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A Personal Account by Anna Polakova

My name is Anna Polakova and I'm 34 years old. It's not too much, but it's so little either. I will try to write something about myself and about my family. Something that happened to us against our will. Almost nine years of my life and my view of it is now put down on this paper.

It was 1989. In September of that year, my youngest child was born. Andrejka. It was a beautiful year. The children were healthy, my husband was successful in his job and I was a satisfied wife and mother. As a family we lived life just like many young families here in the Czech Republic. As many know, at the end of that year was the Velvet Revolution. Nobody knew what to expect, but everyone believed that something new and better was coming, something better than the dark times, when a person couldn't decide his or her own fate, someone else did. Maybe it seems excessive when I write about the time before November '89 as dark times. At that time it wouldn't even have occurred to me, but with the passing of time, with the experiences I've had, I can take the liberty, because November brought a new time and it gave us all the possibility to compare them.

Anna Polakova with her daughter Andrejka

At that time, we Roma weren't hounded through the streets by skinheads, we apparently got support, and we had social privileges of all kinds. On the other hand, for fifty years we were also inadaptable, we stole, we were crooks, and I don't know all what else. Well, just Gypsies. Instead of elementary school, our children went to special schools and that was just fine with everyone. How perverse. We don't have Romani teachers, who would know our children's mentality best and would be able to prepare our next generation for higher education, we don't have doctors, judges, officials, actors, police officers, or singers. As if we had never lived in this country. Right from the beginning, the communists shoved us out to edges of society. And woe to anyone that might want to change their label of inadaptable person. Romani intelligentsia! Unthinkable! And that they should have some rights! They should be happy that we put up with them here! That was the communist period, and for us Roma a time of not knowing anything about what would become of us and what the consequences would be. Our parents and grandparents didn't realize that they denied us fifty years of education. They were humble, they probably thought that it had to be so, because in their hard lives they were used to greater humiliation and evil. When I hear old Roma talk about how they lived in Slovakia, it's hard on me. They were only allowed to live on the edge of the village and were able to shop only at a certain time. There were villages they weren't allowed to go to at all, and they often violated this rule, but it could even cost them their lives. They were happy to survive. The more fortunate ones got into the Czech lands in the 1950's. Among them were the family of my father and of my mother. They thanked God for a better life and didn't ask for more, and consequently they didn't realize what would happen to them, or rather, their children. Everything that happened to the Roma in this period was intended. The communists denied us fifty years of education. This void will felt among us for many years.

I'll come back to the period after November. My husband and I followed the political situation in our republic with enthusiasm. We heard words about freedom, many promises and resolutions and how we would all struggle for what was best for all of us.

Many people, including myself, couldn't have imagined what it would cost, how hard it is to live in a democratic society, and that many people don't know what democracy is at all.

In the middle of 1991, I began to feel in society a certain tension in people's behaviour. During afternoon walks, I noticed swastikas and under them anti-Roma slogans like "gas the gypsies". It was horrible, because Marecek and Helenka were already able to read. And the children in school started to be more aggressive than before. They started to have bigger problems in school because they were Roma and I had more work every day explaining to them that they had to go to school even though they suffered emotionally there, and that they must be educated, so that one day they would have it better than us. It was difficult, they were still small and didn't understand a lot of things. However, compared to what still awaited us, it was but a small evil.

Evil omens of the time for Roma weren't just the swastikas, but also how gradually and completely freely skinhead groups were being created, and that they began to attack Roma. Among those attacked were primarily women with children. I am the mother of three children, so naturally I was filled with fear. Fear for that which is most dear to me. For my children and for my husband. My husband and I had a nicely fixed-up flat. So many beautiful things, my husband collected pictures of old Prague, I had a collection of polished glass and a lot of flowers, a lot of books, and again, the children had their beautifully arranged nursery full of toys and books. How much work it took us and then came the time when I couln't even see what was around me. I was more pensive, I didn't laugh so much anymore and I was so afraid for the future of my children. For a person who hasn't experienced it, it's probably incomprehensible, but I was afraid to walk around and go shopping or take the children to the playground, for if we were attacked by skinheads, I would hardly be able to defend my kids. Beautiful hopes for a better life became fear for my family. This fear was well-founded.

At the end of the year, my son, who was six years old at the time, was attacked. They beat him and took his winter jacket away. That day we went with Marecek to the investigators and to the police. We reported everything, but they never found the culprits. We live at Palmovka [east-side neighborhood of Prague] near the metro [subway/tube] and it was no problem for the skinheads to get away there and scatter.

