On the outskirts of Kosice

A visit to Lunik 9 in summer 1998

Kosice, Slovakia. The expensive new surfacing on the city’s masterpiece Hlavná, the long and wide main street, is well protected. Night and day the members of the Kosice cleaning army walk around in their orange uniforms. They are equipped with cleaning tools and walkie-talkies. Due to their restless activity, a piece of paper, thoughtlessly thrown away, wouldn’t have a chance to spoil the spotless look of the streets for longer than five minutes.

The town seems to have an obsession for cleaning and reconstructing: The cleaning battalions and the new surface of the main road are only two elements of an ambitious town reconstruction program, which in the last few years has substantially changed the city’s look. Walking through the narrow streets around the gothic cathedral it could easily be mistaken for somewhere in France or Switzerland and not in the capital of impoverished Eastern Slovakia, only seventy kilometres from the Ukrainian border.

Most of the people in Kosice are proud of the city’s new look. Many of the citizens, together with companies and institutions, contributed to the new surfacing on the main street, where every single donor has a plaque with his name and the number of square metres he financed.

But apart from the big media interest for the visual improvements, another cleaning policy has been going on in Kosice since 1995. Officially it is presented as the "creation of living conditions for homeless citizens and citizens who are not paying their rent or who are not adaptable" and the concentration of these groups is in the city’s Lunik IX district. Less euphemistically, the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ would be a more apt description for what has been going on. Roma from other districts inside Kosice were systematically forced to change their flats for flats in the Lunik IX district, the city’s new established Roma ghetto.

The bus from the centre needs more than half an hour till it arrives in Lunik IX. The last minutes of the journey go through open landscape. Since the last station I am the only Non-Gypsy in the bus. From the bus terminus Lunik IX looks like a typical socialist settlement from the 70s: two streets surrounded by concrete buildings, a social and cultural complex with the district administration, a kindergarten, some shopping facilities and an elementary school a little bit apart from the houses. Surrounded by trees and fields, it looks on first glance almost idyllic.

Walking on a hot day in summer along the concrete blocks, one thinks of being in a children’s town. Children are everywhere, playing in the green spaces, in stairwells and around the entrances to the concrete blocks. Due to a racist town development strategy, they are growing up in the terrible conditions of an overcrowded ghetto. Their chances of being integrated into society are minimal. But of course it is not only the city which is to blame, since the children’s fate is partly also caused by parents, who refused to pay their rents or behaved in a troublesome way.

The segregation continues at school: Lunik IX has its own elementary school, which is attended only by Roma children from the settlement. The desperate situation for Roma in the work market limits the will of parents to motivate their children to learn. Besides this, the social system punishes ambitious parents, but rewards the lazy majority. At the age of 16 their children enter the doors of the job centre for the first time intending to prove their unemployed status. They will only receive their first social security payments if they are not attending school any more.

Even during the communist era the district had a high percentage of Roma inhabitants (between 40-60%) and even Roma admit that some of the Roma caused trouble by destroying their flats. "The Communists made a big mistake by moving people directly from Roma villages to modern flats without preparing them for the new urban life. These people had no idea about how to use gas and electricity and so they continued to live as they were living in the villages. Some even made fire in the rooms, others destroyed the modern facilities that they did not know how to use. But these were single cases.

In general the relation between the non-Roma and the Roma population was fine. It became worse after 1989, when most of the Roma lost their work. But the real problems started when they started to translate the proposal into action", explains Jozef Sana, who has been living in Lunik IX since the Communist era. In the last communal election, Jozef Sana was elected to succeed Lunik IX’s former mayor, who invented the proposal. Now Mr. Sana, who was one of the very few Roma who are actively fighting for their rights, has to deal with his predecessor’s racist legacy.

Alexander Weber, who had been mayor in Lunik since 1981, was famous for his negative attitude towards Roma, who in the last year of his regentship made up about 80% of his constituents. Several Roma activists attested, that Weber declared in public, that he wants to be a mayor only for the whites. They quoted him as stating that his aim was to create an area here, where all Roma should live according to their mentality. But how does it come about, that a mayor promoting a concept – "which creates the conditions for genocide" (Anna Koptová, Kosice Legal Defense Bureau For National Minorities) was several times elected in a district, where the majority population is Roma?

All the Roma activists attested that several times both the election for mayor and the elections for the district council were manipulated. Josef Sana and Anna Koptová described how the Roma, who were members of the election commission, were asked to eat and drink outside, where a buffet had been prepared – "Eat and drink. You can help us later." When they returned, the votes had already been counted.

Since Jozef Sana is the new mayor of the district, at least a little bit has improved. Some Roma are employed to clean the green spaces around the blocks. But still Lunik 9 represents a very poor image for Kosice and Slovakia. A substandard flat with two rooms has to be shared by up to 20, sometimes 30 people. In some of the houses neither gas or water is working. And almost no one has work. The new generation has no idea of what regular work means. They grew up in the world of unemployment and social security.

At the last point of my visit Josef Sana wants to show me a Roma family who are – "clean, who pay their rent, where the father is working and where the daughter goes to the high school. Have a look, how such a family has to suffer due to the racist misconceptions of our city council." He brings me into a flat in one of the blocks, that are less dilapidated. Even the lift still works. The flat is in a good condition, one can see that they invest a lot of work and also money to adapt the flat to their needs.

"When they started to realise the concept they promised that Roma who were paying the rent for their flats and who caused no other trouble, will have the same right to move out. We have been waiting now for four years. There has not been one case where they have allowed only one single Romany to move out. And they also didn’t force one white non-payer or trouble maker to move to Lunik 9 . They don’t care, if a Gadzo doesn’t pay. They just want to concentrate all of us here."

The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), a Budapest based NGO, which supports Roma in legal arguments, documented cases where Roma were trying to escape the terrible conditions in Lunik 9 by moving into another district. Some got flats and signed contracts, but when trying to register at the district’s place for registration their application had been refused. The owner of the flat is afraid of what will happen when the last white neighbours have moved out – "The house will look like the other ones. What have I done, that I have to live in such conditions?"

Back in the Kosice city centre, walking on the expansive new surface of the main street. Near the cathedral again, some plaques with the names of donors. On one of them is written "Town District Lunik 9: 1sqm." Alexander Weber’s council of Lunik 9 seemed to have been aware of the crucial part it played in the ‘success story’ of Kosice’s face-lift.

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