WALLS that Slovaks are constructing in an apparent attempt to isolate themselves from Roma citizens living in nearby settlements are no longer a rarity in the country. The town of Michalovce in eastern Slovakia has become the latest entry on the map of communities with walls which separate Roma settlements from the majority population.
Michalovce’s wall recalls a similar barrier that was erected in the village of Šarišské Michaľany, also in an eastern region of Slovakia, last year.
The Michalovce wall is somewhat different, however, in that the residents of the Východ neighbourhood in Michalovce raised the funds themselves to construct the wall. The Sme daily reported that nearly 60 families from the neighbourhood, which directly adjoins the Roma settlement of Angy Mlyn, collected €3,000 and built the concrete barrier that forces Roma from the settlement to take a longer route to the town centre rather than the shortcut through Východ that they were accustomed to using.
The new wall is 25 metres long and is a continuation of a wall that the municipality built in December 2009. That wall has been officially called an anti-noise barrier and the municipality has also stated that the wall could be used for sports such as basketball and squash, Sme wrote earlier this year.
But the Roma living in Angy Mlyn say they view the wall as nothing other than a barrier built by the residents of the Východ neighbourhood specifically directed against them.
“It seems like the Berlin Wall for us,” said Robert Ridaj, one of the residents of the Roma settlement, adding that the difference is that he does not expect this new wall to be taken down.
“We almost have no way to walk,” said Irena Čičáková, a 46-year-old inhabitant of the Roma settlement, as quoted by Sme. “They’ve fenced everything. The [previous] path between the blocks of flats is shorter to go to the shops and also to the doctor.”
Sme quoted residents of the Východ neighbourhood as saying that the wall is not directed against Roma but rather against people who were throwing trash around and urinating under their balconies.
“They would walk this way and pee under our balconies,” a man living in the flats in Východ told Sme. “The stink was entering through our windows. We couldn’t even open a window. Many of them are on drugs.”
Prime Minister Iveta Radičová has stated that the wall is a means of protection for the residents but expressed her opinion that a wall will never solve anything.
Laco Oravec from the Milan Šimečka Foundation said that one of the few short-term steps that the government could take now towards resolving the situation is to examine whether the construction of the wall was in accordance with applicable legislation. But Oravec added that this does not solve the real problem, which he said is the frustration which stems from socially-excluded Roma communities living in settlements separated from Slovak towns and villages.
“The fact that such walls are being constructed is an expression of desperation and a reaction to a long-term escalation of tension,” Oravec told The Slovak Spectator, adding that it would be naive to expect that any short-term solution developed by the government at this moment would solve long-term problems. A short-term solution, such as banning walls like the ones in Michalovce and Šarišské Michaľany, would solve nothing, according to Oravec, adding that it would only reveal ignorance of the profound frustration that already exists among people living close to the settlements.
Slovakia’s state ombudsman, Pavel Kandráč, has said his office will examine the validity of the Michalovce wall’s construction. Media have reported that he has asked the local government to supply a written statement and all relevant documentation about the construction of the wall across from Angy Mlyn.
Kandráč will also look into complaints made by residents of the Roma settlement claiming that the wall has restricted their access to public facilities based on their ethnic origin, the SITA newswire reported.
The land on which the wall was built was rented to the local home owners for the purpose of landscaping and aesthetic fencing, according to a statement made by Iveta Palečková, the spokeswoman of the Michalovce municipal government, to SITA.
Oravec said building such walls is an inhumane solution but that he understands the reasons why the people in Michalovce wanted this wall. He said that the only workable solution would be to abolish segregated Roma settlements.
“Settlements where socially-excluded communities live should not exist at all,” Oravec told The Slovak Spectator. “As long as such settlements exist, there will be tension in the confines of the settlements and in the places where the majority live.”
Oravec pointed out that every newly-erected wall is a warning sign that ghettos do exist in Slovakia.
“There is no good solution for ghettos,” Oravec said. “First we need to integrate Roma, and only then can all the good solutions take effect.”
Oravec said it is not easy for NGOs in Slovakia to take a clear stance or to initiate specific legal action since the walls that have been built in Slovakia, such as the ones in Michalovce and Šarišské Michaľany, do not represent a bona fide barrier – Roma are not actually prevented from accessing the town centre, they just are forced to take a longer route. But Oravec sees the real problem at a more symbolic level.
“What disturbs me is the threat that we will get used to the idea of walls – we will stop considering them as serious, bad or odd – we will accept the fact that there are walls with ghettos behind them, as it used to be during World War II.”
6. Sep 2010 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani