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Lynching is not a crime: mob violence against Roma in post-Ceauşescu Romania

15 May 1998

István Haller1

The collapse of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe for the most part took place with startling ease. Romania was the only exception - the shift of power there was violent. Protesting crowds were shot at by police and military forces and several hundred youths died in street fights. The retaliation was bloody too: the Ceauşescu couple was executed following a symbolic trial. Similar retaliations were not long in coming throughout the country: murdered co-operative farm directors and lynched policemen showed the forms which anger can take when suddenly released.

In the months following the fall of Nicolae Ceauşescu, a number of anti-Romani legends grew quickly in the post-revolutionary atmosphere of shock and thirst for revenge. Roma were among the first Romanians to take advantage of the open borders and travel  abroad, and some Roma became involved in smuggling. Train 114 from Bulgaria became renowned as full of uncontrollable Roma with bags of goods and knives instead of tickets. The Paris-Istanbul Orient Express, a train which spends close to a day on Romanian territory, eventually had to be placed under police guard due to several famous crimes. Meanwhile, the rebirth of Romani civic organisations, defunct since the 1930s, was given wide press coverage, especially when they featured rows among colourful characters such as the demagogical lawyer Nicolae Bobu and the ostentatious “King of All Roma” Ioan Cioaba.2

Sensational press coverage of such themes took place amid the increasing realisation among many Romanians that the end of the dictatorship meant only the beginning of difficulties for the economically troubled country. Conspiracy theories of various kinds, rendered plausible by the previous extreme isolation of the country, became widespread. Such legends included the ludicrous idea, “Gypsies occupied the top positions in the Securitate [the despised and omnipresent secret service]” and the more implausible still “Ceauşescu was a Rom”. These were disseminated widely in sensational form, for example in Red Horizons, the memoirs of fled Securitate general Ion Pacepa. Other newly blossomed rumours about Gypsies included the widely-held view that they were responsible for the election of Ceauşescu’s unpopular successor Ion Iliescu.

Romani civic organisations were, meanwhile, putting forward perfectly just demands such as restitution of gold confiscated from Roma during a national campaign in 1977, but these were seen as only further evidence of the arrogance and lack of humility of Gypsies. It was rapidly becoming “common knowledge” that “Gypsies needed to be taught a lesson.”

The earliest episodes of community violence were not reported in the national media. In Virghiş, Covasna County, villagers killed two Roma and destroyed two houses on December 24, 1989; in Turulung, Satu Mare County, one child disappeared and 36 houses were burned on January 11, 1990; in Reghin, Mureş County, locals set five houses on fire on January 29, 1990; in Lunga, Covasna County, the non-Romani population killed four Roma and set six houses on fire on February 5, 1990.3 

From June 13-15, coal miners from the north, brought in by special trains to break up anti-Iliescu demonstrations in the capital, took time off from their dubious assignment and, together with officials from the militia, rampaged through Romani settlements on the outskirts of Bucharest, allegedly destroying flats and other dwellings, beating many Roma, some to the point of unconsciousness, and raping Romani women.4 Many detained Romani males returned home, uncharged with any crime, only weeks later. More violence followed: in Cuza Vodǎ, Constanþa County, an angry mob of locals set 34 houses on fire on July 10, 1990, and in Caşinul Nou, Harghita County, villagers burned 29 houses on August 12, 1990.

The first case which reached the wider public occurred in Constanþa County, in the village of Mihail Kogǎlniceanu on October 9, 1990, where a furious crowd set 36 houses on fire and rendered another four uninhabitable. Since the authorities did nothing to identify the perpetrators, and the official reaction to such “social conflicts” was that they were “emotionally understandable”, the case quickly turned into a kind of precedent. Roma throughout the country began to be subjected to threats that if they did not “behave”, they would end up similarly to those from Mihail Kogǎlniceanu.

