The murder of a young girl in a Ukrainian village has led to the expulsion of local Roma families. In the aftermath, observers are asking whether Roma have a place in today’s Ukraine. Українська
A barbie doll in a plastic case marks the patch of earth where her body was found. In the village square a hundred metres away, police loiter with Kalashnikovs, sheltering from the evening sun in a shady treeline. A cottage across from them stands abandoned, windows smashed, walls charred. The flames that consumed the house’s insides have reached out and licked black patterns on its white paint.
For two hundred years, Loshchynivka has been a quiet place to live. Flung out in the westernmost reaches of the Odessa region, southern Ukraine, the village is closer to Moldova and Romania than to the seat of its regional government. Farming dominates village life. Births, marriages and harvests mark its high points, funerals its low ones. Its 1,300 inhabitants - ethnic Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Russians and Roma - all share the same steady, predictable rural cycle. A cycle shattered by the murder of nine-year-old Angelina Моiseyenko on 27 August.
The savage nature of Angelina’s killing stunned the settlement’s close community. A local goat herder discovered her small body stripped, bruised and bloodied. She had been stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver.
“It was even worse than brutal - stab wounds and sticks penetrating everywhere they could,” said Viktor Paskalov, the village chief. “She was raped. The worst crime we’ve ever had.”
When her younger brother's testimony led officers to her suspected killer, 21 year-old Mykhail Chebotar, a half-Roma, half-Bulgarian man who had grown up with the girl’s stepfather, the villagers could not contain their fury. Thirsting to avenge a senseless, loathsome crime, they committed one of their own.
Watch this video of the attack on Roma homes in Loshchynivka, 27 August.
Although Chebotar was immediately detained, a mob of around 300 men and teenage boys charged through the tiny village, seeking out the homes of five ethnic Roma families.
“They gathered at five and by eight they started smashing up our houses and shouting,” said Zinaida Damaskina, a 30 year-old Roma woman forced to flee with her two young sons. “What did we have to wait for? When they will kill us? So we didn’t take anything. We didn’t have a choice. We could only run.”
The assailants, predominantly ethnic Bulgarians, overlooked the suspect’s mixed heritage in their eagerness to blame the crime on bad blood. They even overlooked the suspect’s family home and his relatives. Instead, the mob chased out unrelated Roma families, many with small children of their own. They hurled rocks, kicked in doors and set homes ablaze. A handful of uniformed police officers watched on, failing to stop the pogrom.
After the Roma had been hounded out, the village council passed a resolution attempting to legitimise the violence by formally expelling them. It organised buses to ferry them out to Izmail, the nearest town.
Old hatreds, new sparks
A picturesque city of some 72,000 people, Izmail perches on the last Ukrainian curve of the Danube river, flanked by the wild woodlands of Romania. The city’s once important port terminal is now a rusting Soviet relic, but the town retains a large and lively market.
Many of the region’s Roma sell clothes and vegetables there, so I stopped by a stall and asked a middle-aged Ukrainian woman where I might find Roma from Loshchynivka. After giving me directions, she offered me her unsolicited opinion of her fellow market vendors: “They should all be castrated, the gypsy bastards.”
The woman’s vitriol highlighted how events at Loshchynivka are only the latest symptom of a deep-rooted national disease, now metastasising at an alarming rate. Roma rights groups fear the murder has unleashed a fresh wave of violence and prejudice across the country.
“A TV poll showed that 65% of Ukrainians supported the pogroms against Roma in Loshchynivka,” said Zemfira Kondur, Vice-President of the Roma Women’s Fund Chirikli. “Far-right groups are using that and we’re afraid that we will have more cases of hate attacks against Roma in different areas.”
In the wake of the village’s expulsion of its Roma, the Azov battalion, an influential nationalist group which has units fighting in eastern Ukraine, issued an inflammatory statement supporting the move. The statement branded Loschynivka’s Roma an “ethnic mafia” led by “Gypsy Barons”. It falsely claimed they ran drug laboratories in the village and were guilty of “robberies, physical violence, intimidation and drug trafficking.”
Racism against Roma, or antiziganism, is one of Europe’s enduring and virulent ethnic hatreds
Days later, in Uzhgorod, a town 600km northwest of Loshchynivka, a group of gun-wielding young men assaulted a Roma family, firing shots and beating them. Suspecting ultranationalist motives, one of their victims told his attackers that he had recently returned from the front. They left abruptly. The family said they had no idea who they were or what had provoked the violence.
