Gypsies Face Hostility, Poverty in Eastern Europe

By Luxmoore, Jonathan | National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000 | Go to article overview

Gypsies Face Hostility, Poverty in Eastern Europe

Luxmoore, Jonathan, National Catholic Reporter

In mid-1999, Maticna Street on the edge of this dusty northern Bohemian town made its bid to become the symbol of post-communist Eastern Europe's underside.

Here, city councilors decided to put up a wall to separate a grimy, unpainted tenement from the rest of the town. The reason: to keep at bay the dark-skinned Roma people -- more commonly known as Gypsies -- who occupy the building.

The wall quickly became a cause celebre in the European media. To many, it was emblematic of the revival of racial and ethnic tribalism in the political void left by communism's collapse. The parallelism was perfect: In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, allegedly heralding a new era of freedom and prosperity for Eastern Europe; in 1999, the Usti Wall went up, a symbol that for the ethnic minorities of the region, the new age might be even more hostile than the old.

Unlike its counterpart in Berlin, the Utsi Wall lasted only a few weeks; it was dismantled in late November 1999, after being condemned by Czech President Vaclav Havel and ruled illegal by the country's parliament.

The reverberations, however, continue. The Catholic church here finds itself taking a lead role in efforts at healing.

Dominican Fr. Pavel Jancik, who helped mediate the dispute over the wall, doubts local Czechs are really hostile to Gypsies and insists Usti schools have good tolerance programs. With at least three Czech families living in the tenement, too, Jancik thinks the idea of a bitter racial divide is artificial.

After holding regular prayer meetings at Maticna Street, the Dominican hopes to set up a Catholic parish for the area. "Though few go to Mass regularly, they're open to the church. But we can't wait for them to come -- we have to go out to them," Jancik said.

The Usti wall controversy follows a spate of violent attacks on Gypsies, who make up around 3 percent of the Czech Republic's 10 million inhabitants. Roma women were pressured to accept sterilization here until the early 1990s; the country's Civic Solidarity Movement claims to have documented two-dozen Gypsy murders in the past decade.

In 1997, the Czech government said it was taking "immediate steps" to ensure equal opportunities for the Roma, up to 90 percent of whom are unemployed and illiterate in some districts.

Tensions have been evident all over Eastern Europe. The Slavic word for Gypsies -- Tsigani -- means "untouchable" and dates from the 11th century, when Gypsies first reached Europe after migrating from the Indian Subcontinent. At 5 million, Eastern Europe's Roma currently make up half the world's total. After being assured housing and health care under communism, today they ate the region's largest, least organized and most disliked minority.

Hungary's Gypsies, officially put at 500,000, have increased by half since the 1970s. They have a school dropout rate of 40 percent. Bulgaria's 800,000 comprise 8 percent of its population but account for a quarter of the nation's recorded crimes.

Meanwhile, war-torn Kosovo's 150,000 Roma were forced to flee last summer to refuges in Macedonia after being accused of collaborating with the Serb army. In October, Gypsies petitioned Poland's civil rights ombudsman, claiming they felt unsafe.

In neighboring Slovakia, Roma comprise a fifth of inhabitants in some eastern districts. With a birthrate four times the Slovak average, they're set to become the country's majority by 2060.

Roma leaders have taken steps to highlight the worsening conditions. An International Romany Union has promoted greater representation in national parliaments, while a Roma Rights Center in Budapest has publicized anti-Gypsy incidents.

Yet efforts like these are hampered by indifference.

The 54-state Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which runs a special Roma program, warned in 1998 of plans to resettle Gypsies in fenced-in shelters outside the western Czech city of Plzen, and to house them in metal containers at Szekesfehervar in Hungary. …

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