Announcer: On the Line - a discussion of United
States policy and contemporary issues. This week, "The Plight of the Gypsies."
Here is your host, Robert Reilly.
Host: Hello and welcome to On the Line. The demise of
the Soviet empire nearly ten years ago allowed ethnic tensions to surface
in a number of countries. The strife in the Balkans is perhaps the most
notable example, particularly the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. But one often-overlooked
group that has suffered from discrimination are the Gypsies, or Roma. Last
year, a sixty-meter-long concrete wall was built in a Czech city to segregate
a Gypsy neighborhood. The wall has since come down. According to the European
Roma Rights Center, anti-Romani attacks have resulted in deaths in several
Central and Eastern European countries, including Bulgaria and Slovakia.
And returning Kosovar Albanians are reported to have ethnically cleansed
Gypsies from Kosovo. Joining me today to discuss the plight of the Gypsies
are two experts. Paul Polansky is an author and historian who has
lived with the Roma people in Eastern Europe for nine years and written
three books on the subject. He recently wrote a report on the Gypsies in
Kosovo for the United Nations Human Rights Commission. And Erika Schlager
is counsel for international law at the Commission
on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission.
Welcome to the program. Paul Polansky, what exactly are the dimensions
of the problem that we are attempting to address here?
Polansky: In Kosovo, before the war, according to a survey I
did of the three hundred communities there for UNHCR [United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees], there were approximately one hundred and fifty-one
thousand Roma living in Kosovo. Since the NATO troops arrived, that number
has fallen to less than thirty thousand. There were nineteen thousand Romani
homes before the war; today, there are only four thousand. Most of those
homes were burned by the Albanians returning with the NATO troops.
Host: Did not a number of Roma leave at the same time that the
Kosovar Albanians were driven out by the Serbs?
Polansky: Many Kosovar Gypsies tried to leave but, because they
are readily recognizable by the color of their skin and by their accent,
the Serb guards at the border turned many of them back.
Polansky: Because the Serbs have always used the Gypsies as almost
slave labor. They have used them in the mines for ten deutsche marks a
month. And so they wanted to keep their labor force there.
Host: Is cleansing too strong a term to use?
Polansky: Not at all.
Host: Why have they been cleaning the Gypsies out of Kosovo when
they themselves were just cleansed?
Polansky: Because when they came back, they found the Gypsies
still living in their homes, and the Albanians saw that their own homes
were burned. I think it was an act of revenge in some cases, but in other
cases it was a systematic cleansing operation by the KLA [Kosovo Liberation
Army]. Every Gypsy community was visited on June the 18th . Now this
was more than a coincidence. I believe it was a systematic act, an organized
act to get rid of the minorities in Kosovo.
Host: Erika Schlager, does that comport with what you know?
Schlager: I think it is certainly the case that Roma have been
targeted for revenge attacks since the end of the NATO engagement in Kosovo.
Host: Why revenge?
Schlager: I think perhaps it might be helpful to understand that
the Romani community in Kosovo is actually a diverse community. Prior to
the escalation of violence at the end of 1998, Roma were already caught
between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians, in many respects, with both
of those groups trying to exploit the Roma to enhance their own standing
and their own position in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians may have wanted to have
Roma identify themselves as Albanians on the census, for example. Serbs
may have wanted the same thing. Roma in the region have complained that
they have been the victims of both Serbianization and Albanianization.
But the result is that the community has some Roma who are Orthodox and
Serbian-speaking, and some who are Muslim and primarily Albanian speaking,
and other smaller groups as well. Some Roma who are Serbian-speaking are
believed to have been complicit with Serbs when Serbs committed atrocities
against Albanians. There are also Albanian-speaking Roma who were the victims
of Serb-sponsored attacks. So you can see how complicated this is.
Host: It is, but according to some Roma organizations this is
beyond revenge and it is a systematic ethnic cleansing of Gypsies from
Kosovo. Is that too much of an exaggeration, or would you agree with Paul
Schlager: I think we have to start out by saying that revenge
in and of itself, even when someone has committed an atrocity, a revenge
attack is not justifiable. The International Criminal Tribunal for the
Former Yugoslavia, that is the place to take those sorts of complaints.
And then it is very clear that Roma who are completely innocent have been
made scapegoats. One of the most egregious examples of this came in a refugee
camp that had been established in Macedonia. When many people were fleeing
from Kosovo in June of last year , the UNHCR tried very hastily to
establish refugee camps. A UNHCR official had told an official from the
OSCE that Roma could not be protected in the camps. The UNHCR was already
worried that there was such a sense of revenge among some of the ethnic
Albanians in the camp that Roma would be in danger. On June 6th, there
was a mob attack against some Roma in the camp that escalated to the point
where a seven-year-old boy was being pulled by this mob, literally on the
verge of being torn limb from limb. An official from a Catholic Relief
Agency intervened and saved that boy's life. U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill
came in subsequently with Macedonian riot police and was able to settle
the mob down. But I think that shows the extent to which the violence can
escalate and escalate very rapidly in that setting.
