AIM: start

SUN, 09 DEC 2001 01:15:46 GMT

Another Wave of Anti-Romany Violence

Who Threw Saban Mujaricic into the Fire?

The Humanitarian Law Fund claims that the overall condition of the Romanies has remained pretty much unchanged, if not worse, following the overthrow of the old regime in Serbia. Instances of discrimination against the Romanies abound: in employment policies, bans concerning their access to public swimming pools, restaurants, discotheques... Even the police seem to be prone to racism.

AIM Belgrade, November 29, 2001

In a series of violent attacks the Romanies are daily subjected to in Serbia, the most brutal one up to date took place on October 31. In a park in Belgrade, three youngsters intercepted Saban Mujaricic (36), a Romany refugee from Zavidovici presently living in Belgrade. Swearing and cursing his "Gypsy mother", they dragged him over to a nearby playground were a fire was already burning. They held him over the open fire for a few instants and then threw him into the flames Fortunately, the appearance of a red "yugo" driving by at the moment made them flee the scene and the driver managed to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher from his vehicle. Mujarcic was transported to the nearest hospital where the doctors diagnosed third degree burns all over his body.

Just a couple of days earlier, a gang of hoodlums broke into "Braca Stamenkovic" evening school beating up pupils, mostly Roma youths. The very next day, around twenty roughnecks once again stormed the courtyard of the selfsame school, picking out several somewhat "darker-tanned" pupils for the thrashing that ensued. Crime sections of local daily newspapers are full of reports of the sort. Skinhead attacks on Romany garbage collectors are so common here that they are news no more.

This spring, members of an hitherto unknown Belgrade skinhead organization entitled Blood & Honor came out of the closet by publicly declaring that they are responsible for the recent beatings of the Romanies and swastika-graffiti along the walls of institutions and organizations in Belgrade associated with the protection of Romany and Jewish minority rights. Their spokesmen even complained that the organization is being unwarrantably persecuted by the police, in spite of the fact that "we are all loyal Serb citizens", adding: "We have nothing in common with Hitler and the Nazi, other than sharing with them the wish to rid our country of the presence of other races."

Sadly, discriminatory practices against the Romany people are common enough in Serbia, capturing the attention of the public only in instances when they bring about tragic results such as was the murder of fourteen-year-old Romany boy Dusan Jovanovic, beaten to death in October 1997, by a gang of skinheads. The tragic event sparked loud protests in the general public with many joining the protests against the death of the innocent victim. The recent ghastly incident concerning the torching of Saban Mujaricic, unfortunately, merited but summary reports in the daily press. The police said an investigation was under way.

Although the skinheads are responsible for the vast majority of attacks on the Romanies, the society on the whole is also treating them in an unacceptable way. There are instances of discriminating practices in employment, racist bans on their access to public swimming pools, restaurants, discotheques... Commenting on such phenomena and the general attitude towards the Romanies, Dr. Dusan Janjic, director of the Forum for Ethnic Relations says that "all forms of racism are on the rise in the last five to six years. Racism is not openly propagated, but neither is it being prosecuted". According to him, researches carried out in Serbia in the past thirty odd years point to the existence of a significant ethnic distance regarding the Romanies: "The attitude towards them is neither positive nor extremely negative. People simply do not notice them - meaning that they have been pushed to the very margins of society".

During a recent round table on the occasion of the International Day Against Fascism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-Gypsy Prejudice (November 9), Petar Janjic of the Romany Centre for Minority Rights and Tatjana Pavlovic-Krizanic, a lawyer with the Humanitarian Law Fund, cited numerous examples of discrimination and violence directed at the Romanies (and, particularly, Romany children) which took place in Nis, Leskovac, Novi Sad, Belgrade, Sabac, Kursumlija... Tatjana Pavlovic-Krizanic pointed out that "the observation of the Humanitarian Law Fund is that after the change of power the situation of the Romany minority has remained unchanged, if not even deteriorating in some respects". According to her, by far in the worst position are the around 100 thousand Romany refugees from Kosovo: "They have not been registered anywhere, no records of them are being kept and so they have no way of acieving even their basic rights... Officials of the Refugee Commissariat go around their settlements often situated on the outskirts of towns amid garbage dumps, they are subjected to systematic torture both on the part of the citizens and on the part of the police... The sole aid they get from time to time comes from international Romany organizations and occasional humanitarian aid groups."

