The rusted gate creaks open as a handful of Roma women step into the shadowy entranceway of the former Dubrava Correctional Centre. The soles of their shoes slide across the dank floor as they walk through tangled corridors and between moldy, crumbling walls. The women’s eyes are hollow, their expressions are somber. Children’s wails and coughs echo through the halls of the facility, a place whose former inhabitants experienced decades of abuse.
The Centre, Kosovo’s largest detention facility, had inmates until the end of the war in 1999, when the property was returned to the municipality of Istog, in the country’s northwest. Local authorities promised to turn the center into a home for returning Albanians and Roma, thousands of whom were displaced during the Kosovo war. The promise was never kept, but Roma families began squatting here fifteen years ago and never left.
The Roma have resided in Kosovo in both permanent and impermanent settlements since the fifteenth century. They account for up to two percent of the population and can be divided into three groups: multilingual Romani (Roma, Serbian, and Albanian speakers), Albanian-speaking Muslim Ashkali, and Albanian-speaking Balkan Egyptians. In Kosovo, the Roma have a lower life expectancy than the rest of the population, and they suffer from high unemployment due to a greater difficulty staying in school and reaching university-level education.
Roma are among the 400,000 Kosovar Albanians that were displaced during the 1998 war. During the conflict, Serbian military and police forces oversaw the slaughter of over 1,500 Albanian-speaking Kosovars and were responsible for a wider humanitarian crisis through the displacement of civilian populations. Among those uprooted were Roma families. Many fled the country, often to Germany, but because of agreements reached between the two countries, they were later forced to return to Kosovo.
One day last year, Colonel Corrado Prado, who heads the Civil Military Cooperation unit (CIMIC) of the Italian contingent of the NATO-led Kosovar Force, or KFOR, which has been responsible for security in this area since 1999, discovered Roma children playing in piles of rubbish near the Dubrava Centre. He soon realized that several families were squatting at the facility. Prado sought funds to help them, but a year later the money has yet to materialize.
At the barrier surrounding the Centre hens pick at garbage and weeds flourish. KFOR staff pace up and down the garden checking their watches. My fixer, Rexhë Mulaj, the head of the organization that is responsible for providing social help and education to the children squatting in the prison, is nowhere to be found.
As I wait I ask members of the peacekeeping force what happened to the plans to renovate the prison. Responses are evasive; no one wants to talk.
Eventually, a heavy-set man in a white uniform appears at the entrance of the prison; he moves toward me slowly, careful not to scuff his loafers in the mud. This is Mulaj, my fixer, a man of labored bonhomie and a drawn-on smile. As he arrives, so do a group of Roma women who stare at us from afar.
I ask Mulaj to introduce us to the women. Instead, he shakes his head and whispers, “I speak no English.” This is strange, since I’ve been communicating with him in English for days, and he had agreed to help me with translations. But now, in this forgotten village, it seems as though he won’t help facilitate the story.
Tired and disheartened, I gather my things to leave. Then I feel a hand patting my shoulder. I turn around and a chubby young woman with washed-out hair signals that I should wait. In a few seconds another woman limps out from the rotting gate of the penitentiary.
“What is the problem?” she says, in English.
She introduces herself as Sekibe Morinaj. “Mr. Mulaj is a good man,” she says, “he’s just trying to help.”
Mulaj agrees to leave me alone with Sekibe. More women materialize from the darkness and join us at the gate.
Sandra, a 22-year-old in a tattered t-shirt and oversized flip-flops, approaches carrying a weeping baby in her arms. “I need a place to live. It’s crazy here,” she tells me. “I’m from Gjakova”—a town a few miles away—“and I’ve been here with my husband for eight years. We were homeless before, and as we were looking for a place to stay we heard that some families had moved here.”
Sandra passes her infant to her husband and leads us inside. “Watch where you step,” she says as her feet plunge into three inches of black sewage. “Our children are sick and we don’t have anything to cure them. The authorities keep saying they will bring us aid, food, and medicine. They say they will fix the water pipes and the electricity system. It has been 15 years and nothing has changed.”
Water streams down from the ceiling and gathers in pools filled with rubbish and old shoes. Sandra notices my shocked expression. “Once a week I go and collect rainwater on the roof to wash my baby,” she says.
Sandra leads me down a narrow corridor and knocks on the first cell door. A purple velvet curtain hangs in the doorway; behind I glimpse a tall, skinny man in an oversized suit. His gaze is listless, his movements slow and burdened. Next to him is his wife, who fixes her eyes on me.
They decline an interview but invite us to sit in their tiny home. Sandra explains that neither of them work, nor do they receive welfare. Sandra’s family relies on the 60 euros a month of social welfare, given to her mother-in-law to buy medicine for her heart condition.
Ironed clothes cling to nails hammered into the wall. Colorful carpets cover the damp floor. A stove sits in the corner. Fading movie posters cover peeling paint.
Sandra and I leave and walk the stairs up to the second floor. The light is dim and each step echoes in the dark. The long zigzagged corridor opens up into several empty cells.
There are a few reminders left of the massacre that occurred in the main section of Duprava on May 22, 1999, when prisoners were told to line up on the sports field before being transferred to a more secure prison. The inmates, many of them Kosovar Albanians held for political reasons, had been trapped by NATO bombings targeting Yugoslav and Serb forces nearby, which killed around 23 inmates as prison guards fled. Over the following two days, Serbian security forces lined up around 1,000 prisoners in the courtyard and fired on them with snipers, machine guns and grenades, killing at least 176 prisoners and injuring 200 more.
Sandra and I stop at Shefkijje Tallamishi’s quarters. She is thin and wrinkled and looks considerably older than her forty years. She disappears for a few minutes to make coffee, and I look around. Apart from a few mattresses piled up in a corner, the room is free of furniture. The space is anonymous and acrid-smelling.
Shefkijje has a warming presence. She is married with two sons and a daughter. “My children love going to school, even if sometimes they are scoffed at by their peers because they are not properly dressed or they lack some schoolwear,” she says. “Unfortunately, neither I nor my husband can find a job and we won’t be able to pay for their studies after ninth grade.”
As she talks and coughs she fiddles with a small blue inhaler. She says that she receives no social welfare and she survives on the infrequent aid provided by the local council. “After being kicked out of my house of 10 years I had no chance but to move into this prison,” she explains. “I was healthy before, but by spending more and more time here, I started suffering from chronic asthma.”
After speaking with Shefkijje, I chat with Sekibe under a covered shelter before rainclouds break. She used to live in Switzerland where she took care of her cousins. Then her parents called her back to Kosovo. “I got married when I was 18 and at 27 I moved here with my husband,” she says. “I sacrificed myself for him but he left me and my son behind and built a new life for himself in Germany.”
She pauses. “What can I do? Kill myself? Never. I don’t know if I’m really alive, but what I know is that I want my son to get the education I was not allowed to receive myself, and be able to build a decent life for himself.”
Despite her lack of education, Sekibe demonstrates a fierce intellect. She learned French in Switzerland, English through television, and Serbian during the prolonged occupation of Kosovo.
Sekibe’s friends have all gone inside now. It’s just her and I outside the prison. A thunderstorm looms, and she must return to her cell as well. Visiting hours are over.