Academic journal article Romani Studies

Approaching Preferred Identity: 'Serbian Gypsies' in Post-War Kosovo

Academic journal article Romani Studies

Approaching Preferred Identity: 'Serbian Gypsies' in Post-War Kosovo

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

At the very outset of my fieldwork among the displaced people from Kosovo in the refugee centre "Radinac", near the town of Smederevo, Republic of Serbia, in 2003 I encountered members of the community who declared themselves to be Serbian and insisted on this identification, while the surrounding community saw them as Roma. An official at the centre warned me to take great care in contact with them and always treat them as I would Serbs. She explained to me that they were dark-skinned, but declared themselves to be Serbs and could take great offence if, in any way, I behaved towards them as if they were Roma. A conversation with two female interlocutors originating from the south-east of Kosovo remained within the neutral context of the customs associated with the life and calendar cycles. I continued the research in the south-east of Kosovo where the question of their identity also showed itself to be extremely sensitive. My Serbian interlocutors and hosts agreed to introduce me to members of other ethnic and religious groups but they showed resistance in the case of the Srpski Cigani ('Serbian Gypsies')1 as they called them. They described them as sensitive and shrewd people who would quickly realize why I was interested in them, and would then become offended, and problems would ensue. The conversations I had with a number of 'Serbian Gypsies' in Kosovo were short and conducted in the presence of Serbs, and I did not think it wise to stray beyond the framework of neutral themes. It was clear the boundary between these two communities was an ambiguous zone of negotiation.

Parallel with long-term fieldwork in south-eastern Kosovo I also conducted research in south-eastern Serbia, in the town of Vranje, a regional centre and several of the surrounding villages. Vranje is only 60 km from Gnjilane, a regional centre for the south-east of Kosovo. The reasons for my fieldwork in Vranje were numerous. In the post-war period, members of the Serbian community of south-eastern Kosovo were strongly oriented towards Vranje as the closest larger town, and went there for medical treatment, shopping and similar, and a large number of displaced people also settled there. In addition, I had already conducted research over a number of years among the Serbian and Roma communities in Vranje, which I wished to continue. Deeply interested in understanding the situation of the 'Serbian Gypsies' in Kosovo, I decided to do some research on the Djorgovci community who live in a number of villages in the vicinity of Vranje and who both Serbs and Roma describe as 'Serbian Gypsies' (Zlatanović 2006). The Djorgovci community struck me as being far more accessible for research, mainly because, in conversation with them I had been able openly to address the question of their identification and their boundaries with the other groups in the interaction, the Serbs and the Roma. The name Djorgovci is uses both as an endonym and an exonym, with no pejorative connotations (ibid. 142). The Djorgovci are a community divided between the Serbian and the Roma identity, "betwixt and between", but Roma all the same. In an attempt to explain the significance and implications of their identity, they arrived at the self-determination that they are "Orthodox Gypsies" (ibid. 145-7). Although in many aspects there are similarities between the Djorgovci in the vicinity of Vranje and the 'Serbian Gypsies' in Kosovo, and they are not spatially very distant from one another, they nonetheless constitute two different groups with clear distinctions. Among other things, the historical and political contexts which affected their formation were radically different.

In this article I intend to continue the exploration of the phenomenon of preferred identity, characteristic of the Roma community, with the example of the 'Serbian Gypsies' of south-eastern Kosovo. It is the intention here to make an empirical and analytical contribution to the understanding of the complexity of the situation of the Roma from different perspectives "from below", in a specific frontier and post-conflict region such as Kosovo. …

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