Field Report: Moldova
15 July 1997
By Veronika Leila Szente
I visited Moldova in May 1997. Moldova differs from other countries in that Moldovan Roma tend not to live in separate Roma settlements, nor can they be found in distinct neighbourhoods in the villages and towns in which they live. The country is almost entirely agrarian and the majority of its population, including most of the Roma with whom I met, earn their living from farming.
Mixed marriages between Roma and non Roma are very common. In villages all over the country, I met with individual Roma and mixed Roma families who all told me that they lived like the rest of the local population, be it Moldovan, Russian, Ukrainian, or mixed. They used to work on the collective farms and since the privatisation of the land, they have continued to work the piece of land they received. Most of them speak Romanes at home.
There are, officially, 11,600 Roma in Moldova. According to Claus Neukirch at the OSCE Mission, however, there are 50,000 Roma; according to the Department of National Relations, 100,000; and according to the Roma association Social and Cultural Society of Roma of Moldova, 200,000. No official census has been conducted since 1989, when Moldova was still part of the USSR.
I visited four settlements inhabited exclusively, or nearly exclusively, by Roma. These include the “Roma Mountain” in northern Soroca (at least 5000 inhabitants), the extremely poor villages of Schinoasa (350-500 inhabitants) and Ursari (1000 inhabitants), approximately 70-80 kilometres north-west of Chişinău, and the village of Vulcăneşti (1200 inhabitants), approximately 70 kilometres west of Chişinău. The inhabitants of Schinoasa told me that they do not consider themselves Roma, even if they are regarded as such by the rest of the population.
In Vulcăneşti, the houses are beautiful, the mayor is a Rom and there is a school for the Roma children. Inhabitants there told me that they have no particular problems. This was not the case in the other three communities where Roma live together, however. In Soroca, I documented a case of police beating which I described separately for “Snapshots from Around Europe”. The Soroca Roma additionally reported that the road leading up to the mountain on which they live is under constant surveillance by the traffic police, who systematically stop their cars and fine them, allegedly for no reason at all. One man told me:
“I don’t even pay attention to it any longer. It has happened so many times. They just stop the car when they see that it’s somebody from our neighbourhood in it and say, “buy this”. Then they hand us a ticket for a fine of between 20 and 250 lei. [4-55 US dollars].”
In the office of the Soroca Police Chief Colonel Valentin Anatol Artemii, I was shown the “Roma Mountain” on a video screen and the police chief told me that extra police forces were necessary as soon as the Soroca Roma come back from their regular business trips to Russia.
When I asked him why extra surveillance was needed, he said, “Gypsies have kept something traditional of their way of life, something wild,” and therefore, “they cannot be ruled in the same way as other citizens.” He also said that he knew that the Gypsies in Soroca complained about the police: “They claim that they have to pay bribes. They say that a Gypsy cannot go out of his own house without bringing money because of the police, but this is not true. Any incident involving action on the part of the police is put on record and any complaint on the part of citizens is investigated by the prosecutor’s office.”
In drastic contrast to the economically very well-off Roma of Soroca, the inhabitants of the rural villages of Schinoasa and Ursari live in extreme poverty. Schinoasa is especially bad, lacking basic infrastructure such as proper roads or sanitary provisions. There are only three Wells in the entire village, all of them situated in the village centre. Families living on the periphery told me that it takes them 45 minutes to bring water up to their houses. There is no school in the village since the old school building literally felt apart two years ago. Two teachers from the neighbouring village Tibirica come to give lessons in one of the houses. Children are undernourished and do not have proper clothing.
Inhabitants of both villages reported that despite the fact that they had worked on collective farms, they received no land at all when it was privatised and their only way to survive since has been to get occasional work from the farmers living in the surrounding villages. These give them wheat and potatoes as payment. None of the villages has its own mayor. According to the vice-mayor of the Executive Committee of Călăraşi District (the administrative body at the district level), everybody who wished to receive land had received a plot, and he explained that it was in the interest of the local mayors that alt land was properly used. When I said that I had seen that land was definitely alt used, but not by the inhabitants of the two villages, he replied that this was nonsense and assured me that I had been misinformed.
Additionally, the mayor of Ţibirica, the village to which Schinoasa belongs, has allegedly told the inhabitants that if they do not pay 15 lei (approximately 3 US dollars) by June 1, 1997 for some small plots of land to which they have been allowed access, he is not going to let them register their new-born children. One young mother of four, holding her two-month-old daughter, said that the baby had not yet been registered because the mayor had refused.
The Schinoasa Roma, like the Roma from Ursari, have not received pensions and child allowances for eight months. The district vice mayor told me that the social welfare system in the whole country is in crisis but he said that in the district of Călăraşi, everyone had definitely been paid through April of this year. In both Schinoasa and Ursari, inhabitants said that they knew there has been humanitarian aid from abroad, but that it has all been taken by the mayors and that no aid has ever reached them. Some interviewees claimed that the aid — food, clothing and medicine — is regularly sold on the market. One woman told me, “There is no law here, and if there is, it does not apply to us.”
