The Roma of eastern Europe have persecuted for centuries. But the plans of a Romanian mayor to move the Gypsies in his town to a ‘concentration camp’ have caused uproar. John O’Mahony reports.
The Guardian, Saturday 3 November 2001
In a grubby, wood-panelled room on the ground floor of city hall, the mayor of Piatra Neamt, a stocky pitbull of a man named Ion Rotaru is proudly showing off his latest and most ambitious municipal projects. The wall behind him shows a crude map of the town of Piatra Neamt itself, an unlovely cluster of tower blocks housing 126,000 people, tucked in between the mountain ranges of north-east Romania. On the long conference table before him is a detailed plan of a mammoth sports complex to be built on the outskirts and a model of a luxury block of flats currently under construction. However, it is the centrepiece of the display, a cardboard model of what the mayor rather euphemistically calls “Speranta”, or the “District of Hope”, that has outraged human rights organisations and led Roma activists to proclaim that “Hitler’s ghost is still walking around the city hall of Piatra Neamt”.
Looking chillingly like a miniature Belsen or Buchenwald, with a central courtyard lined with tiny barracks, the model on the table depicts the mayor’s controversial plan to relocate sections of the Roma population of Piatra Neamt to a converted chicken farm 6km outside the town: “We will extract this ‘black plague’ from the residential districts in the town,” he reportedly told the Jurnalul newspaper last month. “We shall transform the farms into a genuine ghetto. We will surround the place with barbed wire, and send in guards with dogs to watch the place. Nothing else can be done with this people [the Gypsies]. They only commit burglaries, break things and steal.” According to another Romanian paper, the Cotidianul, he claimed: “If the Roma people don’t accept to move from the city, they will be forced to do so. They destroyed the social houses they had and they owe hundreds of millions of Romanian lei for maintenance.”
Since then, Rotaru has been forced by the ferocious reaction and the Romanian government, currently in the process of applying for EU membership, to retract his comments. Officially, Speranta has been upgraded from ghetto and given the more anodyne title of “social housing”, which will include, as Rotaru points out on the model, not only Roma dwellings, but apartments also for Romanians, as well as a market, a church, and factories to produce cheese and meat. However, in spite of government assertions to the contrary, he insists that the Speranta project will go ahead: “I am going to move the Roma out anyway,” he barks.
“Let the newspapers call it a ghetto if they want, because they want to sell more copies, but that won’t change the fact that the idea behind it is very good. Somebody had to have the courage to grab the bull by the horns and to do a good thing.” As the demonstration draws to a close, he concludes: “Roma leaders took advantage of the situation to make propaganda. They are saying that the Gypsies could get sick with lice from the chickens. But I say the opposite: the chickens are far more likely to get sick with lice from the Gypsies. People say that we are idiots because we don’t understand Gypsies. But we understand Gypsies very well…”
What is generally termed the Roma question is possibly the most prevalent, surreptitious and overlooked race issue to afflict the countries of modern Europe. From Ireland, where “travellers” endure living conditions that lead to life expectancy rates 10-12 years less than the settled community, to Italy, where Gypsy camps are routinely raided by police, to Greece, where local authority housing policies have resulted in what the Council of Europe has described as “de facto apartheid”, Europe’s estimated 9m Roma generally occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder. In the UK, with its 100,000-strong Roma community, an amendment this year to the 1976 race relations act allows immigration officials to discriminate against seven ethnic or national groups, including Roma.
However, it is in eastern Europe, where as much as 2 to 8% of the overall population of some countries is estimated to be Roma, that tensions are most pronounced. Since arriving in eastern Europe in the 10th and 11th centuries, Roma have been viewed, at best, as exotic outsiders, the source of magic, music and fortune telling, but more prevalently as slaves and subhumans, whose talents ranged from idleness and lying to thievery: “Whosoever kills a Gypsy,” decreed the Diet at Augsburg in 1545, which had jurisdiction over much of the Czech lands, “shall be guilty of no murder.”
In the states that would later become Romania, Gypsies, then the only skilled artisans, were enslaved by the Orthodox church and the boyars – Vlad Dracul, the original model for Dracula, owned 11,000, and his son, Vlad the Impaler, would reputedly roast Gypsies for amusement. When finally liberated in 1855, Roma found that their situation as free citizens was worse, and many offered themselves for sale back to their former masters.
