Gypsies find strong ally as prejudice worsens


Attacks on Roma have intensified in several countries, writes DANIEL MCLAUGHLINin Sibiu, Romania

THE ROMA festival in the Transylvanian town of Sibiu felt like a carefree affair – the cobbled square of the old quarter filled with music and talk and late summer sun.

Dozens of Gypsies had gathered to play and sing and to sell their pottery, jewellery and metalwork to locals and tourists in this town in central Romania, whose medieval heart was renovated for its stint as European Capital of Culture in 2007.

With only a few policemen keeping a relaxed eye on proceedings, this was about as good as relations get between Gypsies and their neighbours in Romania and across eastern Europe, where discrimination against the continent’s largest ethnic minority is the norm, and violence is on the rise.

Far-right parties from Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria won seats in the European Parliament in June, and extremist attacks on Roma have intensified, with one Hungarian gang suspected of killing six Gypsies and injuring several more in the last year alone.

In Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, well organised nationalist groups regularly march through Roma districts to protest at what they call a wave of “Gypsy crime”, inflaming tension that has been intensified by the impact of the economic crisis on poor white families.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch appealed to local and foreign officials this week to halt a wave of attacks against Roma in Kosovo, where they and the minority Serbs were hounded by ethnic-Albanian gangs after the 1998-9 war for independence from Belgrade.

In Italy, mobs have razed Roma shanties and the government has a scheme to fingerprint all Gypsies to supposedly cut down on crime and begging, in what critics call a throwback to the racial registers compiled by the Fascists in the 1930s.

The cases are legion, and also occur close to home: the 100 or so Romanians who were forced to flee their homes in Belfast in June were Gypsies. As Roma cross a now almost “borderless” EU to the most prosperous part in the west, they are increasingly victims of attack in Ireland and Britain.

Amid all this hardship, Gypsies discovered last month that they had a new and powerful advocate.

At a 60,000-strong concert in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, Madonna paused between songs to comment on an issue that had been raised by Gypsy musicians in her troupe.

“It has been brought to my attention . . . that there is a lot of discrimination against Romanies and Gypsies in general in eastern Europe,” she said. “It made me feel very sad.” The response was instantaneous and, for Madonna, apparently shocking.

Boos and jeers echoed around the stadium and, while some fans appeared to be expressing their own opposition to discrimination, the majority seemed to disapprove of her comments.

A few cheered when she added, “We don’t believe in discrimination . . . we believe in freedom and equal rights for everyone,” but the boos returned when she criticised prejudice against homosexuals and others.

Some concert-goers complained that Madonna’s little lecture sounded trite. Others wished she had stuck to performing rather than declaiming on inter-ethnic Romanian relations.

But the incident won over at least one new Romanian fan to the so-called Queen of Pop – the self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies, Florin Cioaba.

“I am now having a special gold plate made, inscribed with the words: “For the Queen of Pop Madonna, for her fight against discrimination,” Cioaba said as he presided over last weekend’s festival in Sibiu.

“What she says is important in forming world opinion. We have been trying to get our message across for years. We failed and Madonna succeeded,” said the portly Cioaba, who inherited his regal but unofficial title from his father, Ion Cioaba, when he died in 1997. “I’m not a big fan of her music but I appreciate greatly what she said,” he added.

Little has improved for the continent’s Gypsies since most of central and eastern Europe joined the EU: Roma endure abysmal levels of education, healthcare and employment, largely because of discrimination but also due to their traditional way of life which favours early marriage, large families, and children foregoing school to work with their parents.

“Socially, things are getting worse. There are problems everywhere in the region and the tension is obvious. People are even getting killed,” said Cioaba. “The reaction that Madonna got proves that discrimination exists here. But that message shouldn’t have had to come from her, but from the leaders of the EU.”