Paul Polansky

Writer describes ethnic cleansing in war-torn Kosovo
By KRISTIN BUEHNER, Of The Globe-Gazette

A little Roma Boy in Kosovo
Kosovo Romas - Life behind bars

Roma History and their Caste System

A Survey of Their Communities After the War

The main purpose of this survey was to find where the Kosova Roma and Hashkalija lived before the war, and how many have remained. In addition to population figures, categories for caste , houses before and after the war, food aid, medical aid, whereabouts of people today, and resistence to resettlement shed light on their situation today.

This survey was started in August 1999 and finished the second week of November 1999. All 29 districts (municipalities) in Kosova were visited and researched. Every attempt was made to personally investigate the almost 300 Roma/Hashkalija communities identified, but in some instances that was impossible due to a lack of roads, hostilities by local Serbs, refusal of cooperation by local Albanians, and homes still in flames. Many Roma and Hashkalija warned against visiting certain areas because of the danger posed by Albanians who were kidnaping and killing anyone helping Gypsies.

Roma and Hashkalija communities in this survey were located mainly by word of mouth. Although the 1991 Yugoslav census purportedly listed all Roma communities in Kosova, it became apparent very quickly that the 1991 census in fact contained only about two-thirds of the Roma communities and very few of the more numerous Hashkalija communities. The 1991 figures for the Roma population were very unreliable and nearly always on the low side. These errors in the census can probably be explained by the fact that since Kosovar Albanians did not participate in the 1991 census, most Hashkalija and many Roma (who associated themselves with these Albanians through religion, language and customs) did not participate in this census either.

Roma Boy wounded by Albanians
A little Roma boy wounded by Albanian extremists
Romas have almost been completely exterminated and driven away by Kosovo Albanians

As KFOR attempts to patrol every village in Kosova, it was hoped that lists of Roma and Hashkalija communities would be available from regional military commands. But finding Gypsy communities from KFOR sources was typical of the experience with the Dutch KFOR in Rahovec. A captain interviewed there was confident his troops had found only one village where Gypsies lived in the district of Rahovec. Our investigation found fourteen villages in that district where hundreds of Hashkalija/Egyptians/Maxhupi are still living.

In 1993 the Hashkalija conducted their own census in Kosova. No copy of this census is known to have survived the war. But according to Querim Abazi, who was in charge of this census, his census takers found about 87,000 Hashkalija living in Kosova. Although the 1991 census for Roma was on the low side (43,474), the two censuses give a combined total of approximately 130,000 Roma/Hashkalija in Kosova five years before the war. Therefore, the figure of 151, 126 Roma/Hashkalija/Egyptians/Maxhupi, which this survey found living in Kosova before the war, appears reasonable. Unfortunately, an empirical figure will probably never be possible to calculate.

A Roma camp under KFOR protection
A Roma camp under KFOR protection

I started this survey interviewing displaced persons in the Roma/Hashkalija camp by Krushevac (Obilich). Most of the central districts of Kosova were represented in the camp. Frequently, I was able to visit these districts with people living in the camp who wanted to return to their community to see if their home had been destroyed (it always was), or to see if relatives were still living there (seldom more than a few). From these interviews I obtained a list of all Roma/Hashkalija villages in their district. Every effort was then made to visit each of these villages to see if Gypsies were still living there.

Although I found almost 300 Roma/Hashkalija communities, it is possible that I missed a few, unknown to my informants. Many Hashkalija told us that every village in the district of Gjakove has a "few" Gypsy families. Time did not allow me to visit every village in that district or to visit every village in all the other districts. But it is reasonable to assume that every farming village in Kosova had or still has a Roma Kovachi family since their aste/profession is that of blacksmith and every farming village has always had a blacksmith. The only district where I did not find Roma or Hashkalija was in Dragash.

