When we arrived in Kiev, Ukraine’s picturesque capital, there was tension in the air. The ongoing war with Russian-backed separatists, almost a thousand kilometres to the east, had profoundly affected the atmosphere, and it was no surprise to see large groups of men in paramilitary uniform on the streets.
Combined with the relentless rise of right-wing demagogues, which seems to be a feature of much of Eastern Europe these days, it had created a climate of ultra-nationalism and disturbing levels of xenophobia.
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In a country that suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis during the second world war, the unthinkable had started to happen: pogroms against an ethnic minority, in this case, the Roma, have somehow become commonplace.
The C14 affair
It all began in April 2018 (on a day that many members of the far-right still mark as Hitler’s birthday) when a neo-Nazi group calling itself C14 launched a violent assault on a temporary Roma camp in a park in Kiev.
Mobile phone footage showing women and children fleeing the attackers soon went viral on the internet.
Lesia Kharchenko, from Amnesty International, tracked the tweets that followed, “Roma people were just taken out of their homes and they had to run away. They were attacked by a group of young people who had gas sprays and other things, but because nobody had died at that time, there was not a lot of reaction from the state and then there were other attacks.”
The C14 affair and the apparent impunity of those responsible inspired other neo-Nazi groups and, before long, a vicious wave of anti-Roma raids began to sweep across the country.
The first fatality came at another temporary camp on the outskirts of Lviv one night in June when 24-year-old David Popp was stabbed to death by knife-wielding youths. His widow, Iboya, showed us the wounds she received that night.
“There were 17 of us who were stabbed,” she told us. “When they were stabbing David my mind went blank. I didn’t understand anything … I was crying: ‘Don’t hurt the child! Don’t! He’s a child!'”
Uniquely in this unfolding crisis, police did at least arrive and arrest the culprits.
However, the alarming truth is that, on a number of other occasions, not only have the police stood by and allowed such attacks to take place but, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in some cases, they have actually participated.
‘They don’t see it any more. They’re so used to discrimination’
A recent OHCHR paper entitled Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine describes raids on Roma communities during which “police were physically aggressive; beating people, damaging or destroying private possessions, and treating the Roma in a humiliating manner.”
Most of Ukraine’s estimated 250,000 Roma are fully integrated into mainstream society but many still endure shocking levels of poverty, particularly in the Transcarpathia region, 800 kilometres south-west of the capital, where the inhabitants of most Roma settlements speak Hungarian.
It is from within these communities that small groups of families migrate to Ukraine’s more prosperous cities in search of seasonal work, setting up temporary camps and sending money home, just as their parents and grandparents have done before them. But in the current climate, such people have become targets of ultra-right paramilitaries – attacks usually justified in typically contemptuous terms.
If you will go to a Roma community and you ask: 'Do you face discrimination in your everyday life?' they will not even be able to answer because they don't see it any more. They are so used to it.
“These conflicts with the Roma nationality always take place because the Roma mostly live by robbery … without work, by drug trade, by fraud,” says Ilya Kiva, a former paramilitary and presidential candidate in next year’s election, when we meet him at his headquarters in downtown Kiev. “They must be taught to live according to the law of the country in which they live. That’s it.”
Such views are not uncommon in Ukraine.
“When we speak about the Roma situation in Ukraine, it’s the same as is in many European countries, the challenges and the problems are the same … the stereotypes that the majority of the population have towards Roma, and its influence on their relations with society,” says Zola Kondur, of the Coalition of Roma NGOs.
She believes that prejudice is now so prevalent that it has become the norm.
“If you will go to a Roma community and you ask: ‘Do you face discrimination in your everyday life?’ they will not even be able to answer because they don’t see it any more. They are so used to it.”
Forgotten by the state
It is to one of these Roma communities – in Transcarpathia – that we go next.
The first thing you notice when entering the Roma settlement on the outskirts of the city of Berehove is the wall that surrounds it. On the outside it appears to be a typical Ukrainian locale, the sort you are likely to find anywhere in this part of Eastern Europe; on the inside, it’s as if you’ve entered another world, one populated by malnourished children and gaunt, prematurely aged adults.
Horses and carts clunk along the pothole-filled roads, passing grimy ramshackle dwellings thrown together from pieces of discarded timber.
The narrow streets are squalid and filthy, Dickensian even; to find such deprivation in a modern European country is deeply shocking. Nevertheless, it seems that the inhabitants of this miserable shanty town have been forgotten by the state. Most are unregistered, apparently uncared for, without any documents or status as citizens – though, of course, citizens is what they are.
A Ukrainian parliamentarian, Iryna Suslova, has tried to agitate for change and action on their behalf but admits it’s an uphill struggle.
“If they have no documents they won’t get [an] education. They can’t get medical help. They can’t get hired. So, they have no resources to live a normal way of life.”
Unsurprisingly, there is much sickness here and life expectancy is considerably lower than elsewhere in Ukraine. According to Olena Rovza, the community’s nurse (in effect the sole health provider for seven thousand inhabitants), “children and adults often suffer from cold-related diseases and tuberculosis.”
Small wonder then, that so many from here want to migrate to the suburbs of Kyiv, Odessa and Lviv, albeit on a temporary basis, to earn a little money – or even to beg if they have no other choice.
Chilling echoes of the past
But since the attacks began, most Roma migrants have fled the cities and returned to Transcarpathia. Yet, even in places like Berehove, there is danger.
While we were filming there, we came across Amelia Rakoshi, an elderly woman carrying a photograph of her daughter through the muddy streets and crying inconsolably.
She invited us back to her shack where she described how her daughter Isabela had been brutally killed just a short distance from the Roma settlement. An unknown assailant had cut her throat.
Amelia wasn’t hopeful of getting justice any time soon.
“Here the police have a strong bond, they are not interested in this case. When I asked them about the investigation into my daughter’s murder, they said there was no one in the office. Another day they said they were all on holiday. They cover for each other and they are not interested in my case at all.”
The authorities’ refusal to treat this murder as a hate crime, Amelia’s neighbours told us, is just another example of how Ukraine’s Roma community has been abandoned by the state.
education. They can’t get medical help. They can’t get hired. So, they have no resources to live a normal way of life.”]
Of course, it is only fair to point out that many Ukrainians find these attacks as abhorrent as anyone else might and would like the government to do more to stop them.
But it is also true that it is hard to find articles in the Ukrainian media that don’t reinforce the negative stereotypical view that a distressingly large section of the public here seem to have of the Roma as drug pushers, petty criminals and beggars.
Intolerance has become disturbingly deeply embedded and so it is perhaps no surprise where that has led.
It is why, too, some believe that the recent events in Ukraine carry all-too chilling echoes of last century’s horrors.
In September, Dr Boris Zabarko, chairman of the Ukrainian Holocaust survivors’ association, led the Babi Yar memorial walk – a candle-lit procession to remember the tens of thousands – mostly Jews, but also many Roma and others – murdered by German Nazis and Ukrainian police at the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev.
Zabarko, who lived through those awful times, is acutely aware of the danger now facing Ukraine and the disturbing parallels with the past.
“Unfortunately, there were a lot of such pogroms in our history. If they had been stopped at the time, then maybe we wouldn’t have had the pogroms in 1941,” he says. “If they had been stopped and condemned back then, then maybe today there would not be such intolerance by some people towards others.”