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A Gypsy Saga: The Strojan Family Puts Slovenia on the Map

by Viktorija Plavcak

Slovenia, a new member of the European Union since September 2007, is a state where the rights of individuals are trampled on every day and nobody cares. Some may feign concern in public, but in the solitude of their homes they spit on those who don’t fit in. They curse them and their children, calling them thieves, crooks and killers. Even worse, they threaten them with violence and want the government to evict them from any safe haven they might find in the country.

Slovenia is full of immigrants — but one group has been here forever, generation after generation living on their fathers’ lands; their children are now Slovenian citizens. That group – the Roma people in Slovenian territory, known as “Gypsies” – are still very much hated.

When the Gypsies came to town

When I was little, it was a holiday in our village when Gypsies came to town. Their air of mystery made our imaginations soar. We adored it when they came on horseback, with all sorts of haberdashery and kitsch. When they set up a carousel, we kids rode round and round for hours, making us very late getting home from school. Winter or summer, they wore only light clothes. They made a lot of noise. Old gypsy women offered to tell our fortunes or begged for money, food or clothes, and my parents never refused. They didn’t always come in groups; sometimes individual travelers came to mend all sorts of things from umbrellas, to pots and pans, or they sharpened knives and scissors.

Some villagers listened to their stories with great interest; many women wanted to believe the good fortunes the old Gypsy women predicted for them. Both children and farmers envied their nomadic life, dreaming that one day they would simply leave and join the Gypsies for good. On the other hand, a few families insisted that the Gypsies stole children. My mother and father simply frowned and told us not to believe such nonsense. Things often went missing after their visits, but some of what disappeared was stolen by locals who saw a perfect opportunity to pin blame on the “others.”

Now Gypsies pass through the streets just like the rest of us. But the state wants to tame them: it tried to force them into compulsory education, to give them flats and jobs, to make them into law-abiding citizens. Some did adapt to a new life in order to fit better into the local community. But most efforts failed, because if you tame their free spirits, you maim their souls.

Driving past their camps, I have seen the dirt, the mess and the barefoot children chasing after a dog or cat. Their untidiness and disorganized lifestyle can seem infuriating, but on the other hand, I am a stickler for freedom. “Taming” the Gypsies is not the answer. They are happy the way they live, and we should do our best to at least try to understand their lifestyle.

Some of my acquaintances are highly skeptical when I defend Gypsies. They ask me: what if they were your neighbors?

I silence them with this: I tell them that in my neighborhood, there are no gypsies, yet my car plates have been stolen twice, and my cars have been broken into. The car park is full of abandoned cars where dealers openly sell them; there are constant car and bicycle thefts. That hits a nerve, and so the subject gets closed for the moment. But tomorrow they will speak ill of the Gypsies again, this time to someone who will share their opinion.

A proud Gypsy family

Elka Strojan, born in Kočevje, is the head of a Roma family; she cannot write nor read, but she knows numbers. She is a proud woman of 55, to whom family is everything. She has given birth to 14 children and she speaks of them with pride. She says she took her surname to honor the doctor who saved her son’s life when he fell seriously ill. She always wears an apron with big pockets so she can carry her mobile phone, medicine, a wallet and a pack of cigarettes. She started smoking at the age of six. She says she used to smoke about five packs a day, but she has cut down enormously: she now only smokes two! She speaks proudly of her husband, saying he was a good man who never hit her, even though beating women is a tradition among Gypsies.

She has never wanted to live with other Roma people, whom she says are vicious and might harm or even kill her children. So, she gathered her clan on a piece of land in Ambrus, in the borough of Ivančna Gorica, far away from other Roma. In the beginning they lived in tents. Old women from the village brought them food and clothes. They lived in synergy with the locals, gathering mushrooms, picking herbs and trading with old scrap. Elka says they were hungry many times, and although “it’s bad when you don’t have food, you still manage somehow”.

They first planned to build a shack, but the local council suggested a house would be better since Ambrus gets too cold for shacks. It took them five years to save up enough money to build. But the house was still not big enough for everyone, so her son erected a shack where he settled with his family. Soon her other children lived in their own shacks with their families nearby. Elka doesn’t even know how many grandchildren she has; she’s never counted them. Regardless of how many they are, she believes that the whole family must be together. She doesn’t want to be separated from her children, nor they from her.

Elka got entangled with the police only once:

“It was a retired policeman doing a house search. I had bought a chicken and had a receipt to prove it, but he did not want to look at it, so he hit me and pushed me. Naturally, I hit him back! I told him that if my husband doesn’t hit me, no other man ever will.

“It wasn’t the first time that Roma took the blame for an incident. Years ago when there was a shooting in Krka, the Roma were blamed. The whole village came armed to settle the score, but later it was established that hunters were responsible for the shooting.”

She has nothing but praise for the special police forces who ensured their safety in Ambrus. She says they were not only kind, but brought them water, bread, and salami.

Locals call the Gypsies known troublemakers, but admit they’ve been made scapegoats whenever thefts occur and are always considered wrong in fights and rows with the non-Roma community.

Trouble starts and hatred bares its teeth

In October 2006, a Slovenian living with the Strojan family beat up another Slovenian. The victim ended up in a coma in a local hospital and villagers blamed the Strojans. A mob from Ambrus and other nearby villages surrounded the Strojan homes, threatening to kill them and demanding their eviction.

