Dear Bosnia: The Roma’s Struggle for Survival in a Post-war Society

A young Roma boy practices his accordion skills which double as a hobby and a source of income. He wishes to soon venture to Tuzla later in the day to play his music in the hopes that passersby will leave him some spare change.

Would you risk your life in order to earn four BAM (two Euros)? Many Roma individuals do so on a daily basis. This perilous practice is but one indication of the multi-dimensional poverty facing the largest minority group of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). This photo story illuminates the daily adversities of the Roma population in BiH.

Photography: Sofia Yu

The Romani, or Roma, people are a nomadic ethnic group with a majority of their population residing in Europe. It is estimated that there are between 25,000 to 50,000 Roma individuals currently living in BiH, yet the constitutional framework of BiH does not recognize the Roma as an official minority group (European Roma Rights Centre, 2003). This inherently excludes the Roma population from certain privileges in the Bosnian government afforded to the three major ethnic groups, such as the opportunity to run for the Presidency. In addition to widespread institutional discrimination, Roma people must also combat discrimination on the social front. Public perception and labeling of the Roma as dishonest, unintelligent, dirty thieves have thrust the group onto the fringes of Bosnian society: often preventing them from obtaining jobs, housing contracts and bank loans.

BiH’s Roma population is further marginalized by bureaucratic requirements. Data suggests that over 2,000 Roma individuals lack birth certificates, and many more are without any form of identification (UNICEF, 2013). As a result, undocumented Roma individuals are unable to enjoy full citizenship, thus inhibiting access to social welfare programs, health care, and education.

In an effort to visualize the plight of BiH’s Roma people, Sofia Yu, a Portuguese independent photographer, spent ten days in a small Roma camp located in close proximity to the town of Lukavac in northern Bosnia. During her time in the camp, Yu captured the essence of the resilient Roma spirit by photographing their daily routines, livelihoods, and harsh living conditions.

A Roma mother and her two children stand outside of their house located near the center of the Roma camp in Lukavac. The husband and father of this family is a mechanic and earns a modest profit by repairing broken devices, cars and salvaged items. In the mornings, they cut, sell and store timber for the chilly winter months. Photographer Yu mentioned that this was one of few families in the camp fortunate enough to make a living without having to resort to illegal methods.
A Roma mother and her two children stand outside of their house located near the center of the Roma camp in Lukavac. The husband and father of this family is a mechanic and earns a modest profit by repairing broken devices, cars and salvaged items. In the mornings, they cut, sell and store timber for the chilly winter months. Photographer Yu mentioned that this was one of few families in the camp fortunate enough to make a living without having to resort to illegal methods.

In 2014, massive floods destroyed many of the shoddily constructed houses in the Roma camp, but the people received no assistance from the government for repairs or supplies. Roma individuals residing in these types of camps are further disadvantaged due to isolation. A 2009 Fundamental Rights survey discovered that most Roma settlements are extremely segregated from mainstream housing units, with scarce access to public gas, water and electric services (UNICEF, 2013).

This child belongs to the family photographed above. She has been born into circumstances that will likely inhibit her opportunities for a proper education, will significantly increase her risk of becoming a victim of sexual exploitation and domestic violence and will more than likely bar from access to social protection (UNICEF, 2013).
This child belongs to the family photographed above. She has been born into circumstances that will likely inhibit her opportunities for a proper education, will significantly increase her risk of becoming a victim of sexual exploitation and domestic violence and will more than likely bar from access to social protection (UNICEF, 2013).

Two out of every five Roma children will never set foot in a school, and among the children who do attend primary school, only 22.6% will begin a secondary education (UNICEF, 2013). Exclusion from the education system is one of the largest contributing factors to the staggeringly high unemployment rate among the Roma population of BiH. Additionally, Roma children are the most susceptible group in BiH to preventable diseases and malnourishment.

Mina is an elderly woman living in the Lukavac camp. With her husband's passing, she lives alone and has been deemed mentally unstable. Mina, like many Roma people, resorts to begging on the streets to survive. Despite Mina’s difficult situation, she is described as a very outgoing and approachable person that many in the camp go to for advice.
Mina is an elderly woman living in the Lukavac camp. With her husband’s passing, she lives alone and has been deemed mentally unstable. Mina, like many Roma people, resorts to begging on the streets to survive. Despite Mina’s difficult situation, she is described as a very outgoing and approachable person that many in the camp go to for advice.

