The Roma’s Romania: A journey of exclusion


Wealthy Roma who marry off their 12-year-old daughters, well educated Roma who work in banks, poverty-stricken Roma who are discriminated against and a Roma clan leader who was born in prison.

Expressen’s Magda Gad travelled through Romania and saw so many different Roma worlds, from the ghettos of Bucharest to a suburban street lined with palatial villas.

This is a journey through exclusion. It shatters dreams of a life within mainstream society. It creates parallel communities, each with their own norms and laws. And it doesn't always welcome visitors.

In Buzescu, the rules of “omerta” apply. Silence.

A code of honour within the mafia.

Imposing silver gates are pulled shut. Heavy doors with lion’s head handles are closed. Steps fade away across the marble.

Then there’s just silence.

All that is left are the palatial villas and the cars. Low-slung sporty models. SUVs with tinted windows.

I’m here without permission. It looks deserted.

It isn’t.

I met him in his orchard. The leader.

He informed me of his decision, without having shaken my hand and without looking me in the eyes once.

“I can take you to the street and give you information – it’ll only cost you 500 kronor.”

“No way – it’s a public place and I never pay for interviews,” I said and walked out.

His authoritarian face began to boil. I could hear the sound of angry footsteps behind me as I quickly jumped into the car. He shouted:

“You can’t go there! No one will talk to you!”

The leader was wrong.

An unshaven man in a black leather waistcoat, sitting on a bench outside his pink, cake-like palace, complete with columns, turrets and terraces, speaks to me.

“How old are you?”

“39,” I reply, sitting down.

“Are you married?”

“No.”

The man leans closer in his wide-brimmed hat, exposing two rows of gold teeth.

“But how can you have lived your whole life without men?”

“That’s not what I said,” I reply, startled and surprised.

“But if you’re not married, you must be a virgin. Are you a virgin?”

I cross my arms across my chest protectively.

“That’s not respectful, asking a question like that.”

“We’re gypsies, this is how we talk,” snaps the man, leaning backwards.

"I was 20 when I married my wife, who was 12"

Neither of us says anything for a while. He wrings his hands. His fingers are weighed down by gold rings; around his wrist is a Rolex made of gold and diamonds, around the collar of his shirt a gold necklace as thick as a bicycle chain with a gold emblem that spreads across his chest.

He looks at me from behind wrinkled eyelids.

“If you aren’t a virgin, you might as well give your vagina to a lot of men so that they can enjoy you because you’re already damaged goods. Here, we marry off the girls when they’re twelve.”

“Why?”

“Because they like it. They want to start having sex then. I was 20 when I married my wife, who was 12.”

I look at him with curiosity and change the subject.

“What’s the secret of your success?”

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

“Aren’t you proud of being successful?”

“No, I’m not proud.”

He moves further away. I open my mouth to ask again. Then he gets up. Disappears behind his Porsche Cayenne, opens his gate and says:

“You have to leave.”

Buzescu is a Roma village one hour west of Bucharest. The only ethnic Romanian you’ll see here is the postman.

I go back there with two Roma men, a banker and a tradesman, hoping it will open doors.

It doesn’t.

This time, a wedding is being held in the street. The families try to drive us away. When this doesn’t work, the leader himself – the Roma representative in the area – turns up and starts waving his fists around, threatening to call the police.

“We can’t stay here,” says the banker, wanting me to hurry up and get in the car.

As the last columns of Buzescu start to vanish from the rear-view mirror, he explains that there are two professions in this palatial town:

“You’re either a thief or a pimp. The pimps say to the girls, ‘You’re living with me, you’re my wife, you live here and you eat here but you’re a whore on the streets and we’re both going to make money.’”

Regardless of the reason for taking a wife, the rule is that the daughters are married off – for money and while they’re young virgins.

“It’s hard to change this tradition as long as they stay in the community. Like there – there were only Roma living there, no Romanians. According to them, a 15-year-old girl is someone who has children, who’s a mother,” continues the Roma banker.

“How much do they pay for a wife?”

“They pay as much as they can afford. From €500 to €20,000.”

I do a rough calculation in my head: almost 190,000 Swedish kronor.

The tradesman and the banker discuss the amounts and laugh from the front seats.

