Slovakia: Activists demolish part of segregation wall, ignoring local Romani opinion
Last week pro-Romani activists demolished part of a wall in the Slovak town of Košice that separates a Romani enclave from the rest of the neighborhood; by 12 September the wall had been repaired. Both the European Union and the Mayor of Košice say the wall has been illegally erected by the local municipality without building permits.
Anonymous activists and Konexe
"The concrete wall at Luník VIII which fences off the parking lot (also called the 'anti-Romani' wall in the media) was demolished last Wednesday around midnight by four unidentified persons. As of today, 12 September 2014, the wall has been fixed," reported news server Košice.estranky.sk last week.
The wall was demolished by anonymous activists who came to Košice along with members of the Konexe association. Representatives of both groups were interviewed about their actions in detail on the Deník Referendum website.
"We were contacted by our partner, ERGO, which is organizing a European campaign against these segregating walls. We traveled to visit a Romani settlement and places where walls have been erected to separate Romani people from the majority society. We believe using walls to address the problem of Romani poverty or problems in coexistence is counter-productive. It's a very dangerous trend," said Miroslav Brož of Konexe.
Brož said the intention was to visit the Romani communities living behind the walls in Slovakia and to find out as much information as they could about the walls, including how to remove them. There are a total of 14 such walls throughout the country.
"We traveled to Slovakia with a list of four walls that had been erected in places where the people living behind them have reconciled themselves to their presence and lost the will to fight back against them, and in the worst cases we began to provide the communities with support," said Brož. Konexe, according to him, was striving to rouse the Romani community to demolish the segregating walls, either by themselves or with the aid of others.
That effort was ultimately unsuccessful. At their meetings, most local Roma voiced various reasons why the walls should not be demolished.
Several anonymous activists, however, did demolish part of one wall in Košice, ignoring those opinions. Brož claims the Konexe organization did not participate in the demolition.
"We demolished the wall during less than two minutes in the middle of the night, no one responded in time - within moments we had left Košice and we were out of Slovakia as soon as we could be. We wrote 'Stop segregation' and the date of the fall of the Berlin Wall on what remained," one of the anonymous activists said; by last Friday the demolished section had been rebuilt.
Roma do not take kindly to the demolition
Activists damaging part of the wall at the Luník VIII housing estate in Košice have not resolved the situation of Romani people in Slovakia or the problem of segregating walls in the least. Jarmila Vaňová, program director with the Romani Media Center in Slovakia, is convinced of that.
"Neither the larger society nor the Romani people themselves appreciate this gesture. They have not helped Romani people in Ostrovany or at the Luník IX housing estate at all, on the contrary, they have provided an impulse for various speculations and for anti-Romani sentiment to increase. They've done this during the runup to local elections here. The walls, as symbols, remain in place - the only thing they have achieved was publicity for themselves. Not everything that looks like assistance actually is," Vaňová told news server Romea.cz.
Roman Čonka, Editor-in-Chief of the Romano nevo ľil publication in Slovakia, shares that opinion. "I do not believe that damaging someone else's property will change society's view of Roma in that locality. The activists go away after taking a few photographs, but the Romani residents will still live there. The wall in Ostrovany, at the very least, is not segregating anyone - many local Romani communities have never had the footpaths or roads to them obstructed by any kind of wall. I regret that some activists have worsened the situations in those localities through their activities," Čonka told news server Romea.cz.
Romani studies scholar Rastislav Pivoň believes the "activities of would-be enthusiasts are counter-productive." In his view the walls can be understood as certain symbols of the effort to separate "our people" from the "foreigners".
"I greatly doubt that a wall around a settlement would force anyone to do anything good. Rather the opposite. A wall somehow indicates that the majority feels the need to separate the Roma, not just culturally or socially, but also physically, to outline and then restrict the space that is Romani from the space that isn't. To argue that citizens need this is of course nonsense. For a thief there is no problem to transport something stolen over a wall. It will be interesting to follow the response of the gadje to this in a few years' time, when they will be offended by the inadaptability of the Romani people who are growing up behind these walls. The activists, however, should direct their efforts elsewhere. They should leave the concrete walls alone and instead demolish the walls in people's hearts, in the hearts of the gadje and in the hearts of the Roma. The walls in our souls are a much greater problem than the ones around the settlements," Pivoň told news server Romea.cz.
European Commission: Tear down that wall
The European Commission called for the walls at issue to be removed one year ago. According to Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, such a wall is inconsistent with the values on which the European Union has been established.
"I firmly believe the construction of such physical barriers breaks with the values on which the European Union is based, particularly with respect to human dignity and human rights, including the rights of persons who are members of minorities. The authorities in Košice must remove this wall immediately," Commissioner Vassiliou wrote in a letter to Mayor of Košice Richard Rašim, who has admitted that the wall was built illegally and that it was the work of the former mayor of the municipal department in which it was erected.
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