Roma living like ping-pong balls in the schizophrenia of Kosovska Mitrovica
BY LUKAS HOUDEK
Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo ,
Heavy rain is drumming on my already-soaked umbrella as we look out over a plain dotted with the ruins of what was a small Roma town. A brick two-story construction looms toward us through the falling fog, and the dogs behind the wooden stakes that outline the private land never stop barking. No one can be seen anywhere, the cloudburst has driven the residents inside. After another 100 meters, modern apartment buildings appear along with some miniature row houses. At the center of it all are roughly five shops and the single-story building of the local clinic. A rusted sign displaying countless international logos tells us we are in the Roma mahala of Mitrovica.
Walking to Albania
Ashkalija and Roma people have lived on the territory of what is today a reconstructed mahala in Mitrovica since time immemorial. Before the war in Kosovo, it was home to about 8 000 people. In 1999 a wave of violence was committed by Serbian military units against the Albanian population, who were expelled from their homes that year. Dozens of them did not survive the attacks.
"I remember as a small boy heading with a friend for the market in town and then changing my mind and turning back. By the time I made it home, grenades had started falling from helicopters onto the crowds of people. There was a lot of blood everywhere. I will never forget it," says Astrit, a 23-year-old Albanian man from Mitrovica who saw the start of the war in his hometown. "I will also never forget the moment when people came and burned down our house. We walked for five days and five nights to reach the border with Albania. On foot. I was 11," he recalls.
After the NATO invasion that year, the Kosovo Albanians began returning to their homes. The harms they had suffered led some of them to take revenge on the civilian population of the enemy. This time it was the Serbs who were expelled from their homes. They were also murdered en masse. The Roma settlement on the south side of town was not spared. Albanians considered the Roma collaborators with the Serbian regime because they attended Serbian schools, worked in Serbian state enterprises, and served in the Serbian Army. The Roma mahala, home to almost 8 000 people, was burned to the ground.
Until 2004, several hundred Ashkalija and Roma people were being housed in three camps in north Mitrovica. The others fled to Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia or Western Europe. In 2006 the Roma people from those provisional camps, which had been erected immediately adjacent to a lead mine, were relocated to a military base that had previously housed the French KFOR contingent. Thus was created the infamous Osterode camp.
Hangars surrounded by barbed wire
Not far from the center of north Mitrovica, a small housing estate of high-rises stretches across the land. Dozens of cafés and shops line the streets, interspersed with simple car wash stations. On the right-hand side of one of the side streets, restaurants and single-family homes gradually give way to curved concrete columns. which form pillars for barbed-wire screens. Colorful open hangars gleam through the barbed wire. Inside them, laundry lines are strung up and older cars are parked. Small boys are kicking a ball around among them. There is peace and quiet. The laughter of children can be heard, accompanied by the occasional slamming of a plastic door.
"If you had seen this five years ago, you wouldn't have believe it. It was unbelievable. It was completely full. Today it's pretty nice here. It's calm here, we have our little home, sometimes we even find work," says 24-year-old Bajram, remembering his previous life in the overflowing camp. He and his wife now live in a dwelling carved out of this space which resembles an enormous garage.
Today the entire camp is comprised of an estimated 15 temporary structures in what originally were two hangars, a two-story brick apartment building, and several "containers". Some of the families have adapted to the environment of the camp to such an extent that they have built small wooden structures to serve as entryways in front of the tiny dwellings they have fashioned out of plaster partitions inside the big garage. The homes per se most often only have one room or two smaller partitioned rooms.
The camps at Žitkovac, Cesmin Lug and Kabla were highly contaminated with lead, but the relocation of the Roma IDPs to the former military base at Osterode did not solve the problem. On the contrary, their living - primarily their health - situations rapidly deteriorated and the fatal results of lead poisoning began to appear. According to several doctors quoted in a report by the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP - Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker) in October 2006, lead-contaminated patients can only be successfully treated if they are completely removed from further exposure. The newly-built Osterode camp, however, lies only 50 meters from the former lead mines, so the heavy metal contamination continued.
