The Dog-Eaters of Svinia

Karl-Markus Gauss
21 September 2006

In 2003 the German literary magazine Lettre International launched a new literary prize, the "Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage", to recognise and honour a valuable but underrated form. In its first year, the prize was won by the Russian writer Anna Politovskaya for Chechnya: Russia's dishonour. In 2004, the Chinese writers Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao carried the prize for their seminal work, A Survey of Chinese Peasants, and last year it was British journalist Alexandra Fuller's book Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier.

Over the coming weeks, openDemocracy will publish excerpts from the finalists for the 2006 award. The winner will be announced in Berlin on 30 September.

The short list:

  • Karl-Markus Gauss (Austria): The Dog Eaters of Svinia (Paul Zsolnay Verlag, 2004)

To read extracts from last year's list, click here.


Karl-Markus Gauss, chronicler of life in Europe's border zones, has travelled to Slovakia several times in the past few years, exploring the urban ghetto Lunik IX at the outskirts of the magnificent town of Kosice and journeying to far-flung villages built on the poisoned grounds of abandoned chemical plants. He spoke to gypsies for whom begging trips to rich European countries are all that can be hoped for, and others who have sunk into complete apathy. Finally, his long journey led him to Svinia where 700 people live, who are despised even by other gypsies as "degesi" (dog-eaters), and untouchables.


Extract from The Dog Eaters of Svinia (Paul Zsolnay Verlag, 2004), from chapters two, five, ten, seventeen and twenty-two


In the nineties, the Slovakian public, an entity that was only just coming into existence and preferred to be encouraged by announcements of economic success, was confronted with the unpleasant fact that violent crimes against the Roma were becoming more frequent. There were reports of pogromlike attacks on Roma encampments on the outskirts of bucolic villages and of spontaneous assaults after soccer games or drinking binges in the cities. Those events were attributed to the rough-and-tumble world of developing capitalism, which within a few years completely wiped out the accustomed protections that the paternalistic system of practiced socialism afforded its subjects. It is true that in the 45 years in which Slovakia had been ruled by Communists, the Roma had not had reason to fear attacks by skinheads, because in those days there were no marauding bands of bald-headed thugs who regarded urban manhunts as a suitable pastime. Moreover, not all of the Roma had been unemployed, as is the case today in many communities of eastern Slovakia, because under Stalinism everybody had to work and, in the years after that, work was created by edict for everybody, even for those who performed unproductive tasks. By means of a decree from the year 1958, the Communist Party sought to solve the problem that the authoritarian state had with "population groups that were not permanently settled" in a manner that appears humane - and resulted in barbaric consequences.

More articles on the Roma in openDemocracy:

Delia Grigore, "The Romanian right and the 'strange' Roma"
(July, 2003)

Martin Kovats, "The politics of Roma identity: between nationalism and destitution" (July, 2003)

"The art of the possible: an interview with Florin Botonogu"
(August, 2003)

Julian Kramer, "Living on the edge: a Roma clan in Ostrava, Czech Republic" (August, 2003)

Caroline Moorehead, "The never-ending journey" (August, 2003)

Zsuzsanna Ardó, "Porrajmos"
(July 2006)

A series of edicts - all phrased in grandiose, hope-filled bureaucratic rhetoric - thus classified the Roma as socialist citizens with equal rights among all the other socialist citizens of Czechoslovakia. It was forbidden either to insult them because of their heritage or to discriminate against them; indeed they were officially not even to be distinguished as a separate ethnicity from other nationalities. That trumpet call introduced an era in which some Roma groups were successfully integrated into socialist society, finding work in the large industrial combines and even being allowed to bestow the blessings of state-sponsored education on their own children, a few of whom even attended universities and obtained advanced degrees. After that, to be sure, for the most part they were no longer Roma. While they were entitled to support and protection as socialist citizens among all the other socialist citizens, they were at the same time simply denied recognition as a population group of their own, with specific traditions, their own language, and particular cultural needs. Their language was dismissed as a dialect that was not allowed to be taught in kindergartens and schools and not allowed to be used in government offices and in dealing with the authorities; their culture was regarded as a mark of social retardation, from which the Roma were to free themselves as quickly as possible by shedding their traditions and forgetting what they were deprived of in the process, for the sake of progress and equal rights. In short, before the law the Roma had become equals among equals, but only under the condition that they were no longer allowed to be themselves. It is true that the Roma had probably longed for equal rights as citizens; but they were neither willing nor able to sacrifice their language, way of life, and culture or to disown them as a mark of inferiority.

