On the eve of World War II, the area that is now Bosnia and Herzegovina (BH) encompassed several provinces (Banovina, Banat) within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia: Vrbas Banovina, Drina Banovina, Zeta Banovina and Banovina of Croatia. Owing to territorial–administrative fragmentation and the failure to carry out the census of 1941, it is difficult to say exactly how many Roma inhabited this area at that time, but it can be estimated that there were at least 4,000. Most of them were of the Muslim and Orthodox faiths and were traders or craftspeople.
The ‘Independent State of Croatia’
In early April 1941, the Axis powers led by Nazi Germany successfully defeated the army of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and installed the pro-fascist Ustaše movement led by Ante Pavelić in power in Zagreb. Pavelić then declared the Independent State of Croatia (ISC), which comprised the territory that is now Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. A few weeks later, the Ustaše authorities passed racial laws that deprived certain parts of the population, including Roma, of their civil rights. This was followed by a census of the Romani population in summer 1941, which aimed to find out the exact number of Roma and their geographical distribution in preparation for deportations.
Opposition of Muslim Authorities
In July 1941, some of the Muslim local authorities in BH opposed the registration of the ‘White Gypsies’ (sedentary Muslim Roma) and appealed to the Muslim religious authorities (Majlis Ulama) for help. These authorities established a special commission that compiled a detailed report submitted to the ISC’s Ministry of the Interior, seeking the exclusion of Muslim Roma from this census. The Ministry responded by introducing a special provision to this effect. The Muslim authorities protested because they considered Muslim Roma an integral part of the Muslim community in BH. The reason for the adoption of this provision may have been that the Ustaše authorities feared a potential ‘revolt’ by the Muslims in BH. It should also be pointed out that the authors of the report unsuccessfully sought to protect Orthodox Roma, stating that these Roma were of Romanian origin and that killing them could cause problems in relations between the ISC and Romania.
Deportation to Jasenovac
On 19 May 1942, the Ustaše authorities ordered the deportation of all Roma from all areas of the ISC to the Jasenovac concentration camp. In this context, they initiated mass deportations of Roma, including Muslim Roma, from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Muslim community in Zenica responded with a declaration stressing the special position of Muslim Roma. With the help of the religious authorities in Sarajevo, this declaration led the Ustaše authorities to make a second specific provision designed to stop the deportation of Muslim Roma.
How Many Survived?
In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina the question remains how many Roma were rescued. Some scholars state that the ISC authorities failed to comply with the provisions sparing the ‘White Gypsies’, claiming that they too were deported to Jasenovac concentration camp, where they were tortured and killed. However, certain scholars also claim that some of the ‘White Gypsies’ managed to bribe the ISC authorities’ representatives in certain areas and were thus spared from deportation to Jasenovac; this is known to be the case, for example, for Muslim Roma from Janja and Bijeljina. Despite the fact that some of the Muslim Roma were spared, a large number of Orthodox and Roman Catholic Roma from Bosnia and Herzegovina were killed during the war. The scale of the suffering can be seen in the first post-war census (1948), which listed only 442 Roma, or about one-tenth of the pre-war Roma population.
‘Victims of Fascist Terror’
After World War II, the Yugoslav socialist government commemorated Roma only together with other victims under the general term ‘victims of fascist terror’. No special commemorations for Roma are held today, but representatives of some Roma non-governmental organisations participate in joint commemorations at the Memorial Zone Donja Gradina.