This interview with Linda Greta Zsiga belongs to the six stories of Resistance collected in Acitivizenship #4.
Romania has one of the highest figures of private ownership of houses in the world: more than 98%. Because social housing in Romania is less than 1%, there is a constant risk of forced evictions, especially of Roma people. Hundreds of thousands of people were evicted from their homes in Romania in the last thirty years. Linda Greta Zsiga is one of these people. She was pushed at the margins of society, nearby the landfills of Cluj, the second-largest in Romania, in what the City Hall called a social housing project for the “integration” of a Roma community. Pata Rat is a ghetto that has at this point more than 1.500 hundred people. Through protests, petitions and grassroots activism, but also connected to international activism, Linda Greta Zsiga, mother of four and a seller of flowers, she moved out of the ghetto with a tenth of the community. But still she fights for human rights and affordable housing until the ghetto is destroyed and the Roma community desegregated.
Adrian-Octavian Dohotaru, Member of the Chamber of Deputies of Romania
Can you tell us your story and the story of Pata Rat?
On 17 December 2010, 76 families were evicted from the Costei street in Cluj-Napoca to Pata Rat. When we arrived there, we saw that only 40 families received a small room of 16 mt2 and the other 36 families were left outside under the sky. The families who received the small room invited the other families to live together until the spring, when it would have been possible to build something, a house. My fight started then, on 17 December 2010.
So who was affected by these evictions?
Mostly Roma people. One family of Romanians and one family of Hungarians. For the rest, only Roma people. We were a community integrated into the society, but the society pushed us five steps backwards. My whole family was all born and raised in Cluj and we paid our rent, our utilities. We had social houses, we did not have troubles with our neighbours, they were very good. The municipality decided [to change] our lives in two days. Why? Because the Mayor at that time, Sorin Apostu, was disturbed by our presence. He was living in a street near us and our kids were playing with the ball in the street or going with the bicycle. And he was disturbed by this because he was racist.
On 15 December, they came to us to say we had to pack our things and on 17 December, two days later, around 200 policemen came at 5 in the morning with people from the municipality and told us we had to move. We did not know the location until the bus took us and transported us to Pata Rat. We were evicted and moved near the garbage dump, the chemical factory. Pata Rat is 200 meters from the garbage dump which collects all the garbage from Cluj-Napoca. It is a toxic area.
When did you become an activist?
When the eviction happened, my life changed and I suffered a lot. I was crying all day. I would look outside my window and see a big mountain of garbage, and I felt my dignity, my whole life would end there. I was thinking “Oh my God, what did I do to deserve to live here together with my kids? How can the municipality think that people can live in this area?”. There was a horrible smell. Imagine: after Bucharest, Cluj is the [second] biggest city in Romania. And all the garbage from the city was there. I suffered a lot. It took me a few months to think “Okay, I need some change. It is time to do something, it is time to change something”. These forced evictions only happen to Roma people, especially in Romania. In Tulcea, Baia Mare, in many other places there were evictions. So together with my friends we said “Okay, we have to do something”.
We started to organise, also with the support of other people. A lot of people came from Cluj-Napoca, a lot of activists, people from the academia, from NGOs came to support us and advise us on what we should do. Together all the community started a court [case] against the municipality. We did many actions: meetings, protests in front of the municipality. Many people supported us.
[In Pata Rat,] we only had electricity, we made fire with wood, we had to buy the wood. And then we only had water. We did not have access to internet, [nor] to cables, we did not have access to busses because the station was really far away – 2 or 3 kilometers. So we started to organise. We created an association “Community Association of Roma from Coastei Street” and then we went to the municipality and we asked for a bus for the kids to go to school. And the municipality did it: it put a bus to bring the kids to school.
What was the response of the authorities?
Let’s say that it was positive because they saw that we were organised, we had the support of many people, including professors at the University. They opened us the door, they received us for meetings, but they did not change much: there are still people living in Pata Rat. Every year, we make many many protests. Four years ago, we made a big protest bringing 400 Roma teenagers from all over Europe.
Have you had troubles with the police?
No, we have a good relationship. They only follow us. They recognise us because we do this every year. Only once or twice it happened that someone was fined. But they never pushed us or beat us. Because they know the truth: we were evicted, now we live near the garbage dump. You do not have access to facilities of the town, you do not have access to hospitals.
In general, [it is] during the evictions [that] policemen can be a bit aggressive. Last year, a family with nine kids, two kids with disabilities, was evicted from Mesterul Manole Street and I was there together with others. I stood in front of the door and I told the policemen “I won’t move from here. You cannot take the family and move them out because they don’t have where to go. This is their home”. And the policeman pushed me and almost broke my hand. Another eviction [happened] this year again, I was there with my colleagues and the same happened. Sometimes there are people hurt or injured because they go in with force and if the people who oppose resist, then the police assaults them.
Sometimes mothers [who resist] are threatened. But not by the police, by the social assistance. They say that they will take away their children.