“The villagers threatened to kill my children. Mr Muhič, one of the locals, threatened to slit my throat. He said he would kill my children and crucify them to set an example for all the Roma community. I was petrified and so was my family. I could not believe the hatred these people had for us!”

The Strojans sought refuge in the woods. They spent a few days living under tarpaulins in the cold; members of the Roma community brought them food. Incredibly, when the president of Slovenia, Janez Drnovšek, tried to bring tarpaulins to the family, a mob of over 200 residents from Ambrus and Zagrad prevented him from doing so. Harsh words were exchanged between the president and the angry residents. Elka says,

“These people did not understand who this gentleman was. They spat in his face. I saw the saliva. This is no way to receive a president. We love and respect Drnovšek. I am leaving because of him, not the villagers. I would never have left my property if he hadn’t come.”

Did the government help? Interior minister Dragutin Mate, who arrived to mediate, said he had come to an agreement with the family. If they left for Postojna, the government would try to find them a new location within three weeks. However, the family would not be allowed to return to their land because their homes had been built without a permit and their land had precious water resources, which they were endangering.

These issues suddenly came up when the family had lived there since the 1960s?

A representative of the Roma community who took part in the talks said that the family was forced to leave; they had no opportunity to negotiate because the minister had obviously made his decision before he even arrived.

The human rights ombudsman for Slovenia raised the issue with the Council of Europe, but Slovenian Prime Minister Janša reprimanded the ombudsman, accusing him of trying to sully Slovenia’s name. Moreover, Janša dismissed the Strojan incident, saying “this problem” had existed in Slovenia for years. What problem? Gypsies’ existence?

Escorted from their property by special police forces, the Strojans were accommodated in the Postojna Exile Centre on October 30th. Elka cried all the way.

“I am ashamed of being a refugee. They tore our place down! They broke everything – destroyed pictures, the guitar, two accordions, everything!”

The villagers did not want the public to know what was going on. The press got in only after the homes were already demolished.

In Postoina, Elka says, “The police were breathing down our necks all the time. They were everywhere, always at the door, watching us even at night. It felt like being in prison.”

A few months passed, and the Strojan family still had no building site. In the capital, the mayor of Ljubljana offered them a location, but after seeing it, the Strojan family rejected it, saying the small fenced-in house was too much like the correctional facilities in Dob. It seemed they would have to spend the winter in Postojna.

Sick and tired of government promises, the Strojans announced their return to Ambrus. The whole town went into an uproar and residents reiterated their threats. Once again the family retreated to Roje back in Ljubljana, where they stayed from January until mid-August 2007.

During that time, a few locations were offered; often, local communities protested the Strojan family presence and the offers were withdrawn. The family finally realized that the country wouldn’t do anything to help, so they called on a renowned attorney, Aleksander Èeferin, who filed a lawsuit against the state.

The Strojan family put Slovenia on the map

On August 28th the European Agency for Human Rights issued its annual report on racism and xenophobia in member states for 2006.

According to the report, in the events in Ambrus, the government supported the locals and so played an important role in evicting the Roma people. The protest of some 300 Ambrus residents against the Strojans’ presence was criticized by the ombudsman, by non-government organizations and by the High Commissioner of the European Council for human rights. The report also noted that similar evictions of Roma People had also occurred in Bulgaria, Italy, Greece, Romania and the Czech Republic.

Racism becomes overt

In September, after almost a year of empty promises and searching for a proper location, Elka Strojan, apparently fed up with waiting, returned to Ambrus with part of her family. She arrived on September 13th, prepared to stay. Strojan declared that they had put up a tent and would only leave their property dead. Ambrus exploded with vehement protests yet again.

Four days later when some of her children wanted to visit, police stopped them, saying that no Roma could go to Ambrus. Their lawyer protested that this was a violation of their freedom of movement, especially since racial grounds were cited. The police declared in turn that freedom of movement was curtailed for anyone who would stir things up and cause disorder.

The matter remains unresolved

The Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning did offer a land exchange of the plot in Ambrus for one near Ljubljana, as well as permanent residence and employment for family members. However, the mayor of Ljubljana then declared the designated location was not a building plot.

In early October, the Strojan family was told they would have to wait another year. Not only must the city first establish the location as a legal building plot, but the mayor refused to speed up the process, saying it should be done by the book. The Ambrus residents have now changed their tune, saying they have nothing against the Strojan family but simply want the law to be the same for everyone: if other illegally built houses have been demolished, so should the Strojan’s – they say it is the state that has failed them.

Those sane enough continue asking the most obvious question: aren’t the police supposed to arrest and bring to justice racists who threaten to slaughter Gypsies like pigs? What authorities allow individuals or groups to threaten others with violence or to take justice in their own hands?

Sadly, none of the Slovenian presidential candidates has uttered a single word about the Strojan family. And for those who have heard about this lovely and picturesque country on the sunny side of the Alps, do not be fooled. There is plenty of material for another Michael Moore documentary here.

About the Author

Viktorija Plavcak is a freelance writer from Slovenia. An educator and professional translator, Viktorija has spent many summers abroad with her students as they attend language courses and works with various companies from organizers of trade fairs to ministries and institutes.

Through her love for and mastery of the English language, her ambition is to one day translate literature. A supporter of both women’s and global issues, she contributes regularly to magazines and enjoys taking part in discussion forums.

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