Lunik IX is inhabited almost entirely by the Romani people. This trash-filled, devastated, lacking gas and running water settlement is the home for thousands.
It constitutes the largest community of Romani people in Slovakia.
Lunik IX covers the area of 1063 m2. Due to the high migration rate, it is difficult to estimate a specific number of the settlement’s residents. Unofficially, there might be as many as 6000 people.
There is trash scattered among the devastated buildings. People are throwing it straight out of their windows, adding following layers to the existing piles. Food leftovers, bottles, and other waste result in an unpleasant smell present within the settlement.
A line 11 bus goes from the center of Košice to the borough. It sets off from the new shopping center. Just like the settlement, it is devastated and rarely cleaned. Only Romani people use it. No one else goes in.
The settlement’s construction began in the 1970s. It was supposed to be a place for police and military officers, as well as a few Romani families. However, the number of the latter began to grow and as early as in the 1980s, they’ve constituted half of the residents of Lunik IX. The Romani people have been resettled from other locations – both from the center of the city as well as other parts of Slovakia. The authorities hoped that living in one location with military and police order, they would abide by the rules and integrate. That did not happen. Police and military officers began to move out, and the Romani people were left alone.
The buildings, not renovated and devastated, quickly began to fall into ruin. Neglected electricity and gas bills resulted in completely shutting of these services. Still there is no gas or running water within the borough.
There is also no money for them, as the estimated unemployment rate is as high as 95%.
People try to search for something of use among the garbage scattered across the settlement.
Sometimes a cleaning group roams between the buildings and for a few dozen Euros a month collects the trash and sweeps the sidewalks. However, the effects of their work can be barely noticed in such a trash-filled place.
Despite the living conditions – the settlement is bustling with life.
Iveta’s family lives in a one-room apartment. There is a small corner serving as a kitchen, a bathroom, and a hallway with a couch and which is connected with a dining room-bedroom. During the day, a large family-size table is located there. At night, this is a sleeping area.
Despite the conditions and poverty, there is a pleasant atmosphere inside. The doors are open to children and guests. Laughter and music played by Adam – Iveta’s son – from a cell phone, can already be heard outside.
– It’s good that we have electricity – says Iveta (age 44). Otherwise we would have to light up candles. And I have a bomb here – she adds, pointing at the gas cylinder standing in the kitchen corner.
The electricity bill is 60 Euro a month. That’s a lot for them. Iveta does not work and her husband works only at times. Now, he visits doctors. He has problems with his leg.
There is also no money to buy the medicines.
In winter, darkness falls in the middle of the day. The power plant provides electricity only from around 2PM or 3PM. After that, the TV can be turned on. Then, the entire family watches quasi-documentary series about police work.
The cramped but clean apartment is decorated with artificial flowers. There are paintings, a cross, and the children’s school diplomas hanging on the pink walls. Iveta is the mother of ten.
The kids like to learn. When we’re sitting by the table, they do math exercises for fun. They proudly add and subtract three digit numbers.
The closer the evening gets, the less space there is for the gathering family and friends.
Most of the borough’s buildings are owned by the city. This one belongs to the Romani community. It stands out from the other buildings with a painted façade.
– You can invest in your property – the residents say. – But why invest in someone else’s property?
Children’s footprint are everywhere. They are the largest group living in Lunik. One can not see the elderly because they either don’t go out or there aren’t any. The living mode and conditions don’t allow that many to live until a truly old age.
The staircases are full of children’s art – imprinted hands, hearts, and other graffiti.
The settlement’s walls carry an unpleasant smell. Despite the broken windows, the staircases are filled with the stench of feces and trash. The lack of care for the location and people themselves results in various diseases, which effect the residents – lice, hepatitis, meningitis, scabies.
Marek (age 34 – keyboard) and Kristian, his 11 year-old son (vocals).
What’s on the outside often contrasts that what’s on the inside.
A stinking staircase leads to Marek’s clean and modernly arranged apartment. There is a large couch there, a television set hanged on the wall, and in the corner – a keyboard which he plays with his family.
Marek’s wife works in Belgium. They plan to move there with their entire family.
People try to live as best as they can.
Some manage to move out where the living conditions are better. But most don’t have that opportunity and remain here.
It also happens that they come back, are sent back, or are relocated.
It is precisely here, among other places, that the Romani people were sent when the countries of Western Europe decided to get rid of illegal Romani camping sites. Belgium authorities themselves paid for taxis with which a few dozen people returned to Lunik.
Sometimes they come back on their own. – I remember – the priest says – there was this gifted boy. He finished schools, and moved out. After some time, we’ve found him by a dumpster at the borough. He was searching for something. He came back to Lunik, even though he had other opportunities.
Among the peacefully living families there is however, no shortage of problems. Vandalism and various stimulants constitute the dark side of the borough.
– Here, even 7 or 8 year old kids get intoxicated with various substances, on regular basis – says one of the volunteers working at Lunik. And once, a very young girl, offered me her services. I said no and she began to laugh. Growing up in such conditions, does not help. These large families live in one- or two-room apartments. – Do you understand? There is no place for intimacy there.
