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New wall separates Roma from non-Roma area of Slovak town

Bratislava, 25.9.2010 11:01, (ROMEA)

Is it a "protection against petty crime" or is it "racism"? At two meters high and almost eight meters long, the latest wall in Prešov is dividing not just the town, but the whole country. Several days ago the wall blocked off a previously unpermitted shortcut leading from the predominantly Roma housing complex of Stará tehelňa through a neighborhood of single-family homes to the center of town, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports.

Not quite 10 years ago, the town established the Stará tehelňa social housing complex in order to take care of “problematic families” who had reportedly permanently defaulted on the rent in their previous municipally-owned apartments. Since then, however, the complex has become a purely Roma ghetto of 2 300 inhabitants, some of whom are illegally occupying the apartments. Because as many as 15 people are squeezing into each of the 176 apartments (each of which measures only 50 square meters), the daily life of the children there mostly takes place outside, even in bad weather.

At a time of day when children should be in school, they are instead making noise on the garbage-strewn streets. "I slept in, so I didn’t go to school today,” an 11-year-old girl explains. Before she can tell us her name, her two-year-old little sister drags her by the hand to the other children standing behind her. Many schoolchildren are wheeling about their infant siblings in prams. There are no adults to be seen.

Almost no one has regular work here. "They are so unqualified they couldn’t find work even if they wanted to,” says social worker Michal Petrov. The children growing up here do not have parents who model the simple habit of getting up in the morning and going to work. Their school attendance is correspondingly irregular.

There are daily problems with alcohol and drugs and constant visits from the police. It is mostly the children who are accused of theft. Under Slovak law, juveniles under 14 years of age cannot be sentenced to punishment and their parents are not liable for them. "The police can only document the crimes and shelve the cases,” says Michal Frank, editor of the regional newspaper Prešovský Korzár.

Because of this, the children are dreaded in the town. "They destroy everything. They don’t just steal fruit, they break whole branches off the fruit trees,” says pensioner František Kubica. "Anything metal somehow disappears. You can’t even be sure that several teenagers won’t just turn up in your living room in broad daylight.”

Residents of the neighboring single-family homes signed a petition five years ago demanding the town leadership build a wall to protect them from crime. It is certainly no accident that Mayor Pavel Hagyari has now fulfilled their wishes just a few months before the municipal elections. "This is not a wall against the Roma, but a wall against vandalism and petty crime,” he explains.

However, the construction is not considered a blessing by everyone. "We put a lot of effort into getting the Roma parents to send us their children. Now they have erected a barrier on the path, which has once again reduced the number of children coming to the nursery school,” complains nursery school director Edita Kovárová.

Overhearing our conversation about the wall, a 30-year-old Roma man spoke of injustice. "It doesn’t bother me if they want a wall. What bothers me is they lump us all together. Not everyone here is responsible for those offenses,” he says.

ČTK, Gwendolyn Albert, Czech Press Agency, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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