This text is an excerpt from Gusztáv Kosztolányi's forthcoming ebook on the Roma in Hungary, due out in January.
In leaving Hungary for Strasbourg in July to file a case against Hungary at the Court of Human Rights, the Roma of Zámoly and, in particular, their leader József Krasznai, have sparked off a major and highly emotive controversy both at home and abroad. The debate as to whether there is any substance to Krasznai's charges has largely followed the government/opposition fault line, with the latter gleefully wielding the implicit criticism of the Orbán regime as a stick to beat the Prime Minister with.
Variously portrayed (depending on which side of the battle lines commentators stand) as a courageous spokesman on behalf of his downtrodden compatriots, a villain, scrounger, opportunist, charlatan, an endlessly selfish individual content to bring the entire country into disrepute to serve his own ends, Krasznai's action has prompted an unprecedented degree of soul-searching amongst Hungarians. In the midst of the outcry, I travelled to Strasbourg to hear his story first hand.
One of the common misconceptions concerning the Zámoly Roma's day-to-day reality in the French provincial city is that they are waited upon hand and foot, idling in the lap of luxury and devouring sumptuous meals delivered from restaurants three times a day. Whereas the historical core of Strasbourg, dominated by the breathtakingly beautiful cathedral, exudes a sense of prosperous orderliness, the image of tidy grand bourgeois perfection is occasionally marred by nagging images of local down and outs camped under the arches of the various sandstone bridges along the central canal, complete with sleeping bags, dogs and bedsteads. How much more comfortless then the outer suburbs, to which at least a section of the Zámoly Roma have been consigned.
French facing dilemmas
The French authorities are, naturally, faced with a dilemma. The case has attracted such a huge amount of publicity that they simply cannot afford to ignore the plight of the Zámoly Roma. If they were to refuse them residence and work permits, they would be pilloried as heartless and indifferent to the sufferings of their fellow human beings.
On the other hand, it is extremely unlikely that they will be granted asylum, since this would have international ramifications: Hungary is deemed a safe third country and it would, in the run-up to EU accession, be tantamount to accusing the country of failing to comply with the so-called Copenhagen criteria on democracy and human rights were the Zámoly Roma to be given preferential treatment.
This would cause a great deal of embarrassment to the European Commission, which has frequently lauded Hungary as an example for the other candidate countries to follow, repeatedly confirming that there are no massive blots on Hungary's copy book in terms of adapting to EU standards.
At the same time, however, the French do not wish to be seen to welcome large groups of allegedly persecuted individuals from prospective Member States with too open arms, to acquire the reputation of being a soft touch. They do not wish to encourage others to follow suit for fear of an influx of unsustainable dimensions, both from the logistical point of view and mindful of maintaining the good will of the electorate.
Having visited the Zámoly Roma, there are no doubts in my mind that the many private individuals, who have rallied to their aid, are quite genuine in their altruism. They are by no means jumping on to the compassion bandwagon in a cynical effort to capitalise on being seen as pc.
Hungarians facing dilemmas
A similar dilemma faces Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in his handling of the issue, one which he inherited from his Socialist predecessors. He has taken a great deal of flack for keeping counsel in spite of Krasznai's letter requesting a personal meeting to discuss the real problems facing the Roma.
If Orbán were to agree, it would immediately be seized upon as an admission of the bankruptcy of his policy towards the Roma, undermining all the painstaking efforts put into coming up with a package of measures to begin remedying the injustices, which exist, an implicit recognition that Krasznai is in the right (thus far Orbán has preferred to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate Roma representatives, Krasznai falling into the latter category precisely because of his decision to go to Strasbourg).
What Orbán feels he must avoid is providing tacit endorsement for Krasznai's tactic of abandoning negotiations in Hungary, of bailing out rather than attempting to continue the fight through the appropriate channels. Like the French, he has no interest in promoting, directly or indirectly, a mass exodus from Hungary, which would prove disastrous for him, confirming the worst suspicions of Enlargement sceptics.
That he has not buried his head in the sand is proven by the drafting of the Roma Action Programme and the budgetary resources earmarked for implementing it. However, ignoring Krasznai altogether leaves him vulnerable to charges of callousness. Given the extreme delicacy of his position, he has prudently preferred to leave the matter well enough alone, placing his trust in the set of measures already adopted as evidence of his administration's concern.
All of the above merely serves to illustrate that the political dimension cannot be overlooked. Too much hinges on solving the problems of the Roma, such as prestige and the national image in the eyes of the outside world. In the meantime, there are certain indications suggesting that Krasznai's approach may have backfired both on him personally and on his Roma fellow-citizens at home, the overwhelming majority, who choose to remain behind.
