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Interview with the Elder of the Roma Settlement in Mukachevo

Elder of the Roma Settlement in Mukachevo

With this article, Mukachevo Human Rights Center begins the cycle of the interviews with Roma elders in the Transcarpathian region. Before, there have been some attempts to communicate with a certain Baron and highlight the problems of the Roma community living. But we will do a comparative analysis of the Roma living in various settlements in our area. We do this with the sole aim to reduce the social distance between the city residents and residents of the camp, in fact, among people living in one area of one city. We also want to show you the life of Roma in their view, because to understand the other person one needs to put oneself in their shoes.

We start our interview section with Oleksandr Balog – the elder of the Roma settlement in Mukachevo.

Our city has one of the largest Roma settlements in Ukraine. Due to the age-old tolerance of the city, relations of Mukachevo Roma with the Mukachevo residents are pretty neutral. There were, of course, different situations in relationships; Roma once even had to hide behind the barricades during the “showdown” with the criminal organizations that once “put” eyes on the camp.

So, more about their lives and his own one will speak the elder of the Roma settlement in Mukachevo – Oleksandr Balog.

– Mr. Oleksandr, what did you do before you began to be the elder of the settlement?
– I am native citizen of Mukachevo, born here in 1950, graduated from high school. At 16 I went to work at the Kirov Machine factory as student of locksmith. I played for the factory in a football team. Three years later I had a locksmith’s third category, and then I started to serve in the army. After cadets school in Vinnytsia City, I was in the aircraft in the Buryat Republic. After returning home, I had a long career in different enterprises until the election of the elders in Mukachevo settlement in 2000. I am married and we are living together about 40 years, raising three children and have 10 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren.

– How did you become an elder?
– In 2000, the Roma community has asked me to be the elder of our settlement. Knowing that it is very difficult, though honorable burden, I asked a month for reflection. Roma are very complex and freedom-loving people, who are not so easy to rule. We always must find an approach and understanding, and most importantly – have authority to respect you, only then Roma will listen to you. So after a month of reflection, I decided to be an elder, and for ten years I have solved all the problems of the camp.

Roma elder

Then, little problems with my health began, and in 2010 I had to go to Kyiv for heart surgery. During this time, the camp made “revolution” and appointed another Baron (informal name for elder). Gaspar Gorvat, who led the camp, became a hostage of the situation. He was very devout and good man, but the Baron should fight for the rights of Roma. Three years later, when the Roma realized that it was not what they expected they began to complain on elder. The Chairman of the Elders came to me and asked me again to be an elder. On the one hand, I should not be nervous after the surgery, but on the other hand, I could not put up with the mess that has been going in the settlement. Because of the new election I even quarreled with my wife, and she was not talking to me a month (laughs).

Anyway I was nervous in the early elections. We have never attracted the city government to our self-governance. Authorities did not touch us; we did not touch them and somehow lived in the same city, but in parallel worlds. Now, however, we decided to invite a person to observe the elections and representatives of local authorities and the police, with the aim to have legitimate elections. But the City Council by the request of a deputy from Roma settlement applied to the administrative court to ban the peaceful assembly (elections). We won the court and won the right to assembly, so the Roma for the first received official permission for open and democratic elections. The City Council subsequently regretted that got involved in the dirty political game, made by the Roma deputy, as the Court confirmed once again that the human rights are above any backroom games.

– It is obvious that you won the election. Oleksandr, please tell us, when there are violations in the camp, do you side with the law, or, traditionally, with Roma?
– Of course, as Roma elected elder, I must always be on their side and defend their rights. I can say that 90% of disputes of Roma during the work of public authorities, I can solve in their favor. This does not mean that we condone offenders. In my memory, there are three unpleasant incidents where Roma really committed serious crimes, and I personally ensured their arrest, the delivery to the police and protection.

Roma are afraid of beatings by the police. Therefore, even committing a crime, they are hiding from the police. I am, in such situations, the guarantor of their security. In the first case the murder occurred in a settlement. All Roma were caught right and left and led to the police station. I was in the hospital at that time. But once I heard about that situation, I went to the camp, and found guilty person and drove the one to the police station. Then, all other Roma were released and allowed to be present during questioning to avoid the beating of murder. The next case was rape. From two boys suffered a young girl. The boys hid in the street Mendeleeva and «Omon» (special police unit) were ready to go as storm to the camp. At that time, I was not Baron. But police still appealed to me. I also met with the mother of one of the boys, talked and reassured her that nobody will kill the boys. Only then, they went from the hiding place and I in my car took them to the police station. And it could happen much trouble during the findings of the violators.

The third incident – the killing in one of the transport companies of the city. As I understood, two Roma with the cart went to find scrap. Obviously, they decided to negotiate with the security guard, even drinking alcohol with him. I do not know that happened when they celebrated the success case, but Roma began to beat him, and the guard died from the beatings.

In the morning there was a huge raid, all Roma from the town and district who have carts were summoned up to the police. The queue stretched on half a kilometer. There were interrogations, explanatory, red tape. We started to find out by ourselves: we found one with the operative group, the other disappeared. I found out who it was – a young boy, and the father of three or four children. I found him, talked to him and he appeared with a confession. I’m ashamed of Roma in such cases, but the law is the law.

Roma elder
Oleksandr with his granddaughter

– What, in your opinion, prevents the social integration of the Mukachevo Roma?
– I would not say that there is no integration at all. Many Roma children attend along with local children the Hungarian school, which is located near the city center. During the study between them there is no hatred or racial discrimination. They go together to kindergartens and educators refer to our children as well as to all others. But in Roma School study other Roma children. So there is a difficult situation with integration, because all training is in Hungarian. Of course, children learn the Ukrainian language, but only few hours a week and then, they return to settlement, where only a little part of people speaks Ukrainian. They never go with the other children to the city, they never talk with other and they don’t see other life. The school is located near the territory of a Roma camp and I would say that we have a good school, classes are warm, hot water, computers, books, beautiful smart teachers.

About the director of Roma school, Tetiana Maliarchyk, I can say only warm and kind words. We need to put a monument for her patience and understanding for her kindness and compassion, and for her hard work. It’s very hard to work with Roma children, they are free people from the first day (laughs), they do not live within the prohibitions; Roma children since their childhood are allowed to do everything. Try to teach these free children the rules and put them in the educational framework. But somehow she manages.

We have many mixed families – with Ukrainians, Russians, Hungarians, and Jews. It is, one might say, integrated Roma, because they have relatives among the nations, and try to catch up with them, socialize.

To think globally, the reasons for the low level of integration are banality simple and natural. Most Roma have grown up and live in poverty. What one found and earned is spent for food. And when a person is hungry, they only think about food. One really doesn’t care, how to look, when digging in the garbage – one wants to eat now. And tomorrow morning, nothing will change – again get up in the morning and look for bread – for children and oneself. How can we talk about the integration process in that case?

– Well, why Roma cannot find a job?
– In my opinion, if you wish, you can always find work. Recently, the new head of municipal services hired 12 people. About one a half a month they apply to my with the problem, that nobody pays salaries for them. We understood the problem: the Treasury does not pay to municipal funds. We hold a meeting at the Treasury, the television journalist came, and salary was paid immediately. But you cannot stand near the Treasury all the time, and it is very difficult to explain Roma, why they are not paid the salaries. If the Roma went to job but the salary was not paid, they will not apply to court; they simply will not come to work one more time. Our people are hardworking, well able to clean up the streets, working in all weather conditions.

Around 150-200 people from the camp have patents, they trade, go with the goods to Irshava, Hust, Silce, once a week they trade in market in the camp. Rest is almost not visible, go for the goods to Khmelnitsky or Hungary. Like all, they pay taxes to the city budget.

– What is the religion of Mukachevo Roma?
In Mukachevo camp there are many religions: Orthodox, Greek Catholics, reformers, Baptists, Pentecostals, etc. There are even some churches – Church of the Living God, “Way of Life”.

– Do you think the Roma need an education?
– Of course, at least basic secondary education should be for everyone. Before the school № 14 flourished, and all Roma children could read, write and count, they were engaged teachers. Now because of poverty, many children do not attend school.

– What is the difference between the Mukachevo Roma and Roma, who live in other area?
– Our Roma speak only Hungarian. Roma in Perechyn and Svaliava speak Ukrainian and Hungarian. Uzhgorod Roma know Romani language, but we almost do not understand it (smiling).

– Compared with the period of the Soviet Union, has much changed in the lives of Roma?
– Of course, I and my wife worked in the Soviet Union, and it was much better. It was possible to buy in instalments a TV set, furniture. We could even save money on so-called safe-book. There were no slackers. People swept, worked in factories – turners, millers, grinders, toolmakers – to ski, furniture, knitting factory, and depot. They tried to work from the heart. Salary was always on time. Now, we live in a country of freedom and democracy. And we can decide: I want to go to work, or I do not – nobody will punish for it. This order is death for freedom-loving Roma.

– Are the Roma traditions preserved in Mukachevo camp?
– Respect for elders remained. If the head of the elders said that we should change the baron, the former will be listening. Of course, Roma weddings are luxury. I attended one recently – it’s beyond expression!

– How do you call yourself in camp – Gypsies or Roma?
– It’s different, some call “Gypsies”, some “Roma”. Why be offended when gypsy blood is flowing through the veins? For example, I am half-Jewish, half-Roma, and I’m not offended when I am called any way, I’m not ashamed of my nation.

Roma elder
On the election of the Roma elder

– Has ever somebody been expelled from the camp?
– We are trying to solve all problems peacefully, cast out – this is not our approach. Everybody has a family, children and acquired good. If the issue occurs, we gather together and solve it.

