Dubrave/Kosovo, 20 October 2009 – Kosovo may have won recognition in its David vs. Goliath battle for independence from Serbia, but its own Ashkali minority live forgotten in squalor and misery in a daily fight for survival.
“Even a dog in any European Union country enjoys better living conditions than we here,” complained Danush Ademi, a Kosovo MP representing the Ashkali community.
In Dubrave, a tiny shantytown in central Kosovo, all 1,600 inhabitants are Ashkalis — part of an estimated 65,000 Ashkalis across Kosovo where the majority ethnic Albanians number almost two million people.
Ashkalis speak Albanian but are not ethnic Albanian. They are also quick to distinguish themselves from another Kosovar ethnic minority, the Roma or gypsies, who trace their origins to India.
“We come from Persia,” Ademi told AFP.
But it is not their origins that preoccupy Ademi. Quickly doing the math, he calculated that with a 98 percent unemployment rate, only 12 people, “including myself”, have jobs in Dubrave.
“What do we live on? Look there, that’s our source of income,” Fatima Hassani murmured bitterly, pointing to an old cart in the dirt courtyard behind her broken down house.
“When someone needs to transport something, we get our horse and use it. This is the only way for us to earn some money,” said the 51-year old mother of three.
Curious children flock around to see what’s going on. They all go to school, at least almost all of them, says one man.
Strung up on wire, fish dry in the autumn sun.
“We live — or rather, we survive,” said Hassani.
For many Ashkali, like 42-year-old Besir Ismaili, time and energy go each day into scrambling for odd jobs like collecting wood to bring in a bit of money. The father of six has never had regular, full-time employment.
“When you have a job, you have everything,” he said, sweeping his old cart to fight boredom.
For a state forged on minority rights, the Ashkali say theirs are neglected.
Ismaili concedes that he, like many in Dubrave, get 50 euros (74 dollars) a month in government assistance, the stipend for every unemployed head of a family. But this is not nearly enough to feed his family.
His plight is echoed by others, in emotional testimonies.
“I am sometimes forced to beg at the mosque,” cried 59-year old Myrvette Hanigi, raising her arms in despair.
She said she tries to keep up hope, telling herself it “will get better”.
“As it is now, it is unbearable,” she said.
Ashkalis insist their troubles are overlooked by officials in the capital Pristina, whom they say focus attention on the vocal, 100,000-strong ethnic Serb minority backed by Belgrade.
Kosovo’s 2008 independence declaration by its Albanian authorities is still disputed. Though recognised by 62 countries, including the United States and most of the European Union, Serbia, backed by its powerful ally Russia, opposes the move.
Belgrade still considers Kosovo as its southern province, and the ethnic Serb enclave bordering Serbia proper has been fraught with tension and inter-ethnic clashes since the end of the 1998-99 Kosovo war.
“The ministry for return and minorities should rather be called the ministry for the Serbs,” Ademi charged.
The Serb minority “is privileged, both by investments and the attention that Pristina gives them.
“I simply want to be treated equally like them,” he said.
Kosovo analyst Halil Matoshi agreed.
“When the government talks about minorities, it is primarily about the Serbs,” he said.
The Ashkalis say they have no tension with other ethnic groups in Kosovo, notably the Albanians, and local officials say no inter-ethnic incidents between Ashkalis and other minorities have been registered in recent years.
There is little excitement about local elections next month, even though they are the first since Kosovo declared independence.
In a bid to make their voice heard, Ademi hopes to mobilise Ashkalis to vote in the November poll. But it “is very difficult to lead an election campaign among the poor, exhausted and starved,” he said.
The MP is also against western European countries repatriating Kosovo refugees, as Germany recently said it would do with some 14,000 refugees, mostly Roma, some 10 years after they fled conflict in the Balkans.
This would cut off a source of income for Ashkalis, he explained.
“There is not one single person abroad who is not helping his own. Don’t force the refugees to return to Kosovo because that would only make the situation even worse,” he said.