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Balkans: Permanent Impermanence

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After 10 years, many Romani refugees from the Kosovo conflict can neither return to their old homes nor build new ones abroad.

by Michael J. Jordan and Shejla Fidani

SHUTO ORIZARI, Macedonia, and POMAZATIN, Kosovo | The anguish is etched on Nedzmije Selimi's face even before she starts talking.

In a gray-and-white headscarf and threadbare vest, she lets loose with her lament. First, she lost her husband to a brain aneurysm, which left her to raise their son alone in Kosovo, a society on the brink of war. After NATO intervened with 78 days of air strikes, she grabbed her 8-year-old boy and fled a bloodthirsty climate, southward to neighboring Macedonia.

Nedzmije SelimiSelimi and tens of thousands of other Kosovo Roma feared vengeance from ethnic Albanians returning after their own cleansing, at the hands of Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic. While the Albanians blamed Serbs for the campaign, they also accused the Roma of collaboration.

At 53, Selimi has been a refugee for 10 years. She lives on the edge of the Macedonian capital, Skopje - and on the edge of a country that has shown little hint of hospitality. She describes her struggle to raise a son, now 18, amid joblessness estimated at 80 percent for the Roma here. Since the NATO bombardment, her son suffers anxiety and nose bleeds. He hasn't been to school in 10 years.

So she goes job-hunting for him.

"It's hard to keep a child on the right track, to teach him not to steal," she says, on the verge of tears. "If there were jobs here, I'd gladly work myself."

Selimi is one of the Kosovo conflict's oft-forgotten refugees, the Roma.

Kosovo today is independent but fragile. And one of the most sensitive postwar issues is how to restore "multiethnicity," to beat back the notion that ethnic cleansing ultimately triumphed. Most symbolically, the question is how to secure the return of Kosovo Serbs to their historic heartland while not triggering another round of revenge killings that strains regional stability.

But without the Kosovo Roma, who constituted a significant slice of the prewar population, any claim of a multiethnic Kosovo would ring hollow.

Today, roughly 1,670 Roma refugees - including a handful of Ashkali and Egyptians (known collectively with the predominant Roma as "RAE") - remain in Macedonia, frustrated that they've languished for 10 years, and counting. Meanwhile, nearly 23,000 more Kosovo RAE are "internally displaced" within Serbia proper, in a country that doesn't recognize their homeland. And roughly 450 Roma who saw their neighborhood in Mitrovica, the divided city in Kosovo's north, burned down by Albanians still live across the Ibar River in two toxic UN camps that continue to sicken them.

"Without an organized body to defend or represent them, the Roma are now the biggest losers in the present situation," the nongovernmental Washington Report on Middle East Affairs wrote back in 1999.

The same could be said today, especially for the refugees living in limbo in Macedonia.

They still fear Albanian revenge in Kosovo. Today, they're also leery of privation: even a Kosovo government report in December 2008 stated that 37 percent of RAE - a figure triple that of ethnic Albanians - toil in "extreme poverty," on $1 per day. Unemployment is 58 percent for RAE, 46 percent for Albanians.

So only a few have trickled back. Western nations have essentially shut their doors to them, after accepting tens of thousands early on - some 35,000 in Germany alone. And Macedonia is only now acting, grudgingly it seems, to encourage their local integration.

Muharem Gashnani, president of the Committee of Refugees in Macedonia, denounces the entire international community for its lack of political will.

"They have no interest in our solution, because our solution is political," says Gashnani, waving his well-thumbed printout of the 1951 Geneva Conventions and its protections for asylum-seekers like him and his family. "Our situation isn't dramatic; it's catastrophic. We will slowly but surely die here."

Muharem Gashnani, president of the Committee of Refugees in Macedonia, says a lack of political will keeps displaced Roma in limbo.

Today, though, at least there's the hint of an option: local integration in Macedonia.

When some 360,000 refugees from Kosovo flooded Macedonia a decade ago, the tiny country of 2 million was already one of Europe's poorest states. Refugees turned the northwest corner of the country into a sea of white-and-blue United Nations tents. Over the years, economic misery took its toll on Macedonian society, as did ethnic tensions with its own large ethnic-Albanian minority. The idea of generously helping refugees, thousands of them unloved "Gypsies," would have been politically unpopular.

These days, though, Macedonia is eager to join any relevant Western institutions, especially the European Union and NATO. So the government - with an ear also to the sensitivities of its restive Albanian minority - followed much of Europe and recognized Kosovo's independence, a decision that initially angered its old Serbian friends.

Beyond the political, Macedonia must also raise legal standards enough to satisfy the West. That includes reform of its asylum policy. The government, a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, is finally ambling toward pleasing foreign partners like the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Essential legislation is now in place, like an assurance of equal access to employment and education for refugees. The authorities are also reportedly now processing applications, while rolling out new refugee assistance and integration programs.

