Roma play a large role in my latest book, Dalmatian Traffick, so my destination is the Roma relocation camp on Podgorica’s eastern side, near Montenegro’s largest rubbish dump site. Konik, as the neighborhood is called, has been a real black eye to Montenegro in particular and Europe in general for the shabby treatment of the gypsy population displaced from Kosovo as a result of the Balkan war in the late 1990’s.
The dwellings are poorly built and the infrastructure substandard, making many of the buildings barely usable. The Roma, more than two thousands of them, live in tents, containers, barracks, and sub-standard housing. A fire in 2012 destroyed Konik’s housing and the population was forced to live in tents. A flood several months later ruined the few, donated possessions of the residents. They have been told apartments will be built for them, but it is another promise that has not materialized.
A greasy looking man in his late forties is sitting in the gaping entrance to a container dwelling, working on a piece of broken equipment. It appears the building serves as a workshop and home combined; it truth, it looks like a filthy shack. The outlying area is cluttered with car parts and assorted odds and ends. Further on, I notice one house whose front porch roof is entirely supported by a row of approximately ten, five-inch-in-diameter tree trunks with the bark still intact. It sags slightly on one end.
The Roma in Konik live in suspension: they have no rights as citizens and are not allowed to work formally. The jobs available to them are at the bottom of the work food chain and they are easily exploited. The lack of legal recognition is also a deterrent to access to the educational system, but Montenegro is making efforts to integrate Roma children into non-Roma schools. The UN and other international organizations have stepped in to help the displaced Roma obtain documentation which allow them the status of foreigner, but the soaring unemployment rate (well above 50%), prostitution, drug use, and high crime rate make Konik a place of despair and hopelessness.
Many young men and boys just wander the streets. In an open, paved area near a cluster of garbage dumpsters a group of teenaged boys are shooting some hoops in a game of street ball. I stick out like a sore thumb driving through the area and don’t dawdle for fear I’ll attract unwanted attention. They give me questioning, dark looks. It’s time to go.
Rush hour is just beginning as I headed out of town, driving along a wide boulevard fronted by parks, hotels, banks, and upscale businesses. A pleasant drive. As the traffic light changes and I accelerate through the intersection I see movement in my periphery and turn in time to see a horse-drawn wagon shooting out of a narrow side street off to my right. The contraption is driven by a Roma boy wearing a battered trilby jammed down on his head, brandishing a whip. He pulls hard on the reins to keep from blind siding me, and the small horse shies, almost landing on its haunches. Two smaller boys, eyes a-popping, are hanging on to the wagon for dear life. It is a near-miss with another culture from another time.
I pull through the intersection, wondering if it really happened. Then I remember the ‘boar crossing, 800 meters’ road sign and know that I’ve just had a uniquely Montenegrin moment.