After a brief respite between the world wars, when Roma associations sprang up all over Europe, Hitler unleashed his ferocious campaign against what he termed the “Gypsy plague”. Though estimates are highly speculative, it is thought that as many as a quarter of a million Roma were sent to the gas chambers. In Romania, the Nazi leader, Marshal Ion Antonescu – whose statue, incidentally, mayor Rotaru has reinstated outside the Piatra Neamt train station – deported 25,000 Gypsies to the occupied Transnistria region, where many perished either on the journey or in labour camps. Under the Soviet regimes that followed, conditions for eastern Europe’s Roma communities inevitably improved, though the communist regime took away their traditional occupations of metalwork, basket weaving and trading, and herded them into factories and communal farms.
The fall of communism, however, has dealt the final blow to the Roma communities of eastern Europe. As the brutal logic of the market took over, they have universally been the first to lose their jobs, and the most vulnerable to collapsing social and health systems. Unemployment among Roma in Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia now runs at around 70 to 80%. Attacks on Roma communities in Romania since 1989 have increased exponentially, including both pogroms conducted by local mobs and, more recently, by police, acting on the general assumption that Roma are behind the post-Soviet upsurge of crime.
The most recent of these occurred just last week, when a 200-strong army of state and local police raided the Roma village of Ciocanari, 40km outside Bucharest, in retaliation for what they claim was an earlier attack by villagers when the police went in to apprehend a suspect, allegedly detaining and brutally beating Roma villagers at random.
However, it is the unsavoury development in Piatra Neamt, with its overtones of concentration camps and echoes of a Gypsy gulag, that has continued to dominate the headlines over the past few weeks, and to worry activists most acutely. The mayor’s main justification for his plan, which he backs up with grainy photographs of burned-out windows and colourful stories of horses living with families in the apartments, is the Gypsies supposed destruction of the state housing they now occupy: “Only the structure is standing,” he says. “They simply destroyed the buildings like termites, step by step. In 1996, there were three blocks. Now one is totally destroyed and two have to be completely rebuilt.”
To prove his point, Rotaru bundles us into his jeep for a whistlestop tour of the town that begins in the affluent district of the kalderash or coppersmiths, Gypsies whom the mayor himself employs to manufacture the town’s rubbish bins and signposts. It’s difficult to escape the impression that this is a Roma village of which Potemkin might have been proud: a band of grinning workers, furiously hammering, sawing and angle-grinding. “I have no problem with the kalderash and the ‘singers’,” says Rotaru as we drive away, referring to the local Gypsy bands, “but the ‘bear trainers’, the ‘spoonmakers’ and the ‘clay burners’. They are the worst. They cheat and they steal and I have no time at all for them.”
By this time, we have pulled up outside the Roma tenement blocks, which house around 600 people. We stand outside block d2 on Lenin Street, which has been earmarked for relocation to the Speranta farm. The mayor himself refuses to come in: “I’m waiting outside,” he says. ” I don’t want to catch fleas.” Then, when we emerge, the mayor puckers up his nose: “The car stinks from where we’ve been,” he exclaims.
Our final destination was the chicken farm, located about 6km north of the town on an empty stretch of roadway. As you round the hill, the impression of a camp, with high wire fences and a forbidding metal gate, is even more pronounced. Passing the abandoned buildings, Rotaru proudly points out the future Roma school, church, market and the planned factories that should employ them, eventually arriving at the apartment blocks, the only sections yet to be completed. The spacious one- and two-bedroom converted show apartments seemed infinitely superior to the crowded, decaying apartment blocks the Gypsies now occupy on Lenin street, where entire Roma families have been crammed into single rudimentary rooms and each floor shares a single bathroom. But the mayor is unable to adequately explain how they will pay the $200 deposits he is demanding, and monthly rents of $10-$70. Most working Gypsies earn between $1 and $2 a day. “They all have this money,” he scoffs. “They all have relatives who went abroad and begged and stole and sent back money.”
At this point, Rotaru drops us back at city hall: “If I could, I would ship all these Gypsies off to Antarctica. I could build igloos for them there,” he says, departing with a chuckle. “Or if you are so fond of them, why don’t you bring them back to England?”