“Tensions between Roma families and local Ukrainians were already high in many places, but after Loshchynivka, those tensions increased,” Kondur explained. “There were already several cases of conflict and it’s getting worse.”
Racism against Roma, or antiziganism, is one of Europe’s enduring and virulent ethnic hatreds. Successive emperors of the Holy Roman Empire ordered all “gypsies” to be put to death upon discovery during the 18th century.
Hitler’s genocidal slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Roma in the 20th century still generates far less research and recognition than the Holocaust. Estimates of the dead range from to 220,000 to 1.5 million. Even today, antiziganism goes largely unchallenged by the societies and governments of central and eastern Europe.
Across the continent’s eastern swathe, prejudice is ingrained from an early age. Parents routinely warn their children to beware of Roma, lest they take them away and force them to beg. That warning is reproduced in Ukrainian school textbooks.
Many eastern Europeans (inside and outside the EU) are unabashed in their negative opinions of Roma. Even those who are well-educated, progressive and well aware that racism is unacceptable.
“I am pretty racist when it comes to them. They are uneducated people, bad, only looking to cheat, to steal, to make easy money,” a 24 year-old Romanian IT consultant confided to me.
“They are filthy, impressively lazy, reproduce from a very young age just to drain the social system, very rarely get jobs,” a western-educated Bulgarian added.
Such unpalatable views were echoed by strangers during my journey south from Kiev and across the Odessa region, as well as Ukrainian friends and colleagues I had considered liberal.
Ukraine’s last census, in 2001, counted some 40,000 Roma in Ukraine. Roma organisations say the count failed to include thousands of undocumented groups and the current figure is closer to 250,000.
Most of these groups are concentrated in western and southern Ukraine after thousands of Roma fled fighting and persecution in areas of eastern Ukraine occupied by rebel and Russian forces. Without documents, many are unable to access the assistance that displaced Ukrainians are entitled to (though don’t always receive) after leaving behind their homes and livelihoods.
Since Loshchynivka, perceptions of Roma criminality have been reinforced by Ukrainian media and politicians
Since Loshchynivka, perceptions of Roma criminality have been reinforced by Ukrainian media and politicians. Most coverage of the pogrom was sympathetic to the aggressors, focusing on the allegations of drugs trafficking and petty crime as justification for the violence.
Comments by Odessa’s regional governor, Mikheil Saakashvili, appeared to support that narrative. “I fully share the outrage of the residents of Loshchynivka,” Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, told reporters after Angelina’s funeral. “There was a real den of iniquity, there is massive drug-dealing in which the anti-social elements that live there are engaged. We should have fundamentally dealt with this problem earlier — and now it’s simply obligatory.”
However, when I met with Odessa region’s police chief Giorgi Lortkipanidze, he dismissed the idea of a criminal core in the village. “In the past year, there were 28 criminal cases in Loshchynivka and only one involved Roma. There were absolutely no drug crimes in the village,” Lortkipanidze told me.
“I stayed there for three days and no one said they had faced Roma criminality and had called the police about this. We went with those people who alleged there was a drugs factory, searched the area and no drugs were found.
“I’m a policeman, I always check facts before speaking,” he added. “Mr. Saakashvili is a politician, he hears the public mood and then makes statements.”
Although the ethnicity of a Roma criminal may be more visible to a victim, there are no statistics to indicate they are more likely to commit crime than other ethnicities
Subsequent police raids on drug factories in Izmail and villages around Loshchynivka have confused the issue, turning up automatic weapons and huge hauls of narcotics. The raids have been used to support Saakashvili’s statement, without making clear that none of the drugs or weapons were found in Loshchynivka or in houses occupied by Roma.
When I questioned Saakashvili about his earlier comments, he told me that by “criminal elements” he had not been referring to Roma and that his words had been misinterpreted. “I absolutely strongly condemn the attacks on Roma in Loshchynivka,” he said. “We will not allow any forceful relocation of people.”
Sat at a leafy park café in Izmail, I was waiting to meet two members of the local Roma community when a young Roma boy, no more than ten years old, approached my table.
He asked me what I was doing in Izmail. I asked him if he knew what had happened in Loshchynivka and if he had relatives there. He had heard they were chased out for killing a girl, he said. Unfazed, the boy got straight to the point. “Give me money,” he smiled with an ear-to-ear grin. I asked where his parents were. “I do what I want,” he smiled wider still. “Give me that camera,” he demanded, eyeing it greedily. I laughed him off.
Similar scenes are played out in towns and cities across Ukraine every day. Dozens of Ukrainians have told me personal stories of being harassed or robbed by people they believed to be Roma. For many of them, it was the only time they had knowingly interacted with a community which they had been warned away from as children. Had they been sat in the café instead of me, they would have no idea that two Roma men were working hard across the street in a plumbing shop, their ethnicity kept secret in order to find employment.
“If they know that a person is Roma, they won’t give him a job,” said Vladimir Kundadar, president of Izmail’s Roma council. “There are many smart, well-educated Roma, but to achieve something they have to hide that they are Roma, don't show people that they are in touch with other Roma.”
In rural areas, where the vast majority of Roma live, the difficulty in finding a job can be overcome by growing their own produce and selling it at a local market. In fact, although the ethnicity of a Roma criminal may be more visible to a victim, there are no statistics to indicate they are more likely to commit crime than other ethnicities. A 2013 study published by the Kharkiv Institute of Social Research actually found that the rate of crime committed by Roma in rural areas of Ukraine was 2.5 times less than that of wider Ukrainian society.
In urban areas however, begging or crime may become the only alternative to starvation. Access to education and encouragement, Roma activists insist, is the key to preventing this.
One of the key tasks for activists is to promote Roma success stories inside and outside Roma communities
“Two years ago I was robbed by poor Roma near a shop. They knew I was Roma too, but they didn’t care,” said Volodymr Kondur, head of the Odessa Roma human rights center. “After that I could have said they are a bad people and I will not help them anymore. But I didn’t.
“You need to understand that these people need attention to get out of economic and psychological difficulties. Show them that there are other opportunities.”
One of the key tasks for activists is to promote Roma success stories inside and outside Roma communities, breaking down stereotypes and preventing the most impoverished families from falling into them. They want to show that there are successful Roma writers, mechanics, merchants, students, scientists and sportsmen across the country.
It’s not easy. In the week after the murder, a social media campaign was launched featuring photos of well-groomed young Roma holding placards saying “I am not a criminal”. It received almost no coverage in Ukrainian media.
Breaking the cycle
Despite a government action plan, there is no real state support for Roma efforts. “There are three staff members within the Ministry of Culture responsible for implementing the ‘Strategy on Protection and Integration of Roma Minority into Ukrainian Society by 2020’, but they have no budget,” explains Yana Salakhova, a specialist on counteracting racism and xenophobia at the International Organization for Migration.
Indeed, Ukraine’s insane level of bureaucracy and failure to make good on its constitutional promise of free state healthcare and education keeps many Roma locked in a cycle of poverty and vulnerability.
Enrolling children in a state kindergarten requires documentation and cash for bribes that Roma families, often on the move, are unlikely to have. Once at school, Roma children can be placed in segregated classes or entirely separate institutions with lower standards.
Doctors, paid a dire wage by the state and desperately short of medical supplies, may refuse to treat Roma under the assumption that they can’t pay the going rate for what should be a free procedure.
“I was in a small village near Kirovograd with a Roma woman, who told me she was pregnant, went to the hospital and the doctors refused to help her deliver, because they were concerned she wouldn’t have enough money to pay for her caesarean,” said Chirikli’s Zemfira Kondur. “By the time they agreed to do it, the baby was in a coma.”
The Kharkiv Institute’s research shows that when Roma encounter difficulties, they are seldom aware of their legal rights and are therefore unable to demand them. After fleeing from her home in Loshchynivka, Zinaida Damaskina is desperate. She had been selling clothes in Izmail market and nearly paid off a mortgage for a home which now lies in ruins. She has no idea how to claim for it and who to talk to. Zinaida’s children, Sasha, 13, and Kolya, 11, are among eight of Angelina’s Roma schoolmates who couldn’t start term this year because they are now homeless.
“We don’t know what to do, where to go. We sleep in different places every day. The smaller one is scared. He has heart problems,” she despairs, teary-eyed. “Why us? We didn’t do anything to them or to this child. We have good and bad, like in every other nation. One bad sheep can’t ruin the whole flock.”
All images courtesy of the author.