It was a warm July evening. The hills threw their
last violet shadows over the sleepy provincial town, and the windows of
the nearby blocks of flats glittered with a bright red light. Ten-year-old
Sabri and her two elder sisters, Anetta and Magda, knew they had to be
back home for supper, but the game was exciting, the gadje (non-Romani)
kids were nice to them, and the girls wanted to stay just another minute.
When the fat guy from the first floor leaned from his balcony and yelled
down, complaining they were making too much noise, the children left the
grassy playground in front of the housing block and ran toward an empty
building some 100 meters away. The noisy game of hide-and-seek continued,
and the gossiping pensioners sitting on the benches in front of the block
heard the clamor of young voices as the violet shadows turned to gray.
At 8:05 p.m. the telephone in the police station rang. Someone had stolen
a pair of running shoes and a training suit from the caller's second-floor
apartment. The officer on duty yawned and said, "OK."
A police car appeared at the housing block, two policemen jumped out,
and the glittering, poor, and happy childhood of Sabri Zekria came to an
end. One huge policeman grabbed two Romani boys, the other held Sabri's
sister. The policemen roared at the kids, calling them "filthy Gypsy bastards,"
and wanted them to admit to stealing some running shoes. The policemen
started beating the five children, hitting them indiscriminately with rubber
truncheons. One of them took the two boys inside the abandoned building,
while the other held the girls outside. There were no eyewitnesses to the
beating, but shrieks were heard throughout the neighborhood. Sabri thought
of the slaughterhouse she once visited with her uncle; she was made to
wait outside while from inside came a pigs' choir that pierced her stomach.
Later, the boys were thrown in the police car and the girls were ordered
to lie on the ground, face down, and crawl like snakes. Magda, an epileptic,
did not hurry to obey. She began to shake. The policeman with the huge
neck hit her with his truncheon on the hands, then on the head. When she
fell to the ground and her body began to twist convulsively, the huge one
slapped her on the face, yelling, "This is fake! Stop it now! Faker!" Magda
continued shaking. He slapped her again and again.
The day before, Sabri's entire arm had been bandaged because she had
been cut by broken glass and required many stitches. She had been brave
then and had not cried, even though it hurt. Now, crawling on the ground,
she cried quietly.
In the police station half an hour later, the kids were ordered to stand
in a row, their hands up. Magda was not there. The huge one, pacing up
and down, said that if they would not tell everything about the theft immediately,
the corpse of a car crash victim would be brought in, his body torn to
pieces, and the children would have to clean the blood from the mangled
body. Then Sabri was locked in a tiny cell, pitch dark, and the world ended
absolutely. That is the way the world ends when you are a child in distress.
The end of the world consists of sorrow.
Later that evening they were all released. Sabri's parents were waiting
outside the police station. It was midnight when the girls showed their
bruises to a doctor at the local hospital. Their mother was very worried
for Magda, who had been promised a strong recovery but now looked sick;
their dad insisted medical certificates be issued. The doctor said that
if those injuries had been caused by police officers, the "young whores"
most probably deserved them and it was high time someone did something
about all these Gypsy thieves who terrorize the country. He then declared,
over their dad's pleading and protests, that he would give no certificate.
"Come tomorrow during regular hours," he concluded, and slammed the door
A Familiar Tale
The names in that story are changed, but the story
is true and happened this summer in Bulgaria. No one in Bulgaria would
be shocked by it: the daily press has been full of accounts of police violence.
Until mid-1995, the topic of police violence was taboo. When it existed,
police violence applied to Roma and nobody cared, apart from the tiny groups
of human rights activists whom the media portrayed as a threat to national
security because who would spread negative facts about their country? Police
brutality became front-page news in May 1995, when it spilled over the
ethnic edge and started to apply to non-Roma. That was after the bodies
of at least half a dozen Roma killed in police custody had turned to earth,
and when the first ethnic Bulgarian was brutally beaten to death in a central
Sofia police station.
By coincidence, his name was Khristo Khristov, the same as the name
of a Rom who had been tortured and mutilated in police custody in 1993.
The killers of the ethnic Bulgarian Khristo are now in prison; the case
of the Romani Khristo is still under preliminary investigation.
