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ROMANY VILLAGERS, SMALL CHILDREN AMONG HARDEST HIT

Flood waters kill 48 in eastern Slovakia

"People were screaming "help! help!", but we couldn't help them because there was too much water," recalled František Husar. "The water was taking everything."
Husar, along with his wife and two children, was able to climb onto the roof of his house to escape the violent flash floods that ravaged eastern Slovakia on July 20, but 42 of Husar's Jarovnice village neighbours were not so fortunate. After the flood waters receded, Husar continued, "men were just walking down the street and finding corpses. Death was everywhere."
The Sabinov district of the Prešov region and its Romany (gypsy) citizens accounted for all but two of the 48 dead, and suffered the brunt of a catastrophe which officials called the worst natural disaster in the country's recent history. "I have never seen anything this before and neither have people in their 70s or 80s," said Dušan Majerčák, chairman of the District Flood Commission in Sabinov. "There has never been a flood like this one."


Agony. Of the 48 people killed in July's floods, 28 of them were children like this one from Jarovnice village in eastern Slovakia. The children were helpless when a wall of muddy water crashed through their ramshackle settlement and destroyed their houses.
Petra Štubendeková

"People were screaming "help! help!", but we couldn't help them because there was too much water," recalled František Husar. "The water was taking everything."

Husar, along with his wife and two children, was able to climb onto the roof of his house to escape the violent flash floods that ravaged eastern Slovakia on July 20, but 42 of Husar's Jarovnice village neighbours were not so fortunate. After the flood waters receded, Husar continued, "men were just walking down the street and finding corpses. Death was everywhere."

The Sabinov district of the Prešov region and its Romany (gypsy) citizens accounted for all but two of the 48 dead, and suffered the brunt of a catastrophe which officials called the worst natural disaster in the country's recent history. "I have never seen anything this before and neither have people in their 70s or 80s," said Dušan Majerčák, chairman of the District Flood Commission in Sabinov. "There has never been a flood like this one."

At last count, on August 7, 48 bodies had been recovered by soldiers searching the afflicted areas; more than 10 people remained missing, and were presumed dead. 61 people were injured, 2,434 houses flooded and over 3,000 people evacuated. Interior Minister Gustáv Krajčí estimated total damage in excess of 3.3 billion Slovak crowns ($97 million) in the Prešov and Košice regions, the two main areas affected by the flooding.

Little Pig erupts

Storms pelted the Sabinov district early in the day on Monday, July 20, swelling the Malá svinka (Little Pig) river to dangerous levels. The river finally jumped its banks late in the afternoon and muddy waters roared through a string of Sabinov-area villages for the next couple hours, according to witnesses. "The water came suddenly; we didn't expect it," recalled Štefan Hrabčák of Lažany. His home, which he shares with his mother, suffered an estimated half million Slovak crowns ($14,400) in damage.

Romanies in Jarovnice, a village of 4,000 located along the Malá svinka, suffered 42 deaths. The violent waters swept away 28 Romany homes in the village; countless others were damaged. Slovakia's Romany leaders arrived soon after the disaster, hoping to alleviate the damage. "It's an emotional and cultural tragedy," said Klára Orgovánová, director of the Foundation for Romany Children. "I've never seen something like this before."

Four of nine afflicted villages in the Sabinov district combine for more than one billion Slovak crowns ($28.8 million) in damage to property; agriculture in the district sustained damage of more than 550 million Slovak crowns ($15.9 million), according to Majerčák.

The raging waters knocked out gas and telephone lines in several villages. Approximately five kilometers of road between Renčisov and Jarovnice were destroyed. More than 30 homes were washed away, and approximately another 500 were damaged, according to Flood Commission reports.

"It was a very quick storm," Majerčík explained. "Fortunately it happened during the day because if the flood came in the night then there would have been more victims, and we'd be counting the dead in the hundreds."

Police and firemen responded immediately, according to witnesses, but could do little. "Nobody was able to help; there was too much water," remembered Michal Bilý, a Jarovnice Romany who survived the flood with his family and home intact.

After the waters subsided, troops of soldiers arrived and commenced a search and rescue mission. More than 2,000 residents from the Sabinov district were immediately evacuated and placed in emergency housing. In the first hours soldiers recovered six bodies; within a day the number of dead jumped to more than 25. As the days passed, rescuers continued to turn up muddy bodies, but with daytime temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius, found many of the victims difficult to identify.

Residents recalled the flood's aftermath with horror. Roman Husár, a Romany resident of Jarovnice, described scattered corpses in his village. "Some were missing body parts," he said. Hrabčák in Lažany reported that two dead Romanies, who had drifted more than two kilometers from Jarovnice, were recovered near his home.

Sent to camps


Back to basics. Over 1,000 Romany residents of Prešov region are being housed in camps until permanent accomodation can be found.
Veronika Janušková

Within a week of the flood, more than 600 women and children-mostly Romanies-were removed from emergency housing and dispersed to a dozen separate "camps" throughout the Prešov and Košiče regions. The women and children will remain in the camps for two or three months, according to Oľga Maťašovská, director of the Prešov region's department of Social Affairs.

Maťašovská said women and children, left destitute by the floods, arrived at the camps with nothing but their "naked lives." "They were without roofs over their heads," she said. "They lost everything."

While women and children lodge at camps, unemployed men from damaged villages labor in the clean-up effort. Part of a work-for-welfare plan, each man earns an average of 5,400 Slovak crowns ($155) per month for his labor. Most of the men participating in the program are Romanies, many from devastated Jarovnice.

Flood Commissioner Majer-čák said the program was not targeted specifically at Romanies, but agreed that racial perceptions had shaped state policy. "When a Romany family has four children and they don't work, they're getting at least 10,000 Slovak crowns per month," he said. "The state is giving them an unreal amount of money, and because of this we want them to work. [The government] offers them work where they can help and also earn money, not just receive social help from the state."

But Romany activists say the reconstruction program must address the question of housing as well as welfare money. "It is important for the future to try to find new homes for the people who lost homes," said Zuza Kumanová, board member of the Foundation for Romany Children. "It's going to be hard because these are people who are not wealthy. They don't have money and they need help."


Additional reporting by Michaela Lacušková, Special to The Spectator

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