Return to Left Curve no. 26 Table of Contents
Ed. Note: The text and images below are selections from the recently published book by Paul Polansky, The Blackbirds of Kosovo. All proceeds frrom the sale of this book go directly to aid the Kosovo Roma. Please order a copy by sending a check or money order for $10 to: Left Curve Publications, PO Box 472, Oakland, CA 94604. Or place your oder by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This book is yet another chronicle of the on-going humanitarian work that Paul Polansky has been doing for the Roma people, in this case the plight of the Roma of Kosovo, whose dire situation has been untold and ignored by mainstream media, as well as the numerous "relief" organizations operating in Kosovo. The poems and photos presented here are direct and sensitive expressions of the authors experience in establishing a personal, living relationship with the people whose lives he records. This is not the usual book of poetry and images through which an author presents his view of the world. Rather, it is fashioned so as to give voice to the voiceless, and done so through the authors commitment to live with, partake of, the people that through him may speak. And what is recorded are the lives of a people struggling in the midst of ethnic cleansing, persecution, discrimination, poverty and joblessness to maintain their dignity and unique, centuries-old, culture and identity.
I was privileged to have spent some time with Paul and see him at work and experience the lives of the Roma of Kosovo, a result of which is this book. In the rest of this forward, I just want to give the reader some impressions of my brief stay and in so doing, hopefully, give the reader a sense of the atmosphere that produced this collection. Paul invited me to come with him on his trip back to Kosovo in June at a reading he gave in San Francisco on May 17th for the journal, Left Curve, that I edit. Id been planning a trip overseas anyway around that time, so I naturally accepted. I had no idea what to expect. As it turnedout, the trip etched vivid, indelible images and impressions into my mind, along with a deep admiration for Pauls selfless dedication to the cause of the Roma people.
Paul picked me up at the Prague airport on June 3rd with a van that had been donated to Voice of Roma for use in Pauls humanitarian work with the Kosovo Roma. We left for Kosovo as soon as I got off the plane, driving non-stop for some 25 straight hours through the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and down the winding, often treacherous, road of the Dalmatian coast to Dubrovnik, where we stayed but one nightonly to take off again the following evening, driving into the full-moon lit night through Montenegro. After an attempted nights rest by the edge of a bayinterrupted by two Montenegrian cops who came up and got in an out of the van and tinkered with the radio to relieve their boredom from stopping and checking the few cars that drove bywe finally descended from the mountains of Montenegro into the smog-filled valley of Kosovo by the middle of the following day. Our descent down the largely dirt road was still pock-marked by bomb craters and periodically littered with burned out, rusted, husks of passenger buses. The charred, twisted, metal skeletons lay as mute, grim sentinels to the returning Albanians vengeance extracted against the fleeing Serbs and Roma after the end of the NATO war.
View of Kosovo Valley from the mountains of Montenegro. Photo: C. Polony
By early evening, we finally arrived at the home of the Roma family where we were to stay in the village of Peroce. As we drove through the bumpy dirt road of the village, past a muddy, cooper-colored stagnant stream filled with junk and garbage, I could see people stopping and staring at the strange sight of a big American van driving into a Gypsy village. Very soon, several dozen adults and many more children began to run alongside the van with a growing crescendo of "Mr. Paul!, Mr. Paul! Mr. Paul!" escorting us the final few hundred meters of our journey. It was a spontaneous, heartwarming, welcome such as I had never experienced. When Paul got out of the van, he began to hand out vitamin C candies to the many children that had gathered all around him. The sight of the scrubby, many barefooted, poorly dressed children with glowing, jubilant faces, would dissolve the coldest western cynics heart.
We were escorted into the living room of the family with whom we would stay as dozens of people crowded in. Paul continued to give out candy to the children and began to hand out photographs of people present whose pictures he had taken during his stay last year. Soon afterward, a demure young woman came up to Paul, stood in front of him and in silence, with downcast eyes, extended her forearms with upturned palms horizontal to the floor a few inches from Pauls waist. Without a word being exchanged, Paul placed is hands over hers, without touching, and she began to move her palms slowly, back and forth, for several seconds. Paul moved his hands in synchrony with hers. I was standing next to Paul and she then repeated the same process with me. The young womans "ritual was a moving wordless moment: partaking of a universal language of the body that exists prior to words or thought, a form of communication that still resides somewhere deep within all of us, despite the fact such expressions had long ago been banished from our "civilized" lives.
