In Parubanka, Roma People say History is Repeating Itself



O P I N I O N

by Lina Žigelytė

 

Lina Žigelytė

Residents of Parubanka immediately notice strangers. An empty police booth with broken windows marks the entrance to this Roma settlement in the outskirts of Vilnius. Here, there are no paved roads. A dusty dirt track winds along dozens of flimsy wooden houses and shacks. Some children walk barefoot on paths that have shards of glass and needles protruding from them. After a recent public transport reform, the nearest bus stop is about three kilometers away.

This area is home to 500 Roma people — raging from the very young to the elderly. Each time a car approaches or someone walks by, locals look over wooden fences that surround houses and often recognize visitors. The majority of these outsiders are so-called tarchoks – drug users, who come to Parubanka for a fix. I learnt of this term from Fiokla Kiurė.

In the Soviet years, Fiokla participated in the underground punk scene and was persecuted by the state for this. She is an art school dropout, mother of two young adults, anarcha-feminist, painter, and poet. Since 2009, she comes to the settlement as a volunteer working with the Roma children. “Tarchok is someone at the very bottom of drug addiction hierarchy, those who take anything. Sometimes, when I took public transport to Parubanka, I saw people who were literally rotting away,” she says as we slowly drive past a woman who cautiously observes our car.

Parubanka is home to 500 Roma people.
Photo: Fiokla Kiurė.

Fiokla pulls out a couple of white envelopes from her backpack and walks towards a group of Roma children chatting outside one of the houses. Cheering in unison “teacher! teacher!” they joyfully run to meet her and the smaller girls hug Fiokla. Whoever gets an envelope looks ecstatic, because they contain photographs of these children. Curious inspection of the images and comments on each other’s looks begin. Photographs are a luxurious commodity in Parubanka.

I ask Fiokla what prompted her to start taking these portraits. “The majority of Roma who get arrested here for drug trafficking are women. They are the ones who traditionally provide for the children and take any opportunity to secure food for large families. Once mothers are imprisoned, they do not see their children for years and often have no photographs of them. I bring my camera, print out the images, and post them to prisons in order to sustain relationships between mothers and their children.” This year Fiokla received a grant from one foreign embassy to turn her photography project into an exhibition. She is looking for more funds, which are needed to set up a website for the project and publish an exhibition catalogue.

Dressed in a plain knitwear shirt and dark knee-high skirt, wearing a bandana tied around her inky black curly hair, my companion doesn’t look much different from the locals. In fact, Fiokla thinks that her grandfather was Roma ― he knew how to look after horses, kept a few of his own, and habitually wandered off with the Roma people. “To understand Parubanka means to understand myself. My lifestyle, ideas about freedom and property are very similar to those of Roma. Once the authorities are allowed to re-educate them, bohemians like me will be the next in line,” says she and notes that at first the word “bohemian” was used to describe this ethnic group as the supposed natives of Bohemia.

Such solidarity underpins a lot of what Fiokla does. When she lived in Panevėžys, a few Roma families were her neighbors. She met the head of local Roma community Teofilė Bagdonavičienė and for some time the two organized events (later Bagdonavičienė emigrated to the UK). When in 2009 Fiokla moved to Vilnius and went to Parubanka for the first time, she was in shock: “Never before did I witness such a concentration of poverty.” This experience moved her to become one of the volunteers who assist children with their homework.

Lately, Fiokla’s involvement with the Roma has shifted from teaching to art projects. One such undertaking is an illustrated collection of Romani folk tales ― this will be the first time their literature is made available in Lithuanian.

And she has more ideas. Struck by lack of familiarity with the Roma genocide in this Baltic country, Fiokla decided to record oral testimonies by the remaining survivors. She considers these initiatives as a form of activism. “If you enter Parubanka without a sense of solidarity, it is pointless. Roma people are sensitive, open-minded, they immediately feel when others patronize them and offer top-down help.” Such understanding is scarce in Lithuania. In the media, the trope of salvation is used to emphasize that Roma people will secure better living conditions only if they abandon their lifestyle and even move out of inhabited areas. Currently, the future of Parubanka is vague.

The mayor of Vilnius, Artūras Zuokas, vows that within the next few years this settlement will be knocked down. Demolition of so-called illegal structures has become a routine practice here, leaving dozens of locals without a home. Quite often upon return from prison, Roma people discover that their houses and belongings have disappeared. This happened to Onutė, a woman in her 50s, who was left without a roof over her head in bitterly cold January last winter.

Onutė says that when the roof starts leaking, she relocate beds and hopes the rain will not last. Her previous house was demolished this past winter.
Photo: Fiokla Kiurė.

She moved in with her relatives who also live in Parubanka and doubts that the municipality will ever secure social housing for the locals. So far, only a few managed to move out with the municipality’s help – mostly those who are moderately literate. Social housing often perpetuates existing issues, since the new neighborhoods are notorious for drug and alcohol abuse problems.

In Parubanka, each day is a fight for survival. After heavy rain, roofs start leaking. Then families have to relocate their beds and hope the rain will not last. Last winter, when the hydrant froze, the entire settlement was left without fresh water. Piles of trash were lying around communal trash containers this summer ― it was obvious that trash collectors neglected the area. A few days before my visit in July, a group of masked men came after a Roma woman who was visiting a relative in this village. One of them caught the woman’s five-year-old son and, with a knife against his neck, demanded money from his mother. The police arrested only one of the offenders and quickly released him.

Unemployment benefits, disability allowances, state-funded pension system, and child benefits are the only means of income in Parubanka, with an average of 100 Euro per person. Drug dealers being aware of such financial difficulties, approach locals and use them as drug mules. In drug trafficking this role is regarded as the riskiest and least profitable. The luxury usually associated with drug dealing is absent in Parubanka.

