Life under the bridge: ghettoising Roma in Lower Hrušov, Ostrava, Czech Republic
11 July 2000
Hrušov is a pre-World War II middle class neighbourhood which is administratively part of the neighbourhood of Slezská Ostrava. In the fifties, sixties and seventies, many people from Hrušov moved into higher standard flats outside Hrušov. The people who moved into their vacated flats in Hrušov, according to Deputy Mayor of Slezská Ostrava Municipality Mr Petr Kudela, were predominantly Roma. In the 1980s, the municipality built a highway overpass over Lower Hrušov. The highway - Bohumínská street, at Hrušov also called the Muglinovské Bridges - divides Lower Hrušov into western and eastern parts. By the 1990s, Lower Hrušov was a mixed Romani/non-Romani lower income neighbourhood. During heavy flooding in summer 1997, the Lower Hrušov area of Ostrava was heavily damaged. After the floods, some inhabitants of Lower Hrušov stayed in the neighbourhood and some were temporarily placed in emergency accommodation "Unimobuńky", a rudimentary form of temporary housing located in the Ostrava neighbourhood of Lišcina. Today, Lower Hrušov is a Romani ghetto.
Shortly after the flooding, in an expert report dated October 1997, the Main Office of the Architect of the City of Ostrava, responsible for urban planning and development, drafted a plan for the future development of Lower Hrušov. This states that the area is badly damaged, not stabilised, under permanent threat of flooding, and should be excluded from consideration for inhabitation. On December 17, 1997, on the basis of announced building assessments from October 30, 1997, the Ostrava municipality altered the City Territorial Plan for the area, "with the functional purpose of the area changed from trade area to that of 'light industry, warehousing, incidental production' with the exclusion of inhabitation" [emphasis added]. A letter dated November 9, 1999, from the Office of the Main Architect to the office of the mayor of Slezská Ostrava states again that the area has suffered great devastation and any plans for the future usage of the eastern part must be reconsidered. The Office of Main Architect called upon the municipality to condemn the eastern part of Lower Hrušov. The document reads, "After inspection of the area, it is necessary to say that it would be better to demolish all buildings and condemn the area." On December 16, 1999, after repeated recommendations by the Main Architect's Office to raze the area, the municipality Slezská Ostrava agreed to demolish all of the buildings in Eastern Lower Hrušov, with the intention to reconstruct the land for light industry purposes since, according to the city, the land underneath is "relatively attractive". On the issue of Western Lower Hrušov, the municipality adopted the following vague wording: "The western part of the territory is stable and noteworthy development is not envisioned." Importantly, however, the decision reiterates the wording of the December 1997 municipal decision that all of Lower Hrušov is excluded for the purposes of housing. In April 2000, however, at least seventy families were still living in both Eastern and Western Lower Hrušov, legally and with the permission of the Slezská Ostrava municipality. All or nearly all of them are Roma.
As of April 2000, the condition of flats in Eastern Lower Hrušov was inhumane; many of the flats observed were uninhabitable. Flats in which Roma reside in Eastern Lower Hrušov have black mould on the walls. According to the daily Mladá Fronta Dnes of October 26, 1999, there is no regular garbage collection in the area and waste is placed in neighbouring empty buildings. Ms Iveta Žigová, a Romani woman living in Eastern Lower Hrušov told the ERRC: "I have seen rats attacking adults and children." Despite being a condemned area, during the visit by the ERRC on April 3, 2000, there was a grocery shop and a bar open, and several houses had evidently been newly repaired.
Mr Kumar Viswanathan, a local community worker, told the ERRC, "The sewage system doesn't work in the area, so there is a bad smell in the area and sewage floods cellars and ground-floor corridors. During the summer months, because of the rising water, there are a lot of mosquitoes and other insects." Ms Iveta Žigová, a Romani woman living in Eastern Lower Hrušov, told the ERRC: "A commission came to my flat to see the conditions here at the beginning of March 2000. I showed them the mould and told them that I thought the flat was unsafe. Mr Klíma from the housing office responded that I had probably recently watered the wall to make the mould grow. He also said that the neighbour on the second floor did not have any mould on their walls, so why did I? I told him that the flat is completely wet. I also told him that there are rats as big as cats that have attacked children as well as adults. Mr Kumar Vishwanathan gave me bleach and I have painted the walls six times already - four times last year and two times this winter - but nothing helps: the mould keeps coming back."
