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Posts Tagged ‘Gypsies’

Behind the banner of The Slovak Brotherhood: "For God and Nation!" (Photo: mjj)

[The following post appeared March 14 on The Mantle. It was republished March 19 on “Roma Transitions.”]

BRATISLAVAOn the first sunny Saturday of spring, we stroll across downtown Bratislava to a friend’s afternoon party. Suddenly, the chanting of men echoes off the buildings. Several Slovak cops come into view, with arms crossed, eyeing the situation. The din grows louder, headed our way.

“Must be football fans,” I think. “Is there a World Cup qualifier?”

No, another kind of hooligan, as the sunlight shimmers off a couple hundred shaved heads. It’s the “Slovak Brotherhood” – or Slovenksa Pospolitost, also known as “Slovak Togetherness.” While the Brotherhood agitates against “parasites” — Gypsies, Hungarians, Jews, etc. — they don’t boast nearly the visibility of the Czech Republic’s “Workers’ Social Justice Party,” nor the appeal of extremist colleagues to the south, the “Hungarian Guard.” (That uniformed paramilitary is now menacing Roma villagers in Hungary’s Heves County, a region I profiled last year for its far-right support.)

As fish-out-of-water expats in Bratislava, this sort of happenstance sure keeps life interesting for us. Here we are, enjoying Slovakia’s pleasant capital on a sleepy weekend, as our two sons race and weave on their scooters, undisturbed. The next minute, we find ourselves anxiously wading through a skinhead demonstration. Ah, Central Europe.

On this day, we stumble upon the Brotherhood’s annual march to commemorate the 1939 creation of Slovakia’s Nazi puppet-state. Led by the Catholic priest, Jozef Tiso, Slovakia went along with Hitler’s plans and deported tens of thousands of Jews to Auschwitz. Tiso was hanged in 1947 for his collaboration.

These young fascists take “boneheadedness to new levels of delusion,” says David Keys, an English friend who teaches 20th-century history in Bratislava. “They have to create a reading of history in which the Thousand Year Nazi racial hierarchy would have allotted Slovakia a privileged position forever shoulder to shoulder with Nazi Germany as a nation of honorary Aryans, and disregard every utterance Hitler ever made about Slavs, and every action taken against Czechs, Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs and indeed Slovak resisters.”

So here’s the Brotherhood, chanting allegiance to Tiso, whose rehabilitation has been a cause célèbre for Slovakia’s far-right. Especially, Jan Slota and his Slovak National Party, which until 2010 was for four years part of the ruling coalition. I see no counter-protest, though I later learn that an anti-fascist event, “Enough of Silence,” was sponsored the night before.

Without a camera, I fumble for my IPhone. Emboldened by the proximity of police — I’m always at my bravest with cops around — I inch closer to snap a few shots. My wife scurries along with the kids. Once I catch up, I give my sons a brief lesson on World War II – and the right to free speech today.

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[This podcast aired on Oct. 5, 2010, by the World Policy Institute.]

World Policy on Air podcast: Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan, a journalist based in Central Europe and author of “The Roots of Hate,” published in the World Policy Journal’s Fall 2010 edition, believes that the ruling Fidesz party, the overwhelming winners in Sunday’s nationwide municipal elections, must now make good on their promises for prosperity and jobs if they are to cement their center-right hold on their nation.

At the same time, they must also reconcile Hungarian distrust of the Roma with obligations to the European Union. He also discusses the factors leading to the power of the right-wing in Central Europe. Finally, Jordan describes his experiences in Hong Kong teaching mainland Chinese journalists how to blog.

Jordan is a guest of World Policy Journal editor David A. Andelman on the weekly World Policy on Air podcast.

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[This piece appeared Sept. 2 on TOL’s Roma Blogs.]

The Slovak flag at half-mast today on a Bratislava street. (Photo: mjj)

BRATISLAVA – In April 1999, when two American teens mowed down 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, it was a watershed moment for the country. It spawned all sorts of soul-searching and debate, on everything from gun-control laws and teen bullying to vicious video games and use of anti-depressants. It also inspired Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary on gun violence in the U.S.

