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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006, 11:27 GMT
Role models for Hungary's Roma
The BBC's Nick Thorpe
By Nick Thorpe
BBC, Hungary

A new organisation in Hungary has been threatening a quiet revolution in relations between the majority population and the Roma - or gypsy - community.

Roma families at an Easter celebration in Hungary
The Roma people are Hungary's largest minority

George Makula has a dream.

He has stopped a group of youths in the street, to check their identity papers.

The boys are dark-skinned Hungarian gypsies.

"You're picking on us," they taunt him, "because we're Roma."

"I'm a Roma too," he tells them, emerging in the streetlight, from the shadows of his uniform.

Until I met George Makula, I do not think I had ever even seen a Roma policeman in Hungary.

There are some 700,000 of his people in this country, 7% of the population.

European citizens

When Hungary, and nine other, mostly east European countries joined the European Union in 2004, the EU Roma population increased by more than 1.5 million.

The dawn vista which greets them, as they step down from their metaphorical wagons, is probably the brightest they have seen since they began their long trek westwards from India, in the 11th Century, thanks to the human rights agenda of the union.

Back in their national wagons though, significant problems remain.
A Roma child in Slovakia
Around 10 to 12 million Roma live in Europe, many in the Balkans
They live in slum-like ghettos on the edge of towns, in almost purely Roma villages in the east, and in the poorer pockets of the capitals.

They are proud of the remnants of their musical and craft traditions, and the little pools of words they have preserved like pearls, but live for the most part in abject poverty.

People say that more than half the prison population in Hungary is Roma, though there are no statistics.

Under the 1993 Data Protection Act, the little "c" for cigany - gypsy - which appeared beside their names in public records, was banned.

One of the first interviews I did in Hungary, in the mid-1980s, was with the Roma novelist Menyhert Lakatos.

"There were times in this country when we were killed or maimed on sight," he told me.

And one of his books begins with a pathetic troop of gypsies on a country road, their ears cut off.

"Can you be surprised," Lakatos continued, "if we sometimes see the chickens and wallets of Hungarians as fair game?"

Canopy of stars

I once took a group of young Roma to a packed bar on an early Saturday evening, in a village in north-east Hungary.

I had just bought them soft drinks, when the landlord came over to say the bar was closing.

We left his stale, leering establishment without a word, and walked down a straight lane under a vast canopy of stars.

George Makula, Roma Police Officers' Association
The police never see good examples of Roma... Roma students, Roma workers, Roma firemen, Roma civil servants
George Makula, Roma Police Officers' Association of Hungary
The boys improvised a rhythm, slapping on their knees and improvised songs which sounded like a brass band, while the girls turned cartwheels on the road ahead.

The Roma Police Officers' Association of Hungary, established by George and a few colleagues, is one month old.

"Our first aim," George Makula explains, "is to prove to our fellow police officers that not all Roma lie and steal.

"The police never see good examples of Roma," he says, "Roma students, Roma workers, Roma firemen, Roma civil servants."

As our conversation unwinds, like a fire-fighter's hose, the priorities come thick and fast.

To persuade those few Roma policemen already in the force, disguising their identity, to come out of the white closet.

To recruit more young Roma to the police. And to fight the prejudice and fear among the Roma themselves, that the police are out to get them.

Cultural diversity

I met George several years ago.

He said he had heard of black policemen in Britain. I gave him the name and number of someone at the British embassy.

Since then he has been to Britain several times, taken part in gatherings of Roma and travellers, and hosted British policemen who teach ethnic and cultural diversity within the British police force.

Last summer he visited Washington DC.

The Black Police Officers' Association of the United States was established in the 1970s.

After decades of attempted assimilation, some Roma in Hungary are coming to a radical conclusion
Now 56% of the police in Washington are black.

He lays the statistic on the table between us, in a Budapest cafe, with delight, like a Christmas present.

Reaction from his fellow police officers has been muted.

Why not have a Jewish police officers' association as well, some ask. Or one for officers with blue eyes?

Others are more positive. One of the new association's strongest backers is an official in the Interior Ministry, Klara Csanyi, who founded the Police Womens' Association of Hungary.

There is now a popular Roma radio station in Budapest. And a well-established Roma high school in Pecs, in the south of the country.

There are two Roma members of the European Parliament, and local Roma councils in much of the country.

And now the Roma Police Officers' Association - with room in its ranks for firemen too, and border guards of Roma origin.

After decades of attempted assimilation, some Roma in Hungary are coming to a radical conclusion.

That there might be something to gain, from declaring, rather than hiding their identity.

Though the state is not allowed to count them, they are beginning to count themselves.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 12 January, 2006 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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