Pooya opens the red door for me to a flat in the fifth district of Prague. On the way from the threshold to the kitchen I find out that he is from Iran, or Australia, actually. Although the most important piece of news is that he is a Roma from Kalderash and Ivanka’s partner, whom we are now waiting for, sitting at the table.
‘What tea would you like to drink? Green, black, herbal, jasmine?’ asks Pooya but, not waiting for the answer, resumes speaking about his origins. ‘Basically I’m from Zargar, but it’s like Kalderash. And I also have Russian roots’.
‘Beware of him! He’s dangerous, like everybody from Kalderash. Mafia, gangs, you know,’ Ivanka is joking; smiling, she has just come into the kitchen from the bathroom, still with wet hair. ‘I have better tea. I bought it in Brussels yesterday, in one of those Moroccan shops. You’ll have breakfast with us, won’t you?’
Dawid Krawczyk: So you were in Brussels yesterday?
Ivanka Čonková: Yes, at the meeting of the European Roma Grassroots Organisation (ERGO), an association of various grassroots Roma groups from all over Europe. I’m placing a special emphasis on “grassroots” to differentiate us from NGOs.
Why is this so important?
Because I don’t hold Czech NGOs in high regard. When neo-fascists were marching through Romany districts, I didn’t manage to spot any NGO people backing the Roma up, except the activists of Konexe. Although on their websites they write that a part of their mission is to fight for human rights, in fact they deal with a fraction of the problem: school segregation, additional education of the Roma. And they do a lot of great stuff, but what they don’t have is a broad perspective.
Ivana Mariposa ČONKOVÁis an independent Romani activist, organizer, educator, director, and artist. She has organized demonstrations to protect the Roma community from racist and fascist attacks in the Czech Republic. After her “street journey” she became a part of a voluntary advisory group to the European Commission. She is an author of a documentary on the housing situation in the Czech Republic prepared for Czech TV. She is a founding member of FreeLety.org and has represented Roma people in Seoul, Korea, BBC London, and Al Jazeera.
What were you doing in Brussels?
This time we had appointments with MEPs. ERGO, on the one hand, includes really critical groups with high ambitions to be strong watchdog organizations, but on the other we intend to closely cooperate with, for example, the European Commission. We want to be a body that the EC will need to turn to before it prepares recommendations for member states. So we’re at the same time a European forum of grassroots initiatives and a sort of Roma lobby within EU structures.
What would you like to convince the European policy makers of?
I would like them to undertake more severe and broader actions against EU member states who violate human and civil rights of Roma people, sanctions for instance. Another thing is independent support for Roma human rights movements and European human rights movements. The European Union should guarantee NGOs stability for their work and give them more freedom in their campaigns. And it’d be nice if policy makers accepted there is something like anti-gypsyism.
I suppose they’re aware of it but they’re quite reluctant to deal with it.
What I mean is we have to realize that the segregation of Roma children in Slovakian schools, evictions of the Roma in Italy, Bulgaria, France, police abuses are not unrelated problems. All of them have a racist origin, all stem from anti-gypsyism. Roma integration programmes have failed because their authors have focused on each issue separately and haven’t been bold enough to admit that politicians are on friendly terms with anti-gypsyism. Imagine that anti-gypsyism is not a phenomenon, but your friend. All of us have such a friend without knowing it. The point is that it shouldn’t be an advisor to people who make the key decisions.
Are you not afraid that the role of a Roma lobby can in fact be restricting?
But restricting in what sense? I’m not afraid that unexpectedly we’ll get excluded from some decision-making processes just because we represent one ethnic group. I don’t have any qualms, because it’s hard for me to imagine that we could get any more excluded than we are now. In the course of recent years, the EU has organized a lot of meetings about the issues of the Roma in Europe. Unfortunately, not many Roma have attended those meetings. And now we have the chance to change that. If there’s a separate budget for the Roma, maybe we alone – the Roma – should have the right to decide what we do with the money. I think it’s clear, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. My reservations come from what I saw in Poland. It’s much easier to get money from EU sources for another Roma culture festival than for health insurance for Roma immigrants.
Pooya Hemmati: I know it’s your interview but I can’t help butting in here. Of course when the money “for the Roma” is only spent on cultural events, people perceive us exclusively as dancers and musicians. Effectively, stereotypes about Gypsies only get reinforced. You need to remember that.
Ivanka: I completely disagree.
Pooya: Because you’re a dancer (laughter). I’m kidding. You know that I’m not against dancing.
Ivanka: I disagree, firstly, that it’s so easy to get money for promoting the Roma culture. Our culture is literally dying. I’d love to speak Romani fluently, I’d love to go shopping and buy a book in our language. It’s simply impossible because nobody publishes them. Secondly, festivals are really important especially if you grow up feeling oppressed all the time. Frequently it’s the only way of celebrating life. But, most importantly, I disagree with this fear of stereotypes. It’s not my fault that somebody some time ago came up with an idea of this romantic image of dancing and singing Roma because it was convenient to categorize them somehow. But should this mean that I can’t go dancing and singing? No way. It’s I who decide how I’m going to behave and not somebody who made that “stereotype”.
When we were arranging this meeting you said that activism was a new experience to you after all. Before that you were an artist and dancer.
Yeah, I was a dancing teacher. Later I was a journalist for a while.
So why did you get engaged in the fight for the rights of the Roma?
OK, I’ll start off with a prologue then. I was coming back from my holidays, from the sea. I was out of Prague all summer. When I came back I saw a documentary on TV about neo-fascists again intending to march through Varnsdorf, a town in Czech Republic with a substantial Roma population. I got so depressed that I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Maybe they march like that because they’re consumed with frustration, and it would do them good to send them to the sea for holidays. But I didn’t have money for that so I had to think of something else. I thought I’d try to change the atmosphere in that town.
