Slovakia: Wall erected to keep Romani residents separate
An unusual wall has been connecting two residential buildings in the Západ quarter of the industrial city of Košice in eastern Slovakia for the last year and a half. It took 18 concrete slabs and several hours of work to erect the gray fence, which is several dozen meters long.
The online edition of the French daily Le Monde reports that the wall was built by the mayor as a good-faith effort to meet the demands of his constituents. Local residents complained of nighttime noise in the parking lot between the buildings.
The erection of the wall sparked a sensitive controversy and debate in Slovakia. It raised the question of whether the unsightly protective barrier, which was rapidly installed without prior warning, is in fact a wall against the Romani people who live on the other side.
The local reality supports that hypothesis. Right on the other side of the street is the biggest Romani "ghetto" in Europe, the Luník IX housing estate.
That part of the city, named after a spacecraft, looks like it has been bombed. Roughly 6 500 Romani people have been living crammed 10 to an apartment there since the housing estate was first established in 1981.
Half of the windows have no glass. The apartments remain blackened by the soot left behind from various fires.
The garbage thrown out of people's windows has accumulated to such a height that it reaches the first few floors of each building, and the air is unbreathable because of it. The "anti-Romani" wall, which is two meters high, was erected around a parking lot adjacent to the housing estate with its high number of Romani inhabitants.
The local municipality denies that the wall is intended to segregate Romani people. Local officials say it simply separates the parking lot from the rest of the open space and that it is easy to get around.
The only thing the local government will apologize for is not waiting for a proper construction permit before installing the barrier. Romani residents of Luník IX previoiusly passed through the parking lot between the two buildings on their way to the local supermarket and elsewhere.
"It was a shortcut to catch the bus," says a 45-year-old local Romani woman whose body seems afflicted by illness and whose face is wrinkled. The mother of nine admits that many young people used to go to the parking lot to drink and disturbed the residents in the Západ quarter.
The Košice town hall refuses to discuss the wall in terms of racism. Officials explain that young Romani people from Luník IX were definitely not the only ones who bothered local residents.
Young ethnic Slovaks got used to visiting the parking lot to conduct illicit business as well. The controversy over the wall has since died down and today it seems to be tacitly approved of.
Most people believe the detour Romani residents are now forced to take around the wall is very minor. Faraway calls from the European Commission for the wall to be removed changed nothing.
In Slovakia, almost 10 % of the country's 5.4 million people are of Romani origin. Since the fall of communism, when everyone was legally obliged to work, Romani people have gradually fallen into greater and greater poverty.
Only 20 % of Romani men in Slovakia are currently employed. Many famlies are greatly in debt and intolerance toward Romani people is constantly increasing.
Tensions between Romani people and ethnic Slovaks are currently so high that even 37-year-old Miroslav Sklenka, director of the NGO "Škola dokorán" (School Wide Open), has not spoken out against officials who advocated erecting the wall. "I am trying to understand it. It's hard to remain an optimist when it comes to Romani issues, so I do my best to at least be pragmatic," the dynamic man, who has been involved with advocacy for Romani people in Slovakia for 16 years, explains.
The wall in Košice is a reflection of the fact that annoyance and sighs of resignation have won the day in Slovakia on this issue. In many neighborhoods like Luník IX the non-Romani population has gradually moved away, leaving behind schools with classes that are 100 % Romani.
No one in Slovakia wants to hear the word "segregation" - everyone prefers to talk about the regrettable, but unavoidable, phenomenon of estrangement. On the concrete slabs preventing access to the Západ quarter, one anonymous commentator has written, in big white letters, "SORRY".
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