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The Forgotten People of Kosovo

The Forgotten People of Kosovo Author: Jakob Weizman GazetaExpress

There are wounds of war here in Kosovo that from time and time again, are pushed down into the back of their memories, wishing to be forgotten. When conflict is over, reconciliation, peace and stability are the main goals to overcome the pain that comes with the horrors of war.

The Albanian population in Kosovo have seemed to be able to move on towards bigger and brighter things for their country, but there are people that have continually been forgotten within the walls of Kosovo’s history into becoming a nation.

Even today, they are still forgotten.

The Roma community of Kosovo consists of 1% of its entire population. They currently do not receive the same equal treatment as the Albanian and Serbian population in the country.

The Roma people are a nomadic ethnic group that are one of the largest minorities in Europe today, originally migrating from northern India over 1,000 years ago.

DNA research has shown that the Romani people come from the Untouchable Dalit community, which is one of the lower and oppressed castes in India.

Regardless of who their ancestors may be, they have managed to make a living in Kosovo, however it has been a quite difficult path for the Roma people in this country.

Their treatment during the Kosovo War in 1998-99 saw them treated less than a refugee would.

“They did not have the official status of refugees. The Roma left in Kosovo during the war were labeled as IDPs, internally displaced persons, who receive less rights than refugees,” said Sani Rifati, a Romani activist and writer.

Before the war, over 150,000 Roma people lived in Kosovo, however after the war, the size of the minority decreased to around 30,000 people. Over 75% of the population fled Kosovo during the war and did not return.

During the Roma occupation of IDP camps during the war, they received less rations than refugee camps.

“The U.N. provided to each of the Roma in IDP camps a monthly ration of eight kilos (17 pounds) of flour, two onions, two tomatoes, a half-kilo (one pound) of cheese, and some fruit (usually rotten),” said Rifati. “Beyond that, there were only three liters of cooking oil per family, regardless of family size; no other supplies were available.”

This information came from interviews with Roma people staying in these camps during the war.

One event was recorded, when a UN representative was approached by a VOR representative concerning the allocation of cooking and drinking water to Roma at one camp, the UN representative responded in a very insulting manner.

“Oh, the Gypsies know how to take care of themselves. They’re nomads; they’ve lived all their lives like that,” said the representative.

There is a continuing stereotype today surrounding the Gypsy culture, which is what Rifati acknowledged in an article he wrote about 15 years ago in response to the Roma treatment during the war.

“This deeply-rooted stereotype, that the Roma are uncivilized wanderers who don't have the same needs as members of civilized societies is contradicted by the facts. In Kosovo, Roma have lived in houses for over seven hundred years, and most of them have never seen a wanderers caravan,” said Rifati in his article.

“The effect of such stereotypes is to dehumanize the Roma and destroy their cultural infrastructure,” he added.

During the war, the Roma were persecuted by the KLA  (Kosovo Liberation Army) for supposedly “cooperating with Milosevic.”

If the Roma people lived in an area with a majority Serb population, they fought alongside the Serbs. The same goes for Roma living with a majority Albanian population, where they would fight alongside the Albanians during the war.

However, to the KLA and extremist Albanians, the Roma that fought with the Serbs were seen as traitors, disregarding the fact that the Roma had no choice but to fight alongside the people they were residing within the area, whether it be Serbs or Albanians.

In a Human Rights Watch report that was released in 1999, there were multiple incidents of violence against the Roma carried out by the KLA.

The report featured one incident in which German NATO troops discovered that 25 KLA members had beaten and imprisoned 15 elderly Roma.

"They were smirking like they got their hands caught in a cookie jar," according to one witness cited in the report. One Roma victim found at the scene said: "They told us, 'You all have to leave here. You co-operated with Milosevic.'"

Nowadays, Roma people still receive the same disregard as they did in the past.

"I never came across a case where crimes against Roma have been prosecuted. Here, the lives of [the Roma] are cheap," said Isak Skenderi, founder of Kosovo-based NGO Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians.

Skenderi was interviewed in an article with media outlet Al-Jazeera, concerning the maltreatment of the Roma.

"We know very little about what cases and what perpetrators will be brought to justice," said Skenderi in the article. "But, if you have no Roma voices in any of the structures that will be collecting evidence and protecting witnesses, then there will be no justice for Roma."

The new Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor's Office in the Hague in Netherlands, was initiated to prosecute crimes committed during the Kosovo War.

“The court is the international community's fourth attempt to try crimes committed during and after Kosovo's war. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the EU mission, EULEX, and the UN mission, UNMIK, have all tried to investigate war crimes over the past 17 years,” according to Al-Jazeera.

“But past efforts at justice have been tainted by failures to protect witnesses,” they say.

There was controversy after the war about the camps set up for the Roma by the United Nations, in northern Kosovo. The water at the camps were found to be contaminated with lead poisoning.

"We found out late that [at our camp] there was some kind of lead - poisonous lead - and when we measured it, we were told: 'Hey, your [lead levels] are very high. Your results are H and I - Hi. Our device can't measure anything higher,'" Haziri, now 37, recalled of being tested 13 years ago in an interview.

The WHO (World Health Organization) reported that multiple camps around Mitrovica were found with high lead concentration in the water.

During the mid-2000s, the WHO asked doctor Zoran Savic, who works at the Mitrovica Public Health Institute, to monitor blood levels in case of lead poisoning.

Savic revealed in an interview with Al-Jazeera about his findings.

"I was responsible to monitor some 300 children aged one to 14 years, and the results were shocking," said Savic.. "Of 300 children, only about 20 were below the healthy amount of 10 microgrammes per deciliter. It is rare to find levels this high in the world."

Another doctor, Klaus-Dietrich Runow from Germany, told Al-Jazeera his findings from hair samples taken from Roma children living in the camps.

"The results obtained are reported by our laboratory to be the highest ever seen in the values of heavy metal in human hair samples,” said Runow in an interview. “In terms of environmental medicine, the refugees will suffer irreversible damage to nerve and immune system and impairment to bone growth and blood system if prompt assistance is not forthcoming.”

Some of these camps were located near the Trepca mines, where high cases of toxicity have been reported in the past.

A UN human rights advisory panel mandated the UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) to award compensation and apologies to the victims of the contamination cases. This decision occurred after 8 years and 138 complaints being filed.

"In the 10-plus years the Roma remained on the poisoned sites, an entire generation of Roma children was lost," said Dianne Post in a press release. She is an  American lawyer who brought the case to the UN.

Unfortunately, the UN panel revealed that the damage from the contamination is “irreversible.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in May this year expressed the organisation's "profound regret for the suffering endured by all individuals" living in the camps.

Kujtim Pacaku, a former Roma MP in Kosovo's parliament, said it was "immoral to make up for the mass abuse only with money."

Even today, Roma people still suffer from the contamination. 

Artan Bajrami told Public Radio International (PRI)  that he "would have never agreed to go to a camp" if he had known about "the danger that was waiting there". 

His son is 15 and walks with a limp due to a deformity in his foot as a result of the lead poisoning. 

Elhame Masurica told PRI that his 16 year old son, Erduan, suffers from another deformity "because he stutters, is mentally behind, and plays only with small kids."

The horrors of the war still live on for the Roma people, but not from the violence of the war itself, but from the failure of the United Nations.

    Date: 11 November 2017 16:48
    Author: Jakob Weizman