I stayed in Kosovo only for another week, though I wish I could have stayed longer. During that time, Paul placed himself entirely at the service of his hosts and many Roma families throughout Kosovo. I saw him daily, tirelessly, drive people for hours to visit relatives, reunite families who had not seen each other for years, take people to hospitals, meetings, celebrations, buy food and supplies, patiently listen to and record their all too often tragic lives, as well as bring their plight to the indifferent attention of "relief" agencies. We would also play chess, play pool, relax and exchange tidbits about the world, our lives and families. His bearing was always solid, real, human, respectful and forthright with no condensation. And all this was done in an atmosphere of constant potential danger. For example, once we stopped at a Serb restaurant and it so happened that there were two UN cops from the US at the table next to us. These cops told Paul that Kosovo was still a dangerous place. "There have been 837 murders just in this area since the war," he said, waving his had in a circle, "and no one has been prosecuted." "Be careful, guy," he said, "everyone that Ive known here who had a cocky attitude and thought that they could take care of themselves, I eventually found shot dead."
The book that you hold in your hands is a unique book, a living testimonial to a contemporary tragedy (unfortunately hardly the only one in our world today) by a man dedicated to use his ability for others, and whom I had the privilege to get to know and see at work.
Kovachi family in Peroce. The Kovachi ("Blacksmiths") is the largest caste among the Kosovo Roma. Photo: Paul Polansky.
THE KOSOVO ROMA
On June 7, 2001, I returned for the third time to Kosovo to live with the Roma and report on their plight. This time I returned with a 1987 Chevy Astro that I had shipped from New Jersey to Antwerp (Belgium) and then drove from there to the Balkans. My mission for 2001 was to use my van to transport Roma to hospitals, and to rejoin Romani families who had not been in contact since the NATO bombing of 1999. Despite the presence of 50,000 NATO troops and 10,000 police, Roma are still kidnaped and killed if found alone, especially on the roads, in this UN protectorate. The Kosovo Roma quickly named my van their "Gypsy Taxi" and for the next three months I transported 1,024 Roma to hospitals, mosques, Christian churches, concerts, soccer games, to see relatives and to go shopping. I also took many to visit for the first time since June 1999 their homes which had been destroyed by the returning Albanian refugees.
During my travels with the Roma, I also updated my 1999 survey of their communities. Two years after the trauma of being burned out and chased from their homeland, some had returned, answering the call of UNHCR, OSCE and NATO governments that it was safe to do so. The opposite turned out to be the real truth. In Gjilani, returning Roma, supposedly protected by the American army, were attacked, beaten and burned out their first night back. Roma returning to Ferizaj and Prizren received a better welcome, but few found jobs or a place to stay. Although the European Agency for Reconstruction are building more than 12,000 homes for Albanians in Kosovo, only 38 homes have been rebuilt for the Roma, who had 14,000 homes destroyed by Albanians after the war.
Almost everyday I interviewed Roma refugees who were visiting Kosovo to see if they could permanetly return. But the lack of building materials, food and jobs has made it impossible for most of them to survive in their former homeland. From a prewar population of approximately 130,000 Roma, there are less than 27,000 today. On more than one occasion, a Rom told me they have finally found a country they could call their own: Germany. Every Rom I met in Kosovo has a relative living in Germany. Since the European Union is making little effort to help the remaining Roma survive in Kosovo, I suspect that in the near future all will find their way to Western Europe.
The following poems and photos are only a glimpse of what is happening today in Kosovo to the Roma and other minorities. But I hope these poems and photos will encourage humanitarians worldwide to help the Roma remain or return to their homeland.
Dia is a nineteen-year-old
Dias flat-faced features,
Photo; Paul Polansky
THE BLACKBIRDS OF KOSOVO
The blackbirds of Kosovo
are not really black,
only their wings
when not covered in blood.
Their heads and bodies
are a motley gray
as if they had a skin disease
from not having had
a proper diet.
Of course, the blackbirds
of Kosovo are used to
eating only meat:
If you dont believe me,
there are still enough
fresh bodies lying out there
on the historic plain of blackbirds
two years after the 1999 war
to take a good look.
Dont expect to see
a magpie, raven or crow
flying off with the severed hand
of a hero in its mouth
(as in the ancient Serb legend),
but youll usually see
dripping from their beaks.
Romani Funeral in Obilic, Kosovo. Photo: Paul Polansky
Most international aid agencies in Kosovo discriminate against all minorities, especially Gypsies. The reason is simple. Most of the staff, if not all the directors, are Albanian. The majority of Albanians do not want a multi-ethnic society. Despite all the promises made by NATO that it was going to war to preserve a multi-ethnic society in Kosovo, the opposite has happened.
Shortly after NATO troops arrived in Kosovo they witnessed a purge of the minorities by the returning Albanian refugees. Kidnappings, murders, and house burnings forced tens of thousands of Serbs, Gypsies, Turks, Croats and Gorani to flee Kosovo.
