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INFO   :::  Reports - PAGE 4 > Report on Racial Discrimination


Report on Racial Discrimination

May 2001


Previously latent racial discrimination against Roma and Jews, has recently become rampant, and commonplace.. It became a serious social problem after the 1997 murder of 14-year old Roma boy by a group of Skinheads. The racially-charged incidents grew in intensity since the second half of 1999. While the previous regime turned a blind eye to such incidents and there were no public protests against them, the new authorities condemn them only apparently. The police has stepped in on several occasions, but the prosecuting authorities are yet to institute proceedings against such acts and sanction them.

Regardless of their number, and there are an estimated half a million Roma in Yugoslavia, they remain the least protected ethnic community. Due to their very low social status, they were not able to set up even the weakest organisation. Hence they bowed to the prevailing mind-set and identified with the majority people. The Roma persistent manifestations of loyalty to the majority, were nothing else but the quest for the mainstay of their own survival, and compensation for their weaknesses.

In former Yugoslavia, Roma made gradual social progress and were better treated than their fellow-nationals in other Eastern European countries. Large number of their children then attended school. Moreover many Yugoslav Roma were key members of international Roma organisations. The idea was even officially floated in ex Yugoslavia that the Roma be recognised the national status.

War years stopped that overall social progress of Roma, and they became an extremely vulnerable group. Due to ever-deteriorating living conditions they failed to build any social structure facilitating their integration, and assertion of their own identity. Even on the family level the Roma community is characterised by weak and chaotic marital and familial ties. Their only and main concern is-survival. Only rare individuals managed to outgrow the minority's boundaries and socially and personally assert themselves.

The wars in former Yugoslavia, and notably displacement of non-Serb population from Kosovo and return of Kosovar Albanians affected Roma greatly.

As Roma often declared themselves as Serbs during a long period of animosity between Serbs and Albanians, 30,000 of Kosovar Roma were compelled to flee Kosovo when the NATO campaign began.. But Serbia, weighted down by previous influxes of refugees (altogether 500,000 of them) was not ready to take care of them. In fact they became an additional burden. As the host country failed to meet their needs, Roma found themselves in an impossible situation. Next to 50 Roma settlements on the outskirts of Belgrade, 3,000 Roma displaced persons from Kosovo found refuge in shantytowns which they themselves hastily built. But alas those improvised dwellings offered no protection from sun and rain. Due to poor sanitary conditions there were outbreaks of contagious diseases, notably hepatitis, and several babies died. But when the general public protested against their presence, police took action, that is forced them to re-locate to the interior of the country. Their living conditions have not changed for the better, but they faced less hostility of the local population, and their problems were less visible. They receive only foreign aid in kind and some assistance from domestic NGOs. There are 20 Roma NGOs in Belgrade, but only few or three are genuinely independent. The rest of the Roma NGOs are manipulated by authorities. They survive thanks to foreign donors assistance, but their needs are yet to be met.

The new authorities are not treating Roma any better than Miloševic regime. Moreover the minority members were subjected to a series of racism-charged incidents.

Racist attacks on Roma and Jews continued. These attacks should be seen as a sign of increased resistance to foreign influences and re-admission of Serbia to the international community and its organisations.

A small sign of a big evil was the attack on Roma, on Christmas Eve, the 6th of January of 2001. Zdravko Lalic harassed and held at gun-point three under-age Roma in the Belgrade suburb of Borca. The whole incident started as a joke. Namely Lalic asked Roma to show him how they cross themselves, and then he showed them "how Serbs do that." As Lalic was drunk, the joke soon turned into his very aggressive act. He took out his gun and held the boys at gun point. He fired, but luckily missed his targets. After the police inquest several bullets were found, and Lalic admitted his aggression. He moreover said that "all Roma should be killed" Association of Roma, fearing a repeat of Jovanovic case (a young Roma boy , Dušan Jovanovic, was killed four years ago in Belgrade) , strongly condemned the incident.

While anti-Semitic incidents happen mainly in Belgrade, attacks on Roma are frequent in the interior of Serbia.

Society of Roma in Leskovac, the Southern Serbia town, with a 1,000-strong Roma population, in mid-January demanded that the municipal authorities start tackling utilities problems in their settlement. Namely the infrastructure there is on the verge of collapse. Due to poor water supply system, the number of hepatitis cases among school children has increased. The infant mortality rate is also on the rise. ("24 casa", 13 January). Every 26th Roma baby of 1,000 new-borns dies, while among the other population groups that ratio is 18: 1,000.

A big Roma settlement Podvorci in Leskovac is without drinking water and proper sewage system. Roma addressed the new authorities to deliver on their pre-election promises. The Association of Roma of Serbia stated that in 1999/2000 about 900 Roma were killed and disappeared, and "the international community does not have understanding for exodus and genocide of our people." "Roma have always shared the fate of Serb people, whenever this country and Serbs were attacked."

