Pogroms have returned to Ukraine, but this time the violence is not directed at the Jews.
At the end of August, about 10 Roma families numbering approximately 80 people were forced to flee from the village of Loshchynivka, about 250 kilometers from Odessa, in an incident which was described in the Ukrainian media as a “Gypsy pogrom.”
An amateur video captured the August 27 incident in which a crowd of men threw rocks at windows and broke doors, as police watched but did nothing. The next day, about eight homes were destroyed — the walls knocked down with tractors, one home burned, another was left without a roof. Inside, television screens were smashed, mattresses ripped, a kitchen stove was thrown on its side.
“We got a phone call, they said, ‘Leave now or we will kill you.’ We didn’t have time to take our things or our documents. We just grabbed the children and ran,“ said Nikolay Churali, a Roma man who fled from his home with his wife, two children, his elderly mother and 10 relatives. “We were outside. We cried; the mosquitoes bit us. A half hour later, they started to break down the houses. I can’t describe it with words.”
The family lost everything they had and is temporarily staying with “some people” in the nearby town.
“We don’t know where we will go tomorrow,” Churali said.
Echoes of pogroms against Jews
When asked to compare Gypsy pogroms in today’s Ukraine to the Jewish pogroms that took place here 100 years ago, a 39-year old Loshchynivka resident who participated in the pogrom (he did not give his name because he feared for his safety), said that the pogroms against Jews and Gypsies “have a lot of similarities,” because “the problems were the same.”
According to him, that’s because the victims of the pogroms were not honest people.
“The reason for the pogroms was not ethnic but economic,” he alleged. “A person can’t live without working. It means that he is a thief.”
Some in the Jewish community also saw the similarities, although for different reasons.
The curator of the Moldova’s Jewish Heritage Museum Irina Shihova, who grew up hearing the story about how her great-grandfather survived the Chisinau pogrom of 1903 while hiding in a cellar, said it’s horrible that pogroms have “not changed over centuries.”
“The mechanism of the blood libel [including the willingness to invent a crime], the willingness to transfer the guilt from one criminal to an entire community, and the readiness to take the law into one’s own hands and to start a pogrom — as well as the xenophobia, the fear of the outsider — these things are the same,” Shihova wrote in a Facebook message.
But Boleslav Kapulkin, the spokesman for Chabad Lubavitch in Odessa, doesn’t see the connection between the Gypsy pogrom and anti-Semitic violence.
“No one [in the Ukrainian press] made any connection to Jewish pogroms,” he said.
Kapulkin said he is not worried about the safety of the Jewish community.
“We have to live. We can’t begin to tremble from every little sound,” he said.
How to spark a riot
The pogrom was sparked by the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl, Angelina Moisenko, and the arrest of a 21-year-old Roma suspect, Mihail Chebotar. The case is currently in court.
“At 4 a.m. they found the body, and by 5 p.m. the pogrom started,” said Maksim Voytenko, a photojournalist who arrived at the scene the following day. “I was surprised that no one was killed or injured.”
The Roma are not well liked in the village where it’s rumored they are responsible for the drug trade and break-ins. During an anti-Roma gathering recorded on video, residents also said that chickens began to disappear after the Roma moved into the village and that Roma children steal ice-cream and mobile phone credit from other children. One man alleged that the Roma are not drafted into the Ukrainian military.
“We don’t want individuals of Roma ethnicity to live in our village!” the residents said on video to applause of approval.
The day after the pogrom, Voytenko witnessed a crowd of about 50 men in the village screaming “Gypsies get out!” when they discovered that some Roma women returned to look at the condition of their homes. Ukrainian policemen locked hands surrounding two frightened Roma women to keep them away from the crowd, Voytenko said.
One elderly woman began to feel unwell, and police had to give her water, Voytenko said.
The village is now patrolled by 10 men from the Azov Regiment, a right-wing civilian militia with the mission of “fighting the internal enemies of Ukraine.” Regiment member Mihail Zvonik, 19, said that Azov volunteers came to the village to ensure the safety of residents after they allegedly received telephone threats from the Roma.
“If the government tries to punish those who participated in the pogrom, that will evoke further unrest because the people will protest against it,” he said.
Zvonik said that people had to take the law into their own hands because police did nothing about the drug trade and the lawlessness in the village for years.
‘The people could take it no more and it boiled over’
“Police didn’t investigate it,” he said. “The people could take it no more and it boiled over.”
But Churali from Loshchynivka said he was not involved in the drug trade, but only sold walnuts in the market. He also said that the evidence against the murder suspect may have been planted.
“If we were in the drug trade, we’d have fancy homes, fancy cars, and fancy clothes,” Churali said. “But we sometimes had to borrow money for tea and cigarettes. They said our children stole ice-cream. That never happened.”
He said that he had always been on good terms with his neighbors in Loshchynivka.
“On holidays, I invited them to my house. When I had a car, I gave them rides,” Churali said.
Not the first Gypsy pogrom
In 2002, the Roma were expelled from the village of Petrovka, in the Odessa Oblast, after a Roma man killed a Ukrainian, photojournalist Voytenko said. The homes of the Roma were set on fire, he said.
Last year, a Roma home was bulldozed in the village of Kalanchak, and after that the remaining Roma residents fled, according to Voytenko.
And this month relations with the Roma became tense in the village of Makuhovka, in Poltavskaya Oblast, after it was reported that the Roma allegedly chased after local children with axes.
“The information about that incident is not being disseminated widely because the authorities are afraid of a wave of pogroms,” Zvonik said.
Churali’s family received no assistance after they were kicked out of their homes in Loshchynivka in August, he said.
“We have nothing because they (excuse me for saying it) defecated on our clothes,” he said. “Please help us.”