The ERRC in Košice, Slovakia
15 May 1998
Stanislava Benešová, Claude Cahn and Cathy O’Grady
ERRC travelled to Košice on Wednesday, March 4, to attend a demon-stration in the Luník IX neighbourhood/ghetto. The public meeting began at around 10 in the morning. It consisted of several hundred Roma assembled under the second floor balcony of the main public building in Luník IX, a squat structure with a food shop and the city police downstairs, and the mayor’s office and state police upstairs. Members of a group called the Democratic Movement of Roma in Slovakia had draped a red banner over the railing and read speeches mostly decrying the state of Luník IX and demanding the resignation of the Luník IX mayor, Mr Alexander Weber.
Luník IX is an immense housing project located at the end of the number 11 bus line in Košice, Slovakia. Miro Lacko of the Legal Defence Bureau for Ethnic Minorities in Slovakia (LDBEMS) told us that the settlement was originally intended for policemen and army officers, but in 1979, a village inhabited by Roma outside Košice, was liquidated and the Roma living there were moved to Luník IX. The current official number of Roma in Luník IX is 3200, but Miro told us that the real number is probably 4,000. More Roma are being moved in all the time.
The buildings are overcrowded and in very poor condition. Twelve of the apartment blocks currently have no electricity and have not had it for three months. The power company shuts down electricity for whole buildings, not on a flat-by-flat basis. This is for technical reasons. Tenants with the bad luck to have paid their utility bills, but be located in buildings with a large number of non-paying tenants experience darkness and cold along with their delinquent fellow-tenants. Water provision in many of the buildings is irregular and often only late at night. Every single building we saw had broken windows on every floor in the stairwell and some of the apartments had broken windows too. We were told that in many buildings there were no lifts. The buildings are eight or ten storeys high and many people there, especially the elderly, cannot manage the stairs. There was rubbish on the grass around the buildings and on the roads outside there was quite a lot of broken glass. The sewage system is falling apart because the pipes are old and there has been no maintenance for a long time.
Members of the ERRC group visited the dwellings of two families now living in basements after having been evicted from their apartments. Milan Balog and Žaneta Kroková live in the first flat we saw. They do not have electricity or running water. They live in one room of approximately fifteen square metres, with very little furniture, no cooking facilities, and no electricity. As the room is at the back of the basement, there are no windows and therefore no natural light at all. Ventilation is very bad. We did not see any sanitary facilities at all (although there may have been) and there was an empty windowless room across the corridor that seemed to be a waste dump.
The second basement room we visited was in another building. It was approximately the same size as the first and there were five people living in it. They had electricity - there was light, a cooker and a TV. Again there were no windows, poor ventilation and not enough space for five people to sleep. They showed us a bathroom down the corridor which was a big room, very cold and windowless. There was a working shower there and a flushing toilet, but everything was in very poor condition and there is no hot water. The people living there are Anna Klempárová and her four children, Jozef Vaòa(7), Portunata Vaòová (6), Maria Magdalena Vaòová (2) and Anna Vaòová (5 months). Mrs Klemparová told us that the children are constantly ill because of the living conditions.
Poor hygiene and over-crowded conditions all over Luník IX have given rise to an environment in which disease spreads easily. We were told that at the moment there are several epidemics, including hepatitis. There is one children’s doctor to care for 1,700 children. The unemployment rate in Luník IX is virtually 100%. We were told that less than thirty Roma in the settlement have jobs and they are engaged in ‘publicly beneficial work’, which is street-sweeping and similar unskilled jobs.
There is a school and a kindergarten in Luník IX. The school is split - half normal, half “special”, i.e., for mentally disabled children. One woman interviewed by members of the ERRC group said that even in the normal school, the teachers do little teaching. She had become enraged after her son had been in the school for one month, because rather than teach, the teachers have the children play cards and do disco dancing (“when I was in school, we had homework and had to learn”). She had her son tested, after which he was transferred to a school in the neighbouring settlement of Luník VIII, and she is now satisfied with his situation. As she described the test, it is psycho-metric/linguistic. She claimed that by law, children must go to school within 500 metres of their house, but via the test, which was administered to her son by a “school psychologist”, one can be transferred to another school. It was not clear if this is the case for all schools, or only for Luník IX, which is now almost officially a Romani ghetto.
