CENTRE OF POVERTY IN THE CENTRE OF EUROPE
TOMASZ WINIARSKI: - How did people reacted whom you said that you were going to visit such an unusual place? Weren’t you afraid that you were going into troubles?
VONSKY: From the beginning I treated the journey to Lunik in the same way as the journey to places like Donieck, Ługańsk, Syria or favela in Brasil. I was really scared, especially about equipment. A lot of my concerns came true but maybe thanks to doubled carefulness? Somehow we managed to get to the destination without any material losses, nobody assaulted us, we had nothing destroyed. But it was surely because we were ‘well-behaving’ and we were shown round by a person ‘from outside’, although we were afraid that Marian – our guide may have problems in the local community due to the fact that he was on our side. But nothing unusual took place, except for a few texts aimed against him.
On your photos defamed Lunik IX, that is, the biggest Romani ghetto in Europe, looks nearly like a sphere of war actions….
And it was how I imagined it before my journey. My emotions stayed behind me but after some time I got over it and I began to get used to that reality. Certainly, from our perspective, it is impossible to make people brought up in welfare used to homelessness or the street lifestyle. This is not our fairytale, but getting to know and discovering it from inside is an experience which opens up your minds to lots of life aspects. First of all, you appreciate what you have. There is still one more block of flats to pull down, and which is falling apart. In the whole block of flats maybe families live. Its state is tragic, allegedly because of the fact that the Roma rented the building reinforcement which they later sold. There is rubble and rubbish everywhere. The rest of the blocks of flats look a bit better but they are also in a deplorable state. First of all there is a lot of moisture and mold. Inhabitants say that they barricade some rooms in winter as it is impossible to sit in them because of the lack of heating and problems with moisture and mold.
How were you welcomed by the local people? Did you manage to get their trustfulness? What brought you most difficulties?
Children with whom we were playing football on the estate on the fifth day, had showed knives and their middle fingers at us on the first day. It was not easy, as the previous movie or TV groups did not make a good impression. Inhabitants of Lutnik feel as if they were monkeys in the zoo. TV stations promised to correct their recorded materials. The Roma were promised to receive care and help from the state. Various families received money for speaking in front of TV cameras or showing their flats. I still think that we should have stayed there longer in order to get much more trustfulness and more film materials. In order to get to know more people and their life stories. Generally, we made a few friendships and if we go back there, we will rather be nicely welcomed.
Where did you have accommodation? In the district of Lunik there are tragic sanitary conditions – inhabitants are cut off from electricity and water. It is not easy to survive there. There are also various types of spreading diseases, like louse infestation and hepatitis.
We had accommodation in a centre of the Salesians where conditions are comparable to typical hostels. About 50 m from the nearest block of flats where there is hardly any water, electricity and heating. A room with a view to Lunik – then you appreciate the least facilities. Inhabitants of Lunik do not have an easy life and they are really facing up lots of problems. Louse infestation, particularly among children, is visible and spreading. Luckily we did not catch anything, although priests working in Lunik said that there was always something happening. One of the blocks of flats which we visited, was cut off from water. There is water only for a few hours twice a day in a basement. Not everybody get vaccines either.
The estate of Lunik was built in the 70s of the last century and it was supposed to be inhabited mainly by families of policemen and soldiers. How did it happen that today only unemployed Roma live here and the district became a symbol of the extreme social pathology?
Lunik IX was one of the most prestigious estates at one time. As we can see the Roma were not included into the example of ideal neighbours and only one generation was enough to make the rest of tenants of other nationalities move out from the estate. The Roma usually have many children, so they quickly became the majority in Lunik. It turns out that compulsory integration and the whole project of the communist authorities of the Czech-Slovakia were not successful. It is not difficult to guess why.
That is right, does it mean that it is the fault of the unsuccessful project of the communist authorities which was based on compulsory integration of the Roma society?
I think that we all will agree with the thesis that it is an unsuccessful experiment of compulsory integration and systemic interference into the private life of people. But it is difficult for me, as a reporter, to make an accurate diagnosis.
Unemployment in the district of Lunik IX is nearly 100 percent. Poverty, unemployment and lack of perspectives – are an ideal recipe for the increase of criminality. Whereas you went there with an expensive photography equipment …..Did you really manage to return without any losses?
