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Posts Tagged ‘Balkans’

[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on Transitions.]

Guards lead sick inmates in the hallway of the Jilava prison hospital. (Photo: mjj)

Romania’s prisons are slowly gaining ground on tuberculosis, but the prognosis on AIDS is less encouraging.

by Petru Zoltan and Michael J. Jordan

JILAVA, Romania | In 2007, Octavian Balescu was sentenced to seven years in jail for trying to sell less than half a gram of heroin.

He was thrown into Romania’s Jilava prison, just outside the capital, Bucharest. Jilava, once notorious for its inhumane treatment of prisoners, is where, in November 1940, Romania’s fascist leader Marshal Ion Antonescu and his Legionnaires executed 64 opponents. And it was where, during four decades of communism, the paranoid regime of Nicolae Ceausescu would send anyone it deemed a threat.

Today, Romanian prisoners are surely better off. With the country a new member of the EU, it has adopted Western-style prisoner rights, of which inmates are informed.

Still, prisoners have something to fear: Jilava could make them gravely ill, as it has done to Balescu. “My most basic right is to do my time without getting sick,” he said. But somewhere along the way, he contracted tuberculosis and landed in the Jilava prison hospital, the largest in the Romanian prison system.

His plight is hardly surprising in Romania, which has the highest TB rate among the 27 EU countries. Observers say the prison system is a primary source of infection, not only for the inmates, but for their visitors and their jailers as well.

There’s positive news, though. Romania’s TB rate is declining, and officials continue to reverse a Ceausescu policy built on lies. They are no longer denying the problem exists and are accepting Western assistance. (more…)

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[This piece appeared July 6 in TOL.]

Adolescent mothers and bleak lives are the toll of one Bulgarian Romani community’s taboo against sex education.

by Michael J. Jordan and Ognyan Isaev

Daniela Metodieva, in her mahala. (Photo: mjj)

SHUMEN, Bulgaria | In this small Bulgarian city, the Roma mostly keep to their own quarter, known locally as the mahala. Among women in the neighborhood, many married in their mid-teens and bore their first child within a year. Then came several more children in quick succession.

Daniela Metodieva, though, says she bucked expectations. She held off on marriage until 17, then gave birth to a girl the next year. She stopped there, at one child.

She’s exceptional in other ways as well: while raising her daughter, now 17, Metodieva waitresses in a bar. Other women in the mahala are either unemployed or sweep the streets of downtown Shumen.

Metodieva wants better things for her daughter, but worries the teen will follow in her footsteps. “I’m only 35 – I don’t want to be a grandmother yet,” says Metodieva, who’s standing, arms folded, in the middle of the road. Her neighbors gather around, listening in curiously.

“Some guy may lie to my daughter,” Metodieva continues. “She may get married and have her own family soon. But what will she understand about life? … For sure, if I could turn back the clock, I wouldn’t marry so young. It’s only when you’re older that you see what life is really like.”

Metodieva and other Bulgarian Roma say the community needs a dose of sex education, to fully grasp the consequences of teen pregnancy. They partly blame the state, which doesn’t mandate the subject in the school curriculum. Romani parents then amplify the silence: sex is as taboo a topic as there is.

As a result, the community doesn’t connect the dots of how teen pregnancy perpetuates the cycle of poverty. (more…)

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[The following appeared June 4 in Transitions Online (TOL).]

Ali Berat is a role model for many in his community, but others criticize him for exhorting Roma to abandon their traditions.

by Michael J. Jordan and Shejla Fidani 4 June 2010

SUTO ORIZARI, Macedonia | Ali Berat is a rarity in the Balkans. A rarity even among his people: not only is he a Romani imam, but he also hails from a devout Muslim family, within a vast Roma diaspora known for its mild religiosity.

Imam Ali Berat. (Photo: mjj)

Berat, however, studied for six years in the Islamic holy city of Medina, then returned to his Macedonian hometown on a mission to preach to his people. In his crosshairs are Romani traditions he says help stunt their development.

“I would like to ask one question about all these traditions,” says the bearded Berat, 36, while seated in his elegantly upholstered living room. “Have they changed the education levels of our people? Have they lifted us from poverty? … When we say we are Muslims, that is not saying we are not also Roma. But all these traditions are taking us one step back.”

It’s not unusual for a charismatic Romani leader to offer religion as a salve for suffering: researchers track a pattern across Europe dating back 60 years, particularly among Evangelical and Pentecostal Roma. What’s interesting today is how this is happening to the Roma of Macedonia – a country polarized by inter-ethnic, inter-religious tensions between the majority Macedonian Orthodox and minority Albanian Muslims. The dominoes have also tipped toward local Roma. Which is also cause for concern among some observers, who suggest Roma identity is at risk.

“Islam in Suto Orizari does not show respect toward Roma culture,” says Romani activist Enisa Eminovska. “Increased religiosity among the Roma concerns me because the price of being ‘real Muslim’ is abandoning Roma culture.” [For more text and photos …] (more…)

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Nedzmije Selimi (Photo: mjj)

[The following piece appeared in the April 29 edition of Transitions. For more photos, see the post below.]

After 10 years, many Romani refugees from the Kosovo conflict can neither return to their old homes nor build new ones abroad.

By Michael J. Jordan and Shejla Fidani, 29 April 2010

ŠUTO ORIZARI, Macedonia, and POMAZATIN, Kosovo | The anguish is etched on Nedzmije Selimi’s face even before she starts talking.

In a gray-and-white headscarf and threadbare vest, she lets loose with her lament. First, she lost her husband to a brain aneurysm, which left her to raise their son alone in Kosovo, a society on the brink of war. After NATO intervened with 78 days of air strikes, she grabbed her 8-year-old boy and fled a bloodthirsty climate, south to neighboring Macedonia.

Selimi and tens of thousands of other Kosovo Roma feared vengeance from ethnic Albanians returning after their own cleansing, at the hands of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. While the Albanians blamed Serbs for the campaign, they also accused the Roma of collaboration.

At 53, Selimi has been a refugee for 10 years. She lives on the edge of the Macedonian capital, Skopje – and on the edge of a country that has shown little hint of hospitality. She describes her struggle to raise a son, now 18, amid joblessness estimated at 80 percent for the Roma here. Since the NATO bombardment, her son suffers anxiety and nose bleeds. He hasn’t been to school in 10 years. So she goes job-hunting for him.

“It’s hard to keep a child on the right track, to teach him not to steal,” she says, on the verge of tears. “If there were jobs here, I’d gladly work myself.”

Selimi is one of the Kosovo conflict’s oft-forgotten refugees, the Roma.

Kosovo today is independent but fragile. And one of the most sensitive postwar issues is how to restore “multiethnicity,” to beat back the notion that ethnic cleansing ultimately triumphed. Most symbolically, the question is how to secure the return of Kosovo Serbs to their historic heartland while not triggering another round of revenge killings that strains regional stability.

But without the Kosovo Roma, who constituted a significant slice of the prewar population, any claim of a multiethnic Kosovo would ring hollow.

(more…)

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Bulgaria’s arrest today of an ex-minister accused of bribes, and recent jail sentences of two major figures for fraud and embezzlement, show that the government is finally cracking down on corruption.

Taglines along the bottom of political billboards, like this one in the Black Sea city of Varna, reminded voters during the July 2009 elections that “Buying and Selling Votes is a Crime.” (Photo: mjj)

By Michael J. Jordan Correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2010

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Bulgaria has the European Union’s most government corruption, and is its most violent member state. But convictions there for high-level corruption are rare.

That’s why two court cases in the past fortnight are such a landmark, and a sign that steady European Union pressure on the small Balkan country is producing results.

On March 18, Asen Drumev, former head of the State Agricultural Fund, was sentenced to four years in prison for embezzling $34 million worth of EU assistance. Then on Monday, businessman Mario Nikolov received 10 years for defrauding Brussels of $8.3 million of agriculture and rural-development funds.

