The Roma ‘Gypsies’ began moving out of Northern India more than 2000 years ago, spreading throughout Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa. Now numbering around 15 million, they face discrimination and live on the outskirts of society in every land they call home. The Roma are a people without a country. There is, however, one place where the Roma flag flies; in Shutka, Macedonia.
With the largest concentrated Roma population in the world, Shutka is the only municipality in Europe with Romani as its official language. Five miles from the modern center of Skopje, Macedonia, yet a world apart in terms of culture and economy lies Suto Orizari, or “Shutka.” This rough mishmash of small homes and dilapidated shanties is home to an estimated 50,000 people. The streets are full of life, the air is thick with smoke from wood fires and burning trash, Turkish pop music blares from boom boxes strategically placed on street corners and from open car doors, men yell greetings across the potholed streets and from horse-drawn carts.
Shutka was founded after the massive earthquake of 1963 that left most of Skopje’s Roma homeless and without any possession. To house the newly homeless the Red Cross built temporary metal huts on the outskirts of the city, many of which are still inhabited today. Relatives of people who were moved to the new town wanted to be closer to their families and began a population boom that made Shutka what it is today.
What connects Shutka with Roma communities throughout Europe is one thing: poverty. Unemployment hovers at around 80%. Most housing is poor at best; families of five to ten often share a single room where they cook, clean and sleep. An estimated two thousand people are without documentation. Roads are in desperate need of improvement; whole blocks are without water and electricity for weeks on end. Militia-like police harass young men for no apparent reason. Drugs and prostitution are hidden but ever present. “This is the ghetto,” says a joyful young man dodging gaping potholes.
As the sun sets on a cold winter evening, merchants close their carts, buses bring back the old men and women lucky enough to have a job sweeping the streets of wealthier neighborhoods, men begin to drink and argue in front of their homes and children run through the streets in blissful unawareness of the realities their future holds.
As for the Roma of Shutka and those throughout Europe, their future may be as undefined as their past.