A remarkable, but little noticed event was reported on April 7 in the NY Times (with limited coverage elsewhere). Rick Gladstone’s, ‘Roma poisoned at U.N. camps in Kosovo may get apology and compensation‘ relates the findings of a human rights advisory panel of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo. The panel found that the mission failed to protect Roma families sent to camps after war broke out in 1998 between Serbia and Albanian separatists.
Hundreds of Roma were placed in three camps in Mitrovica, Kosovo, after ethnic Albanians had seized their homes. The camps were within 200 yards of enormous piles of industrial waste from a lead-smelting factory. Soon after the camps were set up, many Roma died from lead poisoning. Others suffered stunted growth, irreversible brain and nerve damage, suppression of the immune system, anemia and renal failure. There were associated speech, language, and behavioral problems. Some of this is described in the film Gypsy Blood: The Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian IDPs of Mitrovica, Kosovo (2005).
The panel’s findings are significant in two ways. First, the U.N. rarely apologizes for anything, often denying allegations or asserting diplomatic immunity. Forced to enter difficult situations with limited resources, it is understandable that mistakes can be made. But even as the organization of last resort, it is important for it to acknowledge errors and where possible provide remedies. That’s a necessary first step before encouraging member countries to do likewise.
Perhaps more significantly, the finding recognizes a harm done to Roma people, one in a long series over many centuries. During the Second World War, the Nazis exterminated hundreds of thousands of Roma. This was the Baro Porrajmos, or Great Devouring. After the war Roma experienced killings, forced sterilization, segregation, racial discrimination, evictions, and extreme poverty.
Roma are widely misunderstood. People who would never say something similar about other groups often casually offer ignorant and offensive comments about Roma people. They are seen by many as rootless (“gypsies”). It’s true that they are widely dispersed, but most are settled, or would choose to be if they could find work. They are seen as unwilling to participate, even though as with any group, some assimilate well to dominant lifestyles while others maintain distinctive ways. It’s a final insult that they are widely blamed for petty crimes with little evidence other than an often mistaken ethnic identification. (And yes, they do commit some crimes, just as do members of any group.)
My own experience with Roma people has been limited. There were Roma in Illinois, especially in the southern areas. I met Roma people during a year in Ireland. Amongst a large number of immigrants, they were often misidentified based on quick judgements about behavior. I’ve met Roma in the US and in various other countries in Europe. I learned about librarians in Bucharest working with Roma communities. I visited “Roma schools” in Turkey. I wouldn’t pretend to any great personal knowledge, but what I have experienced loudly confirms what I’ve read from thoughtful sources, e.g., The Roma and open society or Dimitrina Petrova’s ‘The Roma: Between a myth and the future.’
To take just one example: The Turgut Reis middle school in Çanakkale, Turkey (see photos above) is set in the midst of a 600-year old Roma community. To residents of the neighborhood, the Turks, Arabs, Europeans, and so on are the itinerant ones. Students in the school are bright, energetic, focused on sports, music, and each other They’re sometimes unruly, but fun to be with. They fit well to my stereotype of middle school students .
The needs of the Turgut Reis community are familiar in other urban settings–job opportunity, education, affordable housing, and overcoming racism. The history of the people undoubtedly shapes their situation today, but that situation is not determined by being Roma. Attaching a label, such as “Roma,” may provide a starting point for conversation, but it ultimately tells us little about any individual.
I’m glad that the U.N. panel found a failure to comply with the applicable human rights standards in the Kosovo camps. It also urged a public apology and payment of adequate compensation. I hope that doing so nurtures the growth of a greater understanding of a complex and fascinating culture.