In other words, a healthy response to trauma may be to look in the mirror and ask: “Does this say something about our society? Does it say something about us? Does it say something about me?”

Yet most Slovaks, it seems, want no such introspection.

Bratislava was the scene Monday of the worst massacre in Slovakia’s 17-year history, in which a lone gunman killed seven people, including six members of the same family, and injured another 15. In a flash, tiny Slovakia made global headlines. Yet the bigger story here for me – journalistically speaking – is not the bloodbath itself, but overall reaction to it: blame the victim.

You see, the family hailed from the Roma minority – a.k.a. the reviled “Gypsies.” And from the look of media reports, the thinking is that this Roma family must’ve done something to push their 48-year-old neighbor, described as moody loner Ľubomír Harman, over the edge into a murderous frenzy. (more…)

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[The following piece appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Ms. Magazine. My longer piece on the early-marriage controversy, for Transitions Online, is here. For more of my photos of the Kalderash enclave in Targu Jiu, click here.]

Raluca Mihai, age 15. (Photo: mjj)

TARGU JIU, Romania – Her headscarf is vibrant purple – a symbol of mourning in Targu Jiu, Romania.

But 15-year-old Raluca Mihai’s husband isn’t dead. Rather, her headscarf marks a personal tragedy that has rekindled controversy among the deeply traditional Kalderash Roma, a branch of the ethnic minority known pejoratively across Eastern Europe as “Gypsies.”

For the estimated 200,000 Kalderash in Romania, parents’ paramount duty is to preserve their daughter’s virginity until marriage.

Two years ago, however, when Mihai was 13 and engaged, her 15-year-old fiancé raped her, knowing it committed her to the nuptials. He grew so violent during their two-month marriage that she escaped to her parents. The scarf not only mourns her stolen virginity and failed matrimony, but also the unlikelihood that she’ll ever remarry.

“He ruined everything for me,” says the young woman, who had dropped out of school to wed.

In a community where virginity or its loss can mean pride or dishonor for a whole clan, Mihai’s situation is making waves. (more…)

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Inciting hatred via campaign billboard. (Credit: TASR)

[This post appeared May 25 on TOL’s “Roma Blog”]

BRATISLAVA – It started out this morning as a café breakfast with the press, for the European Roma Rights Center to introduce its range of litigation, advocacy and research to the handful of Slovak media even interested in Roma issues.

The chat, though, led inexorably to the role these reporters themselves – and especially, their less-empathetic colleagues – play in shaping harsh Slovak attitudes toward Roma, a.k.a. “the Gypsies.” For me, it also revealed the need here for what some call “human rights-based journalism.”

One reporter opened eyes with his calculation that of the 15 journalists in his office, “thirteen are racist.” Another admitted, “We live in a racist world, and my company is absolutely racist.”

This is no surprise to anyone living in Eastern Europe, where you’re hard-pressed to find any minority on the entire continent more harassed than the estimated 8 million to 12 million Roma.

Yet this is relevant today in Slovakia, on the eve of June 12 elections. Following in the footsteps of neighboring Hungary and its elections last month, the Roma question is once again an irresistible platform for parties pandering to a public ready to scapegoat minorities for their frustrations with the whole post-Communist transition. And oh, by the way, both countries are now members of the European Union — an exclusive club of European democracies.

Several Slovak parties, for example, are advocating the “voluntary” placement of Roma schoolchildren into new boarding schools – which smacks some as ethnic segregation.

More notoriously, the ruling coalition’s far-right partner, the Slovak National Party, produced billboards featuring a bare-chested, obviously Romani man, heavily tattooed and gold chain draped around his neck. Beneath, the slogan: “So that we don’t feed those who don’t want to work.” (It’s since been revealed that the photo was, in face, digitally altered for dramatic effect.)