“It depends on two things: how wealthy the family are and how beautiful the girl is!”

“Don’t they want to integrate?” I interrupt.

“The girls who live there don’t marry Romanians. Roma boys can sometimes marry Romanian girls, but they take them to the village.”

“So they’re not interested in living in a mixed community?”

“No, not the ones living in that area.”

Buzescu, a Roma village one hour west of Bucharest.
  • Buzescu, a Roma village one hour west of Bucharest.
  • During Expressen's visit to Buzescu, residents make it clear to the team that we are not welcome.
  • Wealthy Roma families have built palatial villas along the main street in Buzescu. A wedding takes place while we are there.
  • In Buzescu, the rules of "omerta" apply. Silence.

We turn off slowly into the neighbouring village of Alexandria. It’s just a few streets away and is also a Roma community. Through the car windows I can see horses and carts, simple wooden houses with corrugated metal fences. The contrast is astounding.

“Do the wealthy Roma help the poor Roma?”

“They don’t give them a penny,” says the banker.

“They don’t even look at the poor,” says the tradesman.

No doors are closed in Alexandria. An old man, his hands showing the signs of age, has a metalworking shop in his yard. He makes home distilling equipment. At harvest time, when people turn their fruit into alcohol, he can make sales of just under 2,000 kronor a month. This figure drops to less than 1,000 kronor off-season. His wife bakes cakes and sells them.

The man proudly tells us that one of their children is married to an ethnic Romanian.

Other tradesmen in the area make silver jewellery, drainpipes, horseshoes. But most of their tools are packed away. They take them out and slightly wearily show us how they’re used. They make products that aren’t competitive in a society where there are bargain stores.

A silversmith smacks a puppy lying in front of his tools.

Another gets up from a long table full of beer bottles and stumbles his way out into a field with his toolbox.

The air smells of drink, grass and hopelessness.

The sun is high in the sky.

The working day has only just turned into afternoon.

And the scent of hopelessness can be exploited.

The villas in Buzescu are guarded by gates and heavy doors. Photo: Magda Gad

The BBC has revealed that Roma gangs have tricked poverty-stricken Roma families into going to Spain and Italy, forcing the children to beg and steal – and made a fortune. Each child was able to make 112,000 kronor in the space of a month. Multiply that by the 50 children used as slaves and you have got an astronomical amount: 5.6 million kronor a month.

Over 67 million kronor a year.

The police investigation into child exploitation led to Buzescu and to Craiova, a town about three hours west of Bucharest. Another hour away lies Strehaia – yet another town full of palatial Roma villas.

In the wealthy parts of Craiova there are luxury cars with number plates from all over Europe. They belong to Romanian Roma who work abroad but who are at home on holiday. The women have laid rugs out on the pavements, where they sit and chat.

By telling them I’m a tourist who’s lost their way, I am let into one of the villas. In the driveway are two sports cars. Inside the villa are broad marble staircases going up several floors, gold wallpaper, heavy wooden furniture and a sky-high ceiling.

“How could you afford such a beautiful house?” I ask the owner, who’s wearing a polo shirt.

He freezes in the middle of one of his elegant gestures.

I repeat the question.

Finally, he answers me.

“I have a butcher’s shop in Dublin.”

"It was much better under communism – at that time I had a house in town"

Five minutes away, 65-year-old Maria Dumitru is breathing through an oxygen tube. She’s living on benefits – just 330 kronor a month.

“Life’s really hard – I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” she struggles to gasp, her hair grey and her floral blouse hanging loosely over her sizable bosom and belly.

Her oxygen tank is inside the hut she lives in. She has fed the tube out through the window, so she can sit in the shade behind her hut.

That’s as far as she can go. Up to her own patched-up outer wall.

A naked grandchild cries in a pram in front of her. She hardly has the strength to give it a bottle.

“It was much better under Communism, I had a house in town back then. I was paid to have children - 1,100 kronor a month, that was a lot of money back then,” she pants.

Ceausescu banned abortion and encouraged women to have a lot of children – they were to become the factory workers of the future. After the dictator was executed in 1989, the factories were closed down and everyone who worked there was laid off.

