Kosovo’s forgotten gypsies

Pollution remains one of the biggest visible issues in Mitrovica’s Roma Mahalla. Photo: Taylah Fellows

The Kosovo War forced 8000 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Kosovars to flee to nearby towns after their homes were looted and bombed. When they returned, nothing was left, leaving them with the ultimate task of rebuilding their community from scratch.

It was a desolate place, yet lively at the same time. Whilst walking around the newly developed Roma Mahalla in Kosovo’s northern city of Mitrovica, you can sense the closeness of the community, making you feel immediately out of place. Even the dogs stuck together in a pack.

The stark difference between living conditions in this Mahalla compared with its neighbouring suburbs is clear to see. Pollution greets you upon entry and stays with you during your entire journey, meeting you at every corner and every doorstep. Damaged row houses decorate half of the streets, and washed linen hangs off almost every window in sight.

The whereabouts of Habib Hajdini, one of the leaders of the community, was not easy to find, but he is eventually located after finding his eldest son in a crowd of young men.

The journey to the community leader was made accompanied by a group of his son’s friends, who whispered to each other in their native tongue. Younger children who notice the commotion joined the parade, and before long, the procession had accumulated half of the community, all eager to understand the reason for the spontaneous visit of an outsider.

An aura of respect surrounds Habib. He explains that the community is starting to break up. For over a decade now, families have been moving away from the Mahalla to attempt a better life.

“The most depressing thing in our area is the rate of unemployment and the hard living conditions. Of course, if a family wants to live in medium conditions, they need €200-300, and we only receive €60-70,” he explains.

“Our children go to school without clothes and without shoes, and without social welfare help, it’s hard to learn because no one is working.

“It’s really the lack of the municipality government. If we ask to find a job they will respond like ‘everyone is looking for a job’, so there are families that are getting social assistance, and some who are not.”

Broken promises

The aftermath of the Kosovo War hit the gypsy community the hardest. Homes were lost, identity documentation went missing, medical care was minimal, education levels were low, unemployment was high, and there were barriers to social integration.

As a result, an abundance of local and international non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) became the main support system whilst the new Kosovar government was being formed.

Today, however, few NGO’s have remained in Kosovo since that time, leaving the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians with minimal support and representation. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has been one of the only consistent international NGO’s to remain on the ground in the country, continuing to assist the integration of minorities in the new Kosovo.

“They never used to live like this. Honestly, they were better because under one roof were 24 families. Everyone had his or her own house,” says Argon Deda, Economic Development Officer from the DRC.

“Then, they moved to these social houses, and now they have no income, so there’s no property management. For instance, it’s only €1 to have the garbage collected, and that lasted about a month, now the rubbish is scattered everywhere again.”

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has described the current situation as “exhausted”.

Agim Fehatu from the GAGA Foundation in Mitrovica said that international donors help to keep the community afloat.

He knows that under the particular political circumstances, local governments are constantly changing, which makes it difficult for on-the-ground NGO’s to receive any government funding because they are unable to establish relationships with government representatives.

He describes this as one of the reasons why the Kosovar government are not fiscally active in any of the projects surrounding the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian minorities.

“The worst part is that we don’t have any representation in the local institutions,” he says.

“I mean, they have someone who is Bosnian representing that small community, and no one for the 300-plus Roma families living in Mitrovica alone.

“Last year, when there was a position available for a new [council] representative, we weren’t even told that the position was open.

“By the time we went down to the office, all of the paperwork had been finalised, and the position had been filled completely, by someone who, to my knowledge, is not Roma, Ashkali or Egyptian, no one that we even know of.”

Nikola Petrovski, Chief of Community Sections for the OSCE, says that “municipalities are expecting new changes and formations” after the elections last Autumn.

“On the whole, the representation, participation and inclusion of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in institutions is, I think we can say, gradually improving.”

The new Mahalla

A second Mahalla was created after hundreds of internally displaced people were firstly settled in camps, and then relocated to a new area after their old property rights were dismissed.

“At the beginning, there was a large displacement, inside and outside of Kosovo, in particular, the North,” says Nikola.

“The camps, and temporary shelters, which weren’t so temporary after their ten years of existence… we advocated the closure of those camps and helped resettle the people from the camps.”

This ultimately forced the community to start fresh at the bottom of the social chain, and lack of employment opportunity is driving the residents to migrate elsewhere.

Community leader Habib sitting in his neatly enclosed home within the Roma Mahalla. Photo: Taylah Fellows

 

“We just get spread out, even more so than now,” says community leader Habib.

“It removes our culture when we are too assimilated. I know how it was before the war. We had more than 8000 Roma people before then. We had more than 1000 Ashkalis, and because of war, we are now only hundreds.

 

“We had our properties near the river, but now they’ve given us these houses. We didn’t have this kind of paper to state that we owned the property beforehand.

“The municipality offered us what we are staying in here now. With the support of different international organisations, we were able to start building again.”

It’s not all bad news for the new Mahalla. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC), partnered with the Social Business Incubator Foundation in Mitrovica (SBIM), have created a system where Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians are able to propose business ideas and receive funding to help set them up.

“We’re getting really positive results from some individuals who are actually running their own businesses. Some are even located in Pristina. There’s one Ashkali lady who owns her own laundromat completely by herself. These are the things we need to see happening. This is the integration that will work twofold,” says SBIM social worker Fatim Kransiqi.