Two years after the arrival of NATO troops, the diaspora of Kosovos minorities continues as a slow but steady trickle. Although kidnap[ings, murders, land mine and hand grenade attacks have lessened, the minorities, especially the Roma, are being forced to leave. Two years after the end of the war, the violence has subsided, but not the systematic ethnic cleansing. Today Gypsies are leaving because they cant pay their water, electricity and telephone bills.
Before the war, most Roma had a job in Kosovo. Although some were doctors, train drivers, journalists, teachers, most were day laborers. But today in Kosovo the only jobs (and they are few and far between) are hoeing Serbian farm fields or grazing other peoples cattle.
With the Albanians due to take over the administration of Kosovo in January 2002, the future looks bleak for all minorities who cant get a job to pay their bills. Forcing unemployed people to pay for two years of utility bills is a subtle way for the Albanians to continue their ethnic cleansing of all minorities from Kosovo.
Keeping minorities, especially Roma, from returning to Kosovo has also taken on a Machiavellian proclivity. Albanian town councils (and international aid agencies) are refusing to provide Roma with the same building materials that Albanians are receiving to rebuild their homes. With implementing partners, the European Agency for Reconstruction is helping 12,000 Albanians rebuild their homes. Only 38 out of 14,000 destroyed Gypsy homes are being rebuilt.
Across Western Europe, tens of thousands of Kosovo Roma are seeking a new home. Perhaps these poems and photos will explain why.
When Sari refused to let his spinster daughter
get married, his wife asked me to drive her
over to Kosovo Polje to see if the Muslim cleric there
could remove this black magic from her husband.
The Muslin cleric, the richest man in town,
told Aisha he would only help her if she hadnt
done anything bad during the war.
Behind him on his study wall surrounded by
several sets of praying beads, was a poster
of Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers
flaunting machine guns and hand grenades.
When Aisha swore she had not helped any Serb
during the war, the cleric gave her a small piece
of paper with a saying from the Koran written on it.
He told her to put this paper in a jug of water
and everyday for four days to give this
water to her husband.
Then the priest asked her for 300 Deutschmark.
When Aisha complained that this was three times
the money her family lived on for a month,
the cleric took back the piece of paper
and told her to leave.
He said he was tired of Gypsies
trying to cheat God.
While in Kosovo
I was invited
by some American soldiers
to go on a night patrol.
I had a press pass,
but they hoped<
Id write a poem instead
of a newspaper article.
The soldiers wore body armor,
carried automatic rifles,
and infra-red night goggles.
Several painted their faces black
like NFL corner backs.
While we walked through a woods
near the Macedonian border,
the soldiers tried to scare me
with stories about Albanian terrorists
hiding behind every tree.
They stopped teasing me
when we spotted two pack mules
standing next to an abandoned farm house.
Everyone swore under their breaths,
then released the safeties on their guns.
Instead of putting on their night goggles
they got out their flashlights.
No one wanted to be first
to approach the farm house.
Everyone said they were tired,
they wanted to get back to base.
"I didnt join the army to risk my life,"
I heard more than one soldier say.
The platoon leader told their interpreter
to call out in Albanian, asking if anyone
was there. When there was no reply,
everyone swore again under their breaths.
"Shit," one of the soldiers cried,
"Im turning on my flashlight."
"Not until we get to the farmhouse," the
platoon leader yelled. "He led the men
in single file up to the door. Then had
the interpreter call out again.
No one wanted to be first thru the door,
so they all turned on their flashlights
and peered thru the glass windows.
When they were sure no one was inside
they slowly opened the door and crept in.
It took the soldiers twenty minutes
to check out the three-room farm house.
When we came out,
the mules were gone.
"Shit," the platoon leader said. "We
find those animals. They looked as if
they were carrying boxes of hand grenades."
No one wanted to follow the muless hoof
so the platoon leader made the men
spread out across the field
with their flashlights on.
"Man, we shouldve been off duty an
several kept complaining. "Lets go back
and watch a video. This aint no fun."
We never found the mules,
but I found out
what it was like
to be on patrol
with Americas bravest
in the Balkans.
THE PRETTIEST FLEET IN PRISTINA
If you want to see how successful
Last Tuesday at 10 a.m.
It goes to show,
you can have
as long as you dont use them.
Red Cross parking lot in Pristina. Photo: Paul Polansky
THE PRESIDENT OF KOSOVO
A Serb tramp
When the president of Kosovo
Yesterday, the president of Kosovo
MY LATEST URINE SAMPLE
THANK YOU, AMERICA
Serb Vagabond. Photo: Paul Polansky
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