13. Radio Romanista
Written & performed by Kal
From the CD Radio Romanista (Asphalt Tango, Germany 2009)



Kal are Serbian Roma. Their name is Romani for ‘Black’. In Radio Romanista the band create a broadcast from a national radio station which has yet to exist and may never exist, a radio station which might serve as a means of binding the disparate multicultural voices of the Roma Diaspora, and whose necessity might be explained in the following notes.


On Roma: moments in a history of persecution

Roma – Sanskrit for ‘Man’ and the preferred name of the people disparagingly known as Gypsies – constitute the largest stateless minority in Europe. They arrived here eight hundred years ago, having left their native Rajasthan two hundred years previously and travelled from West Asia into Armenia, forming a Diaspora across Spain, France, Britain, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Scandinavia, Hungary, Canada, and America.

The common thread that binds the Roma Diaspora is one of racial persecution, and this has defined their status in Romania, where the majority of Roma have lived for the last eight hundred years, and where their presence was documented as far back as the 1200s. Garth Cartwright, author of the Freemuse document ‘A Little Bit Special’: Censorship and the Gypsy Musicians of Romania (2002) cites a text by Mircea the Great of Wallachia dated 1387 which suggests Roma had been in that country for over one hundred years. Cartwright also cites the case of Prince Vlad Dracul of Wallachia, aka Count Dracula, who in 1445 transported some 12,000 persons ‘who looked like Egyptians’ from Bulgaria and forced them into serfdom and slave labour in Wallachia and Moldavia – Transylvania, Bessarabia, and Bucovina, the regions which were unified as Romania in 1918.

Although slavery was abolished in 1864 the lot of the Roma did not improve. Romania, you will recall, sided with Nazis during the Second World War and such cultural and social gains as were made by the Roma during the interwar years were summarily erased by Romania’s fascist President Ion Antonescu.

In Germany, Roma, along with Jews, Africans, and those of African descent, were stripped of their right to vote: racial sterilisation had been introduced three years earlier. On the murder of Roma by the Nazis, the Roma Rights Network says the following: ‘The Porajmos  (also Porrajmos), literally Devouring, is a term considered to be coined by the Romani people to describe attempts by the regime in Nazi Germany to exterminate most of the Romani peoples of Europe as part of the Holocaust.

The phenomenon has been little studied and largely overshadowed by the Shoah (the Hebrew term for the Nazi campaign to exterminate Jews) [...] Because the Romani communities of Eastern Europe were less organised than the Jewish communities, it is more difficult to assess the actual number of victims, though it is believed to range from 220,000 to 500,000. Only in recent years has the Romani community begun to demand acceptance among the victims of the Nazi regime. The response so far has been mixed.’

RRN add that the Roma extermination programme was aided and abetted by Germany’s allies in Slovakia and Hungary: those who did not perish in Auschwitz met the same end in the concentration camps of Romania and Croatia. In The Power of Culture, a document written for Romany cultural project the Amala School, Gregory Scarborough & Pierre Chopinaud estimate that between five hundred thousand and one million Roma were murdered during the Second World War.

Romania’s transition to Soviet Communism alleviated some of the racial persecution the Roma faced – there were more opportunities in employment and education. But check the payoff: Roma homes and horses were taken away and Roma were forced to settle in villages and towns, their language, Romani, was banned in all institutions, and their wealth was stolen.

An upsurge in Romanian nationalism under the leadership of Nicolae Ceausescu further marginalised them, and racism was institutionalised and made legal with the effect that Romani language was not taught in Romanian schools, Roma history and culture were kept off the school curriculum, no newspapers were published in Romani, and Romani musicians were barred from appearing on state radio or television. Roma were banned from singing at public events, and from performing in the folk groups that represented Ceausescu’s attempt at creating a racially pure national music culture. In the streets of Romania there were pogroms and house burnings, the public correlative of the legally sanctioned marginalisation of the Roma.

The advances made by the Roma in the public sphere after the end of Communism and the beginning of Capitalism were not enough to keep them from attempting to leave the country in large numbers. Deepening poverty, the informal nature of their habituation, a rise in racist attacks, and a congealing of centuries of hatred into a normalising of informal discrimination and contempt were the main factors that lead Roma to migrate to Western Europe in the 1990s, joining the Roma who were forced to seek asylum during the conflict in Kosovo when they were driven from their homes both by Serbs and Albanians. These Roma sought asylum in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK – we’ll get back to how they fared in the UK in a bit.