Defending the billboard, one SNP official creatively – but unconvincingly – accused critics of being the real racists: after all, they were the ones who assumed the man was a Gypsy. (more…)

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[Note: The following commentary, entitled “Hatred and Democracy” appeared May 7, 2010, in the leading Hungarian daily, Népszabadság. For the English version, see the post below.]

Gyűlölet és demokrácia – Orbán most is hallgatni fog?

Michael J. Jordan

A Fidesz az általa megszerzett hatalmas többséggel, a politikáját elgáncsolni képes ellenzék hiányában – vagy megújítja Magyarország gazdaságát, vagy nem. Az idő majd eldönti, mivel ehhez hasonló helyzetre még nem volt példa.

A Fidesz kétharmados többsége vagy javít, vagy nem a határon túl kisebbségben élő, zaklatott magyarság helyzetén azzal, ha a párt tartja magát ígéretéhez, és állampolgárságot ad nekik.

Az idő majd eldönti, mivel ehhez hasonló helyzetre még nem volt példa. És vajon a Fidesz elsöprő többsége jót tesz-e majd a magyar demokráciának, különösen a demokrácia minőségének? Nos, erről már van tanulságos példánk: Orbán Viktor első miniszterelnöki ciklusa.

Éppen ez az, ami nyugtalanít engem, a több tucat magyar rokonnal bíró amerikait, aki külföldi tudósítóként hat évig Budapesten élt, négy éve pedig a szomszédos Szlovákiából tudósít.

Azokban az elemzésekben, amelyek megpróbáltak magyarázatot találni a Jobbik feltűnő térhódítására, kevés szó esett az elmúlt évtizedben a sajtóban és a parlamentben egyaránt elburjánzó uszításról és gyűlöletről a kisebbségekkel és a politikai ellenfelekkel szemben.

Az én hazámban, az Egyesült Államokban is átitatja a társadalmat az egyes politikusok, kommentátorok szájából áradó gyűlöletbeszéd, mely a hallgatóság legmélyebb félelmeit mozgósítja, és a félelem új forrásait fakasztja fel. A különbség az, hogy Washingtonban még néhány felelősen gondolkodó republikánus is fellép ez ellen, és kimondja: „Van egy határ, amit nem szabad átlépni”.

Amikor majd a parlament üléstermében a Jobbik ott liheg a nyakában, tesz-e majd Orbán bármit, hogy csillapítsa a démonizálás szenvedélyét, amely szétszakítja a magyar demokráciát? Miként reagál majd, ha reagál egyáltalán, amikor a Jobbik rádobja az első verbális gránátokat a „cigány bűnözőkre” vagy az „izraeli tőkésekre”. Nehéz derűlátónak lenni, mivel tíz évvel ezelőtt maga Orbán is szította az efféle szenvedélyeket. (more…)

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[The following is the original English version of a May 7 commentary published in the Hungarian daily, Népszabadság. See post above.]

BRATISLAVA – The Fidesz super-majority may or may not rejuvenate Hungary’s economy, without a pesky opposition to block its new policies. Time will tell, as there’s no precedent for such a situation.

The Fidesz super-majority may or may not improve life for harassed ethnic Hungarians across the borders, if the party follows through on its vow to grant them citizenship. Time will tell, as there’s no precedent for such a situation.

But will the Fidesz super-majority enhance Hungarian democracy? Specifically, the quality of its democracy? For that, we do have precedent: Viktor Orban’s first run as prime minister.

That’s what concerns me, as an American with dozens of Hungarian relatives – and as a foreign correspondent who lived for six years in Budapest, then the last four next door in Slovakia.

Among all the analysis I’ve read that tries to interpret the remarkable rise of Jobbik, I see little mention of the incitement and hatred that has flourished over the past decade: whether against minorities or political opponents, whether in the media or even on the floor of Parliament.

As in my country, the United States, the drumbeat of hate speech from certain politicians and commentators now permeates society, stoking the audience’s deepest fears – or creating fears they never had before. The difference between here and there, though, is that even some responsible Republicans now stand up to say: “There’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed.”

