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“They send us back like dogs”

In 2012, 12,000 Roma refugees were deported to the Kosovo slums, making the minority group's long-awaited Berlin Holocaust memorial little more than a token gesture. With International Romani Day on April 8, we present some of the deportees' stories.

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Alina (10), was born and raised in Dortmund. She was deported to Kosovo in 2010 with her parents and little sister. Photo by Alexia Slok

Last October, Germany finally unveiled a memorial in Berlin recognising the Roma genocide by the Nazis. Meanwhile, thousands of Roma who have lived in the country for as long as two decades – with their German born-and-bred children – are being subjected to brutal deportation to slums in Kosovo where a bleak, stigmatised ‘gypsy’ future awaits them.

It’s 6am on Wednesday, March 17, 2010. Yllka and her five youngest children are sleeping in their Münster home when, without warning, police swarm their doorstep. They shout at them to hurry up: they have 20 minutes to gather their belongings and go. As he is followed from room to room, 16-year-old Jeton, the eldest son, begs for a minute alone to wash and get his head around the seriousness of the situation unfolding around him. But German police escort him all the way up to the bathroom – although located on the second floor; they suspect the young man might attempt to jump out of it.

In another room his two elder sisters, Hamida, age 20, and Ana, 18, start shouting and crying; they’re promptly handcuffed and dragged out in their pyjamas. Sent by immigration authorities, the German police have come to return Yllka, her husband Alban – who is away driving his truck during the police raid – and their children to Kosovo. The unannounced morning raid catches the household off-guard; vital documents such as birth certificates, medical records and school papers are left behind.

The family (minus Alban, who, faced with no other alternative, is to join them voluntarily three weeks later) is then swiftly escorted to the Düsseldorf airport and handed over to the immigration authorities. There Hamida and Ana are finally allowed to go to the toilet by themselves and change out of their pyjamas.

The police who take them into custody at Düsseldorf seem uneasy: why are the teenagers in handcuffs? When they find out they are deportees, not criminals, they free them and feed them. Six hours later they are boarded on a plane to their next destination: Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital. They’re handed over to Kosovan authorities, placed in a police car and driven to Fushë Kosovë, the largest Roma, Ashkali and Balkan Egyptian (RAE) slum in the area surrounding Prishtina.

On the way, a “Herzlich willkommen!” billboard featuring Angela Merkel – a thank you for Germany’s support of Kosovo as an independent nation – and a German Government Project placard at the main passage into the slum serve as reminders of a revoked shared past. Adding insult to discourtesy, they’re handed over a leaflet from the German-funded reintegration programme URA-2 that reads, “Rückkehr ist gleichzeitig ein Neuanfang”. Return is a new beginning.

Economic migrants from the imploding Balkan region, Alban and Yllka moved to Münster from Kosovo in 1991 with their eldest daughter Armenda. Like many other Kosovan RAE asylum seekers they lived on a Duldung, or toleration status. There are an estimated 35,000 Roma, Ashkali and Balkan Egyptians currently living in Germany on this unique and most precarious status.

We lived in Germany for over 20 years.The children were born there.They send us back like dogs.

Although never granted residency or asylum, they were allowed to work, attend school and raise their family in Germany for almost two decades. They set up home and had five more children: Hamida, Ana, Jeton and their younger siblings Jayla, now 12, and Sara, four. With permanent permission to work in Germany, Alban was actively employed as a truck driver for 16 years, while Yllka planned to go back to her part-time job as a cleaner once Sara started kindergarten.

The children had learned German as their mother tongue and attended school or vocational training. The family of eight had lived, in most respects, a typical West German life and always paid their taxes. Like many on Duldung visas, they trusted that their long-term residency and the fact that their children were German-born would, to some degree, contribute to their chances of continuing their lives here.

They hadn’t counted on the ‘Readmission Agreement’, co-signed in 2010 by Angela Merkel’s government and a Kosovo only too-eager to earn a ticket into the EU, under which Germany pledged to return approximately 14,000 former Kosovans (some 12,500 of whom are RAE) to Kosovo at an average of 2400 per year over the next five to seven years.