Despite the inconceivable hardships Mina has endured throughout her lifetime, she continues to smile and has been described by other residents in the Roma camp of Lukavac as an extraordinarily kind and outgoing woman. Mina is a widow who, like many elderly Roma women, is left with no choice but to travel to the city of Tuzla and beg for money in the streets. She is a victim of intersectional discrimination because she is a Roma, she is a female, and she is elderly, rendering her useless in the eyes of most employers. Younger Roma women experience this phenomenon as well, which is reflected in the 71% unemployment rate among Roma women (UNICEF, 2013).

A young Roma boy practices his accordion skills which double as a hobby and a source of income. He wishes to soon venture to Tuzla later in the day to play his music in the hopes that passersby will leave him some spare change.
A young Roma boy practices his accordion skills which double as a hobby and a source of income. He wishes to soon venture to Tuzla later in the day to play his music in the hopes that passersby will leave him some spare change.

Among Bosnian youth, the unemployment rate is 57.5% and it is even higher for Roma youth (UNICEF, 2013).

landscape

The sound of a piercing whistle and melodic “choo-choo….choo-choo…choo-choo” reverberate throughout the town of Lukavac when a fully-loaded coal train is prepared to depart from the local mine. To many Roma individuals, this sound signals opportunity. According to Yu, it is extremely common for younger Roma men to jump on these trains after they leave the mine and push coal from the tops of cargo wagons. Afterwards, they collect the coal from the ground and attempt to sell it in town.

action

Roma youth tend to carry out the job of stealing coal—an incredibly perilous process that unfolds in three stages. Immediately after a train departs from the Lukavac mine, individuals begin running towards a bend near the beginning of the railroad track. It is strategic for coal thieves to jump onto the train from this curve because here the trains decelerate significantly. This is sometimes the point at which police attempt to deter the thieves by kicking and pushing them off of the train. Other times, the police turn a blind eye with a semblance of understanding for their plight.

A young Roma man successfully climbs to the top of a cargo wagon laden with coal and contemplates his exit strategy after shoving heaps of coal to the ground. Typically, one to two men cover each cargo wagon, however, they do not work in tandem.
A young Roma man successfully climbs to the top of a cargo wagon laden with coal and contemplates his exit strategy after shoving heaps of coal to the ground. Typically, one to two men cover each cargo wagon, however, they do not work in tandem.
The final step in the process is to jump off the moving train and collect the coal in burlap sacks in preparation to sell it. Every day, men put their lives in jeopardy for a 50 kilogram bag of coal that is sold for just four BAM (two Euros). As long as the needs of the Roma people are ignored, this practice will persist, despite the fact that locals have witnessed a number of train-jumper fatalities.
The final step in the process is to jump off the moving train and collect the coal in burlap sacks in preparation to sell it. Every day, men put their lives in jeopardy for a 50 kilogram bag of coal that is sold for just four BAM (two Euros). As long as the needs of the Roma people are ignored, this practice will persist, despite the fact that locals have witnessed a number of train-jumper fatalities.

Looking ahead, the stigma and prejudices associated with the Roma people are ultimately barring them from fully integrating with the other ethnic groups of BiH. Acceptance is pivotal and begins with the Constitution of BiH legally recognizing the Roma as an official minority group. Furthermore, the government of BiH must actively work to bridge the gap regarding the Roma’s access to safe and adequate housing, employment opportunities, education, and healthcare. Until these deep-seated issues are addressed, the Roma people will continue to struggle.

References

European Roma Rights Centre, 2003.The non-constituents. Rights deprivation of Roma in post-genocide Bosnia and Herzegovina. [Online]
Available at: http://www.errc.org/cms/upload/media/00/28/m00000028.pdf
[Accessed 2 August 2016].

UNICEF, 2013.The Status of Roma Children and Families in Bosnia and Herzegovina.[Online]
Available at: http://www.unicef.org/bih/roma_families-en-final.pdf
[Accessed 21 July 2016].

Bridget Granger

Bridget Granger is currently obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan. Her interest in global affairs, human rights violations, and cross-cultural dialogues began at the age of sixteen when she studied in Morocco for a semester as a U.S. Department of State NSLI-Y scholarship recipient. She plans to attend law school after completing her undergraduate studies and aims to work in the international diplomacy sector.

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Winner of the Intercultural Achievement Recognition Award by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs

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