Another Romany exodus looms in wake of
Minority's leaders call for
more Romany representation on Czech police forces
DATELINE: February 25, 1998
-- OPAVA, north Moravia--As the country mourned the loss
of another Romany (Gypsy) to skinhead violence, Czech
officials braced for a mass exodus of Romanies again --
this time to the United States.
Roughly 300 people, including Czechs and Romanies,
gathered in this industrial city Feb. 21 for the funeral
of Helena Biharova, a 26-year-old Romany mother of four
who was allegedly beaten in Vrchlabi, eastern Bohemia, by
three skinheads six days earlier and thrown in the Labe
(Elbe) River, where she drowned.
Romany leaders say the attack has left about 200 families
eager to emigrate to the United States to escape racial
"I want to go to America because there is no racism
there," a young friend of the victim's family said
at the funeral, as the emotional crowd cried out
"death for death" and "God will kill them
for what they did."
The Czech Republic gained international notoriety last
year when hundreds of Romanies sought asylum in Canada
and Britain after two television documentaries portrayed
a good life for Romanies in both countries. The Canadian
authorities responded by reimposing visa requirements for
Czechs in October.
Jocelyn Greene, a press spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy,
said there had not been any inquiries about asylum from
Romanies as of Feb. 23. "There would have to be a
lot of discussion. It's premature to say anything [about
their chances to receive asylum]," Greene said.
Romany leaders have asked Vladimir Mlynar, the Cabinet
minister in charge of minority affairs, to help
facilitate the emigrations. Daniel Radomersky, a deputy
minister in charge of minorities, said the government
will not help the Romanies emigrate because it is not a
Three skinheads allegedly attacked Biharova around 11
p.m. Feb. 15 in the east Bohemian town to which she had
moved from Opava when she married. The attackers beat her
unconscious and then threw her into the river, police
Eliska Pilarova, 48, a journalist for Czech Radio who was
walking nearby, heard Biharova's cries for help. She
jumped in the river and tried to rescue the younger
woman. The victim told Pilarova what had happened as the
two women clung to a tree root. When the root broke, the
strong current dragged them under. Firefighters, brought
to the scene by Pilarova's husband, were able to rescue
only Pilarova. They continued to search for Biharova, and
found her body two days later.
Ondrej Gina, a Romany leader and member of the Council of
Nationalities, said Romany women have been especially
frightened by the attack.
"They can identify with the victim and felt it was
something that could happen to any one of them,"
Gina said, calling the attack cowardly and brutal.
"Men are angry, but the women are really
Biharova's family and friends were all reluctant to give
their names out of fear of further attacks.
"I am very afraid," one woman said, adding that
there have been other racial attacks in the region
recently, including the firebombing of a house in Krnov
in mid-January. "I won't send my children to school.
The main thing is the safety of the kids."
Police apprehended three suspects Feb. 16, each 23-24
years old, police said. The suspects, who reportedly
confessed to the attack, have been charged with murder
with a racial subtext, according to Milos Kriz, the chief
detective in east Bohemia.
However, police have yet to establish whether the
attackers were members of any skinhead groups. Kriz said
the case is still under investigation.
Pilarova will receive the Medal for Heroism from
President Vaclav Havel for her bravery in trying to save
Biharova. First lady Dagmar Havlova attended the funeral.
Many of Opava's non-Romany residents were also disturbed
by the attack. "I am afraid of the skinheads, not of
the Romanies," said Daniela Smutnova, a teacher who
attended the funeral.
Emil Scuka, director of the Romany Civic Initiative (ROI)
praised the police response to the attack, but he added
that ROI believes there should be more Romanies on the
country's police forces. "Its not just about
investigating racial crimes but about [their]
prevention," Scuka said.
Police spokeswoman Ivana Moosova, said there are only 20
Romanies with the country's 39,000-strong national force,
excluding the office of investigations. However, Moosova
said this number is misleading because many Romanies
register themselves as Czech nationals.
"I don't know how [more Romany officers] would
enable the police force to prevent racial attacks,"
she said. "But it would facilitate communication
with the Romany community. We are aware that there is a
need for better communication."
article first appeared in The Prague Post
February 25, 1998