Maria Dumitru’s job as a stay-at-home mum was no longer seen as work. So when she contracted lung disease she was not eligible for sickness benefits, which is based on your previous income in Romania.

The only thing she received was a minimal welfare payment.

She lost her house. It was built on land that had been confiscated by the Communist government and distributed to the landless. After the fall of Ceausescu, the former owners demanded their land back. Maria Dumitru and many others with her were banished to this ghetto. A gravel road full of potholes, surrounded by shacks.

Maria Dumitru, 65, lives on benefits – SEK 330 a month.
  • Maria Dumitru, 65, lives on benefits – SEK 330 a month.
  • A washing machine dumped in the dirt, with the hose poked into a water container.
  • Maria Dumitru, seen here with one of her grandchildren, has lung disease and lives in the poorer part of Craiova.
  • "Communism was much better, I had a house in town back then," says Maria Dumitru.

Her adult son Ionel staggers drowsily out of the hut. He didn’t become one of the workers of the future. None of her ten children did.

Ionel has a dream etched in ink on his flat chest. A palm tree. A sun. A woman.

In front of him is what became his reality. A plot of land. A field full of rubbish. A washing machine dumped in the dirt, with the hose poked into a water container.

Maria got the water from a neighbour. She picks up her grandchild, whose name she’s forgotten. Her only hope is divine intervention. Half-suffocating, she straightens out her oxygen tube and wheezes:

“I believe that God will help the poor in the end.”

Nicolae Artur “Brilliant” Miclescu is the family boss, in a clan he says consists of thieves and Roma leaders in Craiova. His cousin and his brother-in-law have both been Roma Presidents. His father was something known in Romanian as a “stăboi”, which he explains is a “gypsy judge”. He has several companies: one that rents out accommodation, a market where Roma sell second-hand clothes, a marriage agency and something he calls the “gypsy council”. He also gets paid to be the Judge of what he calls the “gypsy court”.

Brilliant struts around in his black and white patent leather shoes, a white shirt and black scarf on the ground floor of his magnificent residence – a hall with a pool table, a dining table that could accommodate a conference delegation and walls covered in family photographs.

Out in the yard, a lamb is being roasted whole. His daughter Perla, dressed in white, is tall and beautiful. Brilliant took her out of school when she was 14, so she wouldn’t fall in love with some boy. One of his sons is called Diamond.

When Brilliant was young, his parents and grandparents made a living from begging and stealing. Brilliant was born in prison, spent his early years in an orphanage and then lived with his grandmother, a fortune teller. He recalls how he went around barefoot in the winter. When he went to fetch some semolina pudding from the paediatric clinic where one of his brothers was an in-patient, he couldn’t resist eating a little at a time on the way home. When he got home, he said he’d fallen over and spilt it.

He then got a beating.

Nicolae Artur ”Brilliant” Miclescu lives in a different part of Craiova to Maria Dimitru. He is the family boss, in a clan he says consists of thieves and Roma leaders in Craiova. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

I take a good look at the man who has moved a long way up through the social classes and who acts like a movie character.

“Why are Roma over-represented among the poor of Romania?” I ask him.

Brilliant sticks his sunglasses into the opening of his shirt and guides me across the courtyard to his office. It’s painted bright yellow and decorated with flowers, a map of the world and some statues. He makes himself comfortable and starts to talk.

“Gypsies have more children than Romanians, and after the Ceausescu era, not all gypsy families have managed to send their children to school because they haven’t been able to afford school bags, uniforms, lunches and the like for all their children. So, many of them are illiterate and can’t get a job. That’s why many of them have turned to begging, theft or working on the black market.”

Perla comes in and serves us drinks from a platter. Brilliant continues:

“Discrimination against the Roma is a big problem in Romania. Even if you’re qualified for a position, you won’t get a job in workplaces where Romanians are the majority. Only a few Roma have been allowed to work in such places and they’ve had to prove that they’re over-qualified.”

Brilliant speaks without pausing and holds his palms out in a gesture of honesty.

“The truth is that, in some ways, we also do things that don’t put us in a good light.” He’s referring to stealing, for example, which he considers to be an acceptable way to make a living but says that you shouldn’t overdo it because you can then be arrested, which would mean splitting up your family – something he thinks other people would take advantage of.

