Kofi Annan implicated the KPC in 'killings, ill-treatment/ torture, illegal policing, abuse of authority, intimidation, breaches of political neutrality and
hate-speech'.(Kosovo 'Disaster Response Service' Stands Accused of Murder and Torture: March 12, 2000, The Observer, London) KPC officials in
Srbica/ Skenderaj ran a brothel; in Dragaš, they assassinated Gorani politicians. Many senior KPC figures have been arrested by UNMIK and jailed for crimes committed against Albanian civilians during the earlier conflict; others were expelled by the KPC (with pressure from America) after turning up on US State Department watch lists for involvement with Albanian separatist groups in
Kosovo, Macedonia and southern Serbia (Rule of Law Is Elusive in Kosovo; UN, NATO Criticized For Inaction on Violence: July 29, 2001, Washington Post). Still others have been indicted by the ICTY in Den Haag; Fatmir Limaj was extradited to the Netherlands to stand trial for command responsibility for war crimes committed against Serbian and Roma civilians in Kosovo.(For more information, please refer to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
It must be emphasized that, for most Roma, these ethnic and political concerns had little to do with them. They were not Serbian, not Albanian; they were concerned with their own families and their own lives, and the need to identify with one side or another was made for them by others.
Roma voices were not heard in this conflict. Luan Koka doesn’t count; the Serbs regarded him as akin to a parrot. Koka joined the Serb delegation at Rambouillet; he now lives in Belgrade. A Roma protest in Podujevo- ‘Luan Koka does not speak for us’- was not remembered near as well as the pro-Miloševic Pristina Roma protests, nearly ten years before.
The worst atrocity against Roma occurred in November of 2000. Four Ashkalija males- three heads of family and a 16-year-old boy- were bound and shot through their heads in the village of Dašovac/ Dashevc, Srbica/ Skenderaj municipality. The four were IDPs, squatting with their family in homes abandoned by other Roma in Kosovo Polje. The family wished to return home; they contacted the OSCE and UNHCR, who assisted them. The men returned to Dašovac, to meet with their neighbors and ethnic Albanian local leaders; all encouraged them to return. They were told they were welcome.
They returned to rebuild their destroyed homes. UNHCR provided them with a tent. KFOR offered to guard them; the Ashkalija refused, superficially confident of their initial reception and fearful that KFOR’s presence would attract too much attention to their return. The next morning an OSCE caseworker visited them in Dašovac. They had all been executed. Their bodies had laid outside for hours, in open view of their neighbors. No one had called the police. There were no witnesses. The crime remains unsolved.
Kosovo’s Roma are now found throughout Europe, or displaced within Kosovo. At least 30,000 Roma fled the province to Serbia proper and Montenegro; 25,000 have not returned(United States State Department- Country Report on Human Rights Practices- Yugoslavia: March 4, 2002).
A new Albanian terrorist group- the Albanian National Army- has been created; it fuses elements of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the (South Serbian) Liberation Army of Preševo, Medved and Bujanovac, and the (Macedonian) National Liberation Army. The ANA was created by Shefqet Musliu and Besim Tahiri; both are currently in UNMIK detention, and Belgrade has requested their extradition. The ANA is suspected in numerous attacks against Serbs and Roma. Membership in the group has been declared illegal by UNMIK.
Kosovar Roma unemployment rates average 100%, due to the security and freedom of movement issues they face. The older schools that once educated them in their own language were destroyed, along with their homes.
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.
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Who We Were, Who We Are: Kosovo Roma Oral Histories © Bobby Anderson 2003-2009
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