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Czech gypsies still suffer legacy of Wall

Gypsy children
Gypsy children pose for the camera on Maticni Street, Usti nad Labem  

In this story:

Trash is now collected

'Nothing has changed'

Incidents in the neighbourhood

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

USTI NAD LABEM, Czech Republic (CNN) -- Last October, this northern Bohemian town of abandoned factories on the Elbe River gained overnight international notoriety when the local authorities built a Berlin-style wall down the middle of Maticni Street.

Its purpose: To separate Czechs living in private houses on one side, from dozens of gypsy tenement dwellers just across the road.

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Hastily erected in the middle of the night under heavy police guard, the concrete barrier, two meters high and 65 meters long, divided the community.

But in the end, the wall was unable to withstand a firestorm of outrage. Among its fiercest critics was the Czech Republic's dissident-cum-president, Vaclav Havel, and the European Union's enlargement commissioner, Guenther Verheugen, who pilloried the structure as a blatant violation of human rights.

The barrier had been billed by the former mayor of the Nestimice district of Usti nad Labem (pop. 95,000), where Maticni Street is located, as a simple fence intended to revitalise a rundown area. Public opinion polls at the time showed a third of Czechs supported the wall, though the country's parliament voted against it.

Ultimately, the local authorities agreed to raze the unsightly edifice -- but only after the Czech government in Prague coughed up a 10 million Crown aid package to placate Usti's city hall, money that one official privately calls "bribe" money.

Trash is now collected

Nearly one year later, Maticni Street -- a three-block stretch of narrow pavement sandwiched between a busy thoroughfare and the town's railroad tracks -- has had a facelift of sorts.

A new police station has sprung up just feet from the former divide, housed in a private home purchased by the town from its former Czech residents.

Gypsy Family
Maticni Street residents Josef and Darina Lasko with their grandson Mario  

And the heaps of vermin-attracting trash that once lined the street where 33 gypsy families live cheek by jowl in two blocks of public housing (prompting the street's Czech residents to complain of noise and untidiness) is regularly collected these days by municipal workers.

The town also has two new "street workers", one assigned specifically to Maticni Street, who go door-to-door attending to the needs of Roma residents. They were hired with funds earmarked from a 21 million crown ($518,250) government disbursement granted to the Interministerial Commission for Roma Community Affairs, a new body set up early last year.

"We think we need Roma streetworkers because there are those who seek out help, and for them we have advisers in the district, but there are also those who don't seek assistance because they are impoverished and do not go out," said Roman Kristov, the commission's vice chairman.

The key to the gypsy problem, Kristov says, is not to try to assimilate them into Czech society, as the former Communist regime were wont to do. Rather, he believes they should be better integrated through cultural and educational initiatives while preserving the richness of an ancient heritage with roots in northern India.

'Nothing has changed'

For all the outward changes on Maticni Street, the stigma of living in a housing project seen as an ethnic ghetto by many Czechs is strong as ever, says the man whose vocal opposition to the wall was instrumental in bringing it down.

"Nothing has changed," said Josef Lasko, a 39-year-old gypsy who lives with his wife and five children and grandchildren in a brightly lit apartment that looks out on a vacant lot. Framed icons hang on a wall above a bouquet of plastic flowers.

"When they started to build the wall, I complained and said it belongs in a zoo," Lasko continued. In a bizarre twist of fate, he got his wish: the remnants of the wall have been salvaged and now form an enclosure in the municipal zoo.

Josef Lasko and wife, Darina, say they are unable to work due to illness. Both appear haggard beyond their years; though Lasko is only 39, he looks at least 10 years older.

Most of their Roma neighbours, many relatively unskilled or uneducated, are also unemployed eight years after a series of factory closures in the region left them in the lurch. Many wound up in Maticni Street's public housing projects after defaulting on rent payments elsewhere; today, many are looking to move out.

The street's residents say life on the fringe of Czech society has fostered a sense of alienation. They claim the absence of a workaday routine and systemic racism against minorities in a largely homogenous Czech society has compounded their plight.

Their complaints resonate across the gypsy community, which totalled about 6,000 people in the Czech Republic before mass exterminations and deportations under the Nazis decimated their numbers to around 600. A massive resettlement program by the post-war Communist regime swelled the gypsy population again, with most settling in industrial parts of northern Bohemia, Moravia and the former Sudetenland.

Today, Kristov estimates there are about 150,000 gypsies in the Czech republic, though he stresses it is impossible to give a precise figure pending a formal census this year.

Social Worker
Eva Bajgerova, an adviser for the gypsy community in City Hall  

Czech government bodies do not keep official statistics on gypsies, and some officials point to this as proof of the government's even-handedness. Many gypsies in the past proclaimed themselves Slovaks or Czechs on official documents, either out of fear of discrimination or due to confusion over their actual origins; in 1990, less than 10 percent of the 350,000 individuals who declared themselves members of an ethnic minority,said they were gypsy.

Incidents in the neighbourhood

Emerging from a busy kitchen, Darina recalls a recent neighbourhood incident that she says typifies life for gypsies on Maticni Street.

"We were walking together and this Czech couple was walking towards us and the man jabbed me in the arm (as he brushed past). I asked him, 'Don't you see what you just did' and he shot back, 'Of course not.'"

Darina says the sense of alienation and fear has spread to her children. She recalled the terror her five-year-old son Mario felt when a group of teenage motorcyclists pulled up near him on the street earlier this month. "Mario saw them and he started pulling his hair and he said, 'Grandma, call the police, I'm scared they're going to kill me.' So he is already afraid."

Kristov, of the community affairs commission, says he understands the concerns of the gypsies on Maticni Street. But he also believes that perceptions of the gypsy issue have been skewed by much of the recent reporting, which he says has focused only the negatives, without acknowledging some of the positive steps being taken to tackle a historically complex problem.

"It's a little bit frustrating, but I'm not new to this situation some of the reactions, you know, they are from people who are not based in the Czech Republic. I know these people are well-intentioned, but it's not very much help."

Boat crowded with more than 1,000 Yugoslav Gypsies docks in southern Italy
August 1, 1999
U.N. human rights commissioner worried about Kosovo
June 30, 1999
Gypsies refuse to be forgotten
December 4, 1997

European Roma Rights Center
Government of the Czech Republic
Roma in the Czech Republic (Radio Prague)

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