Ust-Abakan tragedy

Problems of Roma people are rarely reported on TV or in the press, and if they are being discussed, then, as a rule, the media often use negative stereotypes and myths that have little to do with real life. An incident that occurred recently in the small town of Ust-Abakan in Khakassia region went almost unnoticed. It happened in a place where a Roma settlement existed quietly and peacefully for the past 20 years. The settlement lived quietly until last May, when a Russian young man named Petr died next to the Roma houses. During a conflict, Peter received a blow on the head and died. Following the death of a young man local investigators opened a criminal case with charges of “deliberate infliction of serious harm to health”.

Almost immediately after the incident, the residents of the Roma settlement, which counted more than 500 dwellers, were forced to leave their homes and flee the place. According to the local Roma, their settlement was fired at, and one day unknown masked persons came on motorcycles and scattered funeral wreaths near the Roma houses. Roma people fled anywhere they could: some lived in the forest for several days, others spent nights on the road at nearby roadside cafes, those who could, went to stay over with their relatives elsewhere.

Immediately after the flight of the Roma from the settlement, pogroms began there that lasted for five days. During this time, the locals stole almost everything that could be carried away: furniture, home appliances, windows, roofing. Some even broke down the stoves and sawed off heating pipes. Some neighbors tried to report on the pogroms, but they were told by the police that nothing could be done, that supposedly there were reports that the houses and other property there were sold to new owners, and that somehow there was no reason for police to come.

Only after local journalists had publicized the horrendous pictures of the consequences of the pogrom, the police finally arrived and reported that they will check “the appeals of citizens”. There was no talk of initiating a criminal investigation concerning destruction of the whole settlement, as the police somehow did not consider these actions of the local population to be criminal. Now the police officers are on duty round the clock at the settlement, but it is unclear why: there is nothing to take out of the houses anymore. If the police is still afraid of arson, then why did not they come when they were called earlier, after all, the vandals could have hypothetically committed arsons before?

In order to find out what happened, we travelled to Ust-Abakan, to the place where a Roma band had lived just two months ago. The ravaged Roma settlement resembled the photo chronicle of Jewish pogroms of the last century: dilapidated houses with broken doors and windows, everything thrown outside into the courtyards. Only flocks of dogs running from place to place in search of food reminded about former life there.

When we began to interview the locals about what really happened there, a slightly different picture began to appear than the one given in the majority of reports. Town residents said that the Roma settlers had never harmed anyone, and the death of a young guy was a tragic accident that resulted from a conflict provoked by the deceased himself. According to eyewitnesses, he appeared in the Roma settlement already drunk and tried to provoke a fight, and when he was pushed back, he fell and smashed his head. This was preceded by a skirmish provoked by himself in a local pub, which had to be settled by the police, which arrived on the spot. Petr was not detained then and the police only limited its intervention to oral restraint. After arriving to the Roma settlement, next to which lived one of his friends, Petr began to speak aggressively with the local residents, insulted them. An argument arose, which ended with one of the Roma people pushing Petr.

It is the duty of the investigators to define who was to blame and how it all happened. The guilty person must certainly be found and punished by law. However, those who have ruined dozens of houses of innocent people must be held accountable. Some people suggested that the Roma people hide the murderer, and if they had “surrendered” him at once, then perhaps the pogrom of the village could have been avoided. However, the latter would hardly be possible, because the actual cause of the riots was not the death of a young man – people who smashed the settlement did not want to take revenge on the murderer. Why wasn’t the local administration concerned about the safety of the Roma population after the incident, while it obviously knew that the death of a Russian young man in the settlement could provoke revenge on the part of local residents? It is also unclear why the law enforcement agencies reacted in such a careless manner to the phone calls about the plundering of Roma houses, while the local authorities now actually cover the actions of marauders. The police refuses to classify the pogrom as a mass riot, or even as hooliganism, because there had been only one formal statement concerning theft, but there were no victims. As one of the residents of the Roma settlement told us: “We lived quietly and peacefully, but then came one drunk man and ruined our whole life”.

The risk to find oneself without a roof over one’s head is facing thousands of Roma people living all over Russia. And this is not because somebody from their communities commits crimes. As citizens of Russia, they have the right to both social and medical assistance, education, etc., but because of the multitude of prejudices it is somehow considered that all this is not necessary for the Roma people. The anger and aggression of the majority is caused by the simplicity and naivety of the Roma, and not by the footage of the whole settlement destroyed by the vandals or, as was the case in Tula region, the actions of riot police against elderly unarmed Roma women who had tried to protect their houses from demolition. All this is a direct consequence of the authorities’ lack of desire to deal with the problems of the Roma people, and consequently, to help them implement their rights. That is why when the local administration sues Roma people for illegal construction, as was the case in Tatarstan and Kaliningrad, the matter is “easily solved” by means of demolition of the settlements, and when the Roma people attempt to start a legal case on theft, as in Ust-Abakan, the investigation does not have enough reasons to look for the guilty party.

In August 2017 the Russian state delegation reported in Geneva on the implementation of the provisions of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The state report noted that “Russia took an active part in the efforts of international organizations aimed at real improvement of the situation of the Roma, their integration into the life of modern society”. Despite such vocal statements, there are practically no positive examples of improving the life of the Roma in Russia, as the case in Ust-Abakan confirmed once again.

To this date, only a fraction of the residents of the Ust-Abakan Roma settlement have found refuge with relatives in neighboring Krasnoyarsk. About 200 people tried to settle near Sosnovoborsk, buying land there, but in the end could not settle there. No crimes were committed during their stay in Sosnovoborsk, no one was disturbed, as had been stated by the representatives of the Sosnovy Bor police department, but some local residents organized the collection of signatures for the expulsion of the Roma, giving “the risk of an epidemic of diseases” and “the lifestyle of Roma, which is dangerous for the town” as reasons for expulsion. Roma people have nowhere to go. It seems that in Ust-Abakan no one is waiting for them, too, same as everywhere in Russia.

First published in the blog of Radio Liberty