Roma’s murder by far right reveals deep wounds in Ukraine

David Popp, 23, was stabbed to death by ultranationalist attackers in the latest bout of racist violence in Ukraine.

Roma''s Murder in Ukraine Raises Spectre of Impunity
David Popp was attacked on the night of June 23, while he slept in a shantytown on the outskirts of Lviv [Anya Denysenko/Al Jazeera]

Serne, Ukraine – A horse-drawn wagon heading a large procession delivers David Popp’s body to its final resting place, a graveyard beside a cornfield in a Roma settlement.

A framed photograph of the 23-year-old and a handful of flowers sit on his coffin.

During the service on Thursday, mourners, speaking in a mix of Hungarian, Russian and Ukrainian, raise their hands to the sky and ask painful questions.

One week ago, Popp was trying to eke out a living collecting plastic bottles and scrap metal.

“Why did you attack us?” cries out one man, against a backdrop of keening women.

Popp was killed by suspected far-right nationalist gang members on June 23, a murder that has raised renewed questions about extremism and impunity in Ukraine.

He was attacked in the night as he slept in a shantytown on the outskirts of Lviv, a regional centre, where he and other Roma from the western Ukrainian region of TransCarpathia had migrated, according to police documents and witness reports.

Raja Popp, a 19-year-old relative of David, a 30-year-old mother and her 10-year-old son, were also wounded, sources told Al Jazeera.

“He was always going back and forth to Lviv [for work],” Ivan Balog, a Roma pastor from the Transcarpathian city of Uzhgorod, tells Al Jazeera.

Describing Popp as a hard-working, community-minded, young man, he adds: “He always said he wanted to do something beneficial for his village. He wanted to bring in electricity.”

It had been Popp’s dream to save enough money to hook up houses in Serne, which were off-grid.

The Roma's murder in Ukraine has raised the spectre of impunity [Anya Denysenko/Al Jazeera]
The Roma’s murder in Ukraine has raised the spectre of impunity [Anya Denysenko/Al Jazeera]

On the night of the attack, a group of masked men carrying knives and chains surrounded the shelters the Roma had built for themselves in a wooded area, ripped through the walls of the dwellings, and began assaulting the sleepers, according to sources.

Popp succumbed on the spot to stab wounds to the head and chest, according to Miroslav Horvat, a Roma activist and city councillor from Uzhgorod, who saw the corpse.

“There were big holes in his head,” he says.

Police arrested seven young men, aged 16 and 17, and later apprehended a presumed ringleader, aged 20, who had fled the scene.

They are acting on the hypothesis that the case may involve young people with a radicalised political ideology, Svetlana Dobrovoltsa, a spokeswoman with the Lviv Police Department, tells Al Jazeera.

‘This attack is by no means the first’

Hungarian-speaking Roma from TransCarpathia are among the most marginalised and impoverished segments of Ukrainian society. 

Stories of families moving to cities to collect recyclables and live in shantytowns are common. 

So too, especially recently, are stories of racist attacks.

When pressed for answers, Dobrovoltsa is emphatic that police are doing “everything in our power to protect the Roma”.

“The police reaction was instantaneous,” she says. “We arrived on time. The participants were arrested, and we brought the organiser to a police station in a few hours.”  

Rights groups have recognised the police’s quick response, on this occasion.

“The police in fact reacted speedily and effectively in this specific case,” Maria Guryeva, Amnesty International spokesperson, wrote in an email. “However, this attack is by no means the first, and in previous cases effective measures were not taken and no investigation was taken.

“Impunity is the principal reason for the growth in the number of [these] attacks.”

On June 14, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders released an open letter addressed to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, and General Prosecutor Yuri Lutsenko, condemning rising hate crimes in Ukraine and impunity.

Women wail at the funeral of David Popp, who was killed in his sleep by suspected ultranationalists [Anya Denysenko/Al Jazeera]
Women wail at the funeral of David Popp, who was killed in his sleep by suspected ultranationalists [Anya Denysenko/Al Jazeera]

A small and angry group of independent, non-Roma solidarity activists marched through central Lviv on Wednesday, three days after the murder, chanting, “Nazis are around, and the state is protecting them”, among other slogans.

In the two-month period before Popp was killed, at least four attacks on Roma shantytowns were carried out near Ukrainian cities, according to witness reports and accounts in local media – two in Kiev, one near Lviv, and one near Ternopil.

The Kiev attacks were claimed and documented on the websites of Ukrainian groups with far-right associations. 

On April 20, members of a group known as S14, which began as the youth wing of the Svoboda Party – which has seats in Ukraine’s Parliament, threw stones, deployed pepper spray, and set fire to shelters in a camp that housed 30 Roma. 

Later, on June 7, in an attack which was live-streamed on video, members of a uniformed militia group known as “Natsionalnyi Druzhiny” destroyed a partly evacuated Roma camp in another part of Kiev with mallets and axes.

S14 also participated in this second attack and distributed derogatory leaflets about Roma.

Despite the publicised nature of these attacks, and the fact that two police officers appear in the live-streamed video of the June 7 attack, Kiev police have made no arrests.

A local media report also shows that S14 was recently awarded a grant of 440,000 grivnyas ($16,600) from the Ukrainian government to run a summer camp.

When approached for an explanation, the Kiev police department did not answer Al Jazeera’s question by the time of publication.

We are not guilty; the government is guilty.

by Ivan Balog, Roma pastor

Further muddying the politics of the reaction to Popp’s murder is the insinuation in a recent press conference by Avakov, the interior minister, that the killing may have been organised from Russia in an effort to discredit Ukraine.

Additionally, many Ukrainian far-right organisations, including S14 are viewed as patriots by some sections of Ukrainian society for their activities – real or exaggerated – during the Maidan Revolution against Ukraine’s former Russia-backed president. 

Back in Serne, the circumstances that prompted Popp and others to migrate to the cities are evident.

From a nearby village, the settlement is accessed by a battered and potholed two-kilometre stretch of road, most houses seem to consist of one or two rooms, and small-scale agriculture is the only form of work.

Popp’s father, 40-year-old Farko, had also left the country to find work. 

At his son’s graveside, he tells Al Jazeera through an interpreter that he had been working in Hungary at the time of the murder. 

David had always wanted to make money to build a house in Serne, he said.

As the coffin is lowered into the ground to the sound of weeping, several speakers have their say. 

“Ukraine has been so oppressing that we have to go work in other countries,” says Balog, the pastor, his voice cresting. “Give us work so that we don’t have to run to Kiev, and go every which way.

“We are not guilty; the government is guilty.”

Source: Al Jazeera