This survey was confronted with many difficulties apart from the long and uncomfortable road journeys. The most common problem was the denial by Albanians that Roma and/or Hashkalija still lived in their Albanian community. Especially in the Lipjan area, I was constantly told by local Albanians that their community never had "Gypsies" or that their Gypsies had all left during the war. Yet inevitably I found ten or twelve houses with anywhere from fifty to one hundred and fifty "Gypsies." In the end, I stopped asking Albanian adults and only asked children riding bikes or walking in the street. The Albanian children never lied to us. In fact they often showed us where the maxhupi lived. No Albanian child was ever afraid to enter the maxhupi part of town.

In the larger cities it was always easy to recognize the Gypsy part of town because the roads were never paved and the sewage system was often above ground in an open ditch. For those who contend that there was no discrimination against Roma and Hashkalija before the war, here is a prime example of municipal services seldom being made available to those in the ghetto.

Roma refugees on their way to nowhere
Kosovo Roma refugees on their way to nowhere

Another problem in conducting this survey was the difficulty of being accepted into the Roma or Hashkalija community and obtaining their trust to collect data. Since I had interviewed more than one hundred Roma holocaust survivors in the Czech Republic several years ago, I did have the experience to know that this survey would be impossible without a Roma or Hashkalija translator. My translator was Hisen Gashnjani, a Kovachi Rom who befriended me in the Krushevac camp. Although many Roma and Hashkalija recognized him immediately as a Gypsy, his skin color was not always our passport to enter their community until he declared that he was a "maxhupi." In the Lipjan community of Mali Alas our request for an interview with the Hashkalija leader there was actually turned down despite the fact that we had driven up in a UNHCR marked car. These Hashkalija were desperate people who had received no food aid since the war and had suffered a hand grenade attack only three days earlier. They were not prepared to talk to outsiders until Hisen told the Hashkalija leader that he too was a "maxhupi." Then we were readily accepted and invited in for tea.

The most depressing part of this survey was to find so many Roma/Hashkalija (the great majority) in such deplorable conditions. In Prishtine I found more than 30 families who out of fear of being kidnaped and killed had not left their homes in more than seven months. In the Peje district I found most families still being threatened with death by their neighbors if they didn't leave the country immediately. At one Hashkalija farmhouse in Brezhanik we heard three land mines go off during the hour we were there, as a warning, we were later told, that our visit was not welcomed by the local Albanians. In Dobroqana (Gjilan) I found a family who was always stoned if they went out shopping, while in Obilich and in many other communities the Roma and Hashkalija are turned away by local shops.

After the war Albanian extremists have made thousands of arson attacks on non-Albanian property
Thousands of Serb and Roma homes have been set on fire after the war

It is not only the local Albanians who are discriminating against the Roma and Hashkalija but also the major aid agencies in Kosova. In Obilich, Kosovo Polje, Lipjan and many other districts I found Mother Teresa Society openly refusing to deliver food to "Gypsies." Islamic Relief also seems to have a policy of not providing aid to Gypsies although the Roma and Hashkalija are Muslim. Even at Oxfam, who have done more for the Roma and Hashkalija than any other aid agency in Kosova, deliveries to minorities are sometimes delayed for long periods by local Albanian staff. Urgent requests for food aid for hungry Gypsy families made to several major aid agencies months ago have gone unfulfilled. Although the Roma and Hashkalija are the second largest minority in Kosova (and may soon be the largest minority at the rate the Serbs are leaving) no aid agency including UNHCR and OSCE have hired a Kosovar Rom or Hashkalija although many speak passable English.

Attempts to get food aid to Roma and Hashkalija communities have also been thwarted by Serbs who on numerous occasions have threatened Albanian drivers working for aid agencies. In the community of Plemetina, food aid for the Roma there was stopped for several months when local Serbs refused to let ration cards be handed out to the Roma because these cards were written in English and Albanian.

KFOR has also played a role in preventing aid reaching the Roma and Hashkalija and discriminating against them, although this seems to be more of a regimental problem rather than overall policy. In Obilich my translator and I were detained by British KFOR forces for more than two hours on our way to distribute food in Plemetina because an officer shouted at his soldiers at the checkpoint, "That's the American who works with the gypos!" However, the British RAF security forces in Radevo (Lipjan) have become a legend among the local Hashkalija because of food and medical aid provided beyond the call of duty by the RAF paratroopers.

