Unhappy return: fear and loathing await fugitives from Belfast racism
Haystacks dot the fields around the village of Tileagd, roses climb up walls, and traffic thunders past its outskirts. The centre of the village is quiet, except for the clip-clop of a horse and cart, and the squeals of children in a playground. Set among lush cornfields and gentle green hills in one of the more prosperous parts of Romania, it seems like a nice, if sleepy place to live.
Or a place to return to. After suffering a week of racist intimidation in south Belfast, 100 Roma have opted to go home. Of the first group of 25 to return, the majority were reported to be heading for Bihor county. In Tileagd, which has two major Roma settlements, there were conflicting claims about their whereabouts.
“Ah yes,” says a policeman, as he gets out of his car. “A bus full of them came in from Budapest yesterday, and were met by a great group of friends and relatives.” Once at the communal desk at police HQ, surrounded by colleagues, this suddenly seems not to have been the case. “It’s not unusual,” says his boss (all refuse to be named). “EU citizens have free movement. We can’t control it.” And anyway, “no one from this village came back last night.” What does he think of what happened in Belfast?
“Perhaps the Gypsies did something wrong, in which case the reaction was justified, but I don’t know the facts of the case. I can’t comment.” What are relations like between the townspeople and the Roma who live on its fringes? “They’re normal. Like everywhere. It’s not correct to lump them all in the same category. They are not from Somalia. They are people like us.”
The mayor is not in his office , but Teusalea Rodica, who often works with the Roma to help fill in forms, or any kind of social work, is happy to talk. “Twenty or 30 of them came back last night, maybe more.
“They were expected by the community – they arrived, and they’re here now, the people who were in Ireland.” How do they get on with the townspeople? “People are not very friendly because they steal. But there are some Gypsies who are good guys.”
She hopes that the local non-governmental organisation, the Smiles Foundation, will reintegrate them, but she hasn’t seen very many signs of change: “They don’t want to work. They’d rather go stealing than working. When they do have jobs they leave after a few days. Most leave school at 11. I know of only one who finished high school. He left for Britain. That’s what the parents say, anyway – he might be in jail.”
In the wake of the Belfast attacks, a number of Romanians wrote to newspapers dissociating themselves from the Roma. Does she consider them to be Romanians? “No. ” A vociferous shake of the head, and a certain disbelief that I’m asking the question at all. “They don’t have the Romanian soul.” The striking thing is the tone in which this is said. She seems a kind woman and yet, unquestioning of her assumptions.
Ciprian Necula, a Roma who works for Sper, a campaign to reduce discrimination against the Roma, says this is common, and that it’s usually ignorance rather than active racism: “Romania is full of proverbs about Gypsies, and children grow up being told that if you don’t behave I’ll send you to the Gypsies.”
He contrasts it with the behaviour of far-right groups in Hungary, where two weeks ago, he says, Molotov cocktails were thrown into Roma houses, “and when people ran away they shot them. A month ago a father and son were killed. The son was only three years old.” The Roma are caught in a “vicious circle: if you have no education or no job, of course you’ll steal to survive – and of course people talk about the criminality of the Roma. It doesn’t allow the Roma to get out of their problems by themselves.”
Lack of education or work is not all their fault. Although since 2002 it has been officially frowned upon to write “no Gypsies” on job adverts, opportunities still mysteriously become unavailable when a Roma applies for them. They may go to school, one Roma woman tells me, “but in vain because the teachers don’t pay attention to them”.
They are not allowed into bars, discos, or clubs ‑ two weeks ago Necula went out on the town, in Craiova, with a group of Roma friends. Of 10 clubs, only three allowed entry. Amnesty has found that townspeople unite against Roma settlements, many of which have no running water or roads.
We cross the railroad, bouncing past the Smiles school, shut for the summer, then some ruined, abandoned homes. We stop outside the stableyard at the entrance to the Roma settlement. Immediately, as happens all the rest of the day, a crowd gathers, close and voluble. And initially, here, we’re welcome. Ramona Mariana, 20, baby suckling at her breast, says: “Yes, they did come here last night. But they left. They’re afraid to go back now, because they were beaten.”
Does anyone know anyone who’s been to Belfast? No, no, and no.
