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Posts Tagged ‘Red Sludge’

[The following piece was published March 20, 2012, on The Mantle.]

MASERU, Lesotho – Last week was one filled with nostalgia and melancholy.

Li Yu survived the Wenzhou train crash. (Photo: mjj)

From my new base in Lesotho, three other adopted homes – Hungary, Slovakia and China, all dear to my heart – each resurfaced in the news with depressingly familiar story-lines. From thousands of miles away, they reminded me of past reporting – and how little changes.

First up, Slovakia, where I recently lived for five years. One of its historic, hilltop castles burns to the ground – apparently caused by two kids, 11 and 12, messing with cigarettes on a windy day. From an adjacent village, they accidentally set fire to some dry grass, whose embers floated upward, igniting the castle’s timber roof.

Poof! In minutes, a gothic, seven-century-old memento, gone.

The Slovak and Czech reaction? Gypsies! It must’ve been those damned Gypsies! More than a rush to judgment, it was a virtual blood-libel against Europe’s largest and most marginalized minority, known more respectfully as Roma. Over the years, I’ve chronicled countless times [like here, here and here] how post-Communist Central Europe always finds something to blame on the Roma. (Even if there’s no love lost in Slovakia for castles that are essentially relics of Hungarian overlordship, while Slovaks toiled as serfs.)

This fire came on the heels of public outrage over a galling corruption scandal, followed by an election that ousted the ruling coalition. If a beaten child has no recourse toward his parents, he turns to kick the dog. Especially in a region saddled by congenital resistance to introspection, which much prefers to point the finger of blame elsewhere.

Though in this case, soul-searching is well warranted, as a Slovakian art historian asserted. The brushfire threat around the castle always existed, he charged, and state authorities were negligent to protect and preserve it.

“It is forbidden to burn grass and it is certainly wrong to do so, but it is just as sick to put the blame on ‘unidentified perpetrators’ who are allegedly members of a minority in the interest of distracting attention from one’s own responsibility,” said the art-historian, Július Barczi.

Next in the news, China.

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[The following article appeared on Oct. 4, 2011, in The Christian Science Monitor. It’s the third of my three-part package to commemorate the “Red Sludge” tragedy, with Part I here and Part II here.]

Since last year’s ‘Red Sludge’ disaster, Hungary’s worst environmental tragedy, Hungarians have used the tools of democracy to seek restitution – a rarity in this former Communist state.

By Michael J. Jordan, Correspondent

DEVECSER, Hungary – On Oct. 3, 2010, Jozsef Konkoly finished installing a new heating system in his home in the Hungarian town of Devescer, in advance of winter. Overall, he’d invested a small fortune on renovations.

Jozsef Konkoly, standing where his home once stood, has inspired hundreds of neighbors. (Photo: mjj)

The next day, red sludge cascaded through his windows.

Mr. Konkoly is just one face of Hungary’s deadliest ecological tragedy, the toxic “Red Sludge” calamity that struck this small Central European nation last October. But one year later, he’s also become a rare – and unlikely – symbol of Hungarian democracy-in-action.

Konkoly successfully sued the factory that was responsible for the disaster, becoming an inspiration for hundreds of other ordinary folks in Devecser and Kolontar to do the same. Victims include not only those who lost homes and are now moving into new, government-built homes, but the unscathed neighbors who saw their property value collapse overnight.

At the same time, Konkoly and fellow plaintiffs illuminate a stark truth about Hungary today, two decades into the transition from Communist dictatorship to capitalist democracy: despite growing disillusion and revisionist nostalgia for a ruthless ancien régime, democracy and rule of law are slowly taking root in these post-authoritarian lands.

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[The following Dispatch appeared Oct. 3 in Foreign Policy (with five of my photos in the FP Slideshow The Red Monster). It’s the second of my three-part package to commemorate the “Red Sludge” tragedy, with Part I here and Part III here.]

One year later, Hungary is still reeling from its worst-ever environmental castrophe.

