ŽEHRA Roma residents are helping build their own flats.
Around 1,100 Roma from the Žehra village's total 1,500 inhabitants turned out to welcome the visitors, some armed with spades and wheelbarrows as they worked to finish 41 state-financed flats by the fall.
The housing project, funded mainly by the Slovak government, was presented as proof the country was working to improve the housing situation for Slovakia's estimated 400,000 Roma, the majority of whom live in ghettos in the east of the country.
Domestic conditions for the Roma have been criticised by the EU since members of the minority began fleeing for EU nations in 1997 to claim asylum. The 'Roma issue' remains high on the list of EU concerns regarding Slovakia's Union entry bid.
However, Verheugen during his visit to Žehra praised Slovakia for having a strategy to improve the lives of its Roma community, and stressed that both the EU and the Roma themselves should take more responsibility to improve living conditions.
"It [Roma poverty] is not just a problem in candidate countries, but also of EU member states where Roma communities live as well," he said.
"The Roma too must be more active in defending their own interests, they must be more united and must show the will to make use of the programmes that have been and are being prepared for them."
Around 350 Roma will move into the 55 square metre flats from the shacks where they now live, said Žehra mayor Jozef Mižigár. On average, each flat, which consists of a living room, a kitchen and a bedroom, will house almost nine people.
In order to save 20 per cent of the Sk17 million ($370,000) the state donated to the project, the families were obliged to help build their flats, explained Mižigár.
"We're very happy that finally something good for us is being done, and we're glad to help with our hands to build these flats. It's like a new life opening for us," said Cyril Dunka, 32, who will move to his new flat with his three children, wife and perhaps two other members of his family.
Dunka said he enjoyed working on his new housing and that because he "grew up in a very poor family of nine children, I value this flat very much."
The Dzurinda cabinet started work on an aid strategy to help the Roma community in 1999, and while Žehra is not the only positive result of the plan, much work remains to be done to help the estimated 130,000 to 160,000 Roma who live in primitive settlements.
According to a cabinet report on housing for the most deprived Roma communities, there are about 620 Roma settlements in Slovakia, 418 of which are in the east.
In these settlements, the report said, Roma families live in "simple dwellings built primarily from clay, wood and tin sheeting".
The Roma, who are generally less educated than the rest of the Slovak population, are also burdened with high unemployment and what they claim is social and workplace discrimination.
To improve basic living conditions for Slovakia's Roma, the cabinet released funds for the construction of 103 housing units for Roma in 2000 and 2001, while another 496 housing units are in the making.
The Žehra mayor, who himself is a Roma, said he was not sitting in his office "waiting for a miracle to happen" from the cabinet scheme, and that he planned to build another 24 attic flats in the village's tiny housing estate, although funds for the project were still lacking.
"Things really can be done, but a lot depends on the mayor," Mižigár said of himself. "Either he works hard to organise the money and all the necessary paperwork, or he sits in his council office and drinks coffee."