NEWS

Gypsies stuck at border

MEDZITLIJA – With a heavy sigh, Afrim Berisha read and tucked away the letter he had received from the UN refugee agency: It advised him against returning home to Kosovo. «My house is just a few hours’ drive away, but I don’t think I’ll ever see it again,» Berisha said as drizzle soaked the tent of his family and those of 620 other Gypsy refugees living in squalor in a muddy field on the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The group was among tens of thousands of Gypsies, or Roma, who fled from Kosovo to neighboring FYROM and other Balkan countries after the 1999 NATO airstrikes against Milosevic’s Serbia. Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians accused Gypsies of collaborating with Serb forces, making them unwelcome in the province once the alliance pushed Milosevic’s troops out. After the war, thousands of Gypsies and Serbs fled, fearing revenge attacks. But the Gypsies became homeless again last month when the UN refugee agency shut down their camp, citing deteriorating living conditions in a facility meant to be temporary. «Maintaining hygienic conditions was getting to be impossible,» said Goran Momiroski, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency offered each refugee $40 a month in financial assistance and some food staples. The Gypsies say it wasn’t enough to live in a country where rents are beyond their means, unemployment is conservatively estimated at 36 percent and refugees from other Balkan wars are plentiful. «They (international officials) wanted to get rid of us, to have us dispersed. Then the money would dry up in a few months and we’d be forgotten forever,» Berisha said. Unable to return to Kosovo for fear for their lives, and unable to afford to stay in FYROM, hundreds of Gypsies opted to try to move south to start anew – in Greece. Hundreds converged on FYROM’s border with Greece earlier this month, hoping to persuade Greek authorities to grant them political asylum or let them go to another country. Authorities stopped the convoy of a dozen buses from crossing the border at Medzitlija, 210 kilometers (130 miles) south of FYROM’s capital, Skopje. But they were not allowed to leave the country because – as refugees – they had no passports. With nowhere to go, the refugees, including 280 children, put up tents at the Medzitlija crossing, living in the open. They insist that the West is now responsible for their fate. «Europe and America knew how to drop bombs on us but they don’t know what to do with us now,» said Suzana Krasniqi, a 28-year-old mother of two embittered by the way the United Nations and NATO have administered Kosovo since the war. «I went back last year to try at least to see my house,» Krasniqi said. But she was «slapped and kicked in the stomach» by ethnic Albanian teenagers in her hometown of Lipljan. She ran away again. The Gypsies deny that they took part in the Serbian government’s crackdown on Kosovo Albanians and accuse the province’s majority of intolerance. «The (ethnic) Albanians want an ethnically pure Kosovo and our skin is too dark for them,» said Berisha, who owned a three-bedroom house there. The UN refugee agency, meanwhile, has been unable to place them. Any resettlement in Western Europe, Momiroski said, would require that another country take them in – a prospect he says «is not likely to happen.» FYROM authorities, meanwhile, have threatened to send the refugees back to Kosovo unless they accept the agency’s offer of cash and help in finding places to live. For now, the Gypsies remain in limbo, camped at the border in rows of tents. Most of the makeshift dwellings are made of vinyl sheets and travelers passing by can see sleeping children crammed together amid piles of dirty clothes and trash. There is no drinking water, except what the refugees get from the nearby city of Bitola. Some women tried to set up stoves to cook, but it didn’t work. «If we are so unwanted everywhere, maybe we should all just die here,» Berisha’s wife, Fatmira, said. «We’ve been hoping for four years to get at least a chance for a better life.»