According to the same source, "150 Roma were killed by the Kosovo Liberation Army, while the fate of 530 Roma is under wraps." ("Danas", 19 January 2001)

According to Maki Shinohara, spokeswoman of the Belgrade office of UNHCR that organisation with other international organisations, embarked upon a dialogue with leaders of other international organisations on conditions for return of non-Albanian population to Kosovo. She gave assurances that the matter was seriously tackled. ("Danas," 19 January)

Representative of Kosovar Roma in the Interim Council of Kosovo, Hadži Zulfi Merda, asked international community to make concerted efforts to improve life of Roma in Kosovo. Merda was promised that "the German and US governments would take initiative to protect the right of Kosovar Roma to have their homeland."

Representative of Kosovar Roma stressed that of 150,000-200,000 Roma before NATO air strikes, only 50,000 remained behind. He went on to note: "since summer 1999 700 Roma houses were torched in Kosovska Mitroivca, 1,000 in Pec, 140 in Gnjilane and 111 in Uroševac. ("Danas", 24 January 2000)

In January 2002 "24 casa" daily, published by the opposition Socialist Party of Serbia ran a host of Roma-related articles. This excessive 'concern' over the Roma minority indicates that their suffering is often manipulated by political parties. The letter sent by the Leskovac Association of Roma to the city mayor indicated their awareness of such abuses. Namely the association urged better information of Roma in the area and establishment of the Roma press centre. Information released by the centre would be thereafter broadcast in radio and TV programs in Roma language, within the local media programs. ("24 casa", 30 January). This is quite unrealistic in view of the fact that the local authorities are underfunded. Even the humanitarian assistance distributed to Roma comes from foreign donors.

Aca Singer was re-elected President of the Association of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia. The organisation embraces 9 Jewish municipalities with 3,200 members. "We have great hopes of democratic process and the rule of law, that is, legal state taking root in this country. Former prosecutors' offices were not interested in anti-Semitic cases, even when they were condemned by the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Moreover, I did not expect anti-Semitism to rear its ugly head again in Belgrade," said Singer. Anti-Semitic incidents are always accompanied by attacks on Roma.

The first anti-Semitic incident happened in January when on the wall of the building close to the seat of the Association of Jewish Municipalities the graffiti "This is Serbia, Jews leave the country" was written. Swastika graffiti and other symbols of racism and fascism appear often on facades of buildings. ("Vecernje Novosti", 30 January)

"BMW" driven by Svetozar Obradovic, a Roma, was stopped on the Novi Sad highway, in the vicinity of Belgrade by four masked and armed men. According to witnesses, the gang from the "Audi 100" with Belgrade licence plates then abducted Obradovic. (Blic, 31 January 2001)

Srdan Šijan, Co-President of the Democratic Union of Roma demanded that Roma in the FRY be accorded the status of national minority in view of the fact that "Roma are the most numerous ethnic community in Serbia." He also urged a quick solution of all-level education problem in Roma mother tongue. ("Borba", 5 February)

According to medical findings of Pancevo hospital, Cuci Nikolic, 27-year old guy from Kovin, in the vicinity of Belgrade, was beaten up on 3 February. He sustained many injuries, including hot iron burns.

He said that he was beaten for dating a Serb girl, Ivanka Košcan. Girl's father threatened him before, but the boy disbelieved that he really meant to hurt him. "We were in my car when another car started chasing us. When I stopped, Marko Markovic, Vladimir Krstin, Dejan Lukša and Žika Ubica, I don't know his real name, pushed me into their car. They told me that the lawyer's daughter was not a match for a Gypsy like me, and threatened to kill me, unless I left her." The boy and girl were first taken to a restaurant in Bavanište, where the gang was joined by the police inspector Rade Despic. Then he was taken to a loft of a house and repeatedly beaten there. "They tortured me, hit me with gun' butts, burned me with hot iron, cursed my Gypsy mother...I think I fainted twice... then at four o'clock in the morning they led me down to the cellar, converted in prison cells. They first imprisoned me in a cage with a dog, but when he refused to attack me, they dragged me out. Then I heard a gun shot. They probably killed the dog. I was kept in the cell until 8 a.m. when Ivana's father came. He beat me up 15 minutes while Marko held me at the gunpoint. When I promised them my car and money, the four rapists finally drove me home. Then they went to a restaurant and I called the police." ("Danas", 9 February)

In March the trial of skinheads Oliver Mirkovic (20 years) and Nataša Markovic (20) began in the Niš District Court. They were charged with incitement of national, racial and religious hatred. This was the first indictment on racial discrimination charges filed by a FRY Prosecution Office. Moreover it was characterised as a "grave criminal offence."

On the basis of a criminal report, the District Public Prosecutor's office last year filed the indictment against Oliver Markovic, Nataša Markovic and underage K.A., members of a skinheads group for " attacking a Roma boy D.A. (15) and his father Nebojša Ajdarevic, just because of the colour of their skin." ("Danas", 10-11 February)

While the boy was kicked and beaten, the gang kept insulting him and yelling at him: "Gypsy, what are you doing in Serbia?" Then they attacked the boy's father who was trying to protect him.

