Memories of persecution revived Wall: Gypsies, or Roma, have been enslaved or killed across Europe for centuries. Now they see themselves, in the Czech Republic, as victims of people who themselves only recently won freedom.

Sun Journal

July 03, 1998|By Lori Montgomery | Lori Montgomery,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

USTI NAD LABEM, Czech Republic -- The neighbors wanted the Gypsies out. But city officials in Usti nad Labem couldn't just evict them. So they stationed police and dogs in the complex of cold-water flats that house the Gypsies.

Then they had an idea: Why not isolate the Gypsies by building a wall?

But Usti nad Labem is close to the German border and just north of Terezin, the site of a notorious Potemkin Jewish ghetto created by the Nazis in an attempt to conceal the Holocaust. Here in the Sudetenland, a region once heavily populated by ethnic Germans and annexed by Hitler in 1938, the idea of building walls around a "problematic" minority rings disturbing bells in memories, and the Usti wall has become an international controversy -- and a black eye for the Czech Republic.

"Everywhere in the world, walls are being torn down, starting with Berlin. But the Czech Republic is putting walls up, starting in Usti. God knows where it's going to end," says Marta Tulejova, deputy chairman of the Romani Civic Initiative, a Prague-based political action group for Gypsies.

All across the former East Bloc, the fall of communism has unleashed long-suppressed racial prejudices and nationalist passions. And from the Baltics to the Balkans, the most common targets are Central Europe's approximately 6 million Gypsies.

A once-nomadic people who originated in India and often refer to themselves as Roma, Gypsies have long occupied the bottom of Europe's social scale. Enslaved in the Middle Ages and gassed by the Nazis during World War II, they are suffering a new wave of violence and discrimination. Since 1989, skinheads and their sympathizers have killed at least 38 Gypsies in the Czech Republic.

In a particularly egregious case on the night of Feb. 15, two skinheads attacked Helen Bihariovo, 26, a Roma mother of four, in the mountain town of Vrchlabi. They threw her into a river swollen with melting snow, shouting, "Let's make the black swine swim."

A neighbor, journalist Eliska Pilarova, heard Bihariovo's cries and tried to save her. But Bihariovo slipped from Pilarova's grasp as the women shot through a deep mill sluice. Her body was found two days later, more than a mile downstream.

"She was a very good-looking girl, like a doll. She was of course a pickpocket, but I will not judge it," says Pilarova, 48, who was injured in the rescue attempt. "But the response from the public has been: 'Well, it's one pickpocket less.' "

Neo-Nazi graffiti

The walls of Prague are marred by neo-Nazi slogans such as "Gypsies to the gas." Czechs call Gypsies dirty, noisy, shiftless, uneducable and criminal. In October, 62 percent of Czechs polled said they "thought badly" of Gypsies.

Gypsy families have begun to look abroad for respite. In August, after a TV documentary portrayed Canada and Britain as friendly destinations, hundreds of Roma fled to those countries, claiming status as refugees from racial violence. The Czech government was mortified.

"It is wrong for citizens of a free and democratic country to seek political asylum abroad," former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus said.

While Canada stanched the flow with a new visa requirement for Czech citizens, the Czech government enacted a comprehensive program to curb discrimination and provide the nation's 300,000 Romani with better education and more jobs.

Mass unemployment

Progress, however, has been slow. About 70 percent of Gypsies are still out of work. Government funding for a high school to prepare 50 Roma children a year for college has yet to be approved. And a plan to curb police brutality by recruiting Roma to the 60,000-man Czech national police force has attracted 35 applicants, but no money for training.

Now the notion of creating a Gypsy ghetto in Usti nad Labem has shaken what's left of the Romani community's fragile faith in Czech goodwill. The trouble here started in 1993, when the city herded 200 people who had fallen behind in rent payments -- most of them Roma -- into an aging complex of concrete apartments. Soon, non-Roma neighbors were complaining of loud parties long into the night. The dirt courtyards of the complex quickly filled with stinking garbage 3 feet deep in places, attracting rats as big as cats.

Gypsy leader Tibor Badi, 48, blames the city, which he said installed a drunk as janitor and refused to provide garbage bins.

The city blames the Gypsies.

"They live in terrible conditions, but they create them for themselves," city spokesman Milan Knotek says.

'Problematic community'

In April a Romani man drunkenly celebrating someone's birthday was struck by a car driven by a Czech couple. In the ensuing

melee the wife's nose was broken, her husband was stabbed, seven police officers were hospitalized and four Roma were arrested.

Neighbors demanded that the city evict the Gypsies. Instead, city officials put the complex under 24-hour guard, cleared away 50 tons of trash and announced they would spend $11,000 to build a 13-foot wall to separate "decent people" from this "problematic community," as Knotek put it.

The Gypsies quickly organized. Badi negotiated with the city. Others cleaned the buildings, rehung broken doors and planted petunias and fuschia. They pleaded with relatives to keep things clean and quiet.

Usti officials, pleased with the progress, have put off building the wall until August. If things stay quiet, Knotek says, the city might not build it at all.

Badi fears it's just a matter of time before the situation erupts again. "People are trying to be better," he says, as a tiny girl plays with a broken doll in the freshly raked courtyard. "But you can't change the world in two days."

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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