These threats were followed by action: in the spring of 1991, Romani inhabitants in several neighbouring settlements in Giurgiu County were chased from their homes. In Bolintin Deal, Giurgiu County, a town with 7,000 inhabitants, 150 of whom are Roma, villagers set 22 houses on fire and destroyed a further two  during the night of April 7-8. On Orthodox Easter Sunday, April 7, 1991, shortly before midnight, a non-Romani man named Cristian Melinte set off for Bucharest in his car. Ion Tudor stopped the car and asked Melinte to give him a lift. The refusal was followed by an argument, after which Tudor stabbed Melinte. He died immediately. The police caught and arrested Ion Tudor two hours later. Next morning - Easter Monday - at 9 o’clock, a siren was sounded by unknown persons and approximately 2,000 inhabitants of the village gathered. Police informed the Roma that they had better flee, following which the crowd went from house to house (the houses did not stand one next to each other, but were scattered throughout the village), and first looted and then set on fire the 22 homes of the Romani families. When thirty-four of the expelled Roma attempted to reoccupy one of their houses one month later, two thousand non-Roma again gathered and burnt it and two other houses belonging to Roma to the ground.

On May 17, 1991, following the stabbing of a bartender by a Romani man, three thousand villagers in the town of Ogrezeni, Giurgiu County, gathered and destroyed seven houses belonging to Roma. Villagers in the neighbouring village of Bolintin Vale subsequently gathered to express their solidarity with the villagers of Ogrezeni by burning Roma out of thirteen houses on May 18. In Gǎiseni, also in Giurgiu County, villagers set three houses on fire and destroyed a further six on June 5.

Similar incidents continued to occur. In Plǎieşii de Sus, Harghita County, a town with 3,200 inhabitants, 200 of whom are Roma, villagers burned 28 houses and killed a Romani man on July 9, 1991. The sequence of events began on July 6, 1991, when four Romani men beat Ignác Daró, a night guard, because he interfered as they beat their horse. Shortly after the incident, the crowd beat two innocent old Romani men out of revenge. One of them, Mr Ádám Kalányos, later died of the injuries he had sustained. In the meantime the police arrested the four Romani men. 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 June 9, Sunday evening, their houses would be set on fire. The Roma informed both the police and the village municipality, but in vain. Nobody intervened. On Sunday in the afternoon they fled to the stable of the local co-operative farm. An organised group of villagers then cut the electrical wires leading to the Romani settlement (to avoid a short circuit that would leave the whole village without electricity), knocked down the telephone pole connecting the village with the neighbouring village of Miercurea Ciuc and then set all of the 28 Romani houses on fire. Other pogroms followed in Vǎlenii Lǎpuşului, Maramureş County, on August 13, 1991, where villagers burned eighteen houses, and in Cǎrpiniş, Timiş County, on March 17, 1993, where five houses were destroyed. By this time, however, the mass-media had already lost interest in the theme.

Hǎdǎreni

The Hǎdǎreni pogrom in Mureş County brought anti-Roma violence to the attention of the general public once again. Three Roma were killed, fourteen houses set on fire and four houses destroyed— all on September 20, 1993, the day Romania became member of the Council of Europe. Hǎdǎreni is a town with approximately 900 inhabitants, roughly 125 of whom are Roma. On September 20, 1993, a group of Roma were waiting at a bus-stop to get to the neighbouring village of Luduş. The Roma had an argument with ethnic Romanian Gligor Cheþan who approached them with a whip. Having thrown Cheþan to the ground, the Roma, fearing attack by his three sons and others nearby, tried to escape. During a scuffle, one of the Roma, Rupa Lupian Lǎcǎtuş, stabbed Crǎciun Cheþan with his knife, and then fled together with his brother Pardalian Lǎcǎtuş and their brother-in-law Zoltán Mircea into the nearby house of one local Rom who was not at home at the time. A crowd subsequently gathered in front of the house. Police officers who arrived at the scene failed to break into the house and arrest the Romani men inside. The impatient crowd then set the house on fire and beat to death two of the Roma as they attempted to escape the smoke and flames. The third man, Zoltán Mircea, was later found burned to death inside the house. When more policemen arrived in the village, the crowd broke into groups. These groups then set another thirteen houses on fire and knocked down another four, while the policemen allegedly did nothing to stop the destruction. They stood by, watching to make sure no traffic accidents happened - the village is situated on both sides of a major road.

The government promised swift action, and for a time it seemed that it managed to stop further incidents of community violence from occurring. It was, however, too early to be optimistic. In Racşa, Satu Mare County, on May 29, 1994, villagers set nine houses on fire; in Bâcu, Giurgiu County, on January 7, 1995, locals burned four houses, and seriously injured two Romani individuals. Throughout Romania, houses of Roma in approximately thirty settlements have been set on fire since the fall of the Ceauşescu regime, with mobs applying collective punishment to local Romani communities. 

