Rise in attacks against Roma

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MARCO: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. 2008 was a bad year for Europe's largest minority group, the Roma. Attacks against them are on the rise in many European countries. Some Europeans dismiss the Roma as lazy and involved in petty crime. Others point out that the Roma are often made into scapegoats during tough economic times. Either way 2009 could bring the Roma more trouble. The World's Gerry Hadden reports from a mostly Roma housing project called Janov in the northern Bohemia region of the Czech Republic.

GERRY: In a shabby Soviet-era apartment block a Roma woman named Jitka Kikyova watches a video of hundreds of Neo-Nazi skinheads. They clash with police as they try to reach an apartment building, Kikyova's building. This happened last month right below Kikyova's balcony. Sitting on her couch with an arm around her daughter, she says she was afraid for her family.

JITKA: [TRANSLATION] We have five kids. Some were at my sister's house, but my six-year-old girl here, she was home and saw everything from the balcony. She's still having trouble sleeping at night, because she's afraid something could happen. Since then the situation in school has gotten very bad. The white kids are starting to hate our children and call them names.

GERRY: Tensions between Roma and non-Roma have been on the rise here for some time. The November rally organized by the right-wing Workers' Party was one of several at Janov this year. But it was by far the most alarming says Kikyova because for the first time her neighbors, people she knows, joined the skinheads. She says they chanted for the police to let the Neo-Nazis into her building.

JITKA: Now, I think that the Roma and non-Roma in Janov truly hate each other and it's only going to get worse.

GERRY: In the past year, attacks on Roma communities have escalated across Europe, but observers say the situation is most tense in Central and Eastern Europe. Part of the reason is the souring economy.

MARKETA: You know, people are more willing to tolerate each other when, you know, they don't
have a problem getting a job themselves.

GERRY: Marketa Hulpachova has been following the Janov story. She's news editor at the English language newspaper, the Prague Post. Hulpachova says current crisis aside, tensions between the Roma and others have been on the upswing since the fall of the Soviet Union. That's when the once communist countries began privatizing housing. She says new real estate companies have seen the Roma as a barrier to big profits.

MARKETA: There's this deep-rooted, uh, prejudice here for some Roma families are typically poor, so they don't always pay their rent. But also it's, uh, if you're living next to a Roma family your hou--your property value goes down. It's this kind of thing, "Oh it's a nice new apartment, but we're living next to a Roma so it's not, it could be better." This is the kind of mentality. So, uh, there's a push by these real-estate firms in order to, uh, make the property value go up in certain areas to move the Roma into less lucrative regions by offering them cheaper housing.

GERRY: One example of that cheaper housing is Janov. Thousands of Roma from across the Czech Republic were moved here and when they arrived long-time non-Roma residents objected. Janov became a pressurized ghetto though it's hardly the country's worst. On the outskirts of the city of Most 1,600 Roma live in an isolated complex of neglected high rises; on a recent night dozens of adults and children huddle around an outdoor fire to keep warm. Unlike the Roma of Janov, those here live completely apart from Czech society. This man named Roberre Gruntah says, "We live here in these conditions because we're unemployed. Our apartments are in terrible shape and they always have been. I've lived here for 30 years," he says. "And we've never had hot water." Gruntah says life was better before democracy because the Soviets guaranteed them a job and because right-wing groups were illegal.
Now, experts warn they are growing. This is the Hungarian Guard marching in Budapest, Hungary last summer. Like the right-wing Czech Workers' Party the Guard want to boot the Roma and all foreigners out of their country. To counter rising xenophobia the European Union is struggling to integrate the Roma. The idea is that if they're spread around they're more apt to join mainstream society and less likely to become targets for extremists. The Czech government has started a nationwide program to find them jobs and to improve housing and education. Dzamila Stehlikova is the Czech Minister for Minorities and Human Rights.

DZAMILA: Of course they want, uh, to be successful, to be rich, to buy these beautiful things that they can, uh, see in advertisements, of course. But, uh, unfortunately, uh, the way to be successful is through the education. And then, very often education isn't too high in Roma, Roma families.

GERRY: For their part the Roma say Czech society doesn't give them a chance. And now they say they're terrified of the far-right. Back at the ghetto outside of Most young Roma boys play soccer inside a dark, burned-out building. Outside their parents say they don't want to integrate. Here, they say, they can let their kids play unattended. There's just one road in and one road out making it hard for extremists to harass them. One resident, Patel Grunta says he ventured to town the other day. He says he wasn't attacked, but he was hardly welcome.


GERRY: He says, "We went to the pub downtown and they completely ignored us. They served us, but no one spoke to us, not a word." The Czech government took a decisive step this month to put a lid on recent right-wing violence. It banned the right-wing Workers' Party. The Hungarian government has done the same with the Guard. These groups can no longer hold big public rallies. That could prove key in the coming year as economies throughout Central and Eastern Europe slow further and ordinary people look to politicians of all stripes for answers. For The World I'm Gerry Hadden, Northern Bohemia the Czech Republic.