The Roma and Racism in the Balkans
by Jared Israel (posted 1-19-00)

Below are excerpts from an article about Paul Polansky. Mr. Polansky is an interesting fellow - interesting because we are told he has dedicated his life to writing and speaking about the "Gypsies", that is the Roma people, as they prefer to be called. The Roma are objects of race hatred throughout Europe. The exception has been Yugoslavia, and especially Serbia, including Kosovo, where the Roma enjoyed normal human rights for many years. But since NATO took over, Kosovo has changed. Mr. Polansky spent some time with the Roma in Kosovo and witnessed the attempt to destroy them by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and its criminal/secessionist supporters among Albanians.

I found the article moving and informative with one exception. Alas the exception undermines the rest, and it raises arguments frequently made in the mass media, so I'd like to offer a few comments.

I have noticed a tendency - no, not 'tendency', 'requirement' - a requirement for articles about Yugoslavia to include an attack on the Serbs. At least one attack. It can be placed anywhere, but it must be placed. The requirement applies to all, even to supposed critics of NATO. I call this phenomenon 'The Obligatory Bash'. (See )

The article on Mr. Polansky, and perhaps Mr. Polansky himself, fall into this trap.

Below is the paragraph in question. The rest of the article, printed further down, describes the abuse ROMA have faced throughout Europe as well as the virtual genocide in Kosovo since NATO marched in alongside the KLA in June.

Here's the paragraph:

(Start of quote) "'Prior to the war in Kosovo, Gypsies there were living in integrated settlements, as they had for 700 years," he [i.e., Mr. Polansky] said. "But during the war and after, they got it from both sides." When the war began, the Serbs used the Gypsies - who have Albanian surnames and are Moslem - to perform such tasks as burying the Albanians killed by the Christian Orthodox Serbs." (End of quote)

Let us disentangle this. The article says the Roma "got it from both sides". Thus their treatment by Serbian authorities during the NATO bombing is equated with their treatment by the KLA since June.

What has the KLA done? The article describes Mr. Polansky's first-hand observations. It's a grim picture. The KLA have beaten Roma, they have attacked them, they have driven them from their homes, they have stolen their property and they have murdered them on such a scale that the Roma population in Kosovo dropped from 150,000 prior to NATO bombing to 30,000 today. That suggests four fifths of the Roma have been driven from Kosovo or killed. Their businesses, houses, land, farm animals and cars have been stolen. Doesn't this amount to the deliberate destruction of a people?

On the other side of the equation we have the treatment of Roma by 'the Serbs.' I put 'the Serbs' in quotes because the article is talking about alleged burial duty. Isn't it rather unlikely that the Serbian population as a whole went around forcing the Roma to bury Albanians? For one thing, they'd need a lot of dead Albanians to require such a mobilization of Serb overseers and Roma grave diggers. So in speaking of "the Serbs" the writer must be referring to Serbian military forces.

But the writer doesn't say this. Instead she emphasizes the all-Serbian character of alleged burial abuse by accusing Orthodox Serbs of using Muslim Roma to bury Albanians. Why does she speak of 'Muslim' and 'Orthodox'? These words aren't mentioned anywhere else in the article. By failing to explain her reason for using these words the writer suggests their significance should be obvious, based on prior reports. But reports of what? Reports of Serbian Army units, driven by religious fanaticism, slaughtering Muslim Albanians, of course..

And of course we've heard such reports. We vaguely remember them. The very fact that the article mentions no actual crimes but casually refers to the Roma being " perform such tasks as burying the Albanians killed by the Christian Orthodox Serbs" - this casual air tells us the existence of Serbian crimes is a universally accepted fact.

This has of course been NATO's contention since last April. As we shall see, today the evidence to back up the NATO war crimes charges is in a shambles; nevertheless some NATO apologists still argue it. Thus Noel Malcolm, one of the most prolific Serb-baiters, continues to defend NATO's claims of mass murder against the independent-minded reporter, John Laughland, in the pages of the London Spectator. Some supposedly anti-NATO writers also hold onto support for the NATO position. For instance, The Znet writer Stephen Shalom continues to argue, against all evidence, that:

  • "there is credible evidence of bodies being removed or burned. The U.S.-NATO guess of 10,000 dead is unconfirmed, but not likely to be so far off."