Hopefully, this survey will enable the aid agencies working in Kosova to find Roma and Hashkalija still here and help them at least to survive the winter. If the same aid that reaches the Albanians is given to Roma and Hashkalija, then the prospect for a multiethnic society is still possible. But demanding that Roma and Hashkalija remain in a country where they are not allowed to leave their homes or their villages to go shopping, to go to school, to go to work, or to go to the doctor without fear of being kidnaped and killed is the same as telling the Jews before WW II that they should not leave Nazi Germany.

Since the arrival of KFOR forces and the return of ethnic Albanians to Kosova, more than 14,000 Roma/Hashkalija homes have been burnt. As seen by the results of this survey, most Roma/Hashkalija have left Kosova to save their own lives. They are not economic emigrants as some UNHCR staffs depict them, but people desperately trying to survive. From my interviews in the refugee camps in Macedonia and Montenegro, most want to return when it is safe to do so. It is in their culture, their heritage and their tradition that Roma are buried in the homeland of their ancestors. For at least seven hundred years, Kosova has been their homeland.

(In the Original reports there follows a detailed list with figures on situation of Kosovo Roma in pre-war and post-war Kosovo)

Paul Polansky
Prishtine, Kosova
31 October 1999


Exclusive Human Rights Watch Report - Aug 1999

After the arrival of KFOR Mission to Kosovo

Kosovo Post-war Cleansing of Minorities

IWPR, Roma Unwanted Wherever They Go, July 28

The Flight of Gypsies from Kosovo, Feral Tribune Aug 9
People in No Man's Land - Roma Refugees from Kosovo, AIM Sep 29
WSWS, Roma and Ashkali Driven Out en Masse, Sep 26

Romas Protest to Macedonian Government, Sep 1999
RNN The War in Kosovo is Not Over - Persecution of Roma Continued, Dec 1


Roma people driven away by Albanians
A group of Roma IDP's driven away from their homes by Albanians
waiting for evacuation

Roma boy - a photo from the 30ies (History of Serbian photography)


Roma History and Caste System

The term "Gypsy" today it is not politically correct. But in Kosova that may be the only practical way to refer to the people who are still under that etymological stigma.

Before 1990 Gypsies in Kosova were divided into two groups, Roma and Hashkalija. Since 1990, the Gypsies have classified into three groups, Roma, Hashkalija and Egyptian. The Roma are sub-classified into 12 castes. All groups identified themselves under the general term Maxhupi, which translates as Gypsy. DNA testing someday may make the relationship between these groups more understandable. For the moment we have to rely on the historical record, language, customs and oral traditions to understand why they have divided themselves into two groups.

Under Turkish domination, the Kosovar Egyptians were called Hashkalija which in Turkish means nothing more than Gypsy. Maxhupi is the other name all Kosovar Gypsies are known by. The etymology of the word is not clear. A Turkish doctor said it was an old Turkish word for Gypsy. A Macedonian professor of linguistics said it was the Albanian word for Gypsy.
Many Roma experts believe this is a derogatory term, but most Roma and Hashkalija in Kosova used this term to identify themselves.

All Roma originated in India. Which part of India, is another question. From their language, many experts feel the Roma originated in Greater Punjab (NE Pakistan, NW India and most of Rajasthan). There is solid evidence for this assumption since many Punjabis today can understand some of the Roma language, depending upon the dialect. But the grammar is another matter. Roma grammar indicates an origin in NE India, in the area of Bihar, the ancestral homeland of the pre-Dravidian people called the Dom. Since the "d" and the "r" in Panjabi are interchangeable, many experts feel that the Rom and Dom are one in the same. From my experience with both people, I believe they are related because they share so many customs, traditions, oral histories, characteristics and music. For the past few thousand years, the Doms have also been found in Greater Punjab under a series of subcastes, namely the Banjari and Khebeli (Gabeli) who have maintained their caste names in Eastern Europe.

