Beliefnet
KRAGUJEVAC, Yugoslavia, Sept. 7 (RNS)--Among the 4,000 Roma--Gypsies--homeless from Kosovo living in this destitute, jobless city, there is a feelingof abandonment by the Yugoslav government, by Serbian charities, and bythe Western powers whose bombing turned Kosovo upside down but left theYugoslav president in place.

"The mistake was that they bombed innocent people and not hispersonal residence," said local Roma leader Gordana Vladisavljevic, inreference to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's survival of NATO's78-day bombing campaign. "Now, the West has a responsibility to help theinnocent people it bombed."

Expressing a widely held sentiment among Gypsies from Kosovo,Vladisavljevic said she is frustrated at the lack of Western aidavailable for those people driven from Kosovo, as compared with the mostlyAlbanian population that remains in Kosovo, where more than 400nongovernmental organizations are at work.

At a time in Kosovo when satellite dishes sprout from apartmentbuildings like vertical mushrooms and NGOs are switching from emergencyfood-aid programs to long-term development projects, the situation isacute here in Serbia proper. The World Food Program currently providesfood to more than 700,000 of the 11 million people living in Yugoslavia.

"Kosovo has too many NGOs, too much money," said Jerome Piercy,Eastern Europe program manager with England's Catholic Agency forOverseas Development, which is helping the Roma population with firewood."The media built up the image of poor Kosovo and the demon Serbia."

Vladisavljevic's local Roma aid organization, New Way, works withWestern religious organizations to provide local displaced people withfirewood, a precious commodity for heating and cooking needs.

As she stood watching a firewood distribution on a recent hotweekday morning here, Vladisavljevic said the Roma are generally in aworse situation than the Serbs who fled Kosovo.

"Roma are always marginalized, particularly if you bear in mind thatthey are uneducated and their chances of getting work are very limited,"she said, adding that about half of adult Romas are illiterate.

The situation in Serbia (of which Kosovo has been part) and the remainder of the present and former Yugoslavia is particularly critical.

During the 1990s, Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim religious groups have fueled racial and religious hatred as a means of promoting their own status. The Gypsies have no affinity with any of the political-religious groups and are attacked by all.

Random beatings and killing of Roma men, women, and children have become common.

Catholic Relief Services, a Baltimore-based humanitarian aidorganization working in Serbia since 1996, is among the leading Americanaid providers working in Yugoslavia, maintaining operations even throughlast year's bombing. CRS runs the $8 million firewood distributionprogram with funding from Britain's CAFOD.

Both European and U.S. Catholic bishops have repeatedly called forthe end of the punitive economic sanctions that are currently in placeagainst Yugoslavia. The sanctions are designed to force Milosevic from power, but the bishops argue that theeconomic measures only hurt the poorest, most vulnerable elements ofsociety.

With NATO bombs having destroyed Kragujevac's huge factory that oncemade Yugo cars, and Milosevic widely expected to win reelection laterthis month, there is an air of futility in the dingy, dusty Romasettlement here.

"If this situation lasts much longer, I am almost certain there willbe a civil war," said Zika Ilic, 37, an unemployed Roma metal worker whofled here from his village outside Kosovo's capital of Pristina lastMarch with his wife and two children.

Ilic said he chose Kragujevac because the local government iscontrolled by political parties opposed to Milosevic, who he expects towin the September 24 election.

Roma leaders say most of their people will vote against Milosevic.Given the living conditions in Kragujevac's refugee settlement, it isnot hard to see why. Extended Kosovar families of up to 15 people livein unheated, concrete huts measuring about 30 feet by 20 feet. Refugeeswho fled fighting in Croatia and Bosnia live in makeshift structures ofplywood scraps and cardboard with roofs held down by used car tires.

Among lifelong Kragujevac Roma, too, there is resentment at thepoverty they see as having been wrought by Milosevic. Ratomir Todorovic,83, is a retired garbage collector whose $2.60 monthly pension is fartoo little to survive on. He showed up at the CRS firewood distributionto beg for "a log or two" but was told he is ineligible because he isnot someone displaced by war.

Lying in the shade of a horse cart waiting to be loaded withfirewood, Todorovic said that he is so poor that when his wife diedrecently, "I couldn't bury her. The neighbors had to help."

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