Roma women and girls in the conflict zone need protection

ADC “Memorial” has repeatedly drawn attention to the particularly vulnerable condition of women and girls from Roma communities affected by the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In 2014, the number of Roma people who left their places of residence in the war zone in Donbas was estimated at about 6,000. All the problems characteristic of the Roma communities in Eastern Europe (lack of personal documents, insufficient level of education, poverty, risk of becoming a target of racist violence) have been exacerbated by the war. Roma women find themselves in a particularly difficult situation, as in traditional communities they are responsible for housekeeping, cooking and childcare, and it is they who have searched for ways to survive in a situation of war characterised by the daily risk of being exposed to violence coming from armed groups.

Today, about 2 million people have already become internally displaced in Ukraine, and more than 3 million refugees have crossed international borders. As of March 13, 2022, there were 106,994 refugees from Ukraine in Moldova, most of them women and children. UN Women talked to a large Roma family of 12 who were forced to leave their homes in the village of Arbuzinka, Mykolaiv region, in search of safety, protection and assistance in the Republic of Moldova.

Dafina, Albina and Angela, along with their children and close relatives, had to travel for 10 hours in a regular car designed for five people. Albina and two of the four children had to spend this time in the trunk.

“I don’t even know how we managed to get out of there; it’s terrible,” says Dafina, who came to Moldova with her 17-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. “On February 23, we celebrated the birthday of our twins Rustam and Arsen. We went to bed peacefully, and on February 24 at 6 in the morning my sister called me and said that the war had begun. I started calling my relatives. We got together and thought about what we should do. My brother lives in Kyiv. We had to go with him, [but] he could not come to us in time. Bridges have been destroyed,” says Albina. She and her four children slept in a bomb shelter for eight days, the children got sick. “It took us three days to make a decision to leave the city. We were very afraid of the path that we had to go. But at some point, we heard intense shooting and the howl of rockets somewhere not far from us. It was about 5 am, and we woke up, although I cannot say that from the first days of the war we could sleep. One could just take a nap. That morning it was announced that we were about to be attacked. Our children were trembling; they held our legs and were afraid to let go. Then there were explosions. The floors shook from them. It was at this time when we realised that we definitely had to leave, that we had no choice. We didn’t take anything because there were a lot of us and only one car. Things would not fit in it. I left in just slippers,” says Albina.

Angela adds: “We made the decision to leave at the moment when the children were playing in the street, and a rocket flew over their heads and blew out the windows in our house with an explosion.”

Even before the war, the lack of identity documents prevented Roma women from exercising their social and economic rights. Many do not have passports or money to travel. Although Dafina, Albina and Angela were able to leave the country with their large family, they had to face many difficulties along the way. Dafina says they had to change their route three times because the roads they were supposed to take were mined. Along the way, she said, they saw a burning military vehicle and many dead people lying on the road. “We tried to close the eyes of the children so that they would not see these atrocities,” says Dafina.

“We don’t know what happened to our house after we left. Our neighbour’s house is destroyed. We left everything we had at home. We took the most precious thing: our children. We gave all the food to the neighbours. We didn’t want it to go to waste. We feel sorry for our homes, for which we have worked all our lives. But we are happy that we are alive, because we did not believe that we would be able to get to Moldova alive by car. We said goodbye to each other because we knew that anything could happen at any moment.”

Albina adds that when they first arrived, the children heard a noise outside and got scared. They started looking for a place to hide. There are 22 people in the house, because the family that sheltered them consists of 10 people. “We are in a very bad situation, we don’t have any firewood, we have not heated the house for about two days. Yesterday we gathered everything we could find to heat the house and bathe the children. In Ukraine, we had everything we needed,” Albina laments. They also don’t have medicines. Dafina’s daughter suffers from asthma, and Dafina herself has heart problems. Angela, Albina’s mother, has blood cancer that causes lung and breathing problems and she needs a new inhaler because she only has 40 doses left.

Angela, Dafina and Albina are grateful to those who sheltered them –  their very distant relatives – but they understand that they will not be able to help them forever. The women say they would like to find work and housing so that they can start living anew, but there are no job opportunities in the village where they arrived. Most of all, they want to return to their homes and live in peace.