Ethnic tensions rack north Bohemian town of Varnsdorf

Photo: CTK

The Czech Republic is experiencing something unseen in its modern history. After two decades of neglecting the problems of the country’s Romany minority, ethnic and social tensions erupted last month in a remote northern Bohemian district of Šluknov where thousands of people take to the streets every weekend to protest against the Romanies and their lifestyle.

Protests in Varnsdorf,  photo: CTK
The north Bohemia town of Varnsdorf recently experienced scenes that were until now only seen in news from foreign countries. But now, thousands of locals in Varnsdorf, Rumburk and other towns of the area now march on houses where impoverished Romanies live, shouting slogans like “Gypsies get jobs”.

In the streets of Varndosrf, I asked some of the people what had sparked the wave of anti-Roma sentiment.29-year-old Linda, who would not disclose her full name, had this to say.

“I have an eight-year-old daughter. She was playing in the playground and some Romanies came up to her – kids, 9 or 10 years old – and said, ‘give us your phone or we’ll beat you up. And my daughter gave it to them because she was scared.”

Linda’s story is unfortunately not unique. The tension between Romanies and a great part of the majority population erupted after Romanies last month attacked the patrons of several local bars and mugged people in the street.

Many in Varnsdorf, Rumburk and other towns believe that unlike Romanies who have lived there for years, it is the newly arrived members of the Roma minority who are causing the biggest trouble.

“Why don’t our local Romanies, who have lived here for years and cause no trouble, why don’t they go and set the newcomers straight? People tend to tar them with the same brush which I think is wrong – there are Romanies here who are fine and have jobs, usually the kind of work Czechs would not do. I see them sweep the streets and so on – not many Czechs would do that.”

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
The local authorities as well as government officials however believe the roots of the problem are much more complex.

It’s true that dozens of Romanies moved to the Šluknov region in recent months, either because of problems they had wherever they lived before or because real estate sharks moved them out of their homes and brought there here where housing is cheap. But the local white people who themselves often have low-paying jobs and are at risk of slipping into long-term unemployment, just don’t like the idea that while they have to work hard to make ends meet, they see Romanies as having it much easier. Martin Louka is the mayor of Varndorf.

“Some people have got used to receiving money without work. That’s one of the basic problems and that’s what people are complaining about. A lady came into my office and showed me how much she made and how much she had to put aside for bills; then she pointed out how much people get in benefits without having to do anything. I have to say I got her point when she said that next week, she would be joining in the march again.”

Varnsdorf – a town of 16,000 people - has an unemployment rate of around 20 percent. Within the Romany community, however, the jobless rate is estimated at between 90 and 100 percent. Most Romanies in the area live on welfare, and the situation is not likely to improve without targeted intervention from the authorities.

Several blocks away from the town centre is one of the infamous boarding houses inhabited almost exclusively by Romanies. One of them is Anton Godla.

Illustrative photo
“My three sons also live here, and my grandchildren, and we all live on welfare. There is no work for us. When they see a Romany, there is no work. Only the town gives us work for 30 hours a week, which is what we have to do now to get welfare. But we observe the law, just like white people.”

Mr Golda and others in the council block of flats are there when every Saturday, hundreds of locals come and yell at them to go to work, and even shout that Romanies should be gassed. Another Romany man, who would not reveal his name, also blames the newcomers. He says the protests are not organized by people who live in town.

“It’s not the local people. I’ve lived here for 40 years, I was born here, and local people never yelled at me. When we go to the pub for some beer, we sit together and there is no problem. But after what happened in Rumburk and here, people blame all Romanies. But this boarding house never caused any trouble for anyone.”

But again, the situation is more complex than many would like to think. Although the protests are organized by a man called Lukáš Kohout, a notorious local impostor who seeks to attract attention, hundreds of people come to them. Mayor Louka again.

“It did not happen all of a sudden, the situation had been escalating for some time. Then there were some attacks that stirred public anger, and the situation got out of control. There is one man here who started organizing these rallies, and frustrated local people joined in.”

A number of NGOs have been working in the area helping Romanies and trying to diffuse tension. However, only a few of those involved are willing to talk. One of them was an Old Catholic priest, Roland Solloch, who came here 10 years ago from Poland.

Photo: CTK
“Together with some people in the area, we founded the initiative we call “Light for the Šluknov Region”. People meet in churches in peace, talk, and light candles. It began in Rumburk, now it was here in Vanrsdorf, and it’s going to move to other places. We don’t want violence and aggression – we want a peaceful solution to the problem.”

Father Solloch, who is married and has three children, says he understands how the local people feel.

“It might sound bad but if I wasn’t a priest, I might join the rallies as well – not to protest against the Romanies but to protest against injustice. I’m a father of three, I go to work and make money. But when you look at the Romanies who sit around and get more in welfare that someone who works – that’s injustice. Another thing is growing crime – there are many muggings, kids are scared to go to school. So these are the two issues – welfare and crime.”

This week, the Czech government did what experts have been calling for for years: it adopted a comprehensive strategy aimed at integrating the Romany community. The strategy includes a fundamental step - putting an end to the widely accepted practice of placing Romany children in special schools. Father Solloch again.

“It can only have a long term solution. I think education is the key. I teach at the local grammar school, and I had several really good Romany students, they passed their exams and did really well. But they had left the community and integrated in society. That was probably the main reason why they did so well. Unless that happens, I think the problem will never be resolved.”

This coming Saturday, hundreds of people will again gather outside the Varnsdorf town hall to demand that the mayor and the whole town council step down. In his office, Mayor Louka hopes the government has finally come to realize that swift action is needed. He says more jobs – for Romanies and for white Czechs alike – are an absolute necessity.

Photo: CTK
“What we are asking for is primarily that the police reinforcements stay here, and we would also like to get more funds to be able to create more jobs. The unemployment here is around 20 percent, and it does not only affect Romanies. These rallies don’t just express hatred towards the Romany minority - people are disgruntled with the welfare system in general.”

Most people in Varnsdorf predict the ethnic tension will soon spread to other towns in northern Bohemia and elsewhere in the country. But they also seem to understand just how long the way ahead will be before bridges between the two communities are built.