Roma Statelessness

In the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs document Roma and Statelessness (2007) Jasminkia Dedic notes that one consistent feature of the countries formed in the wake of Communism’s decline in Eastern Europe has been to exclude Roma from citizenship and to render Roma stateless.

Dedic outlines the role of nationality acts and immigration laws in this new form of marginalisation, and points out that the effect is the same even if the causes for the condition vary from one country to another:

Statelessness among the Bosnian-Herzogovenian and the Kosovar Roma in the Czech Republic and in some successor states of the former Yugoslavia (Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia etc.) has been rather the outcome of discriminatory naturalisation requirements […] the Czech Republic and Slovenia (both EU member states), have actively engaged in ethnically discriminatory practices in relation to nationality and immigration issues. Thus, the Czech Republic has been excluding from its citizenship Roma from Slovakia for years […] Although 1999 and 2003 amendments to the Czech nationality legislation remedied the most of problem, however, the Czech government has never provided for any compensation to persons rendered arbitrarily stateless by the 1992 Nationality Act.


On Promised Lands I: Canada

While we’re on the subject of Roma in the Czech republic, we thought we’d show you an extract from a text titled  ‘Gypsies in Canada: The Promised Land?’:

On August 6, 1997, a television documentary with implications for Canada aired in the Czech Republic. The programme suggested that for refugees, entering Canada was not difficult, and that, in fact, assisted settlement costs, such as housing and access to employment, would be offered. The documentary was specifically aimed at the Gypsies living in the Czech Republic, an ethnic minority that prefers to be known as Roma.

After watching the television documentary, many Czech Roma spent all their savings to come to Canada. They began arriving in Canada in great numbers, and upon arrival they claimed refugee status. Canadian immigration officials were overwhelmed with the sudden demand. The new arrivals were put up in shelters, but soon the space available as emergency shelter for the municipality of Toronto, the city to which the majority of them arrived, was filled. The numbers of Roma arriving in Canada in 1997 represented a significant increase over the previous year, in which 189 Czechs entered Canada to claim refugee status. (Only nationality is recorded by Immigration Canada, as opposed to ethnic group.) In 1997, however, 1285 people in total from the Czech Republic arrived and claimed refugee status. Half of those arrived in August and September, immediately after the broadcast of the documentary […]’

The article ends with many Roma returning to Czech Republic thwarted, we imagine, by a system of processing refugee claims which, the report says, was somewhat overloaded by the number of Czech migrants. Some Roma decided to tough it out, no doubt figuring life in Canada could not be worse than a stateless life of poverty and racism back ‘home.’


Erasure and Impunity

Anway, back to Dedic’s document.

Dedic cites Slovenia’s policy of erasure by which the Slovenian government simply wiped Roma from its register of permanent residence: ‘the ‘non autochthonous’ Roma, i.e. Roma from Bosnia-Herzogovenia, Kosovo, Macedona, Serbia etc, have been collectively injured by ‘the erasure’. Namely, according to some estimates, more than two thirds of ‘non autochthonous’ Roma – Roma from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia etc – remained without Slovenian citizenship in 1992.’

And in addition to this practice of erasure there was also the informal, unspoken process known as ‘impunity’. This is from the European Roma Rights Centre’s 2001 document State of Impunity: Human Rights Abuse of Roma in Romania, an ERRC Country Report:

Impunity is an unwritten covenant according to which actions against Roma are not governed by the same rules as those for non-Roma. Actions against Roma – by violent attack, denial of basic rights, or by the blatant or subtle forces of racial discrimination – as a rule go unpunished or inadequately punished in Romania. Major episodes of community violence against Roma – deadly pogroms featuring mass arson and mob killing – have resulted in travesties of justice, where legal action has been taken at all. Impunity extends to nearly all spheres of social life in Romania: even those Roma spared the indignity and suffering of racially motivated violence live daily in a state of impunity, in practice unprotected from unequal treatment.’


On Promised Lands II: Macedonia

Against this history of depredation it’s a wonder Index On Censorship were able to report in April 1998 signs of a resurgence, a celebration even, of Roma culture and an emergence of political mobilisation. The emergence in 1996 of Europe’s self governing Roma administration in Shutka, Macedonia could be seen as a kind of precedent to this turn in events.

