ONE WOULD have thought that people who once lived behind the Iron Curtain would be sensitive to the different kinds of walls dividing countries, regions, towns or communities. Yet the walls that the non-Roma population erected over the past two decades to separate themselves from Roma communities tells a different story: Slovakia has not learned its lesson about walls and dividing lines.
Most recently Košice, Slovakia’s second largest city, which also became the European Capital of Culture for 2013, has made it to the map of communities with walls separating Roma settlements from the majority population. The wall was erected near Lunik IX, a densely-populated housing estate inhabited mostly by Roma and where, for example, last year city authorities shut off the water supply for some 400 flats. Authorities blamed extensive damage to water pipes and what they called “suspicious leaks of water” from individual apartments for their decision. Over time Lunik has become a symbol of poverty as well as a regular stop for foreign journalists who are guaranteed to come back with shocking images of a ghetto and a misrepresentation of richly structured Roma communities. According to the last census, Lunik IX officially has 6,032 inhabitants, but the number is likely even higher.
A wall, which will purportedly prevent the passage of Roma from Lunik IX to Lunik VIII, is the last thing that either of the Luniks needs. However, a local deputy for Smer more than readily gave the news website Sme.sk reasons why the wall is needed, including the argument that people were afraid of parking their cars in the area because of repeated damage as well as theft. So, local deputies approved €4,700 to build a kind of concrete fence – public money they consider well-spent, according to Sme.sk.
The irony of the situation is that Košice city hall, as reported by the Pravda daily on July 11, said that the construction has not been approved, making it illegal. The city’s spokesperson suggested that though the city received the construction request, no decision has been made. And yet the wall is already standing. Meanwhile, the relevant suburb office claims that the city has approved the construction. In short, not only is the wall itself wrong, but it was built at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons. It merely temporarily eases symptoms, while in no way addressing the core issues of the problems. These problems are so complex that many state officials grow tired from merely trying to list all its aspects.
Michalovce, Ostrovany, Šarišské Michaľany try to justify their walls with a varied set of arguments, most of which pretend to be protecting the “decent people” from their “nonadjustable neighbours”.
For example, residents of the Východ neighbourhood that directly adjoins the Roma settlement of Angy Mlyn in the eastern Slovak town of Michalovce, raised €3,000 themselves to build the concrete barrier that forces Roma from the settlement to take a longer route to the town centre instead of a short cut through the neighbourhood. Back in 2010, the Sme daily quoted one of the Roma residents as saying that it seemed like the Berlin Wall to him.
Then there is a 150-metre wall in Ostrovany, which the local government built back in 2009 to protect the houses and gardens neighbouring the Roma settlement. Another concrete wall grew to keep the Roma away from certain dwellings in the city of Prešov. That eight-metre wall prevents residents of a Roma settlement from taking a short cut across a green area into the city. Here too, the wall was built in response to various complaints, including thefts. The Roma, who were moved from dilapidated homes in the city centre to new residential buildings in the area, where at that time, according to the SITA newswire, various services for the buildings had not been completed, said that the wall violated their rights.
Critics of Slovakia’s peculiar wall architecture are sometimes bombarded by comments such as “so why don’t you go and try to live there” or “move in for a week and you will see”, while completely missing the point: walls will not make things better; they only deepen the schism which equally affects all who live in the country. And perhaps politicians who with their rhetoric encourage people to think that walls and iron-hand policies can solve the complex Roma problems are separated by a huge mental wall from the rest of us.