Bosnian gypsies in search of identity

Published September 26, 2002

SARAJEVO: It is almost impossible to walk through Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo and not be stopped by gypsies. Dozens of them scrape a living on the city streets, singing, begging, or offering to do small jobs.

Home for most Roma is a derelict nursing home in Nedzarici, a southern suburb of Sarajevo. The Roma congregated in this dilapidated building only after city officials ordered them to move on from other locations around the city.

No one knows how many Roma live in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Rough estimates put the figure between 10,000-40,000, although there could be as many as 60,000, making the Roma the largest minority group in the country.

According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which deals with Romany issues in Bosnia, no one knows the true number of Roma in the country because most of them are not registered.

“They just do not exist in the system,” said OSCE spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdottir.

“Roma are definitely a group that are extremely vulnerable in a state where there are hardly enough resources to help people,” Gunnarsdottir said.

“Illiteracy is very high amongst Roma, and they are simply not registered. Their children do not go to school, they are not registered within the health system, so they do not have access to healthcare. They simply do not exist as numbers,” she said.

In an effort to improve the lot of the Roma, the OSCE has organized summer schools to teach Roma children how to read. But the solution only goes so far.

“I have finally got my diploma, which says that I can read now. I am happy because of that, but I do not know what I will read in the future, because my parents cannot buy me any book,” said Jasmina, an 11-year-old Roma girl, who obtained the reading certificate.

“I believe my parents would want me to go to school, but they do not have money to pay for that,” said Jasmina.

According to Gunnarsdottir, the extreme poverty most Bosnian Roma live in is one of the main reasons why their children do not go to school.

Another reason is that many non-gypsy parents simply do not want their children to share a class with Roma children.

“This shows that Roma are discriminated against and marginalized, living at the very fringes of society,” said Gunnarsdottir.

Bosnian authorities, currently occupied with the difficult political and economic situation in the country, do not have the time or willingness to divert resources to Roma issues.

The OSCE is trying to achieve some understanding of the Roma situation through initiatives targeted at authorities, people in general and the Roma themselves

Gunnarsdottir said: “What do we know about Roma except that they beg on the streets and that they play good music. We know very little more, and that is the problem we have to fight against.”

The state, she said, could do more. And the Roma themselves, could also work harder, perhaps by playing a more active role in the 22 non-governmental Roma organizations that exist in Bosnia.

The solution to the Roma problems “is a two way street, it is not only a question of the authorities, but the Roma as well”, said Gunnarsdottir.

But while the Roma might live in deep poverty on society’s sidelines, many gypsies in Bosnia-Herzegovina feel that they do not face strong discrimination.

For them, the threat is not racist neighbours, but indifferent authorities.

With eviction a distinct possibility, the biggest threat now for Bosnia’s Roma could be the forthcoming winter.—dpa

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