Was this violence always there or did it increase over time?
The violence was always there. You have to think that for centuries Roma people were slaves. They opposed and resisted. [Even] in Auschwitz, they resisted, they clashed with the police with rocks, without weapons or guns. They resisted with their hands.
Are you and other activists from Pata Rat connected with other groups fighting for the same cause in other cities in Romania? Are these groups also led by Roma activists?
Yes! Now it is almost nine years that I am involved as an activist in all the evictions happening here in Cluj-Napoca and in other cities. The people contact me and I am there. In every city where there is an eviction there is a group of activists resisting, fighting for their rights. They are always Roma, but they are supported by non Roma people who have another vision. They think all people have the same right. It does not matter if you are black or white or gypsy or Romanian, you know?
Do you think that is becoming easier to be an activist as a Roma now compared to the past?
Mmm.. yes, I think it is thanks to the support of people that are not Roma. It is much easier because in the past people thought that Roma were stealing, were dirty, and things like that. But now this is changing. For example, now in our communities we have the first generation from Pata Rat going to school. Their parents did not go to school; their grandparents did not go to school. Why? Because they did not have access to school. If you live in these houses, “houses” made of some wood and some nylon, without water, without electricity, without heating… How can you go to school? You go to school but you are smelling, you are dirty, because you do not have water to wash yourself and your clothes. But this is the first generation to go to school. We facilitate them to go to school. We provide clothes, transport, we [learn] to do the homework, and then we do afterschool. All the kids from our community go to school, to kindergarten, to middle school, to high school. Now we also have three kids in college. We have two kids that are champions in boxing, we have kids who play football. We are very proud! We did marches, we asked for our right to have a decent house, a decent life. The municipality stole our life and we want our life back.
Your story resonated nationally and internationally. Why so?
Yes, because my friends and many many people supported me. Amnesty, for example, facilitated the access to Brussels. Two years after the eviction, we had a forced eviction in miniature in front of the European Parliament together with Amnesty International. A flashmob. Then, we had breakfast in front of the European Parliament and we invited the members of the Parliament, to talk with them and to share our story about what is happening in Romania.
I have been to Brussels, to the European Parliament five times and this year, I was to the EU Roma Week. I spoke and all the people know the story. A few years ago, priests from England wrote to the Mayor to change the situation of Pata Rat. And I think that this is good pressure and it is working. The municipality is changing its actions, its attitude a bit: they always receive us, to talk, to have meetings, to ask what the community needs. For example, to make the road, to put lights outside. To make the life in Pata Rat a little better.
Do you think that the European Union could be an ally in your fight and, more broadly, for the fight of the housing movement emerging all across Europe? How?
Yes, I think that the European Union has to put pressure on Romania and other countries with problems with housing. When we go to Brussels, we go with all the people: Roma people, non Roma people, and in my mind the European Union means protection. It means that someone can ask Romania to change things.
But there is no discussion about bringing them back to the city?
No, the municipality always says that there is not enough money to build houses. But this year, the Council approved 2 Million Euro and the municipality will buy houses from big corporations and give social houses to the people. You have to bring papers to the municipality and depending on your score, you receive a house or not.
Affordable housing is increasingly becoming an issue also for a part of the Romanian middle class, although to a different extent and with different challenges. Do you think there is an opportunity to fight together for a change in housing policies?
Yes! We have a movement for social housing now and there we are [also] fighting [for people] living with rent. The rent is very very very expensive in Cluj: you pay your rent and you do not have money left to pay [for] your food. So, yes, we are together with the people who have a rent, with the people who do not have a house, with the people who do the paperwork to obtain social housing.
You are the first Roma running for European elections. Why did you choose to run?
I chose to run for the European elections because I think we need the political power to change the abusive law of Romania. I was not always involved in politics, because I always thought that politics are very big and my place is not there. I am an activist. But I saw that as activists, we [do] change some things, with small steps. But if I am an activist with political power I can change many many things, with big steps not with small ones. Because when you are there, you can speak up for the problems in Romania, and not only in Romania, in all Europe.
The community who still live in Pata Rat is fighting against the situation they were put in by the Municiplaity of Cluj. The Pata Rat landfill contains several types of industrial waste, toxic and harmful for people’s health. We want to voice their request and support their case in court. Please, consider doing the same. Every small act of solidarity counts.
We are 50 people from Pata Rât, and together with the Desire Foundation of Cluj Napoca, we sued the local authorities. We demand the closure and the sanitation of the landfills, and we also ask for financial compensations.
However, even the court of law turns its back on those at the margins. Along with the trial expenses, we are required to pay a considerable fee to a so-called environmental expert that will scientifically and objectively decide whether the landfills are indeed a toxic environment for the people living there. This is a requirement of the judge.
Therefore, we decided to turn to your solidarity in order to fulfill this act of resistance. We will make the authorities responsible for the degrading situation in which they are trying to put us in.