Other Serb-bashers have responded more honorably to the now overwhelming evidence that 'the Serbs' did not slaughter Albanians in Kosovo. For example, Toronto Star writer Richard Gwyn has reversed his previous stand, which was much like that of Malcolm and Shalom, and now say the mass murder stories:

  • "may have been a grotesque lie concocted to justify a war."

NATO had a real need to advocate this lie. When the bombing began, Western public opinion was opposed. So NATO launched a media blitz to popularize a humanitarian explanation: the Serbs had to be bombed to stop/prevent the slaughter of thousands of Albanians. "They're just like Hitler." This Hitler comparison was a trifle confusing. Historically the Serbs had been a target of Hitlerite extermination second only to Russians and Jews. Moreover, during World War II, ethnic Albanian groups like the Second League of Prizren, groups which are much-loved by the KLA, helped the Nazi's - were indeed the most enthusiastic Nazi's, creating their own SS division and hunting down Serbs, Roma and Jews. So it's a little hard to see how the Serbs became Nazi's overnigh5t while the descendents of pro-Nazi Albanians became victims of racism.

Be that as it may, NATO launched a massive campaign to sell their humanitarian war. This had some effect on the polls. A slim majority in some Western countries, particularly the US and Britain, switched to supporting the bombing as a necessary evil.

Since June, NATO has had an army of forensic scientists scouring Kosovo to produce some evidence that atrocities did in fact occur and that NATO was therefore right to attack Yugoslavia. Proving this is crucial for NATO. If people were to conclude that they'd been lied to, that the stories of Serbian atrocities were a "grotesque lie concocted to justify a war" then NATO leaders would have a much harder time selling future wars. And war is very much a part of NATO's plans for the future.

The NATO forensic experts have left Kosovo for winter empty-handed. They found no mass graves. They dug up a relatively small number of bodies (2108) and even those are of indeterminate origin. It is likely that none are Albanian civilians butchered by Serbian forces. (See SPINNING THE KILL at )

Chief War Crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte pretty much admitted this in mid-November though she added that she fully expected her experts to find some mass graves this coming Spring. Perhaps the hoped-for treasure will indeed be discovered. Or perhaps mass graves will continue to elude Ms. del Ponte and her experts will continue to search year after year with seasonal announcements that the continued failure, to date, has only strengthened the resolve of the forces of Western decency, etc., that bodies will be found, perhaps next season, but in any case someday. Over time the body-hunt may assume the trappings of tradition, like English knighthood or that Yale secret society to which George Bush belongs, so that the original intent will be lost, as happens with rituals, and future commentators will note that nobody knows precisely why forensic experts are dispatched to Kosovo every spring, only to be withdrawn during winter with a promise of Better Things Next Year. Groups will spring up demanding the abolition of this superstitious rite. Other groups others will defend Tradition.

Meanwhile besides making the statements of people like Mr. Malcom and Mr. Shalom a wee bit ridiculous, NATO's failure to produce mass graves raises a question about our Polansky article which says the Roma were " perform such tasks as burying the Albanians killed by the Christian Orthodox Serbs." Since the "Orthodox Serbs" didn't kill any Albanians, who were the Roma 'used' to bury?


This burial stuff has been repeated a good deal in the press. One syndicated article by Charles Sennott of the Boston Globe was headlined: "Kosovo's Gypsies: Used by Serbs, hated by Albanians." Such stories, always written in an anecdotal and therefore un-checkable manner, support NATO by virtue of lament: that is they regret what they refer to as Albanian acts of revenge. Of course, if Albanians are taking revenge it suggests there is something worth revenging and that 'something' is the mass killings Serbs are supposed to have carried out. You will recall that the Roma were relegated to burying the bodies. You will also recall that despite all the Roma grave digging, NATO has been unable to find mass graves anywhere in Kosovo.

In these news reports, Roma are quoted as saying "the Serbs made us do it" - 'it' generally being the burial of dead Albanians. Whether these Roma are being misquoted, which is possible or whether they are speaking out of fear - i.e., it is potentially fatal for Roma in Kosovo to go against the official KLA line - in either case the quotations serve two laudable goals.

First, the Serbian people are slandered - the impression that 'The Serbs' engaged in mass murder is strengthened by having the Roma say "they made us do it."