In the commendable attempt to integrate the three or four hundred thousand Roma into Slovakian society, the Communist authorities brooked no opposition. The traditional settlements were razed and their inhabitants shipped off to various industrial centers and thrust into the proletarian housing projects that were erected everywhere. The clans in which the Roma had survived the centuries with all their turbulent changes were rent asunder as far as possible by separating their members and forcing some to accept work in western Bohemia and others to do so along the Ukrainian border. Instead of continuing to feel protected in a form of social organization as obsolete as the clan, in future the Roma were to feel at home in workers' brigades and settlement committees. If they had suffered in the past from being identified only in terms of ethnicity and being periodically persecuted in racist pogroms, they now had to learn that they were in reality neither an ethnic entity nor a race but rather a reactionary class, a lumpenproletariat that had to be resolutely brought into the ambit of the ruling working class.

What is to be done with people who are stuck in misery and filth and are yet called upon to join a class allegedly ruling the country? The professions that for centuries had been the bedrock of the Roma's survival had become obsolete. As long as there had been farmers who tilled their own fields, the itinerant Roma had been seasonally employed and had often been urgently expected in the villages through which they traveled. Whether in their rôle as blacksmiths they nursed limping horses back to a condition where they could pull the wagons again - whose wheels the Roma also fixed into the bargain - or whether they were at hand to help with the harvest during the few weeks in which the crops had to be brought in to keep them from rotting on the stalk, the itinerant Roma were an integral part of economic life in manifold ways, while nevertheless living at the same time in their own ambulatory world and according to their own laws. The same was true for the many Roma who had been settled for a long time and filled a need as blacksmiths, tinkers, or potters in the arts and crafts of every city.

But what happens when the land is no longer in the farmers' hands, when it has all been turned into farming collectives, whose mechanical equipment is manufactured strictly according to plan in large factories and maintained by specialists, and what happens when the craftsmen, those contemptible petit-bourgeois capitalists, have at last been turned into class-conscious factory workers? Socialist society, in its endeavor to promote heavy industry and expropriate the farmers, encountered unexpected difficulties with the Roma, even though it claimed to be removing the very causes of their disenfranchisement. Many Roma were migrating, but they no longer were expected anywhere; others were ungrateful enough to spurn the happy life among the working class in the beautiful prefabricated housing developments; they bailed out and established new settlements on the outskirts of cities and villages, settlements built without access to sewer systems and power grids.

Obstruction, evil intent, or course of nature: in the middle of the seventies the bureaucrats who were concerned about the fate of the Roma realized at any rate that there were more Roma in Slovakia than ever, that many of them were sick but at the same time frighteningly fertile. Therefore, in July of 1977 the Ministry of Health issued a directive that was to put a stop to both: the Roma's bad state of health as well as their socially ever so unhealthy procreative potency. Against their will or without their knowledge, Roma women who ended up in hospitals because they needed in-patient care or were about to give birth were sterilized. Others, who had no reason to seek medical assistance and in the process lose what in their community had always ranked paramount - that is to say the ability to beget children or give birth to them, as many children as possible - were enticed into the hospitals by social workers who promised them that the effects of the sterilization lasted only a few years and that the procedure was rewarded with the considerable sum of 30,000 koruny. It is not known how many Roma were sterilized in the waning years of practiced socialism; what is known is that not one of the dozens of women who later brought legal action against social workers, physicians, and the state won her suit in court. The jurists and medical experts of burgeoning capitalism confirmed on behalf of the medical workers of collapsing communism that the latter had sterilized scores of Roma women benignly, for the sole reason that threats to the health of both mothers and children could not be excluded in the event of further pregnancies.


