Human rights crisis
Violence and persecution follow Europe's downtrodden minority across the continent
Eight million Roma find political voice in face of evictions and mob attack
Ian Traynor in Ambrus, Slovenia
Tuesday November 28, 2006
Miha Strojan was tending to his sick mother when the mob arrived. Wielding clubs, guns and chainsaws, several hundred villagers converged on the cottage in a clearing in the beech forest with a simple demand. "Zig raus [Gyppos out]," they called in German, deliberately echoing Nazi racist chants. "Bomb the Gypsies."
It was the last Saturday of last month, when the mob terrorised the extended family of more than 30 Roma, half of them children, into fleeing their clearing a mile over the hill from the farming village of Ambrus in eastern Slovenia.
"They were building bonfires on our land and shouting that if we don't move out, they will bomb us and crucify our children," recalls Mr Strojan, 30.
A Slovene filmmaker, Fillip Robar Dorin, present at the scene, said it reminded him of the Kristallnacht pogroms of 1938 when the Nazis rampaged against the Jews of Germany and Austria. "We would have torched the place, but we were too late. The police got there before us," bragged one Ambrus villager.
If the expulsion of the Strojans, living in Ambrus for decades and owners of the place they were living in for 12 years, was a trauma for the family, it was also an increasingly routine example of the epidemic of forced evictions of Roma settlements across the European Union, particularly in central and eastern Europe where the Roma are concentrated.
Last week in the Czech town of Vsetin police descended on a crumbling block of flats, put more than 100 Roma on lorries and dumped them in Portacabins up to 50 miles away. The mayor, Jiri Cunek, then sent in the bulldozers. "Cleaning an ulcer," he announced to local applause.
Last month in the eastern Romanian town of Tulcea, police evicted 110 Roma from where they had lived for seven years, their previous accommodation having burned down.
The European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest, Hungary, says the forced evictions are not restricted to eastern Europe. It is also dealing with incidents in Britain, France, Spain and Italy.
The scandal in Ambrus occurred not in the poorest parts of Europe where such persecution is more common, but in Slovenia, the wealthiest, westernmost, and most successful of the eight new central European members. In January, Slovenia will adopt the euro.
"The case of the Strojans in Slovenia is part of a pan-European pattern at the moment," said Claude Cahn, the centre's programmes director. "It's really a crisis this year. This raw destruction of neighbourhoods is quite new."
As well as frequent forced evictions across the towns and villages of eastern Europe, Mr Cahn points to major slum clearance and urban regeneration schemes currently planned in the capital cities of southern Europe. Istanbul, Sofia in Bulgaria, and Bucharest in Romania all have ambitious reconstruction projects under way. "These can have dreadful effects, entailing the large-scale destruction of Roma housing."
In a recent study the Dzeno Association, a Prague-based Roma lobby group, noted: "The growing trend of forced evictions of Roma in Europe is becoming a human rights crisis."
The evictions underline the plight of Europe's 8 million Roma as the continent's most downtrodden minority. Subject to entrenched harassment, discrimination, and ghettoisation, the Roma are liberty's losers in the transformation wrought by recent free elections and free markets.
Last month Bulgaria's minister of health proposed compulsory abortions and criminalisation for pregnant under-18s from "minority groups", a categorisation that would affect most Roma girls. In Hungary, a mob beat a 44-year-old Roma man to death after he ran over an 11-year-old girl. A Budapest newspaper told its readers to drive off if they run over a Roma child.
Confronted with this torrent of abuse and prejudice, Europe's Roma are beginning to fight back. Getting organised politically for the first time, they are engaging in grassroots, national and regional campaigns, in some ways recalling the black civil rights movement in the US, ranging from contesting segregation in schools, tenancy rights, legalisation of settlements to demanding political representation in local councils, national parliaments, and governments.
One trigger for the rise in Roma consciousness and activism is the EU itself. When Romania and Bulgaria expand the union to 27 countries in January, up to 8 million Roma will be EU citizens, the bloc's biggest ethnic minority and a community that outnumbers the populations of at least eight EU states.
There are now two Roma MPs in the European parliament. Last month a town in Romania got its first Roma mayor and a Roma administration. In Hungary or the Czech Republic there are Roma MPs, occasional government members, scores of local councillors.
The courts are also being used to seek redress. Showing that Roma children are 27 times more likely to be dumped in remedial education classes than ethnic Czechs, Roma activists have taken the government to the European court of human rights in Strasbourg accusing Prague of deliberate segregation in schools. A similar case against Croatia has also gone to the court.
In Slovakia there is a Roma news agency. In Slovenia the Roma are to get airtime on national television. A few years ago there was one Roma councillor in Slovenia, now there are 20.
"Now in Slovenia in almost every municipality, the Roma voice can be heard," said Zoran Grm, Roma councillor for the town of Novo Mesto.
Jernej Zupancic, a geographer and Roma researcher in the Slovene captal, Ljubljana, said: "The Roma are getting organised ... They're taking more responsibility and becoming much better negotiators."
Still, it is a long-term process of small steps. "There is growing international Roma activism. A lot of progress. But is it enough to counter the pernicious determination in most places to see the Roma excluded?" asked Mr Cahn.
Outside Ambrus, the geese, chickens, and turkeys are scratching around the Strojans' hurriedly abandoned homestead. In the forest opposite, sodden mattresses, children's clothing, and old car batteries still lie under a "tent" of plastic sheeting and tree branches where the family sought refuge from the mob attack, which was apparently triggered following a violent brawl between a local man and a non-Roma man living within the Strojan compound.
In Postojna, at the other end of Slovenia, the Strojans are condemned to the squalour of a disused barracks once used as a refugee centre until it was closed last year as unfit for human habitation. There is neither heating nor hot water. They have been there for a month.
When the mob marched on the Strojans' house, the government sent in riot police and cabinet ministers. The interior minister announced an "agreement". The family had volunteered to leave.
"We left because of the pressure from the police and the people. We were afraid," says Mr Strojan.
Matjaz Hanzek, the parliament-appointed human rights ombudsman, asks: "How can an agreement be voluntary when 500 people are threatening to kill you? The state and the government did what the angry crowd wanted. They moved the people from their home. Such events are inconceivable in a state governed by the rule of law."
The Strojans tried to go home at the weekend, but did not get far. Another mob, 1,000-strong, set up roadblocks and fought with riot police. The Strojans turned back. At least two other attempts to house them elsewhere in the Ambrus district and in Ljubljana have also foundered because of local protests.
The Roma, who can be sub-divided into at least five different groupings, migrated to Europe from the Indian sub-continent 1,000 years ago. Although commonly seen as nomadic, more than 90% of Roma in Europe are settled and sedentary. Of some 10 million worldwide, around 7-8 million live in Europe, concentrated in central and eastern Europe and the Balkans. Around half a million Roma perished in the Holocaust. Accurate figures on the spread of Roma are unavailable. Figures are estimates: Romania 2 million; Bulgaria 800,000; Slovakia 600,000; Hungary 600,000; Greece 300,000; Czech Republic 250,000; former Yugoslavia 250,000; and Poland 50,000.
There are many questions remaining about the roots of flamenco, but it is generally acknowledged that flamenco grew out of the unique interplay of native Andalusians, Islamic, Sephardic, and Gypsy cultures that existed in Andalucia prior to and after the Reconquest.