Second, Western prejudice against Roma is strengthened. This in two ways.

  • The Roma are portrayed here as being 'used.' In other words, not as independent actors, with minds of their own, but rather as servants of the supposedly dominant nationality. This coincides with the thinking of anti-Roma bigots but not with reality. In reality the Roma have been enthusiastic supporters of the Yugolsav ideal of ethnic unity; they loathe the KLA and they fought the KLA alongside Serbs and other ethnic groups as part of the Yugoslav army. (For more on Roma support for the Serbian state see )
  • It also fits the racist stereotype of Roma as "chicken-stealing thieves". Who but a race of weasels would participate in mass murder and then whine "they made me do it?" after discovering they had backed the losing Master? One can imagine these (fictional) Roma scurrying amongst the bodies of mass-murdered Albanians, stealing their watches, and jewelry.

Back to reality, folks. Ethnic Albanians have never been victims of mass murder in Kosovo. Period. But since NATO took over, the Roma (among others) have indeed been hunted down and slaughtered by KLA racists. These Roma, as well as Serbs, Gorani (Slavic Muslims) and anti-KLA Albanians are the one's whose watches and jewelry have been stolen, plus cars, houses, businesses. Children as well. Yes, I said children. The KLA has developed a handy trade in humans. These crimes are too enormous to comprehend: one falters, one is consumed with rage. We must focus, focus on the politics of the thing: the cover-up is easy to grasp, it is simple, a media trick that's all; this "they made us do it" refrain serves to hide the crime and smear the victim, first as fantasy accomplice and then as untermensch. That's German for sub-human. I use the German word because this image of scurrying Roma scavengers is close to the Nazi stereotype of Roma, a stereotype used to justify an earlier attempt to exterminate them, along with Serbs and Jews, an attempt that has a common name: World War II.

You see, what all this "they made us do it" garbage is intended to obscure is the real history of the fight between racial harmony and race hatred in the Balkans.

Racial hatred is rarely a mutual disease; generally one group is the hater and another the hated. Thus in Latin America, Indians are victims not perpetrators. In the US, the biggest group of hated is Black people. In the Balkans, the equivalent of Indians and Black people have been the Roma, Serbs and Jews. It is not by chance that the Nazi's and their Croatian, Albanian, Hungarian and Bosnian Muslim proxies chose these groups, these untermenschen, to be wiped out. Jews, Roma and Serbs had long been the objects of race hate in Europe. By focusing on them the Nazi's could mobilize precisely the racist forces they needed to obtain willing allies in each country. To this day you can judge the political bent of an ethnic Albanian or Hungarian or Croatian by observing his or her attitude toward Serbs and Roma, just as you can tell a lot about a white American by seeing how he or she feels about Black people. It's a litmus test.

The article on Polansky notes that the Roma lived in "integrated communities" in Serbia for a long time prior to the bombing, and having mentioned this it moves immediately to bash 'The Serbs' with the burial statement. But this "integrated communities" thing is not a small point, to be passed over lightly. It is a very big point. It is the main point of the article. For it is precisely the fact that the Roma lived in such communities in Kosovo, and still do elsewhere in Yugoslavia, and that they have (or had) lovely houses, and so on - in other words, that they had been allowed to achieve - not given, allowed to achieve - much that the KLA could steal and destroy - it is precisely this fact of social integration that differentiates the Yugoslav Roma from their kin in other European countries where they are excluded from contact with non-Roma citizens, where they are prevented from going to school, where they are denied ordinary human rights, where they are silenced, where they are demonized, where they are tormented and robbed, where they are vilified, raped, beaten, and killed.

Undoubtedly the Yugoslav Army did conscript some Roma for burial duty. Why not? Also some Turks, and Serbs, maybe even a stray Croatian or two. During the NATO bombing there were pitched battles all over Kosovo between the Yugoslav Army and the KLA. We know from extensive interviews with refugees from Kosovo that the KLA often attacked integrated communities - precisely the places where Serbs, Albanians and Roma lived together. Perhaps after battles in which the Yugoslav Army smashed KLA attempts to slaughter the inhabitants of such communities there were many dead KLA "Albanians". Perhaps the Yugoslav Army drafted some local males, including Roma, to help bury the bodies.

Is this so terrible?

And does it really amount to the Roma "getting it from both sides"?