When did the Roma leave India? The answer may be lost forever, but most likely the Roma have been emigrating out of India for thousands of years. Major movements, however, have been established. One such movement was in 1308 when the Lohar caste was defeated defending their ancestral city in Rajasthan. The Lohars have been documented as arriving in Eastern Europe around 1320. This is an important date in the history of the Kosovar Gypsies because the Lohars are the blacksmith caste of India. They became nomadic after their defeat and were known to roam in highly decorated wagons pulled by either black water buffalo or small Punjabi ponies, both of which can be found in Kosova today. The largest Roma caste in Kosova is the Kovachi, which is the Serbian translation for blacksmith.

Most "Gypsies" in Kosova trace their genealogy through oral tradition back to a blacksmith. In fact, the most common oral history that I have collected among the Roma and the Kosovar Egyptians speak of nine brothers, all blacksmiths, who came from Turkey to Kosova over five hundred years ago. Once in Kosova, they separated, going to nine different towns. According to most oral histories, all Gypsies in Kosova are descended from those nine brothers.

It is well know that the Lohars did not travel alone. Like all great movements out of India in those times they had their camp followers: transporters, musicians, dancers, even fortune tellers. In lesser numbers these same professional castes are to be found today in Kosova, namely the Rabagi (transporters), Gabeli (acrobats, dancers), Arlia (musicians) and Chergari (fortune tellers).

The next big question in understanding the Gypsies of Kosova is: did the Roma (Kovachi, Rabagi, Vlahy, Gabeli, Chergari and Arlia) find "Gypsies" already here when they arrived around 1320? Some Kosovar Gypsies, who today call themselves Egyptian, say yes, their ancestors were here.

If true, their history in Kosova is much older than that of the Roma who left India in the 14th century. According to the oral histories I have collected from these "Gypsies," their ancestors came from Egypt. This is a curious tale, because the only other "Gypsies" who claim their ancestors came from Egypt are the Gitanos of Spain (Gitano means Egyptian in old Spanish). Neither the Gitanos nor the Kosovar Egyptians (also known as Hashkalija) speak Romani. But from their characteristics, customs, tradition and music, not to mention their oral histories, both these groups of "Egyptians" have all the hallmarks of Roma from India.

Many experts believe these so-called Egyptian Gypsies left India with Alexander the Great and were the blacksmiths and camp followers of his army as it traveled to Egypt. Several Yugoslav historians have written that these Egyptian Gypsies probably came with the Arab army that laid siege to Dubrovnik in the 9th century. Perhaps after that failed siege, they deserted (or were abandoned) and made their way into Macedonia to pay homage to Alexander the Great who took their ancestors from India to Egypt. In any case, it appears that these Egyptian Gypsies arrived so long ago in Kosova that they lost their Punjabi language. When the Roma appeared in the 14th century, the Serbs and Albanians must have assumed these dark-skinned people were blood brothers because the Serbs and Albanians used the same word for them, i.e. Maxhupi. Certainly the Hashkalija had some of the same customs practiced only by the Roma, such as washing men's clothes separately from women's.

Gypsy, by the way, is the 16th century English translation of the Spanish word Gitano. Gitano is the 15th century Spanish translation of the word Egyptian.

Today in Kosova these are the Gypsy names/castes you are mostly like to come across:


Chisto Rom: This means pure Rom, the best Roma. Many Roma castes call themselves "chisto Rom," especially the Kovachi. Most Roma speak Romani, Serbian and Albanian. But Serb Roma speak only Serb and some Roma do not speak Albanian. The Roma are made up of the following castes:

Kovachi: The Serb translation of blacksmith, the Lohar caste of India.

Burgogia: A Kosovar subcaste of the Kovachi.

Rabagi: The transporters caste. In Kosova most Rabagi still transport goods with horse and wagon for clients. Before the war, some Rabagi had small vans, and some even had taxis. The Gurbeti are a subcaste. Some prefer not to work and live off the generosity of other people. Many Gurbeti are traders, some are smugglers. Some Gurbeti are very wealthy "traders." Many Gurbeti practice the Serbian Orthodox religion.

