Waters leave racist residue in Jarovnice

Twenty-eight fewer homes now stand on the muddy plot of land known to locals as "Gypsy Town." Jarovnice's Romany borough also has 42 fewer inhabitants, victims of last month's flash floods in eastern Slovakia. But the damage and the deaths, which included 28 Romany children, have divided the village's Slovak and Romany communities and thrust race relations back into the spotlight.
"Some people in Jarovnice said the flood should have come at night instead of in the afternoon: it would have taken all the gypsies away," said Maria Kropuchová, a 25-year resident of Jarovnice. "But you can't talk like that: what if tomorrow we are in the same position?"

Twenty-eight fewer homes now stand on the muddy plot of land known to locals as "Gypsy Town." Jarovnice's Romany borough also has 42 fewer inhabitants, victims of last month's flash floods in eastern Slovakia. But the damage and the deaths, which included 28 Romany children, have divided the village's Slovak and Romany communities and thrust race relations back into the spotlight.

"Some people in Jarovnice said the flood should have come at night instead of in the afternoon: it would have taken all the gypsies away," said Maria Kropuchová, a 25-year resident of Jarovnice. "But you can't talk like that: what if tomorrow we are in the same position?"

"The flood also washed up social problems," conceded Oľga Maťašovská, director of the Prešov region's department of Social Affairs. "Not only did [Romanies] lose their houses, roofs over their heads, but past problems were also exposed."

In Jarovnice, a town of 4,000, Romanies account for three-fourths of the population, and many of them reside there illegally. Locals only expect the percentage to increase. "Whites are leaving because of the great number of Romanies," said Jarovnice Mayor Marián Kyjovský.

Kropuchová said that four white families on her street have fled Jarovnice in the past three years, citing the Romany majority as a primary reason. "Everybody's leaving this village because of the Romanies," she said.

Gypsy Town

Most of the people who died perished when raging waters crushed their makeshift dwellings. Dušan Majerčák, chairman of the regional Flood Commission, likened the now-flattened encampment to third-world shanty towns. "It was like Rio de Janero," he said. "The homes were made of simple wooden boards, just pasted on to other houses."

Shacks had been erected within just few meters of the Mala svinka river's banks, laying the groundwork for what proved a lethal situation. Cultural traditions, according to Majerčák, accounted for the homes' deadly locations. "[Romanies] usually stay close to water for self-cleaning purposes," he said.

But one of Gypsy Town's survivors pointed to another, more direct, reason: economics. "We didn't have another place to live, so we built there," the young man explained.

According to Mayor Kyjovský, the town's whites had recently come to something of a truce with the Romany majority. The village had begun a series of public works, including an improved water-cleaning system and additional gas lines, in an attempt to attract more white inhabitants. "We were living fairly well," he said.

But since the flood, said Kyjovský, Jarovnice's atmosphere is "boiling and panicked." Regional officials squabble with Romany residents, Jarovnice's whites argue with the darker-skinned residents, and Gypsy Town's different clans argue among themselves.

A particularly contentious point has been the post-flood cleanup of Jarovnice. With regional officials overseeing the project, Romany residents work "very little," according to Majerčák. But Gypsy Town residents claim the officials continue to discriminate against them. "The soldiers help the white people," said Marián Giňa. "Here the soldiers only look for dead people."

Romany leaders are trying to soothe relations in the town while seeking solutions for their people. Zuza Kumanová, board member of the Foundation for Romany Children, admitted the flood has created a "critical situation" in Jarovnice, but added, "it's important to help [Romanies] help themselves."

With nearly all of Jarovnice's Romanies lacking jobs and schooling, Kyjovský lamented his village's uncertain future. "With their birth rate going up so fast, we will soon be nothing but a Gypsy Town," he said.

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