A Hellish Limbo for Roma Refugees

In the early morning, after the din of shelling in the mountains has faded with the night, the Roma refugees gather over thimbles of rationed coffee, trying to fight off the ever-present cold in their makeshift shelters. Sevdje Lahu, 45, huddles with her remaining friends and family and reads aloud a poem she wrote for her elderly mother, who she hopes is still alive somewhere in the refugee camps of Kosovo. The words come out in a cracked and trembling voice, and when she finishes she pulls her multicolored head scarf down over her face and cries.

The other Roma--a term these refugees prefer over "gypsy," with its disparaging connotations--listen quietly. There isn't one among them who didn't lose a relative either during the NATO bombing or during the "ethnic cleansing" of minorities in Kosovo that followed the return of the Albanian majority. "I can't help but cry when I remember my home," Lahu rasps when she can speak again. "On Aug. 23, 1999, two cars pulled up at our house. KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] fighters jumped out and told us we had 24 hours to save our lives. They said: `All gypsies must leave or we'll cut your throats."'

Lahu believed them. She fled with her four children and three grandchildren to join an exodus of refugees walking toward neighboring Macedonia. Her house was burned to ensure she would not return. Since then, Macedonia has accommodated these 5,000 Roma in temporary camps. Lahu's camp, which houses 1,200 people, consists of 16 tin and plywood barracks sitting in the mud of an abandoned dump outside Shuto Orizari township.

NO DREAM. For a year and a half there was a measure of safety here, but now even that is gone. Last month, intense fighting erupted along the border with Kosovo and in Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city, between Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels calling themselves the National Liberation Army and wearing the faded insignia of the KLA. The Macedonian government and two ethnic Albanian political parties are now conducting secret peace talks, but Albanian leaders warn that if the government does not give in to their demands, more rebel attacks may ensue in the coming weeks.

When the first shelling was heard, it caused panic in the refugee camps, which lie between the capital city, Skopje, and the conflict zone. "We've barely slept in weeks because of the shooting," says Fatmir Berisha, a lanky man sitting not far from Lahu's quiet group. "My wife came and shook me awake the first night of shelling, crying that the war was coming to get us. I thought it was another attack of post-traumatic stress disorder, but when I went outside I could hear the explosions and see fire flying into the sky."

Nearer at hand, the local population is becoming increasingly agitated. Several times, the refugees say, local ethnic Albanians have come to the fence shouting obscenities and throwing stones. Now, Macedonian police patrol the camp with automatic rifles. "We're looking into the face of another war," Berisha exclaims, spitting his words out with barely controlled fury. "I've got a 6-year-old daughter and an 80-year-old mother to worry about. First, we were forced out of Kosovo, and now this. It is too much to survive."

Outside, the rising sun warms the caked mud around the camp's patched-up barracks. Laundry lines hang from every conceivable post and roof. The women keep their minds off their plight by endlessly washing the mud off their clothes. Laughing children play a game with pebbles outside the room where their elders rehash the painful past and the apparently hopeless future. "These people aren't stoic," remarks Frederika Sumelius, a Finnish aid worker. "I can't believe they still have the ability to smile, but they do. It is hardest on the men. They need employment because they have a great feeling of responsibility for their families."

Unfortunately, jobs are out of the question. The Macedonian government considers these Roma "temporarily displaced persons," not refugees under the 1951 Geneva Convention. As a result, they can't work and must subsist on emergency rations from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "They aren't refugees," insists Vasko Andonovski, a public relations officer for the Macedonian Foreign Affairs Ministry, "because they are just a bit afraid to go back to their homes. All the real refugees left Macedonia already."

These people, whatever the authorities call them, have nowhere left to go. Discrimination against Roma is a continuing scourge in Central and Eastern Europe. In the Czech Republic, for example, at least 75% of Romany children are sent to special schools on the grounds that they are mentally disabled; largely because of such prejudices, between 70% and 90% of adults are unemployed. Roma in Slovakia live in shantytowns and are sometimes not allowed to live in cities. In Bulgaria and Romania, the situation is worse. Even Western European countries, which took in numerous Albanian refugees from the Kosovo crisis, have largely turned down Romany asylum applications. Germany has already begun the process of expelling Romany refugees back to Kosovo, despite warnings from NATO-led peacekeepers here that grenade attacks against Romany and Serb homes are still a daily occurrence. "The time hasn't come for the return of refugees," Captain Juha Hakala of the NATO Kosovo Force section in Lipjan, where Lahu's family comes from, explains. "There is no way the Roma children could go to school here without military escort. You can't have dialogue between two communities under those conditions."

"TOO LATE." Ironically, just a few years ago, Kosovo was seen as a haven for the Roma. 150,000 Roma lived there before the 1999 war. Now, only about 30,000 remain, with the rest either killed or scattered in refugee camps. In contrast to stereotypes of "beggar gypsies," the Kosovar Roma in this room say they had steady jobs in mines and factories before the war. Many of them are well educated, speaking fluent English or German. "I used to work with Albanians and Serbs with no problem. I thought we were friends," Ramiz Berisha, Fatmir's uncle, asserts. "My last wish is to put on my suit and go back to the company where I worked just one last time. I know it is impossible, but I can wish, can't I?"

Many in the camp spend their idle hours wishing--wishing for a way out of their misery or for just a little more food or medical care. Hisen Gashnjani, another nephew of Ramiz', says his family had to sell their meager rations of tinned meat, flour, sugar, and beans to pay for a hospital stay for his mother. "The doctor said my mother needed a blood transfusion, but we had to pay the hospital for two weeks before they would do it," Gashnjani says through gritted teeth. "She finally got it, but it was too late. She died two days later."

UNHCR representative Amin Awad claims that incident should never have happened because the Macedonian health-care system is supposed to provide for the refugees free of charge. "We always hear complaints about food and medical care from refugees," he says, leaning back in an armchair in a quiet suburb of Skopje. "If the Roma are selling their food, it is probably because they want to buy cigarettes."

It is hard for even sympathetic international agencies to drum up support for this particular group of refugees. Kosovo Albanians accuse the Roma of collaborating with Serb oppressors during the war. Although no specific incidents of "Roma atrocities" have been documented by international investigators, rumor and fact are hard to separate in the battered Balkan landscape. "The Roma have been accused of many things," Awad muses. "Whether those accusations are well founded or not, it makes it very dangerous for them to return to their homes."

Back in the camp, a little boy who wasn't born until after the last war wails in his mother's arms. Another infant recently died in the camp, and a new wave of refugees has arrived from the conflict just firing up nearby. For now, Lahu and her friends wait. If the battle reaches them, they will flee again, only God knows where.

By Arie Farnam

Edited by George Foy

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