Taking part in the round table, Dragoljub Ackovic, director of the Romany Information and Documentation Centre, editor of the Radio Belgrade Romany Program and head of the Romany Congressional Party presented the document entitled "Anti-Gypsy Sentiment in Times Present" (media coverage of the violations of the rights of the Romanies in the past two years, a moving testimony of the sufferings of the local Romany population), pointing out that the document was a contribution to the world-wide struggle of the Romanies against the violation of their rights. "Of course, I personally prefer the term 'anti-Romany', but among the participants of the World Romany Congresses the term 'anti-Gypsy' has come into use, thus becoming a part of the official terminology."

"Our research shows that the ethnic distance between the Serbs and the Romanies who have been living side by side for eight centuries now is exceptionally big. The attitude of ethnic Hungarians and Romanians towards the Romanies is similar", says Dragoljub Ackovic. Thus, the aim of the ongoing struggle of the Romanies is the reassertion of the Romany culture, the securing of educational opportunities for their children equal to those of other children and the attainment of the minority status for their people. "Education is the pressing issue for the Romanies. Nearly 70 percent are illiterate, 30 percent have primary school education and only around 200 individuals hold college or university diplomas."

Only three percent of the Romany population hold a steady job. Thus the Romanies find themselves in a vicious circle - they cannot find a job because they are uneducated and they are uneducated because they lack the means for education... A fifth of Romany families have no earnings whatsoever, while the majority lives on earnings coming from the "grey economy". Their children have little choice but to become beggars or criminals...

In the past years, latent racism has a trend of turning into open racism practiced by the skinheads who claim they are not spreading racial hatred since it is "only normal" that they do not like those who have "mentally occupied us", as the Romanies have. "Under their influence our people have almost come to believe that it is normal to steal, lie and smuggle. With their subculture and music, they have dragged us back a hundred years", publicly and without a trace of doubt, one of the skinhead leaders expounds on his "pure-blood brand of Serb nationalism".

Sociologists point to the permeating atmosphere of aggressive nationalism in which these young men have grown up as one of the possible sources of their racism. It is perfectly possible that the skinheads had been equally intolerant towards other races - the Romanies in particular - beforehand, but they were perfectly aware that the public display of such aggressive behavior was strictly forbidden. In the meantime, the border-line between what is prohibited and that which is permitted has grown "dim" inducing some to conclude they were given tacit consent to openly manifest their intolerance towards the Romanies, Jews, homosexuals...

To make things worse, even those supposed to protect the Romanies from the violence and harassment directed at them on a daily basis - the police - are not immune to racism. Thus, apart from heavy beatings which seem to be a regular part of the police routine when the Romanies are concerned, there are reports of outright racist behavior. For instance, the Human Rights Committee from Leskovac has confirmed that at the end of January of this year, in a police raid in a Romany settlement in the village of Vinarce carried out in pursuit of illegal weaponry, the arrested Romanies were kept without food and water while mercilessly beaten for two days (their ordeal has been compared by some with the torture practiced in German concentration camps). The torture was meant to extort a confession from the detainees as to where the concealed weapons - which the police, incidentally, had not found - were. According to the defense lawyer of the arrested Romanies, apart from the fact that the raid was carried out without a search warrant, his clients were also exposed to unprecedented police brutality.

Among those tormenting them, the Romanies singled out two men for their extreme brutality: a police superintendent and an uniformed police officer. The superintendent alternately struck them with his police - issue baton, fists and feet, spicing the blows inflicted with curses directed at their "Gypsy mother-bitches". The uniformed police executioner excelled in verbal violence, repeatedly reminding his victims that he was "Worse than Hitler himself" when the Romanies and the Jews were concerned.

The Leskovac Secretariat of Internal Affairs (SUP), contested the testimonies of the Romanies and reports in the media by claiming that "none of the detainees were ever subjected to racial discrimination or in any other way exposed to racial or ethnic intolerance", noting that none of them - either in writing or otherwise - had reported any such offence to either the SUP in question or the Ministry of the Interior (MUP). The police confirmed that "the sought-after objects were not found". Lawyers with the Human Rights Committee from Leskovac have brought criminal charges against the police inspector and the police officer involved.