BY MICHAEL J. JORDAN | OCTOBER 3, 2011

DEVECSER, Hungary—Imre Vagi, 56, doesn’t scare easily. Even when facing a flood of biblical proportions.

Hungarian Imre Vagi, with his young poplars, has bounced back from the lethal flood. (Photo: mjj)

Vagi has scraped for survival ever since Hungary’s communist regime crumbled in 1989. As industries collapsed, he was laid off in the early 1990s by Magyar Aluminium (MAL), a huge state-owned employer in the western half of this small Central European country.

Many folks in Veszprem County are like the stocky Vagi, with his unshaven face and long sideburns, and trace their roots to the peasants who harvested holdings of the nobility, on undulating fields of potatoes, corn, wheat, even strawberries. The Catholic Church claimed the first portion; nobles, the second; and the miserable souls who’d actually picked the stuff, the last.

Agriculture has been a way of life and mode of survival for centuries, yet as the communist system disintegrated, party-run farms were also in crisis. Nevertheless, Vagi tapped into his farming genetics and in 1995 bought his own plot of five sandy hectares. By last fall, he was tilling up to 400 hectares of mostly grain, cereal, and sunflower — an impressive feat of post-communist entrepreneurship.

Then, the “red sludge” hit. On Oct. 4, 2010, MAL’s communist-era but still active reservoir of toxic waste ruptured, unleashing a crimson wave of 184 million gallons of the caustic byproduct of aluminum production. The noxious goop washed over a swath of 15 square miles, including Vagi’s land.

The first to be walloped was the village of Kolontar; 10 people drowned in the alkaline muck, including a toddler. The torrent then splashed across the town of Devecser, burning scores of victims, poisoning hundreds of homes, and killing off most of the plant and animal life in the Marcal — a tributary to Europe’s second-largest river, the Danube. It was Hungary’s worst-ever chemical accident: one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii.

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[The following piece appeared July 22 in TOL/Transitions Online. (It was republished on The Mantle, then republished again on Roma Transitions.) This was the first of my three-part package to commemorate the “Red Sludge” tragedy, with Part II here and Part III here.]

Only a few condemned homes, stained red, have yet to be demolished. (Photo: mjj)

DEVECSER, Hungary – It was just past noon last Oct. 4, and Karoly Horvath had returned home from fishing a local lake, here in provincial western Hungary. His wife and 12-year-old daughter were home to greet him, too – just as the waves of red sludge crashed through the door and windows.

Within seconds, the toxic mud was above their waist, burning the skin. Unable to move, Karoly could only watch mother and child screaming in agony.

“It was the most awful thing,” says Karoly, 38. “As a husband and father, stuck in that red sludge, seeing that happen to them before my eyes, but being so helpless to do something about it.”

His wife, Eva, was hospitalized with burns across 70 percent of her body. At least she survived: ten were killed in what instantly became Hungary’s deadliest industrial accident ever. Greenpeace went so far as to call it one of Europe’s worst ecological disasters “in the past 20 or 30 years.”

For Hungary, the rupture of a Communist-era reservoir of aluminum waste was one part Chernobyl, one part Pompeii. In Devecser, it poured trauma upon trauma for a people already battered by years of economic hardship and political hatred. Today, though, amid the gloom is a glimmer of hope: scores of hapless victims have discovered a rare source of empowerment – the courts – to pursue compensation from the wealthy, well-connected owners of the aluminum company. This reveals a surprising appreciation for the rule of law in a country often painted as fed up with its harsh brand of democracy, two decades into the post-Communist transition.

On the flip side, though, a new strain of Hungarian resentment has recently bubbled up: at the Roma living among them, known more derogatorily here as ciganyok, or “gypsies.” The venom illuminates how embittered Hungarians have grown, especially toward Europe’s most marginalized minority.

Observers may view the Horvath family as victims. But because they’re Roma, some Hungarians harbor doubts. The mantra around Devecser is, “For many, this wasn’t a red sludge, but a golden sludge.”

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