Official statistics show nearly zero criminality. Unofficially – it is obvious. It is so, as being a snitch is not something approved of in Lunik IX. I was really scared about my equipment but there were no losses. We were warned that two days before our arrival, inhabitants of Lunik had received social benefits. But they wasted the money in the first week on alcohol and parties. And we were warned to be watch out people being under the influence of alcohol or other stimulants, as they might be aggressive.
Are the authorities of Slovakia taking any action aimed at, for example, activating career of those people? As it is known, the system of social benefits and a spectrum of vindication discourage the Roma to begin to work. What does it look like?
The issue of Lunik IX is the issue of every local electoral campaign of Koszyc and the issue of the Roma is an issue of the parliamentarian campaign. There were lots of ideas – among the others, awards for the Roma women who will agree to sterilization. And on a day before the election politicians arrive at Lunik with an electoral sausage in the form of free bags with potatoes. The Peace Noble Prize for a person who will solve this social problem.
Drivers of urban buses, who travel on a route running by the ghetto, are paid special financial bonuses for working in the high-risk conditions. Is it really so dangerous there?
I would not say that the Roma would like to threat to drivers – they are more unfavourable to onlookers who arrive here in order to take a few photos, or to TV teams. TV stations from abroad promised a lot that their video materials would help this society, etc. Generally speaking, the Roma from Lunik do not want to feel as photographed monkeys in a circus. On Internet there are photos, what a bus of 11 line looks like inside, and indeed it is in a deplorable condition.
Is it in a deplorable condition as the authorities do not want to invest in this society or because the Roma passengers want to destroy it?
In fact I have no idea about it, maybe older buses travel, on this line or maybe the Roma devastated them? Do the Slovak police find this part of Koszyce as a ‘no-go’ sphere, where they prefer not to go? The Slovak police do not treat reports on Lunik IX seriously, but we witnessed interventions. I will make it clear: one ambulance was escorted by two police vans. In the estate there is a police station. I would not rather call it by name of ‘no-go’ sphere for police, but, as the matter of fact, they are not willing to take any reports.
Would you dare to say that in Lunik there is unlawfulness?
Rather not. There is a Catholic religious order of the Salesian fathers there. How do they help the Roma society in Koszyce? Their help is based on a few pillars. First of all, this is evangelization and unification with God – 80 percent of inhabitants of Lunik IX consider themselves Catholics. Living in faith is an honest, good life based on work, so these are good attitudes educating both children and adults. Other pillars are also educating the youth, helping in finding work, working with those families. For free or for a small fee one can also wash their clothes in the centre. The Salesians really do a good job.
Is there anybody else who helps there, apart from Catholic organizations ? There are volunteers from the city, but they did not want to talk to us and it is difficult for me to say how they help. They have their office in Lunik.
You said that the authorities were pulling down other buildings which are going to fall apart. Also a number of inhabitants of Lunik is falling. So, what is the future of this place like?
According to what the governor of Lunik IX said, he is planning to build forty new flats for families, which are making a lot of efforts to get onto the proper standard of living. Despite that, the number of inhabitants is really falling. It is very possible that in a few years, this place will be completely different than it is now. It has already changed since we were there for the first time in February, and another time in May.
What is a real reason for the catastrophe which is concealed under the name ‘Lunik IX’? Is the system to be blamed or is it all about cultural conditioning of the Gypsy people?
At present the Roma living in Lunik IX scarcely have anything in common with the gypsy culture which we know. This is an issue of generations and the fact that this place is a cluster of pathology which is inherited. These people simply lack an example, motivation. In most cases it is not that they declare: ‘We do not want to be like the rest of white Slovaks’. They have nothing against it but they simply do not want it. They do not have any perspectives.
So, you think that there is a recipe for any improvement of these people’s situation? Do you perceive a light in the tunnel of this hopelessness?
We asked Fr. Pavlo about the same thing but we did not get a clear answer. It is hard to foresee the fate of Lunik IX, as this is also an issue of a political debate. Looking subjectively, a big part of these people is not bad by nature. They simply had no luck to be born in this place. The biggest hope is in the young, as old trees cannot be replanted and these are adults who should take care of next generations so that they would not inherit their misery.
Translated by Aneta Amrozik
Niedziela 29/2018 (22 VII 2018)