– In your opinion, do Roma suffer from discrimination?
– I think the 50% of Roma have faced discrimination. Before, a situation was different. There was almost a war with criminals. It was in 1993. We came out with axes and pitchforks, defending our territory, which they wanted to take away. We built barricades. At that time, we were supported by the local authorities, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies.

– Oleksandr, why the local citizen don’t like Roma? Despite the fact of living together
– Because nobody knows us. Does one of the residents was in the camp at least once in their life? Nobody ever has. The citizens see only those, who dig in the garbage. 500 meters from their homes live 10,000 Roma who go to school and work. They do not see those people, because they are not digging in the garbage, and after work go back to their families and live their lives.

– Maybe they are afraid to come to the camp, afraid of being beaten or even killed?
– OK, you have visited the camp for 2 years. And note, you are still alive with a blush on the cheeks (smiling). We are open and simple people; we are not hungry beasts, willing to pounce on the first, who will go to camp. Maybe we walk on three legs or have two heads? What makes us different from you or any other nationalities in Ukraine or in the world? We welcome all who come to us because we perceive all as a family! Come, we will be happy to have new friends.

– For example, do doctors in the children’s hospital pay less attention to Roma children?
– If Roma are treated well, they have normal feedback. It is no secret that the mother during hospital stay, experiencing for the child may shout, behave uncultured – as we are inflammatory in nature. I personally led the conversation in such cases about their behavior. Here I want to praise the doctors for their work during the epidemic of hepatitis “A”. Even when it was not enough beds for patients, doctors transferred children to the adult hospital, worried for them as for their own children.

– Oleksandr, how do you personally feel about early marriages among Roma?
– I must say frankly that it all depends, primarily, on education and on parents. The teachers in schools are trying to talk about it, but few people of that age go to school (laughs). One thing I can say for sure – no one is forcing to marry and there is not some kind of tradition. That’s my granddaughter came home in 15 years, and said, that she wants to get married because she loves madly. Her man, however, was nineteen, and also vowed that he loves her. What can I do? I saw that the guy had serious intentions. You know, for Roma love is sacred. If someone loves my child, how can I forbid loving her? Here you say if your daughter comes to you in 15 or even 17 years and say that she is in love and wants to marry you immediately ban it because she needs to finish school, go to university and then find a job, get on her feet and in 30 years (smiling) you let her get married. We never allow and forbid, because it is their life and they make their own choices. We just take it and rejoice, for love even if it is in 16 years is a great happiness.

– How does the average Roma family in Mukachevo look like?
– From three to ten children, often live in one – two rooms, living poorly in uncomfortable conditions.

– What kind of the camp problems you would call the most blatant?
– Now it is clear – water. Recently settlement was an epidemic of hepatitis “A”, and had to turn off the water supply entering the threat of bacteria in city water. I want to thank the city authorities, doctors, workers utilities and you – Mukachevo Human Rights Center that you are not left us with our problems. Convened an emergency committee was fixed very quickly. All disease cells were repaid, all processed with chlorine. It was decided to remove all debris from the camp.

And Roma joined before, I personally went to all the courts and controllled that all was removed in their yards. In the conclusion, from the camp were taken about 300 cubic meters of garbage – it’s probably been one of the biggest actions of garbage collection in the life of our Roma. Then, it was decided to change the old plumbing to new one. The City Council has allocated for this nearly million. Water was cut off in November and the work began. All were happy for the first time: we will have a central water supply, will not have to go to cans with water. But happiness was not long – a week, maybe two, then the Treasury has blocked the money allocated for new plumbing and everything stopped. In early December, we even wrote an appeal to the Commissioner. They very quickly got involved in the situation, the Treasury sent a letter demanding to explain the situation and unlock money, but above all our Treasury, it ignores even the Commissioner. Up to the moment, they have not replied anything, and money for a new water supply system is not given. Winter is coming and we have lived three months without water. The worst thing is that nobody can affect on it. Such is the authority we have in the country. Our city council is ready to assist and help, but there is a higher power, it is too difficult to explain it to Roma. Because they live in their world – the world of the camp.

Another problem is the overpopulation of our camp. The camp is growing, but the area has not increased. Currently we have no place to put the toilet. We are together with the city authorities seeking a way out for the future. There are already at least 50 families, who need places for construction.
Well at least the problem with the heat in the winter was solved, and also through cooperation with local authorities. Half of the camp has secured gas supply, and for others we brought the wood. For surviving, but certainly not for living.

The next interview will come with a very interesting person – with Matvii Balint, the elder of the Roma settlement in Svaliava, who is a deputy in City Council from Roma population and has over 23 years managed his camp.

PS: The centers of legal information and advice that provide free legal aid to Roma people working with the support of the “Roma of Ukraine“, International “Renaissance” Foundation. To learn more about the activities of a network of centers, foundations and principles of work visit the website www.legalspace.org under “Legal Empowerment of Roma communities.” The views in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the International “Renaissance” Foundation and other civil, religious and political organizations and individuals.