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Archive for the ‘“TOL Roma Blog”’ Category

[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on TOL's Roma Blogs.]

The Slovak flag at half-mast today on a Bratislava street. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – In April 1999, when two American teens mowed down 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, it was a watershed moment for the country. It spawned all sorts of soul-searching and debate, on everything from gun-control laws and teen bullying to vicious video games and use of anti-depressants. It also inspired Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary on gun violence in the U.S.

In other words, a healthy response to trauma may be to look in the mirror and ask: “Does this say something about our society? Does it say something about us? Does it say something about me?”

Yet most Slovaks, it seems, want no such introspection.

Bratislava was the scene Monday of the worst massacre in Slovakia’s 17-year history, in which a lone gunman killed seven people, including six members of the same family, and injured another 15. In a flash, tiny Slovakia made global headlines. Yet the bigger story here for me – journalistically speaking – is not the bloodbath itself, but overall reaction to it: blame the victim.

You see, the family hailed from the Roma minority – a.k.a. the reviled “Gypsies.” And from the look of media reports, the thinking is that this Roma family must’ve done something to push their 48-year-old neighbor, described as moody loner Ľubomír Harman, over the edge into a murderous frenzy. (more…)

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Inciting hatred via campaign billboard. (Credit: TASR)

[This post appeared May 25 on TOL's "Roma Blog"]

BRATISLAVA – It started out this morning as a café breakfast with the press, for the European Roma Rights Center to introduce its range of litigation, advocacy and research to the handful of Slovak media even interested in Roma issues.

The chat, though, led inexorably to the role these reporters themselves – and especially, their less-empathetic colleagues – play in shaping harsh Slovak attitudes toward Roma, a.k.a. “the Gypsies.” For me, it also revealed the need here for what some call “human rights-based journalism.”

One reporter opened eyes with his calculation that of the 15 journalists in his office, “thirteen are racist.” Another admitted, “We live in a racist world, and my company is absolutely racist.”

This is no surprise to anyone living in Eastern Europe, where you’re hard-pressed to find any minority on the entire continent more harassed than the estimated 8 million to 12 million Roma.

Yet this is relevant today in Slovakia, on the eve of June 12 elections. Following in the footsteps of neighboring Hungary and its elections last month, the Roma question is once again an irresistible platform for parties pandering to a public ready to scapegoat minorities for their frustrations with the whole post-Communist transition. And oh, by the way, both countries are now members of the European Union — an exclusive club of European democracies.

Several Slovak parties, for example, are advocating the “voluntary” placement of Roma schoolchildren into new boarding schools – which smacks some as ethnic segregation.

More notoriously, the ruling coalition’s far-right partner, the Slovak National Party, produced billboards featuring a bare-chested, obviously Romani man, heavily tattooed and gold chain draped around his neck. Beneath, the slogan: “So that we don’t feed those who don’t want to work.” (It’s since been revealed that the photo was, in face, digitally altered for dramatic effect.)

Defending the billboard, one SNP official creatively – but unconvincingly – accused critics of being the real racists: after all, they were the ones who assumed the man was a Gypsy. (more…)

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Just one of the regal touches at the king's home; this from his front gate. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania – It’s not often you get a chance to interview royalty. Especially when that king inherited the throne from a father who anointed himself king. So, I’m blogging about him twice. (See below: “The King and Carrie Bradshaw.”)

Saturday afternoon, the self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies, Florin Cioaba, graciously sat with us for two hours. (I brought a modest box of chocolates, as a token of appreciation.)

Sure, he barely stifled his yawns during our chat. But he also tolerated us, as we peppered him about early-teen marriage among the “Kalderash” Roma. Including, his own daughter’s media circus of a wedding in 2003.

What we were especially curious about, even more than the king’s opinion, was his daughter’s. After all, Ana-Maria is now a young woman of 19 or 20, married nearly seven years. (With one son, aged 4.) What does she think today about teen marriage? About her own marriage? And what about pressure on her community, from both Bucharest and Brussels, to change this tradition?

Our team – Romani journalist Petru Zoltan, our spirited Romanian interpreter, Lavinia Gliga, and I, the journalism trainer – dropped in on the king without warning. This was Petru’s idea, as he assumes the role of guru of all things related to the so-called “Gypsy mentality.”

Petru had interviewed Cioaba once before, as an investigative reporter for Romanian newspaper National Journal. He predicted that if we pre-arranged a meeting, the king would dodge us somehow. I trusted Petru’s take, so we drove four hours to historic Sibiu, banking on this gamble that he would for sure be home when we came a-knockin’. Then, talk to us.

Yet this is exactly what happened … (more…)

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Anişoara Mihai, seated behind her husband, before he told her to leave. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania – For another perspective on what internal pressures the Kalderash Roma face to abandon their tradition of early-teen marriage, tonight we visited the stately home of Ilarie Mihai.

Around the large conference table in his office, Mihai, executive president of the National Council of Roma in Romania, railed against those dowry-driven Kalderash who marry off their children for the biggest booty:  some dowries of gold coins are said to run up to 50,000 euros.

“We’ll never become civilized if we continue this way!” he roared as his wife, Anişoara, served us coffee in delicate porcelain cups. She then took a seat behind her husband, in a chair against the wall.

In maroon headscarf and braided hair, 55-year-old Anişoara was the picture of a tradition-bound Kalderash woman, listening impassively as her husband spoke. At some point, though, she uttered a few words to him in Romani. It wasn’t clear exactly what she said, but his reaction sure was: with a wave of his hand, he ordered her to leave the room.

