On the night of 10 September 1995, fires destroyed
three houses in the Romani settlement in Velyka Dobron, a Hungarian village
in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine. As the houses were set ablaze,
the 400 to 500 Romani men, women, and children who live in the settlement
ran to the surrounding woods. The next evening, the crowds returned and
destroyed another nine houses, looting and plundering as they went. According
to eyewitnesses, local police as well as police from the regional capital
were present on both nights, but they failed to stop the mayhem.
The Roma of Velyka Dobron stayed in the woods for two or three months,
afraid to come out, living off berries and roots and the occasional meal
brought to them by sympathetic villagers, who themselves risked ostracism
for their charity. During that time, three young Romani men turned themselves
in for the crime that had set the Hungarian villagers against their community:
the killing of a Hungarian man, Alexander Dokus, in a brawl. From the news
of his death to the news of the perpetrators' conviction, the local papers
reported the event as another Gypsy crime story. The retribution against
the Romani community that occurred in between, if mentioned at all, was
muted and downplayed. Our organization, the European
Roma Rights Center, heard the story the following May from Aladar
Adam, chairman of the organization Romani Yag in Uzhorod, the Transcarpathian
regional capital. We decided to make a visit to Velyka Dobron and piece
the story together.
The Road to Velyka Dobron
It is August 1996, and we are driving eastward
from Uzhorod. J., my translator, is an ethnic Hungarian from Uzhorod, or
as he calls it, Ungvar. Like many people from the area, he speaks a local
dialect of Hungarian, a local dialect of Ukrainian, and the previously
official Russian. "I hate nationalism," he explains. "I wish this was Hungarian
again so that all this nationalism would end. Nationalism destroyed this
part of the world, and we Hungarians lost our beautiful mountains." In
the early 1990s, rising Ukrainian nationalism and a collapsing Ukrainian
economy convinced J.'s family to flee to Hungary. He is a Hungarian citizen
now, and he is disgusted with Transcarpathia. There is no order, he says:
Uzhorod is run down and the Ukrainians have ruined it.
Aladar is our guide. In his late 40s, Aladar is the leader of all Gypsies
in Transcarpathia; "our president," a Romani girl in Uzhorod explains.
Besides heading Romani Yag, he is a member of the Uzhorod City Council
and, by profession, a band leader. He waxes wistful about the Soviet era.
"We had everything: caviar, vodka. We played in Moscow, St. Petersburg,
Tbilisi. Girls used to try to break into our hotel after the concert. The
army officers appreciated music and knew how to treat musicians. Now we
play for mafia, and the mafia are dangerous psychopaths."
The area we are traveling in is just a stone's throw from Slovakia and
Hungary. Though traditionally populated mostly by Ruthenians, an eastern
Slavic people now largely assimilated into Ukrainian culture, the Transcarpathian
region has been part of Ukraine only since World War II. Between the two
world wars, it belonged to Czechoslovakia, and up until the first it belonged
to Hungary. As elsewhere in the ring of territories around modern Hungary,
the memory of old, imperial Hungary lives on here in the form of scattered
pockets of Hungarian villages. They now sit surrounded by Ruthenian and
Ukrainian villages, defensive minorities in a nationalizing state.
The Roma are in between, on the edge of every village: nonparticipants
in the nervous triangle that forms between states and peoples around border
minorities. Romani streets and Romani quarters are stuck to the edge of
almost every ethnic Hungarian village outside Hungary. Roma in this zone
of contention often cling to a Hungarian identity that belongs to them
only partially. Roma are a lesson and a warning: a local idiom holds that
people who give up their culture in the competition of nations have "gone
The road to Velyka Dobron is dusty and potholed.
It ambles through affronted Hungarian villages, dense and stoic, which
display the red, white, and green Hungarian flag. We pass women in embroidered
dresses and red and green shawls selling fruit. Men shout at black bicycles
and humiliated dogs with panicked eyes. Everyone here seems old. On Sunday
they attend the Calvinist church. They slaughter goats methodically and
clip the pieces into parts to be eaten, parts to be worn, and parts to
be thrown away. There is a constant struggle against dirt here, into which
all are enlisted.
It is hot and dusty. We stop and buy plums. Aladar shouts out of the
rolled-down car window, "Where are the Gypsies?" The old woman squints.
"Where are the Gypsies?" repeats Aladar. She lowers her head and nods us
onward. "The Gypsies are rich," she says, before we pull away.
An Ordinary Card Game
The Romani settlement in Velyka Dobron is a flat
lot, an open field surrounded by straw and mud cabins. The road approaches
and turns right into the field. Between 400 and 500 Roma live here. Children
instantly surround the car.
"It was a birthday," a Romani man recalls of the night of the death.
Roma are shouting and leading us around. "There was a party on the whole
street. We were playing cards, Gypsies and Hungarians. We were drinking
together and a fight began. They used their fists and we fought back. Then
one of them took an iron bar and went to hit one of the Gypsies. The Gypsies
managed to get the bar away from him and they hit him in the head. He died."
Following the murder, the Roma fled and the Hungarians attacked. On
the first night, they rioted through the Romani settlement, burning down
three houses in the process. One Romani man stayed in the settlement:
"I was drunk. I was asleep in my house. I don't know how many cars
came but there were many. It was pure chaos all over. There were people
in every house, there were people running all over with torches, shouting.
Someone grabbed me, but then one of the Hungarians told them to let me
go, because I am a good man. Later, the police chiefs came with the local
judge, and the judge said that he would personally provide gasoline to
burn down our houses."
The following night, the mob returned and took away alarm clocks,
television sets, radios, hot plates, bicycles, cameras, and videocassette
recorders. They destroyed nine more houses. On both evenings, police from
Velyka Dobron and Uzhorod were allegedly present and either could not or
would not intervene to stop the destruction and looting.
