Allow me to start my commentary with a
personal note. I am very grateful to meet Professor Hancock here in Bergen.
I never met you in person before, but when I lived in Washington you inspired
and encouraged me while I was working on the first book to be published
in Northern Europe on the Holocaust of the Gypsies.
Your books and your work for the International Romani Union have been
very important for the cause of the Romani people, although as we both
know, the Roma are very split when it comes to discussing strategy or apportioning
blame. It’s not always easy, neither for Romani intellectuals nor for non-Romani,
to enter this very complex field. I understand the reactions to so-called
“Gypsy experts” who themselves are not Roma. They might in many cases be
a part of the problem, not a part of the solution. The Roma question must
in my view be discussed in Romani terms. That is the only way to avoid
both hateful and romantic stereotypes.
You, Professor Ian Hancock, although also being criticised by some Romani
activists (like the director of the Regional Roma Participation Program
in Budapest, Rudko Kawezynski), you balance passionate empathy with academic
professionalism. In my view the Rafto Foundation has made a very good choice.
It is, indeed, impossible to find somebody that would not be criticised
by somebody somewhere.
But I would like to add: the heated discussions among the Roma themselves
should NOT be seen as a weakness and absolutely NOT be used as an excuse
by non-Romanis not to be engaged in this very, very important problem.
There are difficult questions to be asked, and they far outnumber the
answers. But the debate within the Romani society, or rather societies,
must go on and will go on. Should Roma engage in a Gandhi-like civil rights
fight of non-participation in broader societies, or should they fight with
non-Romani human rights people? Should they confront non-Romani power structures,
should they challenge the whole gadje society? Or should they rather
concentrate on organising themselves to build exclusive institutions to
fight for their cause?
It is not for me or other gadje to answer these questions. But
I repeat: The debate, that often might turn ugly and very personal, should
not be taken as an excuse to ignore the plight of the most scorned and
victimised minority in Europe today.
More than half a century after the Holocaust that made Jews, Roma and
homosexuals, the exclusive victims, very strong anti-Roma sentiments persists
in several European countries. In the former socialist countries, that
now present themselves as market economies and democratic societies that
would like to join the EU and NATO, there is a common problem of discrimination,
poverty, racism, pogroms and abuse. This is a European disgrace.
There is no division of opinion among the Romani intellectuals and activists
about the SCALE of the problems and the NEED to bring them to public attention.
Rajko Djuric, the president of the International Romani Union, and Ian
Hancock, who is a representative to the UN and to UNICEF for the Union,
both play a very important role. Anti-Roma racism, intimidation and killing
have so far failed to gain the kind of attention and international condemnation
as racism in the US or Apartheid in South Africa, or Anti-Semitism. It
is a paradox that the scrawls that are common place in many Central- and
East-European countries - “Death to the Gypsies” and “Gypsies to the gas”
should concern us less than “Death to the Jews” and “Jews to the gas,”
evil slogans that are also re-emerging in this part of the world.
In approaching this problem, the first point I would like to make is
this: Roma are non-territorial minorities. They do not have home states,
although there is common knowledge today that they left their homeland
in Northwestern India in the 10th and 11th centuries and came to Europe
some six centuries ago. But they do not claim their old homeland, like
the Zionists did. Therefore, in my view the parallels that have been drawn
between Roma and pre-war European Jewry is only partly useful. Both people
were subjected to civil exclusion and historically to legislation that
limited their physical mobility and occupational opportunities. The kinds
of political demand cosmopolitan definition of citizenship, a non-politically,
non-territorially based definition of citizenship was parallel. But the
Jews took back their homeland. The Roma never thought about that and they
never laid claims to any territory in Europe or elsewhere.
Until recently the Roma did not have strong international organisations
to defend their rights, like the Jews. Roma have still a very long way
to go before their organisations function as the same efficient pressure
groups as the Jewish ones.
Some analysts argue that the parallel between the Roma and the native
populations in the US and Australia might be a better one. Native Americans
show a lot of similar social characteristics as Roma in Eastern Europe.
Both react in many places to their difficult situation by becoming alcohol
and drug dependants. They have a catastrophically high unemployment. In
Central- and Eastern Europe I have been to places where the unemployment
among the Roma was 100 percent. They were the first victims of the new
capitalism, when there was no more demand for them. The Roma like the native
Indians face destroyed social structures within the community. But this
parallel is only partly useful, since the Indians have and do claim their
territories and the Roma not.
The Roma are a global people, living on more than one continent. But
in this context I would regard them as a Trans-European people. The Europe
of the Roma is a Europe without national and political borders. The Europe
of the Roma is a Europe without borders; a Europe based on a non-ethnical
definition of citizenship. I stress this point especially at a time when
Brussels bureaucrats and European politicians claim to be the real Europeans.
