Roma, Invisible and Voiceless

by Margaret Wyles

June 12, 2000


Note from the Editor:  You may remember the essay we published last year, on July 6, about the Roma (a.k.a. Gypsies) who had started fleeing from Kosovo, which by then was under KFOR control as well as that of the Albanian KLA, to seek refuge in Serbia (Did They Say Latcho Drom? Thinking hard about our deeds in Yugoslavia). It was widely disseminated over the Internet. This year, on May 13, Margaret Wyles and Jan Baughman went to a fund-raising event for the Roma of Kosovo in Graton, California. There they met Sani Rifati, the president of the non-profit organization, Voice of Roma, that has worked for years to call the attention of the public to the plight of the Roma and to raise funds for their cause. Michael Parenti was also present and gave a speech about the economics of power and the tragic state of the Roma. Sani Rifati asked Margaret and Jan for Swans' help to remind our readership of this tragedy. Please read Margaret's report and pass on this appeal.


The Third Reich's extermination campaign reduced by more than half the two million Roma of Europe, though little mention of this fact is made by Holocaust spokespeople. Prior to the air campaign against Yugoslavia, approximately 200,000 Roma lived in Kosovo. Estimates are that only 5000 remain. It would appear that the pejorative term "wandering gypsies" arose not out of self-designation, but of necessity, in response to repeated persecution. Throughout Europe, Roma are the victims of racist attacks and an unwelcome reception in countries where they have sought refuge.

Spread throughout Europe, they lack the clout of significant political representation, nor do they serve the national interests of any of the powers involved in the Balkan conflict. From a Machiavellian perspective, they are indeed expendable. Little or no mention was made of their presence in Kosovo early on in the conflict, as it was presumed that the non-Albanian portion of the Kosovo population was comprised exclusively of Serbs. Their invisible status in Kosovo has now become a reality, having been almost completely driven from their homes by returning Albanians, anxious to rid the area of anyone even suspected of sympathizing with Serbs and/or Yugoslavian interests. In a sad irony, Roma may be the only oppressed people in the region who have never in their history taken up arms to struggle for their liberation, but they have been used as pawns by opposing ethnic groups to bolster their power and further their interests. It is no surprise that little mention is ever made, either, of their contributions to European culture - to include the guitar and Flamenco - further evidence of their status of "the invisible."

Either by design or due to lack of adequate troops, KFOR has been unable to provide protection to Roma citizens who have been the constant victims of harassment. Whole Roma villages have been burned, and remaining houses taken over by KLA sympathizers, often under the watchful eyes of KFOR. Unlike the steady barrage of media images of Albanian refugees early in the conflict, the forced migration of close to 200,000 Roma has gone virtually unnoticed. An avid search for information over the Internet revealed surprisingly little information, given the coverage focused on the more vocal and visible ethnic groups.

Where have the Roma gone? Forty to eighty thousand poured into Serbia, already burdened by two million refugees and crippled by the devastation caused by 78 days of incessant aerial attack and a decade of economic sanctions. Thousands paid exorbitant bribes to KLA smugglers for dangerous passage to Italy where they have been placed in overcrowded ghetto settlements and remain under the persistent threat of deportation. Of the other countries that have accepted Roma refugees, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Macedonia, Montenegro, none has offered them refugee status, except in rare cases. The temporary status granted them is therefore revocable at any time, contributing to the uncertainty of their futures.

Yet a return to Kosovo would be unthinkable for most, as there are no homes for them to return to and the environment continues to be unsafe. As Dennis McNamara, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General of Humanitarian Affairs in Kosovo told a conference in London early this year, "all Serbs and many Roma" live in a "virtual state of siege" where "there is no rule of law." His observations only serve to provide further evidence that the humanitarian disaster in the Balkans was created by the very forces that claimed to be preventing one.

Despite his indictment as a "war criminal," Milosevic provided more protection for the Rom than has NATO. The following excerpt of an interview with a Rom historian from Pristina, now a refugee in Florence, offers evidence of this cruel irony.

Milosevic! In spite of how bad and how evil the US and other Western countries are telling Milosevic is, I know one thing: under the Milosevic regime, I, as a Rom, still had my school, my mother tongue, my TV, radio, newspaper, job and a wonderful three story house. All three of my children went to school for free by the state. Look around you where I am now; this is catastrophic.

The future of my children? There is no future.

Representatives of the Voice of Roma, an activist group attempting to call attention to the plight of the Roma, will be traveling to Europe this summer, bringing food and medicine. Read their appeal below and, please, help them.


is making its third trip to Europe this summer,
providing humanitarian aid and assistance
to Romani refugees from Kosovo


Our mission includes:

- Emergency relief for displaced Roma in Kosovo, and Romani refugees in Macedonia, Monte Negro, and Italy
- Medicines
- Advocacy for Romani refugees living in Italy - fighting deportation, filing for refugee status/political asylum, securing governmental and NGO assistance, and more
- Establishing a network with other Romani organizations and humanitarian aid organizations working with Roma in Europe
- Further documentation (print, audio, and video) of the experiences over the past year and current situation of Romani refugees from Kosovo, with a particular focus on women and children

Sani Rifati, president of Voice of Roma, will lead the delegation which will be based in Florence, Italy, where thousands of Romani refugees have recently arrived and are living in precarious circumstances. Carol Bloom and Frederika Sumelius, Board Chair and Secretary of Voice of Roma, respectively, will make up the delegation, along with Djevria Rifati, Romani Cultural Ambassador.

Your tax deductible donations are desperately needed!
We are also collecting medicines!
Please give generously and circulate this appeal amongst your friends.
Thank you for your support.

Voice of Roma is an educational and charitable nonprofit organization - Please send checks to: Voice of Roma, P.O. Box 514, Sebastopol, CA 95473

Contact us at the above address or e-mail us at: trinroma@pacbell.net and order our "Italian Mission - 1999" report ($3 + postage) for more information.


Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath


Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath

Published June 12, 2000
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