Pristina, Kosovo – In a room framed with lace and fake flowers, Ermal* casts his mind back 17 years – to the moment his brother and cousin were kidnapped from Kosovo’s capital, Pristina.
One year later, a missing persons’ organisation returned their bodies to their village to be buried. He describes how they had been beaten with blunt tools.
Ermal’s eyes are watering now. He is sitting on his sofa, his bare feet on the carpet.
No one has ever been prosecuted, he says.
His brother and cousin, both Roma, were killed in the aftermath of Kosovo’s war, a conflict in which the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fought for independence from Yugoslavia and its leader Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.
Although Milosevic’s army began its withdrawal on June 11, 1999, the violence continued in the months that followed. Despite the presence of NATO troops, members of the KLA and other organised groups launched a series of revenge attacks on the Roma community, who were suspected of siding with Serbia.
These attacks varied from harassment and theft to arson, rape and murder. In 2001, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that up to 1,000 Serbs and Roma were missing or unaccounted for since the end of the conflict.
“Investigations, as far as I can remember, were never done,” one Roma man, Hisen Gashnjani, who recalls the incidents, told Al Jazeera. “There weren’t even any arrests,” he says.
It was July 3, 1999, when a Serbian man came to the Roma neighbourhood in Ermal’s village looking for workers to help him move out of his Pristina apartment. During the fighting, 90 percent of Kosovar Albanians had been displaced from their homes, but with the promise of stability, they flooded back into Kosovo.
As they did, the Serbs began to leave.
Ermal, who was then in his early twenties, his brother and his cousin were among the men who accepted the Serb’s offer. They knew Pristina was dangerous, but they needed the money; they had families to feed.
As they were working, a group of Albanians arrived. They wanted to know why the Roma men were working for a Serb. Sensing trouble, their boss told them to go inside and lock the door. He contacted NATO’s peacekeeping force that had been stationed in the country to control any violence between the groups (PDF). The British soldiers stayed with them until they finished the job and once they had, the Serbian man and the NATO soldiers left.
“We had no way to get home,” says Ermal. “So, we started to walk.”
Suddenly, two cars pulled up. He saw that the men inside were Albanians and noticed their guns. Ermal says he fought off the attackers, using the weight of the car door to protect himself.
The men bundled his brother and his cousin into one of the cars and drove off. That was the last time he saw them alive.
“I believe the kidnapping was organised by the UCK,” he says, using the KLA’s Albanian acronym.
As Serbs became politically isolated, a perspective emerged that the Roma were loyal to the Milosevic regime. These rumours spread among Kosovo Albanians.
Roma activists disagree with this version of events, saying that Roma allegiances were formed only by geography.
“If [the Roma] lived in an area with a majority Serbian population, they fought with the Serbs. If they lived with the Albanian population, they fought with the Albanians,” one Roma activist, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, told Al Jazeera.
A 1999 report by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) also questioned the idea of a community-wide allegiance. The Roma community was caught in the middle of a conflict that allowed no neutrality, the report suggested, as a consequece of which, the community was targeted by both sides.
Testimonies implicate KLA members in revenge attacks. The report includes one incident in which German NATO troops discovered that 25 KLA members had beaten and imprisoned 15 elderly Roma.
“They were smirking like they got their hands caught in a cookie jar,” according to one witness cited in the report. One Roma victim found at the scene said: “They told us, ‘You all have to leave here. You co-operated with Milosevic.'”
War crime trials
But inside Kosovo, the KLA are widely regarded as heroes.
Last week, thousands of Kosovar Albanians took to the streets of Pristina to protest against the arrest of Ramush Haradinaj – a former KLA commander. Haradinaj, who was briefly prime minister, had been detained in France on a war crimes warrant issued by Serbia.
For years, bringing charges against the KLA has been problematic, says James Ker-Lindsay, senior research fellow on South East Europe at the London School of Economics.
It is not unusual for former KLA members to rise to the top levels of government. The group’s former leader, Hashim Thaci, is now the country’s president.
“There is a lot of opposition to these new war crime trials,” he says. “If the court starts putting big names on trial, [the Kosovar Albanians] would feel that this is an attempt to undermine the basis for their independence by painting them as perpetrators of atrocities, and not just as victims of Serb aggression.”
There is a feeling that most people who have been put on trial for war crimes committed in Kosovo have been ethnic Serbs, he adds, but there’s also a sense that there needs to be some balance to set a lesson for others.
In 2011, Council of Europe investigator Dick Marty published a report stating: “Insufficient investigation has been carried out into the connection of KLA members with war crimes.”
He blamed the international community for prioritising short-term stability at any price – “sacrificing some important principles of justice” in the process.
Marty also linked the Drenica group, a faction of the KLA formerly led by President Thaci, to organised crime – allegations that Thaci strongly denies.
Although controversial, the report sparked fresh momentum to address unpunished crimes allegedly committed by the KLA.
In 2014, enough evidence had been gathered to announce the new Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office to be held in The Hague, with its first indictments expected in the early months of 2017.
“The court will try serious crimes allegedly committed in 1999-2000 by members of the Kosovo Liberation Army against ethnic minorities and political opponents,” reads a 2016 statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands.
But whether crimes against the Roma community will be specifically addressed remains unknown. The prosecutor’s office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comment.
Many of Kosovo’s Roma expect to be left out of the proceedings, particularly because the community has not attracted much interest in the past.
“I believe this is a very under-researched topic,” says Mirjam Karoly, a senior adviser on Roma and Sinti (a minority group within the Roma community) issues at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe ‘s human rights office, based in Warsaw.
“I remember talking to people who wanted to engage in transitional justice in Kosovo in 2008, and the Roma were not an issue at all. The interest was limited.”
Isak Skenderi, founder of Kosovo-based NGO Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, agrees the issue has received little attention. “I never came across a case where crimes against Roma have been prosecuted. Here, the lives of [the Roma] are cheap,” he says.
If it did represent the Roma, Skenderi believes the court could ease tensions with the country’s ethnic Albanian majority. Wartime grudges are still present, and the Roma remain isolated in education, economic and political life.
The court is the international community’s fourth attempt to try crimes committed during and after Kosovo’s war. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the EU mission, EULEX, and the UN mission, UNMIK, have all tried to investigate war crimes over the past 17 years. But past efforts at justice have been tainted by failures to protect witnesses.
During past investigations, there were cases where witnesses changed their testimonies or died under mysterious circumstances. The ICTY has convicted several people on witness intimidation charges.
Because of this, one Roma man whose family suffered from a revenge attack says he is too frightened to speak to Al Jazeera about what happened.
Mensur Haliti, programme manager at Open Society Foundation’s Roma Initiatives Office, believes the new court will only be different if it is inclusive of Kosovo’s Roma community.
“We know very little about what cases and what perpetrators will be brought to justice,” he says. “But, if you have no Roma voices in any of the structures that will be collecting evidence and protecting witnesses, then there will be no justice for Roma.”
While many are afraid to speak out, Ermal is an exception.
“I’m not afraid because I’m only talking the truth,” he says, his clean, colourful house standing in stark contrast to the grey, ramshackle village outside. He gestures to his brother’s place next door, where his wife and children have been living without him.
“The law is for everyone,” he says.
*Name changed to protect identity