April 8th marked the Twentieth International Roma Day since the Gypsies of Eastern Europe broke free of the communist’s amalgamated "national minority" status and began openly acknowledging their heritage. However, according to the US State Department 2007 Country Report on Human Rights, Romania, home to Europe’s largest Roma population, is the setting for some of the most pervasive societal violence and discrimination against Roma. "This day offers the press the chance to reverse the usual negative stereotypes," says Roma journalist Rudolf Moca during the ceremonies at the Apalina Public School in the Eastern Transylvania town of Reghin.
The day long celebration at Apalina begins in the school courtyard with speeches, the singing of the Roma National anthem Djelem Djelem, followed by a barefoot Roma dance performance, concluding with a skit portraying a confrontation between young Romani men being settled with a dance competition: the fastest dancer possessing the more complicated moves and greatest stamina exits the showdown with his head up and a woman under his arm.
Roma day has a special significance for the 4,000 Gypsies living along the two parallel roads at Apalina that bears the reputation as a den of thieves. "Whatever goes missing in town, I can guarantee you can find it at Apalina," comments Maria, a downtown barmaid.
"When I go on my jobs, my boss reminds me not to tell them that I am from Apalina, he says to say I’m from somewhere else, or else they wont have any work for me," says Dani Racz, who like many at the Roma of Apalina works the traditional trade of laying paving stones, a skill he learned from his father who learned from his father before him.
In September of 2006 the simmering discontent coming from both sides of the debate exploded during a police raid into the community that left 22 people shot, some of them numerous times like Denis Biga who claims to have been fired upon while shielding his infant nephew and pregnant daughter; seventeen rubber bullets were surgically extracted from his backside including another seven that could not be removed.
"They beat the children! Women washing clothes in the street – shot! Men working on their home – shot! [To them] all Gypsies are guilty they do to the Gypsies like the Nazis," Mr. Biga cries out while lifting up the back of his shirt bearing the riddled scars; his daughter and wife in the background look on with sullen faces.
Though the police claim they used only rubber bullets, the Roma of Apalina say it wasn’t a rubber bullet that tore through the body of 56 year old Susana Ciocan. "I believe there was at least one real bullet used because a rubber bullet couldn’t have done such damage", says Marian Mandache of the Romani Criss Human Right Organization, which is handling the case against the police. That case has been thrown out of the Romanian courts is now being prepared for the European Court of Human Rights.
The police aggression that was first justified by the authorities as an act of self-defense, including one prominent politician who reported to the press that the police "defended themselves in order to avoid being seriously injured or even lynched" would later soften to an acknowledgment of managing "the event inadequately, which led to the taking measures which violated the current legal provisions."
"In the nine years that I have been monitoring human rights violations very little has changed," says Robert Vaszi inside the offices of the human rights organization Sanse Egale, based in the Transylvanian county Salaj. In 2007, Romani Criss identified 28 cases of school segregation. According to Mr. Vaszi this same segregation directed at the Roma children can be found throughout society in housing and health care. "This year, 2009, my pregnant sister went to the hospital and the nurse said to her, ‘you go in the Gypsy waiting room.’" According to Open Society Research, 60% of Roma live segregated from the majority. Mr. Vaszi says the authorities recently relocated twelve Roma families from Zalau to an industrial area five miles outside the city in what had been a former animal farm. "There is no transportation or school in the area. These children used to go to school, but they no longer do Their homes are walled in with a police checkpoint at the entrance. It’s like Auschwitz The police monitor who is going in and out, of course we have access because of our organization but they follow us in and watch over us . The Gypsies are very afraid of the police."
The Roma Diaspora began roughly 1000 years ago following a series of Afghan raids into India. They would reach the European frontiers of Byzantium within a short period of time. Upheavals caused by Turkic invasions would drive them deeper into Europe. The first mention of Roma in Romanian territories appears in the later 14th century as a slave transaction. Slavery would remain their position in the Romania territories until emancipation coming in the mid 19th century; servitude would have a profound psychological effect on the Roma.
According to Open Society Institute research, Roma are five times more likely to live below the poverty line, culminating in the popular adage "poor as a gypsy." More than half of the Roma of Romania live segregated from the majority population in communities with substandard housing, and without basic governmental services such as schools, adequate healthcare, electricity, running water and sewage systems.
While some blame the marginalization of the Roma on the segregation policies of local authorities, others point the finger at the Roma’s own laissez-faire lifestyle. "The problem with the Gypsies is that they are not aware of their own problems," says Marcela Iepuri from the Social Assistance Department at Reghin. "For example, many don’t have identification cards. They don’t see a need. They prefer to work without papers."
