Murder raises ethnic tension higher
Ethnic tension between Hungary’s Roma and non-Roma communities has spiralled, as the BBC’s Nick Thorpe finds out at the funeral of its latest victim.
“The net is tightening around the perpetrators,” says Hungarian Police Chief Jozsef Bencze. “But our main enemy now, is time.”
The short time which passes, that is, before the next lethal attack against a Roma (Gypsy) settlement.
The Hungarian police are now investigating 18 such attacks in the past 18 months, some carried out with both firebombs, and firearms.
Tentatively, they believe they now have enough evidence to suggest that the same group of people may be responsible for eight of them, in which five people died. And that these are cases of serial killers, driven by ethnic motives.
“We will not be able to prove this, once and for all, until we have caught them,” adds Jozsef Bencze, cautiously. “But that is now the main police version.”
The names of the villages where the attacks have taken place read like a potted history of the poverty of the countryside – and of the Roma community in particular – in post-communist Hungary. You need the most detailed map of the country to track down most of them: Galgagyork, Piritse, Nyiradony, Tarnabod, Nagycsecs, Alsozsolca, Tatarszentgyorgy and Tiszalok.
On Wednesday they buried the latest victim, Jeno Koka, a 54-year-old father and grandfather, in Tiszalok.
As his coffin was carried past hundreds of mourners, the silver birch trees bent to the wind, while the evergreens in the graveyard, and the horse chestnuts, now in full flower, stood barely moving. In the arms of her relatives, Jeno’s wife Eva sobbed uncontrollably. A gypsy band – violins, double bass, clarinet – followed the hearse.
Jeno Koka was killed with a single shot to the heart at 9.30 in the evening as he left his house, number 27 Nefelejcs utca – “Forget-me-not Street” – in a Roma settlement 2km from Tiszalok, to drive to his nightshift at a local chemical works.
As in every other case, the target lived in a house right at the edge of a village, enabling the perpetrators a rapid escape. They could have taken one of five roads out of town.
Jeno Koka’s house was right on the edge of the village
There are still bits of police crime-scene tape, dangling in the bushes at the roadside. Jeno’s two-year-old granddaughter, Annett, plays by the pile of half-melted candles at the spot where her grandfather fell.
A relative holds a placard showing a blown-up photograph of Jeno, his daughter, and his other granddaughter, Sabina.
Unlike most Roma in this region and in Hungary, he had a steady job, at the Alkaloida chemical factory in nearby Tiszavasvari, where he had worked for most of the past 30 years.
“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Pastor Gabor Ivanyi, beside the coffin, quoted Cain, addressing God after killing his brother Abel, in the Biblical story.
It was a message directed at both the majority, and the minority population. There have been atrocities carried out by Roma against non-Roma in Hungary too, in the recent period – crimes which are further fanning ethnic tension.
In October 2006 in the same part of Hungary as Tiszalok, a 45-year-old local teacher was driving with his two daughters through the village of Olaszliszka, when a Gypsy girl ran out in front of his car. He caught her a glancing blow. He got out to see if she was all right. She ran off.
Word spread like wildfire through the village that a child had been killed. And a Roma mob closed in on the teacher, and beat him to death, in full view of his own children. Eight men are now on trial for his murder.
In February this year, Roma in a nightclub in Veszprem, in western Hungary, stabbed to death a member of the town’s handball team, and seriously injured two others.
“We are afraid that this is some kind of revenge for the teacher,” says Mihaly Balogh, the leader of the Roma council in Tiszalok.
“Those responsible for his death should be punished, just like any other criminals. But there should be no revenge.”
But he admits that such calls are growing within his own community.
“We Roma leaders don’t know how long we can hold our own people back. But we must not imitate those who commit violence against us,” he said.
“Some among us need to be restrained. Others are simply terrified.”
At night in nearby settlements, Roma keep vigil by campfires, to discourage more attacks. In the daytime, the streets are full of rumours. Of dark 4×4 vehicles, full of white vigilantes, prowling the unmade roads.
Six thousand people live in Tiszalok, up to 14% of them Gypsies, says the mayor Sandor Gomze.
There is anger and fear among the Roma community
“Everyone is appalled by this murder,” he says.
He lists the economic ills of a small town suffering from a mixture of recent and deeper-seated economic problems. The three biggest manufacturers nearby are all shedding jobs.
Others, which set up after the fall of communism 20 years ago, have moved out, attracted by cheaper labour in Romania or China.
And while inter-ethnic relations are not bad, he says, they are more troubled than they were.
“Some people see them (the Roma) as parasites,” he says. “And these incidents increase that trend.”
After the funeral, I take the little ferry across the River Tisza – the “blonde Tisza” as it is known, because of the yellow colour created by so much sand in its waters.
The old ferryman shakes his head. “We just feel sorry for them, really sorry” he says. “There is no ethnic hatred here.”
Back at police headquarters, Jozsef Bencze has just increased the size of his special taskforce for tackling crimes against the gypsies, to 100 officers.
“Catching the perpetrators is a question of the prestige of our force,” he says. They are on high alert, for the next attack.