JOURNAL ISSUE 16
Peace and Peace-Making Traditions Among Roma People
Ana Bogdanic’, Ph.D. Student
University of Zagreb
President of the NGO Center for Interdisciplinary Research
Activist in Romani Women NGO Better Life
Rijeka – Croatia
Keywords - peace, Roma people, war, oral history interview
In wars or other conflict situations, marginalized groups such as Roma people usually have to give more than is expected from the majority in order to manifest belonging to the nation and state. Roma, as a stateless nation, avoid wars because of their usual position of being in between conflicting sides. Peace-making traditions among Roma people are an essential part of Roma culture and are directly related to the historical experience of permanent discrimination. This paper reflects upon the participation of Roma people in the “Croatian Homeland War"(1991-1995) through analysis of an oral history interview with Šemse Isljami, the President of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Roma War Veterans of Primorsko-goranska County, which is the first association of Roma who fought for one state in history. Therefore, according to the oral history interview with Šemse Isljami and research on the status of the Roma minority in socialist Croatia, it is possible to conclude that the participation of the Roma people in the Croatian Homeland War was mostly motivated by the need for social acceptance, as a manifestation of belonging to the state and society and a need for stronger bonding of that belonging.
When we observe the world that surrounds us with eyes of love and understanding, then it is impossible to be passive and accept the suffering of marginalized neighbors and those who are on the edge of society. The vicious circle of poverty is dangerous in terms of generations because the poverty in one generation produces poverty in another generation. This issue, if solved, is the key for reaching a world of justice with equal individuals and satisfied societies. It can be solved only if those who are outside the circle of poverty decide to give a hand and reach to help people inside the circle. Following that line, doing social work is the duty of every individual who considers her- or himself to be a human and a social being.
When conflict or war arrives on the scene, then real challenges appear because it is hard to maintain the peace– peace within us and peace in relations with people who surround us. Then, in war, the collective unconsciousness overloads itself with strong feelings of fear and anger towards the enemy or the “Other”. Mostly, in wars or other conflict situations, migrants or marginalized groups such as Roma people become scapegoats for all the problems that appear in society. Therefore, in these moments, every day is a struggle to be better humans and to fight for positive concepts, first on the mental level and then in the real world with concrete actions. In these situations it is relevant to practice constant introspection and reflection of one’s own behavior and thoughts. Moreover, for people who want to maintain the peace it is pertinent to integrate respect for nature and compassion as values because these are possible ways for keeping a peaceful mind and body, which are crucial conditions for persistent action while aiming for social change.
PERSONAL MOTIVATION: Shadow Narrative
In my case, the struggle for social change began rather early; it started in my first year at the University as a volunteer and activist in the Women’s Rights NGO ŽAR (Ženska akcija Rijeka) and continues now with activism in the Romani women’s NGO Better Life and the Esperanto Society. Although these organizations have very different backgrounds and actions, from my personal experience they are both motivated with the same aim, i.e. the struggle for a society of tolerance, equality and justice. The word esperanto means hope and it might be a keyword for all social workers or those who are “full time social workers” by nature of their character.
The house of my parents is built less then a kilometer from the biggest Roma settlement in Rijeka, called Rujevica. While traveling to school and, later, University, it was difficult to see barracks and segregated settlements where only Roma families lived without proper protection from rain and wind during harsh winters. It was difficult to watch how people on the bus moved to the other side when Roma children entered. It was difficult to hear bad commentaries from people who were making prejudiced observations about the Roma, who were pretending not to notice. It was difficult to see how poorly the Roma families dressed and that they were without tickets for the bus. They begged the listening driver for free entrance; he was sometimes merciful and sometimes just closed doors in front of them, while the rain fell.
My motivation for both early activism and later research derives from my personal experience with injustice in the patriarchal postwar, transitional, neoliberal Croatian society. This injustice was directed both towards me as a young, female individual and towards Roma as “Others” or as a marginalized and isolated group. While drinking coffee with a Roma friend in a fancy bar in Rijeka or, on the other side, being the only non Roma woman in the Roma settlement Rujevica, I felt the gaze of the majority. The gaze was changeable in these two examples; in the first the majority is Croats and in the second the majority is Roma. The gaze was directed towards me and my friend, making the two of us become Others too. Who is to be the Other? To be in the shoes of the Other is not an empowering position, no matter from which perspective it is viewed. To be the Other means to be in the position of the minority, which is marginalized and looked upon through the lens of prejudice? To be the Other means to feel that you are in a vulnerable position in relation to the ones who are directing the gaze.
