Saturday, March 14, 2009


From the Syndney Morning Herald
Paola Totaro in Budapest
March 14, 2009

THE murders were chilling and premeditated: a petrol bomb thrown into the home of a Roma family followed by a hail of gunfire as the parents and children emerged from their shack in a desperate attempt to escape the inferno.

The brutal killing of the man, 27, and his son, 5, - as well as the serious injury of the family's two other children, 3 and 6 - unfolded in a Roma village 40 kilometres south of the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

It is the most recent in a spate of attacks against the impoverished ethnic minority who are often still identified simplistically across Europe as travellers or gypsies. Now, the increase in violence is being linked directly with the growing social unrest in Europe's poorer nations as they struggle under the weight of the global financial crisis.

During the past 12 months in Hungary alone there have been more than 18 attacks on Roma homes and villages. Of the six deaths, most are unsolved. Similar attacks have occurred in Italy, where the right wing, anti-immigration Northern League has failed to condemn or stem the violence despite encampments outside Naples being burnt to the ground.

An estimated 10 million Roma, believed to have descended from groups that left the Indian sub-continent towards the end of the first millennium AD, live in the European Union's 27 member nations. They have been the victims of repetitive persecutions in Europe, particularly during World War II, when they became victims of the Holocaust.

The latest murders in Hungary sparked a political scandal last week when it was revealed that even the police failed to take the crimes seriously, ascribing the deaths to a house fire. This contradicted witness reports of gunfire and petrol bombs, and the discovery of blood and shotgun cartridges around the house.

The Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, opened an official investigation after two forensic specialists from a Budapest university performed autopsies on the victims and strongly criticised as unprofessional the initial medical examination. The two police first on the scene now face disciplinary proceedings.

The Herald visited a community of 30 Roma families who live in a slum-like cluster of grim timber sheds and shacks in a paddock serviced by muddy, unsealed roads near the village of Kerepes, about 24 kilometres east of Budapest. An old man sitting on his bicycle said the original group had moved to the area in 1940. The adults were guarded and fearful because just days had passed since 2000 people attended the funeral of the father and his little boy. However a young teenager, Gyorgy Orsos, smiled and tried to explain his family's plight.

Our interpreter, Lajos, said the people wanted us to know that they are "very poor and that their life is very hard".

"They have no gas; it is very cold in the winter. They cut down the wood of the forest. This boy says that he wants to leave this place … Everyone wants to leave this place, but they do not know how, and they have no money."

An elderly woman, Olah Jozsefne, said she lived on 51,000 Hungarian forint ($336) a month but her prescription medicines cost 30,000 forint a month. "Sometimes she cannot even buy bread," the interpreter said.

Hungary, which received a £16.4 billion bail-out from the International Monetary Fund last year, has called for more help as its deficit balloons and foreign investment dries up.

Thousands of families have been caught by ballooning mortgage payments as up to 60 per cent of loans are with Austrian and Swiss banks in foreign currencies and the Hungarian forint is in free fall. Pensions have already been slashed, as have public sector wages.

The European Commission has signalled increasing concern about the rise in attacks against minorities.

"I am very worried by these incidents. In some member states, it seems that the Roma have become the target of organised racist violence - fed by political populism, hate speech and media hype," said the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Vladimir Spidla.

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