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Rumburk: "I was covered in cold sweat. I feared for the Roma."

Rumburk, 30.8.2011 22:41, (ROMEA)
ilustrační foto

It took us a long time to get there - lots of time to think about what might happen, and the closer we got, the more my concerns grew. None of us knew what to expect. We made it to the outskirts of Rumburk and I silently gazed through the car window, looking for Romani people. It was around 11 AM and the streets were empty. "I guess they're all at work," I said.

We wanted to record interviews with people. The grandmother of one Romani family came out of a building with high gates, followed by what seemed to be her granddaughter, and yelled at us: "Go away, I don't want problems because of you, they'll see us on television and destroy us, we're afraid." A small child was unobtrusively observing us through the window, standing behind the curtain. When he realized I'd seen him, he immediately pulled the curtain shut. He was very afraid. Grandmother wanted us to leave.

The streets were completely empty. We found a poster put up by the "Civic Resistance" (Občanský odpor) organization in Rumburk, advertising their rally - 26 August, 17:00, Lužické náměstí, Rumburk - with the image of a fist punching out toward the viewer. I immediately photographed it. It seemed very violent to me.

We met a field social worker who spoke with us a while but did not want to be photographed or recorded. She told us a bit about the situation. All that time I kept waiting to see police patrols, but there were none to be seen. Even after 2 PM the streets were empty.

Next we interviewed Mr Gorol from Nový Bor, but he didn't want to be recorded either, and the feeling of fear started to increase. I kept trying to imagine what was going to happen. We arrived at Lužické náměstí at around 16:00, but it was empty, with only some locals standing around and a few journalists. It was terribly humid and I hoped people wouldn't turn out. The time for the rally was slowly approaching.

I photographed the square as it started to fill up. There were people of all generations there - even mothers with babes in arms. A small group of body-builder, shaved-headed guys was standing off in the distance. A musclebound gentleman in a black striped shirt with a bodyguard walked by; he gave me look that said "get out of my sight". I started to be a bit afraid. I had no idea it was Mr Josef Mašin - or rather, someone presenting himself under that name.

At 17:00 the square is half-full. The rally starts. Czech MP Foldyna (Czech Social Democrats - ČSSD) starts talking. People don't respond much. Mayor Sykáček (ČSSD) does not succeed in impressing the citizens. Only when the man in the black striped shirt takes the microphone is the crowd overwhelmed. I watch them and photograph it. Mašín says he is there on behalf of the "Civic Resistance" (Občanský odpor) group and then makes his speech: "We must cleanse this place of those scavengers consuming social welfare and finally put things in order."

The extremists give him their support, they shake his hand. I don't get it anymore - is this still a ČSSD rally? Some man grabs the microphone and starts shouting "Take up pitchforks against those Gypsies!" The crowd goes crazy, applauding and supporting his words. It felt like being scalded with boiling water. The whole thing took maybe 20 minutes.

What now? The police helicopter has flown away, no officers are in sight. The crowd starts leaving, dividing into several groups. People shout "Let's go get the Gypsies" and other racist slogans. They roam through the town, about 800 of them all together - boys, pensioners, women with children… looking for Romani people. Police are still nowhere to be seen. I was covered in cold sweat. I feared for the Roma.

The mob made it to a building where a Romani family lives. They shouted racist slogans, "We'll kill you"... they wanted to lynch them. Some people broke down the fence and threw a wooden plank through the window. At that moment, the police finally arrived with riot officers and surrounded the building. I was photographing everything, holding my breath. A grandmother standing next to me shouted: "Slaughter the gypsy swine!"

I reply: "Did you give them life? I guess you're God since you have the right to take it from them. Good example for the youngsters."

One house down the police have grabbed some Nazis who were rioting. I'm taking photos. People are in a trance, they keep shouting racist abuse. The police then detain us, myself and my journalist colleagues, and are rather unpleasant. They give us no explanation. They check our identification and then release us - again, without any explanation.

I don't understand it. There were mothers there with children in baby carriages, all wishing death on the Roma. Teaching their children to hate. They wanted to purge the town, to take human life. No one did anything to them. The police failed once again.

We all stopped talking. I felt enormous anxiety and helplessness. I was glad the building the mob had attacked was empty.

We left town, disgusted. On our way home, Robert Ferenc of the Čačipen association called: "Please come to my place, there's a family here from that building (where the mob wanted to lynch someone)." We go there. The meeting with the family? I was heartsick. I have children, and I fear for them the most. This was too much. A nine-member family, with infants in carriages, had fled on foot for 14 km through the forest to Krásná Lípa. They feared for their children's lives. People had threatened to liquidate them. One lady's neighbor reportedly threatened her by saying: "Are you a Czech? You aren't a Czech, you belong to them, tonight you will die with them and with the children. Neither the doors nor the windows will keep you safe, we will kill you all."

This family is not one of troublemakers. They have nothing to do with the violence that took place not long ago in Rumburk. I will never forget the fear in their eyes, it broke my heart. Their children were crying. The municipal authorities advised them to go into hiding with friends or relatives. The police did nothing. No one helped them. Once again, the burden is being born by people who have done nothing wrong, by the most vulnerable - families with children. Where is the protection for the most vulnerable? These people can't return home because someone has decided to take their very lives into his own hands. These people are living in fear. What will happen tomorrow? If we all enjoy the right to life, why is it like this?

My feelings from Rumburk? Great sadness, helplessness, fear - and no help anywhere. Mr Mašín wants to cleanse the town of the scavengers of social welfare. That's hard when there's no work. Social welfare is just alms, it's very hard to live on it. The money is not enough for children to be educated, to have hobbies, to learn about culture, to get special instruction. That's not cheap, but no one is paying attention to that anymore. It would be much better, I believe, to to do our best to figure this out, to understand it, to face up to these problems.

Gwendolyn Albert, Mária Zajacová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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