Voices From Hell

Stephania Koulaeva on the Sufferings of the Roma

Much of the world’s attention is currently fixed on Ukraine. People in various countries are following the news closely, learning the names of Ukrainian cities, taking in refugees, and sending humanitarian packages. Many are shocked by evidence of the aggressors’ harsh behavior, violence against civilians, and rapes and killings. The testimony of survivors will become important evidence of a crime that took place in front of the entire world. But this didn’t all start in 2022. It must be recognized that the war crimes, pogroms, marauding, and violence against civilians became well-known to residents of Ukraine’s eastern regions back in 2014, but received far less attention from the world community at that time.

Over all these years, human rights defenders in Donbas have been observing and collecting information. What is happening now in many parts of Ukraine is a repeat of Russia’s aggression in 2014, only on a much larger and, therefore, much more noticeable scale. The entire population of this enormous country is suffering. Millions of Ukrainians have become refugees and have lost their homes. Some people have not been able to leave or could not make the decision to leave. For many, this is not the first time they have had to live through terror, the horror of shelling, and a lack of food and water – such is the fate of residents of the long-suffering Donbas. The victims include the Roma population of Ukraine who are residents of Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Kherson and other oblasts.

Since the start of Russian aggression and hostilities in Ukraine, the Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial has regularly monitored the situation of the Roma minority in the conflict zone. In 2015, we published the human rights report “Roma and War.” This was later supplemented with the photo report “For Today, They Don’t Seem to be Shooting,” which was about the situation in frontline settlements in 2016–2017. Unfortunately, this topic still needs to be covered, and even more carefully than before. To mark International Roma Day, in April 2022 we published the accounts of witnesses to the events – Roma who are the victims of this new stage in the war. The publication is called “The Roma of Ukraine: Voices From Hell,” with the subheadline “Discrimination, Epidemic, War.”

In reality, all these misfortunes descended upon the Roma population one after the other: It was just becoming possible to live after the terrifying events of 2014-2016 when the COVID‑19 pandemic started, affecting the tabor population. Right in the middle of the most recent wave of the pandemic, a new invasion occurred, unleashing a large-scale war. Then there were disruptions in the supply of vitally important products, gas, and cash. Banks closed and people were not able to withdraw funds from their accounts. According to one female resident of Toretsk in Donbas (a frontline city right on the border of the unrecognized Donetsk people’s republic): “Everything started suddenly, so many families were left with nothing. They had no extra food supplies, and prices for food products are high. If this is a huge catastrophe for us, imagine what it’s like for the Roma. They naturally have nothing to eat. They say they don’t even have money for bread. They’re actually crying. Everyone lives from paycheck to paycheck, but the Roma population lives from child support payment to child support payment. It’s hardest for them now. They have a minimum of four children in each family, but often more.”

Part of the Roma population found itself in occupied territory. Roman from Kherson Oblast recounted how terrifying it was to even leave the house: “I recently wanted to go to the store. I got into the car and saw that a Russian tank and two cars carrying soldiers were driving down our street. I got very scared and just kept sitting in the car. Then I got out and returned home. Some Roma tried to leave, but the Russian soldiers are turning everyone back… In Vysokopillya, Kherson Oblast, Russian soldiers turned a Roma home into something like a hotel and are now living in it. They took anything of value. They took away the owner’s car. The houses that Roma fled are occupied by Russian soldiers. They take the nicer homes… There have been cases where people have just disappeared.”

The most terrifying accounts are from Roma who fled Mariupol. They couldn’t leave their cellars for weeks, and they couldn’t even let their loved ones know that they were alive. Many disappeared or died. The people who left recall their trip out of the city with terror: “We saw many cars that had been shot up with dead people in them. We covered our child’s eyes so he couldn’t see anything. There were bodies everywhere. The people who had survived were like zombies – they were very dirty and their eyes were filled with terror. I saw a person drinking water from a puddle. There were checkpoints with the Z symbol at every step… We were dragged out of our car and searched from head to toe. They went through all our things in the car. Some of the soldiers behaved very aggressively. They interrogated us for a long time several times because they didn’t like the fact that we are Roma. They suspected us of something, but they didn’t say what specifically. They asked for money, but we didn’t have any. They asked where we were from, what we were doing, and where we were going. They asked why we were staying in Ukraine and not going to Russia or Crimea. This really made them furious.”

Roma who survived the occupation of 2014-2015 and have passed through the checkpoints of Russian troops before are well acquainted with discrimination. This is why some were surprised to hear that EU countries receiving refugees behaved differently, without racial biases: “I used to cross the Russian-Ukrainian border often. They do a complete check. They check all your things. I thought that it would be the same here, but we were treated like human beings. No one paid attention to skin color, clothing, or nationality. After we went through passport control, we were met right away by Polish volunteers.” In one refugee camp in Germany, Roma explained their decision to leave Ukraine: “We were afraid that Russian soldiers would kill us and destroy us, like the Germans did in 1941.”

Stephania Kulaeva,
expert, Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial

First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda