Suto Orizari, Macedonia – Sleek black Audis skirt past children playing in the streets and carts pulled by elaborately dressed horses clop around potholed streets. The stainless steel spires of Macedonia’s biggest mosque pierce the skyline. This is Suto Orizari, Macedonia’s only Roma-run municipality, located on the outskirts of the capital Skopje.
Roma, or Romani people, are a once-nomadic group of people who are believed to have arrived in Europe from northern India one thousand years ago. In Europe, there are 12 million Roma – making them the continent’s largest minority – over half of which live in the European Union. Some 200,000 are in Macedonia, according to the Council of Europe.
Eighty percent of Suto Orizari’s population is Roma. The municipality is the only local administrative unit in the world to have adopted Romani as an official language. It has several TV channels in the Roma language and a colourful flag featuring the Roma wheel – an Indian chakra, which refers to the origin of the Roma people.
The streets – named after Walt Disney, Che Guevara and Garcia Lorca – are bustling. At the centre is a sprawling bazaar where vendors hawk tracksuits, sneakers, and home goods mostly imported from Turkey and China.
Those who don’t have stalls lay out tarps selling electronics or just bits and bobs. Buses ferrying residents and customers arrive regularly from the centre of Skopje, about 15 minutes away. Somewhere, a band plays the fast-paced music of trumpets, accordions and drums that the Balkan Roma are known for.
While brutal attacks on Roma are common in Europe, there is a level of security and autonomy in Suto Orizari, or Shutka (SHOOT-kuh), as the neighbourhood is locally known, that is lacking elsewhere in the Balkan region and in countries across the European Union.
Last August, a mob forcibly evicted several dozen Roma from a small village in Ukraine, setting a house on fire and threatening that anyone who returned would be lynched, while police looked on.
In 2015, more than 11,000 Roma settlers were forcibly evicted in France, in some cases being torched out of their homes, according to Jonathan Lee of the European Roma Rights Centre, a Roma-led legal advocacy group based in Budapest, Hungary.
In France the following year, there was a string of violent stabbings, a firebombing, and a further 4,500 evictions.
Elsewhere in the EU, including Hungary and Romania, Roma continue to face evictions, persecution, and segregation.
Yet, things are far from ideal in the Roma-run municipality of Shutka.
|Shutka in Macedonia has the world’s largest concentration of Roma [Valerie Hopkins/Al Jazeera]|
A rare example of Roma autonomy
In the Balkan region, where Macedonia is located, many Romani have suffered several cycles of displacement and are chronically disenfranchised as a result of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
Many remain stateless, including some in Shutka. But this small corner of southern Europe is a rare example of Roma autonomy.
“This is the only place in the world where Roma are organised politically and economically and fill their lives for themselves and one another,” Sead Ismail, a Roma and the president of Shutka’s municipal council, says as he drives over potholed streets in a Mercedes SUV.
|This is the only place in the world where Roma are organised politically and economically and fill their lives for themselves and one another.|
“I’ve visited Roma communities in Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia,” says Ismail, “And in many of those settlements, they don’t have representatives, or electricity, or sewer systems. And they’re in the European Union!”
Roma have been living in Macedonia since at least the 15th century, but didn’t start to settle in Shutka until an earthquake in 1963 destroyed 80 percent of Skopje.
At that time, Suto Orizari was an open pasture – the name literally means “barren fields”.
As part of Skopje’s new urban plan, a paragon of brutalist architecture and an experiment in social engineering, the city’s Roma were relegated to those fields in an effective DIY settlement.
“No one wanted to come here, it was just an empty meadow,” remembers Meneshka Umjer, a retired cleaner, as she prepares pickled peppers for winter on the balcony of her family’s stately home. She was 10 when the earthquake struck.
“There were no jobs here, and no infrastructure.”
Umjer says that today, though an estimated 35,000 to 45,000 people have moved into an area of less than eight square kilometres, making it the world’s largest concentration of Roma, the lack of jobs and infrastructure remains. The official employment rate sits at 23 percent in Shutka, and residents say the place can feel like a ghetto.
|Meneshka Umjer pickles peppers in Shutka [Valerie Hopkins/Al Jazeera]|
Roma in Macedonia’s civil service
Macedonia became independent in 1991 and in 1996, the Roma living in Shutka were given the opportunity to govern themselves. In 2001, Macedonia narrowly avoided civil war between ethnic Macedonians, who are Slavs, and ethnic Albanians, who make up 25 percent of the population, and the peace agreement provided minorities, including Roma, with a bigger role to play in the government.
“Macedonia is unique in the sense that it has the most stable and most numerous representation of Roma in politics,” says Zeljko Jovanovic, Director of the Roma Initiatives Office of the Open Society Foundation.