When Jobbik is breathing down his neck from across the aisle of Parliament, will Orban do anything to extinguish the flames of demonization that tear at Hungarian democracy? How will he react, if at all, to the first verbal grenades that Jobbik lobs at “Gypsy criminals” or “Israeli investors”?

I find it difficult to be optimistic, since Orban himself fanned those flames ten years ago. (more…)

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Nedzmije Selimi (Photo: mjj)

[The following piece appeared in the April 29 edition of Transitions. For more photos, see the post below.]

After 10 years, many Romani refugees from the Kosovo conflict can neither return to their old homes nor build new ones abroad.

By Michael J. Jordan and Shejla Fidani, 29 April 2010

ŠUTO ORIZARI, Macedonia, and POMAZATIN, Kosovo | The anguish is etched on Nedzmije Selimi’s face even before she starts talking.

In a gray-and-white headscarf and threadbare vest, she lets loose with her lament. First, she lost her husband to a brain aneurysm, which left her to raise their son alone in Kosovo, a society on the brink of war. After NATO intervened with 78 days of air strikes, she grabbed her 8-year-old boy and fled a bloodthirsty climate, south to neighboring Macedonia.

Selimi and tens of thousands of other Kosovo Roma feared vengeance from ethnic Albanians returning after their own cleansing, at the hands of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. While the Albanians blamed Serbs for the campaign, they also accused the Roma of collaboration.

At 53, Selimi has been a refugee for 10 years. She lives on the edge of the Macedonian capital, Skopje – and on the edge of a country that has shown little hint of hospitality. She describes her struggle to raise a son, now 18, amid joblessness estimated at 80 percent for the Roma here. Since the NATO bombardment, her son suffers anxiety and nose bleeds. He hasn’t been to school in 10 years. So she goes job-hunting for him.

“It’s hard to keep a child on the right track, to teach him not to steal,” she says, on the verge of tears. “If there were jobs here, I’d gladly work myself.”

Selimi is one of the Kosovo conflict’s oft-forgotten refugees, the Roma.

Kosovo today is independent but fragile. And one of the most sensitive postwar issues is how to restore “multiethnicity,” to beat back the notion that ethnic cleansing ultimately triumphed. Most symbolically, the question is how to secure the return of Kosovo Serbs to their historic heartland while not triggering another round of revenge killings that strains regional stability.

But without the Kosovo Roma, who constituted a significant slice of the prewar population, any claim of a multiethnic Kosovo would ring hollow.

(more…)

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SHUTKA, Macedonia — As described in the article above, 1,600-plus Kosovo Roma refugees continue to live in limbo in neighboring Macedonia. My batch of photos here illustrates their existence today. Click here for my earlier photo essay on the ethnically cleansed Roma who were resettled into toxic UN camps.

Roma boys play football in Shutka, the Skopje suburb where most of the Kosovo refugees remain.

Refugee leader Musharem Gashnani accuses the international community of abandoning them.

For more photos … (more…)

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[The following appeared April 20 in The Mantle.]
 
MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary – The Hungarian restaurateur in a Harley Davidson jacket wants you to know he’s not a fascist. Nor a racist. And certainly no anti-Semite. He has a Jewish friend, he says, and expresses sympathy for his Holocaust-surviving father.

“Zsuzsa!” he suddenly calls out to one of his restaurant workers – a Romani woman wearing a white cap, t-shirt and apron. “How do you feel here?” he asks tenderly, touching her shoulder. “Does anyone bother you?”

“No, never!” she says, flashing a smile, but with a look of understandable bewilderment.

“That’s good,” he says. “Sorry to interrupt you.”

As she walks off, the restaurateur leans in, lowers his voice. “And she’s one hundred percent Gypsy,” he says. “If I’m a Nazi, why would I hire Gypsies?”

Miklos and Maria Kraz, in the doorway of their shop, like the new right-wing combo. (Photo: mjj)

With his anti-racist bona fides out of the way, the man dives back into the topic at hand.

