Sunday, March 29, 2009

Romania: living at the municipal dump

CLUJ, Romania (AFP) — Face blackened by 35 years spent on a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Cluj, Marin Varga waits for a local recycling company to peruse the few valuable objects he found that morning in the trash.

"Things couldn't be worse," says this 47-year-old man, who looks at least 10 years older, with a sigh.

In his cart, attached to an emaciated horse, are his day's finds: a few broken computers, springs from an old couch and tangled cables, all thrown into a pile.

"We live one day at a time," says Varga, who shares a rundown shack with three generations of his family -- 13 people in total -- in the middle of the Pata-Rat dump in this northwestern Romanian town.

His children do not go to school.

"They have to help us dig in the rubbish," he says.

Varga dreams of one day leaving this wasteland, but another lady in her 60s loudly opposes any plans of a move.

She owns the largest "property" at the dump, a prefabricated concrete house complete with satellite dish, which gives her a certain importance among her neighbours.

"If journalists start writing that we live at the dump, we'll be kicked out and then where will we go?" she asks.

Just a few hundred metres (yards) away however, the authorities themselves installed containers to house the homeless, mostly Roma or gypsies, about 10 years ago.

And little by little, other families settled on the deserted piece of land next to the rail tracks.

Now about a hundred shacks made of wood, cardboard or metal sheeting and neatly arranged in three rows, crowd "the county with no number", as the area has become known.

The inhabitants of this small community -- authorities estimate they number about 370, including many children -- are mostly unemployed and make a living by doing small jobs and recycling waste. The only source of water is a single pump in the street.

But the homes are well maintained, with curtains in the windows and flower pots on show, and the children go to school.

Two families are legally connected to the power grid and the others plug into their supply for 25 euros (33.7 dollars) per month, to light their homes or watch television.

"I have been living here for seven years," says Elixenia Borban, 67, embarrassed as she explains she is "forced to dig in rubbish bins."

"At least I don't have to beg," she adds, revealing a pile of old newspapers, which she probably sells for recycling, and a few slices of bread in her plastic bag.

According to the World Bank, about 13.8 percent of Romania's population of 21.55 million lived below the poverty line in 2007, the year Romania joined the European Union.

But dump resident Agustin Coroj, 35, who has a four-year-old daughter and a stable job, is angry.

"The authorities built public housing but it was wrongly distributed, either to people who had money or to those who knew somebody who worked in city hall," he says.

The mayor of Cluj, Sorin Apostu, says he is looking into ways to improve the living conditions of the community, but the plan is still vague.

"By the end of the year, with help from several businessmen and NGOs, a number of these people will be relocated," he simply told AFP.

The authorities meanwhile plan to set up a new environmental waste site and close Pata-Rat as they promised to do in 2002 under pressure from Brussels.

But according to resident Marin Varga, this will not change anything.

Roma like him "will just go to the new site, because that's the only way they can survive."

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