A group of Roma-rights activists from the Czech Republic, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, and one from Slovakia, demolished part of the wall separating the infamous Lunik IX housing estate in Slovakia’s second biggest city, Košice, from nearby neighbourhoods. “Stop segregation” was written next to the hole; however, the gap they created was promptly filled by local authorities the next day.
“[The wall] was illegally constructed without a building permit and we did [a] good [thing] for the local community by destroying it,” one of the activists from Switzerland told the Sme daily on September 16.
This particular wall cost €4,700 and was constructed in 2013 by the local authorities of the Západ borough of Košice to divide the Lunik IX neighbourhood from the Lunik VIII neighbourhood. It was built in response to complaints by locals, who claimed they could not use a parking lot, which is now fenced off by the wall, because their cars were being damaged or stolen when parked there.
In the aftermath, which saw Roma rights organisations and the European Commission protesting the wall, the Košice City Council stressed that it never approved the wall’s construction and thus considers it to have been built illegally.
Košice-Západ Mayor Rudolf Bauer denied that the wall was constructed illegally, saying that it is a fence and therefore no construction permit was needed, and that his office reported the plans to build the wall in accordance with the law, the SITA newswire reported.
The then European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, Androulla Vassiliou, sent a letter to Košice’s mayor, Richard Raši, in August 2013, criticising city officials and warning that the wall is at odds with the city’s European Capital of Culture 2013 title.
The chair of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, Hannes Swoboda, subsequently visited Košice in October 2013 to see the wall in person, and expressed a different view.
“The turmoil around this construction was absolutely unnecessary,” Swoboda said upon his visit, as quoted by Sme. “I see it as a local activity for the protection of this part of the neighbourhood.”
The wall attracted media attention when a big inscription in Slovak, reading “Prepáčte”, appeared on it one night shortly after it was constructed, but the inscription was promptly removed.
There are 14 such walls around Slovakia, mostly in the regions of Košice and Prešov, which are also home to the most poverty-stricken and segregated Roma settlements in the country. While Roma-rights advocates condemn the construction of these walls separating the Roma settlements from the majority population, the authority to build them falls under the jurisdiction of local self-governing bodies, which usually state some official reason for doing so.
A massive wall that has become emblematic of this problem stands in the village of Ostrovany in Prešov Region. It was built by the local government in 2009 to protect houses and gardens bordering a Roma settlement. The construction of the 150-metre-long L-shaped wall cost the village €13,000. It was intended to become part of a complex which was also to include a kindergarten, a primary school and a community centre. Another 200-metre long wall stands in the village of Veľká Ida.
Curiously, in the town of Michalovce, residents of the Východ neighbourhood that directly adjoins the Roma settlement of Angy Mlyn, raised €3,000 themselves to build a concrete barrier that forces Roma from the settlement to take a longer route to the town centre instead of a shortcut through the neighbourhood.
A wall-free Slovakia?
The activists who recently brought down part of the Košice wall have refused to reveal their identities, claiming they are a “mere group of enthusiasts who dream about a world where Roma and non-Roma can live in peace”, Sme reported. They say that they left the country right after they damaged the wall.
Regional police spokeswoman Jana Mesárová said that the “perpetrators” caused about €150 worth of damage to the wall. The police are now treating the matter as an offence.
Around the same time, representatives of the ERGO network, a Roma rights advocacy group, were visiting Košice as part of their Wall Free Europe campaign, which aims to remove the walls and bring attention to the increasing anti-Roma and racist sentiments in Europe.
The ERGO network’s policy coordinator, Viviana Galli, denied any connection with the damage to the wall, in an interview with The Slovak Spectator.
“We were there [in Košice] to get to know the situation better and talk with the people who are separated by the wall,” Galli told The Slovak Spectator, adding that her organisation believes in the empowerment of the Roma community and in raising awareness among the Roma about their rights.
Local governments in Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Italy, France and other European countries also build walls to segregate the Roma, often motivated by what they see as ensuring child safety, according to ERGO. Their campaign, which started this year, is now approaching its second phase, which should include a major event in Brussels as well as several local activities addressing the issue of both physical and psychological walls, with at least one of those activities to take place in Slovakia, Galli said.
“Very often those walls are built to avoid addressing situations that would require much more effort and long-term commitment and are clear signs of racism and anti-Gypsyism,” Galli told The Slovak Spectator. “Very often Roma and non-Roma have very few occasion to interact and know each other, and the relations are built on prejudices and stereotypes. We believe that creating joint spaces will start opening people’s minds and this is one of the aims of our Wall Free Europe campaign. Walls are not only physical, but are too often in people’s minds.”