At that time I had a lot of friends from a theatre and arts background. I called my very good girlfriend who was living in Varnsdorf back then and we decided to hold a one-day festival there. We were preparing for two weeks but it was worth the effort because the neo-fascists called their march off in the end.
They changed their minds because of your festival?
I guess so. It was supposed to be their seventh march in Varnsdorf. So everybody, including the neo-fascists, was a bit tired. Mainly because of the work of some individuals and the Konexe group. They were very supportive of the Roma community, and they were there before me. But our festival completely changed the narrative about what was going on in the town. On the day of our festival people had a great time. Imagine that even the local hairdressers joined our event. In front of their salons they were trimming Roma kids’ hair. In the end our festival was also supported by the municipal office, which in this way seized the opportunity to change the town’s reputation. And the neo-fascists realized that they wouldn’t be able to stir up hatred between the local people so quickly again.
But back then you didn’t think that you’d spend the following years demonstrating.
No, I didn’t then, but two weeks later I did. I was a journalist for the radio programme “O Roma vakeren” and I got sent to report on the eviction attempt of a Roma family from a hostel in Krásné Březno in Ústí nad Labem. It turned out that I was the only Roma at the site, but for the evicted family. So somehow the family members talked with me more openly than with the activists who had been there for three days. After several hours I unwittingly became a leader of this seventy-person blockade. I didn’t come home for several days. They called me from the radio station and said that I couldn’t work for them anymore because my report wouldn’t be objective. I remember worrying less about losing my job than about an electricity cut. And there was a cut in the end. I was standing on the cable but they found another way.
I became very close with that family. I slept in bed with the kids. I got up one night to pee. A little boy, he was four I think, got up with me to get a candle and light my dark way to the toilet.
How did the eviction attempt end?
We opened a bank account for the family. We had to move out from the hostel but we collected enough money to rent another flat for them. But in my view the most important thing is how it all began. That family had lived in a Roma ghetto in Ústí nad Labem, in buildings long forgotten and long without renovations. One of those buildings had caved in, burying a woman dead. There’d been a scandal so the authorities had remembered about those buildings and started evicting one family at a time. Overnight, not letting them take their belongings. The family I was speaking about had ended up in the hostel. Allegedly, it was meant to be a temporary solution. But when they’d seen the flat they were supposed to move into they said they wouldn’t go anywhere. The flats were hovels, filled up with rubbish. And when they’d said no, the officials had said that they would break them up: men would end up on the street and women in a shelter.
And now you focus mainly on housing problems of the Roma in Czech Republic?
Not only on this. In fact I’m trying to do everything. After I came back from Brussels, I had to prepare a summary of what happened there. I’m also concerned with a pig farm in Lety.
What does a pig farm in a village near Prague have to do with the right of the Roma?
A lot, unfortunately. During World War II, genocide of the Roma took place in Lety. Three hundred people were slaughtered there. Small children were first strangled with dog leashes and later drowned in a lake. Outrageous cruelty. Pure barbarism, simply speaking. And in 1971 the communists put up a pig farm there just like that.
Didn’t they know that an act of genocide had happened in that place?
They knew it perfectly well but later they officially denied that there had ever been a Roma holocaust. Partly because, I think, Czech officers were responsible for the murder, not Germans. In 1990 communism collapsed and the farm was sold to a private investor and pigs graze on the mass grave as we speak.
Where do the Czechs stand with regards to the pig farm?
Politicians certainly know what kind of genocide happened there. Since 1993 they haven’t been able to evade the issue because the European Union has been calling for some action, acknowledging that the current situation was disgusting, unacceptable and humiliating for the dignity of the Roma. For this reason our wonderful president Václav Havel arranged to put up a stone placard commemorating the crime. But it stands somewhere in the field, far from the sty. Nobody has conducted any archaeological excavations at the site and I obtained maps that clearly indicate that in precisely the place where the pigs are now kept, the Roma were kept in camp barracks.
What have you done about this issue?
I got absolutely crazy when everybody was saying, ‘Come on. The pig farm has been there for so long. It’s not worth it’. That’s why I called up several friends. Later on my colleagues from the Konexe association called for a blockade. We put up our tents and blocked the entrance to the pig farm. I don’t know what’s your attitude to spiritual issues but for me it was all a very hard experience – as if I’d felt the souls of all those people who’d died there. I couldn’t sleep a wink.
Thanks to some help we managed to arrange a meeting with the owner of the farm. We agreed to leave the premises in return for promises that talks about the removal of the pig farm would be held; talks with the participation of local authorities, the Roma, government representatives and the farm owner.
Who do you expect to act?
Mainly the government, I think. It has the right to dispossess a private business in special circumstances. So far the government people have been saying that they don’t want to annoy that businessman. What are we supposed to say? Come on, it’s about genocide! We’ve been trying to put international pressure on them.
Pooya: Could you by any chance inquire with the Polish government what it makes of its neighbour’s and fellow EU member’s attitude to the memory of the Roma holocaust?
I don’t know if you’re up to date with what’s going on in Polish politics but, honestly speaking, I don’t think the Polish government cares.
Ivanka: You’re right, your government won’t do a thing. But I’ve got another idea. At that meeting in Brussels there were people from the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development. It’s one of the institutions of the European Commission. I heard that the owner of the pig farm receives EU subsidies for their business activities. I’ve decided that I’m going to write and ask them if they find it ethical to support a company operating on the site of the Roma genocide. You can find their address on the website of the directorate . You can ask them too.
Translated from Polish by Bartosz Lutostański.
This text written by Dawid Krawczyk and translated by Bartosz Lutostański is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.