I also visited the northern villages of Ochul Alba, Nicoreni, and Mihăileni; the northern towns of Edineţ and Bălţi; and the central village of Leordoaia, which all have individual Roma families. I found no cases of differential treatment of Roma by local authorities or incidents of violence between the Roma and the rest of the population there. Everywhere, I was told, “Sure, I can tell you about my life and how we live here, but I have nothing special to tell you. We live like everybody else; we work together and we celebrate holidays together. Our kids go to school and play together with the other kids. Life is difficult, but it’s difficult for everybody. We haven’t received any pensions or child allowances for four months, but no one in the village has. It’s the same for the Moldovans and Russians.” Non-Roma villagers said similar things.
An exception to this pattern of peaceful cohabitation in ethnically mixed communities is the town of Râşcani in northern Moldova. Roma here, too, do not live in a separate part of the town. I was told that approximately 80 Roma families live here but the men were all in Russia working. One Romani woman reported police abuse, but she was reluctant to give me details. She told me, however, that for the past three or four years, officers from the traffic police (politţia rutiera) in the town have been regularly getting drunk and stopping groups of male Roma teenagers to ask them for money. If they do not have any money on them, the police take them to the police station. Then they send one of them home to the parents for money or vodka. The interviewee’s 14-year-old son had become a victim of this abuse last summer. He was kept at the police station for an entire night. I inter viewed the district police chief, who definitely had a negative attitude toward Roma; he told me that the police had no particular problems with the Roma in Râşcani but he hastened to add that this was only “because they are in Russia all the time.” He pointed at some houses through the window of his office and said, “Look at those houses. They can’t earn their money legally.”
This attitude of stereotyping Roma as rich and as being involved in criminal activity was not confined to the police chief of Râşcani County. Several people I met during my trip to collect information about the situation of Roma, including lawyers and representatives of local human rights NGOs, said similar things.
Despite extensive further travel in the country, this is where my substantial findings end. Roma in Chişinău told me that there are several more Roma communities in Moldova, but when asked to specify, they either listed the communities I have already mentioned, or they told me to go to localities where I had found no — or very few — Roma, such as in the northern town of Ocniţa and the southern towns of Cimişlia, and Hîneşti. In Ocniţa, there was one single Roma family-two women and three kids — who had just returned after four years in Russia and who told me that all Roma from Ocniţa had left the area between 1994 and 1996 to look for better work opportunities in Russia and Ukraine. The Roma in Chişinău also told me that there are many Roma in Bursuc, a village not far from Vulcăneşti in central Moldova. I went there but was told that there were no Roma there at all.
I also went to Tiraspol for one day, where an old (non-Romani) man told me that Roma started leaving the area at the time of Perestroika and that the remaining Roma felt during the Transdniestrian conflict in 1992. We went to the market to look around and found three Romani or part-Romani women, from whom we teamed that, “there are no real Gypsies left at alt in the Tiraspol region. There are only some civilised people like us, who live like the rest of the population.” They told us they do not speak Romanes.
There is evidently at least one more significant Roma settlement in Moldova — Otaci in the far north of the country. Otaci has, I was told, at least 2000 inhabitants. I did not go there, how ever, because the son of the Roma leader in Soroca managed to scare Jon, my translator/driver, by telling him that the Otaci Roma were dangerous drug-dealing criminals and that we should stay away from them. I suspect that the 18-year old future leader did not want us to visit the Otaci Roma because of rivalry between Roma in northern Moldova over business in Russia.
During my mission, I met with Mr. Theodor Magder at the Department for National Relations (the governmental body responsible for the “minorities issue”). He told me that the Department recently submitted a draft governmental resolution urging various ministries to develop concrete programmes for the improvement of the social and cultural situation of the Roma population. Mr. Magder’s position was, however, that Roma in Moldova had not yet reached the cultural and material level necessary for the articulation of their rights and that institutions like his could not, as he put it, “impose rights upon them”.
With the exception of Soroca, in none of the compact Roma settlements I visited had the inhabitants ever heard of the association Social and Cultural Society of Roma of Moldova in Chişinău or of its chairman Pavel Andreicenco. Mr. Andreicenco himself acknowledged the fact that the Roma community in Moldova was very dispersed. According to him, it was important for the Roma to unite because they were not fully accepted in mainstream society. Mr. Andreicenco said that while many Roma in Moldova do not identify themselves as Roma, the non-Romani population do not consider them Moldovans. Among the other representatives of the association, I was impressed by one of the vice-presidents, Dumitru Danu who Works at the Ministry of Education.
A few women separated from the Social and Cultural Society of Roma of Moldova sometime in late 1996 and established Juvlia Romani, a Roma women’s association led by Ecaterina Drosu, a dentist by profession. She would like to improve the situation of the Roma in the fields of health care and education, but said she felt isolated and helpless. Another Romani activist I met was Dominica Negru, who is in charge of a half-hour Roma program on Moldovan state television. It is my general impression that when Roma in Moldova live in compact groups, their vulnerability increases and public officials more readily abuse their rights.