hidden europe 48

Balkan identities

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children pose for a photo at the renovated Centre for Co-operation and Integration ‘Fidan Lahu’, funded by the OSCE, at Fushë Kosovë/Kosovo Polje (OSCE / Hasan Sopa).


So you think you know the key ethnic groups in Kosovo? Serbs and Albanians, to be sure. But life on the ground is more complicated. Who are the Gorani? Then there is a trio of ethnic groups who are locally referred to as the RAE community, viz. Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians. We explore the ethnic mosaic of modern Kovoso.

When Edith Durham visited Gjakovë in 1908 (see preceding feature), she made no mention of an Egyptian community in or around the town. Even today, few visitors to Gjakovë venture beyond the rubbish tips and waste ground into the informal settlement of Kolonija, where many of the residents describe themselves as being Ashkali or Egyptian.

In our Kosovo feature, we noted the endless tide of acronyms which colour so many aspects of Kosovo life. One of those acronyms is RAE. It crops up a lot in civil society initiatives as researchers and policymakers highlight the importance of including Kosovo’s RAE population. RAE is shorthand for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian and thus catches a trio of Kosovo ethnic minorities in one acronym.

The marginalised position of the Roma in many Balkan societies has received considerable media attention, but there has been very little public comment outside the Balkans on the peculiar plight of the Egyptian and Ashkali communities in Kosovo. The homogenising term Roma is still very often used to refer to anyone in the RAE group. But in Kosovo, that glosses over the ethnic affiliations claimed by many in the country. The Egyptians and Ashkali are very certain that they are not Roma.

The census statistics are a sharp reminder that the fracture line between Orthodox Slavs and Muslim Albanians glosses over more complex issues of identity and religion in Kosovo.

The 2011 census suggests that there are about 35,000 Kosovo residents in the RAE group, but Roma (or Romani) sensu stricto account for only about one fifth of that total. There are far more people who identify as Ashkali or Egyptian in Kosovo than there are Roma.

The census tends to underestimate the numbers in the RAE group, as many families live on the very margins of society and may never have any formal contact with the authorities. The statistics are a sharp reminder that the fracture line between Orthodox Slavs and Muslim Albanians glosses over more complex issues of identity and religion in the region. En passant, we might note that Kosovo actually has many thousands of Slavs who are Muslim; such individuals tend to identify as Gorani in the census. In villages south of Prizren, in the mountainous south-west corner of Kosovo, the Gorani constitute the majority of the population.

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