‘Criminals’ go first. Alban’s ‘crime’ dated back to 1995, when he had once left Münster for Cologne to attend his brother’s wedding without being granted a “Leave Pass”. The stringency of a Duldung visa means that movement is heavily restricted; along with reporting tri-monthly to the Ausländerbehörde (Immigration Office), permission must be sought before leaving the assigned residential zone. Alban had paid the fine of DM15 for each day away and the charge was to be expunged in 2005. It wasn’t, and 15 years later it was used as the main rationale behind the deportation of a ’criminal’, his wife and their five German-born children.

Just 15 minutes from Kosovo’s bustling capital, the 28th and 29th quarters of Fushë Kosovë are home to tens of thousands of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, mostly forced returnees, with limited or no access to social services, education and training opportunities, healthcare or adequate housing.

Day in, day out it’s the same: we don’t have anything to wake up for. No work, no school. It just kills us.

Deportees from Germany and elsewhere start their new lives as minority outcasts with no money and almost no possibility to work or study. They end up with little choice but to undertake a life of gypsydom and social exclusion, often sending their children to beg or collect and recycle metals. You often see RAE men rummaging through the humongous garbage dumps that surround the area – rubbish is not collected from the Fushë Kosovë ghetto.

In the space of just over a day, Yllka and her children found themselves transported from their typical West German life to these slum-like conditions. Their new neighbourhood is made up of houses from scavenged building supplies and improvised shops and stalls with hand-painted signs. The streets are unpaved and uneven, with no designated footpaths or drains, and as rubbish is no longer collected from the neighbourhood, empty plots and abandoned allotments are allocated dump sites, blanketed in rotting refuse and debris.

The stench is a combination of decomposing food, burning plastic and despair. Sporadic blackouts and water cut-offs are nothing unusual, and even in Prishtina there is no running water between 11pm and 6am. Everyone appears to be in a state of flux, either arriving as a returnee, contriving to depart once more to his or her former host nation, or seeking options in new ones.

The family’s two-room home in the Ashkali zone of Fushë Kosovë is sparse and gives off the feeling of a transitional space; small curiosities such as coloured plastic cups and outlandish cheap flea market clocks ornament the walls and fill the cabinets, but objects of a personal nature such as photographs or children’s drawings are notably absent, while all clothes and toys are packed away, not to be seen.

As much as Yllka has done to keep her home clean for her children, the overwhelming dampness and stench of urine wafting out of the bathroom is inescapable. The yard is large and unkempt, half concrete, half dried-up mud, a small vegetable patch the only sign of residence. An old stove and a collection of refuse and metal off-cuts are stacked in a corner. Freshly washed laundry, hand-scrubbed by Yllka on the backyard’s concrete, hangs in the scorching Kosovo sun.

None of the children can go to school here. We don’t have the documents from their old German schools, so they won’t let them attend.

Ana, Jeton and Jayla sleep in the computer room/study, while Alban, Yllka and Sara sleep in the second room, converting it to a living room by day. Apart from the computer in the corner and folding bed, the room is almost completely empty.

“We just sit at home with nothing to do. I have MSN Messenger, that’s how I keep in contact with my family. The kids use it to stay in touch with the friends they left behind,” says Alban. With an indoor toilet and an internet connection, it is clear this home belongs to one of the more privileged returned families in the ghetto.

“Day in, day out it’s the same: we don’t have anything to wake up for. No work, no school. It just kills us,” explains Alban, lighting cigarette after cigarette while four-year-old Sara floods the living room with hyperactivity and belligerent physical outbursts. “She was born prematurely,” explains Yllka, “and has always had heart and lung problems. She’s aggressive and disruptive because we can’t afford her medication here. In Germany she was so much calmer.”

Alban is angry. “I worked hard in Germany. I was a truck driver for 16 years and was a roofer for two years before that. I’ve always contributed. I want to work here. Nothing. It’s impossible if you’re over 40.”

