On the Current Situation in the Sluknovska Region

Perhaps you have read of the unrest in our region or have seen the pictures in the news of the violent clashes between police and demonstrators in Varnsdorf on September 10, 2011.
It is difficult for me to describe what is going on here, even when we are constantly talking about it, discussing it, thinking about it, and the newspapers are full of it. The information is too contradictory; what we are experiencing is too unreal.

The original cause was a nighttime fight between youth on August 21 here in Rumburk. Twenty Roma followed four “whites” to the hallway to their apartment, by breaking through a door and seriously injured one of the others. The official version, according to the leader of the Rumburk police, is that the Roma youth conducted a “massacre” on racial grounds. The Roma version is that there were previous disagreements over drugs and an attack by the “whites” on one of the Roma, but these claims never made it into the media.

One day later, our mayor wrote in an open letter to the Interior Minister that one was no longer safe in Rumburk even in his own home and that the streets were no longer safe after dark, and that it was all the fault of the Roma, hundreds of whom had arrived in recent months – the so-called inadaptable. (Whether there are actually recent arrivals, and how many, and where they live, no one knows exactly, and in the meantime the discussions hardly distinguish between long-time resident Roma and new arrivals.)

And then I see a video on the Internet of the demonstration in Rumburk followed by a march through the city on August 28, and I cry. I see “normal” residents, not Nazis, but people who I meet in the street every day, public employees, parents of my children’s classmates. I see how the crowd moves through the city to supposed Roma houses, faces full of outrage and enthusiasm, as if they were happy to be able to scream out what previously could not be spoken out loud. There were phrases which send chills down your spine: “Gas the Gypsies!” “Go after them with pick and spade!” “Bury them alive!”

For a long, long time there are no voices distancing themselves from this event. I have been looking for a comment on the part of the city government or the Social Democratic Party that originally had been invited to this demonstration.

Sometimes I have to look at this video again, in order to believe that it is true. The Special Forces, 300 of whom are now stationed in the region, are hardly to be seen on a day-to-day basis. In the streets everything seems to be normal, yet the abnormal occasionally breaks through. When our 11 year old son asks, if he can walk past a Roma house or should use another route, so that “people won’t think he is trying to provoke someone,” it gives away the deep uncertainty and tension that even the children feel.

I do not want to play down the circumstances which led up to this present escalation. We have delinquency here – probably more than in other parts of the country – there is unemployment here and abuse of social benefits, gambling, prostitution and drugs. Certainly there are also people who are difficult to have living with in the same building or the same street. And along with all of this comes growing anger, helplessness, and anxiety among people.

But it is frightening how unanimously the community has found its scapegoat, which is at fault for everything, and how radically they are calling for a violent “solution” to the problem. It is frightening to realize that for such an outburst of hate and racism only a small impulse, a little exaggeration in the media and from politicians, a very little falsification of the truth, a bit of one-sided presentation, seems to be enough. It is frightening to think that pogroms are not improbably far off, but conceivable.

Meanwhile, the focus of the tensions has moved to Varnsdorf, 10 kilometers away, where currently, there have been demonstrations and marches through the city several times a week. Mostly they go with racist slogans and threat to a Roma residence. The police, who originally came to the region to put a stop to delinquency crime, must now protect Roma lodgings against encroachments.

Among the people, the simple equation is: crime = Roma. The solution: The Roma must leave, somehow. “We no longer live in the (good old) times of peace, in which we could afford to think about integration,” according to the open letter of the Rumburk mayor referenced above.

The fact that by no means all crimes here are committed by Roma, that it is mostly “white” Czechs who buy stolen property or who make money from moving Roma into the community, that the demonstrations in Varnsdorf were organized by someone who, as a dishonest assistant to a Minister, swindled the State out of 2 million Czech crowns, doesn’t seem to interest anyone. Racism is portrayed as a struggle for security and justice and therefore as legitimate, and anyone who comes out against it must accept being accused of defending criminality and injustice.

It is possible that the media will soon lose interest, the demonstrators will get tired, the Special Forces will leave. The hate between people, however, will probably not disappear so easily. That it is possible to wish openly for the death of others and earn applause for it, and that even their own parents approve of it, will stick in the minds of some children. That is perhaps the worst thing about it.

In the beginning of September we met with representatives of the Roma and representatives of several non-profit organizations and discussed what we could do in this situation. We produced a Declaration Against Racism and Violence and an initiative “Light for the Sluknovska Region” – peaceful gatherings that should take place on Friday evenings in various locations in the region. The first meeting took place on September 9 in the protestant church in Rumburk. About 50 people gathered, spoke about their feelings, expressed sadness, asked for hope, prayed, and lit candles.

To say no to racism and violence is actually something quite normal, but not at this time and this region. When the declaration was signed, one of the Roma asked if we were not afraid of losing our jobs by signing the declaration. One of the moderators at the first meeting of “Light for the Sluknovska region” claimed that “It takes courage to come here to the church today.” Even that seems to me, a couple of days later, to be unreal, but we all probably felt that way at that time.

We understand that these meetings will not resolve the conflict. Nonetheless, it seems important to me that in the midst of so much hate-filled shouting other voices should be raised, and that we show each other that we are not alone.

Constance Šimonovská
Rumburk, September 16, 2011