Scores of Roma have fled from a southern Ukrainian village after residents torched one Romany home and demanded authorities evict all Romany families from the area following the killing of a 9-year-old girl.
Amid soaring tensions, residents and local officials said they would provide a “safe corridor” on August 29 for Romany families to leave the village of Loshchynivka, near Odesa. However, the eviction operation was called off after some 40 of the village’s total population of 50 Roma left on their own overnight, carrying only essential items and leaving most of their belongings behind.
The expulsion threat came after scores of villagers attacked Roma homes following the killing and suspected rape of the girl, who was not from the Romany community. Only two Romany families remained in the village on August 29 -- one of them the family of the suspected attacker, a 21-year-old Romany man who has not been publicly identified and who denies any guilt.
The outbreak of communal violence underscores the tense conditions under which many Roma in Ukraine continue to live at the margins of Ukrainian society. In Loshchynivka, as in many other places in Ukraine where Roma are present, the Roma live in rented and often dilapidated buildings on the outskirts of town and are largely mistrusted and feared by members of other ethnic groups.
Tensions exploded in Loshchynivka after the girl’s body was found in an empty and ruined building on August 27. The Odesa Regional Police Department said that she had stab wounds in the chest, that she probably died of injuries to her heart and lungs, and that there were signs of rape.
According to police, on August 28 an angry mob of residents surrounded the six homes inhabited by the village’s Romany minority, kicking down fences and shouting for all Roma to leave the village immediately. One house was set on fire.
Several hundred village residents also held a rally to demand authorities force the Roma out if they were unwilling to leave. The local district council subsequently held an emergency meeting and voted to support the residents’ demand.
Yuriy Shishmash, the deputy of Izmayil district council, said on August 28 that the Roma would “get safe passage out of town” early the next morning so that they could “remove themselves and their belongings.” He also said, “We ask everyone to refrain from any kind of actions against them."
The head of the district council, Valentina Stoykova, told reporters on August 28 that the Roma had agreed to be evacuated because they “understand they cannot live here.”
As police were dispatched from Odesa to maintain order in Loshchynivka, Odesa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili said in a video message on Facebook that he shared the outrage of “all residents” of the village.
Without making any reference to Roma, he said that "antisocial elements" were involved in "massive drug dealing” in Loshchinovka and that “the killer” had been detained and would be punished.
With just two Romany families remaining on August 29, police announced the “evacuation” operation had been canceled. The Roma reportedly relocated to the nearby town of Izmayil.
Human rights group in Ukraine called the events in Loshchynivka an example of mob justice.
“You cannot project your hatred related to actions of an individual whom you consider a criminal against everyone else. There is no such thing as collective responsibility,” Yevhen Zakharov of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union told RFE/RL on August 28. “Generally speaking, a decision to evict an entire community is illegal.”
In Ukraine’s last census, in 2001, some 47,000 citizens identified themselves as Roma. However, unofficial estimates are much higher, with the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) putting the number of Roma in Ukraine at 120,000 to 400,000.
The Budapest-based ERRC says that many Roma in Ukraine do not have basic identity documents and that they face discrimination in housing and access to education and employment.