The results of an April resettlement of some Roma families are more nuanced than the initial outcry would suggest.
In Belgrade, a New Order for the Roma
PHOTO Stefan Cvetkovic uses his bicycle to hunt for recyclables and scrap metal to sell.
PHOTO BY UFFE ANDERSEN
BELGRADE | Danilo Curcic holds up a set of house rules. First among them, in large, boldface type, is a strict prohibition on relieving oneself next to the “mobile housing unit.” The second rule, also in bold, prohibits parents from letting their children do the same.
The rules are meant for Roma who live in containers set up in late April on the outskirts of Belgrade. Ten families were transferred there after Belvil, a slum where they had been living, was cleared to make way for an access road to a new bridge.
Curcic, who works for a refugee-aid group in Serbia, said the emphasis on such matters says something about those in local government who drafted the rules.
“That the city administration believes this to be the most important thing to regulate in the settlements shows the degree of prejudice and stereotypes that the representatives of the administration have regarding the Roma in the container settlements,” he says.
Curcic’s organization, Praxis, is one of the fiercest critics of the Belgrade authorities’ policy of moving Roma from the center of town to the suburbs – or to the towns where they originally came from, even if many years ago.
Such critics haven’t been few, but the most recent displacement – allegedly the 17th – saw the loudest protests yet from local and international groups. While acknowledging the need to move illegal settlements, rights groups said Belgrade’s methods were heavy-handed and even frightening.
Amnesty International called the forced eviction a “flagrant” breach of international law. City officials neither consulted the affected families ahead of time nor offered them access to legal advice, the group complained.
Curcic, who was present while the Roma were being moved, says, “Some were furious, and at the same time [they] felt hopeless because they didn’t know where they were going and what would happen to them.”
The Roma were sent to various new settlements. The city had planned to move 20 families to the southern suburb of Resnik, but for several days in early April hundreds of people already living there protested the move. Although Belgrade Mayor Dragan Djilas dismissed the protests as “exclusively racially motivated,” in the end the number of Roma families sent to Resnik was halved.
City officials contend the moves do not violate human rights but rather give the Roma a shot at what their fellow citizens already enjoy. Until recently, the authorities point out, many Roma didn’t even have identity documents and so lacked access to work, education, health care, and other benefits.
Now, the mayor’s office wrote in an email, all the children in the new settlement are either in preschool or school, and “many inhabitants of the newly formed settlements are working in public companies.”
But the question of whether Belgrade is doing wrong or right by the Roma of Resnik is difficult to answer, even after a visit to the new settlement.
OUT OF SIGHT …
Only one bus goes to Resnik, and it takes 45 minutes to get there.
In its email, the mayor’s office argues, “Being at a distance from the center of Belgrade doesn’t impact on the status of these families, as the city authorities in charge are constantly in touch with the inhabitants of the settlement, visit them, and offer them all the help and support they need.”
The settlement is a 10-minute walk up a dead-end road from the nearest bus stop, across from a noisy dog shelter. Here, about 65 Roma live in “mobile housing units.”
The 16 containers sit on a gravel hilltop with a few trees, about 100 meters from the dog shelter. They are surrounded mostly by fields, with a view of Belgrade in the distance.
Sinisa Cvetkovic, who often speaks for the community, offers coffee in one of his container’s two rooms. This is the kitchen, the other the bedroom. Both function as a living room. It’s quite early morning, so the temperature is comfortable – but around noon, Cvetkovic and his wife, Zorica, say it gets unbearably hot inside the containers.
Someone from the city administration turns up once a week, he says. “They have a look around and leave, and that’s that.”
According to Cvetkovic, the authorities promised every household a refrigerator and beds, but these have yet to arrive. They also promised social security payments, Cvetkovic says, but no one in the community has received “a single dinar.”
“A lot was promised,” he continues, “but the only thing that we’ve received are mini-stoves. ... We manage as best we can, but it’s come to the point that many families haven’t got enough to eat.” People in the settlement get one meal a day from a charity kitchen.
As for the public-sector jobs mentioned in the mayor’s email, Cvetkovic says he knows of only one person who has one, which he got after moving to Resnik.
These deprivations might not be so harsh if the people in Resnik had access to the work they used to do, Cvetkovic says. “They could collect scrap metal and other things for recycling, which they sold, and in that way put bread on the table for their families.”
The problem is that in Resnik, there’s not much “good garbage” to collect. Even when people manage to find some, getting it home to the hilltop settlement for sorting has become a problem. “To many of us, it’s impossible to climb [the hill] with what they might have collected,” Cvetkovic says.
