Houses to be demolished in Matiční street, site of the wall affair 10 years ago
Ten years ago, on 13 October 1999, the affair of the wall on Matiční street in Ústí nad Labem came to a head. The case became one of the most famous examples of poor co-existence between the majority population and members of the Roma community in the Czech Republic. On that day the local municipality decided to install a concrete fence in a particular quarter to separate the single-family homes on the street from municipally-owned apartment buildings which were predominantly occupied by Roma and were intended to house rent defaulters. After six weeks of pressure from the Czech Government and protests by both Czech and international human rights defenders, who saw the wall as an expression of racism, the construction was removed.
The fence between the long-term residents of the town and the residents of the municipally-owned apartments was built in the autumn of 1999 by the town hall of the Neštěmice district in which Matiční street is located. The town councilors made the decision to erect the controversial wall in September 1998, claiming they had long been receiving complaints from the owners of the single-family homes regarding the behavior of the residents of the municipal flats living on the other side of the street. The town hall had moved rent defaulters into the apartments during the first half of the 1990s.
According to the Neštěmice town councilors, the decision to construct the 1.8 meter-high ceramic fence was taken to protect the long-term residents from the noise and disorder coming from the municipal apartment buildings. This provoked criticism from local Roma, from Roma organizations and from human rights defenders both domestically and internationally who considered the measure discriminatory.
In August 1998 the Geneva-based Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination turned to the Czech Government with a request for information as to what measures it intended to take to eliminate efforts to isolate particular groups of inhabitants in Czech municipalities. At the end of September 1998, a group of Council of Europe specialists on the Roma issue visited Matiční street to map the situation, followed by representatives of the UN Human Rights Commission. Czech President Václav Havel also criticized the construction of the fence. The affair was also reported on by the international press.
The Neštěmice town councilors never accepted the criticisms calling for the fence to be removed, nor did they acknowledge a vote taken by the Czech Chamber of Deputies on the day the fence was to be erected which invalidated the September 1998 decree to erect the wall. Since January 1999, the Czech Government had been attempting to convince the town leadership of Ústí nad Labem to reject the plan. The European Union subsequently criticized the Czech Republic over the construction of the fence. Then-EU Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen called the fence a human rights violation and said the EU demanded the Czech Government resolve the problem immediately.
Local town councilors did not change their stance until the Czech Government promised to provide CZK 10 million to improve co-existence between citizens in the locality. The Ústí town councilors approved their acceptance of the subsidy on 23 November and the fence was removed the next day.
Using roughly one-third of the Government subsidy, the town hall bought three of the single-family homes located in the immediate vicinity of the municipally-owned apartment buildings. The homeowners moved away, and many Roma also moved out of the municipal apartments. Municipal police then set up a local station in one of the single-family homes; officers are not permanently located there, but travel there as needed. The People in Need organization opened a community center in another of the single-family homes and began to run programs for local Romani children there. The town hall spent the rest of the subsidy on reconstructing the apartments intended for socially deprived residents and for various other social welfare projects. However, despite the disappearance of the fence, grudges persist between both groups of inhabitants in the locality.
The affair also resulted in several court cases. In December 2001, for example, the Prague High Court rejected a suit brought by Gizela Lacková, a resident of Matiční street, against the local municipality. Lacková, who lived in one of the municipally-owned apartment buildings, sought an apology and CZK 100 000 in compensation for the fact that the town authorities had damaged her honor and dignity by building the fence.
The Neštěmice town councilors now want to raze all of the apartment buildings in which most of the Roma were living at the time. Two of the buildings are almost completely unoccupied today. Mayor of Neštěmice Liana Wagnerová told ČTK that the only complication preventing the demolition of all of the buildings is that a third abandoned building is not owned by the town. The town hall wants to offer the location for commercial development.
Wagnerová said the town hall has not been renewing the leases of the tenants in the apartment buildings for quite some time. One building is not occupied and is boarded up and another is almost completely inaccessible. Vít Kučera of People in Need, which continues to operate a drop-in center in Matiční street, told ČTK that those who moved out of the buildings mostly took up residence in hostels in the quarter of Předlice or in nearby Nový svět street. Both sites have been labeled ‘socially excluded localities’.
According to the mayor, the current owner of the third building has done nothing with it and is allegedly willing to sell it for a high price which the town hall does not want to pay, because it will have to pay the costs of its demolition in any event. Should the town hall succeed in demolishing the building, the location could serve for commercial development, for example, for automobile salons, two of which are already located in the neighborhood.
Pavel Bakule, Director of the Ústí Municipal Police, says the security situation in Matiční street has changed. Since almost no one lives there, local patrol officers are said to have almost nothing to do. The municipal police continue to operate a station in one of the houses purchased by the town hall with state funds, but they intend to close it and move it into the Corco building in Krásné Březno next year. Mayor Wagnerová said long-term residents of the town continue to complain to the town hall about the rent defaulters. "However, we have other places where the situation is much worse today,” she said.
Kučera of People in Need claims that during the years in which their center has been operating in Matiční street they have also succeeded in resolving some of the problems of the local people, most of whom are now Roma. In his view, the main success has been to reduce the number of people who are indebted to loan sharks. At the same time, he noted that even though many people are no longer afflicted by illegal loan sharking, they now owe money to the various credit companies which operate legally and have a similar impact on those who are constantly caught in the debt spiral.
Kučera believes progress has been made with several socially excluded families not only from Matiční street, but also from other quarters of the town. Field social workers visit families in order to tutor children, which has improved their academic performance. There are also cases of such children enrolling in high school, but none of them are from the Matiční street community.
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