08-04-2001

In this week's Letter from Prague, Nick Carey takes a look at the first ever International Roma Day...

Sunday April 8th is the first time International Roma Day, an event of great importance to the some twelve million Roma living throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Asia Minor and the Balkans, will be celebrated in the Czech Republic. The day will be marked by laying a wreath at Lety in South Bohemia, where a concentration camp was set up for Romanies during the Second World War. There will also be parties and marches, and similar events will accompany the day throughout the region.

For the rest of the inhabitants of the Czech Republic, the day will most likely pass without being noticed, as the Romanies form just some two to four percent of the population. But for the Roma themselves, it signifies a great on the way towards self-awareness and perhaps international recognition.

The Roma held an international congress in Prague late last year, with representatives from all over Europe. The main issues on the agenda were Roma rights, and the segregation and discrimination they face on a daily basis, and the concept of the Roma as a people, regardless of the fact that they live in different nations. Their language is the same, but for regional differences, and they share the same beliefs. They were largely nomadic until the arrival of Communism in the region, when they were forced into fixed housing by the Communist authorities. They have all suffered from repression, and though most people are unaware of it, up to a million Roma were killed during the Second World War. This is called the Roma Holocaust or, as the Roma themselves call it, The Devouring.

The main conclusion reached at the Roma congress was that as isolated minorities throughout the region, despite the fact that altogether there are some twelve million of them, they do not stand much of a chance of obtaining proper representation, support and a fair hearing. They therefore decided to form themselves into a nation. Delegates agreed that if the Roma can obtain recognition as a nation from the United Nations, then their issues will be taken more seriously. They want issues such as the Roma Holocaust to be addressed, and to have a full apology from the German government for the actions of the Nazis during the Second World War. So far, they are the only ethnic group not to have received such an apology.

As part of this process, the Roma now have a national anthem, and aim to meet more often to work on joint projects and, ultimately, to approach the United Nations to ask for the recognition they desire.

International Roma Day, though it will pass many people by, is an important step on the way towards gaining this recognition. The Roma are now working together, celebrating together, and collectively they will be able to achieve much more than they have so far as individual minority groups. It is probably the first of many such days, and hopefully it will be a turning point in the fortunes of the Roma.

08-04-2001