Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Some history and thoughts on the Roma
By Peter Lippman
Compiled Fall, 2017


The Roma: some history and cultural sensitivity

Among people I've been in touch with, both in the world of folklore enthusiasts and in the general population, there is, unfortunately, much ignorance and stereotyping of the Roma. Expressions of confusion and ignorance crop up periodically. I feel inspired to try to address those stereotypes, by way of sharing a compilation of material I've written on this subject at various times over the years. I will start by sharing some of the history, describing current living conditions and discrimination, and I will then discuss some prejudices pertaining to the Roma.

Much thanks to Morgan Ahern and Sonia Tamar Seeman for reviewing this writing.

It is generally recognized that the Roma left northern India some 1,500 years ago, and they arrived in Europe between around the end of the first millennium CE. While for much time their origin was a mystery, in the late 18th century linguists recognized that the Romani language was related to Hindi, thus unlocking the secret of their origin.

Romani communities spread westward from India through the Middle East into northern Africa and Europe. In part, their influx into Europe accompanied the Ottoman encroachment into the Balkans. The Roma served the Ottomans as tradesmen, artisans, and soldiers.

A particularly dreadful chapter in Romani history was the period of their enslavement in parts of Europe, especially Romania, from the 14th to the 19th century. There, Roma were bought and sold as property, just as was done with enslaved people in the American South. Throughout Europe over the centuries, Roma were subject to persecution, sterilization, forcible assimilation, and expulsion.

Not enough has changed since those times.

Where human rights and standard of living are concerned, the Roma are at or near the bottom of society in every country in Europe. Discrimination against the Romani populations and the forced migration of their communities have been as common in the last couple of decades as they ever were. Compounding these injuries is the widespread racism against Roma, comparable to the racism against African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos that exists in the United States. That is, European racism against the Roma is both an attitude and a systemic problem.

Any discussion of Roma history in Europe should note that the biggest disaster in that history was the World War II Holocaust, in which the Jews were not the only victims. This history, as so much with the Roma, is usually forgotten. Genocide was committed against the Roma as well; Romani communities throughout the lands occupied by the Nazis were forced into ghettoes, and many of these people were sent to concentration camps or simply murdered where they lived. Other Roma were subjected to long imprisonment. It is difficult to cite accurate figures, but this report holds that of Europe’s pre-war Roma population of one million, approximately twenty percent, or around 220,000, perished.

Since World War II Roma have struggled to integrate themselves into the economies of the countries in which they live, while proudly upholding their traditional cultures. This has been an uphill battle.

The situation is difficult in central Europe, in such places as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania, where the Romani population is significant. In those countries discrimination is at times organized, and there are periodic incidents of violence against the Roma. In August of 2012 a thousand neo-Nazis descended upon a mixed Romani and Hungarian village in western Hungary, shouting at Romani inhabitants, “You are going to die here.” (see Hungarian Anti-Roma marches)

A particularly notorious violation of Roma rights took place in France in 2010, when President Sarkozy ordered Roma from Bulgaria and Romania—that is, fellow EU citizens—to leave the country. Repeated police raids on Romani communities resulted in the eviction and expulsion of nearly 15,000 Roma from France in 2010 and 2011. Sarkozy’s law permitted French authorities to expel people from the country if they were suspected of immigration simply for the purpose of “benefiting from the social assistance system” (See France: One Year On, New Abuses against Roma.) In 2012, after Sarkozy was replaced, the French government took steps to ameliorate the abuses against the Roma, but much damage had been done.

While human rights abuses against the Roma occur on a wide scale in various parts of Europe, the EU itself has taken a stance in favor of the rights of the Roma, and has attempted to promote more favorable policies. The Roma Education Fund reports that the European Commission is working to help with integration of the Roma thus: “The social and economic inclusion of Roma is a priority for the EU and needs the commitment and joint efforts of national and local authorities, civil society and EU institutions. The European Commission is committed to taking the necessary steps to improve the situation of Roma people and their social and economic integration in society. On April 7, 2010 the Commission adopted a Communication on the social and economic integration of Roma in Europe (IP/10/407; MEMO/10/121) – the first ever policy document dedicated specifically to Roma. It outlines an ambitious programme to help making policies for Roma inclusion more effective and defines the main challenges ahead.”