Vlahy: If there is still a pure caste that follows the old ways, traditions and customs of the Roma, the Vlahy are those people. They are found throughout Europe under their own name. They are considered hard workers, and like the Kovachi many are usually educated. In Albania they are known as the Felia. A small percentage of Vlahy are involved in petty crime such as pickpocketing.

Gabeli: Today they are usually poor ditch diggers, construction workers, almost anything to do with physical labor. But their caste can be traced directly back to the Khebeli of India who were acrobats, dancers, snake charmers. In India many are professional criminals who also prostitute their wives and daughters.

Chergari: These are the Gypsies whose women are fond of wearing lots of gold, telling fortunes, and reading palms. The men usually earn their living sharpening knives or repairing umbrellas. Many are nomadic in the spring and summer, usually today in motor homes. The Chergari are considered by other Roma as the thieves and liars of their race. Today in the Balkans the Chergari are not found in Kosova, only in Serbia. The Vrashari are a subcaste found only in Serbia. Both castes are usually Orthodox or Catholic in religion.

Arlia: These are the professional musicians, many having studied in conservatories. They are an industrious people, usually educated. In Kosova many lived in the city of Prishtine until the war dispersed them. In Gjilan, over 90% of the Roma were Arlia. Many owned shops and boutiques before they were burned out by Albanians after the war.

Maxhupi (Magjupi): Although many foreigners think this is a derogatory name for Kosovar Roma/Hashkalija, this is what they call themselves when speaking with each other.


Hashkalija: Until the Yugoslav government created more minorities to offset the Albanians in Kosova, there were only two groups of Gypsies in Kosova: Roma and Hashkalija. Some Hashkalija believe they originated in Turkey where there is a village called Askale. In Turkish the word for Gypsy is Askale. The Hashkalija are the largest class of "Gypsies" in Kosova.

Egyptians: Until the Yugoslav government issued a new series of ethnic classifications in the early 1990s which officially recognized some Kosovars as Egyptians, they were called Hashkalija. Since the war, many Hashkalija/Egyptians refuse to be called anything but Albanian Mussulmen. Like their Hashkalija "cousins," all have Albanian surnames and speak only Albanian. Although their oral tradition usually speaks of an ancestor who was a blacksmith, most of their fathers and grandfathers were small farmers.

All of these castes (except Chergari and Vrashari) can still be found today in Kosova. Usually these castes do not intermarry.


There follows the detailed list of Kosovo cities and towns with data on Romas, number of their homes, destroyed houses etc.


For those who are always asking me why I am so interested in Roma, I can best answer that question with this poem that I wrote this summer in Kosova .



showed me the photos of his pets in prison.
After being sentenced for stabbing a man,
his pigeons had followed him there too.

Now they had found him in our refugee camp
four weeks after the KLA
had burned his home and coop.

Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa)
Thursday, February 3, 2000

Writer describes ethnic cleansing in war-torn Kosovo
By KRISTIN BUEHNER, Of The Globe-Gazette

MASON CITY - Talk of injustice, ethnic cruelty and wasted relief efforts in
war-torn Kosovo created an air of quiet astonishment at the Wednesday meeting of the Noon Lions Club in Mason City.

Mason City native Paul Polansky, a writer and historian, talked about his
work in Kosovo where he recently spent five months living among the Romany people, commonly referred to as Gypsies. He also spent time in a United Nations Gypsy refugee camp, where he documented the lack of medicine, food and other basic needs.

Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia, is part of the Balkans. It is bordered on
the south and east by Serbia, on the west by Montenegro and on the south by Albania and Macedonia.

"I wish I could bring you some hope of change," said Polansky, 57, whose
permanent address is Prague, Czech Republic. "I wish I could tell you there was a future for the people of Kosovo, especially its displaced people ... I wish I could tell you more about Kosovo, because you certainly don't read about it in the newspaper."

Polansky spoke of the ethnic cleansing being carried out by the Kosovar
Albanians in retaliation for similar atrocities previously committed by the Serbs.

Although NATO forces intervened to enable them to return to their homes,
both NATO and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - the umbrella organization for aid organizations in Kosovo - are doing nothing to stop the killing, Polansky said. Minority people, Serbs and Gypsies included, are being exterminated by the Albanians.

