Police raids have been here before, but not that massive ones.
After the death of the traffic police inspector in Mahiliou, the police carried out raids and mass arrests in the settlements where Roma live. These events have drawn attention to the Roma ethnic minority.
Ordinary Belarusians do not often meet Roma in their daily lives. The closed to outsiders' way of life has created a lot of stereotypes about the Roma community. Criminal chronicles often mention crimes committed by "persons of Roma nationality". This strengthens the negative perception of Roma in the minds of Belarusians.
Radio Svaboda has asked the Roma from the village of Hrebianiova near Mahiliou about their life and relations with the Belarusians. Their stories try to destroy the stereotypes about their life.
Briefly about the Gypsies
The first information about Roma on the territory of Belarus is recorded in the privilege of Aleksander Jagiellończyk in 1501. According to the charter of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, the Gypsies were allowed to roam in the lands of the Principality.
According to the population census of 2009, there are more than 7 thousand Roma in Belarus. The Gypsies themselves give another figure – about 60 thousand.
The largest Roma community lives in Homel region: more than 2.5 thousand people.
About 10% of the Roma are officially employed. Roma complain that they are not hired because of their nationality.
Police raids have been carried out before, but not so massively
Hrebianiova is a village with a large Roma diaspora in Mahiliou region. According to the local Roma, the Rusakou dynasty was the first to choose the place more than a hundred years ago. They moved to Belarus from Smolensk region. Currently, there are about 100 Roma families in the village. The houses of Belarusians neighbor with their estates.
The May 16 police raid remains one of the main topics in conversations of local Roma. Late that evening, armed police officers did not miss a single Romani house.
"A peddy wagon was driving down the street, followed by a crowd of gypsies, just like during the war. Several armored personnel carriers were following it. Armed men in masks were going around the houses. In each house there were swear words, threats, screams of frightened owners and their children. The detainees were taken to the Kastrychnitski district police department," – Viachaslau, one of the first interlocutors, says.
According to him, there have been police raids in Hrebianiova before, but not on such a large scale. They usually targeted certain estates. The behaviour of the police has always been unceremonious, he says.
"If you open the door and are not pushed away at once, you ask to be quieter so as not to frighten the children, but the police do not pay attention to such requests. If you don't have time to open the doors, they will break them down or the windows will be knocked out. They look for drugs or stolen goods in the houses," – Viachaslau says.
He says he cannot explain why the circulation of drugs is linked to Roma. He assumes that the reason is the stereotypes that have formed a biased attitude towards the Roma community.
Roma are recruited into the army but not hired.
Hrebianiova stretches along the Dnepr River on the southern outskirts of Mahiliou. Gypsies keep grazing cows, goats and horses in the Dnepr meadows.
Viachaslau and his family raise cattle and live on this. As he says, a lot of Roma have to go to Russia to earn money, as it is difficult for a Roma to settle in Belarus.
"They don't say openly that we don't take Gypsies. But as soon as they see who has come to get a job, they say: there is no vacancy anymore. For some reason, they believe: if you are a Gypsy, you are a thief," – Viachaslau says.
According to him, there is no such attitude in Russia. Gypsies work as loaders and builders there. They get jobs at factories. The salary is $1,000. Over the past few years, Roma have been going to European countries to earn money. Poland is a priority. Some of them do not return to Belarus.
Viachaslau's sister is graduating from Mahiliou University of Food. She doesn't know if she will be able to find a job in her field. She says there is no prejudice towards her in the educational institution because of the Roma origin. She is satisfied with the conditions of her studies.
Viachaslau says that Roma, as well as Belarusians, are called up to serve in the army. According to him, this is almost the only place where the nationality is not considered.
Gypsies as Belarusians
Viachaslau’s fellow countryman, 62-year-old Uladzimir is retired. He raises bulls and pigs. Previously, he used to deliver them to the meat processing plant. Now he sells them to businessmen. He pays taxes. He considers himself to be a middle-class peasant.
He was detained on May 16, just like many other gypsies from Hrebianiova. Then other policemen broke the door of his house, looking for the already detained owner.