What is it that makes a slum a slum? A few years ago, with friends, I rode in a car all the way through Brooklyn. The ride took hours, and in the course of it we traveled through different worlds. Whether it is really fifty-three or the legendary one hundred and six nationalities that inhabit Brooklyn - in any case, since we were driving straight ahead we passed through small Italian towns, in which people in front of the Bar Italia were discussing the best Spaghetti since mamma's; through Arab quarters in which the honor of the women was protected by a black tent that each of them wore and that left only a narrow slit for the eyes; through a Caribbean area, where groups of Rastafarians were drumming on garbage cans; a community of orthodox Jews, where men in black pants, white shirts, and wearing hats were out walking as if they were still in the Galician shtetl that their grandparents had left behind . . . And again and again we passed through areas ripe for demolition, where adolescents were standing in the streets, reeling, lying on the ground, usually black, but not always, many houses burnt out, others conspicuously dilapidated, and almost all of them defaced with graffiti marking the territorial boundaries of street gangs or lending expression to the aimless hatred of an apathetic populace no longer able to change anything about their own misery except still to exacerbate it by the violence cruelly inflicted on themselves. Someone living in Brooklyn will travel through these neighborhoods every day, by car or by bus, neighborhoods where violence threatens to erupt at any moment; such a person has no choice but to pass along those streets and see the destroyed houses, the reeling people, the third world in his own vicinity. And yet he does not see them.

The essential feature of a slum is not the poverty, not the violence, not the unemployment, not the decay. The essential feature of a slum is its invisibility. The slum is next door, but it is not seen. In the town of Košice I found almost no inhabitant who had ever been in Lunik IX. In the whole country I met very few people, whether they belonged to the Hungarian, the German, the Ruthenian, the Polish, or the Slovakian community, who were more than casually acquainted with a single Roma. Lunik IX can be reached by car from the center of town in ten minutes, and it constitutes the last stop of a municipal bus line. But nobody has ever gotten off the bus there or boarded it who was not an inhabitant of the ghetto or did not come to it as a social worker, and the stories people have to tell about this part of their own town are stories they have invariably heard from someone else, who usually also had no first-hand knowledge of them.

It is possible to become indignant about it, but that does not change anything: The slum remains invisible, even if you drive past it every day; the slum is surrounded by an invisible wall, and that wall separates worlds. Behind that wall there live other people, people whom many who otherwise know how to behave in a civilized manner openly even refuse to regard as real human beings. "From a distance you see a person coming towards you," a man who had earlier treated me most graciously said to me, " and when he comes close, you see it's only a gypsy after all."

Driving from the out-bound highway up into the ghetto, you will there find a narrow hidden road that connects Lunik IX to the next suburb of Košice. Hardly anybody drives or walks that road, because in order to reach Myslava, people prefer to use the out-bound highway that first runs past the hill Lunik IX and then, after less than a hundred yards, has a fork branching off to Myslava. The latter is a suburb bucolically nestled along a rustling brook, where old farmhouses alternate with new villas and many expensive cars are parked. The happiness of prosperity appears unthreatened; in the back yards stone-built grills are waiting for the summer and swings are waiting for the children to come home from school or from kindergarten. The ghetto is less than three hundred yards away, and the inhabitants of Myslava drive past Lunik IX every day, without ever having seen it and having ventured up into the Roma encampment.


On this day I learned at long last what it means to speak of the virtue of criticism.

I had to turn 48 years old, betake myself to the eighth floor of a former hotel in eastern Slovakia, forget everything I had learned in Austria, and listen to Kristina Magdolenová. When the friendly young people sitting in front of their computers at the Roma Press Agency ran into a problem, they walked through the open door into the editor-in chief's office to ask her for advice or encouragement. The twenty-year-olds were charged with collecting every news item on the Roma that was published by official or private sources in Slovakia and in all of Eastern Europe. But they did not only collect those news items; they also evaluated and assessed them, commented on them and carried their research beyond the point where others had left off. On the internet and in the bimonthly journal Rómske listy they then offered serious information on questions having to do with the political, social, legal, and cultural concerns of the Roma. For not a few attacks against the Roma had been preceded by sensationalistic revelations in the press and on television. A few years earlier journalists, often not even driven by racist sentiments but rather under pressure to present sensational pictures and exciting stories day after day, had discovered the Roma as a welcome object of their attention. Their reports from the slums or of spectacular car crashes, brawls, and controversies involving individual Roma, determined and distorted the picture created in the Slovakian consciousness of those people, whom they saw every day and yet hardly knew.

