Pogroms return

It is difficult to watch the recent videos of pogrom of Roma houses in Loschinovka (Odessa region, Ukraine), as so strikingly similar scenes from the past century come to mind. That’s exactly how it starts – groups of people head somewhere in a hurry, not yet knowing what exactly will happen next and how it will happen. At first, someone, still uncertain of himself, throws a stone through a window, and then with growing enthusiasm people start breaking lit windows of an apartment building, some of them break into the house and into the courtyard, trying to set something ablaze. Ordinary men, women and even children. Then they march through the streets in agitation, shouting “Gypsies out!”

A few representatives of the law enforcement walk around, obviously puzzled and disoriented… and they do nothing. Police reinforcements arrive only in the morning and they start to call for “stopping the chaos” for the first time. However, they are afraid and it is very noticeable. When the next day police officers are already well-armed and have considerable reinforcements, they escort several Roma women, who earlier had fled from the pogrom and then returned to pick up some things from their houses. But the police looks as frightened as the Roma people they escort, the latter clinging to them for protection. Local authorities, meanwhile, state that Roma people should be expelled, although it is necessary “to act within the legal framework” (without specifying how this mayhem may be in any way legitimate). Local dwellers get noticeably fierce at the mentioning of “the law”, as they have their own conception of justice. One of them formulates it as follows: “The Gypsies arrived just three years ago and did not consider those who lived here already for 200 years”. None of those living here have lived in the village for as much as 200 years, though, and the Roma families were not all newcomers. But it does not seem to matter much.

The pretext for the pogrom, which was immediately sharply condemned in a joint statement made by the Ukrainian and Russian human rights activists, had been indeed a real tragedy: murder of a 9-year-old girl. But this was just a pretext – or, as the Odessa television reporters vividly expressed it, – “the last straw” that caused “people’s anger”. I do not know what sounds more horrible here, calling a pogrom “manifestation of people’s wrath” or comparing a child’s murder with a drop…

The pogromists themselves in the numerous videos of their speeches preferred to speak not so much about the death of the girl, but about drugs, which allegedly began to be sold in the vandalized homes of Roma in recent years. Mikhail Saakashvili, Odessa governor, who arrived to Loschinovka in person, also accused local judges of being inactive and of thus encouraging people to take immediate steps in a fight against the drug dealers, which obviously had extrajudicial nature. If the connection between the problem of drug trafficking (a serious problem, no doubt) and the murder of a girl in Loschinovka indeed existed, this was not at all obvious from the footage and other materials related to the tragedy. What is clear, though, is that it was only the Roma houses that had been vandalized and the shouts of hundreds of people “Gypsies out!” leave no doubt that the aggression was aimed against people of a certain ethnic group, all of them, indiscriminately. This, however, did not stop the governor, who posed as a fighter against drug dealers, to state that “There are no ethnic conflicts here”.

We leave it to the governor to deal with the spread of drugs, since he suddenly had an eye-opening experience regarding this problem (but for some reason only in that particular district of the region, it seems). However, it is much more important to understand the link between the attacks on Roma homes and the death of a girl in Loschinovka. The girl went missing from home at night and the next morning, according to her mother, her dead body was found nearby with numerous wounds from stabbing. On one of the videos her mother even claimed that neighbors had heard the cries of the girl, who had been raped, but did not intervene, thinking that perhaps the screams were made by “an adult woman” (which, if we accept this statement as true, adds a finishing touch to the collective portrait of the residents of Loschinovka).

Suspicion for the brutal murder fell onto a close friend of the deceased girl’s stepfather by the name of Mikhail, who was immediately detained. Mikhail, the son of a local Roma woman and a Bulgarian, who lived all his life in Loschinovka, was a friend of the girl’s stepfather since his childhood and frequented their house. On some occasions even the girl’s mother left him to watch over the children, she said. Investigators will have to establish what exactly happened that night, why the girl’s parents’ friend became her murderer (if this indeed was the case) and what is the evidence for this. So far, the only evidence against Mikhail was the blood-stained clothes found under the pillow of his father, who was sleeping. There were no witnesses to the murder so far and the suspect denies his guilt.

Consequently some of the Roma families, who had recently arrived to Loschinovka, were forcibly expelled by the pogroms. Their lives were barely saved from “popular anger” sparked by the crime, which was blamed on one of the natives of Loschinovka, whose father allegedly slept peacefully in the blood-stained clothes, but whom nobody touched. No one also touched the girl’s stepfather, although details of his alibi are contradictory: some reported that he was drunk and unconscious that night in his home, others reportedly saw him helping his wife cleaning the bar, while the children were left alone (this was also reported by the mother of the deceased girl).

Somebody already proposed to lynch the suspect or at least sentence him to death penalty during one of the television talk shows, while another participant in the show, Ilya Kiva, the former head of the Department for Combating Drugs of the National Police, welcomed the pogroms of Roma houses, likening them to… acts of civil courage during the Maidan revolution.

The problem of xenophobia against Roma people exists not only in Odessa region and not only in Ukraine. Fear and hatred of “strangers” gives rise to aggression, which is often used by politicians to their own ends. The law enforcement agencies also turn a blind eye to the vile passions of angry mobs or even push people to pogroms. Over the past 15 years many stories reminiscent of the tragedy in Loschinovka were reported to us by the victims. These were the stories of crimes against children, which immediately, without examining, were blamed on Roma people, simply because they were Roma. About 10 years ago a 5-year girl walked near her house in Krasnoyarsk and then suddenly disappeared. Her mother started to search for her immediately only to find the child’s mutilated body in the woods. Nearby residents rushed to evict Roma families from Central Asia, who had their camp nearby, but after the Roma were evicted, nobody continued to search the killer so much. It was only after a similar crime happened nearby that the police “remembered” that a criminal had lived in the same house, who had a previous history of crimes against children. If people would look for the real criminal instead of making pogroms against Roma, a child’s life could be saved.

In Leningrad region a similar story happened, when a 9-year girl went missing and her burnt corpse was found afterwards. There were no suspects in this crime at the time, but later police came across a homeless person, who had previously lived in one of the houses inhabited by Roma people, where the family of the disappeared girl also lived. Detained for 15 days for some offence, this “witness” then suddenly remembered that one night he heard two Roma persons discussing where to hide the girl’s corpse. Somehow the investigators were not surprised that the witness had understood what had been discussed by the Roma and that apparently these suspects, who always had spoken in Roma language between themselves, had decided to discuss what to do with the corpse in Russian. Roma men were arrested, although their friends and relatives claimed that they had been at home at the time of the crime. However, the testimonies of Roma witnesses were not accepted as proof of alibi…

This case then virtually collapsed in court, as there were no evidence against those arrested on charges of murdering the girl, and the judge understood this well. But as there were no other accused someone had to be condemned for the crime, and the Roma men were given 2 and 3 years of prison respectively – too little a prison term for a serious crime against a child and too big for something committed by someone else (as soon as the latter was never found ).

To my knowledge, the most outrageous story occurred in 2012 in Bryansk. A mother reported the disappearance of her baby. There were reports that some witness saw a woman with black hair dressed in bright clothes, who had a stroller with a child in it. Not surprisingly the suspicion fell on Roma dwellers of Bryansk, as there were several compact Roma settlements there. Experts of ADC “Memorial” were there and videotaped the police raid, which had been organized with the aim of searching for the missing child in Roma houses. All the Roma settlements were surrounded by armed police forces with dogs, all children under the age of 14 (although the police was looking for a baby!) were forcibly photographed, which instilled fear in the hearts of local children and their parents.

After a while, the police chief of Bryansk announced that the culprit had been found, the person who had been suspected from the very beginning. But the police chief said that the searches in the homes of local Roma people had been organized to lull the suspect’s vigilance! The child, as it had been discovered, had been killed by his stepfather, who together with the baby’s mother had decided to hide the crime. For this purpose he had dressed up in “quasi-gypsy” costume (a wig of black hair and a bright skirt) to shift attention to the Roma, commonly suspected of kidnapping children (although I know of no proven cases of such kidnappings). Certainly, in contrast to the other tragic cases cited above, this particular criminal case was investigated and completed. But at what cost! Hundreds of Roma families were scared to death for something that they didn’t do and were fearing possible taking away of their own children … And all this was done only to lull the criminal’s attention! It does not appear that these measures were at all essential to capture the real, and already known to the police, criminal. Rather it was an excuse to illegally break into Roma houses, get their documents checked and written down, people forcibly photographed, etc. Luckily no pogroms followed

During the many years of our experience, there was one sad and real case of the death of a child at the hands of a Roma criminal. But the convicted in this case was not the real killer, but a woman, who at the time of murder had been in prison. All of the participants in these events were Roma, immigrants from Western Ukraine, who lived on the outskirts of St.Petersburg in makeshift houses. One-and-a half-year-old child was taken care of by Zhanna Lakatosz, but when she was detained for theft, the child remained with her partner. A drunk man in anger hit a child on the head with a hammer, which was seen by one of the older children, who later told it in detail in court. The murdered child’s clothes also had prints of adult man’s shoes, too. But all this did not prevent the court and investigators from supporting the version of the actual killer and his mother, who had said that the baby had died of injuries caused by Zhanna Lakatosz (even though she had been in prison at the time). Zhanna was sentenced to 10 years in prison, deprived of her maternal rights, her young daughters were placed in an orphanage, subject to further adoption. This case of Zhanna Lakatosz has been later communicated by the European Court of Human Rights based on numerous violations in the criminal investigation.

It is not important to which ethnic group a particular perpetrator of crime belongs, it is only necessary to proceed from the principle of the presumption of innocence of anyone whose guilt is not proven. This particularly should be the case for the crimes, where guilt could be readily blamed on some particular groups, which are blamed for being “different” and easily accuses, expelled, subjected to pogroms.

It is terrible when crimes against children are being used as a pretext for opening a new witch-hunting season. Hasn’t the Beilis case taught us anything and is it doomed to be returning in other disguises?

Stefania KULAEVA

First published on the website of “Radio Liberty”

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