SERBIAN ROMANI EUROVISION WINNER’S PRAYER STILL TO BE ANSWERED

When the victorious Serbian Romani singer Marija Serifovic returned home from winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007 to 50,000 cheering fans in Belgrade, she yelled “I won for Serbia, for all of you!”.

The then 22-year old artist then boldly claimed that her victory marked “a new chapter for a new Serbia”. Six years on from that triumph, it seems that any new chapters have been written along familiarly gloomy plot lines for the Serbian Roma.

Marija - Euro

Marija Serifovic – Eurovision

Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Serifovic’s win in Finland, political parties squabbled somewhat embarrassingly over claims to which party she was affiliated with the Serbian Roma Union and the opposing Radical Party brandishing each other liars.

An even more preposterous claim was made in the Serbian tabloid press who insultingly suggested that her victory was pre-arranged as part of a plot to make Serbs accept the loss of Kosovo. Anyway who has spent more than half an hour in Belgrade will know that it would take a lot more than winning the Eurovision Song Contest to let that most sensitive of national issues lie.

Marija was born in the city of Kragujevac in central Serbia where the Roma are the largest minority group and her musical career was inspired by her mother Verica who was also a famous singer.

Her win in Helsinki drew acclaim from across Europe, notably from the UK-based Australian writer Germaine Greer who in The Guardian wrote “If ever a voice deserved to reign over Eurovision it is the voice of the Gypsy.”

Marija - Verica

Greer continued poignantly by adding that “from the Caucasus to the Atlantic, the Roma people can be found struggling, often undocumented and threatened.”

In Serbia this bleak description was as appropriate six years ago, as it is today. Marija’s song was entitled Molitva, which in English means “prayer” and for many Roma in her native country, prayers go unanswered.

As recently as 25 April, Amnesty International issued a public statement concerning Serbia which stated that “Cleaning” of Roma settlements violated international law.

The statement was in response to forced evictions which had begun a few days earlier in the Cukarica district of Belgrade as the city’s official website described it as “cleaning the communal mess.”

Evictions were conducted forcefully and without warning as more than thirty homes were demolished. It was case of history repeating itself for Serbia’s Romani community as a year earlier a similar eviction took place in the Belvil district, with its Romani inhabitants banished to desperate conditions in the south of the country.

152375_Block 72 Roma forced eviction_ 7th March 2012_ Belgrade_ Serbia.

Roma Evictions, Belgrade

In December 2012, AI had called for urgent action to prevent the Serbian authorities from re-housing Romani families miles from Belgrade in conditions that would equate to racial segregation.

In a country where economic conditions are difficult, the Roma are particularly vulnerable with an estimated 80% unemployed.

The Roma have been living in Serbia since the mid-14th century at the latest and a 2005 report by the World Bank estimated that around half a million Roma live in the country today, approximately 7% of the population.

The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s scarred the entire region but as one man, Sava, told the BBC in a special report into a settlement 30km from Belgrade “We (Roma) stayed by Serbia’s side throughout the wars.”

Despite this, the feeling of unity which was preached by Serifovic after that Eurovision success seems far from reality. The ERRC recently stated that Roma in Serbia face an uncertain future year after year.

They cited the case of Romani evictees who had been relocated to the southern city of Nis where they were “re-housed” in an abandoned warehouse without water or electricity.

With Serbia’s neighbors Croatia set to join the European Union on 1 July, the whole region is about to change once again.

But for the Serbian Roma, changes, of a positive nature at least, remain few and far between and will take more than just a prayer.

By Alastair Watt