In a press release dated 1 March 2010, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that the transfer of the Ashkalija and Roma to Osterode had been the only possible temporary solution, as the local municipality was not willing to free up other territory for their needs. At that time, all of the camps were administered by UNMIK (the UN mission in Kosovo).
To date, 104 of the IDPs have died as a result of lead poisoning, most of them children, who suffer the effects of lead contamination more than adults do. According to the STP report, blood and hair tests show that some of the children have been exposed to 1 200 times the recommended levels of lead.
The river is too wild
"Jump, man!" shouts 18-year-old Sultan to his blond neighbor. They have set out together to the nearby river Ibar, which forms a natural dividing line between the two parts of Mitrovica, Albanian and Serb. The blond takes off his t-shirt, jumps in place three times, then runs along the tiny, dark beach strewn with excrement and garbage. He launches himself from a flat rock jutting out into the river and jumps into the water over his head right next to the chanting Sultan. The water is still cold, but that doesn't matter. The cool, rainy days have transformed into summer ones, so the local children and youth can frolic by the water now. It would be hard for them to find anything else to do here.
According to the STP report, this river is also highly contaminated with lead, particularly in the vicinity of the Osterode camp. This is yet another reason for the high degree of lead poisoning among the children there.
Roma mahala revival
A small tobacconist's is open in the front of a small brick building in the reconstructed Roma mahala,the kind I can remember from my childhood at the end of the 1980s. There is chain-link mesh in the windows to prevent their being easily broken, and an aperture in the center just large enough for an adult hand to reach through. A man's blue eyes gleam like jewels across the display of cheap potato chips and three-liter bottles of orange energy drinks. He slowly gets up and goes to the door.
"Was machen Sie hier?" asks the 37-year-old bearded salesman, his hair bound back in a ponytail. After the opening phrases of courtesy, we continue in Romanes. "You have very nice little buildings here. I did not expect them to build you such nice ones," I say rhetorically, and wait for the response.
"The buildings are really good. We have a very small apartment, but we are not complaining. Those proper villas that are being built behind the apartment buildings are really super. If only there were work, otherwise we'll be gnawing at the walls of the nice buildings in a while," he says ironically, but sincerely. During the day, other Ashkalija and Roma people we talk to on the street respond similarly. "This cannot be compared at all to the conditions in the camp. I have had an apartment here for six years and it is really pleasant to live here. It's just that there is no work. I have the good fortune to work for municipal services, so I am a bit better off," explains 28-year-old Tomáš, whose family owned a small home not far from the stadium in Mitrovica before the war. Like the homes of the other Roma people, his home too was burned down and destroyed.
At first glance, the entire mahala looks idyllic. Everywhere you look there is plenty of open space decorated by green grass, the buildings are clean and modern, and nice, if small, proper single-family homes are being built beyond the social housing apartment buildings. There are commercial spaces on the ground floors of each apartment building and a billiard club, several fashion accessory stores, grocery stores, and even a hairdresser have set up there. At first glance, the residents of this small, revitalized town do not radiate the despondency we encountered in municipalities like Gjilan or Plemetina. We almost feel like applauding. Yes, the lack of work is decidedly keeping the locals from realizing their plans for life, but quality accommodations can at least be a good basis for rebounding from the bottom of society.
"People here are living in denial," says Skender Gushani, a representative of the local Roma. "I am not surprised they tell you they have it good here. Some of them are not aware of the seriousness of the situation. They are also afraid to discuss the lead poisoning of their children. They are afraid the information will mean that once again they will be removed from their new homes. We had a British company take soil samples, and they revealed contamination on the territory of the mahala as well. The most recent victim, a seven-year-old girl, died two months ago here of lung failure," he says bitterly.
Gushani says it was a mistake to build the housing on the territory of the settlement without upholding the recommendations of British experts who proposed the preventive measure of insulating part of the land by using a special kind of film over which clean ground could be spread. Instead, he says the land was just covered over with new ground, without using the film, and construction started on the new housing. Under such conditions, however, he says patients cannot be sufficiently treated (the therapy is performed at the local clinic and is completely free of charge). Several of the patients are therefore still being exposed to contamination by heavy metals. However, this is obviously not a problem of the Roma mahala alone. It is a generally-known fact that the entire Kosovska Mitrovica region has a higher degree of such contamination. However, unlike the Ashkalija and Roma residents, the other residents of the town had the good fortune not to have been housed immediately adjacent to the lead mines in the aftermath of the 1999 war.
