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Roma History: Post WWII

 

The Germans invaded Yugoslavia in 1941. Kosovo was ceded to Italy, which merged the province into a greater Albania; the Germans were only interested in the minerals they could extract from the Trepca mines in the province’s north. The Albanians quickly turned on those Serbs that they regarded as colonists; in the west, hundreds of Serb villages were burned, and many Serbs fled into Montenegro and Serbia proper. The Italians stationed troops around the Orthodox areas of Kosovo including Decani, Pec and Gracanica; in 1999 the Italians, as members of KFOR, returned to protect the western sites that their grandfathers had guarded from destruction a half century before.

At war’s end, in 1946, the communists put down Albanian revolts in the Drenica. 1946 brought some positive changes to Albanians; their language was recognized, along with Serbo-Croatian, as an official language of the province, and they were no longer expelled to Turkey, although after 1946, they were actively encouraged to emigrate there (In Royalist Yugoslavia, the government entered into negotiations with Ankara to accept and resettle the entire Kosovar Albanian population). Those Serbs who had fled the province during the Second World War were barred from returning there.

Kosovo was declared an autonomous region of Serbia, but this was a joke; the area was under the control of Tito’s Interior Minister, Aleksandar Rankovic- a man who the province’s Serbs later regarded as their protector. Rankovic ran Kosovo as a police state, under the pretext of stopping Albanian nationalists. He was expelled from the communist party in the mid-1960’s; Belgrade’s control of Kosovo, and Kosovar Albanians, soon loosened. The Albanian press became more daring; the police presence dropped.

These freedoms culminated in the constitutional changes of 1974; Kosovo was officially recognized as an autonomous province within Serbia; these changes gave Kosovo some power with Yugoslavia’s republics. Kosovo had a greater voice within the federation, and decision-making power within the realms of internal development, foreign policy, and economic planning. Each republic had two representatives within Yugoslavia’s federal assembly; Kosovo had one.

These changes were not welcomed by the Serbs. Nationalism was effectively illegal in Tito’s Yugoslavia; Franjo Tudjman, Alija Izetbegovic and Vojislav Šešelj were all jailed for violating the concept of Bratstvo I Jedinstvo- brotherhood and unity- in papers they presented and articles they wrote. After Tito’s death, restrictions on nationalism loosened. The Serb media in Belgrade portrayed Kosovar Albanians in a more and more unflattering light. They were birth machines, desecrators of churches and graveyards, irredentists, spies for Tirana, and rapists of Serb girls. Kosovar Serbs did face job and housing discrimination during these years; the media made it appear as though they faced crazed Albanians with broken bottles every time they walked the street.

The most famous and explosive case of supposed Albanian abuses involved the Kosovar Serb farmer Djordje Martinovic. In the mid-1980’s, Martinovic was wheeled into a Gnjilane hospital on his stomach with a broken beer bottle in his rectum; he claimed that he was ambushed in his fields by crazed Albanian nationalists who sodomized him with the object now stuck in him. The Belgrade dailies put the story of Martinovic’s beer bottle on their front pages for weeks on end. A firestorm spewed from his sore, hairy farmer’s buttocks. The report the Gnjilane hospital filed on the case noted the doctor’s suspicions that the Martinovic defiling began as self-gratification and ended when the poor man slipped. The doctor’s report was of no concern to the Serbian papers or the increasingly nationalist and vocal Serbian Academy of the Arts and Sciences.

Ordinary Serbs, propelled by stories of everything from graveyard desecration to violently misused foreign objects, began to regard Kosovar Albanians as a danger to their people and their nation. The most commonly repeated allegations about the mistreatment of Kosovar Serbs at the hands of Albanians were; that Serbs, by the hundreds of thousands, were driven from the province to create a purely Albanian Kosovo, which would then be merged into Albania proper; that Kosovar Serbs were subject to assaults, robberies and rapes, and desecrations of their graveyards and churches; and that most Albanians had only moved to the province in 1946 as refugees from Enver Hoxha’s Albania.

These papers and politicians conveniently forgot the fact that Kosovo was one of the poorest areas of Europe, and one of the most densely populated as well. Tens of thousands of Serbs did leave, but many of them left due to economic reasons. There were small-scale instances of discrimination against Serbs, but nothing of the scale and type that Belgrade alleged. In regard to Serb accusations that most Albanians moved into Kosovo in 1946, this was, and is, wishful thinking, and absolutely nothing in the historical record lends any weight to this claim.

After initial low counts in post-WWII censuses, the Roma population of Eastern Europe climbed. This was not only due to birth rates; Roma did not identify themselves as Roma for years after the Baro Porrajmos.

