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Roma History: Kosovo from 1989 to the Present

  • Table of Contents
  • Roma History- Introduction, Origins, the Migrations, and the Roma presence in Europe from the Medieval Period to the Second World War
  • The Romany Holocaust; Roma in Post-WWII Eastern Europe & Yugoslavia
  • Kosovo History- from the Medieval Nemanjic Dynasty to 1989
  • The 1989 Revocation of Autonomy, the Nonviolent Resistance, the Kosovo Liberation Army, the 1999 NATO War, and Kosovo Today
  • Bibliography & Further Reading
  • Reports & Excerpts


    Kosovo did not become the real focus of Serbia�s ire until Slobodan Milo�evic came to power in 1987. He staked his political career on the alleged sufferings of the Kosovar Serbs, and rode them to power. In 1988 he proposed changes to Yugoslavia�s 1974 constitution that would seriously reduce Kosovo�s autonomy; Milo�evic�s moves generated street protests across Kosovo. In 1989, Kosovo�s autonomy was revoked; Albanians answered Belgrade�s revocation of their status with protests and hunger strikes (most notably the Albanian miners in Trepca, who sealed themselves hundreds of feet underground for weeks, and had to be carried out).

    The protests achieved nothing. Albanians were fired from administrative and teaching positions and the police force became almost entirely Serb, with massive reinforcements bussed in from the north. Education was segregated; instruction in the Albanian language was banned.

    The Belgrade authorities changed street names in every city in Kosovo. Medieval Serb heroes and Serb nationalist slogans replaced Albanian partisans and socialist catch phrases. Orthodox holidays became public ones.

    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 �eljko �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 Ni�; 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 �lirimtare � Kosov�s) 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; Milo�evic 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, Prilu�je, 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.

    Milo�evic 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.
    KFOR did not establish its authority quickly enough. The outpouring of violence directed at Kosovo�s remaining Roma and Serbs was incredible. Pristina, the capital, was depopulated of minorities. Entire villages were destroyed, along with hundreds of churches and Serbian historical monuments. Random killings of minorities occurred daily- as did kidnappings, rapes, robberies and arson attacks on homes. It became unsafe to speak Serbian, or even a similar Slav language, in public; a Bulgarian UN worker was shot dead in Pristina on his first day in the province. After June of 1999, roughly 231,000 Serbs, Roma and other minorities fled the province. 22,500 (Figures from UNHCR) remained internally displaced within Kosovo as of 2002, rotting in monoethnic enclaves. Albanian refugees return. June 1999. Photo origin Unknown

    Albanian refugees return: June 1999. Photo origin unknown.

    After a few months of passionate looting and killing, attacks against minorities became less frequent, and more organized. The worst attack was the �Ni� 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

    Pristina, 2003. Photo by Kieran D'Arcy

    Kosovo Today

    Kosovo is governed by UNMIK; the agency is downsizing and slowly handing over its powers to municipal authorities and the Kosovo assembly. Local administrative units hold decision-making power in all areas except for those reserved for UNMIK�s Special Representative of the Secretary General. KFOR is reducing its presence and troop strength.

    UNMIK held Kosovo-wide elections in November of 2001; the province�s first-ever democratically elected assembly was formed, with Ibrahim Rugova as its president. The election results did not give the LDK a clear majority; it took until March of 2002 for a power-sharing arrangement to be made between the LDK, Hashim Tha�i�s Kosovo Democratic Party (PDK) and Ramush Haradinaj�s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK). Both the PDK and AAK are right-wing parties that are essentially offshoots of the Kosovo Liberation Army�s political structures; Tha�i and Haradinaj were both KLA leaders, and Tha�i briefly seized power after the war (he appointed his uncle as minister of defense) until NATO and UNMIK forced him to the side.

    The Serbian Povratak (return) coalition holds seats in the Kosovo Assembly. The Assembly has no Roma representatives.

    The Kosovo Liberation Army is now officially demilitarized, and a scaled down version- the Kosovo Protection Corps- remains, led by Agim �eku, former leader of the KLA. The KPC�s official tasks include, among other things, ceremonial duties and disaster relief.

    Albanian Children in the cleansed Moravska Mahala; Pristina 2003

    Albanian children in the cleansed Moravska Mahala, 2003

    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 Draga�, 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.

    The KPC, however, cannot be construed as a criminal organization; rather, it is an organization containing criminal elements. While some KPC run brothels, others maintain free medical clinics. At issue is the subject of command and control within the organization.

    Between Serbs and Albanians- the Kosovar Roma Porrajmata

    A Roma girl and her protector: Sofija and a Swedish KFOR soldier. Gracanica: 2002

    A Roma girl and her protector: Sofija and a Swedish KFOR soldier.