Still, the UN refugee agency - which as part of its exit strategy last year slashed its staff, to reflect the fact that only a fraction of the original refugees remains - will wait to see if deeds match words, says Vladimir Vasilevski, a spokesman for the UNHCR office in Skopje.

"We've been supporting the government to gradually assume its responsibilities," Vasilevski says. "UNHCR can assist, but not endlessly, to ensure that states comply with their obligations."

Dejan Ivkovski, of Macedonia's Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, acknowledges that refugees blame the Macedonian government. But for a society that was once saddled with so many refugees, he asks for patience. "We're taking responsibility, step by step," he says.

In addition to integration and social-protection programs, he says new housing will this year be built for 30 refugee families.

"These things are new for us, and new for refugees," says Ivkovski, who leads the ministry's efforts on asylum, migration, and humanitarian aid. "If they need help, now they can find an institution that can help. They are now on an equal basis with our citizens."

Back before the conflict, Roma were always a visible presence in Kosovo, a province of 2 million. Estimates then put the population of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians at about 160,000. Activists say the real number may have been much higher because some never registered. Regardless, Western media often overlooked them, focusing on Kosovo's Serbs and the "90 percent Albanian majority."

As the media also reported in 1999, the Serbs drafted ordinary Roma to dig trenches and bury Albanian corpses. Some Roma even donned uniforms, joined in evicting Albanians, and looted homes.

The refugees don't deny that some did. They counter that they were caught in the middle of a long-standing conflict between Serbs and Albanians. Forced to choose, they say some understandably backed the ruling party. The Albanian response, though, was to blame all Roma.

So the Albanians came after them.

Gazman Jashari was 14 when he and his family fled "to save our lives." His parents had decided not to tell him war loomed, which made the actual bombardment much more shocking.

"I didn't think we'd make it out alive," he says.

The breaking point was when an Albanian tough came knocking on their door.

"When he saw that we're all black, he said, 'I'll give you 24 hours to get out,' " recalls Jashari, who says they left behind not only their home, but also TV, satellite dish, and electronics. "I never thought I'd be forced to run from my own home."

A Kosovo Romani woman concedes her husband and his brother were part of the Serbian police force. When Albanians returned, they beat the husbands, then forced them to watch as they raped her and her sister-in-law. Today, with three children to care for, she suffers trauma-related seizures.

"They took away the best years of my life," says Lyndita, who was 19 at the time. "They can give me the whole country, and I won't go back. And no way would I ever take my daughter back there."

If they did go back, a visit to one Kosovo village offers a glimpse of what might await.

In Pomazatin, a settlement of about 100 houses in central Kosovo, residents grow potatoes or tomatoes, work for the local electricity company, or fix up their houses. Albanian Sami Restalica lives beside the weed-invaded ruins of a house that once belonged to one of four local Romani families.

The Roma here were blacksmiths, and Restalica says Albanians gave them plenty of work. Relations were neighborly, he says, until battle lines were drawn.

"Imagine yourself in our position: you burned down my house, killed my father, raped my mother, beat my brother," says Restalica, a former member of the Kosovo Liberation Army, whose e-mail address includes "UCK," the KLA acronym. "The Serbs and Gypsies were together in the same uniform."

He concedes, though, that not all Roma were guilty.

"Only this family was clean," says Restalica, pointing to another burnt-out foundation, diagonal from his. "I was a soldier. I observed, and saw who exactly did what. We don't think [the Roma will] come back, and we won't accept it if they do come back, because they have dirty hands."

The phrase "dirty hands" is often thrown around here, but reveals a Catch-22: if a Roma comes back, he may be attacked. But if he stays away, especially so long, former neighbors suspect he does so not out of fear but out of guilt.

What if Restalica's "innocent" neighbor were to return to Pomazatin, where other Albanians believe he's guilty?

"Personally, I don't think they'd be threatened," he says. "But I can't guarantee anything. I can protect them as much as I can. At night, I can't even protect myself."

A more suspicious Albanian neighbor in the village growls when asked about his former Romani neighbors. Square-jawed with a weathered face, he leans against a cement-mixer and answer questions reluctantly. He doesn't want to be identified but also speaks about "clean hands" versus "dirty hands."

With any allegedly innocent Roma, he says, "There's no guarantee they didn't take part on the Serb side, wearing masks. Even those wearing masks, we knew who they were."

Better to get rid of them all, the man says. "Those who didn't do crimes got deported as well. Was a good thing, too."

Despite the refugees' well-grounded fears of revenge, Macedonia has steadfastly refused to recognize them formally as "refugees," which would entitle them to greater protections, social assistance, and financial support. That designation is also politically sensitive, as it increases pressure on the international community to provide them with lasting solutions.