They’re happy to talk about Dublin though, especially a man wearing an Ireland rugby shirt, who was there for two months. “It was beautiful! I was very well treated. The Irish were very good. They didn’t have problems with Romanians.” What did he do there? “I had to beg. No one’s going to hire a man with no English and one leg.”
But even doing that he was able to earn more in a day than the €50 in benefits he gets from the Romanian government each month. “There were many Gypsies who had no home here, but after begging there they came home and made houses for themselves.”
He refuses to give his name. Bancu Racovina, 39, says she’s been to Dublin too. She lasted two weeks – she was beaten up and abused by “local Gypsies”. At this point the Bulibasa [headman]’s wife emerges, shouting. “Go away! I thought you’d help us but you’re not. You just come and make money off us as journalists. Go away! No one from the community has been to Ireland. Go to the other communities!” Suddenly there’s a definite threat in the air, so we leave.
Before he changed his mind about what he’d seen, the policeman mentioned a settlement at Vadul Crisului village, and so we go there next. Radu Rostas, who grew up here and was elected Bulibasa 25 years ago, is a kindly man who, although he looks guarded the minute Belfast is mentioned, and immediately says he knows no one who came from there, shows us around his community, offers sour cherries and drinks, and answers most of our questions. He supports, he says, his family of 11 on about €100 a month (50 for him and 10 for each child child). No one on the encampment works – there was more work in communist times, when there was mass farming, he says, and he also worked in construction, and on the railroad – but there isn’t work now.
We pick our way through mud, through rivulets and scraps of litter, around dogs and pigs. Children squat playing in the mud. Apart from the occasional satellite dish, and somewhat larger houses, the poverty here is not appreciably different from that I’ve seen in the developing world. The houses are neat and clean: a bedroom covered in plastic flowers, pictures on the walls, neatly-folded sleeping arrangements for the nine people who live in three small rooms. “What do they eat? Potatoes, bread. Not beans – they’re too expensive. Cheap rice and spaghetti. Once a year they sacrifice a pig. And there’s a party then? “Oh yes.”
We try other communities. Has anyone been to Belfast? No, just Dublin, Dublin, Dublin. Where did the Belfast group return to, then? The answers shift. We’re convinced they know more than they’re saying. Tara Bedard, programme coordinator of the European Roma Rights Centre, based in Budapest, says this is not unusual. Concerned about the increasing numbers of Roma being deported from countries all over Europe, she has been trying to track groups forced to return to Romania. She has never been able to find out where they’ve gone. She met a plane from Belfast at Budapest airport;they left immediately, in hired buses.
Why would they be so keen to disappear? “When you have been attacked all your life, and throughout history, you don’t trust anybody,” says Necula. “It’s natural. It’s a feature of their life.” They never trust that someone might actually want to help them out, or argue for their rights. If you’re a foreigner, you’re either going to give them something [concrete] or take them away. They don’t trust you. They don’t trust anybody.”
“What’s going on in Ireland now?” asked a young man, intently, when we were at Vadul Crisului. “Can we go back to Ireland?” He has tickets to fly to Dublin next month. “Is it safe?” Are you going to Belfast? “No, no, no, not Belfast.” It’s a veritable chorus from the people surrounding him. What do they know about the attacks? Only what they saw on television. And what did they think of that? “We’re afraid to go to Ireland.” They’ve had problems in Italy and Spain, they say, but nothing as bad as Belfast. Why Belfast, do they think?
“Maybe it’s the spirit there. Maybe people are more violent. I don’t know I’m guessing. But surely they could find a way to solve it peacefully, not like this.” He won’t give his name either, but he says he has to go to build a house for himself, his wife, and his new baby.
He’s 25, young and fit, and intends to hook up with other Roma who work in construction (though the headman sounds a note of caution even about this — Roma exploit other Roma, he says. You can work for days and then never get paid.) And if you don’t get work? “I’ll come back.” For a moment we watch him digging the foundations of the house he hopes to build. He’s doing it by hand, with a pickaxe. The square he has chosen is well-placed — it looks over a fertile valley, full of fields, punctuated by a church spire — but tiny, perhaps five metres squared. It seems a modest enough ambition.