Opinion polls hint at a backlash, with ordinary Hungarians outraged at the Roma for living on handouts and having huge sums of money poured into improving their lot whilst they are left to their own devices in an increasingly harsh environment where it has become virtually impossible to make ends meet.
Sleeping safe at night
It was already dark when I arrived at the first set of lodgings, which lie relatively close to the main station and therefore the centre of the city. Not overly large the premises were clean, though they had last been renovated quite some time ago. The Zámoly Roma greeted me very warmly, offering me refreshments over which we chatted a little about how they were coping with the change in environment and language. Although they missed the familiar surroundings of Hungary, they could at least sleep secure at night and were not afraid to let their children out to play in either the courtyard or the streets.
I then drove over to the second set of lodgings (some 15 to 20 kilometres away) on the edge of an industrial estate. Although this building was the more modern of the two, it was distant from shops and public transport. Here I was introduced to József Krasznai, a tall, strong man, no stranger to physical labour. He was the only one of the group, who had not applied for asylum since he wishes to continue residing in Hungary. He showed me around the sparsely furnished rooms. If he had to set pen to paper for any reason, he had to sit on one chair whilst using the other as a desk. During our chat, people drifted in and out of the room.
A benefactor had provided them with a satellite dish to give them access to Hungarian broadcasts. The inhabitants of the house were engrossed in a football match, which provided background noise. My impression of Krasznai is that he is nobody's fool. He is widely travelled and pleasant to converse with. I warmed to him immediately. He was not given to self-pity or whining, nor did he give the impression of wavering in his convictions in spite of having been caught in the crossfire of criticism. Regardless of one's views of the dramatic steps he has taken on behalf of his relatives and fellow Roma, he is unflinchingly dedicated to his cause.
CER: Please could you give us some insight into the background to your decision to travel to Strasbourg to seek redress for your grievances?
József Krasznai: The Roma of Zámoly lived in so-called servant's quarters. The building, in which the servants' apartments were located, was L-shaped. On 30 October 1997 [this was in the days prior to the Orbán government, which came to power in spring 1998] there was a storm, which ripped off the roof of the house in the corner part of the L, which had been in a fairly poor condition.
The Roma fled from the house, as they feared, naturally enough, that the entire house was about to collapse around their ears. This happened at dawn, by the way. They waited outside until the morning hours, when they went to the Mayor [János Horváth] to inform him about what had happened. Another piece of background information that you need to know about is that there had been a fatal accident prior to this episode. A fatal accident, which claimed the lives of four children. A building had caved in and the children unfortunately died as a result.
The Mayor of Zámoly
The Mayor, prompted by the kind of fear that you can understand, telephoned the Under-Secretary of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Under-Secretary said that the inhabitants should be moved out of the premises immediately, into any available building as long as it was safe and then we would have to see what could be done afterwards. The large theatre hall of the local Community Centre was empty and so the Roma were moved there, something, which appeared only natural.
As far as I am concerned, it still appears to my mind to be the most natural thing in the world that if a building is standing empty and disused, the victims ought to be moved there since a disaster has befallen them. They agreed that the Roma could stay there for as long as it took for the roof of the other building to be repaired. It would take a week, a fortnight at the outside. It could even take up to a month.
This is not what happened, however. What did happen was that the very next day the Mayor, without having discussed it with anyone at all and without having reached any kind of agreement with the local representative body, sent out the bulldozers and had the entire set of dwellings—not just the house that had been affected—demolished.
He was subsequently asked why he had ordered that the entire set of houses to be bulldozed, particularly in the light of the fact that they were, at the end of the day, in good condition apart from the single one—which had been occupied by an elderly lady, who was obviously not able to keep her apartment maintained in the same way as the other familiesthat had been damaged.
He was, therefore, asked why it had been necessary for the houses to be flattened by bulldozers? What was the problem? He said that it was in order to make sure that they would never be able to move back into them. He would be able to obtain money for the Roma from the State so that they could buy themselves houses somewhere.
I am the President of the Fejér County Roma Association, and my sister Ibolya, who comes from Zámoly, called me up. I went to Zámoly straight away and told her that she should not go along with it. My personal experience acted as a basis for this advice. Actually, it was only a couple of months earlier that we had concluded the Székesfehérvár affair. I told her that what this man wanted to do was none other than have all the Roma leave the village.
My younger sister replied that "alright, they would not play along with it," but of course, they went along with it, they were talked into so doing by being told that they would get a flat, a sum of money by way of starting capital. They were promised money in the full awareness that the government would, exactly as had been the case in the Székesfehérvár affair, purchase housing for them. Not in Zámoly, but somewhere else.