According to the LDBEMS, the city has decided to make Luník IX into a housing settlement for “socially problematic families”. This is taking place as a result of Municipal Council resolution No. 55/1995. Socially problematic families are supposed to be families who do not pay rent or are in other ways considered difficult. We were shocked to discover that there is an inspection committee which comes to see if your things are put away nicely and your house is clean. Such inspection committees presumably do not exist for settlements which are not famous as Roma neighbourhoods.
Last year, the city moved families who were not “problematic” from two block houses across town to a new settlement called ahanovce, at the other end of Košice. According to Roma in Luník IX, this was “moving out the non-Roma to make a Romani ghetto”. We were told that “2000 gadje moved away last year and now there are only 150 gadje here - no Roma got flats.” Roma say they have been on lists of applicants for new flats for up to ten years. Miro Lacko pointed out some construction going on very close to the settlement and told us that the municipal authorities were building small, low-comfort apartments. Some of these blocks have already been finished and others are still under construction.
The city is also moving in “socially problematic people” from other areas, and these appear to be Roma. Some of the Roma with whom we spoke consider this “throwing us all into one bag”. Their argument is that there are good Roma and bad Roma, but the authorities see only Gypsies and treat them all the same - badly. One Romani woman with whom we spoke said that the police consider their beat a zoo. So, for example, the police never respond to complaints about loud parties and allegedly did not come when someone threw a bottle through her window.
The person presiding over this catastrophe is Mayor Alexander Weber. Mayor Weber is not a Rom, and neither are any of the other members of the Košice Municipal Council. He has held office for eight years - this is his second term. Miro told us that during his first term Mayor Weber was seen by the Roma as someone who cared and was doing a good job. Apparently he made a real effort to solve the problems there initially, but unfortunately, when he was re-elected he stopped all of that and has now become totally ineffectual. Mayor Weber has evidently had a rather radical change of heart with respect to Roma during his second term, since he was quoted in one Slovak daily in early February of this year as saying, “My opinion about Roma coincides with that of the mayor of Žilina and Member of Parliament [from the right-wing Slovak National Party] Ján Slota. Many have condemned him for his statement that the proper way to handle Roma is with] the small yard and the long whip. Sadly, to a word, he was correct.”
The primary aim of the demonstration to which the ERRC had been invited was to demand Mayor Weber’s resignation. As political activity, the event was somewhat disappointing. Since it took place inside the Romani ghetto, it was calculated to have little to no effect on the non-Romani community. Roma at the demonstration explained to the ERRC that a demonstration downtown would be useless because, “gadje don’t care about our problems and anyway a demonstration downtown would be attacked by skinheads.” Nevertheless, a television crew showed up, as did members of the print press, and the demonstration was reported later in both media. One Romani activist with whom the ERRC spoke later was bitter that television coverage focused mainly on Roma demanding flats, reinforcing the idea that all Roma know is how to demand things from the state.
One member of the crowd at the demonstration drew attention for being obviously non-Romani and significantly better dressed than anyone else there. This turned out to be Member of Parliament Dr Ivan Rosival from the opposition Democratic Union party. An impromtu debate between Rosival and Roma in attendance at the demonstration broke out, the highlight of which was Rosival attempting to explain in paternalistic fashion that what Roma need is education, to which one young Romani man countered, “I have an education. I am a mechanic. What I need is a job.”
Later in the day, members of our group interviewed Dr Rosival. The latter told the ERRC that he thinks that a serious problem is that Romani children leave kindergarten without being sufficiently prepared for primary school. Although Dr Rosival was well versed on what he felt the problems of Roma are (schooling, discipline, under-qualification), he could not grasp the role of racism in the non-Romani community. In his opinion, for example, employers are fair and hire the best people for the job, regardless of race. He was also keen to assert that violence is a very minor problem in Slovakia and that Slovakia is not a violent country. He claimed that he had never seen a skinhead in Košice. He then went on to say that violence is certainly not a problem among ‘ordinary people’, for instance those living in villages. As a member of the opposition, he rather predictably noted that the current government is doing absolutely nothing for the Roma.