Many of the cases begin similarly and developments follow common trajectories. The already negative attitude towards the Romani community is suddenly intensified by an incident - a banal fight between youths in a discotheque as in Mihail Kogǎlniceanu, a pub fight as in Reghin or, in extreme cases, a killing as in Bolintin Deal or Hǎdǎreni. Either violence breaks out at once and Roma are lynched or, following a few days of planning, the residents of the village gather to chase the Roma out of the settlement. Bells ring; sirens sound. The crowd, often accompanied by police patrols, goes from house to house setting them on fire. The mob demolishes houses of Roma which stand close to houses of non-Roma to avoid the danger of burning down non-Romani houses. Romani individuals involved in the initial phase of the incident are always arrested and taken to court. The four Romani men who participated in the pub fight in Reghin, for example, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to two years. Nobody who took part in the subsequent retaliatory attack has been sentenced.

The similarities between the cases are so striking that one could wonder whether certain political forces organise them. This suspicion, however, is not sustained by closer examination. The common features are rather the result of the overall anti-Romani sentiment prevailing in Romanian society. Cases described in the press become models for further action for the non-Romani community.

Racism

The general attitude towards Roma in Romania is racist. Roma are regarded as the embodiment of the evil, and children are threatened by their parents that “the Gypsy will come and take you if you do not behave”. Whenever the press reports a crime in which the perpetrator is a Rom, this fact is strongly emphasised: “Three Roma killed a helpless 76-year-old woman” - such headlines are frequent in Romanian newspapers. Perpetrators whose identity is unknown are often presented as being “Gypsy”.

Roma are considered public enemies, not only among average people, but also among intellectuals. They are defined as poor, as criminals and as illiterate. Alternately they are defined as very rich because they have exploited other citizens. Non-Roma tend to accept poor Roma more easily, as they somehow fit better in the picture which has been created of them. Not long ago, at a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an official representative of the Romanian delegation (the person represented the Ministry of Minorities Issues!) expressed, in a private conversation with the author, his indignation over the fact that the representative of the Romanian Roma organisation “was not even a real Gypsy”, since he lived in comfortable financial conditions, did not have a criminal record, and is an excellent sociologist.

The official standpoint

The Romanian official bodies have not acknowledged that the lynching of Roma and burning of their houses had ethnic motives. The rhetoric produced concerned a massive popular movement against criminals, as well as about social conflict. The expression “ethnic conflict” - not to mention pogrom -  caused vehement protest on the part of the authorities. Most of the organs of the democratic press also rejected the idea that there could be racial hatred behind the violence.

Despite this, each time the events were analysed, a presumed collective crime of the Romani community was emphasised. Such “analysis” followed, for instance, the events in Hǎdǎreni. The governmental commission sent to investigate the violent incidents on October 12 and 13, 1993, having first written in its report that “the events did not have ethnic motives”, then criticised the Roma for the following:

  • they endanger the ethnic stability of the village since they have five to ten children per family;5
  • they are not natives, since most of them moved to the village after 1977;
  • they do not have land and thus “some of them live by stealing”;
  • “their level of culture is very low; many of them are illiterate”;
  • “they belong to the orthodox religion but do not observe the traditional rites and ceremonies of that religion”;
  • in contrast to the Romanians and the Hungarians, they have not set up agricultural societies;6
  • they abuse order by “verbal violence”, obscene speech, trivial language,behaviour that harms the well-being of others, and they sometimes evencommit acts of physical violence and cause bodily harm.

Municipal and police authorities made similar public statements in connection with other pogroms around the country. These statements consistently downplayed ethnic motives and/or placed the blame on the Romani victims.

For instance, Mihail Kogǎlniceanu Mayor Constantin Ionescu told the author that, following violence in his town, “A lynching atmosphere emerged in the village. But I would like to emphasise that this was not directed against the Gypsies. We have no problems with their race. We only have problems with the criminals. […] It was the Roma organisations who attempted to present the events as if there had been an ethnic conflict here in order to discredit the country abroad.” 

Colonel Mihai Andreescu, spokesman for the Constanþa County Police told the author in October 1990, “It makes no sense to speak of ethnic conflict in the case of Mihail Kogǎlniceanu. Those who report these events as such deliberately distort reality to discredit Romania in the eyes of the international public.”