"We are like the Belarusians. We were born here. We were baptized and we work. But let's face it, the humiliation of us as Roma exists," – he says.
Like the previous interlocutor, Uladzimir complains that it's very difficult for a Roma to find a job, and "if there's nothing to live on, he dares to do something illegal.
"Of course, the gypsies have a thief's vein, and it's no secret. Every nation has its own freaks, but believe me, the majority of Gypsies are friendly people, even though they are closed to the rest of the world," – he says.
There are no Roma children in shelters. The old people don't wander the world
Uladzimir says he and his wife have no children of their own, but they raised two nieces. The girls were orphans. Now they are adults and have their children. One niece is an administrator in a restaurant and the other is a cook.
"Gypsies do not give their children to shelters. This is considered a great sin in our country. They do not wander the world. If a child loses his father and mother, his relatives take him. There is not a single story where a Romani man throws away his child or, God forbid, kills him," – Uladzimir says.
According to him, the old infirm Roma are also not left without care. They are taken care of up to death, if there are no children, then relatives do it. The respect for the elderly is the norm for the Roma.
Gypsies punish criminals themselves
60-year-old Anatol worked as a carpenter and concrete maker before retiring. He says that in Soviet times it was easier for the Roma to find a job. At that time, Roma origin was not very much paid attention to.
"If everybody in the world were thieves like the Roma, the world would be a much better place," – he says. According to him, there are customs in the Roma community that stipulate severe penalties for crimes. He insists that there is no place for violence and murder in the Roma code of conduct.
"The abuser may even be expelled from the community, and none of the Roma will receive him at home," – Anatol explains.
According to him, the police often turn to the baron to help identify the criminal.
If a Belarusian wants to marry a Roma man, she should be ready to become a Roma woman
Alina lives with her family in a two-story cottage. She doesn't complain about her wealth. She notes difficulties in finding employment. According to her, a lot of Roma are hired for seasonal work at collective farms. They work in cowsheds and pigsheds there. Those, who are lucky enough, get jobs in the city.
Both Roma and Belarusians insist that there are no ethnic conflicts between them. Sometimes there are household quarrels, which are solved in a neighboring way. Alina has the same opinion.
According to her, prolonged cohabitation of Roma with Belarusians leads to mixed marriages, which were not welcomed two decades ago. They were even considered a disgrace, she adds. The girl, who decides to marry a gypsy, has to learn her husband's language.
"She has to learn Romani traditions," – Alina says.
At the same time, she notes that not all women who marry Roma follow this requirement. Some of them limit themselves to understanding the language and knowing the most important Roma everyday phrases. Her husband's relatives do not insist on full assimilation.
According to Alina, the reason for the suspicion of the Roma is that they have not had permanent asylum for a long time because they have been migrating. This way of life has taught the Roma how to earn in different ways.
"Of course, the Roma is able to deceive, and he can do it well. We are capable of stealing. Perhaps the ambiguous perception of Romani women is influenced by the fact that a lot of them know how to guess. It's a craft that's learned from grandmothers and mothers," – she says.
The Russian language of the Roma contains a significant amount of Belarusian words
Roma children go to school No. 13, the only one in the village. They study in Russian. Half of the pupils are children from Roma families.
"It's hard to be illiterate now, but if parents don't press with it, the children leave school after 9th grade. Those who want to achieve success in life continue their education. They get higher education," – Alina says.
Roma children speak Romani among themselves. Like adults, they easily switch to Russian.
Few Roma call the Belarusians "Belarusians" in Hrebianiova. They are "Russians" for them. The Belarusian language is understood, but not spoken, although their Russian language contains a significant amount of Belarusian words.
What will be the attitude towards the Roma after the police raids
Hrebianiova Roma are glad that the head of the Lukashenka administration, Natallia Kachanava, apologized for the incorrect behavior of police officers during the investigation into the death of traffic police inspector Yauhen Patapovich. However, in their opinion, there are no guarantees that such treatment will not happen again.
The fact of mass detention of Roma diaspora representatives is recognized neither by the Investigative Committee, nor by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They claim that Roma were probably interviewed.
The Minister of Internal Affairs stated that he "has no reason or grounds to apologize to the Roma."