'We Can Either Set Up an Army or Flee' Roma Killings Expose Social Tensions in Hungary

Four neo-Nazis were arrested in recent days for a spate of horrific killings of Roma in Hungary, where economic woes and the rise of race-bating right-wing parties has exacerbated existing ethnic tensions. Now, the Roma minority is moving to organize its defense.

By Marloes de Koning


The men of the Roma community in Gyöngyöspata take turns patrolling their neighborhood. Every night at 6 p.m. they go around the village in two cars, driving very slowly through the winding streets where the Roma live.

"The houses without fences are the most vulnerable," Tamás Bangó, a large and talkative man who is part of the vigilante group in Gyöngyöspata, said while driving through the village. "It gives people a sense of security to know that we're out there."

Nine Attacks

Between the front seats he had an expandable metal baton and a knife. "I have never had to use them, but I'm ready," Bangó said. He emphasized that his group stays within the limits of the law. The group's most powerful weapon is the mobile phone.

On the surface there seemed to be little here to warrant such vigilance. In the twilight, the detached homes on the edge of this sleepy village, an hour's drive northeast of Budapest, looked as peaceful as could be.

But the Roma community in Hungary is frightened after a recent series of killings. Six Roma have been killed in nine attacks since November.

The latest incident occurred on Aug. 3, when a Roma woman, Maria Balogh, was killed in her sleep and her 13-year-old daughter seriously injured in the town of Kisleta in eastern Hungary.

In February, a father and his five-year-old son were shot dead when they ran from their house in Tatarszentgyörgy in central Hungary after it had been set on fire.

Last Friday, police arrested four men suspected of being behind the Roma killings. On Tuesday, police said they had found the DNA of two of the men at several of the murder sites. They said the murders were racially motivated and had been carefully planned. According to the Hungarian media they had swastikas tattooed on their bodies and they were known as Roma-haters.

The attacks have exposed and stoked up the growing social tensions within Hungary.

Growing Segregation

In the kitchen of a house belonging to János Farkas, the head of the Roma self-government in the region, a group of men were talking agitatedly. "It may seem peaceful in Hungary," said Farkas, a small man with a bristly moustache and a sleeveless Puma shirt. "But at the same time children are being brutally murdered. We have to organize our defense."

Despite a lack of reliable statistics, there are many signs that the divide between Roma and non-Roma in Hungary is widening.

"The segregation is growing," said János Ladányi, a professor at Budapest's Corvinus University who specializes in the Roma. Under communism everybody in Hungary had a job and the social differences were manageable. But since the 1990s, many low-skilled unemployed have been pushed out of the cities to so-called "ghetto villages," further reducing their chances of finding jobs. In this category the elderly and the Roma are overrepresented.

As the Hungarian population ages and thins out, the young Roma population is growing, said Ladányi. On top of the structural problems come discrimination and the urge to look for a scapegoat. The economic crisis only serves to enhance the problem.

During the European Parliament elections in June the far-right party Jobbik got nearly 15 percent of the vote in Hungary. Jobbik's main campaign promise was a tough approach of "gypsy criminality."

The Hungarian Guard, a recently banned paramilitary group linked to Jobbik, regularly marches through Roma neighborhoods in their black-and-white uniforms. According to the European Roma Rights Center, the group has also turned up in parts of Romania where a Hungarian minority is having problems with the Romanians.

'They're Taking Over'

"They are unstoppable," said Tomás Polgár, who goes by the alias Tomcat. Polgár is the man behind Bombagyar (bomb factory), the most popular blog in Hungary. He makes a living by printing t-shirts among other things. His last order was from the Hungarian Guard. He held up a black t-shirt with a large silver lion on it as young men with broad shoulders and short hair drifted in and out of his office.

"The gypsies only have themselves to blame," said Polgár. "They are criminals and they are a threat to us, the majority. They make more children, they're taking over."

Polgár said he doesn't see killing as the answer. The superior Hungarians have to take the Roma by the hand like children and "teach them how to behave". But in the short term he foresees more violence, with casualties on both sides. "It's a war," he said.

Viktória Mohácsi, a Hungarian Roma and until June a member of the European Parliament, agreed. "I feel like I'm in a war," she said with teary eyes. Just that morning she had received another death threat. "I get more than a thousand threatening e-mails every day."

The Roma are organizing themselves, Mohácsi said, and they are using the wakes for the murder victims to do so. "Roma leaders call me up and say they want to organize against the neo-Nazis. But what do they expect me to do? I'm a woman who weighs 40 kilograms and has no weapons or money."

Still, she admitted, there are not too many options. "We can either set up an army or flee."

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