Mark O'Regan witnesses a heart-broken family's grief and reflects on the wider issue of our attitudes to Roma immigrants
Published 19/02/2012 | 06:00
Shimmering winter sunlight bounced off the mounds of snow which surrounded the poverty-stricken household that Marioara Rostas called home.
We were in the small town of Tileagd, just a few miles from the Romanian border with Hungary, as her family wailed bitter tears for their much-loved daughter.
Four years ago, she had been repeatedly raped, tortured and finally shot through the head, before being dumped in a makeshift grave in the Wicklow mountains.
But now she was back for burial in her homeland, the reality of Roma life in the far end of eastern Europe became all too clear in its harshness and brutality.
"Why did you spend all that money bringing a gypsy body back here?'' mused one Romanian official privately.
Marioara's remains, which were discovered by Gardai in the Wicklow mountains last month, were accompanied on the flight by three members of the force.
They ensured the body was delivered to her family home, where they offered condolences to her parents, brothers and sisters, before walking behind the coffin to her final resting place, as temperatures dropped to --20C.
For the Romanian official it was all inexplicable as he pondered why such efforts were being made investigating "the murder of a Roma beggar in Ireland."
"There is a lot of animosity between settled people and gypsies in Romania because they refuse to work," he said.
"It has never happened before that government officials have attended a gypsy funeral in this area. Marioara's family will be very surprised to see us. Roma people are very much viewed as second-class citizens in this country," he added.
Anti-Roma sentiment was present this week in some of the comments left on our website, www.independent.ie, in the readers' forum under my original story. "Could someone explain to me why whole families of beggars are allowed into this country?" asked one reader.
While estimates differ widely, it is believed that up to 600,000 Roma live in Romania out of a population of 30 million. In the main, they are a despised and persecuted ethnic group which for its own part does little to integrate with mainstream society.
Marioara was one of an estimated 3,000 Roma now living in Ireland -- 90pc of whom are believed to be from Romania.
Her coffin, suspended on two chairs outside her spartan family home, was a poignant reminder of just how vulnerable she was as an illiterate, non-English speaking teenager, essentially risking her life on some of Dublin's mean streets.
As the Orthodox priest recited the mournful prayers of the dead, it seemed a million miles away from the house in Brabazon Street, in the heart of the Coombe, where this Roma girl was subjected to depravity which even shocked experienced Gardai.
As the priest continued his prayers, the grinding, relentless, never-ending poverty of this Roma neighbourhood provided a despairing backdrop for a broken-hearted and defeated family.
The house in which they lived was little more than a rundown shack without electricity, water or sanitation; just pieces of wood and tin cobbled together providing the minimum of protection against the freezing winter.
Squalor and deprivation on a scarcely imaginable scale was all around, particularly etched in the blank and haunted faces of malnutritioned mothers and their underfed babies.
Human and animal excrement could be seen on nearby patches of waste ground in a neighbourhood littered with debris and mounds of rubbish.
The winter sun began to fade as father, brothers and friends lifted Marioara's coffin shoulder-high and carried her to the local graveyard.
The Orthodox priest tried to provide some solace with more prayers of the departed as the coffin was lowered into the ground and the muffled grief of the family was at its most searing.
When the burial ceremony was finally complete night was falling, and as the family crunched through the snow, walking back to their home, mourners were invited inside for some traditional food and drink.
But the hopelessness of the Rostas family remained overwhelming, caught as they are in a generational bind of poverty and illiteracy -- and some would say a predisposition not to move outside their own enclosed ethnic communities.
Just before the funeral, Marioara's mother spoke about the devastating effect the murder has had on the youngest in her family, 10-year-old Rosalinda.
"Marioara loved her brothers and sisters and took care of them like they were her own children. She was particularly close to Rosalinda, and over the years they did so much together. They played together, she cooked for her and would have done anything for her," she said.
This bonding prompted the parents to agree to the agonised wishes of Rosalinda that she should view the remains, so that she could say a final and proper goodbye to her sister.
"I still miss her very much. I hadn't seen her in four years and I will always long for us to be together again. I just wanted to say my own goodbye," said Rosalinda, speaking through an interpreter.
"All we know now is Marioara is with God,'' said her father.