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A Wall Runs Through It

For centuries, Europe's Romani people have traversed the continent, sometimes taking root and becoming sedentary, at other times staying on the move, true to their peripatetic tradition. Rarely socially integrated, usually ostracised and viewed with suspicion, in the 1940s they felt the full and brutal wrath of Germany's Nazi regime which annihilated between 250,000 and 1,500,000 of their number. The fact that the estimates of those killed range so widely is a testament to their itinerant lives.

During the Cold War, Central and Eastern Europe's Romani were largely overlooked or given equal treatment to non-Romani citizens. A policy of universal housing and full employment meant that most were at least superficially integrated and due to minimal differentials in affluence there was little cause for social conflict. In the past two decades, however, many Romanis have lost their livelihoods and are increasingly slipping through the social welfare net. Poverty, poor education and a lack of work opportunities have left many communities destitute, dependant on government handouts.

With rising inequality, some of the countries in the region with the largest Romani populations, notably Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, have seen a steep increase in tensions between indigenous populations and even the most long-standing Romani communities. While Hungary has experienced some of the most violent incidents of anti-Romani aggression, neighbouring Slovakia is also experiencing growing alienation between communities that seems to be set to rise.

At 7.5% of the population, Slovakia has one of the highest proportions of Romani citizens in Europe. In the East of the country, where the largest Romani communities reside, certain towns and villages have become flashpoints for inter-communal strife and concerted efforts by locals to physically separate their living spaces from their Romani neighbours.

One such village is Ostrovany, some 50 km north of Kosice. In 2010, the local council decided to construct a 150 metre long, 2.1 metre high wall separating Roma from Slovaks.

The local mayor, Cyril Revak, shrugs off accusations of racism. 'The villagers had all sorts of fences around their gardens anyway and fruit and vegetables were being stolen and their gardens wrecked. I told the villagers to ask for official permission to build a concrete fence and when they got it, we financed the project." He asserts that no one is being prevented from using common walkways and roads. Some of the Romani residents seem unperturbed by the wall. 'We don't mind the wall' says a local Romani resident, 'the children always went to the gardens which is why they built the wall. Since then there are no problems."

In Kosice itself, a communist era housing estate called Lunik IX has come to embody all that has gone wrong with Slovakia's Romani population. Built in the 1980s for Army and Police personnel and designed for 2,500 residents, the crumbling towerblocks now house up to 7,000, many of them without electricity and running water.

Only the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Christian charity, operates in Lunik IX but they can offer little more than a prayer and meeting centre. Most residents feel abandoned by the state. 'We've been living here for 36 years' says Olga, a resident, 'We have no water, no gas and the employment office has no jobs for us.' Lunik IX too has a wall separating it from Lunik VIII, a Slovak block.

Bjoern Steinz visited Roma communities across Eastern Europe, in Slovakia, Macedonia and Romania, and encountered ghettoisation, exclusion and poverty. Though Slovakia's problem is not unique, places like Lunik IX present a formidable challenge. As Olga, a Lunik resident puts it: 'if they would give us work as under communism, we would have a chance in life.'
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