Never in world history have Roma started a war or joined a war as a collective nation. Roma, as a stateless nation, avoid wars because of their usual position of being in between conflicting sides; as a result they are usually the first victims in conflicts that they never started. For example, in the Kosovo war between Albanians and Serbs (1999), it was apparent that Roma were forced to choose a side. This was difficult because of religious closeness to Albanians through the Muslim religion and cultural closeness to Serbs (i.e. a more liberal, less traditional way of life). In situations when one group or population has to choose and the choice is not the winning side, then massive migrations occur and painful events, such as the destruction of the Roma settlement in Pristine, happen in the most horrible way. In historical situations, when Roma cannot stay neutral or when forced to choose sides in conflicts, then Roma migrate, usually from the east to west and from south to north, in search of better living conditions.
The aim of this paper is to reflect upon peace-making traditions among Roma people. The focus will be on the oral history of Roma war veteran Šemse Isljami and his views on war and peace in relation to Roma culture and history. The oral history method is the perfect tool for research on minority history as this view of history is ignored by the institutionally preferred history (i.e. political history) and that is why it is crucial for the history of minorities, both social and ethnic, who were always on the edge of historiography (Anderson & Jack, 1998; Borland, 1998; Grele, 1998; Morrissey, 1998; Oral Historical Association, 1992; Protelli, 1998; Samuel, 1998; Thompson, 2000; Sherbakova, 1998; Weyerauch, 1997).
In this paper I will argue that Roma people have strong peace-making traditions that were culturally developed as a defense technique through the experience of historical persecution as a marginalized minority. This hypothesis will be analyzed through the results of the oral history interview with Šemse Isljami, President of NGO Roma War Veterans of Primorsko-goranska County, and a three year experience of fieldwork research in the Roma community in Rijeka, Croatia. Peace-making traditions among Roma people are an essential part of Roma culture and are directly related to the historical experience of permanent discrimination.
When we speak about peace-making traditions among Roma people, these are mostly activities that could be considered passive resistance: avoiding conflicts, finding compromise in conflict situations, understanding both conflicting sides, mediations between conflicting sides and communication strategies related to survival in conflict situations ( Barany, 2002; Barša, 2001). According to my practical experience, communication strategies related to survival in conflict situations among Roma people are the following: avoiding speaking about politics and history in public and private spheres when gadze (Roma word meaning non Roma) are present, avoiding taking one side between conflicting parties, self-victimization, collective-victimization and emphasizing migration as a possible solution.
Participation of Roma People in the Croatian Homeland War (1991-1995)
Peace and peace-making traditions are relevant parts of Roma culture. However, Roma did not avoid all wars and conflicts that occurred in countries where they lived. For example, with the fall of Yugoslavia a large part of the Roma community chose migration, but some Roma were part of armed forces on different, conflicting sides. However, it is interesting that a rather large group of Roma men from Rijeka went to war as Croatian volunteer soldiers, who were formed as the Croatian Armed Forces. They are better known as the Croatian army (Hrvatska vojska - HV) that were formed from the first armed corps, the National Guard Corps (Zbor narodne garde - ZNG), in 1991 when Croatia first started to be under attack from the JNA (Yugoslav army) shortly after declaring independence. The Zbor narodne garde, or National Guard Corps, was the first form of a Croatian military force, as the only military force at that time was the JNA (Yugoslav army).
Since 1991 Šemse Isljami has been part of the ZNG, receiving a salary from the army. When he came back from the war to his old firm, in 1992, first he was sent on holiday and then he was fired. Since then he has not been employed. From 1995 until the present Šemse Isljami has been under medical care for posttraumatic stress and will soon start to receive his pension, around 150 euro per month, from the state for being a war veteran with diagnosed posttraumatic stress. As a result of stress from the war he has diabetes, he has to take insulin two times per day and he takes twelve pills per day.
Isljami recalls that on the 11th of September, 1991, Rijeka's major Slavko Linic sent seven buses of soldier volunteers from Rijeka to Gospic without weapons. This was because all weapons were in the Yugoslav army that, until 1991, represented all federal republics; but in war it was directed by Serbian politics. Šemse was in one of these buses. Šemse remembers that the Yugoslav army attacked buses with airplanes; everyone escaped from the buses to the woods and then six buses returned to Rijeka (Isljami, 2007).
When the war ended veterans formed many NGOs in order to organize themselves and gain more support from the state. At this time, war veterans and pensioners were a real problem in Croatian society because they were marginalized groups that became socially vulnerable and were acknowledged mostly just during political campaigns and election periods. Isljami said that Damir Car, ex-President of the Association of War Veterans of Primorsko-goranska County, motivated him to found the NGO Roma War Veterans of Primorsko-goranska County, which now has 230 members (90% were soldier volunteers and 10% were mobilized during the war). Around 35 members of this NGO are from the city of Delnice in Gorski kotar, 25 members are from the city of Crikvenica in the Adriatic Riviera and others are from the city of Rijeka.
