Commentary: In Czech Republic, Romani evictees reunite in their old neighborhood
On the occasion of the two-year anniversary of the authorities announcing to the residents of Přednádraží Street that they had to move out of their homes, an open meeting was held in the neighborhood on Saturday, 2 August by the former residents, their acquaintances and friends. More than 300 people, including the families who were the last to leave the neighborhood last July, gathered among the decrepit buildings to mark the anniversary.
The Přednádraží locality, which today is so empty and ravaged, still evokes a lot of spirit from its original occupants, who gathered on Saturday at the site of their shared memories. The magic of the place was reawakened there once again.
That was the intention of the organizers of the event - to show that even two years later, these people still have a strong tie to that place. The official start of the event was planned for 5 PM, but at 2 PM, when our group from Prague arrived there, many people were already on the scene, not just from Ostrava, but activists from Prague and elsewhere who came to support the local community and help the organizers with the preparations.
By 4 PM there were about 100 people there, including children, which we considered a success. The enthusiasm grew with every new arrival.
At around 6 PM the numbers peaked at roughly 350 participants. In addition to the original occupants of Přednádraží Street, there were their friends and others who had been so moved by their cause that they just couldn't miss this anniversary.
Discussions, film screening, reminiscences
The vast majority of those participating were Romani, to be precise, Romani families who came with their children, and since the numbers exceeded the organizers' expectations, the original program was adjusted slightly. The part of the program dedicated to a panel discussion was shortened and more room was made for live performances by people from the Romani community.
People had the opportunity to watch many dancing and singing performances, both rehearsed and spontaneous. Everyone got the opportunity to get involved and become an important part of the action.
One panel discussion did take place. Room for reflection on the whole sad affair was given on the panel to Imrich Horvát, an original resident of Přednádraží who is a leading activist today; to the activist and political scientist Ondřej Slačálek; to the director of the Life Together (Vzájemné soužití) public benefit corporation, Kumar Vishwanathan, who was the organizer of the entire event; and lastly to the owner of the buildings on Přednádraží Street, Oldřich Roztočil.
The landlord's participation at the event had not been planned in advance and many people were surprised by his arrival. Each panelist got a chance to speak and each of them emphasized a different aspect of the issue.
Imrich Horvát talked about the community and its strength, which he had gotten a chance to know because of the Přednádraží scandal and which significantly influenced his activity. Thanks to Přednádraží he has become a leading Romani activist.
Kumar Vishwanathan talked about the fact that the Přednádraží community still "lives" and said he would be glad to see life return for good to the street. Ondřej Slačálek spoke on behalf of the anarchist activists and pointed out what he specifically found exceptional about the Přednádraží case.
"Many people did something that required a great deal of bravery. There was overwhelming courage to remain here... We came here to learn something from the radicality of the people on Přednádraží Street," Slačálek said.
Oldřich Roztočil told those present that he had come to inform everyone about the current situation: "The buildings are going to be auctioned off. I am turning to the courts and I will do everything I can to preserve Přednádraží Street."
During the course of the event, people who had lived in the neighborhood for decades, people for whom the place will always be home, were remembered several times. Many of them personally participated in the event and some were even called up to the stage, where they were not afraid to talk about their experiences.
Those who spoke included Květa Kratochvílová and Helena Macková, the ladies who fought the longest to remain and who, despite having their electricity and water cut off, occupied the last apartment building on Přednádraží - number 8, which was so often reported on by the media - for approximately one year after receiving their eviction notices. Then at 9:30 the award-winning film "Cesta ven" (The Way Out), which was partially filmed in this ghetto of Ostrava, was shown to those present and the footage of Přednádraží Street in it received enormous applause.
The aim of the whole event was to remain there until midnight to mark the fateful moment when the residents of Přednádraží Street showed their bravery and determination by refusing to move out despite the enormous pressure they were under from the authorities and their frequent fear of official threats to institutionalize their children unless they moved. Kumar Vishwanathan gave a final speech and the event ended at around 1 AM.
Encouragement for tilting at windmills
I think few people suspected so many would participate in the event, and for many of us the number of those who came was truly a gratifying, unexpected surprise. I think many of us were strongly affected by this important meeting and the whole event made a deep impression on us after it was over.
For me personally, the meeting on Přednádraží Street was of great benefit, because even though I work with Romani clientele, I can sincerely say, completely without hesitation, that this was the first meeting of its kind that I had ever experienced, a gathering of so many Romani people in one place initiated with such a fine idea that one could not help but be filled with positive energy and the feeling that there is a point to some causes, even when they seem to involve tilting at windmills. People involved in such struggles often feel the need to leave behind them a clearly-recognizable and, if possible, tangible result as evidence of a job well done.
Some of our efforts, however, are long-term projects, and while their results can be felt among us and their value is incalculable, they are not always easy to see. I would like to thank everyone who has managed, in today's materialistic world, to live according to genuine values and to remember to listen to those in need.
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