PRAGUE is still recovering from the devastating floods of August and the train moves slowly, lumbering through sodden countryside to the Czech Republic's eastern border with Poland. Ostrava is an ugly, industrialised city of 300,000 inhabitants and even the dim early morning light does nothing to relieve its grimness.
At the fourth tramway stop from the station Kumar Vishwanathan is waiting "in front of a branch of the Albert Supermarket," he had said. He is a personable young man with a set of sparkling teeth and thick, jet black hair. For several years now Kumar, through his humanitarian association Vzajemn Souziti, which roughly translates as Life Together, has been working for the respect of the rights of one of Eastern Europe's most despised, ostracised and marginalised communities, the Roma or gypsies.
This is a big day for Kumar and his association. In a few hours' time his dream of a housing project for Roma gypsies and poor Czech inhabitants will become a reality.
The project is located some miles outside Ostrava in a village called Slezska Ostrava and provides brand new housing in semi-detached bungalows to extremely poor families, both Roma and Czech, who have been living in dank, rundown, dismal houses badly affected by repeated flooding.
Twenty-two-year-old Katerina Hodostova has the thick, dark features and stocky frame, characteristic of the Roma. The mother of three, she proudly moves from room to room followed by her chattering mother-in-law and three small daughters, dressed for the occasion in their best pink sweaters. "Never in my life did I think I would live in a house like this. A room for the children, one for my husband's mother, one for us, a proper living and dining, even a garden in the back. We pay a rent of 2,300 kroner. In our old house in Hrusova, which had damp patches, leaky taps and shared conveniences, we paid 4,300 kroner plus the heating. This is all thanks to Kumar. Without him this could not have happened," she says.
The atmosphere is festive. The Roma children have rehearsed for weeks and the chief guest and visiting gentry that includes the Bishop of Ostrava, Moravia and Silesia, the local chief engineer and the representative from a Swiss charity that gave two million of the 65 million kroner it took to build the 36-home complex, are treated to an open-air song and dance number.
"It was difficult to begin. But once the Czech government and the local municipality came on board, several foundations and international NGOs gave us funds," explains Eva Burova, a professional social worker who works for Kumar Vishwanathan's association. "Ostrava has a population of 300,000 people of which 20,000 are Roma. In my entire life I have known maybe three Roma who have university degrees. They are systematically discriminated against and are seen as alcoholics, thieves, and compulsive liars. They are right at the bottom of the social scale. Our association helps them to help themselves."
Kumar's is an exemplary story of commitment and drive. After earning a degree from the Birla Institute of Technology, Pilani, he went to the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow to earn a degree in physics. There he met his Czech wife and after the fall of the Berlin Wall moved to Ostrava where his wife was finishing her education.
"My involvement with the Roma began in 1997 when the Czech Republic was hit by terrible floods. They lost their homes but received very little attention from the local authorities. I had heard so many terrible one-sided stories about them that I decided to find out for myself and for a year I lived in a cabin with them.
"The community had sunk so low that nobody cared anymore. There were no municipal services, so garbage and junk piled up. There were social problems such as alcoholism, violence and theft. The Roma I encountered were beginning to resemble the stereotyped portrait that was painted of them.
"They were suspicious of me at first. But since I was educated, I could help them make applications, deal with local authorities. I had to stay there and make myself useful in order to win trust. I gave our community eight objectives, including internal order and care of the premises. That meant establishing a cleaning roster. The next thing was to ease tension between neighbours through discussion and negotiation. I worked a great deal with children and slowly my cabin became a community centre.
"They had nothing. No blankets, little furniture, very few amenities. An entire family would live and cook in the space of five square metres it was very dangerous. I contacted NGOs and established links with local authorities. Finally we managed to create a team of student volunteers who helped organise the community and give it form and direction," recalls Kumar.
His thesis is that the gypsies, or Roma, were the first victims of the Industrial Revolution, which made them depart from their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Then came the Communist age when the state decided what was best for its citizens. "Traditional hierarchies were destroyed by dispersal and resettlement. The Roma had a truly functioning cultural democracy. That was not acceptable. Progressively the Roma became trapped in a system to which they were not adapted. Their children did not do well in traditional schools and they got into a cycle of rejection and fear where they could not participate in any concrete way in society. Thus they became ghettoised and marginalised. Everyone has used the Roma, exploited them, from the policeman to the social worker to the loan shark. We are in a very small way trying to break this cycle," he says.