When asked about discrimination towards Roma in respect to other soldiers, Isljami responded that the denial of the existence of Roma war veterans hurts him the most. He mentions the case of the main editor of the journal Slobodna Dalmacija who wrote an article about the minimal activity of the Roma people in defense of their country during the war. Also, Isljami emphasizes the problem of Roma war veterans who have difficulties in gaining citizenship rights; around ten Roma soldiers, who are members of the NGO of Roma veterans, who went abroad after 1992 were erased from national statistics and are now without Croatian citizenship. Moreover, during the war Isljami experienced direct prejudices from soldiers who were his friends, prejudices just on the basis of his ethnic origin:
It hurt me most of all, it was terrible that I was with friends in war, we were fighting together, all the time together in mud, and after one argument my friend from war said to me: “Who sent you here, you should go to the place from where you came!” (Isljami, 2007)
Therefore, although Isljami was part of the army that was defending the country and its borders, in one moment he was not recognized as a citizen or soldier volunteer of this state, but as someone who was not part of that country and who should go back to the place from which he came. That is what hurts him the most.
The issue of regretting going to war is relevant for all soldiers who came back home and a few years after the war were forgotten; they were left with their memories and posttraumatic disorders. Isljami thinks that posttraumatic disorders among Roma war veterans destroy Roma families and he considers it a great problem. When I asked him if he regrets going to war as a soldier volunteer and defending the country he answered:
Yes, because I lost my health, I have a tumor in my knee. In 1991, in the war, my leg was hurt, now I have a tumor in the same place, and although I had an operation, the tumor is coming back, I am sure that this tumor is a result of the war. It was on the 12th of December, 1991 in the war, that I had an injury to my leg, and now I have a tumor at the same place…and four months ago the tumor came back again…I have four types of PTSP [Posttraumatic Stress Disorder]: F431, F521, F563 and F642. (Isljami, 2007)
For all war veterans and their families the injuries, both physical and psychological, are enormous. But the question is if Roma war veterans have the same treatment as other war veterans. The central question posed to Isljami, and the most relevant for this paper, was a question related to peace and Roma culture. When I asked Šemse what he thinks about the hypothesis that Roma are mostly considered people of peace who avoid wars, he answered:
Roma are not interested in war; they like music, dancing…but this is not good. They have to adjust, civilize themselves. My Roma veterans are employed and 80% of them are working in firms. (Isljami, 2007)
In my opinion, Roma participation in the Croatian Homeland War (1991-1995) was motivated by the need to be “civilized”, and integrated into and mostly accepted by the majority of society; it solved problems of both economical and social status. This could be compared with the Vietnam War, when many African Americans went to war because of social and economical reasons; they were living on the margins of American society. However, Roma people in socialist Yugoslavia had much better status then African American people in the USA during the Vietnam War (Hrvatic, 1996; Saptefrati, 2001; Sucur, 2000). As the status of the Roma minority in socialist Croatia was better than now, it is possible to conclude that the participation of Roma people in the Croatian Homeland War was mostly motivated by the need for social acceptance and as a manifestation of belonging to the state and society. But, this had connotations to the society of welfare and not to the neoliberal society, which is taking the role of the leading ideology in the contemporary 21st century.
In wars or other conflict situations, marginalized groups such as the Roma people usually have to give more than is expected from the majority in order to manifest belonging to the nation and state (Young, 1995; Stewart, 1997; Painter, 2002). Roma, as a stateless nation, avoid wars because of their usual position of being in between conflicting sides. Peace-making traditions among Roma people are an essential part of Roma culture and are directly related to the historical experience of permanent discrimination. This paper reflected upon the participation of Roma people in the Croatian Homeland War through analysis of an oral history interview with Šemse Isljami, the President of NGO Roma War Veterans of Primorsko-goranska County. This is the first, historical association of Roma fighting for one state, as Roma do not have a state and rarely fight in wars. Therefore, according to the oral history interview with Šemse Isljami and research on the status of the Roma minority in socialist Croatia, it is possible to conclude that the participation of Roma people in the Croatian Homeland War was mostly motivated by the need for social acceptance, as a manifestation of belonging to the state and society and the need for a stronger bonding of that belonging.
To conclude, peace-making traditions, a relevant part of Roma tradition, were less important than the need to manifest a sense of belonging to the Croatian state in the case of the Croatian Homeland War. This need was high among Roma people who lived in socialist Yugoslavia and who transferred this sense of belonging to an historical moment (i.e. the creation of a new, independent state). However, when the war ended war veterans and their families were forgotten and left to struggle with memories and posttraumatic disorders, as the new state brought new values according to global neoliberal consumerist trends.
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