The same report notes, “There are between 10 million and 12 million Roma in the EU, in candidate countries and potential candidate countries in the Western Balkans. Roma people living in the European Union are EU citizens and have the same rights as any other EU citizen. A significant number of Roma live in extreme marginalisation in both rural and urban areas and in very poor social-economic conditions. They are disproportionally affected by discrimination, violence, unemployment, poverty, bad housing and poor health standards.” (See Frequently Asked Questions on the European Roma Population.)

In early 2005, eight European governments (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and the Slovak Republic) launched the “Decade of Roma Inclusion,” in a bid to promote national action plans that would help end discrimination against the Roma populations in their respective countries. However, in the same period, evictions of Roma were ongoing in the UK, Lithuania, Albania, Greece, Ireland, Kosovo, and Italy.


In Bosnia-Herzegovina the history of the Roma, and discrimination against that community, has paralleled that of the rest of Europe. In World War II, Croatian collaborators with the Nazis put Roma in concentration camps along with Jews and Serbs. Then in the more recent war, Serb separatists expelled the Roma, along with other non-Serbs, from the parts of Bosnia that they controlled. On the other hand, in Muslim-controlled parts of the country the Roma were not mistreated, and in many cases they joined the army and fought alongside other Bosnians in defense of the country.

Recently released census figures set the Romani population at nearly 9,000, but the true figure has often been estimated to be at least five times that. After the war in the 1990s, to some extent displaced Roma returned to Serb-controlled territory, the "entity" known as the Republika Srpska. Now, they are subject to discrimination and poor conditions in both entities, throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Thousands of Roma live at the margins; in any given municipality it is common to hear that perhaps one percent of the Roma population holds a steady job. Bosnians do not generally hide their racism towards the Roma. In 2000, I was in contact with a Romani organization in Sarajevo, and I mentioned their struggle to improve their conditions to a human rights activist in a completely different field, off in central Bosnia. He commented to me, “You know, they don’t really even care whether they have toilets in their homes.”

In the Decade of Roma Inclusion, Bosnian Roma have seen little benefit from the bureaucracy that was constructed to include them and from the EU money that has supported that bureaucracy. Employment of Roma has not increased significantly, nor has health coverage. Few Romani children finish elementary school. And while the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg decreed in 2009 that Roma and Jews must be given full political rights in Bosnia, to this date constitutional obstruction of those rights has not been resolved.

Conditions for the Roma in the rest of Europe are similar or worse. In Bulgaria Roma make up a high percentage of the unemployed. In Italy hundreds of Roma live in old trailers and dilapidated barracks. Roma live in unsanitary conditions in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Romania as well. Even in enlightened Sweden, in late 2013 the police secretly created a list of 4,000 people, mostly Roma, for surveillance as potential crime suspects.

The influx of Middle Eastern refugees in the past year has only made conditions more difficult for the Roma, many of whose ancestors have lived on the continent for the last 700 years.

Troubles of the Roma in Kosovo

In 2016, the famed Romani singer Esma Redžepova performed once again in Seattle, not long before her death. She lived in a Romani community near Skopje, Macedonia. However, she originally hailed from Kosovo. And for that matter, our dear friend Šani Rifati, who recently taught dances in Seattle, is Esma's cousin and he comes from Kosovo as well.

Over the last century Kosovo has been marked by periodic conflict between the (erstwhile) Serbian regime and the majority Albanian population, with Serbia holding the upper hand until war broke out between the Serbian regime and insurgent Albanian forces. The war ended with the regime’s defeat and expulsion at the hands of NATO in 1999.

As in the rest of Europe, over the decades the Roma in Kosovo were at the bottom of society, subject to discrimination from all directions. To their great misfortune, during and after the 1998-99 war, Roma were caught between two parties in a fight that was not theirs. Romani men were sometimes abused, and sometimes drafted to fight, both by the Serbian side and by the Kosovar Albanian side. It happened that relatives even found themselves looking through their gun sights at each other.

