Monday, May 11, 2009
Hungarian Roma take to streets in self-defence
Nick Thorpe in Tiszal?k, Hungary
Sunday May 3 2009
Panicked Roma communities in Hungary are forming self-defence groups after a spate of attacks on their settlements claimed five lives in 10 months. The murders have led police to double the size of a task force investigating anti-Roma crimes and police sources believe the same group may be responsible for attacks using rifles and home-made explosives. Far-right groups have denied any links to the attacks, but emphasise the need to fight "Gypsy crime".
"We're getting organised," says Gyula Borsi, a Roma leader in Tiszal?k, north-east Hungary, where the latest victim was buried last week. "We have no other choice. We won't permit our members to carry weapons of any sort," he said, "no guns, no axes." The new Roma civil defence groups will patrol until dawn in groups of six in the streets of the cig?ny-telepek - the Gypsy ghettoes - where the Roma of eastern Europe are usually found.
Ninety per cent of Roma interviewed in Hungary in a recent EU survey said discrimination due to ethnic origin was widespread, followed by 83% in the Czech Republic and 81% in Slovakia. The report, by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, found "high levels of discrimination and victimisation among the Roma in the seven member states surveyed".
The figures for Hungary are particularly alarming, because until now, the country had claimed to have one of the more enlightened pro-Roma policies in the region. There are elected local minority councils, a system of scholarships for secondary and higher education, and carefully calibrated funds for schools to try to ensure classes have no more than 25% minority pupils.
In the Czech Republic, 500 activists of the far-right Workers Party attacked a Roma settlement in Litvinov, north of Prague last November, with machetes, pitchforks and Molotov cocktails. Three hundred Roma, also armed, gathered to defend their community. At least seven riot police and seven demonstrators were injured in running battles. In Slovakia last month, the minority rights ombudsman called for an investigation after a video was broadcast showing policemen forcing Roma boys to strip and slap each others' faces, in the eastern city of Kosice.
In Hungary, the latest victim of the attacks on the Roma, 54-year-old Jeno Koka was buried in Tiszal?k on Wednesday, with all the honour and pageant that a poor, marginalised community can muster. Hundreds of mourners came from miles around.
"A storm has descended on us," Sandor Gaal, the Protestant bishop of eastern Hungary, told the assembled crowd. As a Gypsy band played, many onlookers wept.
"Everyone in the community, regardless of ethnic background, condemns this murder," said Sandor Gomzem mayor of Tiszal?k. "Many people are afraid that recent tension between the majority and minority will increase." Tiszal?k recently came third in a national league for offences per head of the population. At 20%, unemployment is double the national average. Factories are closing, or cutting their workforces, as a result of the recession.
According to liberal commentators, Gypsies have now replaced Jews as the main butt of middle-class hostility in eastern Europe. Jobbik, a far-right party hostile to the Roma, won only 2% in the last elections, but now expects to easily break the 5% threshold and enter parliament in the next. Its party website states: "The phenomenon of Gypsy crime is a unique form of delinquency which is different from the crimes of the majority in nature and force."
"What we're saying is that there is a problem in Hungary that has been swept under the carpet for quite a while," says Zoltan Fuzessy, a spokesman on foreign relations for the party. "Jobbik is basically just trying to open a discussion about it." A paramilitary off-shoot of Jobbik, the Hungarian Guard, was formed in 2007, as a "uniformed self-defence group".
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009
Posted by Morgan at 11:59 AM