Roma in the Velvet Revolution

By • on November 26, 2009

Roma realized 20 years ago that the Velvet Revolution was also their opportunity for “freedom.”

From every side we hear of how prominent figures experienced the historically significant revolution. Their testimonies are important. But what about the experience of ordinary Roma from villages? Those, who were forced to assimilate, not allowed to use their mother language and to present their culture. Those, who were awaiting a rescue from the eternal damnation like a miracle.

How does Michal Hušo from Ondašovské Matiašovce in east Slovakia, a former member of VPN (Public against Violence), remember days of the revolution?

“It was something new. We had no idea what might come out of it. Majority of Roma were confused … we didn’t even know what democracy actually is. We didn’t know what this democracy could mean to us and what impact it would have on our lives. We feared that the protests would be harshly suppressed, and awaited another seizure of the country by Russia. When I recollect the first moments of the Gentle Revolution’s birth, it’s still alive in front of my eyes. It’s impossible to forget. Almost all Roma watched all TV news attentively. When seeing shots from Prague and Bratislava, we were scared that it’s the beginning of a civil war … many Roma were crying when they saw those shots. They were afraid of what awaits them and their children. A man always fears what he doesn’t understand. I was sitting in front of the TV with my family and despite that fear we all felt that something good is about to start and we rejoiced. It’s hard to describe it in words. It’s an amazing feeling. Those, who understood at least a bit what was happening and knew what it means to fight for freedom and what that freedom is, those were happy. I understood the meaning of democracy from tribunal speeches which I carefully watched on television.”

“So then we, all Roma men, got together. Roma seized an opportunity to be a part of the revolution and so Romani organizations were quickly formed in regional towns. It was incredible how quickly we were able to organize and network ourselves while all living in different towns and villages. Buses were taking us to various meeting points where we learned what was actually happening. We learned that it was the most important and positive turnover in our lives. So, we followed Bratislava and formed a VPN. Finally we could influence public issues. VPN was respecting us like its equal partners. It was precisely at that time when our so called Roma leaders like Gejza Adam, Ladislav Fýzik, or Mr. Patkolo started shaping out. But the most important personality and leader was Ján Kompuš. Unfortunately he’s not alive anymore and our chance had left with him. He was our hope to have a Romani member also in a parliament. However, I still hope that this will materialize once.”

“The Communist Party had a majority of non-Roma in our village Ondašovské Matiašovce. Like in many other villages, we Roma were not allowed to express ourselves freely. And therefore we perceived VPN as an incredible opportunity to take their power and not let them to make decisions about us anymore. That was the reason why I felt brave enough to join VPN at that time. We roused more and more Roma to action. For the first time in my life I believed and knew that this is the act which one is waiting even his whole life for. It’s the right thing with a sense of life. It’s the thing that plucks you out of the “robotized” crowd. Roma, in the scope of VPN, aimed for being able to take action in public service and to candidate for parliament. Simply, to decide their own case.”

“Whether I’m satisfied with the contemporary situation? I can vote liberally. Nobody stuffs an already filled election ticket into my hands anymore. Roma can travel and work in countries which they only dreamt about before. We didn’t have in shops what we have there today. Also healthcare has reached a much better level. There are more doctors available and we can choose among them. Our children can study at better schools and they can also study at universities. This didn’t exist during Communism. The communists decided who would study what or wouldn’t study. Roma were allowed to study only workers’ professions. Based on that fact our lives evolved. But unfortunately democracy also brought what we didn’t expect and what we weren’t ready for: unemployment and racism which violates our lives. I’m also not happy with the fact that our state sells itself out. There are very few Slovak products on the market while masses of low quality products are being imported – especially from China. The number of available jobs is going down and wages are lower whereas prices are going up. Even though it’s not flawless these days and it’s neither what we’ve been dreaming of, it’s always better than Communism. We have our freedom and our privacy. No one can violate my rights and if they do so, I want to believe that our legal system will righteously punish them.”