“They’d kidnap my daughters, who would have to marry just anyone, but as I’m here with my family, I decide who my daughters marry. Among us there’s a sense of pride – it’s not acceptable for the woman to talk to another man, the woman must respect the man, a girl who gets married must be pure and innocent, and she should be with the family and behave properly towards them.”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. When I get the chance, I ask:

“What’s a clan?”

“It can have two meanings. It can be a family, and in that case the size of the clan depends on the size of the family. Or it can be a group that has joined forces and does bad things. Like lending money with interest and if the money isn’t repaid they hurt you, terrorise you.”

Brilliant with his daughter, Perla. He took her out of school when she was 14, so she wouldn't fall in love with some boy.
  • Brilliant with his daughter, Perla. He took her out of school when she was 14, so she wouldn't fall in love with some boy.
  • Brilliant's patent black and white shoes.
  • Brilliant was born in prison, but now he lives in a grand villa in Craiova.
  • The walls inside Brilliant's house are covered with family photos.

Reports of prostitution among Romanian migrants are widespread in Sweden. The proportion of women selling sex on the streets has increased in Malmö, with the majority coming from Eastern Europe, and there are suspicions of trafficking.

When asked whether there are clans whose activities are based on prostitution, Brilliant replies:

“Yes, in most towns there are people who have sent people to other countries, and that they send money home. Either they send men along to supervise the girls, or they trust the girls to send money home themselves.”

“Does organised begging also happen?”

“To a minor extent. Many people beg because they have to – they have children and don’t want to steal. But there are also those who are organised and gang up together, exploiting other people to beg to make money for themselves. They need more people to travel to other countries and beg on their behalf. We need to address this because it gives us a bad reputation as an ethnic group.”

"I don't know whether gypsies are given housing in Sweden but in any case, the key to integration is that the children go to school"

“Are the thefts organised?”

Brilliant drinks a little Red Bull and says:

“There are people who travel abroad and beg and if they don’t make enough money, they start to steal. And then they go to prison. And in prison they discuss with others how to steal. And when they’re released, there are those who group together and steal together. But I hope that people understand that not all gypsies steal. Some people are forced to beg or steal because of their situation, and if they do it to provide for their families, we’re okay with that.”

“How can Swedes help those who are begging on the streets?”

“I don’t know whether gypsies are given housing in Sweden but in any case, the key to integration is sending the children to school. Pay benefits to the parents who send their children to school. And if they still don’t do so, don’t give them any more benefits and send them back to Romania. If they carry on begging despite being given help, they don’t want to improve their lives.”

When we stand there chatting, just before I leave, Brilliant has an idea. He turns to me and suggests:

“Maybe it would be best if I came to Sweden and talked to the beggars?”

One person who doesn’t care one iota about the beggars is the taxi driver who drives me through central Bucharest and crosses himself every time we pass a church.

Over 80% of Romanians are Orthodox Christians. What will be one of the biggest cathedrals in the world is being built behind Ceaucescu’s parliamentary palace, the second-largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon, and one of the most expensive buildings ever constructed.

When a nightclub burned down in Bucharest at the end of October and the hospitals collapsed when the 200 or so injured needed emergency medical care, thousands of Romanians protested against corrupt politicians who would rather put money into churches than into hospitals. The fact that no funds are made available for minorities and the vulnerable usually meets with the same criticism.

The disastrous fire took the lives of 32 people and the Prime Minister, who was suspected of corruption, was forced to resign along with his government.

The taxi driver smokes and crosses himself constantly. He thinks that the money should continue to be spent on the church and on the struggling middle class, which is almost non-existent. His joy in life is singing in an Orthodox choir.

He glances at me through the cloud of nicotine.

“What are you doing in Bucharest?”

“I’m a journalist, I’m here to write about the Roma. Some of them come to Sweden to beg.”

There’s a confused silence in the driver’s seat. Then he exclaims:

“Oh right, you mean gypsies? I don’t like them either. You do know that they’re not Romanians? They’re a people from India, they’re everywhere in Europe – in Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, Serbia ... they live the same way everywhere. They’re lazy, dirty liars. They don’t wash their children.” He tosses a cigarette butt out of the window. I catch his eye in the rear-view mirror.