Sorin Nutǎ, secretary of the mayor’s office in Bolintin Deal explained to the author that ethnic motivation was not at issue in the violent events in his town either: “This is not about an ethnic conflict. 400 assimilated Roma live in the village. Nobody has problems with them. […] The revenge was not aimed at these people. Houses were set on fire to chase away criminals.” 

During a conversation with the author, Major Alexandru Mǎreaþǎ of the Giurgiu County Police explained, “These bear-dancing Roma from Bolintin Deal did not work. They grouped into gangs and looted the locals. Not all of them, Iemphasise, only some of them. […] The bear-dancers are recidivists— Wait, Ishould not say it like this. Not all of them are recidivists. Only some of them. […]  Whether those who set the houses on fire will be punished or not is a very complex question. The majority population has the right to certain self-defence.”

How is the law applied?

The view that “the majority population has the right to a certain self-defence”, even if such defence takes the form of lynching and setting houses on fire, is not an isolated one and can be found in many offices occupied by authorities in Romania.

In Reghin on January 29, 1990, following a fight in the local pub, locals set five houses in which Roma resided on fire. The four Roma who had taken part in the fight were sentenced to terms ranging from six months to one and a half years of imprisonment on July 20, 1990. After that, five out of six Roma withdrew their complaints. The file additionally contains a sixth withdrawn complaint, but from a person who had never filed one. The police carried out an investigation at the scene of the crime only one year after the incident, on March 15, 1991. On November 2 of that year, the investigating bodies stopped the investigation and closed the case, arguing that the victims had withdrawn their complaints. This procedure was unlawful first of all because not all of the plaintiffs had withdrawn their complaints, but also because in cases of arson, the Criminal Code stipulates that investigation must be carried out, regardless of the will of the victim.
Prosecutor’s offices have also systematically delayed investigation of incidents and sometimes the responsible officials did not even bother to conceal their intention of investigating poorly or not at all. During a conversation with the author 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.” Even in the rare instances in which prosecutors have actively pursued justice, the ruling nationalist parties have intervened and prevented authorities from bringing those responsible to court. According to public statements made by the prosecutor, this happened, for instance, in the Hǎdǎreni case.

In the majority of cases it was impossible to identify the perpetrators (or rather, investigators claimed they did not manage to identify them), while in others, proceedings were initiated against two or three offenders, following which the court, due to lack of evidence, sent the files back to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. In cases in which courts finally issued a decision, individuals were found guilty only of minor offences such as disturbance of public order and sentenced to short prison terms. These were usually suspended.

Even determining if justice has been served has been difficult in Romania, since information from various official sources is contradictory. Concerning an episode of community violence in Turulung in 1990, for instance, the General Inspectorate of the Police stated in 1994 that, “Nine persons were sentenced to terms of one to three years and thirty persons were fined for disturbance of public order and destruction of private property.”7 The judiciary, meanwhile, claimed in a simultaneously prepared report that, “The investigation was stopped on January 11, 1991, as the victims withdrew their complaints. Local authorities and some of the residents of the village paid compensation for the damaged houses.”8 Under such circumstances the credibility of official data becomes highly questionable. As recently as February 1997, Romanian authorities were incapable of producing consistent figures on the number of persons brought to justice in connection with the crimes (see Roma Rights, Spring 1997).

Although Romanian non-governmental organisations have persistently demanded that persons who committed anti-Romani crimes be brought to justice, the first such step came only with the change of government following the 1996 November elections. Even then a year had to elapse before a criminal procedure was initiated against the offenders in the Hǎdǎreni case, on November 11, 1997. It should be considered an important achievement that four and a half years of lobbying brought results. Nevertheless, Hǎdǎreni is only one of thirty similar cases.

Punishing anti-Romani actions

Those responsible for burning Romani houses and killing Roma should be punished. Since this did not happen, a critical situation developed: even the smallest conflict threatened to culminate in lynching. It was often argued that since the police were unable to stop Romani crime, the inhabitants had to take the law in their own hands. In order to dispel the belief that police were ineffectual, the so-called “Crime Prevention Department” of the Romanian General Inspectorate of the Police developed a plan which would at the same time both intimidate Romani communities and make the inhabitants believe that they (the police) had full control over the situation. Unlawful raids were carried out in districts inhabited by Roma, on the outskirts of villages, at night. There were raids, for instance, in Acîş and Mihǎieni, Satu Mare County, on August 25, 1995; Colentina, Bucharest, several times during the summer of 1996; Pata-Rât, Cluj County, on June 23, 1995; Bonþida, Cluj County, on February 25, 1995 and February 23, 1996; Bǎlteni, Dîmboviþa County, on several occasions in 1996.9 Several people were beaten, and some were forced onto lorries and brought to police stations to do cleaning work. A few hours later they were released, but warned not to speak with anybody about what had happened to them unless they wanted to see even worse things happen to them. The police even invited TV teams to some of the raids, so millions could see the commandos as they broke into houses with the help of axes without any prior warning; how half-naked Roma were jumping on one leg trying to put on trousers; and how they were thrown on the floor to be handcuffed.

