By Srdjan Papic in Sarajevo (BCR No 406, 13-Feb-03)
Rain or shine, sun or snow, eight-year-old Edin and his 11-year-old brother Bukurib ply their trade on the intersections of the main roads in the centre of Sarajevo.
With no proper education, the brothers earn money washing windshields of cars that stop at the traffic lights. When business is bad they beg.
Their parents have no permanent job. Their mother is at home and their father only occasionally earns a little cash, reselling old goods.
"Some give half a (konvertible) mark, others give one or two," said Bukurib. "But sometimes people chase us away, saying we make their cars dirty!"
Bukurib has worked the streets for three years now. Thousands of Roma make a living this way throughout the Balkans. Some people pay them a little money, but no one pays them any attention.
The size of the minority in Bosnia-Hercegovia is hard to estimate. In the 1991 census, 8,864 persons officially declared themselves as Roma. But this is a fraction of the real figure, as many declared themselves Muslims, Serbs or Croats to avoid discrimination.
More realistic estimates put the number at anything from 30,000 to 80,000. The largest concentration is believed to be in the Tuzla canton, which is home to about 15,000.
Although they are Bosnia's largest ethnic minority, the country's post-Dayton constitution grants them no specific recognition, including them in a broad category of "other nationalities".
Bosnia's Roma suffer from numerous social problems, including higher than average unemployment, poor housing and exclusion from the school system. Few have any health insurance.
A two-day round table in Sarajevo in January discussed their problems in the context of a wider debate on refugees and displaced persons in south-east Europe.
The forum drew representatives from all the countries in the region, Roma associations and international organisations.
Highlighting the dismal state of the minority, the head of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, mission in Bosnia, Robert Beecroft, described their situation as "one of the worst in the Balkans".
Beecroft said widespread prejudice and intolerance had confined the Roma population to what he termed "a hellish isolation from society, as well as unemployment, poor education and poverty".
Alexandra Raykova a Roma activist from Bulgaria visiting the Tuzla area under the auspices of the Council of Europe, OSCE and ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights), reported that 60 per cent of Bosnian Roma were illiterate, while 80 per cent had no professional qualifications and 90 per cent had no health insurance.
Most of the community's children did not attend school for one reason: the parents of the other children in the schools refused to allow them to sit in classes with Roma pupils.
The Sarajevo canton has about 7,000 to 8,000 known Roma, though many others are displaced. Five pre-war Roma settlements have been relocated to collective centres and abandoned Serb homes.
In the Sarajevo canton, only one Roma settlement has been well taken care of. The authorities have built 15 houses for 30 families in the Gorica suburb.
But elsewhere in the region, the community lives in miserable conditions.
In Sarajevo's Vrace suburb, seven Roma families who fled the Bosnian Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, are now accommodated in abandoned Serb homes.
Sabahudin Arapovic, from Doboj, lives in one room of a small ex-Serb home in Vrace, which he shares with his wife and two children. Another room in the house is home to his brother and his family. Sabahudin has suffered from tuberculosis for nine years and his older son already has the same disease.
"He needs money for an operation," Sabahudin mutters, coughing heavily. "Now I do not have a penny in my pocket, I am sick and I can not earn anything."
The collective center in Ilijas, near the capital, provides another example of large Roma families living in miserable conditions in small rooms, with no drinking water or bathrooms. The old sewer pipes in the basement have burst, contaminating the drinking water with the sewage.
Fadila Imeri has lived in one room there with her family for almost five years, after they were relocated from Sarajevo. "I am begging just for one room and a bathroom, because I can no longer tolerate this filth," she said. "It makes you want to weep."
The Bosnian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights has condemned the government's attitude towards the community. It complains that local authorities often forcibly relocate large numbers of Roma households from their traditional homes in Sarajevo, Zavidovici, Kakanj and other places, without consulting them.
The Roma are hampered by their political weakness. They are politically inactive and have no organised presence in any of the political parties, in spite of the fact that the republic boasts 22 registered Roma NGOs.
The assistant minister for human rights and refugees, Slobodan Nagradic, said one of the most important reasons why Roma problems remained unsolved was that neither of the two entities in Bosnia kept birth registers, as a result of which a large number of Roma had no citizenship. "This causes problems with employment, social and health protection, education, the right of refugees to return home and to have their property returned," he said.
The social exclusion of the Roma is linked to widespread prejudice against them as a race. Ordinary people call them "gypsies" and associate them with begging, pickpocketing and a generally dirty, nomadic lifestyle. Few give much credit to the positive aspects of Roma culture, such as their musical and dance traditions.
A law on national minorities in Bosnia has been in preparation since 2001. This is supposed to regulate the rights of national minorities and ensure the preservation of their ethnic, language and religious identity.
It ought also to pave the way for new school curriculums adapted to the needs of specific national communities. However, the Bosnian parliament has always baulked in the past before adopting any such legislation, so its adoption is by no means guaranteed. Bosnia's Roma seem destined to remain on the margins of society for a long time.
Srdjan Papic is a Sarajevo-based journalist