Kristina Magdolenová was convinced that the cause was not evil intent but sheer ignorance, if journalists reported on the Roma in such a biased manner and presented them in the media only when there had been unpleasant incidents somewhere. It needn't even be dead bodies and injuries, wild police chases, or riots to bring on the journalists. For the local media it was enough, for example, that a school had to be closed for a week on account of a flu epidemic, and immediately a camera team would invade the community, fanning out to let concerned parents confirm for them that it was indeed the Roma children among whom the disease had first broken out and to hear the district medical officer's opinion that the standard of hygiene in the gypsy encampment was horrible. A hasty visit paid to that encampment - approximately three hundred of which exist in Slovakia, always built along the way out of the city, in abandoned industrial areas or on marshy communal land not fit for any other purpose - offered an opportunity to shoot a few impressive pictures of squalor and human dissolution to round things out, and a shuddering TV audience could then, in the evening news, find its prejudices gruesomely confirmed in the guise of a factual report.

Not only in Slovakia is the misery thrust upon a group of people the strongest reason to hate them; the sight of the defeated does not even make the attacker happy but prompts him, rather, to see himself in the rôle of the victim who at long last has to fight back for a change. Always showing people only in their misery reduces them to that aspect of their existence; at best, it turns them into perpetual victims, who can be tolerated only as victims and who cannot be credited with any qualities other than those that predestine them to the rôle of victims. The repressed aggression in such extravagant and at the same time cheap sympathy is usually readily apparent; and just as the sympathy that causes them to be publicized is specious, pictures of horror usually arouse not sympathy but fear in those who see them. The horror inflicted on others worries us because we vaguely sense that the miserable might rise from their misery and infect us with it.

Kristina Magdolenová regarded it as her duty to create an antidote to the constant bombardment of the Slovakian public with horror pictures and tales of woe. Reports on the Roma were not to suggest invariably that all of them were poor, sick, and ignorant. Critical reports were necessary, she felt, that showed how Roma were able to work their way out of poverty, that certain endemic diseases could be defeated and that ignorance was not fated. In her journal, therefore, she reported not only on schools that practiced apartheid but also on others in which desegregated instruction of whites and blacks was successfully tested. She not only castigated everyday racism but also presented a portrait of forty-year-old Daniel Pompa, who came from a Roma family of nine and had risen to become a widely esteemed specialist in urology at the Kežmarok hospital. She believed the whites were as capable of learning as the Roma if only they were given a chance to educate themselves and resist the overpowering force of the images wallowing in misery. Coming from a country where it was customary for intellectuals to identify criticism with the trumping of the negative and where thus the critical intellects were engaged in a spirited competition between those who thought the world in general was the most appalling and those who ascribed that attribute to Austria in particular as the world's most depraved part, I was amazed at the conviction of this woman that criticism meant differentiating among things and even sometimes seeing them as less horrible, that is to say, in my Austrian sense, seeing them less critically.

Kristina Magdolenová was my age; she had reddish brown hair, an open, roundish face and combined, in an unusual way, intellectual rigor and maternal indulgence. In a single sentence she pitilessly dissected the investigative report that one of her young co-workers had given her, all the while never hiding her pride in him and the whole group. She had been a teacher, a journalist, and a social scientist at a university and had built the agency with modest funds, turning it into a unique institution; and now, with her work at long last beginning to produce effects, she no longer knew how she could raise the funds to keep it going. Though in the beginning she had received financial support from the European Union, that was now withdrawn without any expression of regret, for the closer Slovakia was moving towards entry into the Union, the more rigorously the latter reduced its collaboration with institutions and organizations that were independent from the government or even acted in opposition to its projects.

Kristina Magdolenová, blessed with an innate inability to whine, did not even seem to resent this development, which threatened the very existence of her agency; It was as self-evident to her that those who governed, wherever they governed and ruled over the disposition of goods and funds, could not be expected to foster one's projects as it was that she nevertheless had to continue doing what simply had to be done. She pointed to her co-workers, young women and men, Slovaks and Roma, who were connected through the internet to the data banks of the world and yet never lost sight of the things that happened in their immediate vicinity. She did not know how her project was to go on, but she was certain that there would always be young people in Slovakia who would not tolerate the apartheid in their society.