And unlike other ethnic groups, the Gypsies are not being accepted as
refugees into any nation, Polansky said.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the injustice is that international
aid being sent to Kosovo is not being dispersed among the people most in need, Polansky said.

Although he believes most aid agencies mean well, they have left the
Albanians in charge of executing relief efforts.

Lions Club members called the talk "excellent," but said the message was

"I just feel frustrated that we can't do more about the situation in Kosovo
and use more of our political clout to help his cause," said Mason City chiropractor Richard Haas.

"It has always amazed me that the press vilifies anyone who finds anything
wrong with the United Nations when there are real questions as to whether we should be giving the level of funding we are," said Joel Hanes, who is retired. "It's very disturbing. The reason that we allowed the U.N. to send troops to Kosovo is because of the very thing that's still going on."


TARGET, February 2000 No 5, Newsletter of the Committee for Peace in the Balkans

Kosovo today

By Alice Mahon MP
Chair, Committee for Peace in the Balkans

I visited Kosovo last autumn as part of a delegation organised by the North
Atlantic Assembly Civilian Affairs Committee. My conclusion then was that
Kosovo is being ethnically cleansed of all minorities and that the KLA is
deeply implicated in this.

This view is reinforced by a growing body of evidence from sources such as
Amnesty International, whose latest report at the end of December said that
violence against Serbs, Roma, Muslim Slavs and moderate Albanians was still increasing and pointed to a failure by the United Nations mission to protect human rights. Amnesty is concerned that the UN mission and Kfor appear reluctant to take steps to bring the KLA to justice.

The report of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe on
human rights violations in Kosovo, also published in December, confirms that since Kfor forces entered the province on 12 June there has been a
systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The report says: 'Kosovo Serbs, Roma, Muslim Slavs and others have been
targeted by elements of the Kosovar Albanian population for expulsion,
harassment, intimidation, house-burning, abductions and death.' It
highlights two horrific trends: 'the targeting of vulnerable, elderly Kosovo
Serbs and the increasing participation of juveniles in human rights
violations, underlining the growing intolerance that has emerged within the
Kosovo Albanian community.'

The report contains many witness statements concerning KLA involvement in the violence both before and after the demilitarisation deadline of 19
September, including most recently by members of the nascent Kosovo
Protection Corps (TMK). The OSCE concludes that despite denials by the KLA leadership that it is involved in today's violence: 'It seems clear that the extent to UCK [KLA] and now TMK involvement is of such a nature and scope that the question of explicit or tacit involvement by the leadership
requires close examination by the international community.'

UNHCR, the refugee agency, says that 250,000 people have been driven out
since June. The Yugoslav Foreign Ministry estimates the figure at 350,000.
The majority are Serbs, but Roma, Jews, Turks and others have also been
ethnically cleansed on a massive scale.

Historian Paul Polansky who lived amongst the Roma in Kosovo between July and November last year, has documented discrimination against Romany people by the UN, NATO and major aid agencies. After calling attention to a lack of medical facilities, food and security, he was threatened with expulsion by the very agency which invited him there - the UNHCR.

Prior to NATO's war, Polansky points out, Roma were living in integrated
settlements. Now they are being ethnically cleansed 'because of the colour
of their skin'.

Cedomir Prlincevic, president of the Jewish community in Pristina was driven out by the KLA. When two dozen armed men broke into his family's apartment, he says: 'My mother, who is 80 years old, suffered a heart attack because it reminded her of 1943 when Hitler's SS units broke into her apartment in the same way.'

Prlincevic also stresses that 'terror against the non-Albanians started
after Kfor's arrival in Kosovo'. He said: 'I showed a document to a British
major providing that I was the president of the Jewish community in
Pristina. He just looked at me and said "forget it, it's currently

It is a bitter irony that while the rest of Yugoslavia remains a genuinely
multi-ethnic society, in Kosovo, where Kfor presides, the attempt to create
an ethnically pure state by terror is proceeding apace.