“Why do we never hear about Slovak criminals, or German criminals, or Greek criminals,” he asks, “but we only hear about Gypsy criminals and Jewish criminals?”

The businessman is a zealous supporter of Jobbik, the hard-right party that for two solid years has demonized the Roma and Jewish minorities, who comprise some 500,000 and 100,000, respectively, of a population of 10 million.

The Jobbik message strikes a chord. On April 11, the party raked in a stunning 17 percent of the vote in national elections – a record high for such parties in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, especially the 10 that are now members of the European Union. (more…)

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Just one of the regal touches at the king's home; this from his front gate. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania — It’s not often you get a chance to interview royalty. Especially when that king inherited the throne from a father who anointed himself king. So, I’m blogging about him twice. (See below: “The King and Carrie Bradshaw.”)

Saturday afternoon, the self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies, Florin Cioaba, graciously sat with us for two hours. (I brought a modest box of chocolates, as a token of appreciation.)

Sure, he barely stifled his yawns during our chat. But he also tolerated us, as we peppered him about early-teen marriage among the “Kalderash” Roma. Including, his own daughter’s media circus of a wedding in 2003.

What we were especially curious about, even more than the king’s opinion, was his daughter’s. After all, Ana-Maria is now a young woman of 19 or 20, married nearly seven years. (With one son, aged 4.) What does she think today about teen marriage? About her own marriage? And what about pressure on her community, from both Bucharest and Brussels, to change this tradition?

Our team – Romani journalist Petru Zoltan, our spirited Romanian interpreter, Lavinia Gliga, and I, the journalism trainer – dropped in on the king without warning. This was Petru’s idea, as he assumes the role of guru of all things related to the so-called “Gypsy mentality.”

Petru had interviewed Cioaba once before, as an investigative reporter for Romanian newspaper National Journal. He predicted that if we pre-arranged a meeting, the king would dodge us somehow. I trusted Petru’s take, so we drove four hours to historic Sibiu, banking on this gamble that he would for sure be home when we came a-knockin’. Then, talk to us.

Yet this is exactly what happened … (more…)

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Kalderash life is light years from Manhattan. (Photo: mjj)

SIBIU, Romania – A scoop just for you: the King of the Gypsies is no fan of “Sex and the City.”

We’re here largely to interview Florin Cioaba’s daughter, Ana-Maria, who was at the heart of an early-teen controversy seven years ago. He told us he married her off at “13-and-a-half or 14,” though media reports then suggested she might be as young as 12. Her groom was 15.

Cioaba described the parental challenges for deeply traditional “Kalderash” Roma who are raising daughters in an era soaked with raunchy images from MTV, Hollywood and everywhere else. One source of blame pricked my ear: Sex and the City.

This was actually the second time in recent months that I’ve heard someone blame the racy HBO series for loosening societal mores. The first was in stylish Hong Kong, from a Chinese student of mine from the less-stylish mainland.

My student, a wholesome-looking 25-year-old, explained how some classmates, influenced by watching Carrie Bradshaw and her posse prowl for romance, urged her to dress more sexily, less bookish, join them at the trendy nightclubs, and … you know. But she was resisting. A couple months later, though, I couldn’t help but notice her sleek new haircut.

Here in Sibiu, the Kalderash Roma are under pressure to end their practice of early-teen marriage, especially the sacred ritual of proving the bride’s virginity by parading the bloodied sheet. Legal intercourse in Romania begins at 18.

Holding off, though, has serious costs, says the king. Thanks in part to Sex and the City, some Kalderash girls want to delay marriage – and chase a bit of fun beforehand. “Here’s what our girls learn from the show: in the morning, she’s with one guy, in the afternoon, another, and at night, a third,” Cioaba lamented. “This is the education we want for our daughters?”

Evidently, not. Meanwhile, has Sex and the City become a global phenomenon, reverberating through conservative cultures, fomenting female rebellion and sexual emancipation? It’s worth a closer look.

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