Host: And this is something that has taken place, as you pointed
out, under the eyes of the KFOR forces, the combined NATO forces that are
there supposedly providing a modicum of some kind of order. Of the hundred
and fifty thousand Gypsies or Roma in Kosovo, how many are left?
Polansky: Twenty to thirty thousand.
Host: Will any of them be able to return?
Polansky: The UN says today that it is not advisable for any
Gypsies to return to Kosovo at this time.
Host: Because they cannot be protected?
Polansky: They cannot be protected. They were not protected.
Host: Where do they go? Gypsies are notoriously known as migrants
or nomads, but where do you go when you are driven out of your own country?
Polansky: I think that is one of the problems with this exodus
-- that people have this stereotyped idea that Gypsies are nomads. The
Kosovar Gypsies actually are settled Gypsies. They have been settled. They
have been in homes. They have been in jobs. They have gone to school. They
are probably the most settled Gypsies in Europe. They are not nomadic at
all. And this is one of the problems of resettling them. People think that
they can look after themselves because they have this stereotyped image
of them being nomadic. They are not. They all had homes. They all had jobs.
They all went to school; they could all read and write.
Host: So really you are saying, as against that stereotype, that
the Gypsies or Roma in Kosovo were as assimilated as they probably are
anywhere in Europe.
Polansky: In the world.
Schlager: With respect to the question of where did they go or
where are they now, I think that they can primarily be looked at as being
in three different places. First of all, there are possibly thirty thousand
Roma who are in Kosovo, many of whom are actually displaced persons because
they have been burnt out of their homes. So they are in Kosovo, but that
does not mean that they have a roof over their head or a place to live.
Certainly in that setting they have no ability to send their children to
school and many of them, as Paul has seen, do not have the same access
to humanitarian aid that some of the other groups have. A very substantial
number have gone into Macedonia. As I just said a few moments ago, we have
seen that in Macedonia there are tremendous problems for them in the camps.
And Macedonia itself is a very small country that has taken in a substantial
number of the refuges and has really gone to great lengths to accommodate
them, but can only be reasonably expected to go so far. And then there
are Roma who have gone to Western countries: Germany, Hungary and Italy.
But I think that we need to understand that those countries that we would
normally think of as safe havens or safe third countries are not necessarily
safe countries for Roma. In Italy, for example, about a year ago, about
the same time that there was this mob incident in the camp in Macedonia,
there was a mob attack in Naples. There was a settled Romani community
there. There had been an incident where a Rom was believed to have committed
some crime and there was a whole mob attack against a thousand people in
a camp, and this was within the settled community in Italy. So you can
imagine how difficult that it would really be for Roma from Kosovo to get
Host: Let's talk about that for a moment -- how difficult it
is in other parts of Eastern and Central Europe or even Western Europe.
You have resided for some years in the Czech Republic. From your perch
there, what do you see in Central and Eastern Europe as far as the Gypsies
Polansky: Unfortunately, there is genocide, at the very least
cultural genocide against the Roma in almost all Eastern European countries.
Host: That is a very strong term.
Polansky: When you have special schools for the children - you
do not allow them to go to normal schools. At the age of five or six they
are condemned to schools for the mentally retarded for their whole school
life and are never allowed to go to college. I do not think that is a very
strong term at all. And this is what is happening in the Czech Republic.
In fact, the [European] Roma Rights Center
in Budapest has filed a lawsuit against the Czech government to try to
change these special schools. Romani children at the age of six are given
a test. Ninety percent of them flunk this test and are condemned to special
schools for the rest of their lives.
Host: A Roma cannot go to college in the Czech Republic?
Polansky: Not if they are sent to a special school.
Host: I see. You are disqualified by being sent there.
Polansky: By the age of six you are already sentenced to what
your life is going to be.
Host: And what about other countries: Romania, Bulgaria? What
is the situation there?
Polansky: I think the further east you go the more difficult
it gets for Roma.
Host: These are OSCE countries. Are they not trampling upon some
human rights obligations they have in that respect if they are treating
a minority in this way?
Schlager: Certainly there are human rights violations and they
are very serious ones. A couple of years ago, I was, in fact, very pessimistic
about the prospects for human rights reform regarding the Roma. It seems
to me that the Romani civil rights movement is going to be a very significant
force in the twenty-first century and that the Romani civil rights movement
can be seen as a speeding train heading toward Europe. And the question
that I asked myself was whether the governments were going to stand aside
as that train went past them, whether they would get on that train and
ride it, or whether they would be run over by it. And a couple of years
ago I was rather pessimistic. More recently, I think a number of governments
have started to acknowledge the magnitude of the problems they have in
Host: For instance, you did have, when the wall went up in that
Czech town, no one less than President Vaclav Havel come out and condemn
it as an atrocious thing.
Schlager: I think that is very much to President Havel's credit.
But at the same time, he was regrettably very isolated in making that kind
of statement. Prime Minister [Milos] Zeman had said at one point, when
the wall was still standing and there were a lot of efforts being made
to resolve the crisis, Prime Minister Zeman said that under no circumstances
would he even consider buying out the people who lived next to the Roma
there. They had suggested: buy out our homes and we will go away quietly.
