Slovakian Roma forced to ghettos

Defying EU pressure, Slovakia is systematically segregating its Romany minority into ghettos, and barring their entrance into cities.

Teenager Lucie David still has nightmares about the evening two years ago when local police and neo-Nazi skinheads attacked her family's home in the small town of Stos in eastern Slovakia.

"Rocks came smashing through the windows, and a crowd was outside chanting that they would rape me and my mother," she recalls in a whisper.

After huddling together in the dark for several hours, Lucie, her parents, and two brothers fled the village, never to return. That night was the terrifying climax of a year of terror: Her father had been jailed without charges and her older brother severely beaten by a policeman. The family had received several phone calls each day with the message: "Gypsies, get out of town or die."

The Davids' case is just one among hundreds documented by international human rights organizations that portray a trend of violent segregation of Romanies (commonly called Gypsies) in eastern Slovakia.

There are about 400,000 Slovak Roma, most living in squalid rural settlements and urban ghettos. More are being moved into segregated areas each month. Despite pressure from the European Union to reintegrate national minorities, several towns in eastern Slovakia have recently passed ordinances banning Roma from entering the city limits, let alone living inside them.

"The Romany population is being systematically segregated in Slovak society - in housing, in schools, you name it," says Claude Cahn, a researcher with the European Roma Rights Center, a Budapest-based legal group. "Since 1998, the situation has worsened in terms of skinhead violence and police violence. Prominent Slovak politicians are making radical statements about confining the Romany population and using mass sterilization to decrease their number."

The David family now lives in Lunik IX, a Romany slum on the edge of Slovakia's second-largest city, Kosice. Here, 5,000 people have been crammed into a complex built for half that number, and the city has cut off electricity, hot water, heat, and garbage collection.

Earlier this year, the last white Slovak family in Lunik IX was relocated by the city, making it the largest purely Romany ghetto in Slovakia and concluding a process started by Rudolf Schuster, then the mayor of Kosice and now president.

In 1997, the Kosice city council, headed by Schuster, announced a $50 million "city beautification project" to clean up the baroque city for tourism. Part of the plan was to evict some 25,000 Roma from the center and move them to segregated areas. An internal document, signed by former district mayor Andrej Weber and viewed by this reporter, designates Lunik IX as "small, substandard housing for Roma."

"Moving Roma to Lunik IX is a normal development," says Zdenko Trebula, the current mayor of Kosice. "If you know for a fact that a certain group of people is criminal and intolerable, of course you will not want them for neighbors. Besides, Roma don't pay the rent."

Ninety-five percent of the Romany population in eastern Slovakia is unemployed, and virtually all Romany children in Slovakia attend segregated schools with a remedial curriculum designed for the mentally retarded. Because of the extreme poverty, rent default has become a major problem. Lucie's father, Imrich David, says even those few who can pay are being evicted. He owned his home in Stos and held a job as a skilled welder, and the town council still officially denied his right to live there.

"They pushed us into the ghetto, and there is no way out," he says.

Last summer, Mr. David tried to take his children to a cinema in the city and was told that Roma are no longer allowed to see movies. "We want to leave this country," David adds. "I just want to take my family somewhere where we will not be hated."

Aleksander Musinka, an anthropologist at the University of Presov, says the situation of Roma in other parts of Slovakia is little better. "There is a growing tendency towards ghettoization all over the country," he says. "Lunik IX is a model for what other cities are doing with their Romany communities."

Dr. Musinka is doing research in the village of Svinja, where the Romanies have been housed in a collection of stick and mud shacks several miles outside of town. All 600 get water from one faucet sticking up from the ubiquitous mud. The settlement was devastated by floods four years ago and is now a morass of stagnant water and garbage. "We were forced to move here six years ago," says Helena Cernvenakova, a mother of nine living in the Svinja settlement. "Now the children have to walk through ankle-deep mud to get to school. The whites say our children are dirty, so they built a fence through the playground to separate our children from theirs."

But residents of Kosice argue that they are justified in excluding Roma. "It is necessary to keep the Roma out of the center," says Peter Schultz, a leading political analyst in Kosice. "I am glad they are gone. You can't have a beautiful city with Roma, because they destroy beauty. They have a different mentality. It is impossible to integrate them into Slovak society.... The only option is to forcibly move them out of town."

Not all Slovaks agree: A small but growing number of intellectuals say segregation hurts both the Roma and the Slovak majority. Kristina Magdolenova, a Slovak writer, recently started up an agency with several Romany colleagues, to document the lives of Slovak Roma and bring more objective information about them into the mainstream Slovak media. She says she is doing so less to help the Roma than to save her country from Balkan-style ethnic violence.

"If you want to know how interethnic conflict begins, look at Slovakia right now," Ms. Magdolenova says. "Someday, in 10 or 20 years, it will explode into violence. The Roma population is growing, and they are being literally forced to the margins of society and absolutely denied any hope for education or gainful employment. Eventually, like all people, they will fight back. This is a time bomb in the middle of Europe."

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