Official Terror For Hungary’s Roma
By Charles McPhedranFebruary 7, 2012
Torch-lit marches, school segregation and talk of labour camps has the Roma fearing for their lives after the far-right party Jobbik came to power in Gyöngyöspata.
Just an hour from Budapest, the shabby Paris of Central Europe, a small town is experiencing a sort of Year Zero. Many in the town say a new era of fascist terror and violence has begun.
Towards the eastern edges of the European Union, Gyöngyöspata is a Hungarian community of 2,500 people, where the far-right, nationalist, anti-Roma party Jobbik has taken power. The party, according to many residents, has made "Nazi"-style violence official municipal policy.
Northern Hungary's beauty masks its poverty. Gyöngyöspata is set amid small fields filled with grape vines cracked by the winter wind. Its surrounds are less fertile than the northern European landscapes. From afar, the town could be a smaller version of Cooma, New South Wales.
Eight months ago, Europe briefly noticed - and then forgot - Gyöngyöspata. Last Easter, the Red Cross came to temporarily evacuate most of the Romani families from the town after weeks of torch-lit parades by fascist paramilitary groups. The militia were affiliated with Jobbik.
Jobbik is today Hungary's second-strongest political force, after Viktor Orbán's Fidesz Party. With 47 representatives in the 386-seat national assembly and three members of the European Parliament in Brussels, Jobbik is rapidly growing. Having won 16 per cent at the national poll two years ago, the party now has the support of between a fifth and a quarter of Hungarian voters nationwide, depending on which opinion poll you read.
The Roma are Hungary's largest minority; they arrived from the Balkans in the 14th and 15th centuries. Although a recent official census estimated they made up two per cent of the population, it's widely acknowledged that that number significantly underestimates the true population figure, which thought to be between five and ten per cent. Romani children comprise 20 per cent of children born in Hungary today. But they leave school early - just 13 per cent complete high school - and about 80 per cent end up unemployed. During the Second World War, 28,000 Roma lost their lives in Hungary.
JOBBIK LEADERS say that Romani crime in the town was out of control before they staged that march. And while Hungary does not breakdown statistics by race, some residents in the town back them.
"I was afraid to walk home from the bus stop back then," said one retiree, who didn't want to be identified.
But the reaction of the paramilitaries connected with Jobbik awoke memories of the 1920s and '30s. Video from that Easter weekend shows the Romani families in the town - accompanied by a few centre-left MPs from Budapest and a couple of trendy, urban types - cowering and singing the Hungarian national anthem as the militias march past them and on into the Romani quarter of the town.
Thereafter, everyone quickly forgot about Gyöngyöspata. Just a few weeks after Fukushima, and with the war in Libya continuing, the travails of a small Central European country just didn't register.
Yet the atmosphere in Gyöngyöspata continued to grow more charged. Jobbik won power there in July last year. The town is now one of four Hungarian communities governed by the party.
Since it won the local election, Jobbik has been using Gyöngyöspata to trial many of its national policies.
The town's school is segregated into Roma and Hungarian classes. The town's unemployed, mostly Roma, were among the first Hungarians put to work in a government-backed labour camp last year, where they gathered wood and planted trees under police supervision in exchange for unemployment benefits. Another, more permanent camp now is planned for the Northern spring. And accounts from residents suggest that the Magyar Gárda, the latest incarnation of the party's paramilitary force, now has taken over the police force and the civil defence units common in rural Hungary for centuries. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union accuses the municipality of fuelling inter-ethnic conflict, making the situation "much worse" than most other towns in rural Hungary.
Ferenc Nagy collects scrap metal in the town. He's an ethnic Hungarian at the bottom of the pile, but he knows everyone. "I know the streets and I know the people," he tells my interpreter. "I know which streets are afraid of each other."
Nagy begins to tell the story of his town, as he sees it. "There was a normal mayor and then the Jobbik mayor. The Jobbik mayor is using the Gárda to keep him in power. They run the civil police. There are beatings happening every night.
"A couple of days ago they took up a Hungarian onto the hill above the town. They beat him really badly."
While we are talking to Nagy, a handful of Roma kids pile out of their school. "My Jobbik classmate told me he'd hit me with an axe," a 13-year-old boy yells at us. He doesn't seem distressed.
Down the street from the school, the Gyöngyöspata town hall is crammed with Hungarian folk kitsch. Stout, suspicious men bustle around; we overhear that there is to be a "restructure" in the municipality.
The mayor has gone away for a few days, the receptionist says, so he can't talk to The Global Mail.
Instead the acting mayor, Gárbor Pichler, beckons us into his office. While Pichler says he is "not personally" a Gárda member, the khaki-coloured shirt he is wearing looks very close to the paramilitaries' uniform. And the Gárda crest is on his desk.
For Pichler, the troubles in Gyöngyöspata date back to 2006, when Hungary first experienced the global financial crisis, well before the rest of the world . The socialist government at the time introduced tough austerity measures because of a large fiscal deficit prompted by high government spending, low competitiveness and an aging population. The country applied for an IMF loan in 2008.
"There was a lot of crime then, it wasn't a local phenomenon. But ever since the 1990s, we've known that the minority commits more crime. There's even an [academic] criminological category called 'gypsy crime.'"