It was bribery money that they were asking for. And in the end, that is
exactly what the government did. Rather than paying the money directly
to those who demanded this ransom, they effected this by paying the money
to the city council which in turn bought out the homes of the ethnic Czechs
who lived there and were not happy living next to Roma. And this was to
the tune of a quarter of a million dollars. And unfortunately, I think
that is a very negative precedent. There are other places in the region
where I think there are more positive steps being taken. Paul was speaking
a moment ago about the very serious problem of de facto segregation
and that it's a problem that occurs in many of the post-Communist countries.
In the last year, the Hungarian ombudsman for national minorities and the
minister for education held a press conference where they basically admitted
that that is what has been happening in Hungary. But I think admitting
that the problem exists is an important first step to being able to address
the problem. Most of the governments in the region are still not at the
point of admitting there is a problem.
Host: But most of it is de facto rather than de jure
Schlager: That is true with respect to education. I think one
area where the law is rather clearer in a negative sense is with respect
to the absence of anti-discrimination legislation. All of the post-Communist
countries lack any civil statute that would make discrimination in education
and housing, employment and labor, in the military, in public places, that
would make it illegal, that would give someone the right to go and sue
if they had been discriminated against. As a consequence, it is not unheard
of to see a sign in front of a restaurant that says, "no dogs, no Gypsies."
Host: And there is no recourse against that?
Schlager: There is theoretical recourse. It is possible under
most of these little systems that you could go to a public prosecutor and
persuade that person to bring criminal charges. But I can probably count
on one hand the number of times when public prosecutors have been willing
to do it. One of the most highly publicized events of this kind took place
recently in the Czech Republic. There is one Romani Member of Parliament,
Monika Horakova. She was trying to go into a club with a friend of hers
and was turned away because she is a Rom. So even someone as well known
as a member of parliament can have this happen. And what I think is particularly
unfortunate from my view is that I am not aware of any members of Parliament
who stood up and condemned the treatment their colleague suffered.
Host: Paul Polansky, what possible remedies do you see? This
is a problem on which you have worked for so many years and written so
much about. There are countries that have attempted programs of assimilation
and pubic housing -- Spain is a notable example -- that have not worked
Polansky: You know, you find racism also in Spain. I have lived
in Spain for many years and I know that there are villages in Spain where
the mayor and the Guardia Civil have not allowed any Gypsies to rent or
buy a home. And in Great Britain, they are not processing legally the political
asylum cases from Gypsies from Eastern Europe. They are sending them back
as quickly as they can. I have spoken to many Rom who, the minute they
got off the airplane in London and requested political asylum, the wife
and children are taken to a bed and breakfast, the father was put into
jail. A few weeks later a social worker would come by and say that your
wife and children have been molested by skinheads. Don't you think you
should sign on the dotted line voluntarily to go back to the Czech Republic?
Host: Erika Schlager was pointing to some signs of hope and a
changing attitude in Europe. Do you see that, and how would it manifest
itself? What would be your answer to the problems that the Romani are facing
now? And is there any extent to which you would say that they have to change?
Polansky: I think that the Roma are trying to integrate. They
are tying to assimilate more than the majority is allowing them to do so.
I actually had some hope a few years ago that things were changing in Eastern
Europe, that the governments were recognizing the problem and were willing
to invest money in education and jobs. But now with the war in Kosovo and
in the Balkans, you see a great influx of Roma seeking a safe haven in
Europe. And since they are not invited there, they are going underground.
And this is creating turmoil in these countries. So I think the problem
is getting worse because of the war in the Balkans. We are seeing at least
a hundred-thousand Roma now in Eastern Europe and Western Europe who were
not there a year ago.
Host: How do you answer the point that some critics make who
say that the Roma do not want to assimilate and that that's the problem.
They keep by themselves and live by their own code.
Polansky: This is another stereotype because most Roma, under
the age of thirty, cannot speak Romani. They are losing their culture faster
than people can imagine. I lived with Roma. I'm trying to learn Romani
and I'm finding very few people who can teach it to me. If they can pass
for white, they do so and they assimilate very quickly.
Host: Maybe that is the ultimate, long-term answer: that assimilation
will end discrimination. It is perhaps not what you would like to see.
Schlager: I have to say that I do not really think that that
is the way it is going to go. I think we are really on the threshold of
seeing some very dynamic and exciting changes that will occur in this next
decade. Just looking back on what I have seen in the past decade, it is
incredible -- the differences in the Romani communities. First of all,
I think we have to remember that Romani political maturation was dealt
a devastating blow by the Holocaust, where Roma were targeted for extermination.
There had been in the twenties and thirties the beginning of Romani political
movements and the Holocaust decimated them.
Host: So you think that they themselves are coming to the fore,
to their own defense, and they are going to make progress this way.
Schlager: Very much so. They are very much experiencing an incredible
period of empowerment and that is very exciting.
Host: I'm afraid that's all the time we have this week. I would
like to thank our guests -- historian Paul Polansky and Erika Schlager
from the Helsinki Commission -- for joining me to discuss the plight of
the Gypsies. This is Robert Reilly for On the Line.
Announcer: You've been listening to On the Line - a discussion
of United States policies and contemporary issues...