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Slovakia's separation barrier to keep out Roma

Wall in Ostrovany, in eastern Slovakia

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News, Ostrovany

Elzbieta and Viera, mother and daughter, stand in their garden looking down at the Roma (Gypsy) children tobogganing hilariously in the last of the winter snows.

All that separates them is a wall - a new, white concrete wall, 150m (495ft) long, 2.2m tall. Beyond the wall stand the wattle-and-daub, mud-and-twig hovels where many Roma live here in Ostrovany, in eastern Slovakia.

"I don't mind them really," says Viera.

"We tolerate them pretty well actually, considering they've built their homes on land which doesn't belong to them.

"But I have one rule in our relations with them: don't do to others what you would not like done to yourself."

She is talking about the theft of fruit, vegetables and even the metal fence posts from their gardens, which she and others blame on the Roma.

It went on for years, she says, until the local council responded to their complaints and spent 13,000 euros (£12,000) of public funds on the wall.

Muddy shacks

As a structure to keep a minority away from a majority, it has drawn parallels with an earlier wall between Roma and non-Roma in the Czech town of Usti nad Labem, and even with the Berlin Wall and Israel's separation barrier.

Elzbieta and Viera
Elzbieta and Viera say their goods were stolen for years

But what is new in Ostrovany is that the Roma now form the majority - exactly two-thirds of the population.

Up on the main road, a troupe of Roma children, accompanied by their teachers, walk back from school, laughing and joking. Dobry den! they call in chorus. "Good day!"

"The wall does not segregate the Roma, nor does it limit their access to main roads or services," says Cyril Revak, Mayor of Ostrovany.

He has grown wary of the stream of journalists who have come knocking at his door this winter, but softens slightly as we speak.

"The only criticism I am willing to accept, is that public money was used to protect private property. But public money is also used to help the Roma. We help some people one day, others the next."

Down in the Roma ghetto, Petr Kaleja's shack is the closest to the wall.

"We just woke up one morning and saw them building it," he grumbles. "Why couldn't they use the money to build us a decent home instead?"

His shack looks from the outside like an exhibit from a rural history museum. Sticks held together with clayey mud, without door or windows, and just a blanket over the entrance.

Inside he lives with his young wife and baby daughter. Melting snow drips steadily into a filthy bucket, through a hole in the makeshift roof.

There is an ancient television - "it actually works!" he grins - a dangling light bulb, and a battered wood-burning stove in the corner, throwing out some heat.

Loan sharks

When we first met Mr Kaleja, he was pulling a load of freshly cut wood on a sledge from a nearby privately owned forest. There is no wall around that - yet.

Petr Kaleja and his daughter outside their home
Petr Kaleja's home is little more than logs and mud

The family live on 170 euros a month, which Mr Kaleja's wife gets in child benefit.

Mr Kaleja, 21, is waiting for the weather to improve, before he goes back to the capital, Bratislava, to try to get work laying pipes.

"We blame communism for a lot of things," says Mayor Revak, "but one thing that was good in those times, was the obligation to work.

"Instead of that, today people have grown dependent on the state. All they need each month is two signatures - at the labour office, when they sign on, and at the post office, when they pick up their welfare payments."

Then he talks about the loan sharks who afflict the Roma community - charging 100% a month.

"Everyone knows it's happening, but no one wants to testify," says the mayor. "And without victims, the police can't do anything."

Back in the Roma ghetto, the children sledge down the hill next to the wall, on every bit of cardboard, wood or plastic they can find.

The grown-ups worry about the wall. All the children worry about is the snow - melting away before that last, daredevil ride.



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