For years the police did not organise any shows of force for non-Roma who threatened Romani communities. On January 16, 1997, however, thanks to police intervention, a new incident of arson in the village of Tânganu, Ilfov County was prevented - and not quietly, as if the police were ashamed of protecting Roma, but openly, in front of the public. This broke the ice.

Despite the fact that positive signs have appeared recently and it seems that there is some progress (the Hǎdǎreni case was taken to court and no major anti-Romani actions have taken place over the past year), the problem of the punishment of anti-Romani deeds is far from being solved. As long as Romania does not pass an anti-discrimination law, as long as police improve “statistics” instead of pursuing offenders, arrest minor Roma and beat them to confess to crimes they have not committed, as long as judges reach discriminatory decisions at court, no significant change can be expected.

One could say that democratisation is a long process and that one must wait for change with patience, but there are situations in which there is no time to wait. When large families remain homeless for years because their houses were set on fire and the government - despite its promise - has not carried out reconstruction; when people are beaten at police stations because of the colour of their skin and commit acts of self-mutilation only to escape further beating, we cannot tell them to just keep on waiting patiently, because things will change one day. Something has to be done. But those who are in the position to act do not even admit that a problem exists.

Endnotes:

  1. István Haller is a human rights activist working for the non-governmental organisation Liga Pro Europa, based in Tîrgu-Mureş. He is trained as a geologist and presently works as a journalist and editor. His publications include articles and studies on access to information, human rights conditions in the Tîrgu-Mureş penitentiary, human rights abuses in the Romanian military units stations in Tîrgu Mureş and children’s rights.
  2. On early post-Ceauşescu developments concerning Roma, see Remmel, Franz, Die Roma Rumäniens: Volk ohne Hinterland, Vienna: Picus Verlag, 1993, especially pp. 84-112.
  3. Data which is not based on the author’s own field investigations are derived from the following sources: European Roma Rights Center, Sudden Rage at Dawn: Violence Against Roma in Romania, Country Reports Series no. 2, September 1996; Gheorghe, Nicolae, “Cases of Collective Violence and Intra-Community Conflicts”, January 1994, unpublished; Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Lynch Law: Violence against Roma in Romania, Vol. 6, No. 7, November 1994; Romanian Ministry of Interior, The General Inspectorate of Police, “Note about the Activities by the Police Unites for Preventing and Controlling Ethnic Conflicts”, 1994; Romanian Public Ministry, Special Commission of the Supreme Court of Justice, Situation, February 11, 1994. Case studies by the author can be found in the following publications: “Conflict social - conflict intracomunitar - conflict ethnic - pogrom?”, in 22, No. 23/1995; “Ki szereti a cigányokat Romániában?” in Beszélõ, 37/1991; “A cigánykérdést is megoldják” in Beszélõ, 23/1991, as well as unpublished materials by APADO (Lawyers Association of Human Rights) and Liga Pro Europa.
  4. See Remmel, op.cit., p.103.
  5. 130 Roma, consisting of 33 Roma families live in the village. This means an average of four persons per family.
  6. In Romania, after the partial restitution of land properties, many people created voluntary co-operatives since the state did not provide the minimal possibilities to cultivate the land. The claim that Roma did not give up their land for the common use is rendered ridiculous by the fact that most Roma in Romania had not owned land prior to the nationalisation land, and therefore did not receive any back when it was restituted.
  7. Romanian Ministry of Interior, The General Inspectorate of Police, “Note about the Activities by the Police Unites for Preventing and Controlling Ethnic Conflicts”, 1994.
  8. Romanian Public Ministry, Special Commission of the Supreme Court of Justice, Situation, February 11, 1994.
  9. See European Roma Rights Center, Sudden Rage at Dawn: Violence Against Roma in Romania, Country Reports Series no. 2, September 1996.

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