“Don’t you feel sorry for the ones who are begging on the streets?”

He looks away. I don’t get an answer.

After driving several blocks, he explains:

“What I mean is, they’re not Romanians. They’re embarrassing us. When I go abroad and say that I’m Romanian, people look at me suspiciously.”

There are ghettos squeezed into every available space in Bucharest. Most of them are ethnically mixed. One is right next to an exclusive tennis club.

They’re described as “pockets” – areas of severe poverty that you can never clamber out of again once you’ve fallen into them.

In the infamous southern suburb of Ferentari, there’s an illegal Roma camp in a disused industrial area. Wooden shacks and caravans are squashed into a rectangular space between ashen-coloured high-rises and hideously winding heating pipes. The men sit on one side of the camp. On the other, the women take care of the children.

Compared to the homeless people, who crawl in under the pipes to sleep, the people living in the camp have a relatively manageable existence.

"The politicians steal and buy big houses and fancy cars for themselves"

At first they don’t want to let me through the gate. The camp has been demolished three times and they’re scared it will happen again.

But the municipal authorities have also provided some help. They’ve installed water that the residents get for free and electricity that they pay for. The children go to school free of charge just a short walk away.

Stay-at-home mum, Ana Cozac, doesn’t think this is much help. She spreads her bulk across one of the sofas lying around the camp and complains vehemently, vocalising 64 years of discontent.

“Romania is a bad country. There’s nothing anyone can do about it!”

She laughs, as if it were a worn-out joke.

“In a hundred years’ time, everything will be exactly the same! The politicians steal and buy big houses and fancy cars for themselves. And we just eat potatoes! And have no jobs!”

A few minutes later one of her sons returns home – from his job on a building site. Ana Cozac doesn’t think it’s much of a job.

“He makes less than 100 kronor a day!” she cackles.

This is slightly more than the statutory minimum wage in Romania. After the financial crisis in 2008, a lot of people lost their jobs and wages were cut for those still in work. Both Roma and ethnic Romanians were affected, and millions decided to go abroad – those begging are just a small minority of all of the Romanian immigrants. Ana reminisces about the good old days of Communism:

“Everyone had a job back then and somewhere to live. I had a flat!”

“Where was your flat?”

“There!” she exclaims, pointing decisively towards one of the apartment blocks that tower above the camp.

“What happened to it?”

“My daughter lives there now. There’s no room for us there any more.”

“Who’s us?”

“Us!” says Ana, nodding towards the hundred or so people in the camp.

“Are you related?”

Ana’s face lights up lovingly:

“All of them are my children – 13 children, 46 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren!”

If you follow the dreary apartment blocks a kilometre to the west and meander onto a quiet backstreet, you come to the home of the Camataru brothers, a Roma mafia. The walls are so high that not even the roof is visible. A guard stands outside.

The Camataru mafia are the ones who are ultimately in charge of the drug trade in the area. They also make money as loan sharks.

Another couple of kilometres to the west lies a ghetto where a woman, who we can call Dora, is on the verge of going under. Her family makes money from buying and selling second-hand clothes.

Sometimes this money isn’t enough.

Dora’s children were found on a rubbish dump, collecting scrap metal. Work that some Roma have been making a living from for decades.

She was suspected of exploiting her children. The little ones were taken away from her and put in a children’s home, where she worries that they’re being beaten.

She is so anxious that she says she’ll kill herself if she doesn’t get her children back. She thinks that the police and social services are discriminating against her.

One day, as I walk with Dora from the bus, a lady taps me on the shoulder.

“You can’t walk with that,” she warns.

She says “that” as if Dora were an animal.

“It’s okay, she’s a friend,” I reply.

“No, not okay. Watch yourself,” the woman insists.

A few weeks later I place a hidden camera on Dora and we make our way to Uniiri, a shopping centre in the middle of town, to find out whether she is a victim of discrimination in Romanian society. I’ve been here before with a young Roma man, without provoking any reactions.

"Please go out of the shop, and make sure you have a wash now and again"

But as soon as we get on the tram, things go off the rails. An ethnic Romanian sitting nearby implies that Dora and the young relative accompanying her may want to steal from me. When we get to the shopping centre, two lads get up from where they’re sitting on some stairs and ask:

“Has she taken something?”

