In-depth | Roma

The ongoing quest for liberty

By - 26.04.2016

Kujtim Paçaku’s lifetime spent fighting for Roma rights.

It took three years for Kujtim Paçaku to come back to Prishtina after the war. In 2002, he left his hometown of Prizren and sat on the back seat of the bus, hiding his face with a newspaper for the duration of the journey. He didn’t want the other passengers to notice that he was not Albanian — that he was a Roma. “After the war, they started labeling people,” Paçaku says. “We also achieved freedom, but after the Albanians. For them it came in 1999, for us in 2003-04.”

In a quest for hegemony during the Kosovo war by a nationalist Serbian regime on one side and separatist Albanian struggle on the other, neutrality was not tolerated, and Roma were subjected to atrocities by both factions. “We were between two fires,” says Paçaku. “There were bullets from both sides. You turned to one side and feared being hit by somebody. Then you turned to the other side and you feared somebody else would hit you.”

But the new post-war era was hardly a better place for Roma. Persecution and intimidation, allegedly most frequently from members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, was widespread as Roma were often perceived to have been willing collaborators with Serbian forces. In reality, Serbian paramilitaries had regularly taken advantage of the Roma’s vulnerable position, forcing them into acts such as collecting the bodies of Kosovar Albanians and burying them in mass graves.

A precarious position within society and a persistent sense of fear drove thousands of Roma out of Kosovo, especially after the end of the war. Paçaku himself considered the idea of leaving the country. “The Roma in my neighborhood would come to see if I was there or if I wanted to leave, because [they would think I knew] better than them,” he remembers.

“When you are a child, what others tell you affects you a lot. My parents would always tell me ‘you will be facing this or that; you might step on a nail, but you have to know who you are and move forward.’”

Kujtim Paçaku

Paçaku’s broad knowledge and bright sense of humor make it easy to understand why he has had such an influence on many Roma from Kosovo. With a degree in Romani studies from the University of Sorbonne and a long career as a musician, poet, actor, journalist, teacher and politician, Paçaku has given a lot more to Kosovo than he has received back; Roma remain amongst the most marginalized people in the country. Today, he is the only Roma representative in Kosovo’s Assembly, fighting for a better future for members of his community.

In his smart suit, Paçaku spends most of each day in his deputy’s office at the Assembly. Fluent in Albanian, Serbian and Turkish, he alternates between languages, depending on which community representative he is talking to. Throughout the day, Paçaku is friendly and cheerful as he orders a coffee, schedules meetings and talks to his Assembly colleagues. It’s only when he starts talking about the issues confronting his community that pain and sorrow can be heard in his voice.

“At this moment, while we are talking, the Roma seeking asylum [in European countries] are being told to go away because they are unwanted,” Paçaku says. Through the years, Roma have been trying to escape discrimination for a better future in the European Union, only to often find themselves forcibly deported back to Kosovo. Paçaku has been vocal in demanding improved efforts to provide Roma with better access to education, employment and housing.

His journey to a seat in Kosovo’s Assembly was full of hardships, but his resilience pulled him through. “In the first grade, I detached the word ‘maxhup’ [the derogatory word used to refer to Roma] from my identity where it had become fixed,” he says. “When you are a child, what others tell you affects you a lot. My parents would always tell me ‘you will be facing this or that; you might step on a nail, but you have to know who you are and move forward.’”

Brotherhood and unity

Paçaku, the second-youngest of five children, was born in the spring of 1959, in one of the lively multicultural neighborhoods of Prizren. That same evening, Paçaku’s father, Durmish, went off to his cousin’s engagement feast with all the family, celebrating even more enthusiastically because of his new son.

Music and football made Paçaku’s early childhood a happy one. “I would run after orchestras to weddings, with shoes or without them, after the music or after a ball,” he recalls. When he first went to Prishtina as a young man, he headed straight to the city’s football stadium.

Growing up, Romani was the language spoken in his house, but Paçaku quickly embraced Albanian during the course of his elementary education. After the morning ritual of his grandmother brushing and parting his hair, Paçaku couldn’t wait to get to school and would love talking about all the new things that he’d learned when he got home each day. “I would dream of talking about carbon dioxide, reciting a poem or of naming the world capitals,” he says.

“Segregation and discrimination starts when you enter school. If there are five classes, you will see the children of doctors in the first class and the least successful teacher will take the children from [minority ethnic] communities.”

Kujtim Paçaku

While members of the Roma community are still marginalized today when it comes to access to education, Paçaku’s father, a telephone operator, provided university education for all of his five children. But it is Paçaku’s oldest brother, Rexhep, who perhaps had the greatest influence on his education. “When I was having the most fun, out with friends and interested in discussing our next football game, my brother would just shake his head and I understood that he was saying to go home and learn.”

Paçaku was 11 when he appeared on a Radio Television of Prishtina program for the first time. It was the beginning of the 1970s, an era that marked the revival of Yugoslav Roma, as Tito’s “brotherhood and unity” ideology gave them official recognition. Roma culture and folklore came to the surface, having an important effect across the Balkans, particularly in music and cinematography. “Can you imagine what kind of multiethnicity was in me? With a Roma soul, in Albanian dress and singing a Romani song in Serbian,” Paçaku says, recalling his childhood television debut.

