Ukraine’s Roma live in fear amid wave of nationalist attacks
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — After attackers charged into a Roma encampment on the outskirts of Kiev, beating the residents and chasing them away, a leader of an ultranationalist group posted photos of his colleagues clearing the site and burning tents left behind.
The camp’s former dwellers took off “after persuasive legal arguments,” Serhiy Mazur, an activist with the C14 organization, wrote on Facebook. Mazur added: “Further raids are planned.”
The April attack was the first of 11 forced removals that ultranationalists in Ukraine have carried out this year at settlements of Roma. Radical nationalist groups claimed responsibility for all of the raids and asserted they acted in concert with police. Police deny involvement.
“We were called garbage and dirt, kicked and driven off,” Aza Rustik, who fled during the first raid, said. “I just managed to grab the children and a bag with documents.”
During an especially vicious assault in a wooded area in western Ukraine, a gang armed with chains and pieces of metal pipe killed a 23-year-old man and injured four others outside the city of Lviv.
After the April camp invasion, C14′s Mazur was charged with hooliganism. Two lawmakers spoke on his behalf, and he was released to await trial under house arrest.
“I would like to hear from the police and the neighborhood administrative officials, who many times asked us for help,” he said when he appeared in court last month.
The attacks and the prospect of more violence are terrifying to Ukraine’s estimated 100,000 Roma.
“They threw stones at us, and when we jumped out of the tent, they beat us indiscriminately,” recalled Klara Gaga, a survivor of the fatal attack outside Lviv.
Four suspects were detained in the Lviv attack. Twelve people also were detained after Roma had guns fired at them in Ternopil; the suspects subsequently were released.
“Not a single person has been sentenced in attacks on the Roma in Ukraine. That illustrates better than any words the attitude of the authorities,” Zola Kondur, a leader of Roma organization Chiricli, said.
Representatives of extremist groups justify the actions by saying they liquidate illegal Roma settlements because authorities have not. Right-wing nationalist groups such as C14 have seen their popularity and power grow in recent years amid Ukraine’s confrontations with Russia and corruption-riddled domestic politics.
“State institutions are weak, the police are ineffective and the government is forced to resort more and more to the services of right-wing groups, giving them a carte blanche in return,” said Vadim Karasev, director of independent Kiev-based think tank Institute of Global Strategies.
Arthur Sokolov, who is the lead investigator in the Mazur case, rejected the C14 member’s claim that asked the group for help. He said he didn’t know anything about C14 ties with local authorities and police.
“There were no preliminary agreements between the police and other formations,” Sokolov he said in response to a question from The Associated Press about Mazur’s assertion.
But Eugene Savvateev, who for several years was involved in the training and integration of Roma children, alleged that police and the nationalists work together.
Savvateev said he heard from Roma that police drove them away when they returned to the former camp site to retrieve remaining belongings. They also recalled that C14 members accompanied local officials who visited the camp before it was destroyed, Savvateev said.
“The authorities do not want to dirty their hands, so they use C14,” he said. “Police came to the settlement after the attack to drive Roma away, and after that Roma certainly don’t trust police and believe they work in sync with the attackers.”
Animosity toward Roma — an ethnic group, also known as Gypsies, that faces discrimination and disdain in much of Europe — is high in Ukraine. Many residents say they resent messy Roma encampments and unsightly fixed settlements such as the Radvanka district in Uzhhorod, where houses made of stones, plywood and polystyrene resemble sheds and children play in piles of garbage.
“Roma remain the most impoverished and unprotected part of Ukrainian society,” Roma activist Myroslav Horvat, of the World Roma Organization in Uzhhorod, said. “The state declares in words the programs of integration and training of the Roma, but there is no money for it, and everything remains only on paper.”
Hunger, poverty and unemployment drive hundreds of Roma to try to earn money in the richer center of the country. During the warm months of the year, the work might consist of searching for scrap metal, trading goods and telling fortunes on the street.
“Gypsies in the cities — this is theft, robbery, drug trafficking and dirty dens,” read leaflets bearing the symbols of nationalist groups Natskorpus and Natsdruzhiny that have appeared in Ukraine’s major cities.
Western governments and international human rights groups have called on Ukrainian authorities to prosecute the perpetrators and stop turning a blind eye to violence against Roma.
“Most of the crimes committed by radical groups have not been properly investigated by law enforcement agencies that do not want or cannot conduct effective investigations, even if certain groups publicly take responsibility for crimes,” said Mariya Guryeva, an Amnesty International spokeswoman in Ukraine.
Government officials try to shift blame to Russia, alleging that it has sought to foment violence to destabilize Ukraine amid a tug-of-war between the two ex-Soviet neighbors.
“We understand that the Russians always try to play with so-called interethnic problems,” Security Service of Ukraine head Vasily Hrytsak said.
“The murders of the Roma were inspired by Russia,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said after the fatal Lviv attack.
Those who accuse Russia of organizing the raids have yet to present supporting evidence for their claims.
Yuras Karmanau reported from Minsk, Belarus.