NOTE: Since I wrote the above, we received two communications which clarify the grave-digging business. One from Dan Chukerov, a Serbian American, notes that some of the Roma in Yugoslavia prefer a lifestyle not tied down to 9-5 and so you find many Roma doing unusual things: working in recycling, working as grave diggers, but also working as folksingers and other entertainers. He said this has nothing to do with racism.

We also received an email post from Italy. The writer is identified only as Miguel. I think you will find it most interesting, so I'll print some excerpts here. Following that are the excerpts from the Polansky newspaper story.

From Miguel in Italy:

Dear Emperors-Clothes,

I think - though I am not sure - that the slander about the Serbs forcing the Roma to bury the bodies of Albanians is based on a rather simple fact: street cleaners in all former Yugoslavia are largely Rom, and when wars break out, they don't just sweep up the leaves on the streets. I know a street cleaner from the Muslim part of Sarajevo whose job extended to picking up bodies when the war broke out. [But did you ] ever read "Muslims force Gypsies to pick up bodies..." etc.?

Re: the fact that the Roma lived in "integrated communities" with the Serbs, I notice one very important thing: the Roma I have met [that is, from Yugoslavia], unlike say Rumanian "gypsies", have few complexes one way or another about being Rom. They don't mind eating with non-Roma and they are not embarrassed to say that they are Rom. This clearly shows that the people they were in touch with - Serbs, Turks and also of course Albanians - did not see them the way "we" see what are called "Gypsies." There is a surprising linguistic element here: the word Gadzho in Rom normally [i.e., in most of Europe]means "non-Rom", with a series of terrifying and impure connotations. In Kosovo, it merely means "Serb", other terms are used for other nationalities. In other words, there is no longer the slightly paranoid division of the world into two groups. This breaks down in Italy, where they are shocked to find that they are lumped together with the "zingari", "gypsies" (the Kosovo Rom distinguish carefully between themselves and the more desperate Rom speakers of the world, the latter are the unclean "cergari" - but I suppose everybody has his own "gypsies", alas).

On the train with a Kosovo Rom friend here in Italy, we chanced on a Serbian neighbor of his, just an ordinary fellow, not an anthropologist: the Serb was happy to speak in Rom with my friend, something impossible even to imagine anywhere else in the world.

Do you have any idea how I could get in touch with Mr. Polansky? Apart from the issues you comment, I would be most interested in getting in touch with him.

Do keep up the good fight. I am now working on writing the stories of Roma refugees here in Italy: no claim to sociology or anthropology, just writing down whatever they tell me plus my impressions and emotions. Can you think of any way we could use this material?


Here are excerpts from the article on Mr. Polansky's experiences:

From the Globe-Gazette

Mason City native Paul Polansky has lived in a U.N. refugee camp and written about ethnic cleansings.

Monday, January 17, 2000


MASON CITY - He has held dying babies in his arms, watched helplessly as friends were beaten and killed. Mason City native Paul Polansky, 57, now of Prague, Czech Republic, lived in Kosovo from mid-July to mid-November, where he documented the ethnic cleansing being carried out by Kosovar Albanians since the end of the war in Kosovo. Part of his time was spent living among the Gypsies in a United Nations refugee camp for people of the Romany (Gypsy) race. The camp was run by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, an umbrella organization for all aid organizations in Kosovo. "We had five children die in the refugee camp of pneumonia because of a lack of attention," said Polansky, who helped lead 467 Gypsy refugees out of Krushevac in late September to a more humane refugee camp in neighboring Macedonia. "No government will accept Gypsies as refugees." After calling attention to a lack of medical attention, food and security in the displaced persons camp at Krushevac, Polansky was threatened with expulsion from the country by the very agency - the UNHC - that had invited him.

The term Gypsy is not politically correct, but in Kosovo, it may be the only practical way to refer to the people under that stigma, said Mason City native Polansky, a writer [now] living in Prague, who has been working to expose discrimination and lobby for aid. The Gypsies were the first dark-skinned people in Europe, Polansky said. Hindus, they were apparently driven out of India during the Muslim invasions. Kosovo Gypsies were among the lowest castes of Hindus. They preserved the caste system they knew in India, a system of which they were very proud. They have preserved all 12 castes in Kosovo. Only one caste fits the stereotypical Gypsy description of nomads. The semi-nomadic caste, the Chergari, lives in Serbia and travels during warm weather. During World War II, the presence of Gypsy concentration camps has been documented at Lety, Czechoslovakia. It was run by Czech Nazis. Hundreds of Gypsies, including children, died of starvation and cruel punishment, Polansky said.

