The only Roma town in Macedonia

Skopje, August 2012
It is not easy to find the right bus to my destination Šutka. The signs are confusing and the name does not appear on the notice boards. I found a bus nr. but is it the right direction?

Šutka is probably the only village with an entirely Roma population, a Roma major, and municipal government in the whole Macedonia and possibly in the whole world. Once on the bus, I ask around where to get off, just to be sure. A young woman instructs me

But it is dangerous, you should not go there alone’

she adds; ‘I will join you.’

Her name is Angela (Andjela). She is fluent in English, as she attended High school in the US on a scholarship. She has again won a scholarship for University, so she will continue her studies there. The US is generous to the Macedonians, she tells me; there are a lot of opportunities to get funding for schooling if you go for it.

“Soft power”

this phenomenon is called in international politics where in less developed countries another country (Turkey, Russia, USA) provides facilities so the population takes a positive attitude towards the donor, this way increasing its influence in the region. A lot of it can be found in the Balkan. It has positive sides too. I understand Angela’s enthousiasm – she grabbed her opportunities for a better life and now she’s back here, just for the holidays.

We get out: Šutka definitely has a total Roma feel. On the one side of the road , there’s an array of big mobile homes, although some of them seem to be mobile only in theory. Bright colors are everywhere and all sorts of ornaments. The dirt roads are full of eager buyers and sellers.

On the other side, an enormous open air market spreads out before us. This is where all the citizens of Skopje, the Macedonian capital, go shopping. Anything imaginable is sold here for rock bottom prices. The stalls are covered with canvas cloth so it is nearly an inside market. The lanes are cramped. Angela is right: I would not feel safe in this maze on my own, and I’m afraid I would get hopelessly lost in here. I inspect some vegetables, spices and clothing and find their quality to be questionable. What do you expect for such low prices

A surprise reunion

It is a big surprise for Angela when we by accident bump into a Roma girl Angela went to school with. Her name is Merina. They have not seen each other for almost 10 years. Angela is a bit saddened by this encounter: she feels sorry for Merina, as she lives her life in poverty and with little opportunity for change. Roma have little chances for advancement. It is a sharp contrast with Angela’s own life and what she made of it. The differences are also clear from their appearance: Angela looks more healthy, wears Western style clothing and hairstyle but her friend is obviously less well to do and remained more local in attire.

Life has changed in the suburbs of Skopje

We take the bus back, and to the northern outskirts of Skopje (Chair) Angela wants me to see. This is where she grew up. We go for a bite to the best kebab place, according to Angela, where she always went with her friends. Life has changed the last 10 years in this suburb. She feels the Muslim community is rapidly taking over the neighbourhood with fenced houses and closed windows. Angela herself is Orthodox, and we go to the nearby church together. The Macedonian Orthodox Church is a break away branch of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Its legality is disputed in the Orthodox religious community.

Macedonian Orthodox Church
Macedonian Orthodox Church

I am not a religious person , but I do appreciate religious places for their serenity. As I put some money in the donation box, Angela tells me she actually has no affinity with the church at all; for her, it is just a sentimental journey. This is where the whole family meets with Christmas, that’s all. She never gives money to the church, she tells me: ‘pure waste’.

I ask her if she would return to live here after her studies. She tells me: Definitely not.

It is good to be back for the holidays, but I will not return permanently

Her future is elsewhere… not in Macedonia.

5 years later I receive a message, out of the blue from Angela:

You were the first Dutch person that I’ve met, and you left a great impression on me. Believe it or not, I am moving to the Netherlands. I got a Fulbright scholarship to study in the US, and in the meantime, I met a wonderful Dutch guy, so once I am done with my studies I will be moving to your country. Merina has a good life now, living in Germany.