The new communist regimes established in Eastern Europe after World War II introduced a myriad of laws regarding Roma in their territories. These laws, on the surface, intended to improve the social, educational and economic standing of Roma; the practice was to forcibly remove them from their culture, and all the positives and negatives of it. Roma would be assimilated into each majority; they’d go to school and work. Livestock trading, animal training, and other traditional Roma livelihoods were outlawed, as were encampments and seasonal travel. Eastern Europe was not unique in these laws; Western European nations had created similar laws a century before.

Roma were to be educated- but not in Romanes. Their cultural expression, national dress, and other traditions were discouraged. These laws were not difficult to enforce. The Baro Porrajmos had already encouraged Roma to not be Roma.

Communist assimilation policies in Yugoslavia and other nations had many positive effects. Schooling for Roma children became mandatory; in prior times Roma were not thought to be worth educating. Within a few generations, literacy found its way into Roma culture, as did, in some areas, an understanding of the necessity of education- a necessity that older generations of Roma were denied.

Positive quotas were set for Roma entering university and seeking government jobs. Perhaps the greatest impact these regulations had were exposing the majority ethnic group’s children to Roma children in classrooms; before, none had any interaction with Roma, and this exposure ensured that stereotypes would not simply be taken at face value. Racism directed at Roma is less easy to accept when it affects your playmates. Education and quotas created higher living standards for Roma in Eastern Europe, and socialized medicine extended the average Roma lifespan.

"Our children weren’t in school; the teachers didn’t want them there. But every once in awhile Belgrade decided that Roma children should be educated, and the police would arrest a set of Roma parents because their children weren’t enrolled. Dad would get his butt kicked; all the Roma parents would rush their children to school. Soon the campaign would end; our children would stop attending, because the teachers didn’t want them there and they didn’t want to be there either. But soon another campaign would begin."

-Roma woman, aged 68, Gracanica, Kosovo - 2003

Yugoslavia’s Roma fared better than others. They were classed as an official national minority (as opposed to a nation) with the right to their own language and cultural expression. On census forms, they- and many other nationalities- enthusiastically declared themselves as Yugoslavs. Along with mandatory schooling, quotas for government work, and university entry, the Yugoslav government later forbade media outlets from using the word Cigan; it instructed them to use Rom instead. Yugoslavia created primary school classes in the Romanes language; this may have been a unique offering in post-WWII Eastern Europe, and by 1983 ten primary schools offered Romanes language instruction through grade four. Roma literary journals and magazines were published; Roma movies were shot in Serbia and Macedonia. Yugoslav Roma theatre companies toured Europe. Josip Broz Tito toyed with the idea of creating a Roma autonomous area in Macedonia; he did not, due to Macedonia’s new, and often challenged, status as an ethnicity instead of a geographic region. Bulgarian irredentism- they claimed Macedonia as theirs- played a role as well. Shutka and its environs flourished; its Roma musicians and actors became known throughout then-Yugoslavia. Belgrade broadcast radio and television programs in Romanes. An educated Roma middle-class of small businessmen, traders and communist party members emerged, albeit small in number. Roma benefited from Yugoslav policies; many others did not. Educational policies were not taken seriously by local officials; Roma still had the highest infant mortality rates in Yugoslavia. A 1978 study noted that only 100 Roma were currently attending universities in Yugoslavia. Generational racism would not be rooted out in a half century; after Yugoslavia’s dissolution Roma found their rights removed, and became the victims of the conflicts that few paid attention to.

Yugoslavia’s Roma fared better than others. They were classed as an official national minority (as opposed to a nation) with the right to their own language and cultural expression. On census forms, they- and many other nationalities- enthusiastically declared themselves as Yugoslavs. Along with mandatory schooling, quotas for government work, and university entry, the Yugoslav government later forbade media outlets from using the word Cigan; it instructed them to use Rom instead.

Yugoslavia created primary school classes in the Romanes language; this may have been a unique offering in post-WWII Eastern Europe, and by 1983 ten primary schools offered Romanes language instruction through grade four. Roma literary journals and magazines were published; Roma movies were shot in Serbia and Macedonia. Yugoslav Roma theatre companies toured Europe. Josip Broz Tito toyed with the idea of creating a Roma autonomous area in Macedonia; he did not, due to Macedonia’s new, and often challenged, status as an ethnicity instead of a geographic region.

Bulgarian irredentism- they claimed Macedonia as theirs- played a role as well. Shutka and its environs flourished; its Roma musicians and actors became known throughout then-Yugoslavia. Belgrade broadcast radio and television programs in Romanes. An educated Roma middle-class of small businessmen, traders and communist party members emerged, albeit small in number.

Roma benefited from Yugoslav policies; many others did not. Educational policies were not taken seriously by local officials; Roma still had the highest infant mortality rates in Yugoslavia. A 1978 study noted that only 100 Roma were currently attending universities in Yugoslavia. Generational racism would not be rooted out in a half century; after Yugoslavia’s dissolution Roma found their rights removed, and became the victims of the conflicts that few paid attention to.



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