OBITUARY: An Ambassador recalls Laszlo Bogdan
I wonder what took me so long to compose a few words in his memory for my best Roma friend in Hungary who affectionately called me his brother. And then I realize that all these two weeks of his passing away have gone by in deep remorse, as I could not come to terms with the reality that the ebullient young Mayor of Cserdi, Laszlo Bogdan, was no more.
It’s just like yesterday, a bright sunny afternoon of early September six years ago, that I first met him during a visit to Baranya County, 25 kms from Pecs in southwestern Hungary, where Cserdi is located. I was accompanied by a Hungarian-speaking professor of the University of Pecs who had worked extensively on agriculture in that region and had been acquainted with Bogdan’s work, and therefore wanted me to start my work on the Roma by meeting him.
We met Mayor Bogdan in his sparse office with accounting papers hanging up all over it, which I later understood were the personal account details of the village people which the Mayor had hung up after examining them himself to show them the importance of savings and making expenditures from their incomes. Bogdan was visibly excited to meet an Ambassador, perhaps one of the few that he was meeting and certainly the very first Indian Ambassador he had met in Hungary. His childlike impatience, boyish charm and engrossing talk endeared him to me.
Many more meetings, site visits, interviews and interactions with the inhabitants of Cserdi were to follow in my subsequent visits to the village in April and June of the following year, the last one with an Indian professor working on marginalized communities in India with the Corvinus University at Budapest (where I had registered as a PhD student to study about the Roma). Following our three-day stay in the village we had written a joint paper with Cserdi as a case study which was later published by the University journal.
Over the course of all my visits the village had grown on me, as I was enthralled by what I was seeing, an eco-sensitive agricultural village built to near perfection on a community self-development-governance-empowerment model, something that I had yet to see in any other village in Hungary, and least of all in a predominantly Boyash Roma village of 400-odd inhabitants under the leadership of a self-taught mayor who had held office uninterruptedly since 2006.
Laci, as he was known to his friends and admirers, believed in leading by example. Starting the day very early, he conducted a morning session every day with the village folk, meticulously distributing work among them, after which each person took up their responsibility and marched to the fields for the day. Besides traditional cultivation consisting mainly of potatoes, (nearly 65 tons of potatoes were annually harvested), the village grew paprika, tomato, green pepper and onion over a 3500 sq. meter greenhouse which the mayor took pride in showing. Greenhouse cultivation was his innovation for his village, so developing fertility in the soil through bio-degradable inputs was also the subject of study in the nearby educational and research centres. But all this did not happen overnight. He once related to me a story about how he had to pawn his father’s watch to buy a sack of potato seeds with which he started potato farming, and the rest was history.
Subsequently he introduced agro-processing by producing tomato ketchup, lemon and pepper pickles, and even processed food like burgers (sold under the ‘Romaburger’ brand), grilled meat and lecso (a delicious local dish made of ratatouille). Vegetables and agro-products were sent out to the nearby markets of Pecs, sometimes as far as Budapest, and sold. That added to the collective income of the village, which was judiciously spent on developing infrastructure. In time a playground, a community centre, a library, a friendship bridge (symbolizing friendship between all peoples for social harmony) and a visitors’ reception centre came up there with very little state support, though the mayor did not hesitate to ask for EU funding occasionally for bigger projects. For this he had a well-trained staff whom he had groomed to carry out all the administrative duties.
The village vehicle went around delivering the produce in gunny bags inscribed with the slogan “I am a human being, not a gypsy”. This, as I was to understand very soon, was his motto for life. Fighting the social discrimination, prejudice, and poverty of which he had been a hapless victim, seeing hard days growing up as the child of a miner who lost work along with thousands working in the coal mines of Pecs after the Soviets left, he had learnt the values of education and skill-building very early and knew that those were to remain abiding values in life and would develop intelligence and dignity in the Romani people, the much-despised cigany, value with which they could have the strength to fight pervasive social evils.
Putting a complete end to crime and unemployment in the village, which had been rampant there until he became the mayor, he became the role model for the village, giving interviews and talks by the dozens, and soon became the poster boy of the Roma community in the mainstream media. By his own admission he used to deliver nearly 100 lectures every two months all around his region and beyond, mostly in Roma villages and organized workshops for Roma mayors, whom he thought were ill-prepared to face the onerous tasks which lay ahead. I had seen adoring school children, even from faraway places, thronging the village and crowding him for discussions on his experience of completely transforming Cserdi. He reveled in that as he proudly talked about the “Cserdi miracle”. Soon he found himself visiting Germany at the invitation of the German Parliament and delivering a talk at the Bundestag on the Cserdi success story. He also visited Vienna, where he spoke at elite gatherings, besides travelling all over Hungary giving talks to curious academics and researchers trying to understand the “Cserdi miracle”.
I had several occasions to meet him in my office, including once when he was invited to a day-long seminar on Roma inclusion and empowerment organized in collaboration with Corvinus University, where he spoke spellbound to the distinguished gathering about his life experiences, vignettes of a memorable life made more worthwhile by his vision, ambition and daring. In his very last meeting with me at my office, the day before my term was ending, he said, “Your visits to my village have given me hope, inspiration and strength to keep marching forward,” lamenting at the same time the stigmatization and ignorance still attached to the Roma. He took it as his personal mission to challenge all social evils, squarely calling it a “Bogdan-centric” movement. Without coming into the political crosshairs or being politically incorrect, notwithstanding several offers of enticement coming his way from political quarters, he was determined to fight corruption, both personal as well as institutionalized, till his last breath. Shaking my hands one last time, he said, “I’ll fade away one day, but the Roma as a whole will receive all the attention they deserve.”
The poignancy of his words hit me hard as a silent tear escaped the corner of my eye, weighed down as I was by emotion, with the feeling that I may never get to see him again.
Conspiracy theories abound: Was his suicide due to unrequited love, cancer (of which I knew nothing, nor did any of his associates, as I understand) or to mental ill health, having encountered unfavorable odds at every turn of his life, which he had so dexterously converted into opportunities? Even in the face of physical assault and stone pelting for his daring invitation to refugee families to find shelter in Cserdi, he had stood firm, despite being castigated by the same media which had once upheld his boldness as exemplary.
The voice of one recipient of Hungary's Wallenberg Award for 2020 “for setting an example for humanism” and for his “contribution to peaceful coexistence of minority and majority society” has been silenced forever. The voice which boomed from the rostrum of the United Nations, to the appreciation of the representatives of diverse nations in Africa and Europe, at last found its apogee in silence. Sitting at my desk thousands of miles away, it all seems so surreal. A man who had refused to accept defeat all his life had to ultimately fall to the shocks of racism and depression by taking his own life, and in the final instance, he had to be consumed by the dark forces of negativity. The world he lived in was perhaps not worth living in anymore.
In my reverie, I place a bunch of white flowers on his grave, close to the village church he had shown me around, and leave a card for him marked, “To my friend forever, may his struggle never go in vain”.
Rest in peace, my brother, you deserve much more in the afterlife than you ever did while you were alive.
Malay Mishra was the Ambassador of India to Hungary from September 2013 to July 2015 and is currently researching the marginalized communities of Hungary and India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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