We don't want to go to the mahala!
The sun glances off of a small pile of flowered carpets in front of one of the small Ashkalija homes left in what was the Osterode garages. Four flowerpots of marigolds decorate a small oblong table, and steam rises from a coffee mug resting on a chest of drawers. The starched white drapes suddenly part and blond Samanta, Bajram's 21-year-old wife, comes through the door. With a smile she places tiny cups of Turkish coffee and paprika chips before us in this small improvised summer garden.
"I heard you will soon be moving into the mahala. They are building you nice little houses there," I say to Bajram, who is in a slightly melancholy mood.
"Well we will not be moving. We don't want to. We are used to it here, we live well here. What will we do in the mahala? You won't find work there. Here sometimes we manage to," is his surprising answer.
International organizations started moving the Ashkalija and Roma people in 2007, when the first apartment buildings were constructed. Today the Mercy Corps organization is finalizing the last set of small row houses into which the last Ashkalija and Roma residents living in the Osterode camp are to be moved in mid-2011. A local Roma police officer says that 102 families are registered in the newly created Roma quarter, and 20-30 Roma families alone are estimated to still live in Osterode. Those who served in the Serbian Army during the previous regime are afraid they will be attacked by the local population in the Albanian section of Mitrovica where the new mahala is located. The others do not want to return to the mahala, nice as it is. It is not inspiring for various reasons, one of which is that they will not find the employment they need there. They therefore plan to remain either at the former camp or to integrate among the Serbian population in the northern part of town.
However, dozens of other Roma people who have heard about the construction of new apartments and homes for Roma IDPs are moving into the mahala. In addition to Roma people from all over Kosovo who are afraid to return to their original homes and are seeking refuge there, Kosovo Roma refugees are returning from Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, as well being deported from West European countries. They cannot access the new housing easily, however. Many of them are now living in the ruins and unfinished buildings beyond the settlement, hoping for aid from international organizations.
"I'm from Pejë. I fled with my children. People here tell me to go back where I have my own house, but I can't! I am afraid, I am too afraid of the gadje there. They did horrible things to us," says a woman of about 40 sitting in front of one of the abandoned houses. She is living with her children alone in Mitrovica and has not heard from the rest of her family since the war. "I learned a mahala was being built and that it's rather safe here, so we came here. I found an abandoned house, so we moved in. We've been here four years," she says, shrugging her shoulders expressively.
Albanians pay 10, Serbs 15
It's not easy to find employment in an environment that is still as tense as this one. Almost all of the Ashkalija and Roma people with whom we had the opportunity to speak told us that in the southern (Albanian) part of town they encounter a high degree of discrimination from the majority population.
"It's logical, after all. An Albanian gives work to Albanians. A Roma person wouldn't come in handy in his business. They don't like us much," a small group of older men meeting in front of one of the apartment buildings tells us. Even though the security situation has greatly improved in recent years and Roma people can move about the town basically without restrictions, only a handful of them have found permanent employment. Most who are employed work the night shift of local municipal services. The others have no choice but to better their families, who are living on ridiculously small welfare benefits, by working under the table in the northern (Serbian) part of town, where the Roma say there is not such a problem with their being hired. "The Serbs" even pay more for a day's work, EUR 15 instead of EUR 10 on the Albanian side, but such opportunities don't come along every day. Local men wait every day for a telephone call, or walk to an agreed meeting point to wait for a potential employer to hire them for the day. The next day, they start over. That's why it is normal to see small groups of younger guys and men driving around town in rusted vehicles looking for scrap metal. This is sold to the scrap dealer, yielding the sellers an average daily profit of between three and five euro.
"Why don't you all just gather together and keep looking for work in the northern section? It's so close..." I wonder aloud, a bit reservedly, to the small group of 50-year-old men drinking soda in front of the brick apartment building. "It's not that simple. It is not always safe to walk to the northern part and back," is their unequivocal response.
