"The word "gypsies" doesn’t offend us". How people live in Transcarpathian camp, home to killed Roma
Barkasovo village of Mukacheve district. Roma settlement has about two thousand people there, the vast majority of whom are children, the Opinion explores.
Kids are the most interesting ones. Their pack rushes to the guests and doesn’t leave us during the entire tour. Just like mercury balls, they are moving closer and then rush away. Sometimes their number changes, but not for a moment they will leave you alone. First of all, they surround our photographer craving to look into the camera screen, also they are gladly posing. Further, they are following you like a puppy and they are the first ones to sneak into any place of the camp that we want to see.
In about an hour and a half, we will have walked across the whole camp (here it is called officially – settlement). It is situated on a street aside from the main village. We want to see what is the way of living of this community, one of whose representatives were killed on June 23 in Lviv. As a guide and in fact as a host, we have the head of the community, or how locals say – baron. The interesting thing is, that in the first place 64-year-old Fedir Varga is the pastor here: most of the settlement belongs to one of the neo-Christian churches – Church of the Living God. It seems that church itself is almost the main factor that groups people in the camp. “It used to be more difficult, about 15-20 years ago, but since God started to work with us, it becomes easier. People started to work, they want to live better”, the pastor says.
We mat at the crossroads (he himself lives in the village, not in the camp, but still not too far away), first of all, we’ll go through the main street. It is generously covered with a crushed stone. Our guide says to us: until recent days, the road has been almost the main problem: During rains, there was a complete “kal” (swamp, mud), but we’ve organized ourselves and with the help of, as they say, “state”, we were able to handle it. Thereafter we have another number one problem here: water. We have wells, but only every other house has a water-pump in it, we’re not talking about drainage. “Definitely, it’s not the only problem. What do people do for a living? Do they have documents? Their kids go to school?” – a standard set of questions to the leader of Roma community at Romani camp.
Senior Roma tells us: They go abroad, for now, half of the men are working in Hungary. Also, they cultivate land; in particular, they grow potatoes: “We’ve divided three hectares between our brothers (Fidor Varga addresses us “sister” and “brother” – author’s comments), everyone works on his piece of land. People work for forest managers. Pasture the cattle. They are working in Slovakia as well. Some of them are working with iron – they are making “chotorni” (gutters – author’s comments). That’s how they win their bread.
He assures us: Almost everyone has passport and kids attend school. There are nurseries for the smallest in the camp, kindergartens in the village and two schools. One of which is so-called “Roma” primary school, and the other they call “governmental”. However, if according to Fedir Varga, the majority of the settlement is children – it means at least one thousand, then only a few hundred are schoolchildren: 120 children go to “Roma” school and about 130 – to “governmental” and another 30 go to kindergarten. “We pray for children to learn. They must learn to read and write at least. I believe, that not being able to do it is a sin”. The pastor says, “I’ll say this way: Roma people are not afraid of work. And we’re not afraid of order as well. But the hardest thing is – to get them to study”.
34-year-old Ruslan has six children. He has blue eyes and belongs to representatives of the traditional Romani profession. Here in Barkas, his grandfathers and great-grandfathers been born and lived their lives, and all of them were living from making bricks. It was from the same brick, known as “saman”, that vast majority of houses in the camp were built. Just in the backyard, he has a pit, from which he digs clay that he mixes with water and straw. After he forms bricks he leaves them to dry in the sun. “This is the bread!”, he says. He says that one day he can make up to five hundred bricks. To build a standard for this area house, it usually takes up to four thousands of them.
We’re asking about something else: we want to understand their attitude towards the names “Roma” and “Gypsies”. At the very beginning of our visit, Fedir Varga explained: we say both ways, but Roma is also an international word. “When they say “Roma”, it means they respect us, but we also say “Gypsies”, we are Magyar Gypsies!” Ruslan, who is 30 years younger, says: “The word “Gypsies” doesn’t offend us! It is the way our parents said, and their parents as well”.
Ruslan is also weaving baskets: Here it is traditional Roma craft, but it’s seasonal, so there is nothing to show. Fedir Varga says: 10 years ago he himself was weaving and selling them on the market, but now this kind of activity slowly fades away. Meanwhile, the younger man returns to his bricks and we are going further. Ruslan’s neighbours are now erecting a wall that will allow them to expand their old brick house. However new part is built out of ordinary industrial blocks. We ask our guide about this. “They want something new, something that is better”, smiles Fedir Varga. Also in the house next to us, we notice new metal-plastic windows. You can hardly find here a fence: Roma people don’t care about borders, and kids, who are still following us, enter each house like if it’s their own.
5-6 children in the family – it is standard, kind of a norm as well as marriage in 14-15 years – says baron-pastor. Here we have 28-year-old Lily, she has three children. The elder daughter is already catching her up in terms of height. Her three-year-old younger son is in her arms. “Where does my husband work? I have no husband, I’m on my own. No, not on my own, I’m with them, with my kids, somewhere here should be running the eldest son!”, and after answering, the woman went slowly on her own business.
