Relocating Displaced Roma in Belgrade
The Belgrade authorities say plans to move hundreds of Roma residents from their slum will go ahead, in spite of opposition from other inhabitants of the city who do not want the Roma as their neighbours.
Only a few metres from one of Belgrade’s main bridges, rat-infested ramshackle homes, lying between heaps of waste, are sheltering 237 Roma families.
For many this slum is their only home. It is now scheduled for demolition as the Gazela (“Gazelle”) bridge undergoes major overhaul early next year.
“This is not a life, as we have nothing to live on,” says Cakan Sabanovic, who has a family of six.
The inhabitants of this shanty town are now anxiously awaiting news on where they will be moved to after being told that their homes are to be torn down.
On September 24, the Serbian authorities called a tender for the reconstruction of Gazela Bridge, and six foreign companies submitted their bids. The deal is worth €77 million.
The EU’s European Investment Bank provided half the funds, while the remainder will be secured by the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
Belgrade city has pledged it will allocate funds for housing the 237 Roma families who will be evicted from their shanty town.
The Gazela Bridge was built 30 years ago, and needs an overhaul after decades of heavy traffic and neglect. The works, originally due to start this month, have been delayed until spring 2008 because of the forthcoming winter.
“Displacing the people who live under the bridge is being done in accordance with the decisions of Belgrade City Hall, and they took responsibility for rehousing these families,” Tamara Motrenko, a spokeswoman for the state-run Putevi Srbije company that won the reconstruction tender told Balkan Insight.
“I think the Roma families will be long gone before the bridge overhaul gets underway,” said Zivojin Mitrovic, a government official in charge of dealing with unhygienic living areas.
Motrenko, on the other hand, maintains that moving the Roma will not influence the start of the bridge’s overhaul.
The Roma slum has a dilapidated sewerage and water supply system while those families who have electricity obtain it illegally through “do-it-yourself” connections to the power grid.
“The living conditions are appalling. There is mud everywhere when it rains with wires and cables all over the place,” said Branko Kalanjos, a local Roma and a father of four.
His children all go to school and the oldest one has just started secondary school.
“Would you imagine, my child trots through three miles of mud to get to school,” Branko added.
The city authorities have already attempted to move these families to a New Belgrade apartment block.
The effort failed because complaints from people who did not want Roma families for neighbours. Even those whose job it is to eliminate unhygienic slums, have some sympathy for this attitude.
“If someone asked me if I wanted the Gazela Bridge people next door, I would probably say no,” Mitrovic told Balkan Insight.
Other European countries have had similar problems. According to Belgrade’s B92 Television, the authorities in Slovakia received anonymous threats after building flats for Roma living in shanty towns, while some Roma families in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, were driven out on ecological and hygienic grounds and told not to come back.
Mitrovic says more than 100 sites have been allocated for the resettlement of the Gazela Bridge Roma, but declined to identify them to avert the possibility of mass protests by those reluctant to live side-by-side with this ethnic group.
The Roma themselves are unsure whether they would actually benefit from moving, and as one of them said, all they want is to stay together.
The government’s secretariat for social and child welfare is one of the project’s coordinators.
“The idea is to integrate the Roma into civil society in terms of social and child welfare, education, and the employment of those living under the Gazela Bridge with valid Belgrade residential papers,” said Ljiljana Jovcic, the secretariat’s chief.
The secretariat has taken down the names of all Roma living under the bridge and designed a map on the basis of which they are to be relocated. Many of them are not listed as Belgrade residents, having come to the Serbian capital looking for a way to eke out a living.
The secretariat said all of them would be given shelter, adding that they have been divided into two categories.
“One group consists of legal Belgrade residents, and they will be permanently rehoused in their own caravans. The others come to the capital occasionally to work and they will be given some kind of collective accommodation. They want to be with the first lot but we haven’t decided yet whether that’s feasible,” Mitrovic said.
Listing all the Gazela Bridge dwellers took abut 10 days while the second phase, sketching their future homes, is due to be completed by the end of 2007.
“We want to provide these people with their basic needs. They will have running water, electricity, bathrooms, education and jobs with sufficient incomes to pay their bills,” Mitrovic said.
The child and social welfare secretariat also played a part in allocating sites for housing displaced Roma dwellers.
“We are trying to come up with the right solutions so that Roma families are offered improved living conditions and a chance to integrate with society,” said Ljiljana Jovcic.
Mica Tapirovic, a Gazela Bridge Roma said that “we are all hoping for a better life and I want to forget that we have had to live here.” He added: “I hope we never have to come back after we’ve moved.”
In order to sustain the new Roma settlement once their homes are built, it is necessary to provide adequate education, health care and employment.
“We want that settlement to progress as leaving out any of the components mentioned would make it incomplete and unsound. It would result in another ugly situation like the one we are dealing with now,” Mitrovic elaborated.
There are many prejudices about the Roma as lazy and belligerent people, but none of those we spoke to at the Gazela Bridge slum said they preferred to live in a pile of mud and garbage with no electricity, running water or work.
“Where there is a will, there is a way. We will very much appreciate better living conditions when we move,” said Branko Kalanjos.
The city authorities say there is enough money to complete the project.
Danijel Djularis, the head of the European Reconstruction Agency, ERA, office in Serbia, was recently quoted by Beta news agency as saying that the ERA is prepared to invest €2 million to resolve the Roma issue as soon as Belgrade City Hall comes up with a feasible plan.
Mitrovic, however, remains sceptical about whether all these promises will amount to what they are supposed to deliver. “So far, the issue hasn’t gone beyond preliminary agreements and promises,” he says.