Good neighbors?

By • on August 4, 2009

On the evening of 9 July, all hell broke loose in the Romanian town of Sancraieni. Four hundred ethnic Hungarians, armed with scythes and pitchforks, descended on the town’s Romani neighborhood, where they set a haystack on fire and broke the windows of several houses. The trigger was an incident the previous night in a Sancraieni pub, where a Hungarian was allegedly stabbed by a local Romani man. Angered by the lack of intervention by Romanian police, who did not detain the pub assailant, the Hungarians decided to take the law into their own hands.

This is not an isolated incident, but a telltale sign of the inter-ethnic tensions in the area. Sancraieni is located in the county of Harghita in the heart of Transylvania. According to the 2002 census, the county population is 84 percent ethnic Hungarian; most of the remainder is Romanian, and about 1 percent is Roma.

Underlying the tension, and the suffering of law-abiding Roma, is the inability of the county’s mostly Romanian authorities to deal with the situation, says Boboly Szaba, president of the Harghita county council. He recommended, as a first step, more police (there are only three officers in Sancraieni, a town of more than 6,000 people, according to county police chief Radu Sandu Moldovan), and a more balanced ethnic composition on the force. “It is wrong to believe that all gypsies are the same,” Szaba told Romanian dailyCotidianul. “There are delinquents among them, and the state organs are not taking the appropriate measures to prosecute them.”

The idea that insufficient official action is helping turn small-scale incidents into full-blown ethnic conflicts seems plausible in light of other recent events in Harghita county. On 31 May in the town of Sanmartin, a Hungarian was injured in a fight with several Roma, who had left their horses grazing in his field. This enraged local Hungarians, who gathered in the Roma neighborhood, damaging houses and cars and killing dogs. Three days later a Roma house was set on fire, prompting a number of locals to flee their homes.

More than six weeks later, the atmosphere remains tense in Sanmartin. According to a report by the Romani Criss foundation, five Roma adults and 25 children are still living in the surrounding forest, and a pregnant woman and a group of kids have been living on the streets of Miercurea Ciuc, the Harghita county seat.

Daily Gardianul reports that several meetings took place between Hungarians and Roma, leading to the 8 June adoption of a protocol in which both parties stated they are open to dialogue. But to date, neither the Romanian authorities nor international organizations have taken any steps toward ensuring the safety and protection of the displaced Roma.