Arson in Bolintin Deal

07 November 1997

Isabel Fonseca

In April 1991, in Bolintin Deal, an unremarkable rural town about forty miles northwest of Bucharest, a twenty-three-year-old music student was murdered and, in retaliation, eighteen houses were burned to the ground in a single night. Three years later, apart from the murderer, a Gypsy, none of the assailants had been prosecuted. On the contrary, the mayor of this small town had become a local hero: he was un democrat nou, eloquent on the principle of majority rule, "the will of the people" and his duty to protect it, and the (ethnic) Romanians' "right to self determination," by which he meant their right to decide the ethnic composition of their town.

The villagers were unrepentant when I visited Bolintin Deal a few months after the attack. On the contrary, they were proud that their efforts had made the evening news and, better still, that the report had clearly inspired similar events across the country. The only people who were unhappy were the Gypsies, and even they sometimes tried to distance themselves from the Gypsy victims.

Homeless after the event, Emilian Nicholae, an intense young Rom from Bolintin Deal, now stayed in Bucharest, sleeping every night on a different floor. I kept missing him, but I persisted: he alone had been working to revive press interest and to provoke some legal response to the Bolintin purge, which in the glare of fresh and more violent attacks had been more or less forgotten. But he'd heard that an American journalist had been sniffing around his hometown, and he found me. From then on Emilian would appear now and again, without warning, in my borrowed Bucharest apartment; I'd hear his huffing as he thumped up the stairs, hoisting himself along the banister (one of his legs was several inches shorter than the other). If we were lucky, Igor Antip, a common friend, would be there to translate from Romanian, a safer bet than my fledgling Romani. Emilian would come in, so somber that he looked rather menacing, and begin talking where he had left off last time, as I scrabbled for a pen that worked.

Hugging his torso, he would lean against the wall and disgorge the catalogue of injustices that he had been filing away inside himself since his last visit. But he wasn't self-pitying; he was furious. And he was too tense ever to sit or even to unfold his arms, though occasionally he'd pause to recover his breath. Not only lame but vaguely tubercular, Emilian always sounded winded; his voice was muffled by a rasp, and it came over as an expression of persecution rather than respiratory malfunction. His disabilities seemed to leave him no energy for anything but the grave essentials; perhaps they also made him especially sensitive to pain.

He had worked until recently as a junk remover but what really occupied him was the collecting of memories. Scores of old people had told him their experiences of the war, when some thirty-six thousand Romanian Gypsies – predominantly nomads – were deported to labour camps in Transdnistria, or over the Dniester River above Odessa in what is now Moldova.

Their stories were as vivid to Emilian as the sight of his family house in flames; and in his intelligent eyes they were firmly related. He had transcribed the accounts in longhand, on loose sheets. But that one night in Bolintin Deal, along with the twenty-six houses, ten years' worth of testi monies had gone up in smoke. Some of these stories had come from members of his own family. They were nomadic Gypsies who had been forced to settle as a condition of their return from the camps – first in another, northern town, and then again in the 1950s in Bolintin Deal.

Under Ceauşescu and Gheorghiu-Dej before him, as under most communist regimes across the region, it was somehow imagined that the very existence of the Gypsy minority could be "solved" by dispersing them among reluctant white communities. From the official point of view, the practice seemed to work tolerably well, at least so long as people were afraid to show their resentment.

Most foreign reporters have described the post-1989 purges of Gypsies as the expression of ancient ethnic hatred between ordinary people which had been temporarily suppressed by the communists. Wrong: in Bolintin, as in most other such villages, the purge may be seen as the inevitable consequence of communist policy. These were fake communities. Like all attempts to assimilate the Gypsies by force, resettlement had backfired. Emilian despaired at the loss of his files. As far as he knew no one else had attempted this sort of documentation, and the old people were dying off. Worst of all, he was positive that many of the survivors he had coaxed into recounting painful memories would not again be willing to talk, not even his own grandparents. Some wouldn't speak to him, after the burning of Bolintin, out of fear. Others wouldn't speak to him because these crimes remained unrecognised and unredressed; they were silenced not by fear but by bitterness. It was hardly surprising that most Romanian Gypsies I met mourned Ceauşescu, whom some even called Papa.

