Kosovo's Little-Known Victims: The Fate of the Roma Following the Entry of NATO Troops

Following the return of the ethnic Albanians to Kosovo in June 1999 and the entry of NATO (KFOR) troops into the province, Albanians conducted a sustained and brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovo’s Roma. Albanians killed, kidnapped, and raped Roma in front of their family members. Albanians broke into Romani houses during the night and threatened to kill the inhabitants if they were there in the morning. Albanians removed property en masse from Romani houses, stopped Roma on the street and took their automobiles, and burned entire Romani settlements to the ground.

The scale of the brutality exercised by the Albanians on anyone perceived to be a “Gypsy” after June 1999 cannot be fully described. The following testimony, however, provided to me by L.T. in Djakovica/Gjakove on July 6, 1999 while I was conducting research for the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), provides a glimpse of what some 120,000 people have suffered since then:

After the bombing ended, we found we were in a worse situation from those who fled abroad, because all of the people returning suspected us of various things. The first thing that happened to us personally was that a man came up to my wife while she was shopping and said, “We saw a picture of your husband in uniform. We heard that your husband is a thief. We have evidence that he stole a tractor.” This was two or three days after NATO came. Two days after that, uniformed KLA officers came to my house. An older officer told me, “Come with me to prison because you were part of the Serbian army and you burnt houses.” I said, “If you have evidence, show it to me. If I was in uniform then surely someone saw me in uniform.” Then they said to me and my wife, “Bring us your guns.” That was four or five days after NATO came.

The worst thing that has happened so far took place two days ago, during the night of July 4. Around dinnertime, we heard burning—it was our neighbor P.N.’s house. Albanians beat the man who lives there because he stole, and I think it is probably true—I heard he did take part in looting. Many people of all ethnicities looted one another’s houses during the war. I don’t know if the family fled or if the KLA took them away. I have not seen them since then.

We had guests at the house that night. At around 2:00 A.M., my father-in-law was awoken because there was a banging on the door. My father-in-law told me later that he woke up and went to open it and there were four uniformed KLA officers there. One had an axe, one had a huge iron rod, the other two were carrying automatic weapons and all of them had knives. As soon as my father-in-law opened the door they pushed him back into the room and told him not to move. I woke up in my bedroom and they were all around me.

Then two KLA officers took everyone into another room and two stayed with me. They started questioning me. They asked me my name and asked me what I had been doing during the war. I told them I had stayed and protected my neighborhood. They said, “You were the driver for a policeman named ‘Milutin.’ You were in the Serbian coffee houses called ‘Sunce’ and ‘Garanc.’” Those are the names of the coffee houses in our neighborhood.

Just then my sister-in-law’s daughters came downstairs. They are 15 and 16 years old. The KLA asked: “Are they married?” Then one of the KLA officers started going upstairs with them. I said, “Can I help you?” and I went upstairs with them. I was afraid the KLA officer would rape them. The girls started to cry. They said to the girls, “He killed people during the war.” After that he took them to the room where the two KLA were keeping my wife and mother-in-law and father-in-law. They were not sexually abused.

Then they began questioning me again. They asked me what I had in my house: “Do you have a television? A stereo? A refrigerator?” I told them that I had all of those things. They said that that meant I stole and they asked me for the documents for the goods. My things are old though, and I only had some of the documents for them. They asked many of the questions over and over again and they threatened me. They took out a knife and they threatened me with it. They also bound my hands.

Finally one of them said, “Write your testimony down—write what you were doing during the war—and I will come to your house tomorrow and take it from you.” It was an hour or two after they came. I noticed it was around 4:30 A.M. I didn’t sleep until morning.

Early in the morning I went with my brother to the mayor’s office in the city center. It is the KLA headquarters now. I wanted to file a complaint. I was there for two hours, and finally they told me that I should go to the police station in my neighborhood and report the incident there. So I went to the local police station and there I got a huge shock because in the police station there were the same people who had been in my house the night before. They were not in uniform now. I did not go in and file a complaint.