To me Roma are the real Europeans, although they are a truly trans-national
people in a global sense. The other point I want to make is the pluralism
and the diversity of the Roma. They have a common homeland of origin and
a common early history. If you see the language as the vehicle of culture,
the Roma speak a language and maintain a culture whose origin is directly
traceable to India.
But at the time as I acknowledge this essential position, I must add
that it is difficult to speak of a single Roma population or a single Roma
(or Gypsy) culture. Professor Hancock has explained in his writings, that
it must be kept mind that although the Roma entered Europe six centuries
ago as a single people, it is not possible to speak of Gypsies as a unified
ethnic group, nor is there today one single Gypsy culture.
The people that the gadje consider “Gypsy” are, in fact, composed
of numerous distinct groups. They are divided by tribal loyalty, linked
to traditional professions, the languages they speak or whether they have
been recently nomadic or sedentary. Members of these different groups may
recognise each other as Roma, but more often than not they view other groups
of Gypsies with distrust and dislike.
In Romania alone there are at least 40 different groups of Roma, and
there is linguistic diversity among them. Not more than 60 percent speak
a dialect of Romani or Romanese, and quite often they can not understand
each other. Many have lost their Romani language and speak only either
Romanian or Hungarian. In the former Czechoslovakia, now Slovakia and the
Czech Republic, there are three main groups of Roma: Slovak and Hungarian
Romas who have been settled in Slovakia since the 16th or 18th century.
Many of them emigrated to Bohemia after World War II in order to find jobs.
Most of them are today unemployed. They cannot go back to Slovakia, and
many of those who were born in Bohemia, do not regard Slovakia as their
home. But they can neither obtain Czech citizenship.
Then you have the Olach and Vlax-Romas who are traditionally nomadic
and speak a different dialect. Of the Czech and Moravian Romas – the third
group – few survived World War II. Most of them were exterminated by the
German Nazis, in some cases assisted by Czech citizens.
In Bulgaria you will find Roma groups who are Muslims and others who
are Orthodox Christians.
In Germany there is a deep split between German Sintis, the survivors
of Holocaust, and Gypsies from Central- and Eastern Europe. Rajko Djuric
said in a conversation with the social-anthropologist Rain Jaroschek (recorded
by Frankfurter Rundschau) that the critical and rather unfriendly
attitudes of the German Sintis towards foreign Roma make the situation
for the latter very, very difficult. The Sinti repesentatives cooperate
with the German emmigree and police authorities, which are not known to
be friendly to Gypsies, to expel them to Central and Eastern Europe.
The problem in Germany right now is what to do with the Romani refugees
from Bosnia-Herzegovina. They have no homeland to go back to because they
are being persecuted by Bosnian Serbs, by Croats and by Muslims. Even the
victims of Serbian and Croat ethnic cleansing, dislike and persecute Gypsies.
And in Serbia proper the growing nationalism with a fascist face makes
the situation extremely difficult for Roma, who used to have a culturally
accepted position. Now they experience that the Serbs just hate them, as
the Croats and Muslims do. But in spite of this impossible situation the
German Bundestates insist on sending them back the former Yugoslavia, and
the German Sintis agree. The cultural diversities and even the conflicts
within the Roma population of Europe are enormous. Indeed, we cannot talk
about one single Roma population or a unified Roma culture. In the ongoing
debate over what it means to be a Roma, one person’s definition of Romani
history, image and identity is another’s distortion, as Professor Hancock
wrote in a recent issue of Transitions.
This diversity and split is a problem for the Romani communities in
their fight against discrimination, but it is also strength. In their cultural
diversity the European Roma reject the cultural complexity of Europe. It
has been argued that the Gypsies are both “the heart of Europe” and radically
“other” to it. This paradox expresses the debate about the “real” identity
of the Romani people in terms of their status as “true Europeans.” “True
Europeans” was the expression used in a 1996 declaration by European parliamentarians.
But again, I will stress another important observation by Professor
Hancock: Roma identity has for a very long time been in the hands of non-Gypsy
specialists, especially politicians and academics, whose ideas about who
and what the Roma people are, have influenced the Gypsy Image. They select
those aspects of their subjects that they find appealing, while ignoring
Therefore it is so important for us to listen to Romani activists and
academics like Ian Hancock, who do not practise that kind of selectivness,
based on what might be most attractive or exotic, but tries to present
us the whole and diversified picture.
With these words from a gadje, a non-Roma, who does NOT regard
himself a “Gypsy expert”, I thank you for your attention.