Although the city has not slated the area for demolition, the condition of buildings and other sanitation issues are as bad in Western Lower Hrušov as they are in Eastern Lower Hrušov. Mould and wet walls were reported to the ERRC by Ms Jana Tišerová, a Romani woman. She is presently living in the Western Lower Hrušov and told ERRC that her flat, although on the second floor, is wet. Despite her efforts to dry the walls of the flat and to get rid of the black mould on the walls, the mould comes back and regularly appears at the same places. "In the winter I have wet walls. There is mould everywhere. I regularly go to speak with Mrs Babincová and Mr Klíma in Slezská Ostrava town hall. They are responsible for housing policy in the Slezská Ostrava municipality. But they never do anything about the problem." Deputy Mayor of Slezská Ostrava Petr Kudela told the ERRC that the present status of Western Lower Hrušov "should remain as long as possible."
In 1998, in the face of repeated recommendations from the Office of the Main Architect of Ostrava City and following the municipal ban on using the area for housing, the municipality of Slezská Ostrava organised the resettlement of previous inhabitants back to Eastern Lower Hrušov in numerous instances, as well as to Western Lower Hrušov2. In the course of promoting the return of Roma to Lower Hrušov, municipal officials reportedly misled Roma about how long they would have to stay in condemned flats, as well as their chances of acquiring flats outside the area. Roma interviewed by the ERRC claim that they moved back to Hrušov, into the "wet" flats with a promise from Deputy Mayor Kudela and other bureaucrats from the Slezská Ostrava municipality that this would only be for one year and that after one year they would be given a dry flat outside Lower Hrušov. Ms Iveta Žigová, a Romani woman living in Eastern Lower Hrušov, told the ERRC: "Before the floods, I lived on Šimonova street. During the floods I was in the Unimobuńky. I moved back to the eastern part of Lower Hrušov, to a first-floor apartment, but only after Mrs Podgorná, a woman at the housing office of the municipality, promised that this would be for only one year." Municipal authorities have also repeatedly denied permission to Roma seeking to be allocated flats outside Lower Hrušov. According to Ms Iveta Žigová, Ms Renata Gažiová and Ms Jana Tišerová, Romani women living in Lower Hrušov, Roma moved back to Lower Hrušov, while non-Roma were preferentially offered flats outside Lower Hrušov. Iveta Žigová told the ERRC: "I was promised by the city that in Spring 2000 I would get a flat, but when I asked in the beginning of March 2000, when I could move out, Mr Klíma from the housing office told me that he had forgotten about my request. I thought I would go crazy, how could they forget about me, knowing what conditions we are living in?"
According to Deputy Mayor Kudela, the seventy families presently living in Lower Hrušov - the western as well as eastern part - received approval to move into flats in Lower Hrušov from the Slezská Ostrava municipality on the basis of individual requests: "The nature of the individual request was that the people came to me and said 'Kudela, give us a flat'; there is no written documentation proving the request." Deputy Mayor Kudela stated that evidence of the individual request for the flat is that the person or persons in question moved into the flat. The individual requests are used by the municipality as an excuse for the officials to prove the free will of Roma to go back to Lower Hrušov despite health risks and degrading conditions.
Municipal officials have also allegedly used bureaucratic tricks to justify reclassifying flats in Lower Hrušov as habitable. In Lower Hrušov, before the floods in 1997, according to Deputy Mayor Kudela, there were 56 houses with a total of 450 flats. During an interview with the ERRC on April 3, 2000, Deputy Mayor Kudela stated that 144 flats are considered destroyed and added that those are flats predominantly on the ground floor of each house. The bureaucratic trick of considering damaged only the flats on the ground floor has allowed the municipality to regard the rest of the flats on higher floors suitable for living, in disregard of the decision from 1997 excluding housing in Lower Hrušov.
