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Czech Republic: A Wall Divides The Country

  • Alexandra Poolos

A wall recently erected in the north Bohemian town of Usti nad Labem to separate Czechs from a Romany tenement has sparked international criticism. The European Union has said the Czech Republic must improve its relations between ethnic Czechs and minority Roma before the country can join the EU. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos talks to Czechs and Roma in Usti nad Labem about the wall.

Usti nad Labem, 21 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A poet has said "good fences make good neighbors." But not when the fences enclose ethnic ghettos. In the sleepy Czech town of Usti nad Labem, a wall separating a Romany apartment building from Czech houses is causing tempers to run hot.

The wall sprang up literally overnight, built last week by more than 100 workers laboring in the night under police guard. Usti nad Labem's city council says it is a local solution to a neighborhood dispute. But the local action has attracted international condemnation. For the Czech Republic, aspiring to membership in the European Union, the wall could not have gone up at a worse time.

The EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, has called the walling off of Roma a "violation of human rights." Verheugen and his colleagues at the EU say that the wall does more than separate Czechs from Roma. The wall, he says, could separate the Czech Republic from Europe.

Horrified at that prospect, Czech leaders, including President Vaclav Havel, have denounced the wall. Pavel Zarecky, the deputy interior minister, has been appointed to negotiate with local officials. Ultimately, officials in Prague say the wall must be torn down.

But despite the political pressures, locals have stood firm by their ceramic creation. Usti nad Labem is a small industrial town on the Elbe River in northern Bohemia. With trains rattling past on nearby tracks and abandoned factories looming in the background, the poverty of Maticni Street, where the wall went up, is apparent on both sides of the divide.

Czech home owners say they feel trapped. Unable to afford a move away from their bleak landscape, they say their living conditions have worsened since Roma moved into the housing project across the street seven years ago. The Czechs accuse the Roma of being anti-social and say they are fed up with the noises and disorder coming from the tenement.

Jana Lachmanova, who has lived on Maticni Street for six years, says she resents the Western press and government officials for sensationalizing the problem. She says nobody took the complaints of the Czechs seriously until they put up the wall:

"The first problem arose. And we drew attention to the garbage and brown rats. It was impossible to live here. They were all over the place. Ran into the doors. Nobody from the government showed interest. Never did anyone listen to us. Nobody. We even wrote to the president. I always respected our president and today he is a nobody as far as I'm concerned. I know I'm the same for him."

Lachmanova's neighbor, Hana Chladkova, says the wall -- which she calls a fence -- is necessary.

"They would not agree [even] if there were just a white line -- they would think that was discrimination. Certainly neither they nor we are being discriminated against. But the fact is that [the Roma] do not know basic rules, nor laws -- they do not know the basics of decent behavior. I'm sorry, we are going to stick to our position. It is the government's duty to take care of us."

Those living on the other side say racism is endemic in the town. Josef Lacko lives in the Romany tenement with his family in a clean, bright apartment decorated with bouquets of plastic flowers. Lacko says his Czech neighbors never came over to discuss alternatives to constructing a wall.

"Yes, they say we should get used to it like living in jail. We are speaking over a fence. We are getting used to living in jail -- they have forgotten to put up the wires to prevent us from jumping over. We have done nothing. It is they, their invented words."

Lacko says that since the fall of communism, the situation for Roma has worsened. He says discrimination and even attacks by skinheads are an everyday occurrence, and education and job prospects are limited.

Local Roma say that when factories began to close in the early 90s, they were the first to lose their jobs. With limited job skills, many Roma could not pay their rent and were sent to live in public housing projects like the one on Maticni Street. Of more than 150 Roma living there today, only a few dozen have jobs.

Future prospects for Roma in Usti nad Labem are equally grim. Most of the children are funneled into schools for slow learners and are taught only rudimentary skills. Often they drop out by age 15 and begin having their own children.

The Romany children of Maticni street do not have much to say about the wall looming in the background as they play in the late afternoon. But like their Czech counterparts across the street, they are very aware of the attention the dispute over the wall has brought their community.

Even if the wall is torn down in the coming weeks, the image of it will doubtlessly remain in the minds of many local Roma. A small bandaid over larger social wounds in Czech society, the wall will likely also remain with local Romany children long after they outgrow their playground games.