Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Wall highlights divide between Romanians, Roma

By Anca Teodorescu (AFP)
BAIA MARE, Romania — "Why did they build this wall? What are they trying to hide, our poverty?" grumbled Alexandru Banta, a Roma father living in a dilapidated neighbourhood of this northern Romanian city.

"Children cannot see beyond this wall, it's as if they were convicts behind bars," he told AFP, holding his little daughter Cristina in his lap.

The "wall" is a concrete barrier city hall erected in July that separates two apartment blocs housing 180 mainly Roma families from a busy street next door.

But not all accept the official explanation that the structure -- about two metres high and 100 metres long (6x330 feet) -- is a "safety" measure to save Roma children's lives. Some see it as a wall of shame to hide a rat-infested eyesore housing a shunned minority.

The barrier has even divided the Roma residents themselves; a few are grateful, others disgusted by what they see as one more "humiliation".

For Banta, it's like a prison. "OK, they could have built a small fence, but not a concrete wall," he protested.

Non-governmental organisations working for Roma rights have joined the outcry. Some note that the structure went up three weeks before a parliamentary by-election to fill the MP's seat vacated by Catalin Chereches, who was elected mayor of this former mining city of 146,000 in May.

"The wall carries important political capital, since many non-Roma have wanted such a thing for a long time," said one NGO representative who asked not to be named.

Officials also plan to "inaugurate" the wall this week in a move the NGO representative found baffling.

"How can you inaugurate a wall dividing Roma from non-Roma?" he asked.

Mayor Chereches insists it aims to end a worrisome series of road accidents. He said more than 20 were recorded in the last 12 months, most of them involving children.

"We thought this buffer between the neighbourhood and the road would help reduce the number of accidents," he told AFP.

But opponents are not convinced.

"If the justification was to protect the Roma, this solution is disproportionate," said Marian Mandache of Romani CRISS, a leading Roma rights group, who felt other options like speed bumps or a small iron fence could have been taken.

"Money would have been better used if a playground had been built," he said.

-- 'Turn neighborhood into civilised area' --

Seen from a distance, the decaying, five-storey building -- the other has undergone renovation -- looks deserted, with walls blackened by smoke from makeshift stoves. Indoor plumbing was cut off since bills went unpaid and running water comes from a single outside faucet.

The dismal scene turns lively when the children come out, with dozens romping about the muddy, garbage-scattered yard, some making mudpies.

"There are rats everywhere and authorities do nothing about it. Instead they built this wall," a woman carrying a newborn shouted from a window.

"I have five children and I cannot afford to send them to school. What shall I feed them, concrete?" said another named Rodica, standing in a dark staircase.

Residents complain about the dire conditions but refuse to give their names for fear they may be evicted from the city-owned buildings.

As Europe's biggest ethnic minority, Roma number 10 to 12 million and live in all of Romania's 26 EU partner states but it's long been an uneasy relationship. Both the EU and the Council of Europe have pressed for change to fight persistent discrimination and suspicion that has led to expulsions, social exclusion and poverty.

Romania's Roma community is the biggest in Europe, officially put at 530,000 though local NGOs put it closer to two million, saying many hide their origins to try to escape this prejudice.

For Mandache, money should be spent on improving the Romanian Roma's access to education and employment in a country where less that a third of this community have steady jobs and half have no qualifications.

Not everyone is unhappy, including Roma father Alin Ghiulai.

"We approve of this construction. I myself look after my kids, but others just let them play in the street," he said. "We thank the mayor. No one before him ever thought of doing something for us -- except during election campaigns."

Mayor Chereches, meanwhile, plans to "decorate this wall, renovate the derelict building and turn this neighbourhood into a civilised area," he said.

And a couple living on the other side of the wall in a house with a garden rushed to shake his hand during a recent visit.

"Thank you. Nobody had thought of doing something for us before," said the woman, smiling.

"The mayor has done a good thing, I feel more secure now when I drive by. Before there were too many children playing in the street," said a local taxi driver who gave his name only as Gabriel.

"Plus ...we don't see the filth over there anymore," he added.

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