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Usti nad Labem / Maticni Street
26-02-2000

"By the end of September, a wall is to be built on the area between buildings with city flats for rent defaulters, comprised mainly of Roma, and a number of family houses on Maticni Street in Usti nad Labem. This was promised to the homeowners' representatives on May 13 by Usti mayor Ladislav Hruska, to whom they had already turned to twice with demands for help against the Roma."

So said the report by the CTK news agency from May 1998, which gained the Czech Republic a measure of bad publicity around the world. Western European and American journalists visited Maticni Street in droves and shook their heads in disbelief over the assertions of the Usti aldermen, who continually defended the wall by saying that it's not a case of dividing Roma and Czechs, but of dividing respectable and unrespectable people without regard for the color of their skin.

But the wall will hardly resolve the nearly 100 percent unemployment of the people who live in the municipal flats for rent defaulters (incidentally, in addition o the defaulters living in the building, there are also people living there who paid their rent, but were moved there temporarily by the city when their building was destroyed. Some of them have been there for four years.) It will hardly return the Romani children to "normal" elementary schools and prevent "respectable" people from shouting vulgarities at them.

If we leave the moral dimension of the planned wall aside and we look at it purely practically, the wall is completely unnecessary. It hasn't occured to the homeowners, who are so afraid of the Roma (and at the same time, according to claims by the Roma, they are constantly shouting insults at the Roma children from their windows), that the Roma will be constantly crossing the street when they go to the shop or when the children go to school. If they are complaining about the smell, then this will certainly "climb" the wall, just like the encounters, which they are also always talking about.

Behind the wall will remain the Roma left to themselves. Apathy caused by long-term joblessness and a deperate lack of money already prevails amng them today. But nobody is interested in their social situation, no one knows how difficult it is for them to get work and how hard it is to survive with minimal income. And Czechs even reproach them for this, though the Roma say they would gladly exchange support for wages. Of course, most of their children attend the special school in Nestemice, and after school there's nothing for them but a courtyard between apartment blocks.

"There were some men from the city hall here, that if we didn't behave ourselves there would be a wall here. Then we learned about it from the television, and you know, we were upset. Nobody comes here to see us, to see how we live here and why we didn't have anything for rent, and all of a sudden they want to build a wall here," said 36-year-old Anna Kotlarova, who hasn't been able to find work for six years. Like the majority of residents in the municipal flats on Maticni St., she had to move here, because she didn't have enough money to pay the rent in a "normal" building. Now she pays 1,300 crowns (almost 40 dollars) for a two-rom flat with a communal shower and toilet and because she has grown children already, she is missing work the most.

After the "happening" arranged on Saturday May 30 by Kumar Vishwanathan with Romani children from Ostrava, the Roma in one of the blocks want to make a clubroom where the childen could go after school. One thing turned well for Kumar Vishwanathan which others have attempted before: he awoke the Roma in Usti for awhile from their lethargy, so they began to think about their situation and about how to change it... Unfortunately, it doesn't only depend on them.

Instead of a wall, a "fence"

On September 16, representatives of the Nestemice ward of Usti nad Labem decided that the Roma on Maticni St. wouldn't be separated from the other residents by a 4-meter (13-foot) soundproof wall, but that the city flats for rent defaulters will be enclosed by an almost 1.8-meter-high (6-foot) wall of ceramic bricks, which they called a "fence." At the same time, they will build a children's playground in front of the buildings. Representatives of the Romani Civic Initiative (ROI) didn't agree with this decision and the Nestemice council's decision was also condemned by Deputy Premier Vladimir Spidla. On the other hand, former head of the Interministerial Commission for Roma Affairs Vladimir Mlynar considered the replacement of the wall with a fence as positive.

The Roma of Maticni St. are also not happy with the answer announced, though they don't intend to protest. For the city representatives have promised them that if they keep order and quiet at night around "their" buildings, then the wall wouldn't be built. The Roma thus began to make an effort: they established an association, Romani Rainbow (Romska duha), they designated caretakers in the buildings and there are no piles of trash around the buildings.

This wasn't enough for the city representatives, however, and it seems that nothing is going to talk them out of building the wall, which they've started calling a fence of ceramic bricks. The wall has been condemned by foreign media, it was criticized in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Christopher Smith, Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and a delegation from the Concil of Europe described it as a racist and drastic solution. Neither the criticism from abroad nor the efforts of the Roma on Maticni St. helped.

Usti nad Labem mayor Ladislav Hruska has rejected any debate over his "fence". For this reason, he also objected to a visit by members of a delegation from the Council of Europe, who he described as incompetent and incorrect. In addition to this, in his letter to Christopher Smith, he wrote that "as mayor, I am not ruled by foreign demands, but consider as the priority the societal demands of the town's citizens who obey the laws of the Czech Republic." On the Czech TV discussion program Arena, he said that the wall on Maticni St. is an insiginificant detail and was just blown up by the media.

