Mzansi Afrika

From Johannesburg South Africa, a window on the world

Monday, March 29, 2004

The Roma - Kosovo's forgotten victims

The recent upsurge in ethnically-based violence in Kosovo has unhappily returned this part of South-East Europe to the world's headlines. However, attention has been exclusively focused on the Albanian and Serbian communities, ignoring the impact of the violence on all Kosovo's communities (including the Turks, Bosniaks, Gorani, Ashkaelia and Egyptians), and in particular the most disadvantaged group, the Roma (gypsies). Minority Rights Group International (MRG) has received reports of attacks on Roma during the recent violence. In Gnjilane, one of Kosovo's major towns, Roma allege that their houses were attacked and some burned by organized groups from 17-21 March. According to eye-witness accounts, none of the security forces charged with their protection (the Kosovan and UN police and KFOR, the international peacekeeping force), provided assistance until 20 March, although Roma report that they were helped by some of their Albanian neighbours. By this time at least 50 members of the Roma community had fled into Serbia proper, stating they had lost all hope of living in Kosovo. Similar attacks have been reported elsewhere in Kosovo, again with worrying reports that both Kosovan and international security forces did little to intervene to prevent attacks on minorities.

The Roma remain the most persecuted minority in Europe.Governments have attempted to forcibly settle and resettle Roma, often with little success and negative results. These same governments have also refused Roma the opportunity to settle down of their own accord. When a new Roma encampment begins, they are forcibly removed. Reasons include safety, hygiene, and reducing crime, but there is feeble effort by the authorities in power to improve these settlements. The Roma remain a people on the margins of society, prevented from self-determination and gaining official recognition as a minority entitled to basic humanitarian services and rights. The Romani people remain misunderstood and socially isolated in Europe for many reasons. Roma have mistrusted help or aid from outsiders, and with justification. For centuries they have maintained a social distance from gadje and remained separate as a matter of choice for protection and cultural strength. The days of voluntary isolationism are nearing their end in Europe. There remain very few places where Roma can have peace. Overcrowding, ethnic conflicts and strictly enforced borders within Europe force Roma closer and closer to gadje, and the situation will not change soon. The Patrin Web Journal is dedicated to Romani (Gypsy) culture and history and to extending awareness of the continuous Roma struggle to achieve and maintain dignity and freedom. Patrin is a learning resource and information centre about Romani culture, social issues, and current events

While specialists say it could take decades for life to improve for the Roma people, there may never be greater inducement than now. Improving life for Gypsies, has become a requirement for membership in the European Union. Most of Europe's 7 million to 9 million Gypsies live in countries set to join the expanding European Union. Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic become members May 1; Romania and Bulgaria hope to join in 2007. Slovakia has spent millions of dollars to bring roads, electricity and running water to Gypsy communities. Hungary set up educational and antidiscrimination projects, while the Czechs are training Gypsies to become police officers.

Photo's from a documentary project by photographer Julie Denesha of Roma in various ghetto's in Slovakia, Eastern Europe.