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Ukraine: Roma in Transcarpathia fear hunger, mobilization and the police

21.3.2015 23:59, (ROMEA)
Romani people in Ukraine. (PHOTO:  Michal Beníšek)
Romani people in Ukraine. (PHOTO: Michal Beníšek)

News server Romea.cz has interviewed Romani studies scholar Michael Beníšek about the everyday life of Romani people in the Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod and its environs, their concerns, identity and language, their relationship toward the gadje, their love of Bollywood films and the new wave of Romani refugees from Transcarpathia now entering Britain with Hungarian passports. Beníšek studied Indology and Romani Studies at the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University in Prague, where he then remained at the Romani Studies Seminar as an educator.  

Currently Beníšek is working on his doctoral dissertation on the dialects of North Central Romani that are spoken in Transcarpathian Ukraine. He has traveled regularly to visit Romani communities in Uzhhorod and its environs since 2007, and in 2011 became the godfather of a boy from a Romani family with whom he established closer contact and whom he travels to visit several times a year.  

Q: You've just returned from Uzhhorod. How are Romani people in the Transcarpathian region of Western Ukraine living, what is currently worrying them most?

A: Romani people are worried about quite a few things, such as their problematic relationships with local institutions. In Uzhhorod and the surrounding area, the local authorities and police are a problem for Romani residents. Police officers frequently arrest Romani people on the street for no reason, take them to the station, beat them up and then let them go. Whenever something happens, whatever the incident, whether a Romani person is suspected of being involved in it or not, the police immediately target Romani people and start rounding them up in the settlements. In addition to the police, Roma frequently have problems with local authorities when they need them to issue documents, or with the representatives of power whom they call the "rajas", the lords.  

Q:  What do they call the police?

A:  The names vary. In Uzhhorod the Roma call police officers "kurdune", which is rather vulgar, it's from the verb "kurel", "to copulate". In the villages and the surrounding areas they call them "mujale", which is from the word "muj", "mouth". Roma in some Slovak localities call the police that too.  

Q:  What about their relationship with the Ukrainian majority, the gadje?

A:  Relationships with the ordinary gadje with whom the Roma come into contact are not generally problematic. Ordinary friendly contacts exist between the gadje (mostly when they are from the same social strata) and Romani people - they go to the pubs together, they're friends, they help each other out. Most of these relationships are above-board.

Q:  What about discrimination of Romani people in work? Do they employ local Roma without any problems?

A:  There is a big problem in Ukraine with work, even the gadje frequently don't have any work there. Romani unemployment is enormously high. It is basically extraordinary for a Romani person to have stable employment. However, it is also rather common that when the gadje need help with something at home, such as mowing the lawn or washing their cars, they ask a Romani person from the neighborhood to do it and give him some money.    

Q:  What about the schools?

A:  In Transcarpathian Ukraine there are special Romani schools intended only for Romani children that operate on an ethnic basis, not like the practical or special schools in the Czech Republic, which are defined as schools for the mentally disabled. These are mainstream schools, but they serve only Roma. One was established in Uzhhorod when this was still part of Czechoslovakia, in 1926, during the First Republic. Of course, not all Romani children attend a specifically Romani school - the enrollment of children into these schools is voluntary and depends on their parents' decisions. Some Romani parents refuse to enroll their children into segregated schools like this, while others praise the fact that their children are "with their own kind". Recently the authorities wanted to partially scale back a Romani school there and the parents rebelled.    

Q:  Is the Romani language taught there?

A:  That is precisely the problem - the teachers are gadje and they usually do not know how to speak Romani. On the other hand, the teachers do have a certain relationship towards the Romani children because they work at that school. If a child doesn't show up for class, the teacher will usually go to his or her home and ask what's going on - for example, it may be raining and the child may not have shoes, so the teacher will bring shoes so he can walk to school. One former director of a Romani school, Ms Yevgeniya Navrocka, has been engaged in Romani activism for many years now and also works as a journalist focusing on Romani issues. However, in the small town of Perechin, which is north of Uzhhorod, there is no Romani school for children from the local settlement, and reportedly that results in worse attendance, which can be seen from the fact that there is a great deal of illiteracy in Perechin among Romani people, especially among women in the settlement.    

Q:  When we hear of Transcarpathian Ukraine, many people think of Romani music, of the film "Queen of the Gypsies", or maybe of the band Gogol Bordello. To what degree is that tradition still alive there?

A:  By now most families passively consume music through some sort of recording, but nevertheless there do still exist Romani musicians, whether amateur or professional. Slovak Romani music is popular, like the singer Kajkoš or the musicians from Pavlovce nad Uhom, where Roma from Uzhhorod have a lot of relatives, as well as the music of Russian Roma - and then Indian music, mainly Bollywood, is also extremely popular. India is generally very popular among Roma there, they partially identify with Indian culture through films and music, they know the actors, the dancers, the singers, and they borrow and loan each other CDs and films. In my opinion this is connected, among other things, with the fact that India, as a country that was friendly to the Soviet Union, has always been very popularized there.

Q:  You have been travelling among Transcarpathian Roma for several years in order to do linguistic research about their dialects. What kind of Romani do they basically speak and what is their identity?

