Lost Identity

 

He’s here, alone in the church. His fragile body huddled up on the cold stone.  At first, when he opens his eyes, he sees this big painting revealing itself out of obscurity. Then these faces, gushing out of the darkness. Right here he discovers the fear, and there the courage. The violence in one hand. Hope, maybe… The light guides his eyes. Who are they? Is he from here as well?

 

Lost child? He doesn’t know where he’s coming from. Not even which language he speaks. He doesn’t have any document that tells him something about himself. Doesn’t know who he is. He asks himself if he even exists. No nation, no rights, no identity. No one recognizes him. In the chiaroscuro between truth and lie, justice and injustice, he resides in the shade. Where is the hope? The light is outside. She is everywhere, attracting, even calling him. He steps out, timidly first, feeling her touch. She points at him! And what if he was the hope?

 

He launched forward. Time had passed, the kilometers had run away and the light had escaped from him. He got used to the shadow, but witnessed the light touching his children. Yet he’s still asking himself how they could use it. Are they finally going to find their home? A land that will hold their rights and dignity.

 

Baia Mare, a mining town in the north of Rumania, first attracted public attention in  2000 as the site of the worst environmental disaster in Europe since the Chernobyl nuclear accident. A huge chemical (cyanide) spill by a gold mining company polluted rivers and drinking water and caused widespread damage in Rumania, Hungary and Serbia, spreading through the Danube until the Black Sea.

The situation remains similarly disastrous for the Roma minority living in Baia Mare. Although the former mayor of the town Catlin Chereches provoked public outrage in 2011 with the construction of a wall around the Cuprom ghetto segregating the town’s Roma, followed by several attempts of forced eviction, the situation does not seem to have improved.

Cuprom, Craica, Pritia. These names describe the three ghetto-like areas which are home to multiple communities of Romas. Areas - far away from the public eye - that have been offered to the Roma community for housing.

Pritia, the poorest of the three places, is a piece of land, situated behind the industrial zone of the city. Families have built shacks out of trash and wood pieces on the land next to a dog rescue. As it is almost inaccessible from the outside, families living inside Pritia have little chance to use any governmental institutions, like schools or help and medical centers. The mediation center that has been built to offer support to the Roma community, is more than 10 km away.

The girls of the family start showing us old pictures of their mums wedding, pictures of their cousins, brothers, sisters, all across Europe. They tell us the name of a medicine, not available in Rumania. Their dad has a heart problem, currently in Lille, waiting for a surgery. Speaking french fluently, the youngest girl asks us for help to get the right pills for her dad and clothes for her little brother.

 

 

 

 

Craica, a territory adjacent to public housing projects, stretches along a railway line. Families have built their shacks here out of material they have found on trash dumps, where some of the people work for very little money. There is one water source, where the women wash clothes and textiles. Here, due to its proximity to public institutions, most of the children here go to school. Still, it is a crammed place and winter must be unbearable. Sniffing glue and the abuse of alcohol is not uncommon.

A young mother approaches us. Holding her hand is her two year old son. She is asking for help: after giving birth to her child  in one of the public hospitals, she was not been given any paperwork documenting the birth of her child. Later efforts to obtain legal documents for her newborn were also not successful. There we stood in front of that two-year old kid, whose future has already been determined. Without papers, without registration records, without passport or nationality, he is practically invisible to the world. The missing birth records, the missing citizenship, exempts him from any basic civil rights. This example illustrates one of the main difficulties of the living situation of the Roma community. Their identity as travelers is on one hand their strength and on the other hand their struggle as no nation or government feels responsible for their community.

Without a passport a human exists in a legal void. Citizenship is the missing link to a legal framework that guarantees civil rights. A passport and a certain nationality is treated as a form of inclusion; inclusion to a community, a country or a society. We live in a world, where your right to life and your standard of living depends on the nationality that’s written in your passport. Without this, the Roma do not feel protected, and no government feels responsible for their wellbeing. This results in the physical exclusion of Roma communities, as seen in these ghettos in Baia Mare.

Cuprom, a former metal factory, infested with toxic and chemical residues, was offered to the Roma community as a housing facility. It’s a block of three social buildings, surrounded by a cement wall. No one is able to see inside. Even though families pay rent to live in these cement barracks, no public service is offered. The uncollected trash has build up to a huge pile of plastic and waste. All the families living here share one water source. The rooms have no windows or doors. There’s no electricity, no gas.

We stand in front of the building, which isn’t more than structures made of cement. It is burnt by the open fires that families light inside the rooms in order to cook and to heat themselves in winter. Garbage falls out of the window, onto the big pile that has grown into a dump. Afraid of the judgment we could make about their housing conditions, only one family agrees to show us their room. A few days before, politicians visited the site together with press, campaigning to solve the problem of their living situation. „They were trying to buy our votes. And then they use the photos to show their people how dirty we are“.

The room is very dark, only a little light comes through the hole in the wall. They have two baby chickens and a pot of mash on the table. The father shows us their registration papers: it speaks of one family with 7 children, receiving housing and child support, an employed father and a rented room. To the bureaucratically trained ears of a government office this objective description on paper might sound acceptable. The reality is very different. The father works in a mattress factory, a three hours bus commute away from their home. The mother of the children tells us about the bullying and violence her children have experienced in public schools.  As a consequence they stay at home. The room, without utilities, costs them 200 euros a month, while the father earns a monthly income of 300 euros.

 

 

As they are officially registered, they receive 20 euros a month per child as governmental support. No running water, no gas. Long electric cords they supply their fridge with electricity from a house on the opposite side.

 

Pata Rât. Club Napoca, a city 150 km south of Baia Mare, a city of universities and culture, was announced European Youth Capital in 2015.

In 2010, local authorities forcibly evicted about 300 Roma from the centre of the city into an area known as Pata Rât. Pat Rât, which lays within immediate proximity to a landfill and a chemical waste dump, is a settlement where around 1500 Romas live. Around 50% of them were moved there by local authorities. This relocation by the municipality drastically reinforced the obstacles that the community is already facing in education, employment and healthcare.

As we approach the dump we can see the vultures circling above tremendous piles of waste, as high as apartment buildings. There are a few waste collection trucks driving around. We drive up a roa with the waste dump at our back. We see a few shacks built out of cardboard and brass sheets. A woman, a shovel in her hand comes out of her hut, with three little boys around her. She waves us away. The young boys come towards us, hoping for some candy or food. The mother seems anxious and nervous because of our presence.

Later we learn from the NGO Romani Criss, that the people from Pata Rat had experienced an overwhelming press attention, with journalists intruding into their private space. The promised advantages from such press reports never proved to be true.