[lg policy] The Gypsies of Slovakia: Despised and Despairing

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 10 14:57:52 UTC 2013

The Gypsies of Slovakia: Despised and Despairing
Published: April 03, 2000

Darina Horvathova, 23, lives with her baby on the crumbling remains of an
abandoned iron and mercury mine, without a husband, a job or indoor
plumbing. The soil, under the mounds of uncollected trash, is known to be
contaminated. But 500 Gypsies, or Roma as they are also known, live here in
sickness and squalor in the shadow of a factory shut down when Communism

The factory itself is now nothing but a broken concrete shell, having been
dismantled for construction materials by the people here.

Some live in wooden sheds; some in crumbling, filthy structures built for
mineworkers in 1918. There is one water tap for the whole settlement, no
toilets and not a single garbage container.

''The government doesn't care about us at all,'' said Miss Horvathova,
standing in a path of oily mud and trash. ''They could put down some
pebbles or pick up the garbage,'' she said. ''Anything you put on is dirty
immediately. Is this life?''

Cyril and Petr Horvath, 26 and 23, both went to school, and Cyril trained
as a bricklayer. But neither has a job. In fact, no Gypsy here has a
regular job. ''We want to work, but there is no work,'' said Cyril Horvath.
''When you show up, they take one look at you, and that's it. They take
only whites.''

Worsening conditions for Gypsies throughout Eastern Europe have caused
thousands to try to emigrate, quickly wearing out any welcome from Western
Europe. Their flight has created new pressure, most recently in Britain, to
tighten visa, immigration and asylum rules to keep them out.

Alojz Dunka, 58, is the unofficial mayor of this settlement on the
outskirts of Rudnany, a town about seven miles east of Spisska Nova Ves, in
the mountains of northeast Slovakia. He worked at the mine, which was shut
down in 1992. ''It was much better under Communism,'' he said. ''Even with
discrimination, it was possible to live. Democracy has brought us nothing
but crisis.''

Mr. Dunka, a widower still too young to get a pension, now lives on a state
subsidy of 1,600 crowns a month, or $40. ''I haven't bought a new shirt in
years,'' he said, fingering the greasy, unraveling collar of the one he
wore. ''A new shirt costs 400 crowns. Try living on 1,600 crowns.''

His deputy, Stefan Ziga, 42, said: ''People tell us we live terrible lives
and scold us, but what can we do? We didn't shut down the mine or the
factory. The soil and the buildings are contaminated, and kids live in this
and get sick and die.''

Mr. Dunka said, ''The government talks and talks but nobody helps us.''

In the 11 years since Communism crumbled in 1989, Slovakia has struggled
with privatization and restructuring, closing many factories that showed no
profits and had too many workers. A system where work was compulsory but at
least put bread on the table has been replaced by one where open
discrimination keeps Gypsies from being hired.

Recently, two towns in this part of Slovakia, Nagov and Rokytovce, adopted
resolutions forbidding Gypsies from settling on their territory.

Slovakia is notorious for its treatment of Gypsies, who make up some 10
percent of its five million population. Discrimination, including police
mistreatment and beatings, has been reinforced by the post-Communist rise
of skinheads and other neo-fascist groups who, as in the neighboring Czech
Republic and Hungary, single out the Gypsies and are rarely punished.

According to Claude Cahn, research director for the European Roma Rights
Center, a nonprofit foundation based in Budapest, ''Slovakia is deeply
segregated, with unabashed, open hatred.'' In a letter to the new Slovak
prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, the foundation described ''a pattern of
arbitrary use of state power against the Roma,'' including police raids,
beatings and at least one killing of a Gypsy man in police custody.

In a report due out soon, Amnesty International describes ''punitive police
raids'' against Gypsy settlements, with dogs at dawn, apartments damaged
and inhabitants beaten. Rudnany was raided in July 1998; in Zehra in
December 1999, a 13-year-old boy was shot in the leg, kitchen knives were
impounded as weapons and the local Gypsy leader, Jozef Mizigar, was put
under house arrest. In March, Jan Ondo and Michal Badzo, two Gypsies from
Michalovce, 35 miles east of Kosice, were beaten by the police at the
station and hospitalized with fractures. In a statement to local
television, the police said there had been ''a mistake'' and apologized.