Kosovo’s unemployment rate is already 45 percent, the highest in Europe; in Fushë Kosovë it is far higher, around 73 percent, “It was good [in Münster]. It was what we knew. Here, today, we just sit around the house drinking coffee, watching TV.” He gestures toward the television with scrambled picture. The American show Big Bang Theory is playing in English with Albanian subtitles in the background. It seems that in the ghetto no matter how poor a family is, they have a television and it’s on. “We used to just watch TV at the end of the day or to relax. Now it’s on all the time,” explains Alban, with one eye on the box.

According to the UNICEF Silent Harm report, two out of every three children returned from Germany were born there and received a German upbringing and education. “None of the children can go to school here,” says Yllka. “We don’t have the documents from their old German schools, so they won’t let them attend.” Children over the age of nine without school certificates cannot enrol into the Kosovan education system; as a result, three out of four returned children in the ghetto no longer attend school.

In addition, a considerable number of returnees do not possess a birth certificate; unable to prove they are Kosovan, they cannot exercise their right to educational, medical or welfare services. Jeton was attending vocational school and undertaking an internship to become a mechanic; Ana was training to be a nurse. Here, there’s nothing they can do.

In Münster the family shared a modest home with all the amenities that could be expected from a German working class lifestyle. “We had six rooms,” shares Yllka. “Now look at us here,” chimes in Alban. “This was the best place we could find and afford.” They have to pay €170 for the house and electricity. The family was given €70 for the first six months from Kosovo’s Ministry of Internal Affairs/Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, as well as a lump sum of €300.

The family has managed to access a limited amount of assistance in the form of food and hygienic products from municipal funding, which Alban claims is managed corruptly. They show receipts stating the goods they have reportedly been provided since their repatriation.

“Look at these prices!” exclaims Alban. “I mean, have you ever paid this much for flour here? They do this so they [the Kosovan Government] look good and appear to be contributing to the returnees. But they also do it to make us look bad, like we’re just receiving handouts,” he says. “We’re not getting any of the fresh stuff [on the receipts] either. No fruits, no vegetables…” “We’ve never had the meat that we were promised,” adds Yllka. “And the toilet paper! There are six people living here! Four adults! We have to buy more toilet paper, but in their minds, they supplied it to us.”

By relegating RAE returnees to the Fushë Kosovë quarter, the government has successfully isolated these marginalised groups. Most individuals have no money to venture into Prishtina to seek work and are unaware of their rights and resources as forcibly repatriated citizens. They are forced to remain solely in the community, relying on family – Yllka confides that Alban’s father, who lives in the US, helps support them – their neighbours and their ingenuity to remain afloat. Ultimately, families have little choice but to adopt a ‘gypsy’ lifestyle – and the more they behave like ’gypsies’, the less obliged the government is to offer assistance.

One scorching Sunday afternoon, as they’ve been speaking about the past for hours and Yllka and Ana are getting more and more upset, Alban explodes: “Fucking Nazis! That’s what they are. Fucking German Nazis. I lived there and worked there. My kids went to school there and they just sent us back like criminals. It’s all about bureaucracy for them. It’s fucking German paperwork, that’s all we are to them. We lived there for over 20 years. The children were born there. They send us back and treat us like dogs.”

Like everyone here, the family dreams of getting out of Kosovo. Yllka’s family has Serbian passports. “We can go and live in Serbia. There we could just live normal lives… but eventually it’s the USA where we want to go. My father lives in Tennessee. We could work a bit in Serbia and then go and start a new life.” Alban believes there is less discrimination against RAE in Serbia, but the country’s recent scandals of forcibly relocating RAE to shipping containers in other locales seem to counter this belief.

They’ll not be able to return to Germany unless they’ve cleared their €6700 deportation debt and German officials lift their permanent refusal of entry. The average wage of an employed Roma, Ashkali or Egyptian is €88 a month, meaning that it could take up to six years and four months of full-time work to pay off the debt. Still, says Alban, “We’re trying to work out a way for Jeton and Ana to go live in Germany together. It would give them the best chance in life. What have they got here? They’ve got nothing if they stay here.”

