Al-Jazeera on the ‘Serb’ refugees, and the omission of Roma from discourse on Kosovo.

Al-Jazeera English posted a decent article today on Serbs displaced from Kosovo, and a good series of short interviews showing that not all Serbs are crazed cannibalistic ‘Chetniks.’ But Al-Jazeera repeated the same omission of Roma from their story that has become standard in coverage of the area – not insignificantly, as if their figures are true, more than half of the “Serb” refugees are Roma, Ashkalije, or Egyptian! (The latter two groups are related to Roma, although Albanian-speaking.)

According to the Al-Jazeera article, 170,000 Serbs fled Kosovo after NATO drove out the Serbian forces and the returning KLA went on their own campaign of ethnic cleansing. According to an extensively researched first-hand report put together by Voice of Roma in 2002, in which pre-war and post-war populations of 267 areas with Romani populations were surveyed, Kosovo was home to 123,686 Roma, Ashkalije, and Egyptians before the 1999 war. By 2001, only 34,863 remained in Kosovo, either in their places of residence, or in IDP camps. The 88,823 thus driven from the country (not counting the large number of internally displaced) would thus make up 52.2% of the “Serb” refugee population.

Tim Judah, in his article “Serbia: The Coming Storm” (New York Times Review of Books, 53:16, Oct 19, 2006) repeats a similar figure when he casually mentions the KLA displacing Serbs “and an equal number of other minorities”, without bothering to mention who constitute this group of perhaps 100,000.

These numbers, and the distortion thereof, are of great importance for two reasons. First, the KLA cleansing is often forgiven as an “understandable revenge” for Serb military actions in 1998-99. Were the cleansing to be shown to have cleansed equally as many Roma (who have still never been shown to have systematically collaborated with the Serb forces) as Serbs, the truly dire condition of human rights in Kosovo might come to light, and might call into question the legitimacy of the new Albanian-dominated state.

In addition, Serbia has been reluctant to provide adequate aid to the Roma, as can be witnessed in downtown Belgrade, where a shantytown of perhaps 10,000 Roma refugees from Kosovo try to survive. One Rom friend, who worked for over 20 years as the head of electrical engineering in one of Kosovo’s two massive power plants, told me last weekend that he receives no pension for his years of work, since he lives (as a refugee) outside of Serbia. The Macedonian government has denied him and his family asylum in Macedonia, and would have forcibly deported them had UNHCR (the UN High Commission of Refugees) not intervened. If his position as a former highly-placed profession is currently so precarious, both politically and economically as his family struggles to find work as day-laborers in the poor Roma neighborhood of Shutka, one can imagine the disastrous conditions faced by the other 88,000 Roma refugees, and the tens of thousands of IDPs struggling to survive in refugee camps and villages within Kosovo.

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