“Surely I wanted to achieve something during my youth but joining the Communist Party was the only way leading to a success. I based a music band during my military service years. But the Communist Party was a necessity if we wanted to play. They said that I’m a great soldier and if I’m willing to be a good communist also, I can achieve a lot in the army. I didn’t take the Communist Party very seriously but it was necessary to obey it.”

And how does the younger generation recollect the revolution?

“At that time I was … well, I couldn’t tell the difference between socialism and democracy yet. As the situation had progressed after the revolution, only then I understood in how unbelievable isolation we had lived. We had no idea about living in other countries. I wouldn’t want communism to return. I have two children and I want their dreams to come true; I want them to be what they want to be,” said Ľuba Bajzová from Topoľovka, a village in east Slovakia. “The school assigned me to become only a glass cutter. My daughter studies Sales Management today …”

“How do I remember revolution? I was thirteen at that time and I cried from fear when we were all watching what was actually happening. It came out of the blue. For us, ordinary people living our everyday routine, it was unexpected as we did not know about everything that preceded the revolution. We were sitting tense at the table with our ears widely open and our eyes glued to the TV screen. Even though I was scared that a war was about to start, after all those speeches I also comprehended that something better should be waiting for us. But I was dosed up with the ideals of socialism from school and therefore I was unable to understand what meant “that better something.” If you have no opportunity to compare things, you also cannot tell the difference between them. The same fear I experienced once again – when the terrorists attacked Americas twin towers. America has always been some kind of supervisor of human rights. I feared that all those rights we have been fighting for thanks to the Velvet Revolution, would also crumble down and be gone.”

“But I’ll get back to the revolution. I carry the last communist election in my mind. They were mandatory and as my father has always been the ideal I looked up to, I wanted him to take me to elections. I was curious. The chairman of MNV [Municipal National Bureau] was waiting for all voters in front of the election station with voting tickets in his hand. He gave one to my father and then he threw that ticket into a ballot box. My father explained to me before that every voter marks the name of a desired candidate or a party on the ticket. But when we were leaving the election station I alerted him that he did not mark any name on the ticket. My father replied that the name was already pre-marked on every ticket. When we passed the chairman, my father continued explaining that it is not allowed to vote anyone else except the Communist Party. If he wrote something else there, he would have ended up in prison. And he added that I should not tell anyone what he just told me. Later he explained that once I am eighteen I would be allowed to vote also. Luckily, when I started voting, I did it liberally and I filled the voting ticket myself. However, I will not forget the last communist elections. I would not want to experience them again. I cannot imagine what kind of life I would have now if the revolution had not come. Instead of journalism, social work and leading positions in prestigious companies I would sit behind a sewing machine with the highest possible education reached at an apprentice training school. I would not even know that I could reach much more in life. To be able to succeed in something one has not even been dreaming of is the most important about the Velvet Revolution … because we did not even know what we could possibly dream of.”

“It is true that the revolution has brought also many risks like homelessness …and nowadays thanks to unemployment a plummet of middle class Romani families into total poverty. But freedom is something what you once try and you never let it go. As we were watching broadcasting shots from the revolution, it was not easy to decide which side it was right or safe to join. I immensely respect those who were not afraid to go out into the streets. I think that during that evening some of our Roma were contemplating going to our local DK (Cultural House) and thereby support happenings in Prague and Bratislava.”

“Even though there is democracy, it is not correct that a party which used to breach all human rights, imprison without reasons, bully and persecute citizens still competes for their votes. It is absurd that a party which was overthrown for not behaving democratically, locking away democracy and presenting it as a demagogy of an idealistic socialism can compete for citizens’ votes. It looks like a democratic hypocrisy to me. It is as a mocking laughter at those people who were imprisoned and who criticized communistic tyranny often for a price of their lives. It would be appropriate to finally finalize the meaning of the Velvet Revolution to an end after twenty years.”