Usti District Council stops construction of the wall at the last moment on Aug. 30, 1999

The construction of the brick wall on Maticni St., which was to be started on Monday, August 30, 1999, was stopped at the last moment. The Distrist Council justified its decision by saying that a brick wall is a large construction that requires a building permit. What's more, the Nestemice plan violated the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and could destroy the root systems of the tres on Maticni St.

The Roma on the street therefore decided to celebrate the District Council's decision by decorating one of the trees which prevented the wall's construction there. CTK was told so by Kumar Vishwanathan of the Ostrava association Mutual Coexistence, which came on Sunday to support the Maticni St. Roma's protest against the prepared construction of an almost two-meter-high wall of ceramic material. The District Council's decision was also welcomed by the government's commissioner for human rights, Petr Uhl. "It's even more valuable, that not only wasn't it directed by the government, but it wasn't even under pressure by government organs," Uhl told CTK. It's also an important step for the international public, he added.

You can look through photos from August 31, 1999, which show the joy of the Roma over the halt in construction.

Construction begins of wall on Maticni Street

Radio Prague, October 5th - Residents of Maticni Street in the town of Usti nad Labem awoke to the sounds of construction work early Monday morning. Against protests from the Czech Human Rights Commissioner, international human rights organizations, and even the president of the Czech Republic, construction began of the infamous wall which is to separate four family homes from two apartment blocs inhabited by mostly Roma families. Jana Kotalik has more:

The local authorities in Usti nad Labem decided to build a wall last May to separate the two communities living on either side, after residents in the family houses complained of the noise and untidiness originating from the government sponsored housing blocks across the street, inhabited mostly by Roma families. Last week I visited Maticni Street in Usti nad Labem and spoke with one of the residents in the family houses:

"...You can´t live here, you can only endure here. Thank God, the weather is worse now and the situation is getting better. There is just too much noise with the little children running around from morning to night. Anyway, the whole debate is going around in circles."

The residents and local authorities say that wanting peace and quiet has nothing to do with racism, but Roma rights activists say that the building of a wall in Maticni Street is a concrete and clear demonstration of the persecution of the Roma by state institutions. The wall is seen by many as a serious breach of human rights. Is constructing the wall the only solution though? I spoke with aid worker Kumar Vishwanathan who lives and works with Roma families He had another suggestion:

Poslech:
RealAudio ~ Download

Meanwhile, the problem in Usti Nad Labem continues to attract international attention. An article in Monday´s Washington Post reads "Roma are still often treated as a scourge to be walled off from proper society." But the wall is far from being the only interethnic problem faced by the Czech Republic. The Washington Post article centers on the debate about the crimes of the Second World War, in which more than 7000 Czech Roma were killed while the country was under German occupation.

To get a further look at Maticni St., take a look at the photographs by 17-year-old Josef Lacko, which were displayed in an exhibition entitled Muj svet (My World).

Look through photos from October 6th, 1999

Maticni Street wall blocked by Romanies

Radio Prague, October 6th - Fifty Romanies from the town of Usti nad Labem on Tuesday physically prevented construction workers from erecting a wall which was to have divided a largely Roma-inhabited housing estate from that of its neighbours.

Work on the notorious Maticni Street wall was to have begun on Tuesday morning with the full backing of local authorities, but construction workers were called off after 50 Romanies stationed themselves along the length of the site physically preventing any construction activity and saying they were prepared to go to any length to protect their families from discrimination. They have vowed to be back the next day and the next for as long as necessary and it is not clear if and when workers may be recalled to undertake the job.

Radio Prague's Jana Kotalik spoke with community worker Kumar Vishwanathan who was in Usti nad Labem on Wednesday morning. He noted that there was no violence on the street. Radio Prague asked him to describe what relations are like now between the two communities:

Poslech:
RealAudio ~ Download

At this point it is still uncertain how quickly construction of the wall will resume. In the end, the fate of Maticni Street may lie in the hands of the courts, as the Romany residents and human rights organisations plan to file a lawsuit against the city. Prague consultant at the European Roma Rights Centre Markus Pape told the Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes that the matter may end up in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Roma dismantle controversial wall in Usti nad Labem

Radio Prague, October 6th - In a continuing stand-off with the authorities, members of the Roma or gypsy community have dismantled part of a controversial wall currently being built to partition a street in the North Bohemian city of Usti nad Labem.