“Political participation, of course, can be better, but it is not a major issue,” he says.
There are Roma members of parliament, ministers, and high-level officials serving in the government, although not as many as required by the quota system for civil service.
According to the most recent census, taken in 2002, Roma were 2.7 percent of the total population, and current government representation is at 1.4 percent, with 1,698 public officials, significant progress from one decade ago.
Even so, only 0.2 percent of these Roma civil servants are managers, and only 0.3 percent hold elected or appointed positions, according to the Macedonian Ombudsperson.
Increased civil service participation, says Jovanovic, doesn’t automatically translate into benefits for ordinary people.
Shutka is one of the poorest municipalities in one of Europe’s poorest countries and being at its helm is not easy, says mayor Elvis Bajram.
Now in his second four-year term, Bajram has focused on legalising private homes and buildings and on improving the town’s infrastructure. One of his biggest challenges is just knowing how many constituents he has; due to political squabbles, Macedonia has not held a census since 2002.
Some of the problems are more dire.
“In the summer, we don’t have any water in our public fountains,” Bajram says, referring to a crucial supply of drinking water on which some people are wholly reliant. “In which century do we live?”
The town is lively and the bazaar’s cheap prices draw Macedonians from all over the country. But the reason the prices are so low, says Bajram, is that the market vendors do not pay any taxes.
The municipality was gerrymandered so that all but one of the factories abutting Shutka officially belong to other jurisdictions, Bajram says, but only four of 400 employed are Roma at the factory in their jurisdiction. Without any tax revenue from the factories or the market, Bajram maintains that it is hard to provide services to his constituents.
“The only [means of] existence [for] the people who live in Shutka can be seen in the bazaar, in the stalls where they buy and sell goods so that they can survive,” says Bajram.
“They work without companies, they don’t pay any dues, they don’t pay taxes, nothing. Should the municipality take everything from them so that they can pay taxes, so that we can have finances for the municipality so we can return it to the citizens in the form of services?”
Jovanovic of the Open Society Foundation contends that while self-governance is important, without financial resources, it will be hard to improve Shutka.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for Roma to experience self-government and I see it as an opportunity to show that if Roma are given a chance, they can practically exercise political power,” Jovanovic says.
“But the challenge is that they are put in an almost impossible situation, to govern without taxation. In my view, these people are put in a situation in which they are almost doomed to fail. But this was not a coincidence, this was by design.”
Jovanovic says their dependence on the central government has major drawbacks.
“The community in Shutka depends on the central government to redistribute funds from the national budget, therefore the parties in power very easily control the votes of Roma from Shutka,” he says.
Indeed, of six political parties in Shutka, five are part of the country’s ruling coalition and critics of the government complain about the way “machine politics” work in the municipality.
Bajram says he has been forced to rely on the central government, which in the past few years has renovated the municipality’s two schools, and built a high school and a swimming pool. But this leaves the Roma parties beholden to political whims in a country mired in political crisis since 2015, when the release of wiretapped conversations revealed corruption, electoral fraud, abuse of power, and more within the ruling party.
The revelations sparked protests and several EU-brokered deals that have resulted in a political game of ministerial musical chairs. The country has been without a government since December; this standstill is also affecting affairs in Shutka.
“As soon as a minister gets acquainted with the peculiarity of our issues, they were replaced by someone else. This has happened four or five times and we haven’t gotten closer to resolving the problems,” says Fatima Osmanovska, director of the Shutka-based NGO Initiative for the Development of Communities.
|Mayor Elvis Bajram sits in his office in Shutka [Valerie Hopkins/Al Jazeera]|
‘Without papers, these people do not exist’
Quality of life indicators for the Roma community in Macedonia are woefully low. Only 11 percent of Roma have finished high school, compared with 60 percent of the general population, according to Open Society Foundation.
Roma in Macedonia have a lifespan 10 years shorter than the nearly 76 years of the average Macedonian. Many can’t access healthcare because of prejudice and lack of documentation.
“The fact that we have self-government here doesn’t mean much to us; it’s not as if we live in the land of milk and honey,” says Ljatifa Sikovska, who runs an NGO called Ambrela.
“We don’t have basic things like an adequate sewage system, electricity, or good roads.”
This is due in part to discrimination and a lack of will to work in the neighbourhood, but also because many of the houses in Shutka were built illegally and remain off the books and, therefore, unserved by the utility company.
When Sikovska speedwalks around the bazaar, she is repeatedly stopped and asked for help: an illiterate man needs to fill out health insurance forms for his family, another man complains that his welfare benefits were revoked because of a new government regulation cancelling monthly benefits, worth $34, for anyone who has received a Western Union transfer in the last two years. The idea behind this decision is to curb benefits for people who are receiving remittances from family members abroad.