A thick black smoke coming from burning trash, can often be seen above Lunik IX. These fires are most often set by bored teenagers. In the warmth of the fire they drink alcohol or reach for stronger stimulants. None of the residents pays any attention to this. Only sometimes a police car appears in the settlement to chase the crowds away.
Apart from the overcrowded flats, there are also abandoned and vandalized ones.
– An old lady lived here. Later, she moved to a different building leaving this apartment empty. That’s a shame. She could have rented it to someone. Meanwhile, vandals came in and destroyed everything that could not be taken away. Now they throw parties here. They are aggressive. I live next doors with my family. We try to live normally. My kids go to school, but sometimes I’m afraid that in this craziness they will set my home on fire.
– During communism it was better – he continues. Not like now, when they’re getting money just like that. Everyone had to work. There was order.
An apartment on the leaking top floor of one of the buildings. Only four rooms can be used from the entire large lodging – the entryway, hallway, kitchen, and one room. The remaining rooms are systematically covered with water. Mold has taken over the walls.
The Romani people living here, reported the problem multiple times. Each year they repaint the apartment. Tear down the linoleum from the floor, wash it, and lay new one.
– Either way we are concerned for our health. In such conditions it’s easy to get sick – they say.
Following generations are brought up in such conditions. And even though the health condition in the settlement is getting better, and hygiene procedures are followed more often, the conditions in which they live still affect the health of the community.
The lack of gas and heating, which have been cut off due to not paid bills, resulted in that people began to kindle a fire in the stoves in their own homes.
They have their own fireplaces and the pipes taking out the fumes go straight through the windows.
That’s the only way to stay warm during winter days.
When in 2008 the city decided to tear down two buildings due to their unstable construction, not everyone had a place to go. That’s how Maslickovo, the so called “illegal village”, has been created. A few steps from the settlement, people have built makeshift houses, in which they live up to this day.
A man is burning a refrigerator in front of his house.
Dionis Horvat’s family lives in Maslickovo in a two room, makeshift house.
There are 7 people who share this small house – Dionis with his wife, his son with his wife and three of their children.
Lena holds her youngest child in her arms – the month-old Denisa.
Due to the poor conditions, not all children in Lunik live through the first months of their lives. They often get sick, and their young bodies can’t handle it. Here the mortality rate among infants reaches 5%.
If they live longer than one year this usually means that they’ve adapted to the conditions, and will manage in this difficult environment.
Dionis’ son chops wood.
Maslickovo looks like a field. It’s overgrown with high grass and weeds. Above them, there are the roofs of makeshift houses.
The Lunik IX settlement can be seen in the background.
The children constantly come up with new games. They bring old mattresses, build trampolines and flip through the air.
Almost a thousand of them, the youngest residents of Lunik, go to school – some within the borough, some are transported to other facilities outside of Lunik. The most important classes are those concerning Slovak language and mathematics.
Only some manage to graduate from high school or go to college.
They spend all of their afternoons playing. They walk in groups because it’s more fun and safer. They complain because sometimes they are bullied or beaten.
However, they don’t lack good humor or a smiling face for others.
Despite the money spent on an uncountable number of integration programs, there are following generations growing up in Lunik which have no chance to be fully integrated.
The settlement is well known in Slovakia and given a wide berth. No one wants to go there, and no one wants to be friends with the people from Lunik IX. Also, no one wants to employ them.
Even though the settlement has an open entry road, it is a kind of a ghetto, entered by almost no one from the outside. According to polls, most Slovaks would not want to live near Romani people, even though they constitute 10% of the country’s population.
According to Amnesty International’s report, the Romani people still face institutional segregation in schools and offices – they are treated worse and relegated from groups.
– God, please help good people…
Since 2008 there is a church and a “Don Bosco” Salesian mission in the settlement. Due to safety reasons, it is surrounded by a wall and wires. The bell has also been disabled because someone constantly ringed it for fun. Those who come know how to shout and to whom, in order to be heard.
Father Pavel is a warm and patient man. During his sermons he changes the Biblical stories into tales about giraffes and other exotic animals. No wonder the kids like him.
The mission organizes time and support for the residents of Lunik IX – there are retreats during which they learn to distinguish good from evil, and other activities for children.
They also prepare for religious events.
The mission also tries to help the parents – they support them not only spiritually but also materially.
The group of local musicians prepares for mass.
In 2014, Marcel Sana has been chosen as the starosta. His predecessor, nearly 40 years old Dioniz Slepcik, committed suicide.
Marcel Sana is Romani. He has graduated from university in Košice. After years of work, he decided to return to the settlement.
During his term, two smaller residential buildings were built. And soon the construction of following building should start. Together with other organizations and the city officials, a saving program for Romani families that want to live in new apartments, has been initiated. Those who apply for the project will save money each month, in order to later become the legal owners of their homes.
If one asks him what has been achieved, among many things he lists installing 5 monitoring cameras in the settlement. – Yes, he installed them – the people say. But only after someone broke-into his car.
Text, photographs, videos: Magda Chodownik
Graphic design: Arek Sołdon
Coding: Piotr Kliks
Special thanks to Anna Górnicka, Anna Różnicka and Jason Andrew.
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