Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

BALKANS: Museum Speaks of Roma History, and Misery

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Oct 28 2009 (IPS) - The Balkans gets its first museum on the Roma, to tell a story about one of the most underprivileged ethnic groups in the region.

“This is practically the first museum of Roma culture in this part of Europe aimed at erasing the deep-rooted prejudice that Roma are illiterate or leave no records on their existence,” head of the museum Dragoljub Ackovic said at the opening Oct. 21.

“The idea of collecting written items about Roma and their life was first mentioned 50 years ago, but was constantly neglected although the group arrived in the Balkans centuries ago.”

There are no precise statistics on how many Roma live in the region, and data in former Yugoslav nations Bosnia, Croatia or Serbia is mostly estimates. For Serbia, the number may range from 105,000 in the 2002 census to up to 600,000 as estimated by Roma non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Prior to the 1992-95 war, Bosnia was believed to have more than 50,000 Roma, but since no census has been carried out since 1991, the number remains unknown. It is also estimated that between 30,000 to 40,000 Roma live in Croatia, although the 2001 census showed only 9,463 members of this ethnicity.

“Roma are hesitant to name their ethnicity when it comes to the census,” Ackovic told IPS. “They prefer to quote local prevailing ethnicity, hoping to blend in more successfully. Apart from that, most of them are illiterate and have no proper IDs even to be counted in a census anywhere.”

Serbia undertook a year back to begin providing proper documents and basic social care for the Roma, more widely called “gypsies”.

Ads in electronic media call for free registration at municipal offices so that Roma, regardless of age, can get births certificates and IDs, mandatory for people over 16 years of age. The certificates and IDs are the basis for entering the social and healthcare systems.

“That is moving slowly,” Rajko Djuric told IPS. He is a prominent Roma activist and the only member of this ethnicity who ever became a member of the prestigious Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. “So many Roma people are illiterate. We want to show that things are different and could become different by opening this museum, that should also help erase prejudice.”

The small museum in Belgrade is located in a ground floor 75 square metres flat in an apartment building down a busy street. It opened with an exhibition titled ‘Álava e Romengo’ or ‘Word of Roma’, featuring over 100 documents, including a copy of the oldest text written in the Roma language, which was published in 1537 in England, and a copy of the first book about Roma published in Serbia in 1803. The book titled ‘Gypsies’ contains traditional Roma narratives and fairy tales.

Another 300 books in Roma language can be read in electronic form, on ten computers in one of the museum rooms. Roma language, oifficially Romani chib, consists of several dialects, such as the Vlax Romani spoken by an estimated 1.5 million people, followed by Balkan, Carpathian and Sinti dialects spoken by several hundred thousand people each.

Analyses of Romani chib have shown that it is closely related to languages spoken in central and northern India. The linguistic relationship indicates the origins of Roma people.

Among these is a book by little known Roma female writer Gina Ranicic, who lived in the mid 19th century, and copies of Roma daily ‘Romano Lil’ (Roma Voice) printed in Belgrade from 1935 until the German occupation in 1941.

There are also several copies of a unique German-Serbian-Roma dictionary compiled by Roma imprisoned in camps around Belgrade during World War II, eight copies of Bibles translated into Roma decades ago, and several books on the grammar of Roma language.

A panel on the wall depicts the historic route of Roma arriving in the Balkans. The first was a circus group that came into Serbia in 1322, from Greece. Most Roma arrived with the Turkish occupation of the Balkans at the end of 14th and in the 15th century. Old Turkish records in Serbia show that in the 16th century most of big towns had Roma “mahalas” (neighbourhoods), whose inhabitants were “blacksmiths, singers and dancers.”

“History is one thing, but modern life is another,” mayor of Belgrade Dragan Djilas said at the opening of the museum. The city of Belgrade, the biggest Roma NGO called ‘April 8’ (after the international Roma day), and international Roma organisations financially supported the founding of the museum.

“There’s no doubt that the contribution of Roma to Belgrade’s culture and history was quite big,” Djilas (42) told IPS. “But in the past decades things have changed, and it is now quite usual to hear someone say ‘no Roma children with my kid at school’, which was unimaginable when I was growing up.”

Over the past two decades, since the wars of disintegration of former Yugoslavia began, nationalism and inter-ethnic hatred changed views of people towards Roma as well.

All over former Yugoslavia, Roma children are sent to schools for children with special needs, although they are perfectly healthy. The reason quoted by education authorities is usually that the children do not speak the local language well enough, and need time to learn it and adapt to normal curricula.

An overview of recent research on Roma at the museum provides a gloomy picture even though this decade has been internationally proclaimed as the decade of Roma and improvement of their living.

In Bosnia, a study by the Organisation for European Security and Cooperation (OSCE) found that 70 percent of the Roma population of 50,000 was displaced during the 1992-95 conflict; 60 percent of the Roma in modern Bosnia are illiterate, 90 percent have no health insurance, 70 percent are unable to live without social cheques (20 dollars a month) and 80 percent have no schooling.

In Serbia, a similar study by ‘April 8’ found that Roma mostly live in 600 “carton cities” around big towns. The life expectancy for women is 45, and for men 56. More than 70 percent are illiterate, and only 0.4 percent get university degrees.

“There’s one thing worse than being a woman in Serbia, and that is being a Roma woman,” Jasna Ilic from the Roma women centre Bibija told IPS. “Almost all Roma women, who marry very young, exist to take care about the large number of children they have. Parents won’t invest in their education as they are going to marry and ‘go to another family’, and what awaits them there is almost, in all cases, family violence and endless care of others.”

A study by the Institute for Anthropological Studies in Croatia showed that a fifth of Roma men and 40 percent of Roma women never attended school, and those who did stayed only for five instead of the full eight years. Girls on average marry at age 16.8 and have four children. Only a quarter of men are employed – and they have temporary jobs.

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