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Blessed are the Bewildered


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Mahalla means Neighbourhood

Mahalla is a word we all know in the Balkans, no matter what language we speak or what God we worship. You'd think by now we'd act like proper neighbours instead of killing each other every few decades.

From Global Politician, Kosovo Roma Crisis - Part I

There is no shortage of tragedies when speaking of the Balkans, and recent history. In fact the Balkan’s recent history is one based on a long string of concurrent tragedies. Out of convenience, the issues are often narrowly discussed, resulting in further polarization of each respective side, and exclusion of those left unmentioned. Conversations turn to “Belgrade and Pristina" or “ethnic Albanians and Serbs" when in actuality, a comprehensive discussion of the situation should include many other groups of people. The Roma are one such group, hugely impacted, but rarely considered nor consulted when planning the future of Kosovo.

The Roma are an ethnic group of people that have been living in the Balkans for hundreds of years. As a people they have always existed here as a minority, and have maintained their heritage and language through living in small communities. The Roma word for these “communities" is MAHALLA. In the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo’s Roma coexisted with both Serb and Albanian populations, but that all changed in years leading up to 1999.

By 1999 Yugoslavia had literally fallen into pieces. In the absence of a greater Yugoslav government to quell violence, the five former Yugoslav States (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia) were all scrambling to promote and preserve their own perceived self interests and survival. In short, the Balkans was the tinder box of nationalism and racial hatred, ready for the inferno which became the Balkan War’s of the 1990s. This inferno ended with the final Balkan conflict in Kosovo and caught in the cross fire were a reported, one hundred fifty thousand (150,000) Kosovan Roma.

Prior to the invasion of Serb troops and paramilitary forces in June of 1999, thirty thousand (30,000) Kosovan Roma had fled to various parts of Europe. Those that remained watched as first the Serbs, then the returning Albanians burnt and looted the Roma homes and property.

The major Mahalla in Kosovo, “the Roma Mahalla", in the Northern city of Mitrovica was reduced to rubble and ash. Some Roma historians say this Mahalla was the oldest settled out Roma community in Europe – claiming a 150 year lineage in one location.

Thus, families were reduced to refugees in their own land and some 8,500 Roma were displaced in this Mahalla alone.

In the Autumn of 1999, NATO gathered the Roma of Mitrovica into temporary camps through out Kosovo for declared period of forty five days…beside the communist era, Trepca lead smelting facility.

In May of 2005, a full five and one half years later, I along with independent journalist Jackson Allers gained access to the “Zitkovac Camp" situated near the huge former Yugoslav mining complex of Trepca. Trepeca is on the outskirts of the Serbian northern part of Mitrovica – another experiment of temporary settlement by the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

For the more than 200 Roma living in the Zitkovac camp, life has delved far below any European standard for minimal living conditions. The promised “forty five days" from UNHCR has festered into six years of defacto refugee existence…which is on going as you read this.

Heavy metal runoff from a small mountain of yester-year’s mining byproduct, is essentially poisoning these Roma children. In 2004 the World Health Organization tested the Roma children in the Zitkovac Camp, determining that over 90% have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. Some children already suffer from blackouts. At least one has died from lead poisoning.

Presently the Kosovan Roma in Zitkovac camp can do little more than hope that international representatives successfully negotiate their immediate evacuation - something made increasingly difficult as the Roma representatives of the former Mahalla fear a temporary settlement will only lead to a similar outcome - one of neglect and marginalization.

Posted by zorkmidden on Jul 10, 2005 1:00 pm

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