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Graveyard Squatters of Balkans See Deliverance

Cleanup of squalid settlement is underway, but building new homes elsewhere will take years.

September 26, 2004|Dragan Ilic | Associated Press Writer

NIS, Serbia-Montenegro — Rama Ramovic knows that it's a sin to build a house on somebody's grave. But he says he cannot move.

"I have nowhere else to go," he said.

But relief is in sight for the hundreds of Gypsies living in squalor in one of the Balkans' oldest Jewish cemeteries and for the Jews of this Serbian city who have waited a long time for a cleanup.

Victims of perennial discrimination and unwelcome in non-Gypsy neighborhoods, the squatters started moving into the 17th century graveyard in the 1950s. They were unhindered by communist authorities who were keen to segregate them and also to weaken the hold of religious symbols in what was then Yugoslavia.

Shacks and hovels soon made way for concrete and brick homes, and today, they cover about two-thirds of the cemetery. Tombstones have become supporting structures of some of the houses. One, of an 18th century rabbi, serves as a kitchen table.

There is no sewage system or garbage disposal, so for decades, waste has flowed haphazardly between the centuries-old Hebrew monuments and piled up in ugly mounds.

Nis, a city of 300,000 people about 120 miles south of Belgrade, had about 1,000 Jews before World War II, but most of them perished during the Nazi occupation. The 45 who remain have lobbied for years to recover the cemetery, and in October the municipality decided to launch a cleanup and lay drainage pipes.

"All this presents a decades-long shame for the city of Nis and its citizens who have let a historic monument ... be turned into a city dump," said Ninoslav Krstic, a city official dealing with the problem.

Some of the work is done by foreign organizations. One of the first to offer aid was Paul Polansky, an American from Iowa whose Roma Refugee Foundation -- based in U.N.-run Kosovo -- is dedicated to helping the Roma, as the Gypsies prefer to be called.

Polansky, who is also overseeing the work, said the local Roma had pitched in with army units that truck the garbage away.

"We expect to complete the first part of the cleanup by mid-September," he said.

Krstic hopes to finish in about five years. He said the difficult part would be to fund new homes for the Gypsies, given the impoverishment of Serbia during years of war and sanctions.

"We are determined to have this biggest Jewish community monument revitalized," said Jelena Ciric, head of the Nis Jewish community. "This work is particularly important because we expect experts from Israel to come help us study the monuments and learn about the culture of the Jews who used to live here."

Another $20,000 has come from the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a charity that is financing clearance of about one-third of the graveyard that is still intact.

As for the Gypsies, they say they can't wait to leave and get running water, electricity and a sewage system.

"I will celebrate when it happens," Sasa Alilovic said. "I would like a house in a village and some land."

"These are 14th century conditions we live in," added Alilovic's nephew, Nenad Alilovic. "I would like another house. I don't care if they destroy this one."

Polansky says he will do what he can to raise money for the move.

"The Gypsies want to live like other normal people live," he said.

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