My fear and despair grew. I was twenty-six years old and my husband was a year older. Andrejka was still a baby who didn't know what was happening. Helenka and Marecek also felt this fear and tension. These two older ones were going to an experimental language school, where they were both doing very well. Marecek was also attending a karate school and pursuing design, which he is still doing to this day. By the age of four, Helena was already involved in gymnasics, where she was also successful. At first glance, our family, which was doing well, but what we were feeling at that time no one could imagine.

That year many Roma emigrated to Germany. They'd had the same experiences that my family had had, and for them emigration was the only solution. None of them could speak a foreign language and they had no experience abroad. Fear for their lives forced them to leave the country where they were born and lived.

This period gave me a lot to think about. If we had decided to leave, what would have awaited us? What about school and work? A lot of questions and no answers. How would we be received? Just that way, empty hands and children. Even now, after all these years, I pray and ask God to be with each person who finds themselves in that difficult situation.

It didn't take me long time to make a decision, unfortunately. I decided at the beginning of the next year. The situation continued to get worse and nobody was doing anything about the problems with attacks on Roma. As if these problems didn't exist. Skinhead groups continued to spread. The police ignored the attacks and the number of attacks increased. There were many people in silent agreement with these attacks. It only involved gypsies, after all. Nobody wants them here, so get lost!!!

One night, my husband and I were sitting in front of the television. The children were asleep. I don't even know what we were watching at the time or what we were talking about. I only remember that the doorbell rang and I went to answer it. It wasn't a visitor but two people I didn't know at all. Everything happened very quickly. They started to call us names and attack us. In our own apartment. I was very afraid that they would wake up the children, and that something would happen to them. At that time we didn't have a telephone, so we weren't able to call for help. At that moment we realized how vulnerable we were and how little in the way of misfortune it would take to destroy our family that day. The only thing my husband was thinking during this time was, how to get these bastards out the door. All at once, he somehow forced them out the door and shouted for me to lock it. The children and I inside the apartment and my husband outside with them. I've never experienced anything worse in my life. After about twenty minutes my husband returned. He was saved by the fact that there was a bar in our building where he was able to escape. I don't know what would've become of us if that bar wasn't there. After he came back we called the police. When I looked out the window in fear, I noticed that one our attackers had a car, which he then drove away. I wrote down his license number, but it didn't help us at all. The police had no interest in solving the case, so after about a week we complained at the Ministry of the Interior about the poor police procedure. We also went to see Dr. Scuka for help, and he directed us to Ondrej Gina, who's a Romani activist to this day, to examine our case. I don't want to talk about this case anymore.

The situation began to come to a head and these cases unfortunately ended worse. We were actually lucky, unlike Tibor Danihel from Pisek and Mrs. Bihariova from Vrchlabi, who was a mother of four.

Our case was never solved, like so many others...

We were young and we had our lives in front of us. Responsibility for our three children, and the fate of our family was foremost. No longer were we asking what would happen. We didn't know. We only knew that we had to leave.

Bad experiences and fear of further violence convinced us that we had to abandon our country. In spring we emigrated, to Germany, where we asked for asylum. The Germans accepted us. The first month we lived in a camp, where we lived with a lot of people who had had the same experiences we had. Often even worse. So many people, so much suffering. Each of them only wished for peace and not to have experienced the evil they'd already experienced.

After a month we moved out of the camp to a smaller town near Wuertzburg. The people there were very nice. We received permission to work and the children went to school. German didn't give us much of a problem. We were waiting for a residence permit, which was decided by a court. After waiting a year, we received a decision from the German court: Abschiebung. I'll never forget this word, and anyone who has been in the same situation fears it. It meant "leave", which for us meant leave the country. The court decided against us and justified it by stating that our country is at the beginning of democracy and that there are problems in every post-communist country that will be resolved in time. We knew that we would have to leave Germany, but we knew beforehand that we wouldn't return to the Czech Republic. Before us lay another year of travel, and applying for asylum. We applied in Switzerland, in Italy, in Holland, we went through Austria and Belgium, and all of it was in vain. They didn't know about the problems with the Roma here anywhere. Everywhere we got negative replies. This along with how I later learned that our politicians signed international agreements on upholding human rights and on emigration. Of course it wasn't a problem to sign an agreement that the situation it's concerned with, the Roma in the Czech Republic, will improve. Everyone can make up their own minds about that. Up to that point, thirty-one Roma murdered, including children. No country accepted us and so, after two years, we had to return to the Czech Republic. We lived through so much, met so many people during those two years, and gained so much experience. No one can take that from us now. But it was no walk in the park. We slept in camps, sometimes even fenced ones, and mostly we didn't know what would happen to us. Returning was very difficult. We didn't have anything but a couple of suitcases and a terrible fear of life here.

