Gypsies cursed as Kosovo's outcasts

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SINCE THE Albanians came the night before, the old women had gone a little crazy, they said, and everyone had difficulty understanding exactly what she was saying. But there was no need to explain. The answers lay all around, in every room of the small one-storey house.

The most personal items, the evidence of the vanished family, were untouched - the tin of dog food, Spice Girls posters. But everything else was in chaos. The glass doors of the cabinets were smashed and sofa cushions ripped. The phone and television had gone, with the refrigerator, leaving the two women snivelling among a pile of rotting peppers that the flies were attacking. The looters had beaten one of them, her neighbours said, and someone had put a gun to her head.

"When the Serbs came here they beat us, and told us to go away to Albania," said Muhamet Qakolli, who lives opposite. "When the Albanians came back, they robbed us and told us to go to Serbia. Always, the gypsies are caught in the middle."

A few yards away a soldier of the Royal Engineers patrolled among the crackling ruins of a house that had been set alight the previous night. The Engineers are based a few hundred yards away, but with so much else to do rebuilding Kosovo's infrastructure, comprehensive patrolling was impossible, he said. He had arrested 30 people. "But when we turn them over to the military police, they let them go after four hours."

Everyone in this town has a story of suffering, but there is something peculiarly dismal in the plight of the gypsies of Kosovo.

Albanian victimisation of the Kosovo Serbs, thousands of whom have fled the province since its liberation two and a half weeks ago, is easily understood, the depressing by-product of years of oppression and injustice.

But the gypsies of Kosovo have no army, no nationalist ideology, and no Slobodan Milosevic. Many do not even speak their own language; for decades, they have lived, worked and gone to school alongside the people who now persecute them.

On the surface it is a simple and shocking story, an unheroic chapter in the otherwise brave history of Kosovo's Albanians. Since Nato entered, thousands of gypsies have been forced out of their homes by returning Kosovo Albanians, who have frequently resorted to looting and arson.

Divanjoll, the area of Pristina where the two old ladies remain, is just one tiny example among many. Until the past three weeks, some 100 gypsies lived here; this week there were just eight left and, with almost nightly visits by the looters, most of them are planning to leave.

Twenty minutes outside Pristina, in the town of Kosovo Polje, is the place where many of the displaced gypsies have ended up: a former Serbian school has become a makeshift refugee camp for gypsies. Five thousand people, including 2,000 children, live here, and a handful of aid workers struggle to provide water and medical treatment, guarded by a dozen British infantrymen.

Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said when she visited Kosovo this week: "I think the protection of the Roma is probably the most difficult and the most serious problem."

The problem is made more difficult to understand by the vagueness of gypsy identity. Crammed side-by-side in the camp, it is easy to see the physical distinctiveness of the Roma, with their dark skins, hair and Middle Eastern features. Censuses put the number of gypsies at 30,000 to 40,000 in Kosovo's population of 2 million, but the numbers are unreliable, because many Kos-ovars of gypsy descent regard themselves as Serbs or Albanians. "Albanian is my language; I don't speak Romany," said Ragip Berisha, an electrician, who helps to run the camp at Kosovo Polje. "I have an Albanian name, and I went to an Albanian school, and all my neighbours are Albanians. Now the Albanians call us collaborators, and do worse things to us than the Serbs."

His friend, Naser Hodiqi, said: "This was part of the state of Serbia. If I go to America I must respect American law and in Serbia, it is the same."

But plenty of evidence suggests the posistioni is not as black and white as this and that, in parts of Kosovo, local gypsies did much of the Serbs' dirtiest work. Another 20 minutes' drive away is the Albanian village of Bivolak, where a handful of houses remain undamaged.

People who fled to the slopes of the nearby mountain said they saw gypsies from down the road looting and burning them. In the nearby village a gypsy named Shefcet Bajrami nervously shows Albanians into his home to reclaim their stolen possessions and ticks them off on a list of sofas, cassette players and tables.

"Many Roma supported the Serb authorities, and many were recruited by the Yugoslav army and police, sometimes willingly and sometimes under duress," said Paula Ghedini of the UNHCR.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of individual cases, to see any quick solution is difficult. "Ethnically cleansed" Kosovo Albanians are one thing but, as Ms Ghedini pointed out, no foreign governments are likely to welcome large numbers of gypsy refugees. But even those whose houses still stand have no wish to return.

"Fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years ago, the Albanians always said, `The day will come when you will have to leave your houses'," said Mr Berisha. "Now that time has come."