Emil Ščuka: We lack a unified concept
From the theater to rights
Emil Ščuka is one of the most famous Romani politicians in the Czech Republic. He graduated in law and worked as a public prosecutor, but his original dream of a career was something completely different. In 2001 the magazine Reflex quoted him as saying the following:
“From the start I have always had an enormous weakness for the theater, which simply enchants me. I applied to the Theatrical Direction Department at DAMU [the Academy of Performing Arts] in Prague three times. As a boy I performed in my school’s theater and during high school I led two theater ensembles, one at the school and another in a nearby House of Youth. I thought the theater would be my life’s clear aim.”
Since he wasn’t accepted at the Academy, he started looking for some other field in which he could avoid the mathematics he so greatly disliked. That led him to the Law Faculty and to work as a public prosecutor after graduation. Ščuka did not forget the theater, however, and while living in the town of Sokolov established the famous theatrical ensemble “Romen” there.
Euphoria of the revolution
Ščuka’s activism and charisma bore fruit particularly during the revolutionary and post-revolutionary years. Together with Ladislav Rusenko, he represented Romani people during the fervent days of the revolution. At the memorable demonstration on Prague’s Letná Plain on 26 November 1989, he spoke to people directly from the podium when he and Rusenko declared their support for Civic Forum (Občanské forum - OF) and Václav Havel.
In an interview with Jarmila Balážová in 2004, Ščuka recalled the atmosphere and the development of events during those revolutionary days as follows:
“I was of course on Národní Avenue on 17 November, by coincidence I was with the ethnographer Eva Davidová and Honza Červeňák, and we witnessed the events there. We didn’t have a good feeling about it. That same evening we met with Láďa Rusenko and on 18 November we put together a group of Romani people from Prague, because they were the closest to us at the time. On 19 November we wrote up a memorandum, which about 30 people signed, including Dr. Milena Hübschmannová. It was essentially immediately clear to us that we couldn’t remain on the sidelines, even though there were some guys who said: ‘We shouldn’t get involved, let the gadje work it out between themselves, wait to see which side wins and then tell the winners we’ve been their fans from the start. Let’s not get mixed up in it, it’s their war.’ Naturally we disagreed with that. Those people didn’t join us and we didn’t even want them to. Not everyone had the good fortune to experience the revolutionary events and be directly at the center of them. I am truly grateful to have received that opportunity. Back then people were chanting not only on Letná, but also at other rallies on the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, even outside of Prague. Everyone was happy to be getting rid of the harness that had been holding us back. In that situation, when people started to breathe more easily, they were simply pure, without any ulterior motives, and we, the Roma, belonged there too. We wanted to breathe freely and we absorbed that atmosphere together with everyone else. In those days one did not encounter any attacks, any prejudices, or any reservations from the others.”
If you ask Emil Ščuka about his personal memories of that time today, after more than 20 years, it’s obvious that a certain feeling of disillusionment has accumulated over the past decade and risen to the top. His enthusiasm has been lost, and what remains is a sense of something long ago and unreal:
“That was a terribly long time ago, more than 20 years, which during a human life is a long time. On a historical scale, of course, it’s like yesterday. I don’t like puttering about in the past, as they say. The next generation is growing up here. Back then I did not realize I was experiencing something special; we were thrown into the water, we jumped into those events feet first. Back then I had the feeling that something of what we were working on might succeed in the future. Some of it did actually turn out, while other things did not. Some things changed completely.”
The Romani Civic Initiative (Romská občanská iniciativa- ROI) and the collapse of ideals
Shortly after the revolution, in March 1990, Emil Ščuka became the co-founder of the first Romani political party, ROI, which he led for several years. The constitutional assembly of ROI elected him chair on 10 March 1990. By the June 1990 elections, ROI, which had 20 000 members in the Czech Republic, joined the OF platform and won eight seats in parliament. Of course, during the November municipal elections of 1990, when the OF coalition was not assisting them, ROI won only 0.11 % of the votes in the Czech Republic, or three posts. The party name became a symbol, even though its original ideals were not completely fulfilled in many ways. However, it was Ščuka who instigated the proposal to anchor Romani nationality in the new constitution, to make the Czech and Slovak Roma members of the International Romani Union, and to create the first united Romani political party.
In 2000 Ščuka became president of the International Romani Union after one term in office. In addition to his political activities, he was behind the creation of the Czech television program “Romale” and the first Romani weekly, “Romano kurko”. Thanks primarily to him, the Dr. Rajko Djurič Foundation was established and initiated the founding of the famous Romani Social/Legal School in Kolín. The “Romale” television program began to be professionally produced. Ščuka also created the international folklore festival Romfest, the opening year of which in Brno-Líšeň (1991) was attended by Czechoslovak President Václav Havel. Unfortunately, Romfest, which was almost inextricably linked to a famous local folklore celebration, Strážnicí (“The Guardsmen”), stopped in 1996. It was transformed into the Romská píseň (Romani Song) festival, which is held in the town of Rožnov pod Radhoštěm.
Emil Ščuka cannot avoid being critical or even slightly skeptical when talking about the outcomes of the development of the Romani situation in the Czech Republic from the post-revolutionary period up until today:
“Our generation, the generation of Romani people in ROI, worked for no money, we were full of ideals. I see the greatest problem as being that once ROI ended there was no one to carry on, to succeed us. I don’t mean people to continue directly with the party, but back then we had just possibly kick-started something, and it turned out that while we had won a battle, we didn’t win the whole war. No one could be found to carry on our work, and in politics, where it is especially necessary to fight for every last thing, that’s a rather large problem. Since then, many Romani high school and college students have graduated, but among them we haven’t found anyone who works conceptually. The nonprofit sector is concerned with matters at local and regional level, when what we need are conceptual solutions. That is obvious from bodies such as the Czech Government Inter-ministerial Commission on Roma Community Affairs, where it looks like every minister starts from scratch with his own concept instead of carrying on the work of his predecessors. My criticism, of course, is of our own ranks as well. If we remain content with such an approach, then what can we expect?”
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