Mr. Dzurinda, elected 18 months ago to replace the populist Vladimir
Meciar, has promised to protect the rights of minorities, in particular the
Gypsies. Mr. Meciar had called the Gypsies ''mental retards.''

In September, the new government published a ''strategy'' to solve ''the
problems of the Roma national minority.''

But ''prejudice and xenophobia are widespread'' and money is scarce, says
Vincent Denihel, the government's representative for the Gypsies. Mr.
Denihel, himself a Gypsy, is considered to have little power in the
government, and he still speaks of plans and studies and strategies and
approaches. But he is proud that some 40 Gypsies are now being trained to
enter the police academy. ''The government is aware of how complicated the
situation is,'' Mr. Denihel said. ''We do not expect to solve the Roma
problem in the short term.''

But the national government will get little help from the officials of

The mayor, Miroslav Blistan, and his deputy, Ladislav Sabo, are both former
managers of the mine and former Communists -- and both now are evangelical
Protestants. They think life was better under socialism, when the mines and
factories worked, no matter the cost to the state. As for the Gypsies, they
speak of them with open racial prejudice.

Mr. Blistan, a jolly man of 64 with a big office, a lavender jacket and a
dirty maroon tie, said the mine was running down under the Communists.
''But then the wise ones were elected and it collapsed,'' he said bitterly.
''The democrats liquidated it,'' along with 3,000 jobs.

Mr. Sabo brandished a handwritten chart of the changing ethnic makeup of
the town. Many Slovaks have left for jobs elsewhere and the rest are having
fewer children, while Gypsies, who have nearly no work at all here, have
more children. ''What we need is a Chinese fertility program,'' said Mr.
Sabo, who then began to giggle.

When asked if he meant forced sterilization, he giggled again, waving his
chart. In 1970, he pointed out, Rudnany had 6,300 people and only 200
Gypsies. Now it has 3,100 people, 1,040 of them Gypsies. ''This year,'' he
said, meaning last year, ''there were 64 Roma kids born and only 14 white

Mr. Blistan said: ''All these people you're talking about have been
procreated. My deputy works with them, but I can't debate with them
anymore. They just want to see how much money the state will give them. A
Roma just goes to the post office once a month to pick up money.''

The Gypsies, badly educated and not easily led, do not vote in anything
like a self-interested block, here or anywhere in Slovakia. ''Blistan tells
us lies and throws us a barbecue and a lot of Roma vote for him,'' said Mr.
Dunka, with disgust.

Asked about garbage collection, Mr. Blistan burst into laughter. ''I'd give
them containers, but they don't want to pay for garbage collection, so what
can I do?'' he asked, smiling broadly. As for sanitation, he said: ''Two
times they built sewers but they were clogged. I don't know what they put
in them -- horse skins or whatever.'' Mr. Sabo giggled again.

As for water, Mr. Blistan said, ''the law says we have to give everyone
water, but they don't want to pay for it.'' He renewed the contract, ''but
they owe 40,000 crowns,'' or $1,000.

Mr. Dunka says the settlement pays 600 crowns a month for water. Mr.
Blistan said he gets on fine with Mr. Dunka. ''But he has no authority
among them, because he's not a usurer and doesn't have money.''

Mr. Blistan said he was planning new housing for the Gypsies, which turned
out to mean the renovation of more mineworkers' housing. Mr. Dunka and
other Gypsies say the buildings are already on condemned, poisoned land.

Karol Kanalos, a Gypsy in a private machinery business with two Slovak
partners, said that despite happy talk from the state, ''there is no effort
to do anything, because they don't take us seriously.''

If an airplane ticket cost only $50, he said, ''we'd all leave this
place.'' He laughed sourly. ''Most of us don't consider Slovakia our

What is your country? ''I can't give you an answer,'' he said. ''But I
can't say Slovakia. This country doesn't guarantee us a life.''



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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