Just 150 Gypsies arrived here at first, skinny horses and roughshod carts in tow, squatting in a fetid, abandoned secondary school under the protective gaze of NATO troops. Then there were 500, and then 1,000, and then hundreds more every day, spilling into the schoolyard and fashioning tents from discarded plastic, burlap and whatever else they could find.
Now holding more than 5,000 people and equipped with just 22 latrines, the settlement west of Pristina is the largest of scores of impromptu Gypsy camps that have sprung up as havens since returning ethnic Albanian refugees began exacting revenge on Gypsies who they claim collaborated with Serb-led government forces during the Kosovo war.
Gypsy homes and shanties have burned nightly in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, and elsewhere in this southern Serbian province since the withdrawal of Belgrade government forces last month, and NATO peacekeepers have reported scattered killings and beatings of Gypsies by ethnic Albanians.
"They said we had to leave and burned our home," said Samiti Tahiri, 40, who was playing cards in front of the sweltering tent that holds the 11 members of his family and dozens of others. "We used to live side by side with the Albanians, but now they don't want us. . . . Some of the Gypsies steal but not all of them. We have done nothing wrong."
Pariahs for centuries, the Gypsies, also known as Roma, are part of the latest wave of refugees to wander the bomb-scarred back roads of Kosovo, unable to stay in their homes but barred from legally entering bordering nations. The plight of the Gypsies, most of whom have lived in Kosovo for generations, underscores the difficulties ahead for NATO forces in protecting Serbs, Turks and other minorities among the Kosovo Albanians, and the challenges faced by humanitarian groups attempting to resettle them.
But the Roma, whose prewar Kosovo population is estimated to have been anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000, pose a particularly vexing dilemma. Wary of outsiders and reviled through much of Europe, Gypsies pride themselves on their independence of outside institutions and their nomadic traditions, which makes them difficult candidates for permanent resettlement in Kosovo or anywhere else. No country in Europe, home to 8 million Roma, has come forward to offer asylum, leaving the Gypsies to huddle in camps or sneak by the thousands into Macedonia and other neighboring countries.
"They are completely marginalized as a part of the Kosovar community, and that makes it very difficult to find a solution," said Paula Ghedini, a field officer with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "They are neither Serb nor Albanian. In a way, they may be in a more desperate situation right now than the Serbs. Nobody wants them."
Here at the camp in Kosovo Polje, Kadria Berisha recalls the day in mid-June when he says uniformed members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the rebel ethnic Albanian group, came to his house in Crkvena Vodica and ordered him and his family to leave. He said they were armed with guns and knives, and torched the Berisha home as the family left.
"They said I was working for the Serbs, but that's not true," said Berisha, 44, who said he was too busy working as a coal miner seven days a week to loot homes. "I never believed this could happen to us. All our names are in Albanian. We are Muslims."
Indeed, more than half of Kosovo's Gypsies speak Albanian, practice Islam, the predominant religion among Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians, and lived in ethnic Albanian neighborhoods and villages. But other Gypsy clans here speak Serbian and live in Serb-dominated areas, and Roma of both kinds in Kosovo tended to side with Serbian authorities in matters of politics, Ghedini and other Western officials said. Most Roma remained in Kosovo as government security forces expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians, fueling suspicions that they were collaborators.
Some Gypsies were called up for duty with the Serb-controlled Yugoslav army during the war, and Gypsies are known to have joined Serbian militiamen in the looting of ethnic Albanian homes. Serbian police also used Gypsies to dig graves and dispose of the bodies of slain ethnic Albanian civilians.
As they returned to their charred and ransacked homes this past month, KLA guerrillas and ethnic Albanian civilians have turned on the Roma, who have become scapegoats in the absence of tens of thousands of Serbs who have fled to other parts of Serbia.
At a police station occupied by KLA guerrillas in Prizren in southwestern Kosovo last month, German NATO troops discovered 15 elderly Gypsies who had been accused as collaborators beaten, bound and chained to radiators. One Gypsy died of his injuries. Five Roma also were found slain in a field near Obilic, and security forces have had numerous reports of Gypsies who have been kidnapped or have disappeared.
The most widespread, and visible, sign of the anger toward Roma flickers in the nightly fires. In a poorer section of Pristina called Vranjevac, one home after another once inhabited by Gypsies is a charred ruin. Ethnic Albanians living in the neighborhood insist the Gypsies left on their own and burned their own houses on the way out.
"I was here all the time during the bombing, and I saw Gypsies looting all the homes of the Albanians and all the shops," said Ilmi Balaj, 16, sitting on the front stoop of a dingy pool hall. "I don't know who kicked them out, but we are all glad they are out of here."
The remaining residents in the hilly neighborhood of gravel roads say the pattern was the same every time, jibing with the accounts of NATO officials. First the Yugoslav army and Serbian special police would expel an ethnic Albanian family and ransack the home, then Roma would follow and take what was left--television sets, clothes, rugs and other valuables. Rasim and Kumrie Haxholli said they just moved into an abandoned, six-room Gypsy home in Vranjevac last week after their own three-room house in the village of Marevc had been ransacked and torched by Roma. The family said they witnessed the burning from a hill overlooking the town.
"They killed many Albanians, so I don't feel sorry for them," said Kumrie Haxholli, 37, who has five children. "They were all working for the Serbs."
As always in the Balkans, however, few things are so clear-cut. Two adjoining houses in the same Pristina neighborhood, for example, still hold a 50-member Roma family that neighbors say has done nothing wrong. U.N. officials recount the tale of a brutally abused trio of ethnic Albanians near the city of Pec who were saved from Serbian marauders by a Gypsy family.
And in the case of Roma gravediggers, many have said they did the work under threat of death, and some are providing crucial information about mass grave sites to war crimes investigators.
Back at Kosovo Polje, displaced Gypsies have organized their own security force of young men with red ribbons around their arms who monitor vehicles entering the gated schoolyard and intervene in disputes.
The camp is not under the protection of any humanitarian group or the United Nations, which is in the process of trying to find a larger site nearby where it will build and run a more formal camp for the Gypsies. Officials hope to return the present shelter back to its original purpose as a school by fall.
Halel Qerimi, 40, was living in the camp last week even though his own house is in the same town, saying he was rousted by armed and masked ethnic Albanians. Few Roma indicate any desire to stay in Kosovo now, and Qerimi said that he and his family would head for Macedonia soon if they do not win some sort of asylum elsewhere.
"It wasn't the bombing that got us; we survived all that," said Qerimi, 40, a construction worker and handyman. "We survived the Serbs, too. This might be what will beat us. This we may not survive."
CAPTION: Velina, a Gypsy woman, ponders the future near the Kosovo city of Pec. She said her home was burned by ethnic Albanian refugees returning home.
CAPTION: Two ethnic Albanian boys flee to safety as flames consume the ruins of a Gypsy dwelling in Pristina that they and their father had set afire.