I knew that there would not be a single forint available. They had not even promised the Mayor anything. He assembled the families, got them into his car and they drove around the villages looking at the houses. I told them not to go anywhere. The State won't fork out a brass farthing on it. I knew this, because I had gone through the entire Székesfehérvár affair already.
Well, it doesn't matter... the main point is that the months slipped by and the Roma were still stuck in the Community Centre. The locals in the village started grousing a little about the Roma having occupied the Community Centre, and that they had built the Community Centre, as had their parents and grandparents and that it therefore belonged to them.
No heating, no electricity, no water
Nobody, however, mentioned that the Roma were not there of their own volition, but because their houses had been bulldozed to the ground; that they had to live somewhere because they couldn't live on the streets! Then there was the disco and a little tippling and whatever else and then, after every disco, every single time, the windows were smashed, there were brawls—things turned nasty in other words. It was winter and the Mayor had the heating, the water supply and the electricity turned off.
I got in touch with the health and epidemiological service to tell them that the heating could be switched off and so could the electricity, but the water supply could not be cut off. Please realise, I told them, that infection, indeed a real epidemic will ensue there. There are almost 50 people there, including I don't know how many children; there is one toilet, which needs water to flush it, and the Community Centre is slap bang in the middle of the village, so where are these people going to relieve themselves?
After having heard what I had to say, representatives of the Health Officer, who were on duty at the time, went to reconnect the water supply. This, however, was achieved at the cost of a major wrangle, because the Community Centre is the property of the local government, but certain laws apply, which even the local government itself cannot break. It is not lawful to deprive anyone of water.
Then the Roma were taken to court, since the law stipulates that libraries, Community Centres and the like may not be used for other purposes for a period exceeding two months; in other words, once two months had elapsed, the premises had to be handed back in order to be utilised for their intended purpose. In plain English, the Roma ought not to have been allowed to reside in the Community Centre for longer than two months.
Taking the matter to Budapest
No attempt was undertaken to resolve this matter. Instead, the local government took it to court, claiming that the Roma did not wish to move out—but where could they have gone? A court ruling was passed to the effect that the Roma had until the 30 July to leave the Community Centre. It was at that juncture that the National Roma Self-Government arrived at the scene.
I regretted not being able to be there at the time, which I also pointed out to them, because it coincided with my being in Auschwitz laying a wreath at the memorial to Roma victims of the Holocaust on 2 August and I had to set off earlier to make sure I arrived punctually. This is why I was not there when Flórián Farkas, President of the National Roma Self-Government, bundled them into a car and drove them up to Budapest.
I sent several letters to the Ministry of Home Affairs, to the Office for National and Ethnic Minorities [to Krasznai's mind, these represent rival organisations] saying that the Roma should not be taken away from Zámoly, because from that moment on it would become impossible to deal with the matter.
Nobody took this seriously, the situation deteriorated even further and the place where they were taken in Budapest was also a Community Centre, also a large hall where they were packed in like sardines, sleeping in several rows, jammed in next to each other like sheaves. Then the Roma Self-Government put up wooden shacks in Zámoly from where they would start building for these families. These dwellings were erected using resources from social policy funds.
Back home again
Once the wooden shacks were ready, the Zámoly Roma were brought back home from the capital and at that stage people in the village were making continuous remarks about how nicely the shacks would burn. Perhaps they said this by way of a joke—it was most probably meant in jest—but when young people start drinking, the joke can turn deadly earnest. One stirs up the other. In the meantime, there was a fight. Three young men went to the scheme at around 11.30 at night to set things right amongst the Roma and then a big fight broke out.
After the fight, one of the young men died of his injuries having been taken to hospital. Then Ibolya, her friends and family and everyone, who lived there, announced that from that day on they ought not to build the houses there. They were afraid of the friends and parents of this young man, who had vowed revenge. The young man's father declared via the TV that they would take revenge for his death. The wooden shacks were burnt down. Nobody dared to stay there after that and once again they were moved to Budapest.
Because the wooden shacks had burnt down, they lost all their personal effects: when the fire brigade heard that the call was to Zámoly, they took their time about responding. The police reacted to the matter in exactly the same way: is somebody bleeding? Has somebody been knocked to the ground? No? Then we'll be there in due course. That is how they talked on the other end of the phone. The Roma moved up to Budapest, staying there right up to 22 March. On 22 March, two young men attacked them. They went in, started kicking the beds and the food around the place.