As I spoke with the locals, they continued to bring up the word “genocide.” Many of them see little difference between current experiences and Nazi extermination of Roma, which the best research available believes killed about a million Roma people across Europe. Trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty and drug trafficking, with minimal access to education, and expelled from the city, the Roma of Parubanka believe that Vilnius municipality is determined to wipe them out or, at least, to make sure that their lives are reduced to a set of stigmatizing stereotypes. Similar attitudes catalyzed Roma killings and persecution in Lithuania in the 1940s. The historian Vytautas Toleikis estimates that about 500 Roma were killed then and 10,000 were deported to labor camps in Germany and France.

For 75-year-old Stepan Bogdanovich, who lives in Parubanka, the comparison of current and Nazi policies is not a mere metaphor. He still remembers how in the last years of World War II a neighbor informed the officers that his family was Roma.

75-year-old Stepan Bogdanovich says that even doctors do not show up in Parubanka. Photo: Fiokla Kiurė.

“They took us somewhere close to Varėna, near Daugai (southeast Lithuania – LŽ). My brother, myself, and my parents. I did not look like a gypsy. I had fair hair, must be grandma’s genes. It was winter. We were lucky. Father begged one high-ranking officer to spare the children. They put us in a sleigh and brought back home. The rest were deported to Germany, maybe to labor camps. After that incident, they did not touch us kids. Uncle and grandpa came back from Germany, but grandma on my mother’s side never returned. I don’t know what happened.”

Fiokla tells me she heard of Stepan from his grandson ― a quick-witted nine-year-old. When we first meet Stepan, it is late afternoon and he is having a nap. His grandchildren wake him up and follow us into a bright room where he sits down on a sofa. He lights up a cigarette, Fiokla places her tripod on a floor made of cardboard, tells the kids she is making a film about grandpa, and starts recording.

Stepan speaks to us in Russian and chain smokes, with coughing fits interrupting his monologue. Memories of childhood fold into nostalgic recollections about the Soviet era, especially the years before 1956, when Khrushchev decreed that Roma must stop wandering and settle down. Stepan recalls how his kin lived previously; he speaks of horses, cows, and tents. “It was exciting. This was a good life, it was interesting to live. I mean, you could go wherever you wanted. Village people would come and join our campsites. I would say, this felt like America,” says he. “Now even doctors do not show up here. Some have a right to live, while others are left to perish.”

One of Stepan’s major concerns, which he keeps bringing up, is his regret that television no longer works ― probably as a result of recent nationwide analog television reform. “Even in prison TV works. We got some sort of antenna, but no luck. I don’t even know what is going on in the world.” For now, Stepan’s “Gold Star” TV set stands in front of a double bed with sheets folded and neatly arranged on it. Above the bed, is the “holy corner” with two portraits of the Virgin on the wall and verba, a traditional Lithuanian Easter bouquet of dry flowers, attached to one of the paintings.

Fiokla is aware that such oral accounts as Stepan’s are rapidly vanishing, with witnesses growing older and passing away. Even in the testimony she just recorded, plenty of details about exact locations and dates remain unclear. And yet, she is content with these fragments, because they might advance attempts to found a place of remembrance for the victims of the Roma genocide in Lithuania. The task is no mean feat – exact casualties are not known and only a few historians, such as Vytautas Toleikis or Aušra Simoniukštytė, allude to specific locations. For instance, both scholars prove that Pravieniškės in Kaunas region was a major site, where in the 1940s the Roma were imprisoned, forced to labor, or killed.

In spite of historical data gathered and the promises of high-ranking officials, plans to pay tribute to the victims are in limbo. Svetlana Novopolskaja, director of the Roma community center, which is located close to Parubanka, points out that government-initiated Roma integration programs dismiss this issue. In the most recent program, signed last year by Minister of Culture Arūnas Gelūnas, 1200 Euro were allocated “to gather information on the victims of Roma holocaust and to publish a leaflet.” Novopolskaja notes that this year on August 2 not a single representative from Vilnius municipality participated in the organized Roma genocide remembrance events.

Presently, about 3,000 Roma live in Lithuania. Over the past couple of years, many families emigrated to the UK in search of a better life. When I ask Fiokla what she regards as the major problem that plagues the Roma of Parubanka, she answers without hesitation ― illiteracy. This she regards as the cause of drug trafficking and incapacity to tackle bureaucracy, due to which housing issues go in circles and families are torn apart: “Illiteracy sticks out as a sore thumb. What can you do without being able to read? You can’t even understand the new transport system, which implemented electronic tickets and touch screens. And the officials accuse Roma of drug trafficking! How can one organize transportation of heroin from Afghanistan if one is illiterate? You can’t grow heroin in a garden. Even Roma children point that out ― there is no way illiterate old women serving their time in prisons can organize large-scale drug dealing!”

Whenever I spoke with the Roma on Parubanka, the role of children in the future of this community was brought up. As I observed these kids, I noted how effortlessly they switched from Lithuanian to Russian, and back to the Romani language. During the past decade, such multilingual skills have become a rare sight in the playgrounds of Lithuania. In larger cities, many teenagers are familiar with English, yet Roma children often crack other languages without internet or even books. When mothers get arrested, their sons and daughters are placed in foster homes and quickly forget Romani. Communication difficulties impede their reunions.

Stepan’s nine-year-old grandson was lucky. After his mother’s imprisonment, his elder sister ― still only a teenager ― managed to get custody of him. Such cases are rare in Parubanka, but she had no criminal record and was able to work her way through piles of custody documents. The two siblings live together now. As the school year was about to begin, the girl could not stress enough to her younger brother that his future might depend on reading skills.

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