According to Yuri Muchichko of the Uzhorod regional police department,
the police were powerless to restrain the local Hungarians in their anger.
"We could do nothing. Yes, a couple of houses were burned, but if we hadn't
been there, much more violence could have taken place."
The Roma remained in the woods for between two and three months, although
three of them turned themselves in for the murder of Alexander Dokus after
three days. While they were in the woods, the Roma depended on charity
from local villagers. Other villagers, who believed the Roma had got what
they deserved, threatened the villagers who brought them food.
'Then Some Houses Fell Down'
Three women are sitting in a row on a bench, dressed
in black. Hungarians. They wear black shawls over their heads. J. becomes
respectful and his vocabulary fills up with formalisms. One of the women
is the sister of the victim. "Crazy drunk Gypsies started it all. I ran
toward the place where it was happening and someone hit me with a stick.
It broke my arm. One of them was walking around with an ax. Lots of people
had to go to the hospital that night."
One of the Hungarian women had called the police. But when they arrived,
all the Roma had already run away. Alexander Dokus was taken to the hospital,
where he died later that night. Dokus's sister says his friends destroyed
the homes. Nobody helps the Hungarians, she says, but everybody helps the
Gypsies. There is, she tells us, a man from Holland who comes in a red
car to bring the Gypsies presents. As we are talking to the women, Aladar
drives by in his red Lada and the woman starts. Then she nods, recovering
her ancient confidence and affirms quietly, "That's him; that's the man
Everyone reported that before the death there were never any problems,
and relations were good. Judge Kalman Benedek, who had allegedly offered
to provide gasoline to burn down the Romani settlement, also said that
earlier, there had been no troubles. He was not sure who burned down the
settlement in Velyka Dobron. It might have been the Hungarians, he said.
But he also heard that it might have been Gypsies from other parts of Transcarpathia.
There are, according to Judge Benedek, two kinds of Gypsies: "aristocrats
Three Romani men were tried for their involvement in the night of Dokus's
murder, and all three were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms.
Vassily Lakatos, 18, was sentenced to three years in prison for hooliganism
and fighting. Zoltan Lakatos, 16, received a one-and-a-half-year sentence
under the same charges. Vladimir Papp, 19, who was charged with the murder,
was sentenced to seven years in prison. All of them are currently in jail.
Judge Benedek could not remember what had happened to the Hungarians who
had destroyed the Romani settlement.
Police Major Styepan Matitzo, an investigator for the Uzhorod regional
police department, remembered clearly. "Four Gypsies were arrested and
people from the village have been arrested. There were two investigations.
Warrants for the arrests were issued by the regional prosecutor. There
have been trials of both Hungarians and Gypsies, and people from both groups
have been sent to prison, both for the murder and for the house burnings
after it," he said.
According to Matitzo, Uzhorod Regional Prosecutor Vladimir Lemak had
been responsible for ensuring that justice was served in both cases. But
according to Lemak, the investigation into the Hungarians who destroyed
the Romani settlement had not yet reached his desk. "There has been an
investigation into who, from the Hungarian side, is responsible for the
destruction of the houses in Velyka Dobron, but nobody has been able to
discover exactly who committed the crime. The case is still open, though;
Major Styepan Matitzo is responsible for it." Until they catch the guilty
parties, Lemak explained, there could be no compensation. He hastened to
add that, in Ukraine, any damage done "accidentally" would not be compensated
for in any case.
Lemak also had a different explanation of what had happened. "The Gypsies
stole something and the Hungarians found out. The Gypsies were in a majority,
so they attacked a Hungarian and beat him. He died. Then the Hungarians
attacked the Gypsies. They formed a group for revenge. The Gypsies recognized
the threat and fled into the woods. Then some of the houses fell down.
You've seen how strong those houses are; they collapsed. Gypsy dwellings
are very weak. They are almost not fit to live in. The Gypsies did not
come back for a long time. They spent about a month up in the woods. When
they came back, some houses had been destroyed."
A Legacy in the Making
All over Central and Eastern Europe, since the
changes that began in 1989, Roma have been falling victim to collective
retributive justice. In most cases, an individual crime results in the
creation of a mob, which then subjects the entire Romani community to violent
attack or expulsion. Such attacks have resulted in death in Bulgaria, the
Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovakia.
Although legal systems generally prove swift in bringing Romani perpetrators
to justice, for the most part the acts of vengeance that follow go unpunished,
as they have in Velyka Dobron. On the contrary, police are more likely
to take part in the collective retribution or even lead it. In 1991 in
the Transcarpathian village of Velyki Bereznii, a police raid became essentially
a pogrom, with people abused and property stolen and destroyed.
Victims of community violence often report that,
upon return to the village from which they have been expelled, the people
who expelled them express surprise and joy at seeing them. Where have they
been all this time? Why have they been gone? In nearby Hudlevo, where a
fight in a bar led to the expulsion of all of the local Roma and the destruction
of the local Romani community, an ethnic Ukrainian farmer who witnessed
the attack said, "We have never had any problems with Gypsies here."
The events in Velyka Dobron and their legal aftermath-or rather the
lack thereof-highlight the fact that the ability to achieve legal redress
in Eastern Europe remains highly contingent upon who one is. Whenever the
legal system is invoked, it is extremely likely that, as in Velyka Dobron,
it will leap in to correct any injustice done to non-Roma, while either
ignoring or reinforcing any injustice done to Roma. Even finding a lawyer
willing to represent Roma is often close to impossible. The damage caused
by such legal discrimination will have repercussions for the societies
of Eastern and Western Europe for a long time to come.