Descriptions of police brutality against Roma throughout Central and
Eastern Europe collected by human rights organizations can fill many volumes.
As one of the most visible parts of society, the attitudes of the police
force reflect the structure of prejudice in society. Throughout society,
discriminatory practices affecting Roma are as numerous, diverse, and defying
of classification as life itself. Roma are victims of discrimination in
the criminal justice system, in the military, in prisons, in public administration,
in education, employment, housing, health care, social welfare, and public
services. Police brutality and widespread community violence against Roma
reveal the prevalence of European anti-Romani racism.
Don't Call the Police
Many Roma are familiar with police violence. They
are beaten in pubs, at marketplaces, in the streets, on country roads,
and in their own homes, even if they live outside a Romani neighborhood.
Scores of Roma have been shot dead or beaten to death by law enforcement
officials, with the highest number of reported cases in Bulgaria and Romania.
Hundreds of Roma of all ages have been beaten with truncheons, iron chains,
and various other instruments, or have been subjected to sometimes truly
sadistic forms of degradation.
In Romania, the mob violence against Roma that was typical from 1990
to 1993 was replaced in 1994 by a pattern of police raids on Romani communities.
In the early morning of 25 August 1995, masked policemen, in riot gear
and accompanied by dogs, stormed Romani homes in the villages of Acis and
Mihaieni in Satu Mare county. They broke into the houses, pulled people
out of their beds, and beat men, women, and children. A witness told the
European Roma Rights Center (ERRC):
"Young girls were pulled out half naked. Some of them had their nightwear
torn to pieces and they were pushed by a group of police officers from
the arms of one to the arms of another. The policemen then stood in two
lines facing each other, and the young men were forced to pass between
them, while they hit them with sticks and truncheons. B.F. had [recently
had] his leg operated on, so he couldn't get out of bed. They put the nozzle
of a tear-gas canister into his mouth, scaring him to death by making him
believe that it was a gun. I saw a couple of policemen force my 16-year-old
adopted son into a truck, and I rushed to ask why they were taking him
away. They didn't answer my question but told me to bring them a case of
beer because they were exhausted."
In such officially sponsored pogroms, furniture and other household
items are often smashed. A large and seemingly arbitrary group of people
is taken to police stations, where its members are beaten again, charged
with thefts or illegal domicile, and later released. Claiming they are
fighting Romani crime as well as alleviating community tensions caused
by such crime, Romanian law enforcement bodies seem to have taken over
the job of racist crowds: lynching. Rarely do the police have prior written
authorization for a raid; they almost never show warrants. Victims are
seldom able to obtain medical certificates attesting to injuries suffered
during raids. Harassed and intimidated in the aftermath of such raids,
Roma almost never dare file official complaints. Even when human-rights
groups offer legal defense, fear often overtakes the quest for justice.
Similar punitive expeditions targeting Romani communities have been
documented in Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Ukraine. On 20 July 1995, at dawn,
more than 100 masked and unmasked policemen surrounded the segregated Romani
section of Jarovnice, 15 kilometers northwest of Presov, Slovakia. One
of the victims told the ERRC:
"It was a horror film like on TV. Actually, TV is nothing compared
to the reality here. My son was beaten, I was beaten, and my son's eight
children were beaten. A 1-year-old girl in our family was beaten so badly
I thought she would die. The police beat her on her feet and put a blanket
on her face, trying to suffocate her. The poor child had already had an
operation, and when we took her out of the house, she lost consciousness.
Then the police tied her up, grabbed her hair, and yanked her head down."
A month later, in an interview with the local newspaper, the town's
mayor said he was "satisfied with the results of the raid." He added: "One
action every two to three years is not enough if we realize what this [Romani]
settlement means for its surroundings. Our citizens reacted very positively
toward this action."
In Transcarpathian Ukraine, police regularly raid Romani settlements
and regard "preventative" group arrests as necessary crime-fighting measures.
As a police officer from Mukachev explained to the ERRC, "The Gypsy population
is a special category and those measures which can be applied to normal
people just don't work on Gypsies." Major Styepan Matitzo of the Uzhorod
Regional Police Department said, "We make collective arrests because Roma
commit crimes in groups."
