“Ostrava hlavní nádraží”: the announcement resonated around the ageing train compartment. Awaking abruptly, I frantically gathered my belongings and jumped onto the sun drenched platform of the Czech Republic’s third largest city. As my legs grew reaccustomed to bearing my weight after the four hour train journey eastwards from Prague, my senses grappled with the unfamiliar.
Ostrava is a city still living in the shadow of its unsettled past. The legacy of history is etched on the earnest faces of those I passed on my way to the station exit: quite a contrast from Prague’s gaggles of overexcited tourists. Ostrava cannot hide the scars of centuries of upheaval. The deportation of Jews and Czech Roma during Nazi occupation, the expulsion of Germans in accordance with the Potsdam Agreement after World War II and the subsequent immigration of peoples from elsewhere under the Soviet radar have contributed to its unique ethnic composition. Its economy – traditionally dominated by coal and steel production, has struggled to cope with the decline in heavy industry; unemployment is well above the country’s average. The mix of economic difficulties and ethnic discord seems to have proven lethal and ideal fuel for a strident neo-Nazi movement.
The picture I paint may sound inflated – overly strong vocabulary obscuring reality, and yet rereading my words, I find myself asking whether I am in fact guilty of understating. My arrival in the city situated less than 100km away from Auschwitz coincided with the news that the names of 2 witnesses to the Vitkov case (a horrific arson attack in a town not far from Ostrava against a Roma family in April where a 2 year old girl was left fighting for her life) had been published on a neo-Nazi website which called for revenge against the informants…the Prague bubble I had grown used to living in burst with a ferocious pop.
I was met at the train station by Kumar Vishwanathan, head of Life Together, an Ostrava-based NGO for Roma rights which has around 6,000 beneficiaries in the region. After disastrous floods in 1997 many Roma in Ostrava had been left homeless; local authorities were quick to rehouse non-Roma elsewhere in the city but provided only cramped, squalid temporary accommodation for the Romany families. Kumar – working up till then as a teacher in a nearby provincial town and originally from Southern India, spontaneously decided to help for 2 months…he never left.
Kumar’s great modesty and serenity cannot hide the enormity of the impact he and his NGO have had; my conversation with him as we walked together through Ostrava was intermitted with greetings and admiring gazes from passersby. Yet despite Kumar’s endeavours, improvements in the situation of Ostrava’s Roma have been negligible at best. The day I spent with him was a sharp reminder that fighting for Roma rights is never-ending and encompasses ongoing struggles in all spheres of life.
“Praha hlavní nádraží”: the announcement reverberates around a marginally more modern train compartment as I find myself once more in the Czech capital. As abruptly as I was awoken upon arrival in Ostrava I must end blogging for today and focus on the daily ritual that frantically searching for my house keys has become. I hope to resume my tales of the East over the next week…the words ‘eviction’, ‘unemployment’, ‘forced sterilisation’, ‘discrimination’, ‘usury’, ‘street children’ and ‘exclusion’ send an even larger chill down by spine after a glimpse of how they interlace to form reality for so many Roma in Ostrava.
Posted By Christina Hooson
Posted Aug 25th, 2009