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

"The mistake was that they bombed innocent people and not his personal residence," said local Roma leader Gordana Vladisavljevic, in reference to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's survival of NATO's 78-day bombing campaign. "Now, the West has a responsibility to help the innocent people it bombed."

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

At a time in Kosovo when satellite dishes sprout from apartment buildings like vertical mushrooms and NGOs are switching from emergency food-aid programs to long-term development projects, the situation is acute here in Serbia proper. The World Food Program currently provides food 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 for Overseas 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 with Western religious organizations to provide local displaced people with firewood, a precious commodity for heating and cooking needs.

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

"Roma are always marginalized, particularly if you bear in mind that they 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 aid organization working in Serbia since 1996, is among the leading American aid providers working in Yugoslavia, maintaining operations even through last year's bombing. CRS runs the $8 million firewood distribution program with funding from Britain's CAFOD.

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

With NATO bombs having destroyed Kragujevac's huge factory that once made Yugo cars, and Milosevic widely expected to win reelection later this month, there is an air of futility in the dingy, dusty Roma settlement here.

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

Ilic said he chose Kragujevac because the local government is controlled by political parties opposed to Milosevic, who he expects to win 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 is not hard to see why. Extended Kosovar families of up to 15 people live in unheated, concrete huts measuring about 30 feet by 20 feet. Refugees who fled fighting in Croatia and Bosnia live in makeshift structures of plywood scraps and cardboard with roofs held down by used car tires.

Among lifelong Kragujevac Roma, too, there is resentment at the poverty they see as having been wrought by Milosevic. Ratomir Todorovic, 83, is a retired garbage collector whose $2.60 monthly pension is far too little to survive on. He showed up at the CRS firewood distribution to beg for "a log or two" but was told he is ineligible because he is not someone displaced by war.

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

If, as expected, Milosevic defeats the divided opposition in the election, Piercy of CAFOD predicted humanitarian aid organizations could face more difficulty operating in the region if there are widespread protests over the election results.

"If the government wants to suppress any kind of rebellion, then they will try to tighten up even more," he said, referring to banking and import restrictions that already make work in the region difficult. "I can only see the humanitarian situation getting worse."

With an estimated 280,000 refugees from the Balkan wars of the last decade now living in Yugoslavia along with another 210,000 people who fled Kosovo in the last couple years, aid organizations are focusing primarily on the most basic needs.

Richard Hoffman, CRS country representative in Yugoslavia, said that judging from anecdotal evidence alone, the situation is worsening.

"You see more and more homeless people going through the garbage cans looking for food," said Hoffman, referring to Belgrade. "You see these packs of wild dogs and some of them have collars on. Their owners couldn't afford to keep them anymore. That's another sign."

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