Daugher Helenka We had one great piece of luck, and that was that we kept our apartment. Of course, everything had been stolen from it, but it was still ours. My husband and I found work, the children went to school, in time we even fixed up the flat and lived in our country. More Roma were attacked and we never rid ourselves of the fear which caused us leave, but we learned to live with it. The fear took from us any sense in planning toward the future. I learned to value time spent with my family and not to plan, because I don't know what tomorrow will bring. It sounds strange, but that's how it is. Once my daughter was attacked, when she was about twelve. She went to buy me coffee on a Sunday and she had my two-year-old nephew with her. She cried a lot at the time, and I could hardly breath for fear. She just kept shouting, why did we have to come back here, that she didn't want to live here. They were saved by the fact that the manager of the shop was so brave and she threw the children over the counter and hid them in the storeroom. My daughter called me from the shop, "mama, come for me, I won't ever see you again!" Before we were able to get to the shop,the skinheads were already gone. The shop manager had some goods damaged, but she was happy that nothing happened to the children. Little Pepicek woke up every night for two months at my sister's, yelling that he was afraid of the skinheads, and my daughter will never forget it. Nobody can imagine the hatred in her for this country and the people in it. It was a lot of work for me to explain to her that everyone is not the same, there are also good people living here and they already know about this situation, and that they will help us fight against this evil. I was slowly able to do so, but even so, I don't know if I'll be able to protect her from harm. I will fight against it as much as possible for my whole life. I don't want my kids to live on the edge of society, but I don't know if we'll be able to do it. Changing the thinking of so many people won't be easy.

In writing this I've strayed a bit, but I feel that it's necessary for the reader to understand the depth of this problem, to be able to put themselves in the situation in which Roma must live just because they have different color skin and/or mentality, which is a result of their origin. Nobody has ever changed the temperment of peole in Italy either.

This was in 1996. Many of our friends left the country. Among them was the family of Honza Demeter. He owned a bar with a disco, he had three beautiful little children, as well as a Romani band, with which he played even outside the country. His wife sang beautifully and looked like a Hollywood actress. A beautiful young family. Monika was 26 years old and Honza was 27. They had the same reasons as my family in 1992. For a long time we tried to persuade thenm not to leave, but nothing did any good. Rather, they tried to persuade us not to stay here, that they wouldn't send us back from Australia, to leave with them. To tell the truth, we didn't believe it anymore and we were afraid to take the chance. Our answer was "we'll come in a year". We thought about it seriously and we also prepared ourselves for the journey all year. When we came back from Germany, I paid for English courses for the children, so they had already studied it for four years. My husband and I studied English the whole year, so we would have at least a base.

The year flew by. Then another six months and we had everything settled. Then came the break. The problems with racism began to be talked about more. That year a lot of people emigrated to Canada and the problem was discussed in Western countries as well as overseas. It was no longer a problem which was long overlooked, now it was visible and it had to be addressed. Every day there was something written about it in the newspapers and finally everyone was facing it. Many people realized that Roma also live with them here. That they are citizens of this state and that the violence cannot be overlooked.

After what happened in Calais last autumn [where Czech Roma were returned to when they attempted to seek asylum in Dover], we decided to put off our departure, and it was also in the hope that this problem will begin to be solved. And it has begun. On our political scene as well. A lot of organizations have arisen that are trying to help us Roma.

A year ago we still didn't know what would happen to us. Today I sit in front of a computer and I'm describing a part of my life and by doing so I realize what we went through. I work at Czech Radio as a producer and director of the program "O Roma vakeren" ("Roma Speak"), along with Jarka Balazova. I never had any experience with this work. I didn't even know how to type, let alone how to work with a computer. I learned everything in six months, which is how long I've worked there. This job has helped me alot. I've met, and I continue to meet a lot of nice people. The fact that I'm a Rom is for them like someone being Danish, for example. Many of them confessed to me that they were afraid of us Roma, and that they are ashamed of these prejudices. This was and is why we don't know each other.

It will take patience on both sides, but I have the feeling that the period of identification has now arrived. But first attacks on and murders of Roma must be prevented, so that Roma don't have to think about escaping them, so they can learn to think toward the future and parents can plan the upbringing and education of their children.

After the recent elections, it's now like it was at the beginning, after the Velvet Revolution, so even now my husband and I follow the political situation in our country. I don't know what will be in parliament, but I do know, that the Republicans, and Mr. Sladek with them, won't be slandering and humiliating Roma in parliament anymore. I see this fact as a step by which the people in this country made clear their effort and courage in becoming closer to us Roma.

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