Roma are 'between a rock and a hard place'

29/12/2012

Through a film festival, organisers hope to introduce activism to the Roma.

By Harriet Salem for Southeast European Times in Pristina – 29/12/12

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The Rolling Film Festival features low-budget, gritty insights into Roma history and culture. [Photo courtesy Fisnik Dobreci]

For four days in Kosovo's capital Pristina, the Rolling Film Festival screened movies made by and about Roma.

Far from shiny Hollywood blockbusters, these were low-budget, gritty insights into Roma history and culture, simultaneously brutal and compassionate. A mixture of documentaries, fiction and personal narratives, the filming took place in Germany, Kosovo, Slovenia, Hungary and further afield, reflecting the complexity, diversity and dispersion of Roma diaspora across Europe.

One of the largest ethnic minority groups in Europe, numbering 10 million to 12 million, Roma are also arguably the most discriminated against. Most live in central and eastern Europe and the Balkans in abject poverty; levels of education and literacy are low, unemployment rates are exceptionally high. Many are officially stateless. Without identification documents they are unable to access social programmes and benefits.

Their marginalised position makes Roma extremely vulnerable to external pressures and political forces. In 1998 when open fighting broke out in Kosovo between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, Roma were caught in crossfire. Accused of collaborating with Serb neighbours, following NATO intervention in 1999 they were subjected to revenge attacks from ethnic Albanians, including physical violence.

As so often in their troubled histories Roma were invisible victims. International media and aid organisations focused predominantly on ethnic Albanians and, to a lesser extent, Serb refugees. Neighbouring Macedonia turned many Roma back, and those finding shelter in Montenegro and Serbia were greeted with hostility and squalid living conditions.

Small numbers of Roma have begun return to Kosovo. However, most are forcibly repatriated, particularly from Germany and France. According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, "extreme poverty, social deprivation, persistent discrimination, political instability and lack of adequate assistance" remain barriers to sustainable programmes of return.

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The festival was held in Pristina from December 12th-16th. [Photo courtesy Fisnik Dobreci]

Discrimination against Roma remains real in Kosovo.

"During the war we were caught between two fires," Driton Berisha, a Roma refugee from Plemonita, said. "Now it is less, perhaps we can say between a rock and hard place. I cannot distinguish the Roma relationships with Serbs and Albanians. It depends on place and context. For example, I can see it matters to different groups what language I speak, whether I use the Albanian or Serbian spelling of my name. It is seen as denoting support for one side or the other, but Roma don't want to choose."

Berisha helped found Rolling Film Festival, which was held in Pristina from December 12th to December 16th. He is one of few Roma attending university in Kosovo. This success he attributes to NGO Balkan Sunflower.

"They taught me how to fish rather than just giving me fish," he said. "I see little progression from government in terms of strategy. They build Roma houses, which is a good, and give them small businesses to run, to sustain them. But I don't see any Roma run businesses today. People lack skills to run them and end up selling. You can't eat the walls."

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Lack of education and consequent poverty also underpin lack of engagement. Unemployment is more than 90 percent amongst Kosovo Roma. "Many don't have time to engage. Priority No. 1 is ensuring their families can eat."

For Berisha and fellow long-term activist Sami Mustafa, also a founder of Rolling Film Festival, this is the purpose of their projects -- teaching skills and grassroots activism. Each year the programme supports young Roma in making short films. The equipment is basic, most recorded on mobile phones, but watching this year's entries shows how engagement with history and circumstances facilitates empowerment.

Kosovo Roma cannot sit back and wait for change, history suggests it will not happen; they must drive it.

"It is always the stronger ones who decide what is right or wrong," Berisha said. "The winner of the war is the hero. The loser is the terrorist. Roma must raise their voices. In bigger numbers, there is more chance we will be heard."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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