Floods in Ukraine leave hundreds of Roma homeless
5 January 1999
Between November 3 and 8, 1998, the Transcarpathian region of western Ukraine was hit by heavy floods, said to be the heaviest in Transcarpathia this century. Over 350,000 people were caught in the flood zone; the number of persons affected exceeded 60,000 and the death toll caused by both flooding and mudslides amounts to twenty. Over 3,000 flood victims became infected with various diseases including tuberculosis; 260 of them were hospitalised. Altogether around 120 settlements were flooded, 800 buildings destroyed and about 25,000 people were evacuated. The International Red Cross, other domestic and international humanitarian organisations, religious missions and volunteers started sending and distributing humanitarian aid.
On November 3, 1998, the Uzh at Uzhgorod flooded a small Roma community living on the bank of the river. Five mud-brick houses collapsed immediately. Property as well as domestic animals was swept away. The now homeless Romani families were accommodated in the office of Romani Yag, a local Roma organisation. Most of these people were infected with tuberculosis at the time of the flooding.
The worst sufferers of the flash flood were the dwellers of Varijevo village, Berehovo area. The flash flood wiped out parts of the settlement on November 5, 1998. At the time of the ERRC visit, a week after the peak, the place was still approachable only by boats and helicopters. There were Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Roma, ethnic Hungarians, and other minorities among the victims. Seventy to seventy-five Romani houses were demolished in the flooding in Varijevo, leaving only two Romani families' houses undestroyed. According to the Berehovo local Roma community leader Kálmán Szabó, approximately 200 Romani victims out of the 506 who had been evacuated from Varijevo were accommodated in five rooms of the Berehovo Romani school. The dwellers of the heavily stuffed rooms had been sleeping on the floor until mattresses arrived two weeks after the emergency evacuation. During the first week the food supply, organised and provided by religious missions, consisted mostly of bread and butter. However, local authorities distributed green cards among the flood victims entitling them to humanitarian aid in order to avoid and to stop abuse of the aid, reports of which were never confirmed, but rather denied in official sources. (Following the flooding and the first rumours of an aid racket in the region, the ERRC sent a letter of concern to several organisations urging them to intervene and provide relief, as well as to take special care that it reaches the needy victims.) The Ukrainian government package aimed at helping the flood victims included paying out arrears on pensions, much of which has already reached the pensioners, including Roma, and those who had lost their homes in the flooding were entitled from December 1, 1998 to a fifteen-year interest-free bank loan from the Bank of Ukraine. 50-60% of the Roma population in the area did not have identification cards necessary to apply for the loan. However, the local Presbyterian Church undertook the expenses of producing the identification cards. (ERRC)