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THE PATH TO PEACE

Gypsies Remain Outcasts in Kosovo

Balkans: Many Roma face hatred from ethnic Albanians, who view them as collaborators of Serbs.

July 16, 1999|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KOSOVO POLJE, Yugoslavia — The war is over in Kosovo, but the problems are just beginning for one minority group at the fringes of the conflict.

Thousands of Roma, often referred to as Gypsies, have taken temporary refuge in a squalid makeshift camp here in the heart of Kosovo after being driven from their homes by returning ethnic Albanian refugees. Many Roma houses have been looted and burned, and some Roma have been assaulted, NATO forces occupying the province confirm.

In essence, the Roma are being driven from their land in a manner similar to the way Kosovo's ethnic Albanians were forced out by the Serbs during the spring. The reason: The Roma are viewed by the province's ethnic Albanian majority as collaborators who joined in on the Serbs' wartime looting.

Unlike about 100,000 ethnic Albanian refugees who found sanctuary in the United States, Europe and other lands during the war, the Roma have few options. They face discrimination in many countries, which hinders their ability to find legal refuge outside Kosovo.

They are appealing to the United Nations to send them abroad, but that is "not realistic," said Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations' interim civil administrator for Kosovo, who this week visited the Roma camp here operated by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Instead, the U.N. and NATO-led peacekeepers want to ensure that the Roma can return to their homes in Kosovo "in security and dignity," De Mello said. "This is their country and their home."

But returning home is difficult because widespread hatred makes it impossible for Roma to live safely, camp administrators say.

"We know how people breathe here [in Kosovo]," said Nasir Adiqi, the facility's director. What they "breathe," contends the camp's deputy administrator, Ibrahim Hasani, is a desire for a state composed solely of ethnic Albanians.

"They are not just retaliating because their houses were looted or someone was killed--the problem is, the ethnic Albanians want to cleanse the area of Roma," said Hasani, a Roma.

Added another senior camp official, Bashkim Berisha, "We are very sad for the things that happened to the Albanians, but now we are the ones who are suffering. We didn't do the things they are talking about; they are taking their revenge out on innocent people."

The attitude of Murat Hasani, 65, an ethnic Albanian who lives near the camp in the town of Obilic, is typical. As he surveyed block upon block of burned-out homes, he said the Roma "looted every house." Does he mean the Roma or the Serbs, he was asked. "They are the same," he said, insisting that the Roma wore Serbian uniforms, wielded knives and helped the soldiers bury scores of bodies in a mass grave in a nearby field.

But Ibrahim Hasani, the deputy camp administrator, speaking of the alleged looting, said, "You cannot kill a man because he stole a TV."

It isn't just the ethnic Albanians who have attacked the Roma. They have been caught between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, the camp administrators said. In particular, Roma with Albanian names--as many in the camp have--at times became targets of the Serbs.

Several camp residents gave accounts of looting and beatings at the hands of ethnic Albanians, who made up about 90% of Kosovo's prewar population, while Roma made up only a few percentage points.

Sabri Stolla, 35, limps and has gashes on his leg that he said came from separatist rebels of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, who beat him until North Atlantic Treaty Organization soldiers intervened. "We supported you Albanians," he said plaintively to a Kosovo Albanian interpreter accompanying a reporter through the camp. "We spoke your language, we had your customs."

During the war, some of the Roma fled along with the ethnic Albanians to refugee camps in neighboring Macedonia and Albania. Ismail Gashi--a 60-year-old huddled in a second-floor hallway here with his family, eating bread prepared by his wife from donated flour and vegetable oil--told of returning home recently from a camp in Albania to find his house torched.

He said ethnic Albanian neighbors told him he didn't have a right to come back. "We know if we go back, they'll kill us," he said.

Added Latife Currolli, who spent three months in a Macedonian refugee camp, "We had to flee from Serbs, now we have to flee from Albanians. . . . This is insanity."

A man in the camp who declined to give his name said he was suspended from his job for two weeks after refusing Serbian orders to bury victims in mass graves. He worked as a janitor for the municipal government of nearby Pristina, the provincial capital, for more than two decades. "I didn't have the heart to do that," he said.

Going abroad is the only hope for the Roma, said Ibrahim Hasani. "If there's a possibility to appeal to the world, we're willing to live in the Himalayas or anywhere to have the freedoms and rights everybody deserves as a human being."

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