ZAGREB, October 27, 2020 — Friday October 9 was a dark day for ‘Garden path’ (Vrtni put), a small Roma community located in the capital of Croatia. The community consists of around 150 people living in tiny shacks nestled in the shadow of various warehouses. After the city of Zagreb decided it would no longer pay the monthly electric bill, the power company shut off the community’s electricity.
The suddenness resulted in refrigerators full of spoiled food and a community thrown into uncertain turmoil. “This is a horrible situation — it is difficult to live normally. It feels like we are just living on the streets,” according to Elvira Šečić, 19.
This small settlement of Roma families began forming in the 1980s according to tportal.hr. A woman married a man from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and they began living on the vacant land. Others from Bosnia gradually arrived, seeking a better life in Croatia, and stayed because they had nowhere else to go. Since the houses are not legal, there was no possibility to install water or electricity services.
Zagreb Roma Community Connected Electric Cables to City Installed Module
In 2013, the city placed two modules in the community — one for children’s education, and the other for hygienic needs. However, the city never began the education program. After fire destroyed one family’s home, they moved into one of the modules. Then, other families in the community connected their own cables to the electrical box. Those connections provided each household with electricity and the ability to have refrigerators and warm water.
For the last seven years, the city of Zagreb has been paying that electrical bill. However this month they decided they could no longer do so. Without payment of the bill, HEP (Croatian Electricity Company) turned off the electricity to the module. The residents claim they had no warning. They add that the city told them they could use 6 kilowatts of electricity a month for their homes.
“The city is accusing us of stealing electricity and that we didn’t have permission to use the electricity from the module,” said Šečić. “But for eight years we have had electricity, and no one ever came to tell us that,” he added.
Roma Community Without Heat or Refrigeration After Power Shut Off
Stevo Globovac, a 33-year old spokesman for the community, said that it would have been easier to find a solution had HEP shut off the electricity in the summer. “Now, it is getting darker sooner in the day and colder,” he points out. He added that people live on very little money, and buy food for the whole month to make it last. Therefore, the current lack of refrigeration is a big problem.
There are around 100 children in the community, and about a quarter of them attend local schools. However, the lack of electricity has made attending school more of a challenge.
“The kids haven’t been to school for several days now,” said Zehra Omerović, a twenty-six year old mother of two. She is pregnant with her third child. “We can’t send our kids to school dirty,” she added.
Raman Fallievski, president of Vijeće Romske Nacionalne Manjine (Council of the Roma National Minority), also said that he didn’t know that the electricity shut-off would happen so suddenly. However, they received an official letter from the city of Zagreb in July. The letter stated that, due to the large water and electric bills, an inspection would be carried out in the community. The city then reported that the jerry-rigged electrical box was unsafe and illegal. Then they asked for suggestions on how to proceed.
Huge Unpaid Bill May Also Cause Water Shutdown
Since the shut-off, Fallievski said that his office met with the city and with delegates from the community; however, the current COVID-19 situation has added further challenges to the possibilities of a joint meeting.
“We really feel for the situation, especially because of the children, but we don’t know what we can do,” he explained. He asked the city to not turn off the water, although the community’s water usage had also incurred a large debt. However, he noted that there is no guarantee of what the city will decide to do. The city of Zagreb did not respond to Daily Croatia’s request for comment.
According to Fallievski, the story is much more complex than it appears at first glance. Since the houses in the community are not legal, HEP cannot install electricity in the houses or send bills to people. Even if someone paid off the current debt, noted Fallievski, there is no guarantee that HEP would turn the electricity back on. This is both a legal and a safety issue, he emphasized. He added that that the current state of the electrical wires could result in a fire.
Illegal Residences Prevent Legal Electricity Installations
“This is just a circular problem, and we cannot do anything,” continued Fallievski. He is hoping the city of Zagreb will agree to move the community to a more sustainable and legal location, but they are under no obligation to do so.
The circular nature of issue reveals the larger paradox within this community. Some of the residents are originally from Bosnia. However, many have lived in the community for years and have Croatian citizenship. Only a few of them are registered as Roma, which means that they are not eligible for certain minority rights. Despite their Croatian citizenship, their lack of education makes it challenging to navigate bureaucracy and find alternate pathways of survival. In addition, the small shacks are a difficult environment for kids to do homework or have a quiet place to study. And that promulgates the education deficit for the next generation.
Zagreb Promising Community More Sustainable Residences for Years
The women have claimed that for years, that political officials have promised them more sustainable residences. Nevertheless, nothing has ever come from those promises. Now they find themselves in an untenable and miserable situation. It seems impossible to get the electricity back, and there is no sure way to go forward without intentional assistance. In other words, this community, which was already on the margins of society, has fallen into the margins’ fringe.
“I would like to leave here. We are suffering,” Omerović explains. The question of where to go, however, was one that nobody had an answer to.
Follow our Politics page to keep track of this developing story and living conditions of Roma and other minority communities in Croatia. More information about Vijeće Romske Nacionalne Manjine (Council of the Roma National Minority) the on their Facebook page here.