In marked contrast to the statements of Dr Rosival, officers of the Luník IX city police told one member of the ERRC mission that they have a book of complaints, “most of which are skinhead attacks”. Skinhead attacks are reportedly constant, especially on the number 11 bus line, leading into Luník IX. Roma believe it would be crazy to leave the ghetto after 5 pm and they go shopping (the only services in Luník IX are a small, expensive grocery store and a butcher’s shop) in large groups and/or by taxi.
One member of our group interviewed 23-year-old Norbert Hmilanský, a Romani man who fell victim to a skinhead attack at approximately 5:00 pm on December 21, 1997. Five skinheads, aged approximately 16-20 assaulted him and his wife as they walked from the bus stop near Luník IX. Three of the attackers wielded baseball bats, one had a knuckle duster and one was armed with a chain. They all had shaved heads.
According to Mr Hmilanský, the three with the baseball bats were the most aggressive. His wife stood up to them as they approached, but Norbert stepped in front of her and was hit in the arm, leg, and ribs before they both managed to flee. They found several police officers, who drove them around to look for their assailants, but they could not locate the skinheads.
The city police officer with whom we spoke (no name, Luník IX, badge number 137) said that since Mr Hmilanský does not know the names of the people who attacked him, they will not be caught. Policeman 137 stated that on the first of this year they had forwarded the case, along with all other recent cases, “to the archive of the magistrate’s office, where it will sit for one year before being closed” (This was related as if it were the inevitable history of a case of this kind). He added that his office is not responsible for investigating criminal cases, the state police are. The state police, located upstairs from the city police in the same building, would not speak to the ERRC, but they told Norbert that they had never heard of his case. We went back to the city police and reported what the state police had said and they told us again that the file was in the archive of the magistrate’s office. A generous conclusion about police practice would be that if they do not catch the skinhead suspect on the spot, they will do nothing to investigate.
Miro Lacko explained to us, however, that even in cases in which the police do apprehend skinhead attackers in Slovakia, other things are likely to go wrong. Miro told us that in January 1998, he was attacked by two skinheads at a railway station in Prešov. Defending himself, Miro broke the nose of one of the skinheads. He himself suffered minor injuries. One skinhead was caught by the railway police but was later released. An investigation was conducted by the state police which reversed the case and suggested charges against Miro for an unarmed attack. Because this is qualified as a minor offence, the Office of General Interior Administration of the Municipal Office in Prešov issued formal charges against Miro. However, the railway police testified on his behalf and he was absolved of the charge. Now, Miro states that he will file a complaint against the Office of General Interior Administration of the Municipal Office in Prešov for false accusation.
Policeman 137 told the ERRC that he did not know of any skinheads being convicted. He told the ERRC and Norbert Hmilanský that Roma are “equally guilty to skinheads” because of their “mentality”. Norbert stated that if a Rom committed a similar crime to the assault to which he and his wife were subjected, the police would spare no effort to find and prosecute the perpetrators.
Finally, members of our group visited the offices of the LDBEMS, where staff members Anna Koptová, Miroslav Lacko and Milan Mièka described to the ERRC some of the work they are doing. For the most part, the activity of the Bureau is presently focused on cases in which Roma have fallen victim to skinhead violence, police violence, or housing eviction.
Luník IX became somewhat legendary several years ago after it became the focus of activity by the Council of Europe. It was depressing to learn that the dire conditions described at the time in the Council of Europe newsletter have not been alleviated and may even have become worse. Recent developments of particular concern include:
- The creation of “socially problematic” families through the practice of turning off electricity for whole buildings, so even families paying utilities bills wind up without electrical power;
- The personal hygiene inspection committees;
- The atmosphere - everyone in Luník IX is waiting to find out whether they are “good”, or whether they will be deemed “socially problematic” and forced to stay in one of eastern Europe’s most horrible housing estates. All of the Roma with whom the ERRC spoke believe that they will all be judged to be socially problematic and forced to stay there. Meanwhile, Roma are being shifted in as they are evicted from other places, notably flats in Košice’s lovely downtown, which is being gentrified at the moment. It is nearly impossible to escape the conclusion that the Košice municipality resolution 55/1995 aims at the ghettoisation of Roma in the housing estate of Luník IX.