Built on the earthquake ravaged  Shuto Orizari, the city could also be viewed as an indicator of the living legacy of endemic racism: 80% of its forty Thousand residents are unemployed, there is a high level of illiteracy and the polluted environment has ravaged the health of much of the population. The city is known as Happy Valley.

The document in which we first read about Happy Valley is called Shuto Orizari, the promise land of the gypsies, and its author, Fabrice Dimier, alludes to the significance for Happy Valley for Macedonia’s entry into the EU: ‘[i]f Macedonia is [a] candidate at the entry in the European Union only in 2010, the question of Roma’s place in the European union remains a key for the integration of the Eastern European countries. With the entry in European community of Romania and Bulgaria, more than two million of Roma people will be part of the community.’

The question was, and remains, one of statelessness: Dedic draws on estimates from NGOs such as Refugees International who state that there are sizeable stateless Roma populations across Europe, ‘not only in Central, Eastern and South-East European countries, but also in some Western European countries, such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK.’


On Distance and Democracy

In 1993 The New York Times quoted President Vaclav Havel as saying ‘The treatment of our Gypsy minority is a litmus test for Czech democracy’. In 1997 Roma activist Rudko Kawczynski, expanded on the theme: ‘We Roma have in the last few years become the measure for the newly created democracies in Europe: so long as those countries are not ready to let go of their anti-Roma policies, they are as far from democratic development as they ever were under their communist regimes. So long as in those countries human rights violations against Roma are a normal occurrence, the resistance to their policies will remain a duty. Without respect for Roma, there can be no democracy in those countries and certainly no open society.’

As it happens, the text in which we found Kawczynski’s statement was about anti Roma racism in Eastern Europe, but the following extracts give us cause to think that Havel and Kawczynski’s idea could also be applied to Western Europe, particularly our native lands of England and Italy. Let’s start with something from Legal Defence, Strategic Litigation and Legal Research at the European Roma Rights Centre:

The Prague Airport Case

In December 2004, the UK House of Lords ruled that the UK Government had discriminated on racial grounds against Czech citizens of Romani origin in preventing them from travelling to the UK in order to stop them from claiming asylum upon arrival. In 2001, the Czech Republic agreed that the UK could station immigration officers at Prague Airport to screen all passengers travelling to the UK. The overwhelming number of passengers who were refused permission to enter the UK under this operation were Roma. Statistics showed that Roma were 400 times more likely to be refused entry to the UK than non-Roma. The practice was described by the Lords as ‘inherently and systematically discriminatory’ against Roma. The decision is among the most important ever anywhere in terms of condemning racial discrimination in the area of border regulation.’

And reporting from Italy some four years later there’s the case of what Amnesty International call ‘a witch hunt against the Roma’:

All Roma camps will have to be dismantled right way and inhabitants will be either expelled or incarceratedsaid Minister of Interior Roberto Maroni, according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on 11 May 2008. On the same day and on 13 May, several arson attacks took place on Roma settlements in different suburbs in Italy.

Since 2007, Romani communities and settlements in Italy have been subjected to several measures taken by the authorities in the name of ‘security’, as well as vigilante style attacks by members of the public. This includes an escalation in forced evictions and destruction of Roma settlements. One of the most disturbing ‘security’ measures targeting the Roma minority is the recent and still undefined initiative to collect identification information, including fingerprints, from all residents, both adults and children, of Romani settlements in the country.

These measures are often accompanied by strong anti-Roma rhetoric from local and national politicians and the vilification of Romani people in the local and national media, which have created a climate in which attacks on individuals and Roma settlements are becoming increasingly acceptable.

And, bringing us bang up to date, we return to the treatment of Roma in Britain by way of the findings of Inequalities experienced by Gypsy and Traveller communities: a review, by Sarah Cemlyn from Bristol University’s School for Policy Studies, Margaret Greenfields from Buckinghamshire New University and the Friends, Families and Travellers organisation, and published in March 2009 by the EHRC: ‘The lack of suitable secure accommodation underpins many of the inequalities that Gypsy and Traveller communities’ experience: Gypsies and Travellers die earlier than the rest of the population; Gypsies and Travellers experience worse health, yet are less likely to receive effective, continuous healthcare: Children’s educational achievements are worse and declining (contrary to the national trend): Participation in secondary education is extremely low, with discrimination and abusive behaviour on the part of staff and students frequently cited as reasons for leaving education early. Employment rates are low, and poverty high.

