by Branka KALJEVIC
The first individual to pay for the unmasking of racism in the Sabac manner was, due to no guilt of his own, Hanibal Kovac, the local correspondent of Free Europe, until he informed the public about the new approach used by the management of Krsmanovaca.
Test: According to local Roma, everything started with blackmail. First there were demands to join the Serb Radical Party and then they would be allowed to swim in the pool. "We joined, but that did not help. We were told that we were not following the rules for behavior in the pool," a resident of Sabac says for Vreme. He has been deeply humiliated and intimidated by what has been happening these days in this town in the Macva region, where Roma have been living for many years. They mostly live in the famous settlement Mala. The residents of Sabac say that Mala is the cleanest and best maintained part of the town. Many famous musicians originate from Mala, and there are exclusive restaurants and bars that earned their fame for their musicians and celebrations hundred years ago. The life in Serbia has changed. Celebrations in Mala have toned down and the youth has turned towards computers and techno music and today they have fun in cafes and nightclubs. In daily life Serbs and Roma in this town live and work together. There are many inter-ethnic friendships.
The first division, racial and ruthless, was carried out at the pool. After the complaints of the Roma regarding the ban on the use of the pool, the Belgrade Fund for Humanitarian Law in cooperation with the Roma non-governmental organizations, the Democratic Organization of Roma and Oaza [oasis] from Belgrade, decided to conduct a test and check the claims of the locals. Petar Anic, a lawyer working for the fund describes the action: "Serbs and Roma took part in the test. We came to the pool on July 8 and when three Roma tried to buy tickets, the salesperson asked them whether they were Roma. After an affirmative reply he told them, after an apology that, 'based on the rules of the center they are not allowed entry and to swim in the pool.' The Serbs from the team requested an explanation, and were told that 'even if I let them in, the security would throw them out.'"
Anic says that the Fund will file charges against the owner, for the compensation for the violation of dignity, rights, and honor of the affected Roma citizens, so that the management can explain its actions in the court. The Fund will demand that the plaintiff pay for the publication of the verdict in the media. In accordance with the final verdict his public apology will also be demanded. "In this case the regulations of the International Convention About the Abolishment of all Means of Racial Discrimination and the regulations of the International Pact About Civic Political Rights were violated. Yugoslavia is a signatory of these conventions, which allow all citizens equal access to public places and public services."
Bulldozer Attack on Antenna: This racist incident, by chance, coincided with another trouble affecting Roma expelled from Kosovo in Belgrade. Last year, with some possessions they arrived from Kosovo, where else than to a Roma unhygienic and uncomfortable settlement Antena in Surcin St. in Novi [New] Belgrade. The settlement was started in the seventies, and all those former residents who could have departed by now. The new residents came as displaced persons (the state authorities like this term) from Kosovo.
Out of 126 persons, 72 are children. Early last month (June 8, 2000) bulldozers and police showed up and, based on the decision of the local authorities of the Novi Belgrade Municipality (run by the Socialist Party of Serbia), demolished the settlement, and destroyed the few functional shelters and cars still standing. The work of the bulldozers was followed by the handiwork of the Police. The witnesses claim that the Police beat up everything that moved (adults and children), spicing it up with insults on the racial basis and a clear message; "Gypsies, you cannot live here." Some of them were taken into custody and taken to the local Police station.
The refugees from Kosovo are still in the Antena settlements, but in stead of in the sheds, that they had build with their own hands, now they live under nylon tents. The government is silent, as well as the opposition, and the few remaining daily newspapers from time to time report in their local pages about the Antena "case". The problem was literally swept under the carpet, and since the local TV station does not exist anymore, the residents of Belgrade did not have the chance to see and hear about what has been going on. Perhaps it would be no different if they had.
Unhygienic settlements of Roma in Belgrade have existed for decades and only when an accident takes place the problem becomes current for a day or two and then everything continues as before. Roma in Belgrade live in ghettos that are a clear illustration of their social status. Recently, with the increase of the number of refugees from Kosovo the problems and misfortune have gotten worse. Increasingly frequently in shantytowns children have been victims of fire or smoke coming from burning automobile tires, used by these unfortunate individuals for heating.
Roma organizations warn that the increase of the number of Roma in Belgrade made their living conditions significantly worse.
"We're not getting assistance from anyone," says one of the residents of Antena. While he was in Kosovo he was a member of the Serb Radical Party. Today he is nothing. "We were visited by Jovan Damjanovic; he is a Rom, but also some sort of Seselj's minister [a member of the Serb Radical Party and a minister in the Serbian government]. Nothing. He distributed some lighters and calendars and these newspapers (Velika Srbija [Greater Serbia, SRS party magazine]). He came and went and we stayed under these nylon tents..."
Repression and Manipulation: During the last nine months the Fund for Humanitarian Law, which otherwise provides legal assistance to Roma whose rights are endangered, has recorded more than 90 incidents of violence against Roma, discrimination or repression of different kinds. "There are many cases of police repression. There is a widespread opinion that Roma are a crime inducing group. Many people are scared and do not want to publicly discuss their problems," says Antic.
