Sutka, romany laboratory capital
Near the Kosovo border, north of the Macedonian capital Skopje, lies an unusual town with unlikely inhabitants. Considered a slum by many in the country, this community has something that very few slumtowns around the world receive: legitimacy. Officially the municipality of Shuto Orizari is a part of Greater Skopje. Unofficially, Shutka (nickname) is the Gypsy capital of the world. But while much of that world has turned them away, Shutka is a place they can really call their own. It is a town of 30,000 where they make up nearly 85 per cent of the population.
In 1963, an earthquake destroyed 80% of the Roma homes of Skopje. The authorities gave Roma people plots of land and housing on the site of municipal garbage dump, a few kilometers away from the capital. Indeed, Roma, hitherto scattered, then regrouped in the area. In 1996, taking advantage of a decentralization law, Shuto Orizari became the first municipality with a self-managed Roma mayor. Still, the most important thing Shutka has to offer is a chance for the Roma to preserve, rather than defend, their culture. It is the only place in the world where the Romani language is an official language and taught in its primary and secondary schools. The charka, a wheel which is the Romani national symbol, can be seen throughout the streets and on the town’s official flag.
Over the years, the suburb area of Skopje, is transformed into a full-fledged city with its administration, schools, health center, cinema, shops, orchestra, television channel, local press paper, theater, sports clubs, market and local radios, … The Roma youth (drastically more educated than ever before) started to self-organize in forms of youth clubs, political parties, student organization and NGOs. Vividly enough, Roma youth proven that Suto Orizari should no longer be a topic of miscellaneous jokes and stereotypes conceiving Roma as the “gypsy” menace. Roma youth proudly represent Suto Orizari as an example where Roma are able to govern and maintain the municipality safe and sound.
Since Macedonia’s emergence as an independent state in 1991, there has been no significant popular outcry in Macedonia against providing the Roma with state social assistance, though it is minimal. In its Preamble, Macedonia’s Constitution places the country’s Roma on an equal par with the minority Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, Serbs, and Bosniaks. Macedonia’s government included the Roma language in its 1994 census, which encouraged many Roma to have themselves tallied as Roma. Much of the reason for the “inclusion” of the Roma in public life in Macedonia, however, has nothing to do with warm regard for the Roma or respect for their rights. Prejudice against the Roma does exist in Macedonia, and manipulation of the Roma is evident in government policymaking. Policy decisions beneficial to the Roma have had more to do with a calculated effort by leaders of Macedonia’s majority to offset the will of leaders of the country’s ethnic-Albanian minority who have threatened the secession of areas of Macedonia with significant ethnic-Albanian populations. To this end, Macedonian political leaders have managed to co-opt much of the country’s Roma population and a significant array of Roma leaders.
Macedonia’s Roma political parties have consistently stressed the loyalty of the Roma people to the Republic of Macedonia and its territorial integrity. They have also remained mostly quiet about the fact that the transformation of Macedonia’s political and economic systems since independence has not significantly closed the yawning social and economic gaps between Roma and the rest of the country’s population.
Shuto Orizari is a unique example of how a government ghettoization scheme undertaken by Macedonian officials with little complaint by Roma leaders—combined with unqualified community leaders, a lack of economic opportunity and civil society organization, low levels of éducation, and other factors—left a Roma-led local government unresponsive to the community’s needs.
For over 20 years, organizations and individuals have undertaken unprecedented efforts to alleviate the conditions that Roma endure in the areas of housing, health, education, human and civil rights, and employment. Roma-run nongovernmental organizations have managed some of these efforts at the local level, but most have been financed and guided by government institutions and other NGOs. A focus on poverty is of course crucial and must continue but lasting change requires that Roma take a share in public decisions. No solutions to the critical problems Roma face in the areas of housing, health care, education, and employment will be lasting without the equal participation of Roma in political and public life.
The Roma youth (drastically more educated than ever before) started to self-organize in forms of youth clubs, political parties, student organization and NGOs. Vividly enough, Roma youth proven that Suto Orizari should no longer be a topic of miscellaneous jokes and stereotypes conceiving Roma as the “gypsy” menace. Roma youth proudly represent Suto Orizari as an example where Roma are able to govern and maintain the municipality safe and sound. Roma youth has demonstrated many actions with many results that the current Roma political elite has never had the opportunity to deal with. It should make Roma political leaders proud that successful Roma students upgrade their level of education in highly ranked institutions and go back to the place where they call “home” to give back to the community.
Shutka is a paradox for Roma. On the one hand, it is a source of pride, and rightfully so. The famous singer Esma Redžepova still lives in Shuto Orizari and recalls the important role of their city in destiny and dignity of the Roma people in Macedonia. On the other hand, however, Šuto Orizari is a quintessential ghetto
My photographic project in shuto Orizari is about the unique and complex situation for Roma people in Europe. Several major issues like treatment of minorities (The Roma minority with about 12 million people is the largest one), « ghettoization » and community self-management, identity subject and cultural affiliation, segregation, … are included in this story and desserve all our attention in these times of withdrawing and fear in Europe.