I know five or six similar nighttime raids by KLA in this settlement. The last case like that was one week ago. The people who terrorize us were in Albania during the war. Some of the people I don’t know, some of them I recognize from around here, but I don't think any of them were here during the war.

The same day—July 5—my father went into town to get humanitarian aid, but they chased him away and said he didn't have the right to collect humanitarian aid. So I went back downtown, and I brought a receipt from my brother. He works in Switzerland, and like many Albanians there, he gives 3 percent of his salary to help Kosovo. When I arrived on line, the man distributing aid said, “What are you here for? You Gypsies don’t have the right to humanitarian aid.” I showed him the receipt, but he said, “What’s this? I don’t care. Send your brother down to pick up the humanitarian aid. You Gypsies can’t have any aid.” That man was my neighbor and I said, “But we are neighbors,” and he said, “I don’t want to be your neighbor anymore.”

The KLA come every day now and hang around in front of my house. They told me to give them my car, but I left my car at the home of an Albanian friend of mine so they wouldn’t get it. One old Rom told me that he was riding his bicycle down the street and an Albanian on a tractor stopped him and said, “That is my bicycle now. You Gypsies will be killed.” Albanians here in this settlement shout at us all the time now things like “Hey Gypsy—you will be killed! We will kill you!”

Among the countless enduring memories I have of witnessing the destruction of the Romani communities of Kosovo, there is one quite unremarkable one (read: no one had been tortured, witnessed the rape of a close family member, or recently had their house set alight) that comes back to me repeatedly. It is the mundane dinner I ate in a house in Prizren in July 1999 with six or seven members of the Kosovo Romani intelligentsia. Until recently, one had been a judge, another had been an editor for a local radio station, and a third had been a student in medical school. Before the conflict began, Kosovo could boast of being the cradle of the Romani intelligentsia—Kosovo was home to Romani poets, lawyers, journalists, theater groups, radio stations, and newspapers. The house where we ate dinner had been forcibly occupied during the NATO bombing by the Yugoslav army and there was still Serb graffiti on the walls, a few heroin syringes in the bathroom, and four bolts on the front porch where an anti-aircraft artillery mount had been screwed in place. We ate quietly and drank heavily and then I went to sleep in another room, leaving a brooding conversation plagued by long pauses. I slept badly, waking at every sound; would the Albanians break in? They were at that point breaking into houses all over Prizren, every night. In the next weeks, every single person with whom I had had dinner that night had fled Kosovo.

Indeed, during the roughly one-and-a-half years since the beginning of the ethnic cleansing campaign against Roma, the very contours of the Romani communities of Kosovo have changed utterly. A new ethnic group, the “Ashkalija,” has come visibly into being in places—especially Albanian-majority rural areas and villages—where previously Albanian-assimilated “Gypsies” lived. The Ashkalija are involved in a massive effort to demonstrate their loyalty to the Albanian nation by explicitly rejecting their Romani-ness, and Ashkalija civic organizations and a political party have sprung into existence. This process is the dramatic exaggeration of earlier efforts by some Kosovo Roma to distance themselves from their Romani identity (not to mention Serb and Albanian identities) by proclaiming themselves “Egyptians,” an identity that first appeared in the 1989 Yugoslav census.

Hopes that “Gypsy”-ness might be shed via a name change have not paid off. As I write these words in November 2000, anti-Romani violence against anyone perceived to be a “Gypsy” in Kosovo continues, and in fact it is Ashkalija who have most recently fallen victim. Four Ashkalija men participating in a UNHCR-led return project were found killed on November 9 in the village of Došsevac/Dashevc, less than 48 hours after they returned to their homes. The threat of violence by Albanians against all persons regarded by Albanians to be “Gypsies” is omnipresent; more than half the Romani population of Kosovo remains outside the province, and many of those who stay are displaced within it. Kosovo post-bombing has been an amazing mess and remains a sick morass of base human sentiments and actions—a locus of people still motivated solely by the idea of domination on an ethnic basis.

Read More: Humanitarian Intervention, Human Rights, Kosovo

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