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The Roma of Obilic

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By Alexandra Poolos
In Obilic, a small town some 20 kilometers north of Prishtina, some 850 Roma have built a makeshift camp where they will remain throughout the winter. Living 10 or 12 to a tent, the Roma of Obilic spend their days cooking, sleeping, or roaming aimlessly through the rows of muddy tents. They say they are trapped in this small field at the end of a long, tree-lined road. No one ever leaves and there are few visitors.

The Roma of Obilic are a disparate group. Before the war they lived in different villages in Kosova as Albanian or Serbian Roma. But now even those Roma who called themselves Ashkalija and spoke Albanian say they face intimidation and violence from ethnic Albanians. They say their own sense of nationality or their actions during the war have no significance whatsoever. They are judged now, they say, by the color of their skin alone.

Protected by Norwegian KFOR troops and provided with humanitarian assistance by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Roma say they have no choice but to remain in Obilic. Most have lived there for five months.

Sixty-year-old Nagije Begeshi said that when ethnic Albanians returned to Kosova and saw their homes destroyed, they in turn wanted to punish someone.

Emine Adici is 12 years old and a leader among many of the Romany children in Obilic. She speaks Albanian, Serbian, English, and French but say she does not know Romany because before the war she considered herself Albanian, not Romany. Adici says she went to school with other Albanian children and never felt ostracized for her ethnicity. "I never really thought about being Romany at all," she says. "Now it's all I know. The Albanians won't let me forget."

Some of Kosova's Roma admit they collaborated with Serbs. They say they often had no choice and were forced to do the "dirty work" for Serbian paramilitaries--to bury the bodies of Albanians, dig trenches for the military, and pillage and destroy ethnic Albanian property. In one interview with the Prishtina-based Humanitarian Law Center, an unnamed Prishtina Rom described how he and nine others were forced by Serbian police to bury the bodies of massacred Kosovar Albanians. He said there were some 40 bodies, all men aged between 25 and 50. Some of the bodies were still warm. He said the bodies were buried one by one in the village's Muslim graveyard.

Following the signing of the peace settlement between NATO and Belgrade, the Roma and members of other minority groups who were involved in more violent acts left Kosova with retreating Serbian forces.

Most of the minorities who remained after the arrival of KFOR troops last June have since left the province in large numbers.

Estimates vary as to the number of non-Albanians now living in Kosova. But it is believed that well under half of the some 200,000 Serbs who lived in the province at the start of this year remain. Among the Roma, only some 6,000 out of some 30,000 are still there.

And their numbers continue to dwindle. Serbs, Turks, Bosnian Muslims, and Croats--all these groups contend with harassment and violence from ethnic Albanians. They are isolated in their small ethnic enclaves, unable to gain access to education, health care, or work. Most depend on humanitarian aid for food and shelter. Almost all depend on the protection of KFOR troops.

Peter Kessler, spokesman for the Kosova office of the UNHCR, says ethnic violence has recently increased in the province after a period of decline. He attributes the attacks on minorities not only to revenge but also to criminals who he says are targeting those who are most vulnerable. Kessler told RFE/RL that more needs to be done by international officials to create a secure environment for minorities.

Ferat Gukatoni, a 20-year-old Rom, believes the Roma will never be able to return to their homes. He says Albanians want all Roma out of Kosova.

Gukatoni is pessimistic about his chances of ever leaving the muddy tents of Obilic for his village in southern Kosova. He says he would rather leave the province entirely and try to build a new life for himself and his family outside Kosova, perhaps in Germany or the U.K.

Moreover, he does not believe that KFOR or UN organizations will be able to deter ethnic Albanians from attacking the Roma if they dare leave their makeshift camp. "For now," he says, "we are stuck here. There is nowhere else to go."

There was a time, not so long ago, when Romany musicians played at every Albanian (or Serbian) wedding in Kosova. The Roma were considered an integral part of society, their presence accepted in schools and businesses and at social gatherings.

There are high hopes that Kosova will one day be multiethnic, but the Roma of Obilic do not believe they will return to their former villages. They say that for now, the Romany musicians will play only for themselves in KFOR protected camps. The author is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.

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