Roma refugees in Montenegro lose homes in fire

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Associated Press

Posted on July 25, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 25 at 11:01 AM

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — It was the only home Selija Hisenaj knew since she was forced out of war-torn Kosovo 13 years ago, and now it's gone too.

The 30-year-old mother of seven is among hundreds of Roma, or Gypsies, from Kosovo who are living in tents after a fire burned down their settlement on the outskirts of the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica.

Officials said Wednesday that some 850 people lost their belongings in the fire that swept through the refugee barracks in the suburb of Konik a day earlier. No one was injured in Tuesday's fire, but for some it was still too much.

"We should have stayed and burned as well," said Hisenaj, who fled from the Kosovo village of Istok during the 1998-99 war. "I lost everything."

It remains unclear what caused the fire that erupted early Tuesday and spread quickly because of strong winds, says emergency official Radomir Scepanovic. He said a police investigation was under way. There was no indication it was a hate crime similar to those that sometimes target Roma in other Balkan countries and elsewhere in Europe.

Witnesses said the fire engulfed the entire settlement in just ten minutes and there was little anyone could do.

"We saw the fire and just ran," said Hisenaj. She said she lost all her documents and the little money she had.

Most refugees, including Hisenaj, have moved to tents set up next to the burned-out settlement, while the elderly and small children were placed in a local school.

Like 13 years ago, when they first arrived from Kosovo, Hisenaj and other refugees were left with nothing, living in tents in unbearable summer heat, crammed next to each other.

They accuse authorities of doing little to help them in the past years, and several dozen refugees gathered Wednesday in front of the U.N. refugee agency headquarters in Podgorica to protest.

"We have been waiting and waiting, but they have done nothing for us," said 20-year-old Kujtin Krasniqi, also from Kosovo.

Thousands of Kosovo's Roma fled to neighboring countries during the brutal conflict there between Serbia's security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels seeking independence. Many still live in make-shift settlements throughout the region and often face harassment from extremist groups.

The refugees in Podgorica have lived on humanitarian aid and from money they earn collecting old papers and other objects. Their settlement was set up by the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, as a temporary solution.

Montenegrin Labor Minister Suad Numanovic, who deals with refugee issues, said the government has drafted a strategy to allow refugees to either apply for permanent residency or return to their home country.

He said Montenegro has about 10,500 people who are either refugees or are internally displaced.

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