On my third day in Skopje, at the end of July, I realised that family I was due to talk with didn’t want to see me.
They are returnees from Germany, and a friend of mine from one NGO spoke with them before I came to Macedonia. She explained to them what I was working on, asked them to talk with me, and they agreed.
They came back from Germany two years ago and live in a village near Skopje.
Their two daughters had to stop their schooling in Germany, and the parents have had a lot of problems getting proper documents in Macedonia, as the mother was born in Kosovo, the father in Serbia, and they had spent years living all over the former Yugoslavia.
I phoned them when I arrived in Skopje, but the woman told me that her husband was not at home, that he would be back in one hour and asked me to call again.
I did, but he didn’t come home that night…Nor the next day, nor the day after that… With some uneasiness in her voice, she finally told me: “I am sorry, he had to go to Kosovo to see his sister. The children went with him, and you can’t come and see us.”
It was not the first time I’d met with such wariness from Roma people, when they talk with someone from the “outside” world. If something is wrong, perhaps they don’t have papers or documents from the state, that fear is stronger.
“I don’t want to tell you anything,” said a woman in the Roma settlement under “Gazela” bridge in Belgrade a month ago.
“I know you are not from the police, but it’s better for us not to talk too much. Maybe it will cause problems, and we already have too many problems.”
Instead of the village of Trubarevo, where the first family lived, I went to Shutka, or to give it its full name, Shuto Orizari.
A Skopje municipality, Shuto Orizari is the only one in the country where Roma make up a majority of the population. It is estimated that Shutka has a population of about 50,000, and this number almost doubles in summer, when people working abroad return.
The mayor of the municipality, Erduan Iseini, is an ethnic Roma, and residents of Shutka are proud that it is “the only municipality in Europe with a Roma mayor”.
They are also proud that Esma Redzepova, one of the most famous Roma singers in the world, is Shutka resident.
Shutka is far from being a great tourist attraction but it attracts people, for different reasons. A flea market, big and colourful, is held in the main street every morning. It attracts people from throughout Skopje to buy all manner of authentic and pirated, often smuggled, goods.
The streets of Shutka reminds many people of India, full of friendly people, boys on bikes, children playing, the women dressed in colourful clothes.
There always seems to be a wedding or some kind of celebration ongoing and people play music and dance in the streets.
Some of the houses are like palaces, with rich decorations. But those are the exception. Shutka is the poorest place in Macedonia. There are a lot of small streets full of rubbish, lined with shacks made from any possible material.
For some people, such as Aleksandar Manic, director of a documentary “The Shutka Book of Records”, it is a “magical place where joy and sorrow mix, and people pulsate with everyday passion and a love of life.”
For others, it’s the “Bronx of Skopje”, just another poor neighbourhood that can be found in any big city across the world.
To decide which Shutka is, you’ll have to go and see it. The only thing certain is that you won’t be able to sit on the fence.
Momir Turudic from Belgrade, Serbia, is a journalist with several prestigious awards for covering Roma issues. He currently works as a journalist for Serbian weekly Vreme
The collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 triggered a frenzied phase of nation-building in Eastern Europe, while some Balkan nations embarked on armed conflicts aimed at strengthening national, religious and cultural identities.