Fazli Gaurige is a beneficiary from the UNDP’s Active Labour Market Programme (ALMP) fortunate enough to be granted an on-the-job traineeship in a salt factory located on the border of Fushë Kosovë. His pay is €80-100 per month until the training is complete, after which he is not guaranteed a paid job. Even this limited opportunity is more than most get in the slum.

Fazli spent 21 years in Germany, settling in Dortmund with his family, before being forcibly returned to Kosovo. He leaves behind six children with his ex-wife, the woman responsible for his deportation. Fazli’s account is that she failed to forward important communication regarding his Duldung status, posted from the Auslanderbehörde to her address. When he was finally made aware of the situation little recourse could be undertaken.

After unsuccessfully representing himself and his new family in court, a David and Goliath battle of an uneducated Kosovan Roma refugee against the notoriously harsh North Rhine-Westfalian immigration system, he was forcibly returned, along with his spouse Stretlana and their children Alina and Samantha, now 10 and four years old respectively. Two-year-old Edi was born shortly after their return.

Their house is down a dirt alley at the edge of the 28th quarter, a seven minute walk from the main train station separating the ghetto from the rest of the community. “We don’t own it,” Stretlana says of their dilapidated shanty, somewhat anxious that this is made clear. “We just rent it. We can’t afford to buy anything. We own none of it.”

Their living space is utterly squalid; the entry is up three concrete steps through a provisional, makeshift wall leading directly to the kitchen consisting of a stove, a fridge, a full-sized bathtub connected to a pipe that leads nowhere and the futon-style mattresses that are commonly used as couches in the community. To the right is an open storeroom separated by a curtain from the rest of the house, full of wood.

“It all belongs to the landlords. They live in Peja and Serbia. Last winter [when a blizzard struck the Balkans region and a state of emergency was declared across the Prishtina and Fushë Kosovë areas] we were freezing but had nothing to keep us warm. We were too scared to use this wood. We can’t be thrown out of our house,” explains Stretlana.

There is another storage room further toward the back, filled with boxes of clothes and the children’s toys. This room cannot be used as a bedroom due to the mould, forcing all the family to sleep in the windowless living room, which is filled with two couches, a coffee table, Edi’s small wooden crib and, of course, the television.

Child returnees are faced not only with the initial trauma of deportation, but with the stress of adapting to new, impoverished conditions in an unfamiliar country. Samantha suffers from an irritable eye condition that appeared after relocating. Stretlana has taken her to the local, free doctor, who referred her to a Prishtina-based ophthalmologist, whom they cannot afford to visit. Alina, the eldest daughter, is an extremely astute child who has suffered greatly from the uprooting and disturbances in her family’s life.

Initially shy, holding her brother and sister tight, she soon becomes excited and happy to talk to strangers in the community. It’s clear she shares common ideals with her parents and is obviously aware of her change of circumstances. “She’s a very bright girl,” says Stretlana, pulling Alina in for a hug. “She can speak German, Romani and Albanian… she tried to go to school [since we returned] but became too anxious. She’s taken so much of the stresses upon herself.” She’s now too old to re-enrol in regular school, but plans have been made to get her to start class again thanks to the non-governmental organisation.

Fazli bemoans the lack of chances for his family to move abroad. “It’s not possible,” he explains. “Stretlana was born in Macedonia and has no birth certificate or immigration papers.”

No birth certificate means she’s stateless, or an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) and generally not able to access welfare or community services.

“I understand you can’t help us get back home,” says Stretlana. “I’ve accepted we probably can’t get back. But I hope people see these photographs; it’s important for Germany and Europe to see what has happened to us and how we live now.”

It’s made clear that few people may see the images or hear her story. “I know, I know,” follows Stretlana, “but they still help people understand. If there’s a chance it can stop others from being deported then it makes all the difference. Nobody else should be treated this way and the more people who come here and see and take things back to show [in Germany], the more likely it is someone will get mad enough to change it.”

Alexia Skok spent Feb-Jul 2012 with a UN programme for youth in Kosovo. This reportage is the result of field research for an MA thesis in Media Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin.