Sunday, February 10, 2013



By Paul Polansky

Speech delievered at the UNICEF center in Rome on 21 December 2012 at a human rights conference


PHOTO: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

Ladies and Gentlemen,

For more than 20 years I have lived in Europe with Roma, Ashkali, Sinti, Kale and many other groups called Gypsies.

I live with them as an anthropologist, writer/poet, photographer, and human right activist. I have collected and filmed more than 400 of their oral histories in 19 countries. Their plight and tragedy, I have witnessed first-hand.

But are Roma/Gypsies really living under apartheid today in Europe?

The crime of apartheid is defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group.

On November 30, 1973, the United Nations General Assembly opened for signature and ratification the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

Article II of the International Convention states among other things that the crime of apartheid shall include policies and practices of racial segregation … to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group …and the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or to members thereof.

Let me tell you what my personal experience has been with regards to those definitions of apartheid.

I first came across such a blatant act that would fit the above definitions in a small town in southern Spain where I lived in the area for almost 30 years. The mayor of the village of Antas (Almeria) declared that no Gitano, no Gypsy, was allowed to buy or rent a property in his municipality.

At the time I was not involved with the local Gitano community as a human rights activist but it raised a red flag to my sense of injustice. I had Gitano friends. I socialized with some of them. A Gypsy flamenco group performed at my house parties. Some of them even worked for me. But here in southern Spain a mayor had banned them from his town.

In 1991, I moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia, and found even worse forms of segregation. Roma children were not allowed to go to normal schools. This is a poem I wrote about one such incident I was involved in:

A SPECIAL SCHOOL (in the voice of a Romani father)

I’ve always known my daughter was bright.

Drawing pictures with many details,

memorizing all the songs of our ancestors,

playing the piano before she was five.

So I was surprised when the teacher came

to our home and told us

our daughter wasn’t ready for school.

Her Czech wasn’t good enough,

she needed help with her grammar.

My wife said that all six-year-olds

need help with their grammar.

The principal agreed to see us.

He said our daughter was a nice girl,

but she would be the only Gypsy in her class.

We finally agreed.

We signed the paper.

We didn’t want our little girl picked on.

But now when I walk her to school,

and I see the plaque on her building,

my heart breaks.

Why didn’t they tell us

her special school

was a center for

the mentally retarded. 

From Prague, I visited in Eastern Slovakia a Roma community that had been forced to leave their ancestral town of Letanovce because after several centuries the town had grown so big that the original Gypsy ghetto was now in the center on some of the most valuable property. Without any compensation for their homes and properties which had been in their families for countless generations, the Gypsies were told to leave. Their only solution was to find shelter in a nearby forest, five kilometers away, cut down some trees and build a few log cabins.

In the early 1990s I visited this Roma community near Letanovce because President Vaclav Havel had heard that they were a community with no electricity, water or sewage facilities. As president of the then nation of Czechoslovakia he had promised in 1992 to provide them with the basic necessities. However, after the breakup of Czechoslovakia he could not fulfill his promise.

After Slovakia became independent the town of Letanovce accused these 700 Roma of having built their homes fifty years ago without legal permission and now wanted to take them to court for cutting down the trees for their homes. The town also declared the forest surrounding the Romani homes as a national forest and hired a policeman to guard the forest to prevent the Roma from collecting kindling, their only source of fuel for heating and cooking.

This was not the only Roma community that had been forced to leave because their land had been overtaken by the enlargement of an ever increasing local population. In Eastern Slovakia I found countless Roma communities now living in abandon mines, living on toxic wasteland, after being forced out of their centuries-old downtown properties.

These forced evictions are not rare examples but the norm in most eastern European countries. Today most Gypsy ghettos are usually found near the municipal garbage dumps because that is the only lands that no one else wants.

Probably the best example and one of the most tragic of forced eviction without compensation occurred in Nish, the third largest city in Serbia, where I have a home and live part of the year collecting the oral histories of the local Roma and researching their arrival about 1,000 years ago in the Balkans as slave labor for the Orthodox Church.

Nish has almost six hundred years of documented census records of Gypsies living in their city. The first Turkish census taken in 1491 showed that Gypsies were living in Nish before the Turks arrived in the Balkans. Later a small number of Gypsies also came with the Turkish soldiers.

But that first historical census taken in 1491 showed that Gypsies were paying taxes in 18 Turkish regions around Nish. All the Gypsies were Christian. Listed in the census were 3,237 regular Gypsy families, and 211 widow families.

In the 1498 census there were more details. In Nish city there were several neighborhoods with 294 regular Gypsy families and five widow families. If there were five people per family then there were approx. 1,490 Gypsies in Nish, still mainly Christian.

By 1948 those original 600-year- old Gypsy neighborhoods were now congregated in what had become the center of Nish and some of the most valuable land in the city. Offers were made to buy that property and some Roma did sell, but most refused. Then in the spring of 1948 the worst flood in living memory inundated Nish, destroying almost all the Roma homes since most were made out of unbaked brick.

Most of the Roma families were evacuated to local school houses but after the floods receded the mayor of Nish refused to let the Roma return to their properties and rebuild. Despite many having legal documents to their property, the Roma were transported to surrounding villages and left to fend for themselves. No compensation was ever paid for their property.

The city of Nish then proceeded to build modern apartment buildings on the centuries-old Gypsy land for city officials and high-ranking army officers.

Those Romani families who could not find land in the villages slowly returned to Nish to build shanties on the outskirts of the city, on land near garbage dumps that no one else wanted. Some even built over the abandoned Jewish cemetery since all Jews in the city had been exterminated during the war by the occupying Germans. Nish city officials did not stop any of this new Roma construction or protest against it.

Today some Roma ghettos are once again under threat. After more than half a century Nish authorities are now claiming the Roma didn’t have permission to build. Once again some are under threat to leave or be evicted since their property has again become worth something.

In nearby Kosovo, which from 1999 until 2008 was under UN administration, and is today still monitored by the European Union, the situation is even worse.

In 1999 while NATO troops stood by and watched (with me), more than 100,000 Kosovo Gypsies (Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians) were forced from their homes which were then looted and dismantled. Most escaped abroad, but the poorest that didn’t have the resources to pay a smuggler to take them to Italy or Germany and safety, sought refuge in the Serbian enclave of North Mitrovica where I discovered them in a school house. Within a week the UNHCR took charge of them, and hurriedly housed them in tents on toxic waste land. When I complained to the highest ranking members of the UN in Kosovo about the health hazards of putting refugees on highly poisoned land, the Roma and Ashkali were assured that they would only be there for 45 days and then either returned to their homes or taken abroad.

As it turned out the Roma and Ashkali were kept on those lead-poisoned lands for the next 12 years with the UN claiming that nobody wanted Gypsies in their town. Hence the first-ever UN ghetto for Gypsies, at least for those who lived…for on these highly toxic lands every Roma and Ashkali child conceived was born with irreversible brain damage and usually ended up mentally retarded if they lived.

After more than 100 deaths and 12 years of publicizing their plight and deaths, we Romani rights activists finally got the UN, the EU, and their implementing partners such as Mercy Corps to build new housing for these refugees. But what did the UN do? They built another ghetto, on a small section of the Roma/Ashkali original ghetto, claiming there was nowhere else to put them. But in resettling them, the local Albanian municipality of South Mitrovica confiscated without compensation, and with UN approval, more than 20 hectares of land previously owned and occupied by the local Roma and Ashkali. The looted and dismantled homes which once housed more than 8,000 Roma/Ashkali whose steel-reinforced structures were still solid enough for their homes to be rebuilt were then destroyed by NATO bulldozers under a UN project to clean up the area.

Some Mitrovica Roma and Ashkali refused to return to the new ghetto. They did not want to once again be segregated from the local population where they would be stigmatized. Those who had relatives abroad from the 1999 Diaspora sought funds from them to pay smugglers to join their families in Italy and Germany and other EU countries.

I hope you can now see why so many Roma/Ashkali and other groups are still seeking safety and shelter abroad. But for Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia to qualify for possible membership in the European Union, countries such as Germany have made it a condition for these Balkan countries to take back these forced returnees.

But what do these Roma/Ashkali returnees have to return to? No homes, no jobs. Almost all without exception once again have to seek refuge in ghettos where local Roma/Ashkali are still segregated, still stigmatized.

In April this year the city of Belgrade with mainly EU funds started to build a new access road to their city freeway. The new road was designed to run through a community of Roma homes and shanties. To appease EU officials who didn’t want their funds used to make hundreds of Roma homeless, the mayor of Belgrade promised to provide these evicted Roma with alternative, adequate housing. Very few were given anything. For those Roma who long ago had left their own cities in Serbia to seek work in the capital of Serbia, the mayor of Belgrade had them deported to the address on their original ID cards.

Five families were transported back to Nish and dumped on the street. After an outcry from local NGOs the municipal authorities allowed these five families to occupy an abandon warehouse but without any water or electricity. After three months of protests by Amnesty International, the European Roma Rights Center and local NGOs, the new mayor of Nish, a former cardiologist (my cardiologist), relented and permitted the local water board to hook up the warehouse with a half inch diameter pipeline to the one toilet and one water basin on the property. After the water was turned on the original pipe burst. Nish city technicians refused to repair it, saying it was up to the Gypos to fix it if they wanted water.

By that time I was already involved in seeking aid for these five families so I paid for the pipeline to be fixed. It cost 30 Euros.

Today seven months after being allowed to live in this dusty, rat-infested warehouse where rain pours through the countless holes in the roof these families still do not have electricity for heating or cooking, only one light bulb per family. Although an official electrical line runs to a meter box in the warehouse, Nish city officials continue to refuse normal electricity for these families. According to the mayor’s office, laws have to be respected. The mayor’s spokesperson told me that it would cost more than 3,000 Euros for a report to be made to insure that a full hookup would be proper, safe and legal.

Shortly after moving into the warehouse one Romani woman died there. A few weeks later a Romani wife gave birth to a baby girl. That baby is now trying to survive under these conditions. Winter has arrived. Almost a meter of snow has fallen. Yet firewood promised by the mayor has yet to arrive. Soon the only water line will probably freeze. Will this baby survive? Will any of these Roma survive?

After the 1999 war in Kosovo many Serbs fled from Kosovo to Nish as refugees. The Nish town hall housed these Serbian refugees in a hotel and later provided adequate accommodation for them. But for Roma citizens there is no such treatment.

And that is really the bottom line. The Roma who have been documented in Nish for almost six hundred years are still not considered “real” citizens. They are still not considered human beings. They are still segregated and treated in such a manner that fleeing to another country is their only hope of salvation. But most can’t afford to flee, so they suffer what international law calls apartheid.

Is there apartheid in Europe?

Live with Roma, Ashkali, Sinti, or Kale and you too will soon experience apartheid first hand… in Europe.

Thank you.

Paul Polansky has been a true friend and tireless advocate of the Romani for many many years.
Thank you Paul

1 comment:

Sarah AB said...

That was indeed a very powerful post.