When Dora enters a shop to look at dresses, she’s asked to leave.

“Please go out of the shop, and make sure you have a wash now and again,” urges one of the shop assistants.

“Don’t we wash?” Dora quizzes her.

“You smell.”

“Do I smell? Where?”

“I don’t know. Leave!”

In a hipster store she gets no further than the doorway, where she’s stopped by a girl in a leather apron.

“The boss has said you have to stay outside.”

“I want to buy something. A bag.”

“You can’t buy anything here. We don’t have what you need.”

“So we can’t we look at anything you have here?”

“Not possible.”

When I tell a police officer what has happened, he says that this type of discrimination is illegal and that the shops will be fined.

“We’ve had a problem with discrimination in Romania but it’s better now. Today there are Roma in all professions, even in politics and the police force,” he says.

Some researchers feel that the vulnerability of the Roma is not purely a result of discrimination, but also because their oppressive history has left them poorly equipped to compete in a liberal market economy.

Just like African-Americans in the US, Roma in the Balkans were slaves until 1865. A remnant of this heritage is that many adult Roma are illiterate, making it difficult for them to enter the employment market – regardless of whether they are discriminated against for their ethnicity or not.

Dora, for example, is illiterate and does not speak Romanian, only Romani.

In order to reduce this kind of poverty and social exclusion, many feel that a policy of wealth redistribution is needed – one that levels out the class divides.

EU funds and aid organisations have not yet succeeded in this respect.

One thing that organisations usually do is to teach traditional trades to the Roma, such as how to make pots and pans.

In a brutal market economy like Romania's, these people can end up with plenty of rusty pots and pans in their garden, but still no job.

Paul, a journalist, thinks that the poverty stems from slavery and is maintained in a vicious circle that no one can put a stop to.

"It's not discrimination that's the problem in the ghettos – it's that children are seeing adults steal, beg or fall foul of alcohol or substance abuse, which means that they have no role models."

He passes the issue of responsibility on to me.

“The ghettos and poverty are no longer a national issue, so what are you doing in Sweden about the Roma? Have you managed to integrate them better than we have? Isn’t it easier for you to help them because you have such an extensive social safety net?”

“But the solution can’t be to move all Roma to Sweden, can it?” I throw back at him.

“No, of course it’s not the solution, but if a Roma child starts going to school in Sweden and has a better life there, then that’s definitely a good thing.”

The banker who accompanied me to the palatial villas of Buzescu and explained to me how the people living in Roma communities marry off their young daughters is an integrated Rom, one of many I meet without being able to identify them as Roma.

Buzescu. Photo: Magda Gad

If you count the number of Roma who say they have had a child with an ethnic Romanian, you realise that 80% of all Romanians are of Roma descent.

But few wish to “come out” as Roma, as they fear that this may have a negative impact.

This makes me think about what things were like in Sweden not so long ago, when many people from immigrant backgrounds changed their names to more Swedish-sounding ones so they could get a job more easily. Even today there are areas with a large immigrant population that have lower educational results and higher unemployment, just like in the areas in Romania with a large Roma population.

It’s a warm evening, and I’m sitting outside one of the city’s trendy bars, enjoying a cocktail with the banker. There are tables and hammocks spread about under the shady trees, like an oasis.

He says that education turned his life around. His parents told him that he had to study, and that gave him the key to mainstream society. But his heart remains with the people living in exclusion.

“The reason that people sit at home and don’t work or don’t send their children to school is that they don’t think there’s any point. There are no dreams and there’s no hope.”

“What can we do, then?” I want to know.

“What you can do in Sweden is never donate money without demanding something in return. Begging is no solution. Help them with housing or give them work, if they agree to send their children to school.”

“But we have both a housing shortage and unemployment in Sweden, and there’s huge competition for even the unskilled jobs. How are we supposed to do that?”

The banker looks sharply at me across the table.

“We live in a globalised world. You open IKEA here and all the small businesses go bust, and then you say there’s no housing or jobs for beggars in Sweden. You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

Fixer and Interpreter: Madalina Botoran