Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
The Wall in Ústí nad Labem

by Jarmila Balázová
The North Bohemian town of Ústí nad Labem made headlines around the world in May when it was announced that a wall was to be built in the Nestìmice quarter of the city to separate two residential areas, one inhabited by ethnic Czechs, the other by ethnic Roma. Several protests against the building of the wall have already taken place, and representatives of the Roma community have delivered a petition to the Mayor of Ústí nad Labem. The authorities are ignoring this petition, and plans to build the wall continue.

I first heard about the intention to build a wall in Matièní Street in Nestìmice from a national newspaper. The information the article revealed was incomplete and was in line with what everyone was probably thinking at the time: "Here is another one of those scandals which will get completely blown out of proportion but will only leave us feeling more depressed when it quickly disappears from the headlines." Of course, this story did not exactly run the usual course, and the reporters, including foreign ones, took to it like a starving mouse takes to a ripe piece of cheese.

A friend of mine raced up to Ústí to get a photo of the "horrible squalor" which necessitated separation by stone. Upon his return, he described the situation. "It's not much," he told us. "There are really only three or four houses on one side and two apartment blocks on the other where mostly Roma live. It's hardly squalor."  So, in fact, it did seem at first that people were making a fuss over nothing.

But things are not always what they seem. The foreign reporters evoked horror on the international level by comparing the wall in Ústí to the Berlin wall and concluding that Czechs were incapable of living with Roma in the same place and solving their problems by normal, peaceful means.

To top it all off, the Deputy Mayor of Nemìstice Jan Kocourek shocked and outraged the foreign reporters when he compared the Roma to the American Indians and then like a mad pitbull barked at them: "What human rights are you talking about? They (Roma) have the right to work, but they don't work. They have the right to vote, but they don't vote. They have the right to pay their rent, but they don't pay it." In defending supporters of the absurd wall, Kocourek seems to have forgotten, among other things, that it is not just those who do not pay their rent who live on Matièní Street.

First there will be restrictions limiting the places where we are allowed to be, then everything will be forbidden. Everyone realizes that this will be a ghetto and that life behind the walls will resemble ghetto life. Even Kocourek recognizes it intuitively. Otherwise, why would he ask the foreign journalists: "Gentlemen, did you consult the Indians when you set up their reservations?"

The main problem is a complete unwillingness to come to a civilized agreement. It has been decided that the matter will be solved simply rather than through the more difficult path of discussion. In front of reporters, the authorities will say that the wall is being built to separate regular tax-paying and rent-paying citizens from a group of boisterous and disorderly freeloaders whose unsupervised children only disturb the neighborhood with their noise and chaotic playing.

People will say that the area around the two apartment blocks is unhygienic, but the world is not likely to learn that in each of these two apartment blocks there is only one bathroom. Some will be horrified by the "tons" of garbage outside the buildings, but few will discover that the garbage collectors only come around very rarely or that most of the trash is not from the Roma themselves but from a local firm where some of the Roma work as cleaning staff.

Why should anyone care about the families here that pay all their bills and have lived here for years only because they were moved here by the housing authority "temporarily" - some after their houses had been leveled as part of the city's development plans? It is clear that the public, including the Roma themselves, have become accustomed to judgements based on collective guilt.  Why should anything change?

The city intends to build its four-meter high wall to the tune of 300,000 Czech crowns (9,000 USD). I cannot be the only one who thinks this money could be better spent.

Written by Jarmila Balázová
Originally Printed in Amaro gendalos, June 1998



Petition
(Delivered to the Mayor of Ústí nad Labem Ladislav Hruska on June 2, 1998)
Roma regional representatives and activists condemn the plan of the local authorities in Ústí nad Labem to build a wall which will divide both land and people.

The intention to isolate one group of citizens from another represents a return to an era when concentration camps of Lety u Písku and Hodonín u Kunstátu were in operation. Those camps interned people who were classified as "asocial" - they were mostly Roma. The vast majority of those people did not survive the camps. For us Roma, this chapter of history is open and alive today. It is very humiliating for us to see that on this location of great suffering, rather than graves honoring the victims of the Roma holocaust, stands an industrial hog farm.

But even more horrifying for us is the fact that the authorities in Ústí nad Labem today completely ignore this bitter past, as does the Constitution of the Czech Republic and the country's Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. They are presenting a dangerous idea which could start a process of introducing anti-Roma measures cutting the Roma off from society and turning Roma into second-class citizens in the eyes of the law. The monstrous concept of building the "Wall in Ústí" is for us a warning that even today in the middle of civilized Europe, the Roma could be again threatened with barbed wire and concentration camps. * We call upon all the city authorities and elected members of the local council in Ústí nad Labem who have supported the building of the "Wall in Ústí" to resign their posts immediately. * We also call upon their subordinate representatives, institutions and bodies to investigate the whole matter and to explore the possibility of legal action against all who took part in this action.


Copyright by The New Presence magazine, August 1998.
Reproduced by the Patrin Web Journal with permission.


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