A:  In Transcarpathian Ukraine most Romani people speak Hungarian as their mother tongue, but in Uzhhorod and several localities in the surrounding area, for example, Romani people speak dialects of North Central Romani, the same as is spoken by Romani people in Eastern Slovakia. The local Roma there have strong ties to their relatives in Slovakia. Those ties were partially severed after WWII, when Transcarpathia became part of the Soviet Union, but in some families they are still alive. As far as identity goes, you must take into consideration the fact that the entire Transcarpathian area has had an eventful history and during the past 100 years it has been a part of several different state formations: The Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Czechoslovakia, then Hungary during WWII, then the USSR, and now Ukraine. With each political change the inhabitants have changed, the official language has changed, and the social climate has changed, so the Roma basically do not identify with any of those nations. While in Slovakia the Roma customarily claim that they are both Romani and Slovak, in Transcarpathia it is far more complicated and identity is very dependent on context. The Roma call themselves Ukrainian Roma when they are emphasizing their citizenship, but they call themselves Slovak Roma when they are emphasizing their conscious ties to Slovakia and their history, and when they travel to different parts of Ukraine, they frequently identify as Hungarian Roma, because they live near Hungary and alongside an ethnic Hungarian population. Their identity is rather complicated and multivalent.            

Q:  What are their views of the current political situation in Ukraine?

A:  Most Roma belong to the very lowest socioeconomic strata and their situation has significantly deteriorated, first after the creation of an independent Ukraine and then very tangibly right now as a result of the war. That is why most of them feel nostalgia for the Soviet era, when they had peace, a relative sufficiency of material goods, and work, and when discrimination was not as strong as it is today. This is also connected to the good relationship they once had with Russians as an ethnic group, a relationship that was better than the one they have with Ukrainians. Of course, that has greatly changed after the recent events, and the Roma now understand the Russians - obviously partially due to the influence of the Ukrainian media - as the main culprits in the current war and related crisis. The value of the Ukrainian currency is falling, everything is more expensive, salaries and welfare payments usually are paid several months late - Romani people are living in adversity and at this moment they are blaming Russian aggression for it. In the west of the country the atmosphere is such that the people are rallying together and Russia is presented as the archenemy against whom Ukraine is defending herself - there is no discussion to be had about it.

Q:  The Ukrainian media reported that collections to support the Ukrainian Army were even taken up in Romani settlements. What was that about?

A:  Yes, from the beginning that seemed very absurd to me, almost cynical, because the poverty there among Romani people is horrifying. They commonly survive for several weeks at a time there without any money at all, literally. In the best-case scenario they get the opportunity of an odd job, their relatives help them, they borrow money, or they eat potatoes and nothing else for a whole week, for example. When they get paid, or when their welfare arrives, it goes to pay off their debts, to buy a sack of potatoes, to pay for their electricity and gas, and then there's nothing left - it's gone in 24 hours. They borrow money either from other Roma, or those who do have a job borrow money from the banks, but then they are unable to pay off their loans and very often they end up in prison because of it.    

Q:  How were they able to contribute to the Army then?

A:  Those collections are organized by local Romani activists who go from family to family and collect spare change. You have to see this in the broader context. At this moment Romani people are living in an edgy social atmosphere and the Romani elites are aware that if the Roma want to survive somehow, they must go with the crowd, show that the Roma are in the same boat as the Ukrainians are. I see these collections as a pragmatic effort to meet the gadje halfway, to send the signal that the Roma are loyal to Ukraine. Were there to be any doubt about that, in the existing atmosphere it would completely destroy the Roma. It is also a signal to the intensifying nationalistic circles in Ukraine that the Roma are pro-Ukrainian. That is evidently what the publicity around those collections was aiming at.          

Q:  To what degree is the threat of radical nationalism real?

A:  In Uzhhorod and the surrounding area the Roma are not feeling Ukrainian nationalism firsthand, ethnic pogroms are not occurring, there are no attacks in the form of neo-Nazi groups throwing Molotov cocktails as we know them, for example, from the Czech Republic or Hungary. Right now Ukrainian nationalism has its archenemy in the Russians, but naturally the question is who will be next. In Galicia, in the Lviv area, where I have also done field research, the threat of radical nationalism is real for the Roma. During WWII, Romani people were murdered en masse there by members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the so-called "Banderites", and the descendants of those who survived that massacre have kept that experience alive in their ancestral memory. Today it is customary to see larger-than-life statues of Bandera in Galicia, main avenues named for him, nationalist signs on the walls, and nationalist Ukrainians very often let the Roma known they are unwanted there. In the Lviv area the Roma encounter nationalism, but in Transcarpathia it is not as noticeable, at least not now. I personally perceive nationalism to be an enormous threat, not just in Ukraine, but in Hungary and Slovakia too, the ultra-right is on the rise everywhere and I am greatly concerned about it.      

Q:  Is it true that many Romani people from Transcarpathia are doing their best to leave Ukraine given the critical social situation there?

A:  That is actually going on right now, particularly in the context of Hungary's decision to give passports to ethnic Hungarians living on the territory of what they call "Greater Hungary". Reportedly more than 90 000 Hungarian passports have been given to people in Transcarpathian Ukraine. This has begun to be extremely popular among Romani people there, all the more so because most of them actually do use the Hungarian language as their native language. All they have to do is go to the Hungarian Consulate, bring their documents with them showing where their grandparents and parents were born, complete an interview with an official, and they get a passport they can use to travel freely to EU countries, while with a Ukrainian passport they would have to get a visa. When you talk with Roma there, they will tell you that most of them, if they could, would leave Ukraine. At the moment it is because they are afraid there will be a mobilization, that they will be sent to war. Most Roma emigrating from Transcarpathia go to Great Britain. They can only do that thanks to their Hungarian passports.

Ondřej Mrázek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Racism, Rozhovory, Ukrajina, Válka



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