The gypsies are Europe's most deprived and fastest growing ethnic minority. There are an estimated nine million Roma in Europe, some six million of them in Eastern Europe. The Roma originally came to Europe from central and northwestern India in three waves of migrations between the 5th and 12th centuries. Historians of the Roma say they were fleeing religious persecution in India but there is little historical proof of this claim. Most Roma have become sedentary and hardly anyone now speaks the Romani language, reportedly a dialect of their original Indian tongue.
The gypsies have retained strong tribal and family loyalties and preserved systems of collective security that conflict with mainstream European traditions. They are known as Roma in Eastern and central Europe, Manush and Sinti in Western Europe and Gitanos in Spain and Portugal. In France they are called Tziganes, or in politically correct terms, The Travellers, which is just a polite way of saying nomads.
The statistics for gypsies as compared to national averages for other ethnic minorities are appalling: Their jobless rate is over 60 per cent, more than six times the national average in most European countries while their life expectancy is behind by as much as 10 years. Even today, although schooling has been compulsory for over half a century, only one in five gypsy families can send its children to secondary school.
In 1999 the municipal councillors of a small Bohemian town called Usti decided to erect a wall to isolate gypsy tenements from the rest of the town. The gypsies were seen as dirty, thieving, lying, good-for-nothing people from whom the town had to be protected. Verbal and physical abuse against the Roma is a common feature. Although the Roma are looked on with suspicion in Western Europe too, it is in the east that discrimination and racial hatred is most zealously practised.
The European Commission and the Council of Europe have both urged Eastern European governments to uphold the human rights of the Roma. Nevertheless, they remain a downtrodden and largely despised community.
But the Roma are slowly beginning to organise themselves and with help from persons like Kumar Vishwanathan have begun to claim their rights. For instance, although half a million Roma were exterminated by the Nazis during the Holocaust because they were seen as belonging to an "inferior" race, the Porajmos or "Gypsy Holocaust" was commemorated for the first time only in 1993, largely thanks to efforts by Church leaders in Eastern Europe.
With persistent and often flagrant discrimination against the gypsies practised not just by individuals but by local government officials and elected politicians, many gypsies have begun to flee their home countries for Western Europe.
There is now a new fear that masses of Roma will inundate the West. "There is a huge and growing problem that will make the influx of Third World migrants to the West look like child's play, chicken feed. Just think, there are six million gypsies in Eastern Europe, all of them anxious and desperate to flee to the more prosperous West where they feel they will receive better treatment. At the moment Western European governments systematically deny them visas and right of entry. What will happen in 2004 when Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak republics all join the E.U.? What will happen when Bulgaria and Romania become members? We are going to see mass movements of people on a scale not seen before and these will not be welcome moves," says sociologist Judith Scott who is preparing a doctoral thesis on the subject.
Europe is sitting on a demographic time-bomb, she says. "The birth rate among the gypsies is high, several times higher than the negative birth rates experienced by most European countries. European governments are, like ostriches, burying their heads in the sand. In 10 years' time they will have a huge problem on their hands. These will be people from their own continent, citizens of Europe all, whom they will not be able to expel or deport like Third World citizens. But no move is being made to invest in education or training to integrate the gypsies, which would be the only sensible thing to do," feels Scott.
Too busy with questions of enlargement, Europe has not given sufficient time or thought to its immigration policy. Raymond Barre, economist and former French Prime Minister, said: "There are several factors at work here. First, Europe has an ageing population and in 20 years the number of pensioners will be twice the active population. People are living longer with average life expectancy for both men and women over 80 years of age, which means there might not be enough left in the pension funds when the present wage-earning generations retire. Secondly, there will be an acute labour shortage, especially in certain key, high technology or knowledge-based sectors. Europe will not have enough people to man these jobs and this leads us to a curious paradox: Europe needs foreign labour but the reaction of most governments is to tighten immigration controls. The result is Fortress Europe at a time when industry is crying out for qualified workers and jobs in certain sectors going a-begging. The third problem is that of integration of the immigrant population already living and working legally in Europe. They are often ghettoised and marginalised leading to delinquency, religious and racial intolerance and violence. In most countries immigrant populations do not have the right to vote, even in local elections, which makes for a lack of ownership, of belonging to the country of adoption. Europe must adopt a policy of selective immigration while investing heavily in training and education so that the weaker elements in its population can become positive contributors to their own well-being and to the well-being of society."