Although the propagation of ethnic, racial or religious hate is a criminal offence punishable by law, the judiciary rarely react to racist acts (with the exception of the murder of the fourteen-year old Romany boy, the first official victim of racism in Serbia after WW II) or, when they do, it usually turns out later on that the charges have to be dropped for lack of evidence. Evidently, the expectations of the Romanies that the change of power would bring about an improvement in their condition have not come true. They were surprised themselves with the outburst of skinhead rage during the month long exhibition "Citizens of Belgrade - the Romanies in Belgrade From the Beginning of the 20th Century to the Present" held in "Rex" cultural center which was plastered with posters and graffiti swarming with abusive language and insults directed at the Romanies and the Jews.

Nevertheless, Dragoljub Ackovic believes that things are starting to change and that the new authorities have understanding for the difficulties the Romanies are facing. As an illustration, he points out the public apology of President Kostunica to the Jews and the Romanies after insulting graffiti had flooded the streets of Belgrade: "President Kostunica is the first ever president to have attended a gathering of ours and to have received a Romany delegation in order to discuss our long-standing problems".

Resolute condemnation of anti-Semitism and racism in Serbia coming from the president, both federal and state ministries and all political parties except the Radical Party is, indeed, a significant indicator of the changed attitude of the new authorities, according to sociologist Laslo Sekelj. To his mind, what now remains to be done is "that, as opposed to the previous practice, MUP finally start instituting inquests and bringing charges against the perpetrators in earnest and that the district attorney’s office - as opposed to the last ten years - recollects that there is such a thing as the Law on fighting ethnic intolerance, finally bringing to justice the authors and publishers of anti-Semitic and racist pamphlets". New graffiti appearing on Belgrade walls following the apology of President Kostunica, labeling him as the "patron of Gypsies and Jews" proved precisely how right Sekelj was. Once again, the police was nowhere to be heard.

That Serbia is still a long way off from a state of law and order it aspires to becomes obvious when the report of the Humanitarian Law Fund on the implementation of the UN Convention Against Torture in the period following October 5 is taken into consideration. Among other things, the report points to the fact that "police in FRY are particularly prone to racial prejudice, especially regarding the ethnic Albanian and Romany population." Numerous instances of violations of the civic rights of the members of the said ethnic communities have been documented both by the Fund and the Romany Minority Rights Center.

The report also indicates that - notwithstanding the change of power - the district attorney’s offices have, for the most part, remained passive: "On the whole, district attorneys rarely act on their on initiative in indicting the perpetrators of criminal acts or in deciding on charges brought about by the victims of police brutality... In rare instances when they do examine complaints against the police, this usually ends up with them rejecting the charges solely by virtue of testimonies to the contrary of the policemen involved. "Several cases wherein the police - instead of instituting an inquest against policemen accused of unwarranted use of power - have in turn brought charges against the victims are also cited in the report.

Interestingly, the report also notes that "senior officials of MUP, in contrast to what was customary prior to the overthrow of the former regime, now have a tendency to publicly contend particular accusations of human rights violations cited by various NGO organizations. If this proves to be impossible due to obvious and incontestable evidence, they then profess that the case is to be ‘thoroughly investigated’. What makes things easier for the police is the fear - particularly on the part of the Romanies - that criminal charges against them are bound to result in revenge".

The refusal to take notice of the sufferings of the Romanies is not a Serbian specialty. But, because the overall position of the Romanies, particular instances of intolerance towards them and the general social context in Serbia differ significantly from the social circumstances in other Eastern European countries, their impact might prove to be even more dangerous. Perhaps that is why the most prominent Romany activist in Serbia, Dragoljub Ackovic, is not overly optimistic, although hopeful of the good the newly proposed Law on Minority Rights might bring to the plight of his people for attaining the status of an ethnic minority and the possibility of resolving long-standing difficulties weighing his people down. Nevertheless, he is fully aware of the "excruciatingly hard social circumstances of the Romany population", a ballast weighing down on all attempts to further the cause of the Romany population in Serbia.