    Kosovar Roma had little concrete political alignment until 1989; before, they simply liked Tito. The minutiae of local politics had little bearing on the Roma situation in Kosovo. At the revocation of Kosovo�s autonomy in 1989, most Roma identified themselves with the Serbs. This was a typical historical compromise; Roma must gravitate towards those who hold the power. Roma became an unfortunate showcase for the Serbs; they were held up to the west as examples of Serbian tolerance. Look how we treat the most despised community in Europe!

    Some Ashkalija identified with the Albanians; other Ashkalija aligned themselves with the Serb authorities and re-classified themselves as Egyptians, to counter the process of �Albanization� they had already undergone. The emergence of the Egyptians was actively encouraged by Milo�evic; he hoped that those Roma who had declared themselves Albanians would switch to Egyptian, and leave him with demographic figures slightly less inconvenient than those he currently faced.

    A few Roma schools continued to operate in Kosovo; Roma children attending Serbian schools were not removed when the Albanians were. Roma were not summarily fired from their jobs when the Albanians were; the mass-firing of Albanians resulted in higher Roma employment.

    Luan Koka emerged as Kosovo�s Roma leader; he spoke for none of them, but publicly aligned them with the Serbs. A small demonstration in support of Milo�evic was conducted by Pristina Roma in the early 1990�s; this event is vividly remembered by many Albanians.

    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-Milo�evic Pristina Roma protests, nearly ten years before.

    During the NATO campaign, large numbers of Roma were press-ganged into Serbian military structures. Some joined voluntarily; most did not. They dug graves; they helped Serb forces loot. Others- like the Serbs before them, and the Albanians after- did enrich themselves with the goods that expellees abandoned. This is not a Roma trait; it is a trait of the desperately poor, and sometimes, just the greedy.

    Other Roma- Ashkalija and Egyptians- were expelled by Serb forces along with the Albanians. Many instances of abuse- including rapes, beatings, robberies and murders- were directed against them by Serb forces.

    Kosovo Albanians returned en masse to their homes beginning in June 1999. The outpouring of violence against Serbs, Roma and other Kosovar minorities was stunning to the internationals. Not so to those on the ground. To many Albanians, it was time to deal with the old regime and their quislings. Although a small minority of Albanians participated in these attacks, many Albanians implicitly condoned them.

    Roma were driven from their homes in every city and village in Kosovo, with the exception of the Serb-dominated northern municipalities. The southern Mitrovica Mahala- previously home to roughly 7,000 Roma- was leveled. Mitrovica�s Roma now live in Serbia, or in the northern IDP camps; �itkovac, Cezmin Lug and the Leposavic Roma collection center. In Gnjilane/ Gjilan, the Roma population went from over 6,000 to 350. Pristina�s Roma almost entirely fled. Most cities in Kosovo have burned-out Mahalas on their outskirts; gutted concrete shells with the roofs blown off. Satellite dishes punched full of shrapnel holes.

    A bombed Serb Church: Djakovica/ Gjakov� 1999. Photo Origin Unknown

    A bombed Serb Church: Djakovica/ Gjakov� 1999. Photo origin unknown.

    Minority Public Transport: a Destroyed UN Bus. Kosovo 2003

    Minority public transport: a destroyed UN bus.

    Roma popped up dead everywhere. They disappeared from villages; they were found shot in the head, thrown down wells, or simply skeletonized in fields. Hand grenades were thrown through their windows. Their doors of their homes were booby-trapped. Those that ventured out in public were beaten or stoned by children. Others refused to leave their homes. KFOR patrols were ineffective in halting this violence due to their inexperience in the land and the opinions of many ethnic Albanian translators, who often refused to translate for Roma, or purposely mistranslated.

    Albanians were the victims; now some were the persecutors. The abuses inflicted upon Roma in the immediate aftermath of the conflict was overlooked, or even dismissed.

    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 Da�ovac/ 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 Da�ovac, 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 Da�ovac. 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).

    The Kosovar Roma IDP situation in The Republic of Serbia and Montenegro is problematic; many are denied refugee status. Roma in Yugoslavia have been barred from certain public swimming pools and supermarkets; they have been beaten and tortured by police; they are targets of nationalist gangs; they have been illegally evicted from settlements and are actively encouraged to return to Kosovo, with no regard for their security there. The Serbia-Montenegro office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights states that "the rights of Roma are being violated on a daily basis, and they face discrimination among all classes of society."(Beta News Agency, Aug. 8, 2003)

    Roma communities in Kosovo have stabilized. The return of a Roma refugee family usually results in a home being burned. The message, from a distinct minority of Albanians; there�s enough of you for window dressing. We�ll not have any more.

    Who's Albanian, Who's Serb? KFOR Billboard: 2002

    Who's Albanian, Who's Serb? KFOR billboard, 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 Pre�evo, 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.


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