Gypsies Still Face the Persecution as Europe’s Outcasts
She was caught selling biscuits without a license, but in some ways, Rekibe Mehmed’s real crime was being a Gypsy. Macedonian police chased, felled, kicked and clubbed the 41-year-old mother of three, then left her dead on the streets of Skopje.
On a whim, a police sergeant in the Bulgarian city of Stara Zagora emptied his pistol by shooting toward a nearby Gypsy settlement, killing Mehmet Hoxhov, 41.
Skinhead lynchings in the Czech Republic; attacks by mobs in Romania; legislated segregation in Hungary and Slovakia.
Democracy is supposed to be taking hold in Europe’s formerly Communist regions, and with it a respect for human rights. But amid the vast changes, Gypsies remain what they have always been: outcasts.
Advocates are working to put aside stereotypes of the group: as romantic violinists, sultry seductresses, shiftless thieves. Governments, as well as the United Nations, have replaced the charged name Gypsy with Roma, their own dialect’s word for “the people.”
Real change, however, is slow.
Europe’s estimated 10 million Roma are thought to be descendants of a tribe that left India in the 5th century. Dark and different, Roma have been tolerated at best. At worst, they have been targets of brutality, climaxing in the Nazi Holocaust that killed half a million of them.
In Eastern Europe, Communist egalitarianism put a temporary end to that. But the post-Communist vacuum has been filled by the reemergence of anti-Gypsy feelings.
Widespread economic hardship has encouraged the search for scapegoats. Respect for the law has plummeted, and in many places police and government officials actually promote the prejudice.
The 1996 police attack on Mehmed in Skopje and last year’s shooting in Stara Zagora are just two of many cases documented by the European Roma Rights Center since the end of communism in the region eight years ago.
Mehmed’s oldest son, 25-year-old Birsan, recalls coming upon his mother’s crumpled body.
“There was blood coming from both of her ears, and she was lying in a strange position,” he says in testimony to a Rights Center researcher. “I knew as soon as I picked her up that she was dead.”
Despite the beating and the blood, the police were never prosecuted. The official cause of death? Heart failure.
And although the Bulgarian officer was convicted of murder in the Stara Zagora shooting, the sentence was only 21 months in prison--suspended.
Dimitrina Petrova, who heads the Rights Center in Budapest, Hungary, suggests that the police attacks started even before the end of communism. She asserts that “scores . . . have been shot dead or beaten to death by law enforcement officials.”
Mihael Dyurd, a Ukrainian Roma, says police shot him and his brother in the legs for no reason in 1996, then tried to goad him into fighting an officer so the cop would have reason to kill him.
“After I refused to fight the policeman, we were taken to separate cells, and I was beaten by four policemen,” he says. “They made me undress, threw weights at me and poured freezing water on me. They beat me everywhere and knocked my teeth out.” He and others signed a “confession” that they attacked the police with axes.
Though nothing can explain such mindless hatred, some Roma acknowledge that their problems are partly self-made. Some don’t want to mix with non-Roma, making it easier to push them into ghettos. Many adults, lacking education, discourage their children from attending school.
“All Roma have lost ground over these past seven [or] eight years,” says Claude Cahn, chief researcher at the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest. There has been a “sudden jump of xenophobia,” he says.
Enslaved for hundreds of years, Roma still tend to call themselves “blacks” and others “whites.”
“We Roma are ashamed of being Gypsies,” says Jarmila Mirgova, an unemployed seamstress living in a squalid Roma settlement of concrete tenements near Most, a Czech city of 70,000.
Scattered and splintered into quarrelsome tribes, Roma society can’t produce a Martin Luther King to unite them. “We can never agree on anything,” Mirgova says. “We can’t even agree to unite and beat up skinheads.”
The few who make it into mainstream politics or the civil service “quickly forget where they came from,” says Marek Balaz, a Roma who mines coal in Slovakia.
Democracy itself creates a paradox. Anti-Roma hatemongering, a prison offense under the Communists, is now permissible as free speech.
Democracy allows Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar to hint at drastic measures because of the high Roma birthrate: “If we don’t deal with them now, then they will deal with us in time.”
Karoly Lacko, mayor of Satoraljaujhely, a Hungarian town of 18,000, cited “genetic reasons” for the town council’s decision to force out about 40 Roma. Two Slovak villages recently passed ordinances prohibiting Roma from settling.
Meanwhile, unofficial segregation often pushes Roma into subhuman settlements.