In Svinia the only thing that could be heard was the rain, which had been coming down for hours in tightly drawn threads. It neither decreased nor increased in force; it was a downright dispassionate, pedantic rain that created a constant high-pitched hum, which it was inconceivable, under this gray, massive plate of the sky, to imagine ever ending. I left the village in the direction that had been pointed out to me, walking along the road that led to Poprad and on which only the pale shimmer of a set of headlights emerged every few minutes, barely penetrating the veil of gray and quickly swallowed up again by the rain, along with the car rushing past. At first the road was lined by single-family houses, on whose dark rendering large, heavy stains of moisture were now standing out; after a short while it ran through open country.

The gypsy encampment, so I had been told, was located not at the end of the village but a third of a mile outside of it. A premature, depressing twilight had descended on the earth, which was absorbing like a large brown sponge the water that had been falling for hours. I walked doggedly straight ahead, towards a haze somewhere far ahead of me in which the road seemed to dissolve. There was nothing on that afternoon but the road, the rain, and that hum. And then I saw them. No, before I saw them, I heard something. It was a distant sound composed of many as yet indistinguishable noises and notes, and that sound seemed to arch like a dome over what finally became visible: a pile of boards, rocks, sheet metal, of wooden huts, masonry, containers.

On the left a path forked off from the main road, taking a turn after about a hundred and fifty yards, widening, and leading into the encampment. As I was coming closer, the sound split up into countless individual noises, high-pitched and hoarse ones, excited and annoyed ones, the nervous barking of dogs, the slapping sound of balls kicked against a stone wall, the bursting crash of boards on which somebody was jumping, a hammer striking a tin surface, and, unmistakably, the splashing of water that someone was hitting.

When I was about ten yards from the bend and could already catch a glimpse of the encampment, a smell suddenly rose to my nose, a smell so intense and unaccustomed that my body immediately rejected it and attempted convulsively to expel what I had already inhaled of it. With the retching sound of a suppressed vomiting attack, my torso bending forward, I stumbled into the encampment, where dozens of adults, adolescents, and children were looking at me with surprised eyes and immediately burst into good-natured laughter at the rattling sound of my gulping nausea. I was sure they knew exactly that the stench of their encampment had taken my breath away, the sweetish smell of decay mingling with that of feces, petrol, rotten wood, burnt plastic, the vapors of decomposition that seemed to rise from every corner and wafted numbingly through the place. The first few breaths were horrifying; time and again my lungs tried to refuse to inhale, until my knees turned wobbly and I felt how the cold sweat glued my shirt to my back under my rain jacket. Thus beset, my respiratory organs finally capitulated and sucked in the air; after only a few breaths things improved; the smell lost its intensity until after a while I hardly noticed it any more. As I straightened up and breathed freely again, the people nodded to me approvingly from all sides, as if by overcoming my revulsion I had acquired a right to be among them.

Less than three yards in front of me sat a naked boy of at most two years, in a puddle of gleaming greenish water in which I saw drifting a soaked cardboard box, rusty tin cans and wilted vegetable leaves. On his head, which was shaved bald, a large wound was forming a scab. He was sitting in the icy water, enthusiastically slapping it with the flat of his hand, and shivering from the cold he started to cheer loudly as soon as he caught sight of me, the stranger. Immediately his siblings came running, picked him up - he was entirely covered in mud - and rushed up to me with him. I hadn't been there for a minute when I was already surrounded by a dozen children, each of whom held out his or her hand to me and told me his or her name.

They were talking to me excitedly, all at the same time, first in Romany, then in Slovakian, wanting to know everything at once, tell at once everything they had to tell, but at last they had to make way for the adults who were stepping out of the houses, in the doors of which they had been standing protected from the rain. I could not tell whether it took ten minutes or an hour for me to shake hands with everybody who was extending a personal welcome to me as a guest in his encampment, but I was still standing at the upper end of the square and had hardly been able to look beyond the throng that had quickly formed around me. Everyone who introduced himself told me his name and the number of children he had; it was always three or four at least, even in the case of very young men, and their wives too came without embarrassment, some of them suckling their infants, wading through the mud to intimate to me who they were and how many children they had already given birth to.