Except, she didn’t. In fact, as my colleague Petru Zoltan carried on interviewing Mihai, my interpreter, Lavinia Gliga, and I motioned for Anişoara to join us at our end of the table. We’ve heard too many men talking about a women’s issue – the right to choose when to marry. So, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to hear from a Romani matriarch … (more…)

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Kalderash life is light years from Manhattan. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania – A scoop just for you: the King of the Gypsies is no fan of “Sex and the City.”

We’re here largely to interview Florin Cioaba’s daughter, Ana-Maria, who was at the heart of an early-teen controversy seven years ago. He told us he married her off at “13-and-a-half or 14,” though media reports then suggested she might be as young as 12. Her groom was 15.

Cioaba described the parental challenges for deeply traditional “Kalderash” Roma who are raising daughters in an era soaked with raunchy images from MTV, Hollywood and everywhere else. One source of blame pricked my ear: Sex and the City.

This was actually the second time in recent months that I’ve heard someone blame the racy HBO series for loosening societal mores. The first was in stylish Hong Kong, from a Chinese student of mine from the less-stylish mainland.

My student, a wholesome-looking 25-year-old, explained how some classmates, influenced by watching Carrie Bradshaw and her posse prowl for romance, urged her to dress more sexily, less bookish, join them at the trendy nightclubs, and … you know. But she was resisting. A couple months later, though, I couldn’t help but notice her sleek new haircut.

Here in Sibiu, the Kalderash Roma are under pressure to end their practice of early-teen marriage, especially the sacred ritual of proving the bride’s virginity by parading the bloodied sheet. Legal intercourse in Romania begins at 18.

Holding off, though, has serious costs, says the king. Thanks in part to Sex and the City, some Kalderash girls want to delay marriage – and chase a bit of fun beforehand. “Here’s what our girls learn from the show: in the morning, she’s with one guy, in the afternoon, another, and at night, a third,” Cioaba lamented. “This is the education we want for our daughters?”

Evidently, not. Meanwhile, has Sex and the City become a global phenomenon, reverberating through conservative cultures, fomenting female rebellion and sexual emancipation? It’s worth a closer look.

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Ion and Oana, standing in front of their village school, explained how their parents assimilated. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – In late 2006, an American Yiddishist in Vilnius, Lithuania, Dovid Katz, explained to me why language is the connective tissue for any tribe.

“A bona fide linguistic community must have streets where that language is spoken,” Katz said during the interview.

I’ve now seen this theory in action in the Romanian city of Targu Jiu. In the neighborhood of “Meteor,” the Kalderash Roma live together, practice the same traditions, and their womenfolk dress distinctively: vibrant skirt, head scarf and hair braided down the front. Just as important, though, is that they’re speaking their mother tongue, Romani.

Just outside of Targu Jiu is the quiet village of Ceauru, which is populated by both Roma and Romanians. The Roma here have a unique history, says the director of the local school, Cornel Somacu. He himself is Romanian, but he tells us he’s researched this because so many of his students, including some of his highest-achieving girls, are Roma.

For centuries, the Roma here were slaves owned by the local monastery. After emancipation in the 19th century, many remained in the village, living on separate sides from the ethnic Romanians. That continued until 1950, says Somacu, when the new Communist regime wanted to build a power plant nearby. The authorities uprooted the entire village, Roma and Romanians alike, and resettled them in new housing and new neighborhoods with utter disregard for who lived next to whom.

“This also mixed up the mentalities,” he says …

Just like the Jews of Eastern Europe and other ethnic groups I’ve written about, Communist pressure to conform created this “Lost Generation” of children whose parents refused to transmit unique cultural traits. (more…)

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Kalderash leader Ion Mihai, here outside his church, explained teen marriage in language I related to. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – Beyond ugly stereotypes of the Roma (known more pejoratively as “Gypsies”) across Central and Eastern Europe, outsiders like me have also heard about early-teen marriage among certain Roma groups.

I’ve learned about the parental obsession with a daughter’s virginity: if a bride is discovered to have already been deflowered, it unleashes shame for the whole family. For proof, the bloodied sheet is publicly displayed.

From a Western-liberal perspective, I also suspected this was more a feature of a patriarchal society that sees its men bent on keeping their womenfolk barefoot, pregnant and subservient.

Today, though, I had an epiphany about why these fathers are doing what their doing. And as a fellow father, I began to understand them.

The revelation happened here in the city of Targu Jiu, best known as the hometown of sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi. The city is also the scene of a great tragedy, say the local community of “Kalderash” Roma.

(more…)

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Armed guards escort TB-infected patients in the Jilava prison hospital. (Photo: mjj)

JILAVA, Romania – I’ve now lived in ex-Communist Eastern Europe for most of the 20-year transition to democracy. And try as I might, I’ll never fully appreciate what it was like to live under dictatorship.

I can, however, imagine those farthest from human rights were the fellows thrown behind bars of a Communist-era prison.

Which is why it’s been so jarring to hear of a revolution apparently taking place within Romania’s prison system. Two decades after its police state crumbled, prisoners are reaping the harvest of democratization, after learning about their newfound human rights and related protections. Which leads me to a mind-boggling revelation: prisoners may feel more empowered than the ordinary Romanian on the street. (Not that we had the time to explore that angle.)

Today we visited the Bucharest prison, located in fact in the nearby village of Jilava. More specifically, we toured the Jilava prison hospital.

This was a visit arranged by my reporting colleague, Petru Zoltan, stemming from his interest in the Romanian prison-system’s struggle to contain the spread of HIV and tuberculosis within its walls. A serious, meaningful idea, I thought. Moreover, how the most disproportionately arrested people within the prisons – the Roma – are presumably also the most disproportionately infected.

(more…)

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