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Roma: International Union Seeks A New Start For Its People

More than 300 delegates and guests from around the world convened the Fifth World Congress of the International Romani Union (IRU), in Prague today. With bold speeches and a rousing anthem they declared a new start for the people usually called gypsies. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports.

Prague, 25 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- International Romani Union General-Secretary Emil Scuka raised his voice to a shout. "We want to make the IRU the representative of all Roma from all over the world," he said. "This is the declaration of this congress. The world will have to accept this declaration. We come here from 40 countries. This is our strength."

Scuka spoke early on the first day of the IRU's Fifth World Congress in 29 years of existence. Roma are widely known as gypsies, a term many consider offensive. More than 300 delegates and guests interrupted Scuka with applause. They already had surged to their feet and sung along as a violinist, guitar player, and singer performed a Romani anthem.

"I roamed, I roamed/All the roads of the world./I met with happy Roma./O, Roma, where do you come from/With your wagons and hungry children?/ Ah! Ah! Roma./Ah! Ah! Lads!"

Other speakers at the four-day congress's opening session at the Prague headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty uttered words nearly as brave as Scuka's.

But muted in gray tones behind the bright messages of hope and cheer was a litany of mournful memories and problems.

A Moscow university professor, Georgij Demeter, himself a Rom, had been honored with the duty of pronouncing the ceremonial words: "Let me open this congress officially now."

But first, Demeter told the congress that Roma have been doomed to suffer since their forebearers left India centuries ago. He said the Holocaust that began with the Nazis in World War II continues still for Roma -- in Kosovo and elsewhere in the world.

IRU President Rajko Dzjuric, a Yugoslav Rom who lives now in Berlin, listed one-by-one the countries of the world where he said Roma battle discrimination, beatings, and murder. The list covered almost every country where Roma have settled in substantial numbers.

Dzjuric said that one of the nations that damages his people is the Romani nation itself. He described traitors -- including, he said, a Romani member of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's party and a backer of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. He spoke of Romani leaders who favor personal ambition over the Romani cause and who divide the Romani community.

Even the agenda of the congress itself shines a light on various blockages to advancement of the Roma. One committee will report on its efforts to develop a standardized Romani language. In some European countries, Roma in one village have difficulty communicating with Roma in the next.

The Holocaust is usually understood to refer to the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis. But Romani leaders say that their people also died in large numbers in three holocausts -- alongside Jews during the war, under communist regimes from the Soviet Union to what is today the Czech Republic, and a third holocaust that still continues in Kosovo and throughout the former Yugoslavia. A congressionl committee will report on efforts to win restitution for the killings.

Even the question of Romani unity is open. The IRU calls itself the largest and oldest Romani union, but recognizes that a number of other groups claim also to speak for Roma. IRU leaders plan to adopt a mandate and elect a parliament.

Early in today's conference, Czech Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Martin Palous welcomed the congress. Palous told the attendees that international criticism of the Czech Republic for the treatment of Roma is justified:

"There is a long list of problems I can mention here: the discrimination against Roma of all kinds. The shameless acts of open violence against Roma. The intolerable position of Romani children within the system of education etc., etc. It is fair to admit here that the international criticism that the Czech Republic has received in recent years has been fair and justified."

Palous said that he believes his country has improved greatly in its official dealings with its Romani citizens but still not nearly enough: "Old habits die hard, and mentalities change slowly."

IRU President Dzjuric, speaking next -- but not necessarily responding to Palous -- said at one point that Roma need "not just apologies." He said they also want the truth proclaimed and just reparations.

"I had also a large family./The black legion killed them all./Males and females/And among them also little children./I will roam again./All the roads of the world."