During a 20-year study, Polansky discovered evidence of the presence of a Gypsy concentration camp in Lety, a village in Czechoslovakia, during World War II. He documented the camp, the history of which had largely been concealed by the Czechs, and wrote three books: "Living Through It Twice: Poems of the Romany Holocaust (1940-1997)," 1998; "Black Silence," 1998, oral histories of the Romany Holocaust, and "The Storm," a novel based on his findings about the Lehy death camp, 1998.

"Summer Camp," in progress, exposes the killing of Gypsies and other minorities taking place in Kosovo since the war. It also tells of Polansky's experiences in a Gypsy refugee camp in Kosovo.

"I've seen over 14,000 Gypsy homes burned by the Albanians with the NATO forces just standing by," Polansky said, during a recent trip to Mason City. "I ate with the Gypsies, played chess with them and collected their oral histories. I saw photos of their very nice homes which the Albanians had burned after the war. We were always under threat of attack from the Albanians." Polansky's book, "Summer Camp," will describe the discrimination against the Romany people by the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and major aid agencies, including the Mother Teresa Society. Gyspies are also being refused medical care by most hospitals, including the American and British military hospitals in Kosovo, Polansky said. "Everybody's got this stereotype of Gypsies as nomadic chicken thieves." Of the 151,000 Romany in Kosovo before the war, only 30,000 remain, Polansky said. The rest have died of starvation, been killed or left the country. A survey he completed in November documents the conditions and whereabouts of Gypsy settlements in all 29 districts of Kosovo.

In Prishtine, he found more than 30 families who, out of fear of being kidnapped and killed, had not left their houses in more than 7 months, surviving on goats' milk and eggs. In one district, families were being threatened with death if they did not leave the country immediately. Others reported being stoned when they went out to shop. "Demanding that Roma and Hashkalija (the two Gypsy groups in Kosovo) remain in a country where they are not allowed to leave their homes or their village to go shopping, to go to school, to go to work or to go to the doctor without fear of being kidnapped and killed, is the same as telling the Jews before WWII that they should not leave Germany," he said. He hopes the United Nations and NATO will stop all aid to Kosovo until the Albanians "start behaving themselves" and that NATO countries begin accepting Kosovar Gypsies as refugees, as they did the Albanians, until they can return home safely. "In the United States, only pressure on our State Department will help these Gypsies get refugee status here in the States," he said. Polansky's interest in the Gypsy culture began more than 20 years ago when he uncovered, through a genealogical study, evidence of Gypsy concentration camps in Czechoslovakia during World War II. "I was trying to find the first place in Bohemia that sent Czechs to America," said Polansky, whose father is of Czech descent. He traced the emigration to a small village named Lety, where he discovered what had been the site of a Gypsy concentration camp.

Prior to the war in Kosovo, Gypsies there were living in integrated settlements, as they had for 700 years, he said. "But during the war and after, they got it from both sides." When the war began, the Serbs used the Gypsies - who have Albanian surnames and are Moslem - to perform such tasks as burying the Albanians killed by the Christian Orthodox Serbs. After the war, the Albanians began a process of exterminating the Gypsies, whom they accused of collaborating with the Serbs. "The Gypsies want to be able to go to normal schools, have a normal job," Polansky said. "They're not allowed to because of the color of their skin. They don't want to live isolated, be marginalized, live on the edge of a community."


* For a refutation of the claims, made by NATO apologists such as Noel Malcom and Stephen Shalom, that Serbian forces slaughtered Albanian civilians during the bombing of Yugoslavia, click on SPINNING THE KILL or go to

* For a discussion of the significance of Roma politic support for Serbia click on How the Roma View Serbia and What It Means or go to

* For a look at media distortion regarding the Roma, click on A Slaughter of Roma or go to

* or more on pre-KLA Nazism among Albanians in Kosov, click Crimes of Fascism, Crimes of Lies or go to (The latter part of the article deals with this question)

* To browse articles at Emperors-clothes please click here or go to

May 31, 2001


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