By Phoebe Greenwood
Just outside Montenegro's capital Podgorica, next to the city's rubbish
dump, is Konik refugee camp. A sprawl of tin-roofed huts and U.N. tents
enclosed by wire-fencing, it is home to more than 2,000 Roma refugees who
have lived here for ten years since fleeing violence in Kosovo. It is the
largest refugee camp in the Balkans. Hundreds of children live here in
inhuman conditions without enough food or water and yet almost no one
outside of Montenegro has heard of it.
Conditions in Konik are dire. Fires are a regular threat and often fatal.
Three weeks ago, a blaze caused by faulty wiring destroyed 18 wooden huts
and left 124 people without shelter. These families now live in U.N. refugee
agency (UNHCR) tents or have moved in with relatives in their already
over-crowded shacks. This time, luckily, no lives were lost.
The camp has irregular electricity and water supplies. In the summer when
temperatures regularly exceed 40 degrees Celsius, there is simply not enough
water to go round. At the nearby rubbish dump, Podgorica's waste is burnt
off every day. As a result of the putrid air, lung complaints are common.
Refugees in Montenegro are not allowed to work as they have no documents so
most in the camp survive by picking food out of garbage bins in Podgorica.
"My husband died here eight years ago, I believe out of fear and sadness,"
says 56-year-old Mehria.
"You see the house I live in here - it is falling apart. Every time it
rains, water comes in through the roof and soaks everything. I feed my
children and myself by searching rubbish bins for food. This is a crisis
because no one is helping us."
Few children go to school. At Konik primary school, 270 of the 1,300
students are Roma. Save the Children, which has been working on education
projects to integrate Roma children since 2002, says keeping them in school
remains a major problem. Few will complete primary education.
"Roma children are among the most marginalised in this part of the world,"
says Jasminka Milovanovic, Save the Children's communications and advocacy
"A high drop-out rate is one of the biggest problems for various reasons -
lack of material resources, lack of motivation and a need to make some
money. These children are living in bad conditions and are not accepted at
school by pupils or teachers because of the bad hygiene."
The Roma are an ethnic minority scattered across Central and Eastern Europe,
with a large community in the Balkan states. An estimated 3.7 million Roma
live in South Eastern Europe. Across the region, they suffer high
unemployment rates, lack of education, poverty and discrimination.
The Roma community in Konik are refugees from Kosovo. Most left their homes
and land during the conflict in the 1990s when Kosovan Albanians pushed them
out, perceiving them as allies of their Serb persecutors.
Student Sebajdih Krasnici, 15, says Roma children endure daily name-calling
and bullying at school. "They don't respect us in school. They call us 'dark
skins' and 'gypsies'. They are just rude.
"Recently, a girl at school asked to borrow my pencil. I said she couldn't
as it was the only one I had. She just went mad and started calling me gypsy
and all sorts of bad words. It makes me feel horrible. They should respect
me, my brothers and my family."
For many parents in the camp, their children's health rather than their
education is the most pressing concern. "The children are hungry most of the
time, they don't have clothes or shoes to wear. How are they meant to
concentrate on learning?" says Vesib Berisa, 37, a father of five who has
lived in Konik for ten years.
"We are in a critical state. It's too much. No one helps us anymore, not the
government, the U.N., the UK or the United States. No one comes to see how
we are or how we live. Why do we have to live like this? We want to live as
other people live."