Between a rock and a hard place

By Philippe Schockweiler

The Roma people in Ukraine are an inalienable part of the country. Around 50.000  of the 400.000 Roma live in Zakarpattia Oblast with its capital city Uzhgorod. The challenges they face fleeing from war are heartbreaking, the challenge of staying behind as well. Lëtzebuerger Journal on a fact-finding mission between Brussels, Prague and Ukraine.

Prague Central Station End of May, 2022: A small and ancient stuffy waiting room has been turned into a refugee information centre. A few tents with Roma help desks are set up inside. On a wooden-carved bench, a Roma man is sleeping, pulling a scarlet blanket halfway over his head and remaining in an eerie position like a suffering man in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. A boy sleeps next to him, face down, peaceful, with two granite angels above him that ornament the old station clock. Time stands still, the clock does not work, it’s covered in dust, and history, time and again repeats itself. People sit and sleep on papers and discarded cardboard boxes, it’s early in the morning and the volunteers are waiting for the next wave. The nights bare little sleep for most Roma here. Every night, under the private security guards' shouts, they are driven into the trains. The Roma people don’t flinch anymore under this intense repeated shouting.

From Prague with no love

Without asking, a volunteer with a neon vest approaches Lëtzebuerger Journal and states in a heavy accent: "Economic refugees, not real refugees." Riddled with anti-roma prejudices, many central European countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic fail to help Ukrainian Roma fleeing the war, labelling them as "welfare scroungers" giving them a much colder reception than the "regular" Ukrainian refugees. Solidarity stops at the colour of the skin. According to independent reports from Czech and international news outlets, cases of tuberculosis, hepatitis B and Covid have been reported here. Firefighters regularly disinfect the station, one of the rare places in Czechia where people still wear face masks. Czech-based and Czech-funded Roma institutions have been reluctant to talk to Lëtzebuerger Journal. "We really can’t comment on Czech politics, " a volunteer tells us while on a smoking break. It is here that the plight of many Roma refugees begins, ends and repeats itself. Lëtzebuerger Journal boards a night train on the tracks across towards Ukraine via Košice in Eastern Slovakia.

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Questioning oneself