Unusually for a Gypsy, and unusually for a Romanian, Emilian believed that even if they might never be heard, amid all the lies that were still common fare here, the testimonies of survivors had an intrinsic value, and that if only they could be preserved their version would prevail. As if he was interviewing himself, he brought an impressive documentary tone to his own account of the murder. And he brought detail: he might have been a crow on a telephone line, watching over the crime.

April 1991. It was nearly midnight: Mass was held late on Easter. When the service was over, the villagers walked home in the moonless night by lantern light. Some of the young people lingered in the square. Leaning on bikes, a few on the hoods of cars – Dacia sedans and Trabants. They stood around smoking and joking before following their parents home. By one o'clock the small piazza was cleared. Cristian Melinte, the music student, was the last to leave. He had trouble starting his car. When he finally pulled out onto the main road, the Bucharest-to-Bulgaria road, another young man flagged him down.

"In the dark Cristian Melinte could not make out the three figures behind the shaded man. They were two boys and a girl. All but the girl were Gypsies. The young man who had stopped him stuck his head in the passenger window and smiled." Emilian demonstrated. His theatrical power came from being able to talk about "the Gypsy" as a force, an abstraction, and one convincingly mysterious to himself as a storyteller. "The Gypsy greeted Cristian Melinte, who, he reminded him, had been in his brother's class in grade school. Although the music student recognised the Gypsy, he became tense: he could smell the plum brandy on the Gypsy's breath." Emilian paused to raise his hands and elbows and then he lowered his fingers and wrists in a strange three-part modern-dance move that I couldn't read. And then he explained: "The Gypsy held on to the half-open car window with both hands, all ten fingers on the glass." Of course Emilian cannot have known this; he was inventing a gesture which conveyed both menace and fear of falling down.

"He was drunk. He asked for a ride. Cristian Melinte said no. He said the car wasn't reliable that night, that he didn't have enough gas, that he was already late getting home." Emilian paused again, now speaking and posing meaning ly, in the manner of a court lawyer presenting his final summation to the jury.
"The girl, who began by saying she had been elsewhere, changed her story several times during the brief, unjuried trial. The testimony of the other two boys was rejected out of hand: they would, it was understood, defend another Gypsy, one of their own, whatever he might have done. All that was certain was that Cristian Melinte had been murdered, stabbed four times with a long, handmade knife." Emilian carved an arc in the air with his fingers wrapped around an imaginary handle, and then he looked at his hand as if he could see the knife. "The handle and the blade were fashioned from the same piece of iron. One of the Gypsies is now in Arison, beginning a sentence as long as he was old: twenty years."

Days after the murder of the music student, twenty-six houses in Bolintin Deal were destroyed or badly damaged, beginning the ripple of retaliation which was to gain momentum, rolling through neighbouring villages and eventually to distant parts of the country. A month later in next-door Bolintin Vale, eleven houses were destroyed, and later the same week, just down the road in Ogrezeni, another fourteen. All the houses belonged to Gypsies. In each case, the Romanian attackers were described as having moved through the village in a single swath, a creature soon so familiar as to seem organic: a low life-form, the mob – but one carrying burning sticks, and chanting.

In Bolintin Deal the mob had been methodical: the group had stopped and stood in a cluster like Christmas carolers outside each house, while the town electrician climbed the chimney and neatly clipped the roof cables so that an electrical fire would not catch and spread. Here, the Gypsies singled out were those who lived among the Romanians, as opposed to the greater number who kept to their own quarter just outside the town line. This was an unspontaneous sort of purge, as if the murder of the music student had been a long-awaited spur.