Fortunately, the [Roma] men were not around at the time, as this incident would also in all likelihood have lead to deaths. These two young men were released from police custody soon afterwards. Before they were detained in the police station, their friends were out collecting unused ammunition left over from the Second World War. The reason why they were collecting such material was to demonstrate how to smoke the Roma of Zámoly out of the village. When the Zámoly Roma heard this on the radio and read about it in the newspapers, they decided that was an end to it and they would not return to Zámoly ever again. I couldn't agree with them more.
This was still prior to the attack of the 22nd. On the 23rd, the Zámoly Roma moved to Csór. It is also situated in the vicinity of Székesfehérvár where I had a two-storey detached house. I have sold it since then. I put them up in every available room there from the lower floor, the garage and the coal cellar to the tool store, wherever there was space. Of course, it was impossible to guarantee them comfort. We put down some pallets and once again they were packed in tight like sheaves.
On 27 March, I held a press conference at my home. On that occasion, I stated that if the government could do nothing to change the situation of the Zámoly Roma and if it were to fail to take steps to guarantee protection of their lives and physical integrity, they would leave their homeland as nobody would wish them to live out their entire lives in fear. I then made it clear that the problem should be solved by selling off the houses in Zámoly-lovely stone buildings had been put up-and that the money raised in this way should be supplemented so that the Zámoly Roma would be in a position to purchase dwellings in Székesfehérvár and its surrounding district, so that they could finally get on with their lives in peace after three years of mishaps.
The reply that I received, however, was that they would not give in to extortion; they claimed that I was blackmailing them with this offer. Then I said that, fair enough, from now on there was nothing to bargain about and I set about organising this whole business of getting them out of the country.
In the interim, the lower-storey windows of my own house had been smashed in at 11.15. A swastika was drawn on the wall and the windows smashed. We were lucky that the baby escaped unscathed. The pram was next to the window when it got smashed, but the hood was up, catching the shards of glass so that they could not fall onto the baby. We reported the incident to the police at what must have been around 11.20 and they came round well after midnight at, 1.30 am. Had things taken a greater turn for the worse there could well have been up to 30 deaths by then, or even more. Thankfully nothing else happened.
Then we reckoned that if the government takes this kind of attitude to the issue, leaving aside the fact that the Mayor of Csór [Dezső Csete] prevented us from enrolling the children in school on 24 March-if he did not permit them to register, then that was it.
Fleeing to Strasbourg
Nobody was bothered about dealing with this question, since they were all wrapped up in the elections, and it would not have done anyone any good. All I did at that stage was to start organising things. I didn't ask for help from anyone. The way that we got across the border was that I said that there will be an international Roma conference in Strasbourg and so we were able to cross the frontier without anyone being able to quibble with us about it.
We set off on 23 July, arriving on the 24th, and on the very same day we handed our petition to the European Court of Human Rights, sending our material to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe as well. We filed a suit against the Hungarian government at the European Court of Human Rights for the penury we had suffered for three years, as well as for the loss of all our personal property, demanding HUF (Hungarian Forint) 130 million (USD 433,333) to enable the Roma to make a fresh start somewhere in Europe, in whatever country. For the time being, we have not yet received an answer, but I can safely say that all of Europe is talking about this matter.
Even the Prime Minister himself, who in his statements here and there has talked about us not doing as much for ourselves as the government had done for us right up to when Europe started examining this issue. The Deputy Mayor of Strasbourg, Mrs Gillig, who is also a Member of the European Parliament, visited us and spoke for thirty minutes about our case on the opening day of the European Parliament part-session. Afterwards we wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Hungary, saying that we should sit down together and talk about the situation of the Roma and about how it can be changed within the shortest possible timeframe.
Here is a copy of the letter and here is what we replied in return. He now admits-this is the substance of his reply-that our action has shed light on the situation of the Roma in Hungary, although he has turned down our proposal for a meeting by referring to various points. Fair enough, no problem at all, but the situation of the Roma won't change as a result. What I am going to do now is to attempt to prevail on Hungary prior to accession via Members of the European Parliament to do something before Hungary becomes a fully-fledged member of the EU.
It cannot be a matter of indifference to Europe for it to be overrun by a throng of approximately 600,000 or 700,000 undereducated individuals. Nor can it be in their interests either-and we fear that this will prove to be the case-that they will build in brakes so that the unskilled Roma will not be able to enjoy freedom to work throughout Europe in the way that, say, a qualified person will.
We say that every child has a right to education; everyone has the right to live in a proper dwelling and to live in conditions that respect human dignity. If they do not provide this, I will do everything in my power to change things. It would seem that here in Europe we have our supporters too. For example, a survey was carried out in France and 33 per cent of the respondents favoured Hungarian accession.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 30 October 2000
This text is an excerpt from Gusztáv Kosztolányi's forthcoming ebook on the Roma in Hungary, due out in January.
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