Although he tries to recall only happy childhood memories, Paçaku is aware that discrimination and prejudices accompanied him, as they do the whole Roma community. “Segregation and discrimination starts when you enter school,” he says. “If there are five classes, you will see the children of doctors in the first class and the least successful teacher will take the children from [minority ethnic] communities.”

Photo: Agan Kosumi.

Paçaku attended a high school that specialized in music, which was always an important part of his life. As was the case for most other students, his family could not afford to have a piano at home and practice time on the school’s piano was limited, forcing him to find creative solutions. “Sometimes I would help Auntie Liza, who would clean inside the school in the evening, so that she would let me play the piano after,” he recalls. He would go on to continue his studies at the Academy of Music in Prishtina, where he produced his first compositions for one of the city’s music festivals, Akordet e Kosoves.

Reflecting the multiculturalism of Prizren, he became part of many different ethnic cultural organizations and festivals. But it was the emancipation of Roma that would become his mission from the beginning of the ’90s onward. He participated at Roma conferences all over Europe, meeting Roma intellectuals and discussing issues that concerned the Roma community.

The bloodshed in the former-Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s saw the collapse of the Roma revival and space to promote Roma culture became smaller every day. Paçaku used music and journalism as tools to raise awareness of the rich Roma culture among Prizren’s Roma community.

News of war

“Good afternoon, I am Kujtim Paçaku, Durmish’s son, and we will begin the show in Romani,” Paçaku said when he opened the first Romani show at Radio Prizren in 1986; he would work there as a music editor until 1998. His shows were mainly educational and deliberately contained a lot of Romani language and cultural content, with the aim of enhancing the cultural identity of the local Roma community. The Romani edition was popular for its broadcast of well wishes and song dedications for celebrations ranging from engagements and weddings to circumcisions.

At the beginning of the ’90s the gravity of the news coming from the war in other parts of Yugoslavia influenced the content of Paçaku’s program. He tried to inform his community about what was happening in the region while they were in their homes waiting for the greetings. The fractionalized former-Yugoslavia had given rise to the mistreatment of Roma, and Paçaku, along with his listeners, would wait every day to hear about the fate of Roma in Bosnia during the war there between 1992 and 1995. The news frequently made for grim listening; Roma were subjected to inhumane treatment and horrific atrocities, including being forced into concentration camps and being raped and murdered. For Kosovar Roma, who feared that conflict at home was not far away, it added to a latent sense of fear, as stories of Roma persecution had been transmitted from one generation to another.

“They [Roma] know what it means not to have. They made their contributions, like tying off wounds, or telling the opponent’s army that, ‘they didn’t go this way but that way.’”

Kujtim Paçaku

Always a minority in European nation-states, the position of Roma has been fragile historically; in modern history, Yugoslav Roma, just like Roma elsewhere in the continent, endured severe persecution in Nazi-occupied Europe. “The First World War … then the second one, we would hear these stories from our grandfathers about Roma in the gas chambers in Auschwitz … then Nis, Jasenovac, and we were terrified,” recalls Paçaku.

Their fears were well founded. Despite notions of nationalism and territorial battles being alien concepts to Roma, whose traditions and culture are deeply rooted in freedom, Kosovar Roma could not avoid being caught up in other people’s battles. “Many Roma abandoned Kosovo or were expelled by force by Serbs, because Roma families were living in Albanian neighborhoods,” says Paçaku. “But there is no monument with Roma names and surnames or Roma mentioned among hundreds of others [Kosovar Albanians].”

He points out that a lot of Roma showed solidarity with Kosovar Albanians during the war in Kosovo, empathizing with their plight. “They [Roma] know what it means not to have,” says Paçaku. “They made their contributions, like tying off wounds, or telling the opponent’s army that, ‘they didn’t go this way but that way.’”

His own family’s sense of common humanity saw them shelter many Kosovar Albanians from Prizren’s surrounding villages when operations by Serbian forces reached their peak in the spring of 1999. When it was deemed safe to do so, the refugees would continue on their paths to Albania. By the time Paçaku’s Kosovar Albanian neighbors began to return home after NATO forces had entered Kosovo, bringing an end to the war, his family had a fistful of keys to houses that they had tried to safeguard while their neighbors were away.

After the war, Paçaku’s career took on new directions as he entered the world of acting. He has also become known as a prominent Kosovar poet; the translation of his poetry books into Bulgarian in December 2015 marked the 16th language in which his work has been published.

Stepping off the bus for his anonymous return to Prishtina in 2002, Paçaku was met by Jeton Neziraj, whose play he was about to appear in. “Lift your head because Kosovo is also yours,” proclaimed the famous Kosovar Albanian playwright. For Paçaku, there is an element of truth in Neziraj’s oft-quoted words. However he is only too aware that for the vast majority of his community in Kosovo, there is still a long way to go. “We remain discriminated against,” he says. “Our children remain unregistered at university and unemployed … something needs to change.”K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.