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Mitko – the Story of a Roma Rights Hero, and the Victim of a Failing System

2016-07-15

By Atanas Zahariev

In April this year, a 17-year old Romani child named Mitko became a symbol of the fight for Roma equality after an incident where he was kicked and beaten because he declared himself equal to a non-Roma thug. Three days ago Mitko received bitter-sweet justice as the courts found his attacker Angel Kaleev guilty of an ethnically motivated hate crime, but only issued a cursory sentence, which was then deferred to a probation with community service. Mitko, through the #RomaAreEqual campaign has become one of those powerful, almost mythical, human rights icons that people celebrate without knowing about their personal story and struggle.

This is his story.

“Dikhljom jeck but baro ileskoro Romano chav,
I saw a Romano boy, with the heart of a hero.”

Earlier in April, I met Mitko on the streets of his village. We greeted him and stepped into his home: a small, clean house with a courtyard and garden where his family grow their vegetables. His family welcomed me and the person who accompanied me, Raiko Jivkov, a local representative of EVROROMA (the Roma party of Bulgaria). It didn’t take any particular effort to obverse the honest and heartfelt kindness of Mitko’s family. We didn’t have to look far either to see that Mitko is a hard-working, practical person. He and his family work long hours in their garden when they are not working for others in the village to earn their daily bread.

So we sat in their peaceful little garden, discussing the incident that sparked outrage across Europe. Mitko was willing to retell his painful experience knowing that this may have a positive impact for Roma everywhere. It was a difficult conversation for him and for myself. It was hard to watch the video of his mistreatment, which I had to review several times before we from the ERRC could launch our campaign. It was even more difficult to ask him to go relive this moment of humiliation and pain. Mitko was incredibly brave to speak out against racism in the moment he stood up for his rights and claimed no difference between Roma and non-Roma. Mitko was brave again in sharing with me his painful story. An additional complication came in the fact that for Mitko, such conversations have an added dimension of difficulty. Mitko is not outspoken nor is he used to confrontation, he is known by his family to be a sensitive and quiet individual, which might make him an easier target for people like Angel Kaleev.

Despite all this, and his vulnerable condition after the attack, I had an impression that he understood and processed the facts related to the incident and the importance of our campaign, however he could never fully appreciate how much he mattered to the Roma rights cause. My impression was that Mitko is a child, who needs attention, support and care. His emotional state was understandably still fragile after the attack.

“He cannot sleep well, he doesn’t go to bed till late, he comes to me and we play cards”, his brother in-law mentions.

Mitko copes extraordinarily well and still acts himself in the midst of the international fight for equality which has arisen around him. “How would you or I deal with such a situation? How would you deal with such public humiliation and the consequences of that?” I was asked by Jivkov after we left Mitko’s house. A question to which I still cannot answer, and hopefully, will never be forced to.

Mitko’s whole family was affected by the incident: his mother, two brothers, sister and brother-in-law and their children. They have avoided the media attention, for fear of intimidating questions and potential verbal assaults. Often the family would not respond to media requests for meetings or interviews. “People are coming to us without providing any support” said Mitko’s mother. The family have admitted they are tired of organizations and media coming to profit from their misfortune without offering something in return to improve the lives of Roma.

Mitko still smiles as I leave his home with a feeling of hope. I saw the human face of our campaign, and a person seeking neither revenge nor fame. Instead, what Mitko needs is a supporting hand, and an apology from the system which failed to provide for his welfare, placed institutional obstacles in his path and allowed further racism to overshadow the proceedings leading to his eventual justice. Mitko has been kicked and beaten by the Bulgarian justice system as well as by his attacker. The attitudes of the people in the system towards a victim of a humiliating and violent hate crime were coarse, insensitive and uncaring. They failed to see the suffering child and could not look beyond the Romani face. Instead of support he received racial slurs and derogatory treatment by those who supposedly were there to stand with him against his attacker. In this recent victory, the system finally showed to Mitko and to all other Roma that racist hate crimes are unacceptable in the eyes of the law. Mitko saw this judgment, I saw it, and Mitko’s all over Europe saw it. But we did no-one saw the struggle that it took to get there. This is the testament to Mitko’s struggle. His smile doesn’t ask for anything, his eyes humbly called for justice and perhaps now he will receive the justice due to him in the form of an apology from those who failed him in the pursuit of the law.

I hugged him and got into the car. He stood with his family and waved as we departed. I remained silent as we drove away from his unremarkable village and out of sight. It was difficult to process what I had just witnessed. Meeting him left me perplexed. I needed time to react, but had no time with the pressing campaign. A campaign about Mitko and his life. Meeting with him, deepened my understanding of the call to action which we were to launch, and the importance of heroes like Mitko and how an individual can do so much for the collective fight for Roma rights.

The lesson he can teach us is that #RomaAreEqual, goes beyond Mitko and myself and all those involved. If he can stand proud and defiant for his rights, then I can stand, if he can stand we can all stand together.

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