So far, the Mahalla has implemented its own auto-mechanic repair shop, a hair salon, takeaway shops, and a soap manufacturer. During the 2017-2018 period, the SBIM received more than 26 applications for business ideas.

Local NGO PRAM, located at the Mahalla’s learning centre, is headed by Milaim Ramadani, and aims

Milaim Ramadani and Andoena Muja from the PRAM office at the Roma Mahalla. Photo: Taylah Fellows

to address the needs of all of the minorities living there.

“We really support all communities here. The aim is to also prevent migration because if they leave and come back it’s harder to resettle them,” he says.

“Finding jobs is the best way to give them ground, and here we have people who work with us who are past students, so already we have created a cycle for the young to look forward to.”

Education has also taken a step up. Integrated classes are becoming more common.

The learning centre in the Mahalla and the GAGA organisation in Mitrovica’s south are both schooling systems that focus on integration and assimilation, with a particular focus on women’s rights and the teaching of parental behaviours so that positive integration attitudes can be reflected family-wide.

“It’s really important that we teach them to interact with each other better as well as the ‘outside’ community. That means parents to children and children to other children. Did you know they have particular marital traditions? Sometimes girls are prepared to be married off at such a young age and we help them be proper kids, let them learn how to grow up,” says GAGA’s Hysein Damati.

“The only weakness I see is comprehensive monitoring. We might monitor one part, but we don’t know what’s happening in other areas,” explains Drillon Kransniqi, Project Coordinator at the Kosovo Education Center.

“There’s no comprehensive data reporting. We have education and employment monitoring, but we don’t have any health monitoring or social welfare monitoring.

“We are good at monitoring education systems. There are so many activities that are not covered, like employment and health.

“There are not many government projects taking place. That makes it hard for us to track overall progress because we don’t have a shared data system.

“They are still building [houses] in one place, sort of making ghettos instead of spreading the people out. This is not helping integration,” he says.

The helping hand that backfired

Even though integration programs are underway in the city of Mitrovica, outside of the newly developed Mahalla, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian residents still struggle with discrimination. Because of their experiences of being resettled after the war, they maintain a strong community mindset with close-knit values and security.

“They call me gypsy here,” states Dzafer “Jackie” Buzoli. “You know, because the colour of my skin, they can tell here, but I have a lot of friends who are Serbs and Albanians, and I don’t mind them calling me that.

“It’s who I am,” he explains with a proud smile.

Jackie is of Bugurdzi Romani descent and currently lives in Kosovo’s capital city, Pristina. He moved away from the Mitrovica Mahalla in 2011 to seek a “less polluted” lifestyle.

Although he keeps in contact with his gypsy friends, he fears for their health due to the community’s history of lead poisoning and lack of medical care. From 2002 until 2011, Jackie was a social worker in the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian refugee camps. He drove back and forth to the camps every day for nine years.

“Even though the camps are gone now, there are still people living there who are sick and nothing is being done about it anymore. They have no money, so they can’t just get up and leave like I did, but most of them want to,” says Jackie.

In 2013, Hysein Damati from the GAGA foundation, working closely with the Save the Children Charity organisation, asked the Mitrovica municipality for medical assistance for those affected by the lead poisoning. No financial assistance was given, but 300 medical test packs were handed out so that the community could measure the levels of effects.

“If they were refugees, they would have the right of return to the place they were chased out of.  But as IDPs, they don’t have that right, explains US Attorney, Dianne Post who has worked for the rights of these minority groups since 2006 and was successful in getting the camps shut down in 2010.

“The municipality refused to give them back the Mahalla for development, claiming they could not prove they owned it, though they had paid taxes and light bills, etcetera, for years.

“But then the land was on the Ibar River, a very desirable location, and the city wanted that land for a park. So the Roma were never let back into the village that the Albanians destroyed.”

“Though I won the case, the UN still has not done what the tribunal ordered them to do – publicly apologize and compensate the individual plaintiffs for the harm they received,” says Dianne.

After the war, it seems that broken promises are a prominent factor in the lives of the Mahalla residents. NGO’s have maintained the role of dominant interventionists with minimal support from local government.

Dianne fears that most of the international community has already forgotten about the gypsies who continue living in the north of Mitrovica along with their difficult and longstanding circumstances.

“There are so many crises in the world, and day after day brings another horror, and people lose interest in this one for the next one,” she explains.

“The Roma remain the most discriminated group in Europe. I’ll continue to work for them probably until I die because I don’t anticipate that they will ever receive justice.”

 

Photo Gallery of Roma Mahalla

An abandoned building beside the children’s play area. Often used as a fort during the children’s games.

 

The Mahalla’s attempt at creating a common park area with swings and obstacles. The Park was torn down within a matter of days, some the materials were taken used for house renovations.

 

Two young boys play outside the Learning Center during school holidays. Children from ages of three can be seen walking freely around the Mahalla area.

 

Outside typical Mahalla households. Residents regularly complain about the smells coming from the substantial pollution, despite individual efforts to clean around living areas. The smells are described as unbearable during hot weather.

A father and proud owner of successful take away shop. The business has been up and running for over a year now and is looking to have a coffee machine installed.

 

All photo’s in this gallery were taken by the author.