Page last updated at 11:57 GMT, Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Roma pitted against Hungary's far right

Tension is rising in a small Hungarian town over threats by a far-right group to tackle crime it alleges is being committed by a Roma minority, as the BBC's Nick Thorpe reports.

It is cold in Balint Bernath's kitchen, but the silverware radiates a glow of success unusual in Roma homes. There is a row of championship cups, won by Mr Bernath's stepson - a 19-year-old boxer.

Balint Bernath, deputy leader of local Roma community
Balint Bernath warns the far right should not "pour oil on the flames"

A tall, pale-faced youth stares from a photograph, his head in protective gear, his gloves almost touching the camera.

The next big fight is in June, Mr Bernath says, in Germany. He is out there now, training.

Mr Bernath sees the question in my eyes - his son does not look very Roma.

"We are six brothers and sisters," he explains slowly to make sure I understand, "and five of us have married Hungarians."

That is shorthand for non-Roma.

Unemployment is huge and the Roma feel humiliated

How does he feel about the fact that his town has been picked by the Hungarian far-right as the next place to impose law and order on his allegedly unruly people?

They should neither kindle the fires, he says, nor pour oil on the flames. If they do come, he will organise a counter-demonstration. Contingency plans are already in place.

"Relations with the police are good," says Mr Bernath, the deputy leader of the Roma at county level. But unemployment is huge and the Roma feel humiliated.

Work for the local council, like street-sweeping and grass-cutting, has been halved to just four hours a day - for those lucky enough to get it.

And now the council has made welfare payments dependent on keeping your house and yard clean.

Officials come poking around, checking the toilets and bathrooms, he says.

One of his neighbours lost his unemployment money because they found dog excrement in the yard, he adds.

Public order

Hajduhadhaz, a town of 13,000 people, stretches out below the striking twin towers of the Calvinist church, which is painted, rather surprisingly, lemon yellow.

There is little sign of spring and a sharp northerly wind sends pedestrians hurrying home before another rain squall, to tidy single-storey houses, each with a small garden.

There are regular white buses bound for Debrecen, half an hour away. The coffee shop closes early. The apple pie is not as fresh as I had hoped.

The local parliamentary deputy of the far-right party Jobbik, 32-year-old Gergely Rubi, meets me in the main square.

Gergely Rubi, local parliamentary deputy of the far-right party Jobbik
Mr Rubi says his vigilante group is bringing in reinforcements

He is keen to talk. He even poses for a photograph in his black uniform with the words "Civil Guard for a more Beautiful Future" in big letters on the back.

On the side of his car is the emblem of Hungary's ancient red-and-white-striped flag with a Turul superimposed on it - a mythical bird, which guided the Magyar tribes to what is now Hungary.

Mr Rubi offers a rather different view on life in Hajduhadhaz - one of increasing robberies, violent attacks, and child prostitutes along Route Four, which passes the town on its way to the east.

He alleges that there are also fewer police than before and that public order has ceased to exist.

He claims that it was only when his own vigilante group was set up eight months ago that the theft of timber from the nearby forest fell drastically.

His vigilante group is bringing in reinforcements from all over Hungary, he says, to alert the government to the problem.

What is the difference between his men and the Hungarian Guard, a group in almost identical uniforms, disbanded by the courts for terrorising the Roma?

He smiles disarmingly. The guard protected Hungarian traditions, he says, and were banned because of political pressure. Our group is legal, simply there to help the police.

Regaining control

In the sandy streets of the Roma ghetto, whole families are getting ready for church.

Pentecostalist church in Hajduhadhaz
The church community paints a very different story of the Roma people

Is there a crime problem here?

Usury, a Roma mafia which gives loans then extorts huge interest payments, is a scourge, they say.

But the father of one household says that since he found religion, he has avoided their attentions.

It is better to be poor, he says, than to borrow, "and in the Kingdom of Heaven, we will surely be rich."

The new Pentecostal church is full of Roma and a few Hungarians for the Sunday afternoon service. They pray aloud in a fervent cacophony.

There are electric guitars, a women's choir and even a former Hungarian police major and his wife, who reads a poem aloud.

The congregation erupts in applause and a chorus of "Amen" and "Hallelujah".

In his office beside the handsome church sits the young mayor, Denes Csafordi.

Only elected in October, he has big plans.

There are new roads, better sewage, and 16 new lamp-posts, to brighten up dark, outlying streets.

More discipline is needed, he admits, but he fears the vigilantes will paint his town black - as a nest of crime and ethnic tension.

Leaving town I see no less than three police cars, parked at strategic places.

The state seems suddenly keen to reclaim its monopoly on public order.

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