The icy northwest wind whistles past a sad cluster of one-room shacks near the Hungarian town of Edeleny. Kids whoop it up outside, some barefoot. A toddler runs through the garbage, naked except for a smudged T-shirt.
The adults huddle inside on dirt floors, as many as 12 to a room. The toddler’s mother says he just turned 3. Asked if he’s cold, she laughs mirthlessly, her mouth toothless, her eyes hostile.
Suddenly, one of the Gypsies opens up. Lajos Mogyoro complains that when he went to police to report his stolen bicycle, “they pulled off my shoes, they beat me on the soles of my feet and on the back.”
“The Gypsy has no rights and he never will have any,” he concludes.
At least 28 Roma have been killed in race-related violence in the eight years since the end of communism, according to the Roma Rights center, which acknowledges the statistics have large blanks:
* Dusko Jovanovic, 14, beaten to death in Serbia.
* Fatmire Haxhiu in Albania and Mario Goral in Slovakia, both burned to death.
* Tibor Danihel, drowned by skinheads in the Czech Republic.
* Three Roma lynched by a village mob in Romania.
Often, the killers get off lightly. Only one of Haxhiu’s four suspected attackers is in custody, and his case drags on. Nobody has been arrested or charged in Romanian lynchings, which occurred in 1993.
“When Roma are victims of a crime, their complaints are less frequently registered and acted upon,” writes Petrova, the rights center director, in a recent issue of Transitions magazine, which documents changes in post-Communist societies.
Inequality begins at birth. The average Roma newborn in Hungary weighs just over 5 pounds, about 2 pounds less than the average non-Roma infant, U.N. statistics show.
At school age, the divide widens. Roma children are 28 times more likely to be sent to schools for the retarded; 30 times more likely to drop out, and 14 times more likely to repeat grades, sociologists researching Slovakia’s schools found.
At home, water often comes from a well, light from candles, as in the tin and wood shacks slapped together in Mogyoro’s community outside of Edeleny. In inner cities, Roma ghettos may be marked off by graffiti declaring, “Dead Gypsy, good Gypsy.”
Communist regimes guaranteed jobs for all. But in Romania, where unemployment stood at 5.8% overall in 1993, the Roma rate was 50%.
“I certainly got my breaks under the old system,” says law student Rita Vasarhelyi of Budapest, a half-Roma. “I know that if a teacher would have come up to me and called me ‘dirty Gypsy,’ then that teacher would have been gone the next day.”
Now, the hatreds have resurfaced.
With grim purposefulness, Hungarian landowner Ferenc Horkay connects two wires in his barn and tests a 220-volt cable he has run along the rafters to keep out “thieving Gypsies.”
“Every last one of them should be beaten until he cannot stand,” declares Horkay, of Edeleny.
He shrugs when asked if he realizes that the cable can kill. “Whoever comes in here without permission should die,” he says.
He, like many others, says Roma are lazy.
Some Roma do avoid work, but the explanation can be complex. Most are qualified for only the most menial jobs and can make much more money from unemployment and welfare.
“Parents often discourage the kids. They tell them, ‘Go on the dole; you get more than if you work,’ ” says Mirgova, the Czech Roma.
Also, because of their own lack of education, parents don’t keep their children in school.
Miloslav Bajer, the non-Roma principal of the all-Roma school in Mirgova’s community, says many of his pupils would do well at university, but “the biggest problem is that the parents have no interest in educating their kids.”
Points of light include the Gandhi School in the Hungarian city of Pecs, providing high school education for Roma determined to go on to university and then back to their communities.
A few dozen Roma are studying law across the region. Advocates hope they will spearhead the legal fight for equal rights. But if past experience is an indication, some will jump the fence and try to blend into “white society.”
Maria Volopik seems to have made it as a Roma in a non-Roma world.
She is principal of Edeleny’s special school, for kids 3 to 14 who didn’t pass admissions tests for mainstream schools. Five percent of the pupils are handicapped; the rest are Roma.
Funded by private and government grants, her school is a happy place, where daylight pours in through large windows and children buzz with activity. Nine-year-old Roma Erzsebet Balogh imagines her future: “I’d like to teach--maybe in a school like this.”
Volopik, a woman in her 40s with serene green eyes and a half-smile, says her work has earned her respect in town.
“People now say: ‘It’s good to be friends with her, she has international contacts,’ ” she says.
Still, she grows somber as she recalls being a candidate last year for a civic award--until the final town council meeting, when a councilman said archly: “It’s not going to be a member of that ethnic minority, is it?”
She concludes sadly, “They never let you forget what you are.”