Field Report to the Executive Director
12 October 1996
I am writing to report on the acitivities of the European Roma Rights Center during our mission to collect information and to interview victims, witnesses and authorities on the subject of human rights violations against Roma in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine.
For the purposes of facilitating interviews with Roma, I engaged Aladár Adám to be our driver and go-between during our stay in Ukraine. István Fenyvesi acted as translator from Russian, Ukrainian and Hungarian into English. In the course of our work, we visited Romani tabors (Romani Settlements) in Uzhgorod (Thälmann and Sachta), Mukačevo (Franka Ulica), Velikije Ber'eznyj, Hudlevo, Ruskije Komarovtzi, Serednie, Velikije Dobron, Pidvinogradov and Berehovo. In addition, we spoke to police officials from the Uzhgorod and Mukačevo city police departments, and to two officers from Uzhgorod regional police department. We also interviewed the Uzhgorod County Prosecutor and the new director of Uzhgorod City School Number 13, one of the two schools with entirely Romani student bodies in Uzhgorod. Finally, we met with several experts on law and minority issues in Ukraine.
On Friday, August 2, we visited the Uzhgorod tabor called Thälmann. This tabor is in catastrophic condition. Roma were forcibly settled in this squalid area of town during the Soviet period and conditions have only degenerated since Ukrainian independence. There has been no electricity for seven months and up until recently there was no source of fresh water. The Roma here are so poor they eat garbage from the local dump and dogs. The police make regular indiscriminate round-ups of young Romani men here, taking them to the police station to beat confessions out of them for various crimes committed in the city. These are accompanied by the usual battery of humiliating tasks and insults. Additionally, the police confiscate ID papers here and demand bribes for their return. "All of the young men know jail here," we were told.
We then went North to the mountains to visit the Romani tabor at Velikije Ber'eznyj, which you visited in June and where two Roma were shot by the police during a raid on Easter of this year. This tabor was also in a state of stupefying poverty, although there were lots of dogs around, so the Roma here are at least able to get enough food.
We interviewed witnesses and the one victim who was not in jail as a result of the Easter event. Both of the victims, who are brothers, were additionally beaten at the police station after they were discharged from the hospital. The brother we interviewed stated that in order to get a confession from them, they also doused them repeatedly in freezing water and threw weights at them. According to the lawyer for the two brothers, the court found one brother guilty and not the other, since the first one already had a criminal record.
Few of the Romani children here are in school, and many of them are afraid to cross the river and go into town because they are afraid they will be beaten. This is the legacy of a "war" that took place here in 1991 between the police and Roma; after a fight in a disco, the police invaded the tabor, beat anyone they could find, shot dogs and, according to the Roma, sexually abused several women. I brought back a video cassette from Aladár about this - There are clearly visible bruises, blood, scars and gashes.
During our visit to the region, we were very impressed with two Romani tabors in particular: the one at Mukačevo in the Franka Ulica, and the one in Berehovo. Both of these tabors had in common the fact that, despite being urban tabors in dire circumstances, faced with regular intimidation and violence from the police, they seemed hopeful and interested in combating the regular raids and beatings and the constant hassle over electricity, water and ID papers. This may be a result of the local Romani leadership; both tabors seemed to have excellent starostas (local Romani leaders), who understand clearly the language of rights and level of illegality in the harassment to which they were subjected. We saw no "that's just the way things are" attitudes in either tabor.
In Berehovo, for example, as elsewhere, in Autumn last year there was a huge raid featuring shooting dogs in the tabor and rounding up the men for registration. Shortly thereafter, the electricity in the tabor was cut off, and when a delegation from the tabor went to negotiate with the electric company, they were told that if they didn't pay, the police would come, "take your valuables, pull down the tabor with bulldozers, and take you away like the Jews."
In the words of the starosta, "I was horrified, because I remember what happened to my parents when I was 9 years old, in 1941." He was very interested both in legal proceedings against the authorities concerned, and in receiving rights information from ourselves and Aladár. He and Aladár discussed buying a camera for the tabor so that they could document police visits.
In the Mukačevo tabor, the situation was similar. This tabor has been the target of regular raids, beatings for confessions and, in addition, a few truly wild episodes by renegade policemen. Nevertheless, we found the people there open, direct, and full of humor; after learning why we had come, the starosta greeted us by shouting, "Problems?! Do you see this piece of wood? I'm going right now to cook it and eat it!"
In the Mukačevo tabor, we documented one of two recent cases of sexual violence by the police against Roma in the Transcarpathian region. Despite being keenly aware that they would suffer police retaliations, the Roma at Mukačevo were eager to see the numerous violations by the police brought to court. They have already taken the initiative in documenting rights abuses in the tabor by filming several video cassettes of incidents in the tabor. They also urged us to publicize rights abuses against Roma in Ukraine on an international level, since they have the feeling, at present, that they are both isolated and completely vulnerable to further violence.
The "dubinka" was an omnipresence during our trip to Ukraine. A dubinka is a truncheon made of a lead stem with a rubber coating. It is a long cudgel with the balance, weight and consistency of a lacrosse ball. Three strokes from a dubinka, according to one Rom, "can make a person confess to having eaten his own mother." We heard testimony from Roma about how they were beaten on their heads, hands, backs, shoulders, chests, stomachs, legs, thighs and genitals with dubinkas while standing, sitting, lying, being hung by the arms, bent over a table, or held by other policemen. While gathering information or extracting confessions, the police seemed capable of brilliant strokes of creativity in the application of torture.
Our interviews with police officials showed that the wild episodes aside, police harassment of Roma is policy; the police keep lists of people with criminal records or "people inclined toward crime" (i.e. young Romani men) whom they check up on regularly. They explained that collective round-ups were a method of keeping the crime-rate low. One police officer explained with a smile that his methods for getting information from Roma was a secret.
Once a Romani man has come of age, he becomes a target of police suspicion and eventually he will be beaten into confessing something. Once convicted, he will be permanently marked out as a criminal element, and unless he is blessed by unusually good luck, he will begin his relationship with prison. If he is typical, this relationship will last a lifetime.
In my opinion, the ERRC should plan to publish a full-length report on the situation of the Roma in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine. I would myself be willing to write such a report. I am enclosing 80 pages of interview transcripts, a folio of official documents concerning several specific cases, 2 video tapes, 3 rolls of film, a series of photographs given to me by a city counsellor in Mukačevo, as well as several issues of a Ukrainian police newspaper. I look forward to your instructions.
September 10, 1996
The situation of Roma in the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine is the subject of a forthcoming human rights report by the European Roma Rights Center.