Feature 13 Aug 15

Belgrade Roma Families Living in Fear of Eviction

Roma families who fled the Kosovo war in 1999 are waiting nervously for a European Court of Human Rights ruling on whether the Belgrade authorities can legally evict them from their informal settlements.

Ivana Nikolic BIRN Belgrade
Children in front of one of dozens of houses in the Roma settlement in Grmec, Belgrade. Photo: BIRN.

Seljatin Burgazi looks worried and gloomy as we meet in the Belgrade neighbourhood of Grmec, where he’s been living since the NATO bombing in 1999, when he fled the village of Velika Slatina near Pristina in Kosovo.

As we walk towards the informal settlement which is home to some 30 families as well as to 39-year-old Burgazi, he says that the uncertainty about the possible evictions is not the only thing bothering him at the moment.

Just a couple of days ago he left the hospital after surgery connected with his heart condition. His wife is also ill, and the Burgazi family has five small children that need to be looked after.

“Now they [Belgrade city authorities] want to knock down our houses and we still don’t know what they want to give us [as alternative accommodation]. But we are not leaving this until they find us a place to stay,” Burgazi says.

There are around 130 people living in Grmec, including 68 children, most of whom are ‘internally displaced people’ from Kosovo. They had been living in the outskirts of Belgrade peacefully until almost a month ago when the city authorities said they should permanently move out - allegedly because the land should be developed as part of the high-profile Arab-backed Belgrade Waterfront gentrification project.

Seljatin Burgazi with his wife and child. Photo: BIRN.

But the move caused the Belgrade-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, YUCOM, to take the local authorities to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. YUCOM, which represents the Grmec families, asked the rights body to forbid the demolishing of their homes until alternative accommodation is found.

In the coming days, the Strasbourg-based court is to give a final ruling, and the measures imposed on Serbia will be binding.

According to the Serbian Commission for Refugees, 250,000 people fled Kosovo following the war in 1999, and around 22,500 of them were Roma.

Two decades after the war, the issue of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) remains unresolved.

Some 1,000 IDPs and refugees still live in temporary accommodation in Serbia. But the vast majority of the Roma who came from Kosovo have been living in informal settlements, like the one in Grmec.

Years of neglect

Grmec residents are angry at the Serbian authorities. Photo: BIRN.

Because the Serbian authorities have ignored them since they arrived, some Grmec residents say that their lives were better in Kosovo, even though they have no plans to return there.

“We had better living conditions in Kosovo! I had a house, a plot of land, I had everything,” one of the men says bitterly as we stand in what seems to be the main street of the settlement.

“We didn’t live like this,” he adds, pointing to the rundown homes that have neither water nor electricity supplies.

“We lived in a street together with Serbs, Roma, Albanians, Gorani [a Slavic Muslim ethnic group]. And life there was nice until this war came,” he insists.

But when they arrived in Serbia, they became almost invisible.

“No one helped us, no one gave us anything, not even a kilo of flour. No one approached us saying, ‘Hey, wait, we will help you,’” Burgazi recalls.

But there are times when this little Roma settlement does become visible for the authorities – before elections, the residents claim.

“When there is voting, then they come here, make promises. And when they don’t need us, they don’t come at all,” says another Grmec resident, Avdija Berisa.

Life in Grmec is hard; many of its residents have no health insurance and because of their lack of jobs and money, and the vast majority of the children don’t go to school.

Instead they run around the settlement’s narrow ‘streets’ and yards full of cardboard, which their parents sell to make a living. The children look happy and vivacious, oblivious to what is going on around them, and to how a court ruling in far-off Strasbourg could change their lives.

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