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Friday, February 26, 1999 Published at 12:40 GMT

World: Europe

Hiding gypsies behind a wall

"We're scared to live here," the gypsies say

By Janet Barrie in Usti nad Labem

Politicians in the Czech Republic are expressing concern at the rise in racism against the country's gypsy minority.

Janet Barrie reports
In the town of Usti nad Labem, the council is considering plans to build a wall down the side of one street to separate a gypsy apartments from the Czechs who live on the other.

Human rights groups have objected and the Czech Government has said the wall will not be built.

However, the local council says the government has no power to stop them.

'The whites hate us'

The gypsies of Usti nad Labem have never had a comfortable existence. Of the 150 who live in this housing estate, only four have jobs.

[ image: Gizela Kulenova says she fears for her children]
Gizela Kulenova says she fears for her children
They say they are exposed to daily racism that sometimes spills over into violence. The police, they say, do not care.

Now they face the prospect of a wall penning them off from their non-gypsy neighbours.

"It wouldn't matter if we paved the streets with gold. The whites would still hate us," says Gizela Kulenova.

"They'd hate us even if we kept our kids indoors. We're so scared to live here. Night and day I fear for my children," she says.

'They're unemployed and loud'

Petr Vladek's house overlooks the gypsy estate. He is desperate to sell up and move away. But no-one wants property on Metichny Street.

[ image: Neighbours say the gypsies make their lives a misery]
Neighbours say the gypsies make their lives a misery
He and his neighbours had the idea to build the wall. He says the gypsies have made his life a misery.

"The Romanys have this habit of flocking around the entrances to the estate, opposite our houses. They are very loud," Mr Vladek says.

"Most of them are unemployed, so it doesn't matter if they're up all night. But I go to work, so I need to sleep. And so do my two young children," he says.

Council denies racism

The district council enthusiastically embraced the idea of the wall.

[ image: District council has embraced the idea of a wall]
District council has embraced the idea of a wall
The mayor, Pavel Tosovsky, says it will have many functions. It will, he says, act as a noise barrier and it will stop gypsy children running on to the main road.

And, he says, it will put an end to what he believes is a flourishing gypsy trade or dumping and recycling rubbish.

He denies the decision has anything to do with racism.

"There are racists in every country. But there are no more in the Czech Republic than anywhere else," Mr Tosovsky says.

"I don't consider myself a racist. But as a mayor of this town I have to make sure laws are respected."

"People misunderstand the situation here. It's being exploited by politicians using it for their own campaigns."

Government embarrassment

The dispute has spread far beyond the Czech republic. What started as a local dispute over a 150-metre wall has become an acute source of embarrassment for the Czech Government and invited criticism from around the world.

[ image: President Havel spoke against the
President Havel spoke against the "wall in people's minds"
President Vaclav Havel has visited Usti to speak out against what he calls a wall in people's minds.

The government has made it clear it will stop the wall in Metichny Street if the council persists.

The Czech republic is anxious about its record on gypsy rights because lobby groups believe Usti is symptomatic of something much greater.

"Eighty to 90% of the population, depending on the survey, do not want to live next door to a Roma. The stereotypes are very deep and very strong," says Sean Nazerali from Romany Civic Initiative.

"I think Usti is one of the most concrete and visible examples, particularly for people coming from outside, of how strong that feeling is," he says.

EU pressure

The gypsies of Usti Nad Labem believe what can help them now is the Czech Republic's eagerness for membership of the European Union.

As the accession talks continue, the diplomatic pressure is growing on Prague to improve its record on human rights.

A wall in the heart of the country is on symbol of intolerance it would rather never existed.

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