The most brutal treatment is reserved for criminal suspects undergoing
interrogation in police custody. In February, two Roma were severely beaten
in the western Hungarian city of Szombathely. That occurred despite the
Hungarian government's efforts to improve the human rights situation for
Roma and the government's serious intent to retain its image as an internationally
acclaimed champion of progressive minority policy. One of the Szombathely
victims, who refused to sign a confession of theft, was beaten in the stomach,
chest, and back of the head for three hours. He vomited blood and lost
clumps of hair. At one point, he lost consciousness. Two different police
officers told him that if he did not sign the confession, he would be beaten
to death. Before releasing the victims, the police allegedly forced them
to sign statements that they had not been ill-treated.
Steer Clear of 'Skin' Patrols
The map of community violence against Roma is no
less filled than that of police violence. Albania, Austria, Bosnia, Bulgaria,
Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia,
and Ukraine are, in varying degrees, dangerous places for Roma. The most
typical threats come from extremist nationalist groups and from occasional
"spontaneous" mob actions. Czech skinheads are the unsurpassed champions
of civilian racist violence in Europe, closely followed by their Slovak
counterparts. The ERRC has confirmed that since 1989, Czech skinheads have
caused the deaths of no less than nine Roma. The 1996 U.S. State Department
country report on human rights noted a six-fold increase in skinhead assaults
on Roma since 1994. Current monitoring on behalf of the ERRC suggests a
rising wave of skinhead violence is still under way. That tendency contrasts
harshly with the loudly proclaimed advance of democracy, rule of law, and
human rights that secured Czech entry into NATO.
In one well-publicized 1993 case, a group of at least 18 Czech skinheads
attacked Roma in the western Czech town of Pisek, insulting their skin
color and racial origins. Fearful, four of the Roma jumped into a river,
and Tibor Danihel drowned after two of the skinheads prevented the Roma
from leaving the water. In March 1997, an appellate court sentenced four
of the offenders to prison terms of between 22 and 31 months. Murder charges
were not brought against any of them.
In central Slovakia, in July 1995, Romani teen-ager Mario Goral was
attacked by a group of skinheads in Ziar nad Hronom. Following an evening
roaming the city and beating, threatening, and cursing Roma, as well as
throwing Molotov cocktails at a pub frequented by Roma, skinheads captured
Goral, doused him with gasoline and polystyrene, and set him on fire. The
mixture coats the victim's skin and makes extinguishing the flames more
difficult and the burns deeper. Goral died ten days later.
Burning of Roma is not a Slovak monopoly. On 21 July 1996, 15-year-old
Rom Fatmir Haxhiu died in a Tirana hospital. A few days earlier, a group
of Albanian gadje had driven him out of town to a field and, following
a session of torture and racially motivated humiliation, doused him with
gasoline and set him on fire.
While deaths caused by skinheads garner publicity, most beatings do
not. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, skinhead youths, while not impressive
in numbers, are tireless in their hunt for Roma. Roma in some towns and
villages in both countries will tell you they live in a wartime atmosphere.
Families teach adolescents to hide at night and avoid encounters with skinheads
during the day. A 32-year-old Rom from the Presov area told the ERRC:
"On 16 December 1994, I arrived at the central railway station in Presov
at about 9 p.m. I was approached by three skinheads near the side of the
bus depot. They asked me where I was coming from and what I was carrying
in the box I had with me. I told them I was carrying some things. Then
another man joined them and they punched me in the face and stomach, all
four of them. After the attack, I went to the railway police and told two
policemen that skinheads had attacked me. I am sure the police officers
saw me being beaten up, but they didn't try to stop the men. The police
are the gadje's people. The police claimed I had not been beaten by skinheads,
but that I had fallen down. The police didn't help me at all."
Take All the Blame
Unlike skinhead attacks, mob attacks are rarely
carried out on a purely ideological basis. Sometimes they are preceded
by a crime allegedly committed by a Rom and are driven by revenge. Sometimes
they are part of a community project to punish Roma, often for perceived
systematic stealing, or an effort to exclude Roma from land redistribution.