At a sparse office in Shutka’s Yugoslav-era clinic, Sikovska, who also works as a Roma health regulator, and her young team help community members access healthcare by making sure their forms are up-to-date.
“After Yugoslavia fell apart, Roma had to register themselves as citizens of Macedonia, but because of the cost involved and the lack of information, many did not do it,” she says. “Without papers, these people do not exist. And the problem has compounded for generations.”
Mayor Bajram estimates that 10 percent of Shutka residents are undocumented.
Many cases are even more complicated since some of the undocumented people Sikovska is trying to help had fled to Shutka during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, just 16km away.
Identity documents are not required to access emergency care, but are necessary to access everything else. Sikovska’s team also intervene when hospitals – there are none in Shutka – in other parts of the city refuse to accept Roma patients. Twice a week, a general practitioner comes to the clinic, but there are not enough gynaecologists in the country, so none of them come to Shutka.
“For more than 10 years, the 8,000 women of child-bearing age living here don’t have access to a gynaecologist,” says Sikovska. “It’s a dreadful state of affairs!”
|Ljatifa Sikovska, who runs an NGO called Ambrela, fills out health insurance forms for an illiterate family in Shutka [Valerie Hopkins/Al Jazeera]|
Educated but unemployed
There is a new generation of educated Roma from Shutka, including medical professionals, but few of them get hired.
According to Osmanovska, “In Macedonia, primary healthcare is under concession, meaning that a GP or dentist must invest their own money to buy equipment, rent an office” – something almost no Roma can afford to do.
“The secondary level are the hospitals in municipalities where the Ministry of Health is in charge of opening positions and making decisions on employment and unfortunately, the decisions are mostly made by the political party affiliations of the candidate,” she explains.
This means that while there are qualified Roma who could do the jobs, few get employed.
“Thanks to scholarships [offered by the government and by the Open Society Initiative] the Roma community has educated about 20 doctors and 60 medical and dental nurses,” says Osmanovska. “But only four or five of the doctors have been employed. The problem is lack funds and a lack of political willingness to employ the Roma health professionals.”
Her colleague, Salija Ljatif, studied for years to be a dentist, but hasn’t been able to get a job in a public or private clinic. Ljatif works as a paralegal, but says she hasn’t given up hope.
Macedonia’s unemployment rate is very high, at 23 percent, but for Roma, it soars to 53 percent, according to the European Roma Rights Centre.
The lack of accessible jobs and health benefits leads many Roma to migrate, says Ismet Ameti, a tailor and the frontman of Shutka Roma Rap, a hip-hop group that performs, in Romani, all over Macedonia and across Europe.
“Among the problems our group faces including discrimination and lack of funds is that many of our talented musicians want to leave the country,” Ameti says. “Usually, they marry someone with residency in Western Europe and leave.”
Life lived outside
These ties to Western Europe are visible in some of Shutka’s nicer streets. While some people live in squalor, those with connections abroad can live moderately well.
Residents complain about the government’s lack of assistance and removal of benefits in light of a monumental $730m “facelift” for Skopje including statues towering at 72 feet high, fountains, and putting neo-classical facades on government buildings (in part, it is an antagonistic gesture at Greece, which has been blocking Macedonia’s membership in the EU and NATO).
“This is a terrible policy,” says Umjer, the pensioner. “There are 12 members of my family living under one roof on one salary and one pension. And instead of building factories, this government builds statues?”
On the main street, named after former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a nod to India’s recognition of shared heritage with Roma, shiny luxury cars get stuck in traffic behind old jalopies, improvised load-bearing vehicles, and rusty bicycles.
Umjer’s house lies uphill on a quiet lane. Some of her neighbours’ houses boast turrets and concrete lion statues stand guard. Strings of red peppers hang drying on baroque gilded balconies. Another gated property had streamers and a sign celebrating a recent circumcision ceremony.
But on other muddy and bumpy lanes, homes cobbled together with corrugated metal, lacking ventilation and natural light, lean on one another for support, just one improvised home repair away from collapse.
In each micro-neighbourhood, life is lived outside: a bride in white and gold-beaded culottes dances in a circle with her family; on Vietnam street, another bridal procession, complete with drummers and trumpets, slowly marches through town, the music mingling with the smell of burek, a savoury pie with phyllo dough and minced meat.
In this enclave of Roma self-governance, residents are largely protected from the discrimination that exists in other Macedonian municipalities where Roma live, according to Mayor Bajram. Still, Shukta’s challenges are immense.
“We have Roma who are good students, who finished faculty, who work in institutions, in NGOs,” Bajram says, “But half of the people don’t have money to survive.”