Kosovo Gypsies caught between Serbs, Albanians

Also known as Roma, they are barred from Serbia but face the wrath of

They are Europe's most unwanted people. Roma, or Gypsies, are often denounced as a race and bounced from place to place.

Now, in the aftermath of the Kosovo war, tens of thousands of them who lived in the war-shattered province are in a state of dangerous limbo.

Like 50,000 or more Serbs who fled to Serbia proper last week, the Gypsies also left their homes, fearing reprisals from ethnic Albanians because many of them sided with the Serbian cause.

Only days after they arrived in Serbia, however, the government ordered them to leave.

One group of several hundred made it back to the Kosovo capital of Pristina in 12 dusty buses on June 20, and then fled to a schoolyard in a predominantly Serbian town three miles away. They stay there, afraid to venture outside the school gate.

"We want to go to Serbia, but they won't let us stay," says Tefik Avduli. "The KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] will ..." He draws his index finger across his throat.

They hold little faith in the pledge of NATO, whose forces in Kosovo are known as KFOR, to keep all residents safe.

"We are a small people," says Mr. Avduli. "The Serbian police and government were a good guarantee. But KFOR, why don't they come here to guard our safety?"

The father of three, whose jampacked Volkswagen is parked behind a bus, says he and his family fled their hometown of Vucitrn in northern Kosovo last week. But after only a few days in the Serbian city of Nis, they were told to return.

"We don't know where to go, because nobody is interested in us," says Rasit Zivoli, another Roma from Vucitrn. "At the same time, our houses are being robbed."

Despite their insecurity, the Gypsies here do not blame the Serbian government for their plight. Instead they heap abuse on ethnic Albanians and the international peacekeepers. "NATO is the KLA," screams Nevri Hasimi, an old Roma woman. Another man claims the KLA killed four Gypsies in Vranjevac, a Pristina neighborhood, over the weekend.

In Vranjevac the story is rather different.

"The Gypsies always came here and shouted insults at us," says Behar Hoti, a young ethnic Albanian who stayed with his family in Vranjevac during the worst of the Serbian reprisals. "The Gypsies were together with the Serbs. They told them exactly who had money and where to go."

Many Roma acted as guides for paramilitaries from Serbia, say KLA guerrillas and locals alike. Ethnic Albanians almost universally hate the Roma - not necessarily for their dark skin color or nomadic lifestyle as in other eastern European countries, but for their cooperation with the Serbian authorities.

"The Gypsies, they did everything: They looted, burned, and killed people," says Nazmir Gashi, a KLA fighter standing outside his whitewashed family compound. "Together with the paramilitaries, they did that," he says, pointing at damaged houses on a nearby hillside.

Mr. Gashi, a former coal miner, agrees that the Serbs despise the Roma almost just as much. "They always go with those who are in power," he says.

Official Serbian statistics put the number of Roma in Kosovo at 97,000, out of a total population of some 2 million. As in other countries in the region, they live on the margins of society, eking out an existence as best they can.

Skender Konxheli, Gashi's son-in-law, says he returned to his home on June 20. "When my Gypsy neighbors saw that I had returned, they ran away," he says. "The Gypsies have blood on their hands and they fear revenge. I can't live with them, I must go my way, they must go theirs."

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