Hungary’s Roma: Living on the edge

Roma killers face justice, but the community still suffers from poverty and social exclusion.

Women and children of Roma origins leave

Budapest, Hungary – Following the Roma serial killings trial over a case that struck fear into the community, Hungary’s largest minority still faces exclusion, threats and violence.

Were it not for one particular house, the village of Tatarszentgyorgy – located 60 kilometres southeast of Budapest – would otherwise be an unremarkable place. On a scorching Saturday afternoon, the tree-lined streets are almost deserted and the air is still, apart from the gentle cascade of sprinklers watering the lawns and the exclamations of children playing in back yards.

But towards the edges of town, where the entrance to a Roma community is noticeable by the sound of roosters, one of Hungary’s darkest shadows is cast.

Erzsebet Csorba speaks calmly as she describes how she woke up to the sound of gunshots in the middle of a snowy February night, four years ago. As she ran out into the garden, she saw the home of her son Robert ablaze, with him and her grandson lying outside – drenched in blood.

The roof had been firebombed with a Molotov cocktail and the man and his son were shot dead as they tried to escape the flames. When the police arrived on the scene, they first dismissed it as an electrical fire. Robert Jr was four and a half years old, his body riddled with bullets.

Today the ruined shell of the house still stands, a grim daily reminder of the tragedy that Csorba sees every time she steps out of her door.

Hungarian men jailed over Roma killings

“Now I have become used to it,” she said. “But it is impossible to forget what happened. In the beginning, I couldn’t even leave the house.”

Spate of killings

The killings in Tatarszentgyorgy marked one in a series of racist attacks against Roma families in villages across Hungary in 2008 and 2009. Six people were killed and more than 50 injured. Four suspects were arrested in August 2009 and, last week, Arpad Kiss, Istvan Kiss and Zsolt Peto were found guilty of murder and received life sentences without parole. The fourth suspect, Istvan Csontos, who acted as a driver in the last two killings, was jailed for 13 years.

Two of the accused had strong links to the underground skinhead culture and espoused neo-Nazi ideology. Prosecutors claimed that the gang’s aim was to provoke a violent reaction from the Roma and initiate inter-ethnic conflict.

“My son had a job at a furniture factory and he worked until his last days,” said Csorba. “I don’t understand why they targeted us – we are normal, we worked and the house is well-appointed. And even if we weren’t normal, there is no justification for this.”

The Roma constitute approximately seven to eight percent of Hungary’s 10 million people, though this percentage may be higher. After the fall of Communism, many Roma became impoverished as the factories that employed them closed, and the traditional services they had provided became mass-produced. Most Roma here lived in small, ramshackle dwellings often lacking electricity or running water, located on the periphery of town centres and on the fringes of society.

There is a church here, but if you enter as a gypsy you are looked down upon. Sometimes it seems as if there is one god for Hungarians and one god for Roma.

by Erzsebet Csorba

Zoltan Kovacs, the state secretary for social inclusion, was keen to point out that the killings did not happen during the watch of Fidesz, the ruling right-wing party that came to power in 2010.

“It was a shame and a symptom of the moral decay of the working of the police and of local communities, which was so characteristic of the previous [Socialist] government,” he said. “Neither in its number nor in its ratio are these phenomena in Hungary higher than the rest of Central Europe, not to mention Western Europe.”

Discrimination common

The EU is home to around six million Roma and discrimination is widespread, though in recent years Hungary has witnessed an increase in uniformed, paramilitary vigilante groups such as the Hungarian Guard, who have organised torch-lit patrols in their neighbourhoods, shouting threats and, in some cases, committing physical assaults.

The Hungarian Guard was banned in July 2009, only to emerge under a different name and its founder, Gabor Vona, is now the leader of the far-right nationalist Jobbik party. Jobbik won 17 percent of the popular vote in the 2010 elections, campaigning on an anti-Roma platform.

Over the past few years, a vehemently anti-Roma discourse – once the preserve of the far-right – has become more common in Hungarian society. Earlier this year, in the conservative newspaper Magyar Hirlap, columnist Zsolt Bayer wrote:

“A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved – immediately and regardless of the method.”

Bayer is also a founding architect of the ruling Fidesz party, and an ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Outrage and condemnation of his comments by the government was notable by its absence.

During its six-month tenure holding the EU Council presidency in 2011, Hungary made Roma issues a priority – but according to Dezideriu Gergely, executive director of the European Roma Rights Centre, the dilemma was not adequately tackled.

Roma education scheme at risk

“You have a government that on one hand advocates improving the Roma situation as a policy, but the official statements on the Roma relate only to poverty,” Gergely said. “The whole discussion about the Roma is that they are extremely poor, and therefore there is a need to respond to that – but the government doesn’t see any link between discrimination and social exclusion. For the Hungarian government, this is not a human rights problem.”

Segregation between Roma and non-Roma is rife in schools in the country’s north and east, and in mixed schools, Roma children are often placed in special needs classes.

Social exclusion

Csorba sees these tensions first-hand. “Before the murders, things were not perfect here, but after the tragedy it got even worse. Instead of creating solidarity with us, it divided everyone even more,” she explained. “People from the village barely came to light a candle at the cemetery, and the kids’ teacher at school grew impatient when they were distracted. There is a church here, but if you enter as a gypsy you are looked down upon. Sometimes it seems as if there is one god for Hungarians and one god for Roma.”

The tarmac road leading out of Tatarszentgyorgy shimmers under the baking August sun. Further north, 180 kilometres away in the town of Ozd, the local council recently disconnected and reduced the pressure of water pumps that serve mostly Roma communities, claiming they could not afford to maintain them and accusing residents of wasting supplies. Hundreds of locals were forced to queue for hours in the 40-degree Celsius heat to eke out a trickle of water.

Above where Csorba sits, colourful photos of her son and grandson adorn the wall. The trial has been an exhausting and painful process lasting more than two years. Earlier this year her husband died from a heart attack that she attributes to grief. The verdict brings her little reassurance.

“There are sometimes people hanging out here at night, next to the house, just standing and watching,” she said.

“We told the police but they do only do rounds intermittently. I don’t know who they are or what they want, but they are keeping the whole family in fear.”

Follow Andrew Connelly and Helene Bienvenu on Twitter.

Source: Al Jazeera