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Wave Of Violence Strikes Eastern Europe's Gypsies

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Wave Of Violence Strikes Eastern Europe's Gypsies


Wave Of Violence Strikes Eastern Europe's Gypsies

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The Roma or Gypsy minority in Europe is sadly accustomed to discrimination and even attack. Still, recent violence in Eastern Europe has reached a new level of ferocity. Several Roma, including children, have been killed in attacks involving firearms, gasoline bombs and hand grenades. Roma activists blame right-wing groups, which appear to have grown in strength as the economic crisis has deepened. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Kisleta in Hungary.

ERIC WESTERVELT: In early August, 45-year-old Maria Balogh, a single mom, and her 13-year-old daughter Ketrin were fast asleep in this quiet farming village in northeast Hungary near the Ukrainian border. In the middle of the night, an unknown number of armed men broke into their tiny box of a house and shot mother and child in their sleep. Balogh was killed and her 13-year-old daughter remains hospitalized with critical injuries.

Twenty-year-old Virag Lakatos says she's still in shock that her aunt was gunned down.

Ms. VIRAG LAKATOS: (Through translator) Her husband died a while ago and she worked very hard to raise her daughter alone. She lived for her daughter. Sometimes I walk past her house now and I keep thinking, why isn't she calling out my name and inviting me in, as usual?

WESTERVELT: It was hardly the first attack on Roma this year. In February, in another rural village in Hungary, attackers set fire to a Roma family's with a Molotov cocktail in the middle of the night. When a five-year-old boy and his father tried to run away, they were shot dead.

Since 2008, Hungary has seen at least nine arson attacks, eight shootings and two assaults involving hand grenades on Roma communities.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

WESTERVELT: Juci Csik, a Roma activist, walks up to Balogh's freshly dug grave in a small cemetery that hugs a field of tall corn. The grave is covered with pine wreaths and flowers decaying browned by the summer sun. Csik says across Europe violence and intimidation against Roma are on the rise.

Ms. JUCI CSIK (Roma Activist): (Through translator) The problem is not only in Hungary. In Italy, they also regularly shoot at gypsies and their caravan settlements outside the cities. In Ireland, there are tensions as the authorities try to group all the gypsies together in one place. In the Czech Republic this year, we've seen attacks by gangs using Molotov cocktails and guns, like here in Hungary. It's a serious problem all over Europe.

WESTERVELT: In mid-August, Hungarian police arrested four men and charged them with murder, attempted murder and arson for alleged involvement in the attacks. Hungarian newspapers report that one of the suspects was involved in an arson attack on a synagogue in 1995, and another is a neo-Nazi skinhead. Police are looking for more suspects, and the arrests have done little to calm fears here in Kisleta. Roma men are still keeping up their all-night car and foot patrols of Roman neighborhoods. Twenty-eight-year-old Istvan Horvath says he's staying vigilant, unconvinced the racist crime wave is over.

Mr. ISTVAN HORVATH: (Through translator) I'm just defending my family and the other Roma in this village. We're staying on guard. We patrol until dawn. But if we see movement anywhere or something suspicious, we stay out longer.

WESTERVELT: Across Eastern Europe, the Roma population is increasing and so is resentment. In Hungary, the government predicts the economy will contract by 6.7 percent this year. Unemployment is rising. Just 10 blocks away from where Balogh was murdered, wheat farmer Imre Madach says he doesn't condone violence and hate but accuses Roma of being lazy welfare cheats.

Mr. IMRE MADACH (Farmer): (Through translator) Gypsies don't work, but have eight or nine children and then get all this money from the state to live on. And this state sucks the blood out of the Hungarian working people in taxes to pay them. It's just not fair. So of course this sharpens the social tensions.

WESTERVELT: The Hungarian right-wing Jobbik, or Better Party, is growing in popularity based in largely on an anti-Roma platform. Jobbik officials regularly lash out at what they call out-of-control Gypsy crime. Asked about the anti-Roma attacks, Jobbik spokesman Zsolt Varkonyi denies that Jobbik's paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard, has anything to do with the recent violence. Varkonyi instead blames shadowy foreign secret agents trying to disgrace Hungary.

Mr. ZSOLT VARKONYI (Spokesman, Jobbik): These killings are done so professionally, it cannot be the guy from next door. The members of the Hungarian Guard are the guys from next door.

WESTERVELT: So the professionalism is a sign of what?

Mr. VARKONYI: The professionalism is a sign that it is a secret service. We suspect the Slovak Secret Service.

WESTERVELT: To discredit you?

Mr. VARKONYI: Yeah, yeah.

WESTERVELT: In the Jobbik Party's worldview, Jews are voraciously buying up land across Hungary, so-called Gypsy crime is the top problem, and Slovakian secret agents are behind the anti-Roma violence. That might seem absurd to many people, but recent polls show between 15 and 18 percent of Hungarians support Jobbik. If those numbers hold through elections next spring, Jobbik is poised to become the third most powerful political party in Hungary.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Kisleta.

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