December 5th, 1998|
While on his way to Dresden, President Vaclav Havel on Friday December 4th visited a troubled housing estate in the north Bohemian town of Usti Nad Labem, where the mayor has proposed building a wall between gypsy families and their neighbors.
Havel has campaigned vigorously against racism in a country criticised by the European Commission for the treatment of its 300,000-strong Romany minority.
He has also spoken out against the Usti plan, which envisages a four-meter high wall separating nearby houses from four blocks of flats occupied mainly by gypsies. Usti authorities have denied the scheme is racially motivated.
As Havel's limousine arrived, Romanies lined one side of the street, white citizens the other. The President, surrounded by bodyguards, stood briefly in the street, walked towards the blocks of Romany flats, and spoke to a group there.
He said that the Vision 97 philanthropic foundation he and his wife run would help and encourage the two communities to live side by side.
Inhabitants, however, questioned the value of Mr. Havel's visit.
"Why the hell are we so popular?" asked a gypsy man, pointing out a large group of journalists and policemen.
"We are like animals in the zoo. I do not know how many times journalists have come to this street, and why?" a young Romany woman said.
An elderly non-gypsy woman voiced the complaints of the neighbors. "What can the President change in this?" she asked. "Everybody is so fair when it comes to gypsies, but try to live here. It is a mess, all that filth and noise, even dead animals lie in the street."