He mentions a drastic case of a Roma child J.M. from Novi Belgrade who was cut 17 times by knife by skinheads in front of her school. She did not dare tell even her mother, who suffers from heart problems, what had been done to her. A psychiatrist diagnosed serious psychological consequences for the girl due to three months of threats and maltreatment. She was told that all the Roma would be killed.
Somewhat earlier a group of about fifteen skinheads beat up a Roma boy in Nis and later they also hurt his father and mother when they came to his assistance. According to the data provided by the Fund, none of the perpetrators of this fascist scandal were punished. The Police, after receiving a call from the boy's father, took the father and a few skinheads into custody.
In the trial the father was never charged and two skinheads were fined 600 dinars. In Serbia that is the price of a beating of a Rom and religious and ethnic intolerance.
Petar Anic adds that when he made a guest appearance in a program of the Nis city TV, in a program regarding the mentioned incident, the viewers literally asked him whether Roma maybe want their own state, and the father of the beaten boy was asked whether deep inside he feels a need for his own state...
The Fund for Humanitarian Law, regarding this fascist action of young Nis residents filed criminal charges for the crime of fanning of racial, ethnic, and religious hatred and intolerance. That is the first suit of this type.
Although spreading of ethnic, religious and racial hatred is a crime that should be prosecuted by the authorities, no one has reacted to the Sabac incident. Dusan Janjic, the director of the Forum for Inter-ethnic Relations in a statement for the Analytical Service of the Media Center in Belgrade, regarding the recent events in Sabac, stated that this case yet again confirms that racism is neither encouraged nor sanctioned in Serbia; the preventive mechanisms and legal functions not work, but the state also does not condemn such incidents.
Jordan Vasic, the president of the Democratic Association of Roma from Belgrade, says that Sabac is not an exception and that this organization will soon publicize other examples of the limitations of freedom of movement imposed on Roma. "The ban on access to the swimming pool is only another confirmation of the existing discrimination against Roma, which is becoming increasingly common in Serbia." Our interlocutor mentions problems in kindergartens, where Roma children are almost automatically enrolled in special education groups: "We are uneducated because we are poor, and we are poor because we are uneducated. This is a vicious circle, and there has been hardly any assistance to break it."
The story about Roma as the population suitable for political manipulation is not a recent one. Many Roma associations are under control of the ruling political parties and their members can be seen frequently on state-controlled TV in company of political party leaders and state officials, unlike the news about the destruction of the Antena settlement or the Sabac case. Roma representatives who openly discuss endangered rights and discrimination have a hard time making it to TV cameras or the officials in charge of the respect of human rights.
For now, in Sabac, they are not allowed to swim in Mr. Vasiljevic's pool. Vasiljevic is a well-known and wealthy individual, and his tourist-sport center (cafes, tennis courts, soccer pitches, etc.) is probably one of the most beautiful and best-equipped properties of that kind in Serbia. He has well-known guests, movie stars, singers, politicians, soccer players. "What are Roma doing here?" some of the eminent guests could complain to the owner. Or, perhaps, he is trying to anticipate such complaints. At some different times distinguished guests visited Mala, the Roma settlement, which is even today, because of its look, tradition and culture, the pride of the original Sabac residents. The newcomers obviously have different plans. The Roma minority could be a starting point for those plans. A ghetto is always suitable for that.
"As I frequently do, on that day I came to the pool with my wife and daughter. As soon as I entered the water, I was approached by one of the owner's bodyguards who said: 'You, get out!' I said, fine, just do not make a big deal out of this, my family is here. We all know each other, I grew up in Sabac. I asked them what was the problem and they said that I had written an article about Gypsies. I told them that that must have been some sort of mistake, as I hadn't at the time written anything about that.
In front of the entrance I was hit in the head and then they beat me up. About ten people observed the whole incident and no one reacted. Now they are scared to testify in court. And they kept hitting. This one is for your article about Stil (construction company; Vasiljevic has tried to illegally take it over), this is for the Gypsies.
At some point a car stopped, a man opened the door, I jumped in and he drove me to the Police station. He left me in front of the station, barefoot and beaten up. He did not dare drive me to the hospital. He escaped. Barefoot, I went to see a lawyer, and then to the hospital. After that I went to the Police.
That is what happened. The events in Sabac with Roma remind me of what we used to read in the books and see in movies. I am dumbfounded. Roma in Sabac are a part of the cultural and spiritual heritage of the town. Without Roma, Sabac would never earn the complimentary name of Small Paris. Serbs and others in Sabac live together, have friendships and there haven't been any significant problems. Most Roma from Sabac are wealthy people, traders and are very proud of their settlement. Today they are very scared because of the recent events..."
Hanibal Kovac wrote his first article about the Roma case for Free Europe once he recovered from the beating. He is still receiving death threats.