New wall splits Roma from 'white' Czechs

A commission to improve the lot of Europe's Roma will meet for thefirst time this month.

Central Europe's most controversial construction is an unassuming wall in this impoverished industrial town north of Prague.

Barely 7 feet high and painted in pale yellow and brown, the wall along Maticni Street has been condemned by European officials as a "wall of shame" that is drawing new dividing lines 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

On one side is a rundown housing project inhabited predominantly by dark-skinned Roma, or Gypsies; across the street are the row houses of white Czech homeowners.

Since the construction of the wall in October, the Czech government has rushed to intervene in an issue that started as a dispute between neighbors but has become a symbol for continuing discrimination against Roma in Central and Eastern Europe.

"The problem is not the look or size of the wall," says Jiri Pehe, a political adviser to Czech President Vaclv Havel in Prague. "It's become such an issue that even if the city had built a little thing, it would still be a symbol of racial segregation."

For centuries the Roma, originally from India, have traveled across Europe, attracting curiosity - and often harassment - for their nomadic way of life. In a little recognized chapter of the Holocaust, the Nazis sent tens of thousands of Roma to the death camps.

Czechoslovakia's Communist government banned the nomadic lifestyle of the Roma in 1958 and tried to integrate them into mainstream society by giving them apartments and menial jobs, often redundant in the command economy.

Despite their improved situation, however, the Roma faced ingrained suspicion among the majority population. When communism collapsed 10 years ago, the Roma were among the first to lose their jobs.

The construction of the wall on Maticni Street, following a record exodus of Czech and Slovak Roma this year, underscores the continuing plight of the region's Roma.

Building a wall

Originally the white Czechs on Maticni Street complained about noise and garbage emanating from the housing project, which had been set aside by the city of Usti for rent-delinquent families, mostly poor Roma. The city at first decided to build a 12-foot high "sound barrier" along the street, then backed down and built the current wall, which is open on one end and has three doors.

"Usti created a ghetto of the worst social cases, and now they're very surprised when they have social problems," says Mr. Pehe. "I think most Czechs don't realize that it was the majority population that created the Romany problem by forcing an ethnic group with a very specific historical and cultural identity to live in city dwellings."

Because of their poor level of education and marginal existence, Roma are disproportionately represented in crime statistics, a fact that reinforces common stereotypes among white Czechs. Often Roma are simply referred to as "blacks."

Pavel Tosovsky, the mayor of the Usti district where Maticni Street is located, dismisses charges of racism. "It's very fashionable in the Czech Republic to talk about human rights. It's the purpose of certain people like Vaclv Havel," he says, sitting in his office under the official portrait of the Czech president. "The people who actually live there didn't protest. The protest came from people we call professional Gypsies."

Roma lobby the city

The central government in Prague, as well as Roma activists, have been pressuring the city to reconsider its decision and have threatened to take legal action. Yet Mr. Tosovsky, as well as white residents on Maticni Street, consider the wall an improvement.

"It looks better now, and that's the opinion of most people here," says Jana Lachmanova, a resident of the neighborhood for 40 years. "If they tear down the wall, they'll have to do something for us, after all we're taxpayers."

Ms. Lachmanova says that because of the rats that roamed the street and her loud Romany neighbors, the property value of her home has plummeted.

Stanislav Daniel, himself a Rom and an adviser on minorities to the Czech interior minister, says that the problem of Maticni Street started as a social problem. "But I can't agree to a situation where poor people are fenced in," he says. "It would have helped if these people had been spread out in various districts. This wall is not going to solve the problem of noise or how people behave."

The key to the problem, says Mr. Daniel, is education. For decades Romany children have regularly been sent to schools for the mentally handicapped, mainly because of their poor Czech language skills. As a result, few have been able to attain better-paying jobs. Currently the Czech government's human rights commissioner, Petr Uhl, is drafting a law guaranteeing equal opportunity in education, housing, and employment. Yet Mr. Uhl stresses that "coexistence with Roma is a European problem. We want to stabilize them. They have to feel at home and secure here."

Roma flee the region

Citing discrimination, hundreds of Romany families from the Czech Republic and Slovakia have applied for political asylum in the West, causing Norway to become the fourth Western European country to reimpose visa requirements for Slovak citizens and Britain threatening the Czech Republic with the same.

Recently the Czech president and his Slovak counterpart, Rudolf Schuster, announced a bilateral initiative to address the problems of their Romany populations. The joint commission, scheduled to meet for the first time this month, will begin coordinating transborder projects focused on improving the situation of Europe's forgotten minority.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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