Mob violence against Roma in Poland
15 July 1997
Recent research conducted by the ERRC revealed that several Roma communities in Poland are systematically subjected to violent attacks by the local non-Romani population. One such attack took place in the south-western town of Świebodzice just before last Christmas. Late in the evening of December 23, 1996, a mob of approximately fifty masked local youths threw burning bottles filled with petrol at houses inhabited by Roma. Mrs. E.S., one of the victims, told the ERRC:
"I was preparing for Christmas in the kitchen. My two grandchildren who stayed with me were already in bed. All of a sudden, I heard some thing smashing in the living room and I ran there to see what was happening. I saw that one of the windows was broken and that my curtain was on fire. Then, another burning bottle came in through the second window and my 5-year-old grandson's pyjamas caught fire. Luckily enough, my son was here and he quickly took the boy outside and threw him in the snow."
According to Mrs. E.S., violent attacks against Roma in Świebodzice started around two years ago and have since occurred regularly:
"They have attacked our houses at least 20 times for the past two years. I can't even count how many times I have changed the Windows here. They stand in a long row outside the house and start throwing burning bottles filled with petrol in through the Windows. They have also destroyed several cars. There are always a lot of them, at least 20, and sometimes, like in December, there are up to 50 of them. They scream, 'Poland for Poles" and "We don't want Gypsies here." I think they are always the same people, but they are difficult to identify, first of all because they come at night when it is dark but also because they often wear masks."
The last attack reported by the Roma of Świebodzice took place on June 11, 1997, only four days before the ERRC visited the town. The victims themselves down played the importance of this particular incident, however, saying that it was almost nothing, since "this time, only one window was broken."
Romani inhabitants told the ERRC that the local police have remained passive despite numerous official complaints on their part. During the attack on December 23, 1996, a few police officers allegedly arrived half an hour after they had been called and did nothing but state that the Roma "should cover the broken Windows with something so that their children don't catch a cold over night."
According to the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, which reported the December incident in a local issue on January 20, 1997, Świebodzice Vice-Mayor, Henryk Sawa, stated that, "Nowadays, these young Gypsies are spoiled. Before, they used to know their place. I am not talking about segregation, but they knew where they could play. They did not flash their money around." Mr. Sawa reportedly added, "Such a small community and so much trouble with them."
The same article quotes local prosecutor Krzysztof Jawor as having said, "In my opinion, it was not a very serious incident. I think that people exaggerate the number of people involved. [...] It was simply a group of youngsters who gave expression to their prejudices. We do not yet know how many they were exactly."
Despite the fact that Prosecutor Jawor claimed not to know how many were involved in the incident, he seemed to know "the youngsters involved" well: "These youngsters who were involved in this incident do not even know what it means to be a skinhead. They are just searching for their identity."
Due to the press coverage of the December 1996 incident, the Roma in Świebodzice hoped that there would be an investigation into the violent attacks, but as of June 15, 1997, no one from the police or from the prosecutor's office had contacted them.
Mr. J.L., one of the victims, recently turned to the mayor's office for support, but Vice-Mayor Sawa allegedly told him that, "I am not interested in your problems. Solve your problems your selves. There is no place for you in Poland. You should go some where else." Many Roma have indeed felt Świebodzice over the past two years.
Attacks against Roma of the kind described above have not been confined to Świebodzice. Roma in the southern town of Dębica have also been subjected to similar attacks by groups of local non-Roma. Although the last two years have been relatively peaceful, Miecryslaw Sadowski, a Romani resident of Dębica, remembered at least six violent attacks against the Romani population during the period between 1993 and 1995:
"Each time there is a special event of some sort in the town, I we are in trouble. The worst such events are football matches. After the game is over, they come to attack our houses."
A particularly violent attack against the Dębica Roma took place in June 1994. This started when his nephew, then 13-year old Gniewko David Sadowski, was attacked and severely beaten by a group of around thirty skin heads on the central square at around four in the afternoon. Mr. Sadowski told the ERRC:
"They broke his ribs and put a trash-can over his head. He walked home in a state of shock and collapsed when he got home. I took him to the hospital and left him there."
Upon his return from the hospital, Mr. Sadowski was met by a big group of people screaming in the Street outside the houses inhabited by Roma:
"They were armed with bricks and stones and were throwing them at the houses faring the street. I managed to drive my car inside the courtyard and found all our men standing outside the houses, in the courtyard facing the street. They were trying to prevent the mob from getting inside."
Mr. Sadowski's mother Janina Sadowska was also present during the attack:
"There were a lot of people in the mob. I couldn't really count them all, but there ere at least fifty of them. They never got into the yard. Our men wouldn't let them. But the Windows facing the street were all broken with stones and bricks."
According to Mr. Sadowski, the police did not react properly: "The police had already been called by the time I got home, but they didn't come until much later, and then they only drove back and forth in their car. They didn't really do anything. Then, finally, when they came inside, we had already caught five of the attackers and we handed them over to the police. The police took them to the police station and told us to come and give testimony."
According to the ERRC's information, an investigation was launched into the incident, but the case seems to have been dropped before it reached the court. Allegedly, four of the suspects escaped to Germany and have not returned to Dębica since, while the fifth was released with out being formally charged.
The ERRC sent a letter of concern to the General Prosecutor of Poland on July 3, 1997, urging swift investigation and asking to be informed about the administration of justice regarding the incidents of violent attack against Roma in Świebodzice and Dębica. (ERRC)