It was the disaster of the Kosovo Roma community that its members were caught in an impossible position. Immediately upon the end of the NATO intervention, hundreds of thousands of Albanians came streaming back from exile to their (often destroyed) homes. Unfortunately, there were Albanians who wished to take revenge for their brush with danger, and they were not particular about their targets. Those Serbs, Roma, and other minorities who had remained in Kosovo after the NATO intervention were at risk.

There was a near-unanimous belief among Albanians that Roma had collaborated with Serbian forces during the war. It is more accurate to say that the Roma were in an untenable position in that period, caught between two opposing forces in a fight that was not their own. But beliefs about the behavior of the Roma during the war apparently contributed to the subsequent mistreatment of the Roma. On the other hand, while Albanians may have held enduring prejudices against the Roma, most Albanians, having survived a brutal war, just wanted to move ahead peacefully and get on with their lives.

I visited Kosovo immediately after the NATO intervention in July of 1999. At that time, I went to a collective center for displaced Roma at Kosovo Polje, on the outskirts of Prishtina. Approximately 8,000 Roma had moved into a high school in this town when they left Prishtina and other nearby localities under pressure from returning Albanians. The Roma were about to be moved from the school to a nearby tent camp.

There were around two hundred Roma sitting outside the school building, with piles of bedding, cradles, and other belongings waiting to be loaded. The women and children had already left. One man said to me, “Many people have come and written different things from what they actually saw. They wrote that we were thieves. Deutsche Welle said in a broadcast that we are used to this kind of life. That's not true. We are used to living in houses. You should see the houses we used to live in, where we came from.”

As Kosovo was established as an international protectorate after the war ended in mid-1999, several camps for displaced persons were set up to receive those Roma who had not left Kosovo. A large number of Roma found themselves in four camps near Mitrovica in the north of Kosovo. They were out of the frying pan, but into the fire; these camps were terribly polluted by contamination from a former lead smelter. The camps were maintained for a decade, with one shut down in 2010, and another only in late 2012. Residents were moved to newly-constructed houses near Mitrovica.

Estimates of the prewar Roma population in Kosovo vary wildly; I have seen figures ranging from 100,000 to 300,000. A more realistic estimate may be somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000. A Human Rights Watch report estimated that the population of Roma remaining in Kosovo by 2010 was approximately 38,000.

After the war at least 100,000 Roma were exiled from Kosovo to the surrounding former republics of Yugoslavia, especially to neighboring Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia; many also ended up in central Europe, especially Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Scandinavia. Their living conditions in those places of refuge were sub-standard. They lacked employment and often ended up living at the poorest margins of the cities, sometimes on or near landfill. Many people lacked basic identification, and as such were not registered as refugees.

Not all is hopeless. While the Roma displaced from Kosovo struggle to make a life in their host countries or, if deported back to Kosovo, try to adjust to changed circumstances back home, there are initiatives and organizations trying to help. The Kosovo Foundation for Open Society advocates in the EU for the rights of minorities in Kosovo. RomaReact fights stereotypes about the Roma. The Roma Education Fund promotes education in Romani communities. The Society for Threatened Peoples (based in Germany) monitors the state of human rights for the Roma in Kosovo. And Voice of Roma, based in California, works to educate the public about the rights of the Roma, and presents Romani culture and traditions in order to fight stereotypes.


Džafer Buzoli lives in Kosovo and works there for the Society for Threatened Peoples. He monitors and reports on the state of human rights for the Roma in Kosovo, and advocates for their improvement.  A couple of years ago, he brought me up to date on the situation of the Roma.

Džafer told me, “At the end of the NATO intervention, there were some 8,000 Roma who found themselves in the area of Mitrovica. At that time, the UN established four camps for the displaced Roma in lead-polluted areas, in North Mitrovica. There was lead dust in the soil and the water. People lived there for ten years, until 2008 and 2009. Then they were removed to a French NATO base. But it was not clean.

“In ten years, around 90 Roma died from lead poisoning. Now some Roma have returned to the south Mahala [a traditional Roma neighborhood]. Most of the others fled to Macedonia, Germany, or Switzerland. The Roma in Kosovo are no longer living in the polluted camps, but in that area where they now live, there is still lead dust in the air.