There is an increasing problem of substance abuse among unemployed and disaffected young people. There are high suicide rates among the communities. Children suffer psychological damage from repeated brutal evictions, tensions associated with insecure lifestyles, and hostility from the wider population. Gypsies and Travellers who are forced to move into bricks-and-mortar housing can experience the worst housing conditions, combined with racist hostility from neighbours and isolation from their communities.

For some particularly excluded groups of young Gypsies and Travellers, there is a process of accelerated criminalisation, reflecting racism within the criminal justice system, and leading rapidly to custody. Within prisons, the perpetuation of discrimination, disadvantage and cultural dislocation can lead to acute distress and frequently suicide. There is a lack of access to culturally appropriate support services for people in the most vulnerable situations, such as women experiencing domestic violence.’

Such are the faces of racism in 21st century Britain and Italy. Havel and Kawczynski have a point: you really can measure a country’s claim to democracy, decency and civility by its treatment of its most vulnerable groups – or by the distance between those groups and the host nation’s democratic process.


On Promised Lands III – or: Those who are stateless and those who are not.

Interestingly, the statelessness experienced by the Roma put Jasminka Dedic in mind of the statelessness experienced by European Jews 80 years ago:

According to the author’s opinion, a parallel can be drawn with the situation of European Jews during the 1930s, when the problem of statelessness was particularly acute for them. As Hannah Arendt put it, being stateless is the most problematic, because ‘they no longer belong to any community whatsoever’ (Arendt 1968: 295).

It is a connection which musician and writer Alexander Gelfand also made. He brought Dedic’s parallel into the present when he reviewed Kal in New York: ‘Frontman and electric guitarist Dragan Ristic explained that the song ‘Radio Romanistan,’ for example, was named for an imaginary radio service in an equally imaginary Romani homeland. Actually, the phrase he used was ‘promised land,’ strongly evoking the shared longing of Roma and Jews. Except that the Jews now have a homeland, while the Roma probably never will.’

Staying, and ending, in the present, it strikes us that it is this status of statehood and settlement that separates the contemporary experience of Roma and Israeli, and suggests another parallel, one which does not erase or elide the shared experiences of Jews, Roma and Africans during the mid twentieth century, but is nonetheless an effect of the end of the Jewish history of displacement. This other parallel, this other historical intimacy is one shared by Roma and Palestinian, between the statelessness of the Roma and the statelessness presently experienced by the people of Palestine…



‘A Little Bit Special’: Censorship and the Gypsy Musicians of Romania, by Garth Cartwright, Freemuse (2002)
www.freemuse.org/sw10137.asp – 26k

The Genocide of European Roma, Roma Rights Network

The Power of Culture, by Gregory Scarborough & Pierre Chopinaud
www.powerofculture.nl/en/taxonomy/term/470 – 7k

Roma and Statelessness, by Jasminkia Dedic for the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs, 2007

Index On Censorship, 4/1998, Roma – Life On The Edge, quoted in Cartwright
www.freemuse.org/sw10137.asp – 26k

Kawczynski, Rudko ‘The politics of Romani politics’ Transitions (1997) Vol. 4, 4 September, quoted in The Treatment of Roma in Europe: A ‘Litmus Test for Civil Society’, from Minority Rights Protection in International Law (Research in Migration and Ethnic Relations), by Helen O’Nion, published by Ashgate, 2007 http://www.ashgate.com/pdf/SamplePages/Minority_Rights_Protection_in_International_Law_Ch1.pdf

Gypsies In Canada: The Promised Land? – News in Review – Resource guide Online

Shuto Orizari, the Promise Land of the Gypsies, by Fabrice Dimier

State of Impunity: Human Rights Abuse of Roma in Romania, an ERRC Country Report, the European Roma Rights Centre, 2001

The Prague Airport Case, by Legal Defence, Strategic Litigation and Legal Research, the European Roma Rights Centre

Human rights violations in cities around the world, 6 October 2008; Discrimination: Witch Hunt Against the Roma (Italy)

Gypsies and Travellers experience racism, discrimination and inequality. Press release issued 18 March 2009

Kindred Spirits – The overlapping musical traditions of the Roma and the Jews by Alexander Gelfand, Nextbook, 26 November 2008



<   >