Kosovo’s Unworthy Victims: an Interview with Paul Polansky

In its rush to proclaim a supervised independence for the “embattled and violent” region of Kosovo, the international capitalist community is ignoring and covering up a tragedy of Roma people in this colonized region, a tragedy for which they are responsible. If there is one point where Albanian nationalists (“independence and mono-ethnic self-determination”), Serbian nationalists (“autonomy without independence”) and Euro-colonialists (“supervised independence without an autonomy”) are in any kind of an agreement, it is the systematic disregard for the Roma or Gypsy population in Kosovo. We can read all kinds of concerns about “human rights” in Kosovo, as exemplified in the recent statement of the under secretary Nicholas Burns before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, but absolutely nothing about the horrific fact that in three camps built by the UN High Commission for Refugees, where some 60 Gypsy children under the age of six have been exposed to such high levels of lead that they are highly likely to die soon or to suffer irreversible brain damage. This number represents every child born in the camps since they were built five and a half years ago. This continues to be non-news, the same way Roma continue to be the “unworthy victims” of Kosovo’s colonial nightmare.

It is for this reason that the Freedom Fight collective from Serbia has prepared, exclusively for the Z sustainers, a short interview-commentary with Paul Polansky. Paul is one of the most important contemporary writers and activists concerning the hidden and suppressed history and reality of the Eastern European Roma. He is the Head of Mission of Kosovo Roma Refugee Foundation. In his poetry collections Living Through It Twice, The River Killed My Brother, and Not a Refugee, Polansky delineates a painful history of the atrocities of Czechs, Slovaks, Albanians, NATO and the UN against the Roma. His books on Kosovo Romas include Blackbirds of Kosovo, UN-leaded Blood as well as forthcoming oral history of Yugoslav Gypsy survivors of Nazi German and Nazi Croatian concentration camps.

1) Roma people are Europe’s most marginalized and oppressed citizens. Could you tell us is there any significant difference in life circumstances between Kosovo Roma and Roma people in other European countries in which have you lived, for example, in Czechoslovakia? How were Roma treated in Europe during crises like WWII, for example? What is the main reason for persistent anti-Gypsyism?

This is a long question (many questions in fact) and I could easily write a book about each one. Probably most of these questions will be answered in depth by the Roma themselves when i published my collection of oral histories of ww 11 yugoslav Gypsy survivors. I’ve filmed 152 interviews from all over the former Yugoslavia. In their own words the Gypsies suffered a great deal during the war but basically werent targeted like the jews. The Gypsies were murdered in several camps such as jasenovac and in belgrade but not all were killed and in most places they survived although able-boded Roma were taken to work camps and many Romani women were raped. But in most places like Nish the Romani population survived intact while the Jewish population was totally liquidated. The same thing happened to Roma throughout Europe. In some places such as Bohemia and Moravia the Roma were decimated, but in other places such as Slovakia 90% of the Romani population survived. Regarding differences in their lives, the further west you go thebetter off Roma are, having integrated more than in eastern Europe. That integration of course has caused some setbacks. Most Roma in Czech republic no longer speak Romanes and have forgotten most of their traditions.

2) According to the last official statistics Roma people comprised 2.3% of the population of Kosovo. Is there any data as to how many of them have been killed, disappeared and how many of them have run away? How many Romas now live in Kosovo? Has anything in last 8 years really been done for the return of the Kosovo Roma to their houses? In what circumstances do those Roma who remained on Kosovo live?

I have lived in Kosovo since July 1999. From July to November 1999 i did the only survey ever made of all The Gypsy communities in Kosovo including Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian Gypsies. I found that before the 1999 nato bombing there were 298 Gypsy communities or Mahalas with about 17,500 homes and a population of about 120,000 Gypsies. By the time i finished my survey i counted a population of only 30,000 Gypsies (10,000 Roma and 20,000 Ashkali/Egyptians) still in Kosovo. About 14,500 homes had been destroyed by returning Albanians after nato troops had arrived. Since then the Gypsy population has probably dropped to about 20,000 (6,000 Roma and 14,000 Ashkali/Egyptian). Very few of the 14,500 destroyed homes have been rebuilt; probably less than 300. Not many Roma were killed, probably less than 1,000. Most ran away: the majority to German and Italy, and some to Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Those who remain are continually harrassed by the local Albanians. No Roma were allowed to return to the jobs they had before the war. I predict that when there is independence in Kosovo most Roma will flee to Serbia or Germany if they can afford to pay a smuggler. Ashkali and Egyptians will try to live with the Albanians but in time they too will have to leave as will most minorities except the Turks. Despite what their politicans say, most Albanians don’t like the minorities and their long term goal is to have a pure ethnic Albanian state.

3) How are they treated by international aid agencies? In your book UN-leaded Blood you have stated that the UN built refugee camps on toxic wasteland. Who is responsible for that? Are those camps still there? Does anybody care?