“As to the exiled Roma, there is an agreement with the EU whereby Kosovo is willing to receive all its citizens back. But, unfortunately, this is equivalent to a green light to deport them from their host countries. Roma are being sent back to Kosovo without support. They are being expelled from Germany and other countries. Return to Kosovo is difficult. If they are coming back from Macedonia, Serbia, or Montenegro, then there is a support package for their return. But if they are coming back from Europe, there is no support. And it is a problem when the children do not know the local language.

“In the schools, there has been a kind of segregation. The Roma children are placed in the back of the classroom. However, now that situation has been improving as a result of the state’s educational strategy.

“Meanwhile, there is no economic development taking place in Kosovo, and there is little or no work here for the Roma. Some of them collect scraps. It is easier for the people who live in villages, where at least they can plant a garden.

“As to our work here, we collaborate in advocacy with the respected people in the local communities. Those respected people are rich, but they are passive. We are working to train the youth to be more active. We have written letters of protest about local conditions, but there has been no response.”

Mr. Buzolli summed up his hopes, saying, “We have to be optimistic - but not too optimistic.”

Racism, stereotypes, and the "G-word."

A somber commemoration of the Romani Holocaust, called the Porajmos (or Porriamos), takes place in early August.

Early in the Nazi regime, Germany began to treat the Roma the same way it treated the Jews. The Roma were stripped of their citizenship and, by 1936, began to be placed in ghettos or internment camps for deportation. By a couple of years into the 1940s all Roma had been killed or deported to concentration camps. As mentioned earlier, between 200,000 and a half million Roma were killed—but some estimates go as high as 1.5 million. A particularly large massacre of Roma took place at Auschwitz on August 2, 1944; that date was later established as the day to commemorate the Romani holocaust.

Racism is both a system and an attitude. It's the systemic racism that really hurts people's lives, but the attitude—nine parts ignorance and one part hate—facilitates the system. The attitude supports the violence that is perpetrated regularly against the Roma in Europe, some of which is mentioned above.

Just as with the mainstream, implicitly racist attitudes against African Americans and other people of color that we are all fed in our cultural atmosphere in the United States, racism against Roma is in the air and in the language we speak. It is a good idea for us to ponder this problem and to be on guard against terminology that relegates the Roma to some land of fantasy—thus taking away the opportunity of the Roma to be perceived as real people.

This pertains to us folklore enthusiasts who benefit from the contributions of the Roma that so greatly enrich the culture that fascinates us. Without the Romani influence, East European folklore would be seriously impoverished. The contribution could be compared to that of African American culture to mainstream American culture.

The image of the Roma, so often encapsulated in the word “Gypsy,” is something that is romanticized and trivialized. If the effect of racism as an attitude is to generalize a given ethnic group as less human than the "mainstream" or "dominant" one, then evoking the Roma as “wanderers,” “exotic,” and a host of other insulting categories is just as racist a practice as any other.

These images are only reinforced by the semantic usages found in shops such as "The Gypsy Trader," "Gypsy Junk," and "The Vintage Gypsy." They are compounded by the thoughtless use of "Gypsy" images and a caricaturized, exotic style in many realms from the boutique on up to the folklore ensemble. The images portrayed in these settings leave no space for the comprehension of the Roma as a dignified people with legitimate rights and struggles that they are waging.

Our friend Šani Rifati, Kosovo Rom and activist leader of the organization Voice of Roma, expressed it well:

“I won't play you a sad song on my violin. I do not have a bandana. I do not have a golden tooth. I do not have long hair or a golden hoop in my ear. I am just trying to speak up for my people:

to tell you about their suffering and the persecution they've endured throughout the centuries
to ask you to fight against ignorance, prejudice and stereotypes

Simply put, as a place to start: please call me Rom."

(See  and

So, for starters, I propose that we recognize that the word “Gypsy” is an insensitive word, and that we avoid it—or if it must be used, that we put it in quotation marks. I also suggest that we let people who name their stores, bands, or other outfits using the word “Gypsy” know that they are employing a denigrating term that calls up a caricature of a people who have just the same hopes, needs, and ambitions as everyone else.

