The New Roma Ghettos: Inside Slovakia’s Ongoing Segregation Nightmare
Children playing on a broken wall in the Vel’ka Ida Roma settlement, in eastern Slovakia. The massive US Steel factory is visible in the background. Photos by Matt Lutton.
Throughout history, sometimes events seem perfectly aligned to spark racial violence. On March 10 of last year, the residents of the small village of Krásnohorské Podhradie, in the mountains of eastern Slovakia, looked up to the hilltop at the center of town to see their beloved 14th-century Krásna Hôrka Castle being engulfed in flames. By the time firefighters made it up the hill, the roof was gone and three bells had melted down into the tower.
The next day, a police spokesman announced that the fire had been caused by two Roma boys, aged 11 and 12, who lived in a ghetto on the edge of the village. They had allegedly been trying to light a cigarette at the bottom of the hill when an unusually strong gust of wind carried a piece of smoldering ash up the mountain, where it ignited wood strewn on the castle grounds. Whether or not they were responsible, the accused and their families were terrified—perhaps because, in the last two years, according to data from the European Roma Rights Center, there have been dozens of violent attacks on Roma in Slovakia—the ethnic group better known as Gypsies. Fearing reprisal, the boys were quickly spirited out of town to stay with relatives, while Roma men prepared throughout the night to defend their community. Ultimately, the boys weren’t charged with any crime because they’re minors, but the damage was done: the image of Gypsy kids setting fire to a hallmark of Slovak national heritage seemed to only reinforce the prejudices many white ethnic Slovaks have toward their country’s poorest citizens. With the burning of Krásna Hôrka Castle, the far right in Slovakia had their equivalent of 1933’s Reichstag fire—the symbolic event needed to justify a crackdown.
In mid-March, I flew to Slovakia and drove out to Krásnohorské Podhradie for a rally to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the burning of Krásna Hôrka. Marian Kotleba, a former teacher and leader of the far right People’s Party-Our Slovakia—named in honor of the clerical-fascist regime that ruled the Czechoslovak Republic between World War I and II—had pegged his dim electoral prospects on Krásna Hôrka and his stand against “Gypsy criminality.”
On arrival, I entered a lot beside the municipal offices. A crowd of about 150 people—skinheads, tough-looking townspeople, and about 12 of Marian’s green-clad officer corps—stood around listening to Marian’s speech. My translator suggested parking away from the crowd so that there would be less of a chance of anyone noticing the Hungarian plates on our rental car. “If there’s one thing the neo-Nazis like less than Roma, it’s Hungarians,” he said, only half joking, referring to Slovak resentment of their former imperial neighbor.
Why Are So Many Gypsies Killing Themselves?
Gypsies and travelers have long been a marginalized group. I suppose that’s one of the pitfalls of intentionally side-lining yourself from mainstream society for hundreds of years. But recent changes to legislation surrounding traveler communities (meaning they no longer have government-approved places to settle) has made them even more segregated. A report showed that travelers and gypsies are in significantly poorer health than other UK-resident, English-speaking ethnic minorities. They’re also more likely to suffer from miscarriages, still births, the death of young babies and older children because their access to healthcare—as a group with no fixed address—is limited. Which is obviously all extremely depressing.
Another related bum-out is the fact that, within the last five years, the rates of drug abuse in both communities have risen exponentially, and suicide rates have grown to be six times higher than those of the general UK population. Travelers and gypsies are already both pretty closed communities, and I imagine they’re not going to become any less reluctant to talk when it comes to their family members killing themselves, so there’s not a huge amount of information out there as to why this has suddenly started happening. To get a bit of insight, I called Shauna Leven from the charity René Cassin.
Ex-residents of Dale Farm.
VICE: Hi Shauna. Can you unwrap this statistic that suicide rates in the traveler and gypsy communities are six times higher than the general UK population?
Shauna Leven: First, I should just say that these statistics apply to Romani gypsies and Scottish, Welsh, and Irish travelers, not so much the Roma people who’ve started coming here more recently. However, they too experience the same kind of discrimination in Europe. Unfortunately, it’s hard to delve into specifics, because the NHS doesn’t collect statistics on health issues for this ethnic groups as it does for other ethnic groups.
Why aren’t they collecting statistics?
It’s just not part of the NHS framework. Gypsies and travelers are recognized as an ethnic minority, but the discrepancy between, say, the life expectancy of travelers and the general population is mostly ignored. If you were seeing the same kind of thing in the Muslim community, for example, it’s much more likely there’d be statistics taken. Our first recommendation towards solving the problem is to go out and do more research about the topic, because that’s the first issue here.
The first issue is what’s causing it?
Yes—well, higher suicide rates are really the result of a convergence of factors. Racism against gypsies and travelers is often referred to as the last acceptable type of racism here in the UK. Educated, socially conscious people often don’t hesitate before using the words “gyp” or “pikey” or other things like that, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, really. It shows the level of social exclusion that travelers automatically fall under for being travelers.