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Romanians vent old hatreds against Gypsies: The villagers of Hadareni are defiant about their murder of 'vermin'. Adrian Bridge reports

VASILE BUDEAN does not normally count himself a smoker. Like most people in the small Transylvanian village of Hadareni, he leads a relatively stress-free life: most of his days are spent working in the fields, most of his evenings with his wife and daughter or friends.

Just recently, however, Mr Budean has felt an extraordinary need for cigarettes. Sitting in the ramshackle village cafe, he puffs away. He is unable to relax; there is something heavy on his mind.

'Don't get the wrong idea,' he warns. 'We were all stone-cold sober on that night. Every one of us was determined to do what had to be done. We have absolutely no regrets. And we would do it again if need be.'

Mr Budean's sense of self-righteousness is shared by nearly everybody in the village. But then, they are all in it together. For the event to which he was referring was nothing less than a pogrom against the village's Gypsy minority, carried out one dark night late last month.

At the end of the night, two Gypsies - one of whom had earlier stabbed and killed a young Romanian villager after an argument - had been clubbed to death by a mob. The charred remains of another were later found in one of the 13 Gypsy houses that were torched.

It was a classic case of mob justice. Out of a desire for revenge for the death of one of their own, the mob, which included women and children, took the law into its own hands and decided to 'solve' the village's 'Gypsy problem' once and for all. 'We are proud of what we did,' said Maria and Ion, an elderly couple who stood with the others and watched the flames and heard the screams. 'On reflection, though, it would have been better if we had burnt more of the people, not just the houses.'

It is impossible not to double- take on hearing such remarks. Maria and Ion are hardly neo-Nazi extremists or members of some organised terrorist group. They have three daughters, and six grandchildren. Like most of the villagers of Hadareni, they are the salt of the earth. When it comes to Gypsies, however, there is a vast blind spot in their moral universe.

'We did not commit murder - how could you call killing Gypsies murder?' protested Maria. 'Gypsies are not really people, you see. They are always killing each other. They are criminals, sub-human, vermin. And they are certainly not wanted here.'

Such views, which could have been lifted straight out of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, are all too common in Romania today. In part they stem from a deep-rooted antipathy towards Gypsies which, although suppressed during the Communist era, never disappeared altogether. In part they stem from straightforward fear.

In Transylvania, a region fraught with tension between Romanians and a 2 million-strong ethnic Hungarian population, hatred of Gypsies is one of the few areas where the two groups find common cause. Certainly that is the case in Hadareni, where the village's 600-odd Romanians and some 100 Hungarians share an equal loathing for the 150- strong Gypsy community imposed on the village in the 1970s as part of an attempt at forced integration.

As in other European countries with Gypsy minorites, Hadareni's villagers view them as thieves, murderers, swindlers and parasites. There is hardly a house that has not had a thick lock added to its front door. The problem is compounded, say the villagers, by the fact that attempts to report criminal acts committed by Gypsies to the authorities are simply met with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders.

Officially, Romania's Gypsy minority is 470,000. Unofficially, it is closer to 2 million, just under 10 per cent of the population, and the largest in any country in Europe.

In times of economic hardship - and in Romania, as in most of Eastern Europe, those times are now - Gypsies are an easy scapegoat. Essentially unskilled labourers, proportionally many more have lost their jobs as a result of the collapse of the Communist economic order. According to one survey, only 22 per cent of adult Gypsies in Romania are employed. Not surprisingly, many resort to begging, the black market, and even to stealing.

Such actions, in turn, fuel the prejudices of Romania's growing ultra-nationalist right, some members of which have openly called for labour camps for Gypsies and warmly praised the policies of the country's pro-Hitler wartime dictator, Antonescu, under whose leadership some 36,000 Romanian Gypsies were deported to Nazi extermination camps.

According to Vera Cimpeanu of the Bucharest branch of the Helsinki Committee human rights watchdog, the state-controlled Romanian television network also fosters anti-Gypsy sentiment. In its coverage of the events at Hadareni, one television report stated that the pogrom came about 'after a long period of tension between the villagers and the Gypsy community caused by robberies and aggressive actions taken by the Gypsies'. That was just one example of what Ms Cimpeanu condemns as the one- sided media coverage that has encouraged people to think of Gypsies as fair game.

The pogrom was hardly the first of its kind. Since the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, there have been at least 30 such incidents nationwide: some have involved deaths, but most have been confined to setting ablaze Gypsy homes. Not surprisingly, the attacks are condemned by the few people who can claim to be spokesmen for the fragmented Gypsy community. Gheorghe Raducanu, an MP representing the Rom Movement, described what happened at Hadareni as 'bestial' and a 'flagrant violation of the law'. Even if it were true that a Gypsy had murdered a young Romanian man in the village, he stormed, 'nothing justifies this vengeance against an entire community'.

The government, wary of growing support for the ultra-nationalist right, and, perhaps more importantly, Romania's legal authorities, have been considerably less forthright. There have been hardly any prosecutions in connection with anti-Gypsy violence, and in the handful of cases where guilty verdicts have been returned, sentences have been very light. Many ordinary Romanians have drawn the conclusion that they commit such acts more or less with impunity.

Certainly that is the view of the people of Hadareni, who seem to regard the recent presence of police detectives and public prosecutors as an intrusion on their liberties. 'It is all very well for smartly dressed lawyers to come down here giving us lectures on what is wrong and right, but they should try living with Gypsies for a while. Then they might have something to base their opinions on,' said Mr Budean.

Given that an estimated 500 people took part in the pogrom, the investigators are going to have a tough job pinning the blame on any ringleaders. But according to Ms Cimpeanu, unlike in the past, the authorities will try much harder to punish those responsible. Their new-found resolve, she says rather cynically, could have something to do with the fact that Romania was only last month accepted into the Council of Europe and is keen to show that law and order prevails and that minority groups cannot claim they do not have equal rights.

(Photograph omitted)