The international aid agencies in Kosovo are mainly maned by Albanians. The few Internationals still there are very pro Albanian because of course they are influenced by their Albanian staff. An example is the Swiss govenment office in Pristina. For eight years the Swiss office has not hired any minority staff because their Albanian staff have stated they will not work with any minority. Unmik removed the Gypsies from the three refugee camps built on toxic wasteland but relocated them to a former French camp in north Mitrovica abandoned by the French because of the lead poisoning. The French military doctors told all soldiers serving there not to father a child for nine months after leaving the camp. The Gypsies of course have not been given this warning; their wives are still aborting and those Gypsy kids born in the camp have irreversible brain damage. I took a family of eight to Germany for medical treatment. All had irreversible brain damage and organ damage. One seven year old kid had the liver of a 50 year old alcoholic. The German doctors told me these kids wouldn’t live beyond 25 or 30 years. Unmik was warned in 2000 by the World Health Organization to evacuate these Gypsy refugee camps. They didn’t and now we have lost an entire generation of Gypsy kids.

4) What do you say to the fact that the exodus of the non-Albanians and Roma people continued now to a greater degree then when international peace keepers arrived? Who made Roma people escape from Kosovo? Serbs, Albanians, NATO or all of them?

As stated above, the Gypsies were forced to leave by returning Albanians. Nato troops just stood by and watched saying they were not a police force, that they were there to protect the Albanians, no one else. I had many disagreements with kfor forces in the summer of 1999 as i tried to get them to stop arsonists. British kfor even detained me for protesting about Gypsy and Serb homes being burned down in front of their eyes.

5) What is the future of the relations between Albanians and Serbs with Roma people in Kosovo? What is the future of the Roma culture of peace and tolerance in violent surroundings?

In my opinion there is no future in Kosovo for any minority except the Turks. Most Roma have already left. Their new country is Germany. About 35,000 Kosovo Roma live today in Germany. If they are not deported that will be their new country. If they are deported they will have a very hard time to survive anywhere else.

6) What would be better for Roma people, an independent Kosovo or not?

Roma will not stay in an independent Kosovo. They don’t want their kids to go to Albanian schools or serve in an Albanian army. They cant get jobs in Albanian companies so of course they will leave.

7) Why did you choose to live in Knez selo, near Nish? Is there something special about that village?

Yes, the air, the wonderful countryside. It’s like Tuscany a hundred years ago. The village people are also very friendly. It’s a nice quiet place to write and when I am not writing i have a wonderful garden to look after.

8) Tell us something about the new books you are writing.

My next book is called “Gypsy taxi.”Poems about the origins, traditions and plight of the Kosovo Roma. It is 226 pages with illustrations and is biligual in English and Serbian. It should be out in the next month. Then this year i also hope to publish my collection of oral histories of ww 11 Yugoslav Gypsies; their stories tell about their lives before, during and after ww ii. Each inteview was about an hour long and filmed. It will probably be published in four volumns since as a single book it is already up to 1,200 pages and i havent finished it yet.

9) Ginter Grass gave you the Reward for Human Rights in Weimar in 2003. How would you comment on his recent testimony that he was a part of SS troops when he was 17?

He was very frank about his past. He is a wonderful man and should be judged on what he does for other people. He has long fought for minority rights in Germany, especially for Roma. We all make mistakes in life, but not everyone confronts his mistakes. Grass did and he should be congratulated on drawing attention to his past.

10) What have you learned from contact with Roma people? What do you think about their culture and life habits?

I’ve spent 15 years living with Roma and collecting their oral histories, and observing their customs, traditions and researching their origins. In the beginning I thought that not many of their traditions from old India survived, but each day i find more especially when I visit the outcaste tribes in India and discover the same traditions that many Roma especially in the Balkans still practice. The European Roma basically come from the dom tribe in India and their subcasts were lohar, sansis, kikan, and kanjar. But they did not come as one people nor at one time. Today people even scholars have lumped all Roma, all Gypsies, into one basket calling them all Roma. They came as many different groups from India with many different traditions and customs. They had different dialects, even different languages, and most did not intermarry and still don’t. We must see them as part of the Indian diaspora that covered several centuries. One tribe, the kikans even had their origins in Kurdistan before going to India in the 10th century. There in punjab they mixed with the sansis before going back to Turkey in the 13th century. I have many DNA samples showing these tribal affiliations. Tribal DNA now shows where many people started from and where they went to. The origins of our European Gypsies is no longer in dispute. Even the DNA on Balkan Egyptians shows they came from India; they have no Egyptian DNA.

*Andrej Grubacic is an anarchist historian and Znet writer from the Balkans. He is a member of the post-Yugoslav “Freedom Fight” collective, and can be reached at zapata@mutualaid.org

Leave a comment