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Roma Burned from their Homes as Lessons Go Unlearned in Romania

2017-04-06

By Jonathan Lee

In scenes which should have been relegated to the early twentieth century, Roma in Romania were forced out of their burning home on Friday 31st March after non-Roma decided to ‘teach them a lesson’.

(Image: Szász Adorján)

A house, its annex, outbuildings and agricultural storage were burned to the ground on the outskirts of the small city of Gheorgheni, Harghita County where ethnic Hungarians are the majority.

The motivation according to Filip Gheorghe, the spokesman for the county police, is revenge for a theft which took place earlier in the week. While the police did not disclose the identities of the alleged perpetrators, local Hungarian press inadvisably chose to publish news coverage which identified two Romani children as the culprits. On Friday evening, local police noticed mobs of people moving towards the area where the Roma live in Gheorgheni. The groups of people were shouting anti-Roma statements, but not directing them at any individuals according to Gheorghe. Shortly after, the police received several emergency calls describing fires in the Romani area. According to a journalist who was later expelled from the area, Romani families were dragged from their homes in five locations and then beaten before the baying crowd before their houses were set alight.

The police chief inspectorate had to set up safety cordon by 11pm and joint patrols of police and gendarmes were ordered to prevent the escalation of any conflict in the town. The authorities say they have not ruled out the possibility of more violence occurring, and the county police commander has assigned gendarmerie to provide constant surveillance of the neighbourhoods where Romani families live. 

In the aftermath of the attack, the mayor Zoltán Nagy could barely conceal his prejudices and pseudo-justifications for the pogrom in his city. He has said 'he regrets' the 'unpleasant' situation brought about by Romani aggression, and describes the theft which triggered the attack as ‘a last straw’. The arson attack according to the mayor, is a consequence of local Roma regularly begging, sending their children to steal and even making one city shopping centre a ‘place of terror’.

Rather than take direct action in calling out this hate crime for what it is, the mayor has not only issued bureaucratic bluster to cover his own prejudice, he has announced a 'public forum' in the next few days in the city to seek a solution to the problems raised by the events and the citizens of the municipality. 

The Hungarians wanted to teach these Roma a lesson” said a local source to HotNews.ro. But seems obvious that the lessons of Harghita’s history of pogroms against Roma have been conveniently forgotten in Gheorgheni.

Firecrews survey the damage the day after the arson attack (Image: Szatmar.ro).

Similar violence against Roma has erupted in recent years in other villages in Harghita. In the village of Sânmartin, Hungarians took exception to Roma illegally grazing their animals in 2009 by burning down three houses, smashing windows and cars, and forcing 60 Roma to flee the settlement. A month later in the nearby village of Sâncrăieni, a Romani man injured a Hungarian in a pub fight. Once again a mob arrived in the Romani neighbourhood and burned down the Romani man’s barn where he kept his horses.

Yet these events follow a pattern set by the county’s sordid recent history of near identical hate crimes involving angry mobs of racist villagers. In Romania's dark theatre of anti-Roma pogroms, lynching, rape and mob-justice which swept the country in the 1990’s, Harghita County has its own shameful part to play. On the 12th August 1990, a mob of villagers burned down 29 Romani houses in Caşinul Nou while local authorities did nothing to protect the Roma inhabitants. On the 6th July 1991, four Romani men beat a security guard in Plǎieşii de Sus. In retaliation, a mob descended on two innocent old Romani men, beating one of them to death. Two days later a warning sign appeared on the outskirts of the settlement where the houses of the Roma families stood, informing the inhabitants that on Sunday 9th, their houses would be set on fire. The Roma went to both the police and the village municipality, but no one intervened. When Sunday came, the villagers in a cold, organised and premeditated attack, cut the electricity and telephone connections to the Romani settlement and set all 28 of the houses on fire.

In both cases, the official investigations into the incidents were little more than superficial exercises in paperwork, which failed to find any responsible individuals nor provide any relief to the victims. The victims received nothing by way of apology or compensation until 2007 when the European Court of Human Rights forced Romania to accept responsibility and make reparations.

Prosecutor have systematically delayed investigation of incidents that occurred during this period to allow enough time to pass so that the cases could be dropped.  In February 1994, Maria Rus, Chief Prosecutor of Harghita County stated:

The investigation of cases lasts until the cases can be dropped. Once cases become old enough, they are closed. And if somebody likes Roma, then take them from here because we are fed up with all this.” 


(Image: Szász Adorján)

The ERRC is investigating the most recent case in Gheorgheni and monitoring the response of the authorities, bearing in mind the inadequate history of official investigations into pogroms against Roma. There are already accusations that authorities tried to supress the pogrom from news coverage.

It seems only fair to highlight that the fast reaction of local police in Gheorgheni no doubt saved further damage being done to Romani homes, and stopped Roma from being driven out of yet another Hungarian village in Harghita County. Yet, the events in the days leading up to this attack should have been obvious warning signs for the authorities and police who have seen this happen all too often in the county and across Romania. Perhaps the police would be more of an expert in dealing with anti-Roma lynch mobs, if not for the fact that they have a history of condoning and participating in them. 

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