On 17 January 1998, the home of Czech Roma woman Anna Vassileva (not her real name) was burnt down in a firebomb attack. Mrs Vassileva narrowly escaped being killed by the burns she sustained in the fire and is still suffering the consequences of her injuries. It was the second successful attempt on the part of local neo-Nazis in the Northern Moravian town of Krnov, Czech Republic, to raze Mrs Vassileva's home to the ground.
Her house had been similarly attacked in February 1996: the trial of the suspects in these two cases has not yet taken place at the time of writing. An indictment of suspects made in 1998 was overturned in 1999 by the Regional Court Judge, Lumír Čablík, on the basis of insufficient evidence collected by local police. Some Roma representatives believe that the police were unwilling to investigate the attacks because they assumed that the Roma victims had themselves burned their houses down in order to fabricate evidence of persecution, which could support asylum claims abroad.
Indeed, Judge Čablík is quoted in the daily Mladá fronta Dnes as observing in his verdict that "the analysis of clothing did not give any evidence of traces of petrol or products of the fire." However, campaigning observers noted at the time of the investigation that the police had initially failed to check the clothing of the suspects by chemical examination.
Radical crimes without repercussions
A certain apathy on the part of police for attacks on Roma is widely documented in the Czech Republic. The town of Most in Northern Bohemia has been the site of a number of blatant attacks on Roma, almost all of which seem to have gone unprosecuted. A Romani community representative in the town has a file dedicated to racial crime in Most, which covers the past few years. He says of the file: "The police did not manage to solve even one of these cases."
Violence against Roma is rife in Most. The Integrated Secondary Technical School in Most has been the focus of several skinhead attacks on Roma students, even during daylight hours. As a result, teachers have been asked to stand guard around the school to prevent further violence.
Skinheads attacked a Roma family home in the town on 8 December 1998, breaking windows, doors and furniture while the six children hid in terror. They departed with a promise to burn the house down the next time. The family finally emerged from their trauma only to find that their attackers had been set free and that they themselves had a CSK (Czech koruna) 8000 (USD 200) bill to pay for the broken windows.
Local Roma routinely protest that the police never allow identification procedures which could enable Roma to pinpoint their attackers. Roma attacked by skinheads are frequently prevented by police from identifying their attackers from among the photo files of local skinheads which are in police possession, presumably on the assumption that viewings would lead to retaliations.
No problem here
When an activist for Roma rights visited the Most police to discuss the rash of skinhead violence against the Roma, the Deputy Director of the District Police, Čestmír Pastyřík, stated blandly that there was no problem in the town. He pointed out that the police were running a programme to prevent criminality among Roma youth. When asked whether a similar programme was in force for skinhead youth, he observed that "skinhead" identity was hard to define.
This police programme to diminish violence by Roma youth sits uncomfortably alongside the aggressive annual skinhead parade sanctioned by police and town authorities, which commemorates the 1999 murder of a skinhead by a Rom. The sentenced Rom is now serving ten years for a crime he maintains he committed in self-defence when him and his cousin were set upon by several skinheads in a racist attack.
Roma feel, and indeed are, threatened by this march and the implications of its sanctioning by Most. A Rom in Most observes, "They blame us for the death of a skinhead who was killed by a man who we don't know. Should we all suffer for the crime of one man, which we were not involved with at all? Do they think that we should demonstrate against all the whites, when a single Roma gets killed by a white man?"
Turning to self defence
Roma in Most are increasingly turning inwards to defend themselves in this context. Police patrols typically arrive late at scenes of crimes against Roma and the great majority of cases against those accused of violence against Roma are left unsolved. The community is just beginning to set up its own defences. They are establishing safety patrols of their own and other supportive schemes.
But for many, flight is the only real option. Between May 1999 and May 2000, 60 Roma families left Most to seek asylum in the UK. Community representatives estimate that between 60 and 100 families may follow them. The fear is too great to stay. As one Rom observed, "...what kind of life is this: staying at home and dying by fear? That is why more and more Roma from Most leave this country. Last week, 16 families left for good." It seems that Most's support for skinheads' rights, both to march and maybe also to keep their heads down, overrides the right of Roma to live in their home town without fear.
Fear of retaliation
Elsewhere in the Czech Republic, Roma suffer the attacks of fascists, again with little defence. In the town of České Budějovice, on 20 November 1999, 40 Roma, mostly women and children, were attacked in a restaurant by skinheads shouting "Sieg Heil," "Gypsies to the gas" and "We will kill you." It appears to have taken police half an hour to arrive at the scene.
Fear of retaliation prevented many Roma from testifying at the trial of the suspects in this case—a fear which was exacerbated by the bias in the media coverage of the trial. The local daily Českobudějovické listy is thought to have gathered much of the material for its coverage from the lawyers of the accused. The names of the skinheads accused were printed only as initials while those of the Roma were printed in full. The inequity is striking and represents another palpable risk to people already victimised.
Roma in the Czech Republic have increasingly been made aware that they must rely largely on themselves, not the law or the police, to protect their lives and homes. The Association of the Roma, the Romani Information Centre in Most, the Romani League in Krnov and public celebrations of Romani culture in the form of festivals and musical events are exemplary of some of the responses of Czech Roma to the violence and isolation. Fear is not the only response, thought it is necessarily an almost universal one.
Combating the problem... with little success
The European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), an "international public interest law organisation" which monitors the "human rights situation" for Roma across Europe, has a strong presence in the Czech Republic. It works to draw attention to cases where a racist motive for violence can be suspected. However, the ERRC's representatives recognise that it is the job of the police and the legal authorities, and not that of campaigning groups, to "evaluate" the nature of crimes.
Given this, it is clear that the ERRC's stated "to combat racism and discrimination against Roma and to empower them in their own defence" can at best be only partially successful in the Czech Republic. For in the Czech Republic the authorities, particularly those at a local level, seem to be unwilling to exercise their power in defence of the abused Roma minority.
Victims of racist antipathy
It is clear from the reports of human rights' observers that the Roma in Central Europe in general, not only in the Czech Republic, are all too often the victims of a racist antipathy. This antipathy manifests itself in two ways: in the violence of young white men who adopt the uniform of Nazi racism and also in the unwillingness of the authorities to investigate crimes in which anti-Roma chauvinist motivations are suspected, without bias or delay.
Little wonder that Czech Roma flee their homes and country. A society traditionally inimical to the existence of Roma continues to give them consistently fewer opportunities in employment, education and housing than it does to the white majority. A significant minority of that society's membership actively seeks to murder and abuse individual Roma wherever they find them, and do so all too often with impunity.
The great—and ever-increasing unwillingness—on the part of European countries to recognise as grounds for political asylum violence, which is not openly sanctioned by the state, puts the Roma of the Czech Republic in considerable danger. Naturally, it would be perverse for a state seeking EU membership explicitly to declare a policy of racist persecution.
The unwillingness of the other European countries to recognise violence against the Roma as grounds for asylum represents one of the many shameful features of the increasingly exclusionary and brutal attitude to migration shared by the member states of the EU. For all of the EU member states are well aware that taking on the Czech Republic would mean taking on its ill-used Roma population as well.
Katharine Fletcher, 27 November 2000
photo by Oltiţa Stiuj, Monitorul de Braşov
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