An epidemic of revenge-driven mob outrages was reported in Romania from
1990 to 1993. In Bulgaria, mob violence usually intensifies in the fall,
when hungry Roma become a real or imagined threat to the crops. In 1996,
Roma were regularly attacked in several areas in Albania.
In May 1996, a group of about 70 Ukrainian villagers attacked the rural
settlement in Hudlevo, near Uzhorod. They battered houses, then looted
and burned them. The Roma were evicted, most of them fleeing to other settlements
in the area. Those who tried to file a complaint with the local mayor or
police were kicked out.
Guilty Until Proven Guilty
When Roma are victims of crime, their complaints
are less frequently registered and acted upon. In Bulgaria and Romania,
courts typically refuse to open preliminary investigations on reports of
violence against Roma. When Roma enter the criminal justice system as suspects
or defendants, they are more likely to be held in pretrial detention for
the same offenses for which non-Roma would be released; their pre-trial
detention tends to last longer; they are more frequently left without a
lawyer or without an interpreter when their mother tongue is not the language
of the majority; they are more vulnerable to extortion and intimidation
techniques; they are more often subject to speeded-up procedures and sentencing.
Often, they do not receive legal counsel when they can't afford a lawyer,
especially when the law does not guarantee official counsel. Their sentencing
is more severe than that of non-Roma. A prison director in the region told
the ERRC, "For stealing a barn door, a Rom is sent here to serve 18 months;
a non-Roma who has stolen a new Mercedes gets six months suspended."
Unequal at Work, Home, and School
Romani children are frequently dramatically overrepresented
in substandard schools for the mentally retarded. Housing policy for Roma
often amounts to de facto segregation. One public official in Albania might
have spoken for the majority of his colleagues in the region when he told
the ERRC: "There is no problem of racism in Albania. Roma live in segregated
neighborhoods, which is also good for their security. Roma are presently
very poor, dirty, and noisy, so they have fewer problems if they live separately."
The structure of Romani labor is symptomatic of profound anti-Romani
sentiment. Roma are virtually invisible in the service sector. There are
almost no Romani taxi drivers, shop assistants, kitchen workers in pubs
and restaurants, doormen at banks and hotels. It is beyond the imagination
of most Hungarians and Romanians to employ a Rom as a house cleaner, and
baby-sitting is utterly out of the question. Roma are employed as garbage
collectors or factory workers and agricultural and forestry laborers in
the least prestigious workplaces. The vast majority, however, are unemployed.
In many areas, unemployment approaches 100 percent.
Some Roma live nonsegregated, in "normal" houses or flats. But the majority
live in slums, with no regular water or electricity; with homeless dogs
roaming the unpaved streets; and with naked children and dozens of men
standing outside, in the grip of forced idleness. The urban Romani ghetto
is increasingly home to drug dealing, prostitution, crime, domestic violence,
infectious disease, and-all romanticizing aside-stunningly beautiful music.
And simple but heartbreaking poems about love, the foundation of Romani
No Place on Earth is Home
For many Roma, full citizenship in the country
of their birth remains a dream. In the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars,
Romani refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina have drawn an unfortunate lot:
unlike returning and repatriated non-Roma who were forced into exile, they
must build their postwar existence in a society whose priorities are defined
along ethnonational lines from which they are excluded. Scores of Romani
families repatriated to Bosnia are stepping out of one form of exile into
In the Czech Republic, close to 100,000 Roma lost many rights overnight
when the parliament, elected with Romani votes, adopted the law on citizenship.
That law stipulated bureaucratic requirements that many Roma could not
meet. For them full citizenship is also just a dream, at least until they
achieve a new civil reincarnation.
In Ukraine and elsewhere, many Roma live without official identification.
A Romani leader in the region told the ERRC that "About half the settlement
do not have identity cards and they can't get them. When Roma go to the
police station, they are told, 'Get out of here, you stinking Gypsy!' "
Without identity cards, their children do not go to school; they receive
no welfare; they can travel only illegally.
There is more to citizenship than possessing a
passport or identity card. Citizenship in the late 20th century includes
a package of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. All
people are born free and equal; those who remain so can be called citizens.
Roma in Central and Eastern Europe are not citizens of the new Europe,
nor even of adjacent vassal lands.