Pichler points out that there was only one policeman patrolling the town at the start of the troubles. Today, he says, residents are no longer fearful:
"That is because we punish even the smallest crime, like the theft of three grapes."
Pichler bemoans the high unemployment rate in the town, which has been ailing since the final years of communism. His solution is to make "the unemployed poor people work clearing the streets or planting the forests" in the region surrounding the town.
He also wants them to work at a new, permanent animal-breeding farm located on the edge of the town, which is due to open in the spring. Thanks to the farm, he says, the town will be "self-sufficient." In the long term he hopes there'll be a network of Jobbik-controlled communities independent of the Hungarian government, "working for the common good and trading with each other."
Pichler doesn't mention that 36 of the 40 conscripted for the labour camp last year were Roma.
Back in Budapest, Márton Gyöngyösi sees Gyöngyöspata as a harbinger of where Hungary is headed. Jobbik's deputy parliamentary leader says the Gárda and the party working together have solved the town's crime and unemployment problems.
"It was unbearable in Gyöngyöspata. The people themselves saw that the police were incapable of solving the problem. So they called on the Magyar Gárda, which appeared and it solved the problem." Gyöngyösi says.
"The mayor resigned under the pressure because he could not deal with public order. New elections were held; Jobbik's candidate won by a landslide," he says. "This shows, in my interpretation, that the solution offered by Jobbik was much appreciated by the inhabitants."
Gyöngyösi is quick to deny that Jobbik runs the Magyar Gárda. He says that the group - formed by people who were simply "worried about public security" - is not an arm of the party. Indeed, "the only link is Mr Gárbor Vona personally, who is the president of Jobbik and president of Magyar Gárda," he says, explaining that Vona joined the Gárda to lend it more "political legitimacy."
Although Gyöngyösi said that the Gárda do not carry weapons, The Global Mail has found evidence in Gyöngyöspata that appears to disprove his statements.
János Farkas is a Roma civil rights leader in Gyöngyöspata. The side of his house, in the rundown Romani quarter at the bottom of the hill, has a small black patch on it, a kind of surface burn. The top floor of his neighbour's house is completely burnt out on the inside. The family living in it was attacked in 2006, he says. While he describes the attack as "a bit of a Nazi thing," for Farkas 2006 was a gentler time in Gyöngyöspata.
The Roma leader says that things really started to go bad when Jobbik took power. "With the old mayor, the democratic mayor, you had your disagreements, but at least you could talk things over."
Now, he says, "that Nazi," Pichler, is "terrorising" the Romani residents of the town. He shows me the official town Christmas card that Pichler sent him.
"Wishing you a very HAPPY, PEACEFUL CHRISTMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEAR rich in success: Gyöngyöspata," the card reads. The image printed on it shows Pichler, dressed in black, surrounded by three Gárda with hunting rifles.
Farkas says he's afraid to leave his house. The police, he asserts, have been taken over by the Gárda.
"They want to put all of us in jail," he yells, a claim backed by a representative of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union in Budapest a few days later:
"There are 470 Roma in Gyöngyöspata. [Of those] 420 have been fined by the police for this, that and the other. The point being is that you give them a fine, they cannot pay the fine, and then you put them in prison."
Farkas says he attempted to report several police officers for sympathising with the Gárda - and he was fined for doing so.
As we are leaving, Farkas asks for a few coins, anything. He seems desperate.
Later, one of Farkas's Budapest friends, the Australian filmmaker and civil-rights activist John Rado, tells me that, like many impoverished Romani families in Hungary today, the family "is on its last legs."
"His son is a very good friend of mine. And I can see that his life has been completely and totally destroyed," Rado said.
"One night [the son] rang me, and he could hear the plates clinking and he said, 'Oh, you've just had dinner - to your health.' An hour later, after I put the phone down, I realised that there was a tone in his voice…that he didn't have enough food for his family."
The situation for many in Gyöngyöspata's Romani community is bad now, and their future may not be any better. Jobbik's ideas about how to deal with the unemployment and crime problems facing Hungary's Roma are electorally popular.
And the party continues to plan new solutions to the "Roma question." Márton Gyöngyösi, Jobbik's deputy parliamentary leader, says "one solution" that the party is interested in trying out is the removal of Romani children from their families - to solve the problem of intergenerational unemployment amongst Romani families.
"We have been saying that taking gypsy children into boarding schools - where they are taken out of the Roma community that pulls them back and shows them a bad example - that could be a good solution," Gyöngyösi says.
That plan will probably not be implemented while Jobbik is in opposition, a Hungarian Civil Liberties Union spokeswoman tells The Global Mail. She says that the Fidesz-led governing coalition is not likely to vote for a measure of that kind, which she calls "openly racist."
Still, some believe that Hungary may be headed for intercommunal violence, whether the forced removal of Romani children occurs or not. Hungarian-Australian activist John Rado says the Roma "can't stand it anymore.
"They're being attacked in very, very powerful ways," Rado says, "and they're frightened for their lives.
"There is a fear that one day they'll react en masse," he says. "And at that point, they'll be struck very hard."