Reportage. In the Slovakian city of Kosice, the Roma, confined in what was once a normal neighborhood of working class families, live and die in their open air prison. Old prejudices are compounded by the new sovereignist fury of the extreme right.

Inside Lunik IX, the ghetto that doesn’t exist

For the residents of Kosice, Lunik IX simply does not exist. Or, better put, it has not existed for at least 30 years. It started out as a neighborhood like many others: working class condos where workers and public employees lived—whether they were Roma or Slovaks, it didn’t matter. Communism needed proletarians, not particular ethnic groups. But as the world celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, other kinds of walls were going up around Lunik IX, walls which perhaps had never been successfully torn down in the first place.

The city of Kosice took the fateful decision: all the Roma had to be deported to Lunik IX, including those who lived in the dilapidated houses in the city center and those who had fled to the forests around the city to avoid the requirements of the state-run socialist system, which was based on labor in factories and agricultural cooperatives. As a result, ethnic Slovaks packed their bags and abandoned Lunik IX, and what used to be a neighborhood like any other became a Roma ghetto, the largest in Eastern Europe.

In Lunik IX, summer is marked by gypsy melodies echoing among the crumbling condos. Some people bathe in the river that flows near the neighborhood, some are lying in the shade of the trees that dwarf the houses. One gets a sense of listless movement to and fro without any direction, punctuated by the cries of children playing among piles of rubbish. There is a heavy stench that makes the air intolerable to breathe.

Marcel emerges from one of the condos, wearing mirrored shades and sneakers. These are signs of distinction for him. M, 26 years old, has been living in England since he was 8 years old. In Birmingham, he managed to find everything that the Roma here cannot even dream about: a decent house, a job as a warehouse operator, schooling for his four children. “Nobody made me work,” Marcel says, “I just had no choice. For them, we are nothing but criminals and parasites.”

Among the various places in Lunik IX that recall Dante’s Inferno, one meets many suffering souls. Maria is only 32 years old, but her slender body and her face crisscrossed by wrinkles make her look two decades older. She has five children to support and no one to help her. She scrapes together a little cash by working as a cleaner. And when the money is all gone and the hunger becomes unbearable, the only remedy she has left is sniffing glue: that is how she relieves her suffering, and that of her children. The youngest is only 3 years old.

For most of the 8,000 people living in Lunik IX, their life begins and ends here. However, for the Roma themselves, the isolation is only a secondary problem. With time, the condition of being quarantined has become the new normal. This is learned from an early age in school, where it is common practice to separate Roma children from those of other ethnic groups. Sadly, every other option appears impossible. In the school in Sarisske Michalany, for example, they tried to set up mixed-ethnicity classes. The result was that the “non-Roma” parents moved their children to another school.

Viewed on the human level, disrupting a prejudice is a destabilizing act. This is why the integration stories that do exist often remain under the radar. This is the case, for instance, with Whirlpool, which, through a partnership with a local NGO that is training the Roma to work for wages, has recruited a certain number of them to work at its plant in Poprad. However, the company is not willing to publicly put its name to its own policies—as if it was a necessity for people to keep believing that the Roma are lazy, that they don’t work and that they are thieves.

The Whirpool case is not an exception. In recent years, the increased emigration of Slovaks to Western Europe and the country’s economic growth have created new employment opportunities for the Roma, especially for those who are younger. But this topic remains taboo.

“Apartheid” is the term that Daniel Skobla, a researcher at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Slovak Academy of Social Sciences, uses to describe Bratislava’s policy against the Roma.

“It’s a prejudice which lasts through time and becomes so ingrained that it is institutionalized,” Skobla explains. As an example, he points to the great difference between the Plenipotentiary in charge of national minorities and the Plenipotentiary for Roma communities, the former subordinated to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the latter to the Interior Ministry. A choice that speaks volumes and sends the clear message that the Roma are a public safety issue.

“In recent years,” the researcher tells us, “there have been some advances in terms of legislation, such as the recognition of ethnic minorities in the Constitution, but in practice the road ahead is still a very long one.”

Invisible at the social level, the Roma are ignored by default on the political level as well. There are no programs for them, nor do they have representatives. “No party on any part of the political spectrum is willing to take up the Roma issue, as doing so would amount to political suicide,” Skobla stresses. “In addition, there are no political parties or members of Parliament who are of Roma ethnicity—only local administrators, too few compared to the half a million Roma living in Slovakia.”

In recent years, the outbreak of sovereignist fury came with violence against Roma. The tangible signs of a campaign of hate can be seen everywhere: in the leaflets promoting the forced sterilization of the Roma, or in the train patrols organized by Marian Kotleba, leader of the neo-fascist “Our Slovakia” party. And it can also be seen in the physical walls—14 in total, according to the European Roma Rights Center—erected to mark the separation of the Roma communities from all others.

In Lunik IX, it’s enough to cross the road to see the depths to which this has led. In the adjacent neighborhood, barbed wire can be seen covering the balconies of the houses. A little further, one can see one of the walls of shame, supposedly built to protect a parking lot against “gypsies stealing.” As recently as in 2013, Kosice had been designated a European Capital of Culture.

“There’s a racism that is creeping, veiled, and which resurfaces in the disparaging comments made by ordinary people, even by the more educated,” says Slava Macáková, president of the ETP Slovensko NGO. “And there is another kind of racism, out in the open, consisting of intimidation and abuse of power.” On occasion, this latter form of racism has broken out with great ferocity, such as during the police raids on the Roma settlement in Moldova nad Bodvou, six years ago in June. The sole purpose of that raid, according to Macáková, was to teach the Roma a lesson.

On that night, 63 policemen raided the Roma camp, on the pretext of an investigation relating to some thefts. Then, the situation broke down: warrantless searches, beatings, arbitrary arrests. Interior Minister Robert Kalinak ordered an internal investigation, but none of the testimonies of the Roma were taken into account. Instead, the investigation limited itself to collecting the complaints of the “non-Roma” against the supposed “arrogance” and “inappropriate behavior” of the Roma.

The denunciations of the Slovak Ombudsman and of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have been to no avail. The crimes committed that night are still unpunished, and the institutions have not even bothered to deliver the customary excuses.

Instead, the Roma who denounced the police violence have been themselves threatened, and then charged and investigated for perjury. In the still-ongoing trial, Macáková’s NGO is offering the Roma legal assistance, but “it’s hard to get justice … Some of them have withdrawn their complaints in order to avoid further problems. There was a phrase uttered by the Minister of the Interior that sums up the attitude of the institutions toward the Roma: ‘Don’t put the police and the Roma on the same level.’ I don’t think there’s anything more to add to that.”

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