Our Woman In Prague



Angeli Primlani


Another Romany exodus looms in wake of murder

Minority's leaders call for more Romany representation on Czech police forces

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 persecution here.

"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 realistic solution.

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 said.

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 disturbed."

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."

This article first appeared in The Prague Post Wednesday, February 25, 1998