Yet given the choice between Resnik and Belvil, the Roma here would choose Resnik, Cvetkovic says without hesitation.
“The conditions that we live in here are simply better. For one, the hygiene is excellent. The children can wash, the elderly people can wash, you can wash your clothes,” he says. A container houses toilets and a bathroom, and outdoors are large water taps over a deep concrete trough. In Belvil, residents had to walk as far as a kilometer to get water.
The containers also have electricity, another amenity that was lacking in Belvil.
Cvetkovic believes the protests that preceded their move to Resnik were not genuinely anti-Roma. He says the new arrivals “get along fine” with their neighbors. His theory is that opposition political operatives staged the demonstrations to make it seem as if city officials had lost control of the situation ahead of local elections in May.
Many Resnik residents “call us to come and do work for them – digging, building, and the like,” Cvetkovic says. “They don’t pay a lot, of course, but it nevertheless contributes to people being able to lead a more normal life.”
Their nearest neighbor lives a couple of hundred meters down the road. Forty-year-old Emil Bicok, who runs a metal workshop with a handful of employees, says he doesn’t mind the Roma. He greets them every day when they pass outside his workshop, with their kids coming to pat his dogs and make small talk. Though he didn’t take part in the demonstrations, he admits that he was among the 2,000 Resnik residents who signed a petition to protest the planned settlement – but only out of solidarity with the neighbors, he says.
Bicok points out that Roma have lived in Resnik without incident for about 150 years.
“They live in houses like mine, have dogs like I have, have jobs similar to mine – I simply don’t see them as different.” The newcomers, in contrast, “have lived in cardboard houses all their lives and survived by collecting cardboard.”
While Bicok blames “social conditions” for the sorry plight of many Roma, he says too many live from day to day “without any plan for tomorrow.”
“They must go to school, and look for normal jobs – simply accommodate themselves to our 8-to-4 or 9-to-5 life.”
Local feeling is also complicated by property issues. Some residents fear the value of their houses will fall because of the Roma settlement, Bicok says. Others, he adds, are concerned because it sits on land that was taken after World War II from people who’d “been on the wrong side,” and whose grandchildren have been planning to reclaim the property since Belgrade adopted a law on restitution in August.
Curcic dismisses the idea that the protests against the resettlement were about reclaiming nationalized land, citing protests in another suburb where Roma from Belvil were supposed to resettle.
He notes further that in previous resettlements, residents of the receiving suburbs found a variety of reasons, including a lack of potable water, to object to the moves.
“It cannot be that every suburb has some kind of special problem that makes it impossible for them to take the Roma. To me, it looks more like poor excuses,” he says.
Most of the other people who live near the settlement are loath to discuss their new neighbors. Some sound sincere when they say they “don’t mind the Roma,” as does a middle-aged resident rolling a garden cultivator along the road.
“They’re like anybody else,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “My kids go up to the settlement to play, and their children come down here to play basketball.”
Another man working in his garden says only, “I’ve got nothing against Roma, as long as they don’t steal.” Others refuse to comment at all.
NOT GOOD, BUT BETTER
Essentially, stability, honesty, and respect are what the people in Resnik say they want from their new Roma neighbors – and what the Roma say they want for themselves.
To the notion that many Roma are content to live hand-to-mouth, Cvetkovic offers a mirthless chuckle.
“What would you prefer – to live normally or in a cardboard house?” he asks.
Even those “house rules” set by Belgrade authorities to wipe out inappropriate toilet practices state that the intention is “to make it possible for you to live in a clean and secure settlement.”
The 10 rules are followed by a three-page contract that names infractions that could lead to eviction from the settlement, including truancy among the children and discourteous conduct toward city representatives.
But even if the Roma are courteous to functionaries, they may at any time lose their container homes “if the town of Belgrade has a need to remove the mobile housing unit.”
The conditions, and the containers, are hardly ideal. But, like Cvetkovic, a young woman who gives her name only as Radmila says she would choose Resnik over Belvil any day.
“It’s much better here. Much more convenient,” she says, referring to the water and electricity, as she stands washing herself by the outdoor spigot.
In the shade under nearby trees, a police car is parked.
“They’re here 24 hours,” Radmila explains. She says it would be nicer in Resnik without them. But no one wants to risk a repeat of the 2009 incident when a Molotov cocktail burned out another container settlement, leaving 120 Roma homeless.