Non-Roma who previously lived in Eastern and Western Lower Hrušov, meanwhile, have been allocated flats in other parts of Ostrava. According to Deputy Mayor Kudela, the pre-flooding inhabitants of Lower Hrušov were predominantly Roma and poor non-Roma. Presently, according to Deputy Mayor Kudela and community worker Mr Kumar Viswanathan, the inhabitants are exclusively Roma. Roma living in Lower Hrušov agree with this assessment. Ms Jana Tišerová told the ERRC: "The people living in this house are all Roma. They live in ground floor flats. I moved from a ground floor flat to the first floor after several requests. The flat I moved into was previously inhabited by a non-Romani woman named Ms šarka Pepíková, who was given a flat in Ostrava Dubina. She was given a flat ahead of Roma despite the fact that the lower-floor flats were in worse condition then her own flat. It is clear to me that whites were given preference to move out of Lower Hrušov, while we [Roma] were forced to stay here." Furthermore, according to ERRC research in Ostrava in early 1999, municipal authorities in the predominantly non-Romani neighbourhood of Dubina, an area with newly-constructed flats, reportedly refused flats to persons with evidently Romani surnames3.
Presently, Roma are often offered flats, but mainly inside Lower Hrušov. Ms Jana Tišerová told ERRC: "Klíma and Babincová at the housing authority say that I don't have the right to move out of Lower Hrušov, only from Lower Hrušov to Lower Hrušov. They offered me another flat at Žižkova street in Eastern Lower Hrušov, near the former sweets shop and not far from a local grocery shop. You should have seen it. There were no floors, no gas stove. Mr Koky, a Romani advisor at the Social Office gave the keys to me, but I gave them back. I could not possibly go there. I have four small children; they can't live in conditions like that." A frequent reply to requests by Roma to be given a flat outside Lower Hrušov is that they have not paid debts and that is why they have no right to be given a flat outside Lower Hrušov. Ms Jana Tišerová told the ERRC that this is an excuse to deny Roma housing outside Lower Hrušov: "I don't have any debts. Klíma says that I have unpaid interest on a previous debt. But that is not true." The ERRC knows of no decision stating that persons with unpaid debts are ineligible for flats outside condemned areas.
In a perverse twist, Roma living in Lower Hrušov pay among the highest categories of rent in Ostrava. Ms Iveta Žigová told the ERRC, "I pay 1700 Crowns rent (approximately 50 euro) and in total with the electricity I pay around 2035 crowns (approximately 55 euro)." This is high rent by Ostrava standards. Ms Jana Tišerová, who lives in Western Lower Hrušov, told the ERRC: "My rent is around 2700 crowns a month (approximately 75 euro) and my flat is regarded a first-category flat. They put in some heaters in the flat, and now they call it first category."
The municipality of Ostrava is unwilling to provide Roma from Lower Hrušov with housing outside the Lower Hrušov area, despite the fact that the Office of the Main Architect of the City of Ostrava regards the area as unsuitable for living and that the area has been banned for human habitation by the city itself; Lower Hrušov has, since the flooding of 1997, become a Romani ghetto. Additionally, the flats in which Roma presently live are regarded the highest or second-highest quality, which means that occupants pay relatively high rents. In light of the conditions in which they live - with rats, mould, damp walls, dysfunctional sewage systems, no garbage collection and the threat of further flooding - Roma in Lower Hrušov face daily humiliating and degrading treatment at the hands of the Ostrava municipality. According to the information provided by Deputy Mayor Kudela, there are flats under construction in the neighbourhood Ostrava Heřmanice. These should be made available to Roma from Lower Hrušov, but Deputy Mayor Kudela is afraid to "concentrate" (his word) them in Heřmanice. There are two reasons for this, according to him: "Gypsies steal chickens and also fruit from the gardens. Also, Heřmanice is my neighbourhood; I live there."
- Eva Sobotka is former project co-ordinator of Helsinki Citizens' Assembly - Roma Section in Brno, Czech Republic. She is presently a researcher at the Richardson Institute for Peace Research (UK) and is undertaking a comparative study on Roma minority policy in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Yugoslavia. She is a volunteer for the ERRC.
- See Hrušov quarter, Ostrava, Czech Republic.
- See Hrušov quarter, Ostrava, Czech Republic.