Private house-dwellers on one side of the street had asked the local council to build a wall to protect them from noise and rubbish from apartment blocks opposite, which are inhabited largely by Roma rent-defaulters. The issue soon developed into an international scandal, with the Czech Republic being accused of fostering apartheid.

The government warned the council not to go ahead with the plan, but the mayor of Usti defied the order and work began on Tuesday. Roma activists from towns throughout the country immediately blocked efforts to start construction. The sabotage is being observed by police officers. So far there have been no incidents.

Mayor vows to ignore parliament on Maticni street wall

Radio Prague, October 10th - The mayor of Usti nad Labem´s Nestemice district has vowed to ignore a Chamber of Deputies resolution on the construction of a controversial wall in the city´s Maticni street.

The mayor of Usti nad Labem´s Nestemice district has vowed to ignore a Chamber of Deputies resolution on the construction of a controversial wall in the city´s Maticni street. Nestemice mayor Pavel Tosovsky, who is a member of the opposition Civic Democratic Party, said the wall was a local matter and any parliamentary resolution would be ignored. Work started on the wall on Tuesday, several months after private house-dwellers on one side of the street complained about noise and rubbish from apartment blocks opposite, which are inhabited largely by Roma rent-defaulters. However Roma activists and human rights workers have been dismantling the wall, watched by police. The local council has ignored orders from the central government to halt construction of the wall.

Holocaust Phenomenon conference concludes in Terezin

The last day of the of the Holocaust Phenomenon was attended by various leading Roma Holocaust, researchers and academics. Representatives of Roma communities from Central and Eastern Europe also attended.

The speakers detailed their research into the Roma Holocaust, in which up to half a million Roma were killed by the Nazis, their allies and collaborators in countries throughout Europe. The need for education in the Czech Republic, where the general public is not very aware that the Roma Holocaust took place, was stressed by several of them.

I asked former member of parliament and head of the Roma community in Moravia, Karel Holomek, what he thinks of the level of education provided by the state on the Roma Holocaust:

Poslech:
RealAudio ~ Download

In the discussion that followed, the Maticni Street wall in Usti nad Labem was brought up at several points. The wall was meant to divide white residents from a predominantly Roma housing estate, and has become the focus of fierce debate. A leading member of the German Roma community, Romani Rose, went as far as to compare the wall to South Africa's Apartheid.

I asked Karel Holomek what he thinks of the problem of the Maticni Street wall:

Poslech:
RealAudio ~ Download

The Maticni Street wall has also been the cause of much debate around the world, including condemnation from the West for Czech racism. I asked a world authority on the Roma, Donald Kenrick of the Gypsy Council for Education, Culture, Welfare and Civil Rights in the United Kingdom, for his opinion:

Poslech:
RealAudio ~ Download

This conference is about awareness, education and tolerance. How many lessons have been learned from the Holocaust, and what hope do we have for the future? Donald Kenrick:

Poslech:
RealAudio ~ Download

Wall in Maticni street erected, protests mount

Radio Prague, October 14th - Wednesday October 13th was a day of dramatic developments in the Czech Republic - the Civic and Social Democrats opened talks on fundamental changes in government, the EU published its annual progress report on the Czech Republic and as if that wasn't enough Czechs watching the prime time evening news across the country learned that the controversial wall in Maticni intended to separate a largely Roma inhabited housing estate from that of its neighbours had been built with lightening speed in the space of a single day under police protection. More from Daniela Lazarova:

A problem which initially had to do with noise pollution and garbage has got entirely out of control. TV footage from the construction site on a closed-off side street, cordoned off by a hundred policemen made one wonder whether this was really happening in an orderly north Bohemian city few people outside the Czech Republic had ever heard of. Today the European Union and international human rights groups are protesting. The Czech government has pointed out to local authorities that whether or not the initial problem was noise and garbage the fact that the housing estate to be fenced of is largely Roma-inhabited gives the issue serious racial overtones. It has suggested the locals find a more effective and less offensive way of dealing with the problem.

From that moment on the issue turned into a clash of wills between local administration and state institutions with Usti authorities digging their heels in and insisting on their right to decide local issues. Having made its recommendation, the Cabinet passed on responsibility for this sensitive issue to Parliament. Predicting the outcome of Wednesday's vote in the Lower House, which by a large majority moved to overturn the City Council's decision to build the wall, the local authorities ordered construction workers and police in early that morning to erect the wall even before the vote took place.

City mayor Ladislav Hruska has vowed to ignore the Parliamentary ruling, arguing that parliament deputies are far removed from people's everyday concerns. This has given the problem a whole new dimension. Who has the final say on the matter? Inevitably it will be for the Constitutional Court to decide, and its decision will become an important precedent. Whatever happens, this wall will not be easily forgotten and will certainly prove to be most costly wall ever erected in the Czech Republic.



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