A designer ghetto rises in Europe

THEY WILL build a wall along Maticni Street, a wall to separate Gizela and Jozef Lacko from their non-Roma neighbours.

The wall will be 56 metres long, 1.8 metres high, and covered with attractive ceramic tiles, emblazoned with geometric patterns. A ghetto then, but a designer one.

Ten years after the Berlin Wall came down, city leaders in Usti nad Labem in the Czech Republic, a short drive from the German border, are spending hundreds of thousands of Crowns to erect a new dividing barrier, built not because of ideology but skin colour.

Municipal officials agreed to build the wall after pressure from inhabitants on the other side of the street, who complained about alleged noise and dirt from their Roma neighbours - citing the usual litany of hate that comes from the central European xenophobe.

"We are afraid of the neighbours, and they are afraid of us. They throw stones at our windows and they throw flower pots at our children, and they call us `black-mouths'," said Mrs Lackova, 37, referring to a derogatory term in Czech for dark-skinned people.

"We don't want any kind of wall, even a beautiful one with tiles. I don't want to live in a prison. I have never been in one and I don't want to be in one. It's enough that we go to bed in fear [of skinheads] and wake up in fear."

Like its post-Communist neighbours, Hungary and Poland, the Czech Republic is considered one of the region's more socially and economically advanced nations, a front-runner for European Union membership.

But the Czech government has come under diplomatic pressure from Western governments to alleviate the systematic racism that blights the life of its Roma citizens, even if that pressure was based more on a fear of a Roma influx into Western Europe than genuine concern for human rights.

"I was born here and I have been here all my life. Why should I leave? It was better under Communism, we had work and we weren't afraid. Now we live in fear, fear of the skinheads and the neighbours," said Gizela's husband, Jozef Lacko.

"We don't know what to do when they throw things at us. I am 37 years old and I would like to go for a walk at night, and see the beauty of the stars, but I am scared of being attacked."

The Czech police have been criticised for their reportedly lax response to hate-crimes against Roma. In May 1998, President Vaclav Havel - who, in contrast to many Czech politicians, has taken a strong stand for Roma rights - pardoned two Roma men charged with assaulting Miroslav Sladek, leader of the far-right Republican Party.

Mr Havel's spokeswoman defended the President's decision on the basis that any police investigation of the alleged assault "would not be objective", and said the President had "sufficient information" to make an informed decision.

Ladislav Hruska, the city's mayor, seeks refuge in word-games when discussing the coming barrier. Just as the Berlin Wall was described as an "anti- fascist protection barrier", Usti nad Labem will have a "fence", part of an urban renewal programme.

"I would prefer to call it a fence rather than a wall," he told The Independent. "They say we are creating a ghetto but it's not true. That's said by people who don't know what they are talking about. I would like to stress this is a social problem, not a racial one."

Roma, he says, commit a disproportionate amount of crime in the Czech Republic. Many of the Roma families owe rent to the city council, for example. "It is caused by their different cultural lifestyle, they have less education and fewer qualifications. They have a different nature. I understand that it might be hard for them to get used to our normal circumstances."

The best analogy, said Mr Hruska, is that of the "Indians" in Canada. "Basically they are not used to working, to sending their children to school. They live in bigger groups, they are very noisy and are big fans of alcohol. They get money from criminal activities."

Such sentiments can be found all over east and central Europe. Even being an elected politician offers Roma little protection against either physical assault or discrimination. Monika Horakova, 26, a Czech MP, has been attacked by skinheads and refused entry into a nightclub.

"I live in a country where they don't let me into restaurants, clubs and discos. I made a complaint against a disco in Brno which refused to let me in. The state prosecutor dropped the case because he didn't find a reason to treat it as racial discrimination. I know how to use the media and get a good lawyer. So if I can't get my rights as an MP, how can an ordinary Roma?"

For Eva Kompertova, who runs a pub on Maticni Street, the wall will offer no solution. "It's a waste of money. They [Roma] will cut it, break it, and come through like mice," she said. "It would be better to build a concrete wall, it would be harder to destroy."