Andriy Lakatosh, who’s holding his granddaughter in his arms, tells us about the main source of income for men from the camp. It goes this way, “chief” – the one who found work in Hungary, comes and forms a group, then they are going together to the neighbouring country for earnings. He says that in general, they do construction works for several months. The “chief” is needed to organize the process but also to ensure that the workers are not deceived, that, they say, happens quite often. “And here there’s not a lot of work to do, you know. But we want to work honestly”, the Roma says.
Geese, chickens, and ducklings are wandering around the settlement. Almost by every house, you can see a dog. Despite their small size and non-threatening appearance, they bark like real guards. But protagonists of a local story are omnipresent children, who really seem to be the most numerous group in the camp. The life is blossoming here. And the impression is that today is a laundry day: Almost in every backyard, there are women who wash clothes and bedding right of the sky.
Eva Rats has a lot to do with it: with the help of a primitive machine at the doorstep, she washes clothes that belongs to ten members of her family, 6 of them are her children.
We ask her: is it a custom here that certain type of work is for women only, and the other is for men? The Romani woman answers: the majority of women work only around the home, a lot of kids, you know, and husband is a breadwinner. “If he won’t have any work, he’s not going to do mine. He will just chill on the couch”, she smiles while pulling out clothes from the washing machine. The pastor corrects woman: “A decent husband will always find what to do around the house”.
Here is Elsa Balog, who is a widow for a long time. She is 86 years old and she is the oldest resident of the settlement. Back in a day, she was working in Kolhoz (collective farm – translator comment), she had a cow and her own land, that was her source of income. Now she’s the mother of nine children and grandmother to many grandchildren, helping descendants. She says: Important thing is to have work for Roma, and then there will be peace in the community.
Does the camp differ from what it was a couple decades ago? “Both yes and no, but the youth differs from us at their days”, the woman says.
Local Roma people don’t know Romani language: they call themselves “Magyar Gypsies”, and their main language is Hungarian. “But we are citizens of Ukraine!”, emphasizes pastor-baron, who is moreover, a deputy of the village council. Then he says with a smile: yes, it’s true that the Roma are good musicians. There are some skillful violinists and the guitar players, but now everyone is working abroad. Fortune tellers have never been there: “It’s not our tradition, not of Barcas Roma”. They have them in other settlements. But we believe that this is a great sin”.
Standing on this very new road, we continue to talk about local customs and Gypsy cuisine. “We love meat. This is our main food, without it, we are not full. Yes, there is a recipe for gypsy cabbage rolls: without rice, meat with meat!” According to him, “gurka”, famous Transcarpathian blood sausage, is a dish invented by Roma. “We love music and horses! We love freedom! And we love peace!” He adds: ” Roma don’t need wealth. But work, they need it so much!”
While responding to our next question, he stares at his feet and says: ” And for this, I pray, every day I tell people every day, during service I tell: It should be clean, there should be order!”
From time to time, wagons are going through the camp. In the settlement, there are 50 horses and more than two dozen of wagons in total. The Roma that has them are considered to be rich. Wagon loaded with timber is passing us by. “The owner works for forest manager and receives timber for it than he sells it in the village. This is a good job”, our guide says. “You know, we love horses. Cars are just an iron. But the horse, it’s for your soul.”
24-year-old Joseph has a bandage on his leg. Family, to which deceased Davyd Pop belongs, lives on the outskirts of the settlement. Here is the house where he lived with his wife (now she is in Lviv’s hospital). Right next to it lives his mother, she went for his body.
Josyph, who, as they say in Transcarpathia David’s “shovgor” (brother-in-law, author’s comment), says that assault was at midnight. They were trying to escape from men armed by chains and knives. It didn’t work out. When he saw David – he was already dead. This is the only thing can be understood from his story. It’s not possible to find out his opinion about the reasons behind the incident. Also, with the help of our guide, we can understand from Josyph’s direct speech that attackers were previously acquainted with David and everything could have happened because of a personal conflict. Relatives and the pastor say in one voice: “David was never seen drunk in the camp, he didn’t fight, didn’t do any trouble. We miss him.” He shows us a photo of David with his wife Ibola. A clear answer to the question: “Do you think this happened exactly because they are Roma or for other reasons?” – we’ve never heard, neither “yes” nor “no”.
Fedir Varga says: all participants of Lviv’s incident are one family, and for instance, the only family that went to Lviv to work. Usually, Barkas Roma have a settled life. “Magyar Gypsies – and this is who we are – for the most part, don’t travel. Yes, our people go to work abroad, but their home is here. And this family has spent more time in Lviv, so it became their home. They went to work there: disassemble and dispose of garbage, other Roma who were there – not from here, not ours”, the pastor says.
“No, we’re not afraid. We have nothing to fear. God is with us!” says Fedir Varga. He claims: Now, all the Roma who were living in Kyiv and Lviv returned home, to their settlements. They are unlikely to come back again in near future. “We don’t know if this will happen again. If happened once, it may repeat one more time. They’re not going anywhere for now. And I believe that’s right. There is nothing to do there. I was always sticking to this: you don’t have to go anywhere, you have to live here and work here”. The baron-pastor says: “I don’t want the young people who’ve done this to go to jail. They are also someone’s children. I’ve already forgiven them. God bless, this never again happens in Ukraine. I’m praying for this”.
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