Blaze adds to misery for Romani refugees

Whether fleeing ethnic strife and conflict or escaping a raging inferno, life has proved to be an extraordinarily harsh battle for the Romani refugees from Montenegro’s Konik 1 camp. In the 13 years since their arrival at the site on the outskirts of the capital city Podgorica, the 850 people dependent on it for a safe home have found it a demanding test of will and courage to continue to survive.

Life was always hard and uncompromising for the Romani refugees in Podgorica’s Konik 1 camp. Photo: Romedia Foundation

Last month, a fire spread rapidly through the camp; 29 shacks that were refugee homes were burnt down, along with a community centre,  a youth club and offices of the Red Cross and several NGOs. Fortunately no lives were lost, but virtually all possessions and belongings perished in the blaze. As many as 150 Romani families are homeless and facing a fresh struggle to find homes and shelter.

Devastation followed the fire at Konik 1 last month. Photo: un.org.me

They came to Podgorica in the aftermath of the brutal civil war that gripped Kosovo in 1998-1999. After starting out with nothing, this latest disaster has left them similarly bereft. Life in the bleak, uncompromising surroundings of the Konik 1 settlement was always daunting; winters were cold, wet and inundated with snow, while summer brought unbearable heat and humidity to the families crammed together in ever more crowded, unsanitary conditions.

Typical of those facing sudden challenges is Selija Hisenaj. Since safely getting to the camp from the Kosovan village of Istok during the war, the 30-year-old mother of seven now faces life with no official documentation or money, all lost in the fire. It took just 10 minutes for the flames to engulf what little there was of Selija’s belongings; she and her family now live in a hastily constructed tent village awaiting permanent resettlement by the Montenegrin authorities. Perhaps the only positive to emerge from the carnage was the fact that there was no indication that the fire was deliberately started as any kind of hate crime against the Romani community.

Part of the emergency tented village where the refugees have been placed following the fire. Photo: Stamford Advocate

Already there is criticism that the authorities have done too little, too slowly to help the refugees in a situation that has been escalating in the past few years.  Behija Ramovic of the Roma Women’s Heart Organisation was part of a special edition of the “Mundi Romani” programme made by Romedia Foundation last year and was scathing in her assessment of the situation facing those living at Konik 1. “Conditions at the camp are very bad. People here live in much worse conditions than the ones who have already integrated into Montenegrin society. We are facing enormous problems with regards to work, sanitary conditions and health care. Daily life here is catastrophic.”

The Konik 1 camp is home to many Romani children. Photo: Romedia Foundation

Elderly camp resident Nura Bezjaku typified the feeling of frustration at the camp. “We get no help at all. If they at least gave us a school for our children, or work, then we could help ourselves. Best would be if they opened the borders so we can go to western countries because this is no life here.”

Lack of basic identification documents has been a massive problem for the Romani refugees. This latest fire has made their situation even more tenuous. Many Romani families who arrived in the exodus from Kosovo had no formal IDs in the first place, and those that had have almost certainly now lost theirs. The history of unregistration with authorities makes it almost impossible for the Kosovan Romani in Konik 1 to access basic rights to services like health care, education or employment. It’s a vicious cycle which leads to chronic unemployment and appalling poverty.

In an attempt to raise money to help meet resettlement costs, the Decade for Roma Inclusion Foundation is urging governments and aid agencies to commit funding to the effort. So far the Ministry of Minority Rights in Montenegro, the Turkish government, Red Crescent have pledged financial assistance in the emergency. It is also believed Germany has offered 50,000 EUR.

Roma advocacy organisations are urging Montenegrin authorities and other governments to help with reconstruction costs and other aid after the blaze. Photo: Al-Jazeera

The Decade Secretariat says its coordinators’ offices in Hungary, Croatia, Romania and Spain have also made efforts to try to get national resources diverted to the Konik 1 resettlement.

Originally, Konik 1 was meant only to be a temporary solution to the humanitarian crisis born out of the civil war in Kosovo. That interim plan seems not to have been developed. Once again it is the Romani refugee community that finds itself beleaguered, dispossessed and homeless.

What does the future hold for the Konik 1 Romani refugees? Photo: Romedia Foundation.