"You can see the process hasn't been taken seriously: some decisions were simply copy and paste,where people weren't processed individually, but collectively, in violation of the Geneva Conventions," says Dzavit Berisha, a Kosovo refugee who researches the issue for the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest. "At the end of the day, if these people are not recognized, they see no future for themselves."

The refugees are far from neglected, however. They've survived off UNHCR assistance that helps with their food, housing, health care, and educational needs - a subsistence that 10 years later also breeds concern about dependency.

In 2003, as the refugee situation grew more entrenched, UNHCR saw the need for more permanent accommodations. So most RAE refugees moved to private apartments in the Shuto Orizari city-suburb of Skopje. Known as "Shutka," the community of 17,000 is described as the largest "Roma city" in Eastern Europe, with an elected Romani mayor.

The UNHCR also opened a health clinic in Shutka, a city so poor, the agency weighed that the cost of a single bus ticket might discourage some refugees from visiting a clinic too far away.

"We want to make it convenient for them," says the resident physician, Mira Petrovic, a Macedonian who has worked at the clinic for five years.

A fresh coat of egg-shell white paint brightens the small clinic in what is otherwise a dilapidated building, with some of the linoleum torn and windows broken. Two posters on the wall speak volumes about certain problems affecting communal life: one raises awareness about sexual vi

Here, refugees can get everything from baby formula to hearing aids, eyeglasses and crutches. Beyond the free medicine, though, staffers say many clients are learning about their own health for the first time: hypertension, respiratory infections, neurosis, lung cancer, bone cancer. Personal hygiene is another issue: some clients arrive in dirty clothes, with dirty hands and feet.

"We cure them with words, too," says nurse Valentina Boeva, who is also Macedonian. "It's much better to treat them with words than medicine."

UNHCR points out that the refugees receive better health care than most Roma in Macedonia. Yet that's not enough to assuage a clientele with more pressing issues on their minds.

Their greatest grievance today is rent they're obliged to pay to price-gouging owners - themselves Macedonian Roma. Times are tough, with the landlords desperate for income of their own. They're unsympathetic to the plight of the refugees, who bounce from apartment to apartment.

"I've carried the same bag for 10 years," says Ashkali refugee leader Nergim Alija. "Should my child carry the same bag?"

Alija, 42, reveals how being a refugee touches every aspect of life, even intimacy.

"I'm still a young man: how can I make love to my wife with just one room for my whole family?" he asks. "I don't even have enough money to buy ice cream for my children. And who wouldn't want to do that?"

A day with UNHCR staff sheds light on other challenges.

At an after-school program in Shutka, refugee children crowd into a cheerful center decorated with their artwork and are helped by young tutors in a range of languages: Romani, Albanian, or Macedonian. UNHCR community-services coordinator Vesna Lujic says it's here they also get what may be their one square meal of the day: on this occasion, chicken, cucumber, milk, and juice.

A young boy and a tutor work out a problem at an after-school center that serves the children of Romani refugees in Shutka.

Outside the center, though, a distraught older Romani woman approaches Lujic and wails about her terrible luck. Preparing to return to Kosovo, she has sold all her possessions for 140 euro. She left it under the bed, but someone slipped in through a window and stole it, plus her gold rings.

Vesna hugs her and offers soothing words.

"She's particularly vulnerable," she explains.

Lujic later expresses admiration for her clients. She herself is Serbian, from Serbia proper. She has the unique perspective of having worked with Kosovo Serb refugees in Serbia and Roma refugees here. While similar in many ways, she says she's observed one essential difference.

"The Roma aren't used to getting much, but they're also used to demanding what they need," Lujic says. "They are a resilient nation. They are used to hardship, and I admire how they're coping. They have a spirit where they can still sing, dance, and laugh about their situation."

It remains to be seen how much longer they'll have to use these survival skills.

In the Shutka bazaar, a lively but dusty shopping district along the main road, some tattered UNHCR tarpaulins are used to cover the racks and tables of shoes, jeans, and football jerseys.

Seburan Asani and his friend sell all sorts of home items, like sponges, batteries, and razor blades. Despite the mirrored sunglasses, he's easily approachable, with a broad smile.

Asani, who fled Kosovo at 19, is now 29 with three kids. His UNHCR assistance includes care packages with diapers. On most days in the market, he says he earns about 5 to 10 euros.

"It's not real work, but a little of this and that," he says. "Just to stay busy and not be at home."

Asani says he can't shake the trauma of flight - or that it may happen again.

"Maybe tomorrow someone will send me away from here, just tell me to go," he says, as a half-dozen men gather around, listening in. "I'd like to go back to Kosovo, but don't want to suffer. Yet here they won't build us homes or give us jobs. When someone doesn't have a home, he has nothing."

The worst is being in the dark, he says, not knowing if it will ever end.

"I'm so confused here, 10 years without information," he tells visiting reporters. "When I see people like you with information, I know you know more than I do.

So tell me: what will it be for us?"

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