The path leading from the road to the encampment had opened to a width of about ten yards at the bend. This was the main square of the encampment, and it was flanked on either side by two long and low single-storey stone houses each. The whole square had been churned into a sticky morass by the rain. I noticed how nonchalantly these people ignored the muck in which they were standing, regardless whether they were wearing high winter boots or light summer shoes; they didn't care, and even though the water must have long soaked through their footwear, they took it completely in stride. I was standing deep in the mud, which emitted a squelching noise every time I shifted my weight from one foot to the other; I was standing at the center of this indescribably filthy encampment, which was steeped in impenetrable stench, in this unending rain whose wetness invaded everything - and I was surrounded by people who were all laughing. Surrounded by young men whose faces were ravaged by drink, surrounded by emaciated women, each with one child on her breast, two hanging on to her apron, and yet another already in her bulging belly; surrounded by smirking adolescents who proudly and furtively showed me how they sniffed glue from little plastic bags, surrounded by old people without a tooth in their mouths . . . I was surrounded by marked people - and did not encounter a single one who did not smile at the visiting stranger and patted him on the shoulder in a show of friendship.


Every time I spent time with Dezider and his friend Adam, they wanted to teach me something and learn something from me. First, forms of salutation and counting in German, Slovakian, and Romany. Later the words for brother, sister, cousin, aunt. Those two were equally curious, intelligent, and snotty, and if they had come into the world as Austrians or Slovaks, they would now, at the age of twelve, surely be attending high school in Stockerau or Bardejev or some other place. But they were Roma from Svinia, and that was why they were going to a school where they were strictly segregated from the Slovakian children.

With money from Canada a free lunch for all children had been instituted in the Svinia elementary school. The first idea in this undertaking was to provide a warm meal every day for the Roma children; the second was that the Slovakian children were also entitled to sustenance, since not all of them came from well-to-do families; the third was that taken together the luncheon might allow those friendships across the ethnic boundary to develop that the social regime prevailing in the town strictly precluded. When those who underwrote the lunch program checked things out after a few months, they discovered that the white children were eating in one room, the black ones in another. The whites were eating with knife and fork, the black ones were given only spoons to break up their food and otherwise ate with their fingers. The white children were served their food at tables; the black ones had theirs passed into their room through a serving hatch, a small window that was closed again immediately afterwards. The aunts, as they insisted on being called, employees of the municipal administration, justified that segregation with the argument that Roma simply did not know how to use flatware and that the separation helped to avoid needless quarrels.

Dezider, when I raised this arrangement with him, was wearing a trendy red sweater, kept scrupulously clean, with the inscription "Success Kids." Without resentment and signs of indignation he confirmed to me that he did not have a single white friend and never came into contact with one in school either. But why do you eat in a separate room and not together with the other children, I asked him. Dezider was one of the brightest fellows I had ever met, and when he was a little reluctant to answer, it was not for his own sake but for mine. He felt that his answer would make me sad and angry, but it was the only one he had, and he gave it, almost a little regretfully, but nevertheless as if it were something that went without saying: "Because we are only Roma."

Even several years after the discovery of the Gypsy camp by international and national aid organizations, Svinia was still a place of total apartheid involving every area of life. The children attended segregated classes; they took their meals in different rooms. Even the parson, who had a few things to say about it from the pulpit, had bowed to pressure and scheduled two masses on Sundays. Likewise in the graveyard strict segregation prevailed and no Roma who had everything behind him was laid to his final rest among Slovaks. In the entire village, Craig said, there were only three places where the whites and the blacks met: the post office, where the one clientele as well as the other went to pick up their wages, welfare payments, and subsidies; the supermarket, the only one in Svinia, which could only stay in business as long as everyone did his shopping there; and one of the two pubs in town, naturally the one of ill repute, which a decent inhabitant of the village really wasn't supposed to patronize but which on those days when the one frequented by decent people was closed nevertheless served as a last resort for a few whites if they happened to be in the mood for a pub crawl. Everything else in town existed twofold, so that the people living in the same village never needed to run into each other. Of course they walked the same streets, but in doing so they had developed a method that made it possible for them to be at the same time very close and infinitely distant from each other. They walked the same street, but they lived on different planets. Thus it was not at all difficult for the whites not to know anything about the blacks.

Translated from German by Peter K. Jansen

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