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The Flood of Jarovnice 1998

Heavy rains on June 20 brought about the worst floods in Slovak history, changing otherwise quiet rivers in eastern Slovakia into a lethal force. The wild, overflowing water rushed from the river bed, sweeping over and engulfing everything in its path. The tragic results of these destructive floods were 63 dead, over 3,000 people evacuated from their homes, and two thousand houses destroyed in dozens of communities.


June's floods hit the Romani settlement near the community of Jarovnice the hardest, and the highest number of casualties occurred here. The rain-swollen Mala Svinka river claimed 44 children and 16 adults, though this isn't even the final total, as the Roma have not given up searching for missing relatives. Although these floods were tragic for the Roma in Jarovnice, in no way did it increase the sense of solidarity between the Romani minority and the Slovak majority. Quite the opposite, the spite towards the Roma, who lost their homes and often their loved ones, grew.

This natural disaster revealed the long-term lack of interest of the Slovaks in the Roma living in separate Romani settlements in eastern Slovakia, living the way they lived a hundred years ago. Jarovnice is one of the largest and the most backward of the Romani settlements in Slovakia. Almost four thousand Roma live in unbearable living conditions in Jarovnice, most of them without work and illiterate. They received more attention from the unique art work of the Romani children of Jarovnice, which has won several top prizes at international competitions of children's art and has been exhibited in many European countries. But even this international success failed to attract the government's interest in the Roma in the settlements of eastern Slovakia...

The Romani settlement at Jarovnice lies in the valley of the Mala Svinka river. Approximately two thousand Slovaks live in the village above the valley, which kept them from being affected by the floods. The Slovaks in Jarovice accuse the Roma of laziness and a lack of interest in clearing away the effects of the flooding. "The solidarity and compassion the Slovaks felt towards their suffering neighbors from the settlement soon evaporated. It's true the water gave the Roma a reason to work in a harsh way, but their apathy for work, seasoned by ingrained bad habits, is an integral part of their life. These very extremes - on one hand the Slovaks' working on their own damaged property and on the other the depressing inactivity of the Roma - gave rise to cynical comments that there hadn't been enough victims," wrote the most popular Czech newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes in its weekly magazine.

Mala Svinka

The Roma didn't want to return to the Mala Svinka river valley, where the water had swept away their dwellings. For the mayor of Jarovnice, the problem loomed: where to put them? The Slovaks in Jarovnice didn't want the Roma in close proximity, and so there was nowhere to begin building new dwellings for the Roma left with out shelter. "We found a location that would be feasible for the construction of new dwellings, but the land belongs to private persons. It's their decision, whether construction starts or not", said the mayor of Jarovnice, Marian Kyjovsky in an interview with the Slovak daily Pravda, adding that no one had much interest in the Roma of Jarovnice, especially now, with the election campaign going on in Slovakia.

"Their campaign is a review of the successes of Meciar's ruling Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). The tragedy in Jarovnice, of course, doesn't fit in that picture," wrote Pravda, and that the tragedy in the Romani encampment has also exposed the total intertwining of the problems concerning the situation of the Roma in Slovakia. Slovak prime minister Valdimir Meciar, who has also taken on presidential powers, paid a visit to the area affected by the floods 17 days after the event. The Slovaks in Jarovnice honored him with the traditional welcome of bread and salt, and a visit to the Romani settlement, the most decimated by the flooding, was on the program, but evidently there wasn't enough time and it was cancelled.


The tension between Roma and Slovaks was also increased by the reports in the Slovak media on the situation in Jarovnice. For the Roma, according to the press and television, only reluctantly and unwillingly helped in clearing away the damage and were waiting apathetically for help from the state. According to the media, the Roma not only didn't want to work, but they were drinking their state benefits away at the pub, burning or selling the clothing they received from humanitarian aid, and when they realized that those who lost their property and roof over their heads would receive financial compensation from the state, they started to destroy what still remained of their homes. The other inhabitants accused the authorities of concentrating aid only on the Roma.

In the flooded communities, the mayors coordinated aid and soldiers helped to clear away the damage. Approximately 600 Roma from Jarovnice lost their homes and now live in military tents and eat military rations. Humanitarian aid, in particular drinking water, preservable foodstuffs, sanitary products, fabric, shoes and children's toys were brought in by a number of Slovak as well as Czech foundations. The Romani Children and Youth Association of the Czech Republic continues to deliver aid to Jarovnice.

"The Roma are living outside, so it's not true that they are living in portable cells. It is true that two cells were brought to Jarovnice, but they were so damaged that it wasn't possible to live in them," said the association's chairman, Jan Rac, who last delivered aid to Jarovnice on August 20. "Immediately after that terrible report, we got in touch with the director of the elementary school in Jarovnice, Jozef Bugma, and promised him all-round aid. We contacted the Romani communities, towns, communities and no one refused us aid," said Rac, adding that information about the Roma's inactivity in Jarovnice wasn't entirely true. "I was there when Romani women cleaned up the elementary school so the Romani children could start attending classes on September 1."

How the problem of lodging for the Roma without homes in Jarovnice will be resoved is still not clear. We will report on further developments in the Slovakian town of Jarovnice. Should you decide to offer your help, here are two contact addresses:

Jan Rac, Chairman of the Romani Children and Youth Association of the Czech Republic, Obeciny 29, 760 01 okres Zlin Tel: 420 / 67 / 721 59 08

Inforoma: Klara Orgovanova, Bajkalska 25, Bratislava, Slovakia, Tel./Fax: 421 / 7533 1740

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