But after a thorough exploration of the offending block d2 on Lenin Street, we found none of the total devastation that Rotaru has been describing – no burned-out husks of apartments or livestock in the toilets. The cramped rooms, all decorated with colourful Gypsy wall-hangings, were generally clean, and their inhabitants forthcoming, polite, and desperately worried about Rotaru’s plan: “If everybody moves, I will also, but I don’t like moving because it is far away from the city,” says Virginia, an illiterate 28-year-old Roma who is bringing up three children alone. “In the town, at least I can find some work cleaning a house or some other menial work. But out there, we won’t even have the possibility of doing that.”
Many are particularly concerned that their children will miss out on vital years of education: “This morning the mayor said on the radio that the school would be completed there in 2005,” says Georgi, a Romanian married to a Roma woman, indicating one of his four daughters. “What will she do until then?”
And absolutely none of the Gypsies I spoke to believe that the showcase apartments are destined for them, even if they could afford them: “They are not for us, they are for Romanians who can pay,” continues Virginia. “They are going to dump us in the back, where our children will be exposed to rubbish and chicken droppings and get ill.”
Tellingly, the only place where I witnessed the living conditions Rotaru constantly described was among the Roma who have already been moved to the chicken farm. There they live in unimaginable, medieval squalor in buildings that could barely be described as barns, with 40 families occupying filthy, partitioned corners, and children, some handicapped, strewn everywhere on bare mattresses. When they were shipped up here, two years ago, on the back of tractors, all the Roma families were told that the current situation would be temporary. But now, talk of guards, dogs, and barbed-wire fences has made them reluctant to move further: “We always considered the mayor our leader, and we were grateful when he brought us here,” says 30- year-old Vasile Alexandru. “But we were extremely discouraged when we heard about the barbed wire and the police. It is simply inhuman. Perhaps it would be better if they just went all the way and built a gas chamber here to gas us.”
The Piatra Neamt case is not isolated. The Czech Republic has already experimented with segregation, when in 1999, officials in the town of Usti Nad Labem erected a wall around Roma districts (it was later taken down at the insistence of Czech president Vaclav Havel, and is now the home of the local zoo.) According to reports, mayor Rotaru’s segregation plan has been looked on favourably by some members of the Romanian association of mayors. “Many mayors are thinking and feeling this,” says leading Roma activist Nicolae Gheorghe. “The difference is that he put such an intention into action. And his language was just more crude.”
However, even activists such as Gheorghe admit that the Roma question is complicated not only by the prejudices of the minority but by the social codes of the Roma themselves, whose values are rooted in a nomadic culture. Centuries of persecution have built up enormous distrust between Gypsies and other ethnic groups, exacerbating the Gypsy tradition of outwitting the gadze or non-Gypsy, which may be the root of some of the stock accusations of thieving and lying: “There is some empirical basis for [majority attitudes],” continues Gheorghe. “However, it is not only the Roma who are cheating. The opposite is also true. Both take advantage of each other.”
These complications, however, make the Roma question particularly difficult to tackle in a meaningful way. Despite proclaiming the Roma situation “solved” in 1972, the communist regime never quite got on top of the problem. Initiatives in the 80s, which included a relatively generous scheme of Roma land distribution, ultimately failed. The Romanian government is currently trying again with a wide-ranging, 10-year action plan, costing an estimated €105m. “We want to challenge the mentality of the majority, but also to change the mentality of the Roma,” says Dan Jurcan, the Romanian secretary of state. “There is the economic aspect to start with; if you solve the problem of poverty, you will solve the problem of the Roma. We also want to attract many more Roma into the educational system.” However, one main drawback of the scheme is that it relies heavily on local officials, such as mayor Ion Rotaru.
But apart from the extremists, no one believes that segregation is a solution. It simply exacerbates the distrust between the Roma and majority communities. Ironically, most of the Roma and many of the Romanians we spoke to insisted that relations between the two communities in Piatra Neamt were generally above average. One of the champions of Gypsy rights, Mihail Kogalniceanu, under whose premiership the Roma slaves were freed, came from Moldova and a statue in his honour was erected in Piatra Neamt in 1913. As one of the Gypsies from the Lenin Street apartment blocks said as we were leaving: “I don’t want to say anything about the mayor. God is on high and it is for him to judge. So I won’t accuse him of discrimination. But I will say that before this was proposed, attitudes to the Roma here were good. There are certainly good Gypsies and bad Gypsies. But there are also good Romanians and bad Romanians. Only with this separation between Roma and Romanians that is being proposed, only there will discrimination start.”