Roma were on numerous occasions victims of Skinheads. Such incident in recent years have become commonplace in Serbia. This subculture group through such incidents manifests its racists and violent leanings. They move in groups, look militantly, act aggressively. They all have shaved heads, hence their name.

Racism in recent years was mostly linked to skinheads-provoked incidents. An early February incident in Kovin leads us to conclude that racism is on the rise. On the political level there was no interest in such cases, moreover the problem is still minimised. But recently the police have been responding swiftly to such provocations.

Case of Cuci Nikolic, the beaten boy from Kovin, neither the police nor the media interpret as a manifestation of racism, but rather as a status issue: "incident provoked by a lawyer, father of Cucic's girlfriend. Barring lawyer Košcalo, all members of the gang were registered offenders.

Walls of the Rex Cultural Centre in Belgrade on 14 February were covered with swastika and other nazi symbols posters. It was a reaction to the exhibition "Denizens of Belgrade-Roma from the early 20th century to the early 21st century," which was inaugurated in Rex on 31 January. Similar incidents happened in the seat of the Jewish municipality, sinagogue and the Jewish cemetery. ("Glas javnosti," 15 February)

Jelena Markovic, Deputy Federal Minister for National Minorities and Ethnic Communities, stated that similar incidents happened before and urged that the offenders be punished.

The Roma Congress Party asked the authorities to protect Roma from persecution and stated that "Roma would find a way to protect themselves, if the government fails to do that." ANEM demanded speedy and thorough investigation into the anti-Roma incidents. ("Novosti", 15 February)

Walls of the Centre for Cultural Decontamination were covered with graffiti "Serbia to Serbs, Roma -out of Serbia!" The name of the web-site from which swastikas were downloaded was on all the posters. It is a multilingual web-station, which issues bulletins in 13 languages, including Serbian. The station is part of the Nazi-led world-wide Internet offensive.

Walls of Jewish institutes were covered with posters "Jews hate your freedom of speech" in English language. "Posters were printed abroad, some bear the US address. Many of them were blown up and photocopied," said Miša Levy, Deputy President of the Jewish Municipality. Police took samples of leaflets and glue, but offenders are still at large. President Vojislav Koštunica the very same day apologised to the Jewish Municipality. It bears stressing that a graffiti "Koštunica's mother is Jewish" is still on the wall of a building in Krunska street in Belgrade. That was to be a message to voters that Koštunica is the biggest enemy of Serb people, and to turn off the prospective DOS voters.

MP groups of DOS, SPS, and Party of Serbian Unity reacted for the first time and condemned the incident. They stated that they were outraged with emergence of Nazi symbols on the Centre for Cultural Decontamination and Jewish Institutes. "We sharply condemn any kind of religious and national hatred and urge the competent bodies to punish the offenders....Roma have shared for centuries the fate of Serbs and other peoples of this country...anti-Semitism and hatred towards Roma and other peoples don't belong to tradition of the Serb people...hence those who try to provoke racial and religious intolerance cause our deepest concern and revolt." ("Politika", 16 February)

Association of the Young of the Social-Democratic Union warned that "fascization of our society did not stop after toppling of Miloševic's regime." That Association stated that it would urge adoption of a special law sanctioning the work of the Nazi movements. ("Politika", 16 February)

Nazi attacks in the late and early 2001 are a sign that some prejudices are deep-seated, notably those formed in the mind-set of population in the past decade. It is a big heresy and sign of hostility to reject everybody and everything 'different' from the majority people and its traditions. This in fact shows lack of readiness for transition process and construction of pluralistic society. Although the media speak of lesser incidents and marginal occurrences, there are convincing signs that such incidents are masterminded and orchestrated from a certain political centre. Despite the recent political changeover, the aforesaid incidents indicate continuity of racist ideas which were dominant in Serbia in the first decades of the Twentieth Century, were sidelined through the Communist era repression, and were revived after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

The main feature of the most recent racist incidents is its sophisticated shape, which indicates that they cannot be attributed to uncontrolled groups of hooligans. These manifestations should be viewed as a by-product of unattained political ambitions, and should be taken seriously. In view of their continuity and weak democratic potential of the country they could develop into a major evil. In case of such development, it would be very difficult to solve the problem and then its consequences could be very grave indeed.

Downscaling of racism to a tolerant level and exercise of rights and freedoms of minorities shall be possible only if this society morphs into a civil one, and if the rule of law and corresponding political culture are established. Ethnic communities in Serbia, deeply aware of the need for such a changeover, urge repeal of laws and decrees, reducing the human and minority rights, and which were intentionally passed by former authorities. It is also necessary to pass a new electoral law enabling adequate participation of national and ethnic communities in political life, along with enforcement of positive discrimination. Ombudsman should be also introduced as an additional form of protection of minority rights, notably as an instrument of protection of the most vulnerable minorities, targets of most racial and national hostility.

Belgrade, May 2001




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