"The notion of Roma preferring to be unidentified is a myth," contents Marian Mandache of Romani Criss. "Sure, from a cultural point of view the Roma are a bit different to not only Romanians but all Europeans. We do have a bit more oriental habits in our culture than the rest, but the lack of ID cards stems form being denied certain rights."
According to OSI Roma Inclusion Barometer, 16% of those without ID papers lack them because of the local authorities’ unwillingness to offer resident papers to its Roma. These two documents are closely linked, says Marian Mandache. Until two years ago individuals could not obtain ID cards without residence papers. "The law has changed but unfortunately in practice not all local governments apply to this legislation," Mandache explains.
This lack of ID cards excludes individuals from participating in elections, receiving social benefits, accessing health care insurance, securing property documents, and participating in the labor market and education.
"To go through life with so little education is part of their traditions. The cycle of illiteracy in the community is very hard to break," says Apalina school principle Violeta Atanasoaie. OSI research sets Roma illiteracy at 23% while 95% fail to complete High school. "I have been teaching here for nineteen years and am now noticing that many of the children of my former students that went only as far as fifth grade are completing tenth grade." Ms. Atanasoaie adds that while all her non-Roma students continue their studies past the 10th grade, not a single Roma has yet pursued a higher education.
"Apathy is not the only cause," says the local Greek-Catholic priest Fr. Gheorghe Lupea, "it’s also the school system. The parents send their children for the child support payment while teachers attend for a salary. The children get caught in the middle"
Social workers in the field contend that the education of Gypsy children faces a three front battle between parent apathy, poverty and disinterested educators. These factors are present in the experiences of Valentina, a thirteen-year-old Roma girl from Satu Mare in northern Romania:
Everyday my parents work from morning till night. At home we don’t have water, gas or electricity. Many times it is very cold. I do my homework only when I can. In the evening when Mommy and Daddy come home we hug. We are very tired and say ‘goodnight’. If I can’t do my studies I don’t go to school because I am too ashamed Two years ago the school nurse came to our classroom and she found lice in my hair. She began to yell at me and it made me feel so bad. Everyone began to laugh at me and I was put to sit alone at my desk because no one wanted to stay near me or speak with me. My teacher said that I couldn’t come to school anymore if I didn’t clean myself because I threaten to contaminate others. I felt very bad and began to cry and I promised myself that I will never go to school again. Mommy and Daddy are not able to help me because they don’t have time for me.
"A great number of Gypsy problems stems from misconceptions of the majority, and which is then spread by the media that acts as if it’s their solemn duty to acknowledge the ethnicity of the Gypsy offender, and which gives the impression that all Gypsies are born criminals," says Cristian Coman whose organization Impreuna Roma works towards improving Roma standings in society.
"In my opinion, several reasons stand for this situation. Stereotypes and prejudice towards Roma people are deeply rooted within the majority," says Nicoleta Fotiade, program manager at Monitoring the Press Agency in Romania, whose agency found that even after new protective guidelines had been established, the press continued producing a high number of negative articles on the Roma:
The word with which Roma are identified – ‘Gypsy’ – has a profoundly pejorative connotation as it is associated with antisocial acts – ‘steal like a Gypsy,’ ‘dirty like a Gypsy,’ ‘deceitful like a Gypsy,’ and so on. Most journalists’ prejudice toward Roma is similar to the majorities’. I remember this meeting with a journalist from a local newspaper in Zalau. We had happened to monitor the newspaper where she wrote some editorials that were simply hate speeches towards Roma. I tried to explain to her the harm that she was doing To my amazement and totally against my efforts, she said most calmly and plainly that she did not think that she was doing anything wrong toward the Roma. I remember her saying, ‘but how come I am doing something wrong? Everybody thinks that way.’
Rudolph Moca, a Roma-Indian TV journalist and well known actor, contends that after twenty Roma Day celebrations life for the Roma has improved. "It’s better for those who want a future," he says.
"When it comes to Gypsies there are at least two truths, the point of view of the majority and the view of Roma themselves – truth is often found somewhere in the middle," says Cristiana Coman, who spent his Roma Day calming a tense situation in the village of Racos, where the non-Roma villagers were threatening to burn down the Gypsy homes.
Chuck Todaro is a freelance journalist specializing in Roma issues. He has spent four years in the Balkans writing about the Roma. He is presently working on a book about the various tribes of the Roma people. Email: CKBTonroad@yahoo.com
Romani Criss Human Rights Organization: www.RomaniCriss.org
Sanse Egale: firstname.lastname@example.org
Impreuna Roma: http://www.kidlandroma.go.ro