They were the first officials to be punished in an effort to placate an increasingly irate Brussels, which has for years criticized Bulgaria’s widespread vote-buying, shady financing of political parties, money laundering, and failure to seize financial assets of alleged gangsters. As many as 150 mafia-related murders have netted no convictions.

Bulgaria routinely vows to crack down, but has never done so.

“The EU was already fed up with Bulgaria for failing to deliver on its promises, so it couldn’t be delayed any longer,” says Ruslan Stefanov, of the Center for the Study of Democracy in Sofia, the capital. (more…)

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Romanian prison guards jockey for roles that put them into contact with TB-infected inmates to receive a 50 percent bump in pay. (Michael J. Jordan/GlobalPost)

Funding and democracy helped Romania improve conditions in prisons. But will the funds run out?

By Michael J. Jordan — Special to GlobalPost

Published: March 24, 2010

JILAVA, Romania — Communist Romania was a vast den of spies and paranoia, with thousands locked up inside one of Eastern Europe’s cruelest prison systems. Twenty years later, prisoners land behind bars for different reasons, but they still have much to fear.

Prisons are widely considered a leading source of HIV and tuberculosis (TB) infection. And Romania, which already claims the highest TB rate in the 27-member European Union, now worries that heroin injection with tainted needles is spurring an HIV crisis. (Overcrowding and lack of hygiene are leading causes of TB in the slums of Mumbai, as well.)

But thanks to the work of Veronica Broasca and others, as the world marks Tuberculosis Day today, Romania’s prisons can be held up as a success story.

Broasca, an activist with the Romanian Association Against AIDS, heads up the group’s prisons program. She and her colleagues are allowed into Romania’s prisons to provide drug-addiction services, offering inmates a chance to come forward for either clean needles or methadone treatment. Before she leaves, Broasca also unloads a batch of condoms, lubricants and HIV literature in the prison’s visitation room.

She credits prison officials for their progressive mindset, but said they’re also driven by fear of inmates’ ability to seek revenge through the courts. Recent lawsuits accuse prisons of denying them access to proper health care.

“Convicts know their rights,” said Broasca. Prison administrators “tell us they’ll be sued in one second if they don’t provide the treatment needed.”

This new respect for prisoner rights also reveals that in Romania two decades of post-communist democratization has grown roots. Romania’s campaign to join the EU obliged it to align its laws and values with club members. As further incentive, Europe dangled a carrot: cash to tackle problems such as the TB infection rate. (more…)

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BRATISLAVA — This weekend, Serbia followed through on its threat to boycott and torpedo a Balkans-European Union summit, over a simple but enormously symbolic issue: it rejected the attendance of “independent” Kosovo.

This interested me for two reasons. First, as a journalist who’s reported from Kosovo three times (including the aftermath of the 1999 NATO airstrikes), it underscores the continued fragility of the now-severed Serbian province. I’m now putting the finishing touches on an article that explains why Kosovo Roma refugees are reluctant to return home. Serbia’s stance adds to their anxiety.

Second, from my vantage point in Slovakia, I’m reminded the EU is hardly united on the issue of Kosovo statehood. Washington and most of Western Europe stand behind Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. But Serbia has in its corner Orthodox-Slav big brother, Russia. As one of five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, Moscow blocks Kosovo’s UN integration.

More quietly, though, EU members Slovakia, Romania, Cyprus, Greece and Spain also oppose Kosovo statehood. Why? Because of the domino effect of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

Greece and Cyprus fear the same for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey); for Spain, it’s the Basques; and for Slovakia and Romania, it’s their large ethnic-Hungarian minorities, who primarily populate lands that were once part of Hungary.

Spain’s position on Kosovo is most awkward, considering Madrid holds the EU’s rotating presidency. For me, the Slovakia-Hungary-Romania tension is most palpable. Anxiety over Hungarian “irredentism” – whether real or contrived – rears its head surprisingly often, as a weapon to whip up the masses.

In fact, there’ll be lots of noise on June 4th, when Hungary’s far-right marks the 90-year trauma of the Treaty of Trianon, which lopped off two-thirds of Hungary’s territory, and left one-third of its brethren inside new, alien borders.

I’ll surely have a few thoughts about that.

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