The northern part of Mitrovica offers more opportunities for day labor and lies only a few hundred meters away from the Roma mahala in the southern section, but the social gulf between them is deep. Each half of Mitrovica lives differently. The Albanians cross into the Serbian section as little as possible, and the Serbs do the same. There is no reason - and for the time being not even the political will - to befriend the enemy. The wounds have not yet healed. Roma people, therefore, fear attacks from the Albanian population in whose part of town their mahala has been rebuilt if they continue to "collaborate" with the Serbian side - even if only in the form of being employed by them.
The parents of the small schoolchildren who travel to Serbian schools on the specially chartered bus that stops at a bench on the riverbank have similar concerns. Most of the children in the mahala speak Romanes as their mother tongue and Serbian most often as their second language. As a result of their resettlement in the Albanian part of Kosovska Mitrovica, they lost the opportunity to easily access the schools they had been attending, but they cannot attend the schools where they now live, for one simple reason - they would not sufficiently understand the material and their chance of a quality education would be significantly reduced. This is why the children travel daily to the schools in the northern part of town, guarded by adult men.
It's 4:30 PM and the men are slowly returning to their homes in Osterode from searching for scrap metal in the streets of Mitrovica. A middle-aged man in a white undershirt and blue shorts, a towel slung across his shoulder, comes out of one of the wooden extensions in the first line of the IDP dwellings. As he comes toward us he invites us to visit his "church", as he calls it, after he has completed his personal ablutions. This is Miki – an unavoidable figure in Osterode.
A high wooden fence hides a small courtyard with modest outdoor seating and laundry lines. In the front room of his two-room dwelling, Miki, dressed in a suit, is standing behind a silver keyboard. The automatic rhythm unit is in full swing and he is tapping out his own melancholy melody over it. After we are seated on the flowered couch, this mysteriously elegant gentleman introduces himself: "My name is Miki, I'm over 40, and I'm a composer. I also sometimes teach music, I work as a prison guard, a taxi driver, and other things," he lists his numerous jobs as he pours real Albanian cognac into cut-glass tumblers. The rhythm from his keyboard provides the soundtrack. "I have my own internet radio station, and I have faithful listeners. I always get online, turn on my channel and play songs, sometimes I turn on the web camera, talk, and put on a show!" he says, blushing. To prove his words, he crosses to his computer (several homes in the camp have internet), goes to the streaming pages of flatcast-de, and accesses his RADIO-TAXSI. The party can start.
In addition to his music and radio production, Miki also devotes himself to spirituality. He is a rather respected representative of the Order of Dervishes in Mitrovica, whom non-Roma also visit with requests for advice. The second room of his home serves for these purposes and features an open Koran and a set of prayer objects. Miki dons one of his black gowns and headgear for us and introduces us to the various artifacts spread out on his small conference table. The rhythm of the keyboard still fills the entire house. "Let's turn it off. If we let it go much longer I'll have a lot of fans online from around the world. People love me! You know, I give them a proper show."
The schizophrenia of Mitrovica
Our days in Kosovska Mitrovica are slowly coming to an end. Before leaving we plan to visit the Orthodox church in the Serbian part of town. Our Kosovo Albanian friend Astrit has decided to join us. It would be his first visit to the center of north Mitrovica since the war. His parents must not find out, they would be afraid. "Nothing can happen, we'll speak English," I say to give him courage.
Several minutes before our agreed meeting, I get an SMS message: I HOPE YOU WILL UNDERSTAND, BUT I HAVE DECIDED NOT TO COME TO THE NORTHERN SECTION. FORGIVE ME. I DON"T KNOW IF I SHOULD RISK IT. WE'LL SEE EACH OTHER LATER. Astrit doesn't come, so I sit on a low concrete wall and observe the Roma children getting off the school bus as usual on the northern bank of the Ibar river, slowly gathering together and heading for the brick buildings on the southern bank. I think about what lies behind Astrit's message, about the schizophrenic situation of the local Roma, swinging several times a day between the Albanians and Serbs in an effort to find their own place. Then I smile when I remember DJ Miki in Osterode, who has found his own place, in his own way.
Translated by Gwendolyn Albert
There are some good photos with this article at