Well-meaning people sometimes respond, "But I often hear Roma calling themselves 'Gypsies,' so why isn't it OK if I say it?"

What Roma or anyone else call themselves is their own business. But we, as privileged people who are benefiting from and enriched by the contributions of an oppressed people, need to hold ourselves to a position of extra sensitivity. Avoiding the "G-word" takes a bit of effort, and that effort constitutes a conscious step against racism. It's the least we can do to show our respect.

Here’s more from Šani: “The first basic step in separating myths and stereotypes from facts and authenticity is in the use of our terminology. 'Rom' means a human being, person or man in the Romani language. The Roma do not call themselves Gypsies. Historically, the term ‘Gypsy’ came from the mistaken assumption on the part of Anglo-Europeans that Roma originated in Egypt. In fact, the Roma are a distinct ethnic minority, distinguished at least by Rom blood and the Romani, or Romanes, language, whose origins began in the Punjab region of India. Their migration began in the 2nd century, when they traveled through the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and Turkey, eventually spreading all over Europe. While Roma are Europe's largest ethnic minority, they remain the least integrated and the most persecuted people of Europe today. Using the word 'Gypsy' is not only inaccurate but perpetuates the continuation of stereotypes that portray Roma as beggars, swindlers, and thieves.”

It should be noted that, contrary to the stereotype, the vast majority of European Roma have lived in settled communities for many generations. And there are communities of Roma who have for the most part ceased speaking the Romani language, but they still hold to Romani traditions.


Here are a few more articles and informational sources.

Some web sites:
European Roma Rights Centre

Amnesty International (enter "Roma")

European Roma Rights Centre - International legal advocacy center

Human Rights Watch (enter "Roma")

Kosovo Foundation for Open Society - Prishtina-based minority advocacy organization

Rroma Foundation - history, book reviews, links, reports

RomaReact - Interactive multimedia site for news and advocacy. I strongly recommend the flash mob video at the front of this site!

Roma Education Fund - Hungary-based educational foundation:

Society for Threatened Peoples Humanitarian project

Press releases:
Germany must ensure detox measures for Roma refugees from camp 'Osterode'
[Berlin memorial] must be an initial step to establish a European integration project for Romani peoples

The Society's work in Kosovo:
Empowering Roma Youth in Kosovo (Includes footage from Kosovo. In German) 

Voice of Roma, California-based advocacy and cultural association. 
Facebook page

Some articles:
A surprising verdict: the Gypsies are the racists, not the members of the Hungarian Guard, October 2, 2013

Anti-Gypsyism 25 years on: Europe fails Havel’s litmus test, by Bernard Rorke, January 16, 2015
'Gypsy' No More: Romani Music Festival Combats Stereotypes, by Matt Saincome, April 29 2015

Romania turns its back on dark past of Roma slavery, March 3, 2016

Roma Poisoned at U.N. Camps in Kosovo May Get Apology and Compensation, by Rick Gladstone, NY Times, April 7, 2016

And here's an article about a Romani museum in our own region, on Vashon Island:
Mobile museum on Vashon honors Romani culture, by Elizabeth Shepherd,  Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Staff,
July 6, 2010


Silent Harm, Verena Knaus et al. Silent Harm - A UNICEF-sponsored report assessing the situation of the psycho-social health of children repatriated to Kosovo. In cooperation with the Kosovo Health Foundation, 2012.

Dossier of Evidence: Lead contaminated camps of internally displaced Roma, Ashkali and Kosovan-Egyptian families in North Mitrovica, Kosovo, Society for Threatened Peoples, July, 2009

Memorandum of the Society for Threatened People: Lead Poisoning of Roma in IDP Camps in Kosovo

Until the Very Last Gipsy Has Fled the Country: The Mass Expulsion of Roma and Ashkali from Kosovo, Society for Threatened Peoples International, Human Rights Report No. 21, September 1999

Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora, Oxford University Press, 2012
By Carol Silverman, Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Folklore at the University of Oregon.
Romani Routes provides a timely and insightful view into Romani communities both in their home countries and in the diaspora.
Companion site for the book

And in general, see anything you can get your hands on by Ian Hancock, Adrian Marsh, Carol Silverman, or Sonia Tamar Seeman.

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