Three months after the attack, I climbed over the untouched rubble and poked around the ruins of Bolintin Deal, looking for clues about the people who had lived here. Children's debris caught my eye: a doll with one arm off, a strangely pristine pink slipper. I could feel people watching me, usually surreptitiously, but one stood still and directly in my sight path, waiting to be noticed. He had a fiat, bespectacled face, a defiant expression under a striped conductor's hat, and he clutched a pitchfork. His gaze, steady pale, unblinking, told me that as soon as I gave him my full attention he was going to sort me out about what had really happened here.

For the past thirty-three years, Yuri Fucanu had been Bolintin's lone mailman. He had moved here in 1956, the same year as Emilian's parents and most of the other Gypsies who'd lost their houses. This was, I think, a way of saying that as a newcomer himself he had not started with the local prejudices against his neighbours. He elaborated: "We went to each other's weddings." And then, "After the revolution, they became more and more uppity." He meant that the Gypsies had started to make money.

"I have been working for fifty years and still I cannot afford a car. These people are not human. They have four cars. They tore their house down and built a new one, just like that, a big one in the same place in five weeks. You see? They have cars just to play with. They spend all their time taking cars apart."

Most of the Gypsies who had been chased out of Bolintin had indeed made money in car dealing, a natural outgrowth of their traditional horse-trading talents, and one which had become big business since the collapse of the Eastern bloc. As in Bulgaria, it was also the Gypsies who ran the first privately owned cafés in town, two proud and cheerful establishments: neither was much more than a square of poured concrete with a few outside tables and a separate serving shack, but both were lovingly decorated – and in a single colour scheme, one lavender, one yellow right down to the napkins and fake flowers that crowded the small tabletops. The cafés should have been welcomed in this town, with its one gloomy communist-era youth club, but instead they were boycotted. This kind of behaviour provided a rich theme for many Romanian jokes about Romanians. In Bolintin, however, envy had been elevated to an inopportune principle; here the stealing that everyone every where associated with Gypsies was suddenly and unanimously associated with capitalism. "Property is theft," as Proudhon said; and now, whenever I see a reference to the nineteenth-century French philosopher, I see a chin less Romanian postman with a pitchfork and a striped conductor's hat.

If private property, free enterprise, and café life were new in Bolintin, the concept of theft certainly wasn't. "Under the communists, everyone stole," Mircea Oleandru, the local chief of police, told me. "If we and the Party hadn't permitted it [for the same policemen were still in charge here], there would have been an uprising. But in those days there were limits." Oleandru was a big man with a thin crescent-shaped deputy called Dragusin. They were cartoonishly well matched. "Yes," Deputy Dragusin piped in uncertainly, "when Romanians stole, it was only for food." And so, the pair seemed to be saying, the crime of the local Gypsies was greed, ambition, ostentation.

A Romanian woman whom we found picking plums along the road confirmed that everyone stole before the revolution. "Especially the police. And they stole mainly from the Gypsies. They accepted goods for favours, such as passports. Officials wouldn't accept bribes from a Romanian; they would be too afraid. But from a Gypsy? Who would believe a Gypsy if he reported it? I know this because I had a gold chain that my husband gave me on our wedding day. It was stolen, and I am absolutely sure it was stolen by a Gypsy woman who used to live right there." She waved over her shoulder, down the road. "And sure enough, later I saw it around the neck of the chief of police's wife.

"The Gypsies are clever" she conceded, with equal measures of con tempt and admiration. "Even as outcasts they profit. We Romanians don't have their guts. Here I am, picking plums for someone else. They pick these same plums to eat and the rest to sell for themselves. And who can stop them? The fire didn't help. Many of the Gypsies have returned, and they are maybe worse than before." Her hands were stained purple from the plums. As she spoke she rubbed her fingers steadily with a torn bit of rag, but the stain would not come off.


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