After a political crisis in which private security troops terrorized Romanis and controlled the streets for weeks, the small village of Gyöngyöspata, one hour outside of Budapest, has become a symbol of the rising far-right influence in Hungary and its inability to deal with the Roma minority. The latest news is that they want to place them in “public order protection camps,” from which they’ll need permission to leave, and, should they fail to conform, risk being locked up in for life. It’s a pretty spine-chilling example of what can happen when the right-wing extremism lying like a wet blanket over Europe starts to rot.
With its population of 2,700 living in shabby houses, Gyöngyöspata seemed no different than any of the other villages we passed on our drive through rural Hungary. However, in March, far-right vigilante groups—men in black shirts and young skinheads wearing skull t-shirts and sunglasses—started patrolling the streets of Gyöngyöspata. They came in busloads from all over Hungary to help the villagers solve the “Gypsy crime problem” and were met with wide support. Today, however, none of the villagers admit to having welcomed them or being in any way involved.
There is no fundamental hatred, nor any deeply rooted, ideologically-motivated racism in Gyöngyöspata. It was small things that poisoned the village. Gyöngyöspata’s Roma population has nearly doubled in the past few years, and, as is bound to happen when a lot of poor people are forced to cohabitate in a small community, the village has seen a slow but steady increase in theft and petty crime. From time to time, things would disappear from one of the farms and Gyöngyöspata’s three-man strong police force, all sharing one vehicle, were either unwilling or unable to do much about the situation, which progressively infuriated the villagers.
Hungary has experienced a dramatic swing to the right, mainly visible in the success of the far-right Jobbik party, whose key issue is to “eradicate gypsy crime,” and whose leading politicians have famously advised “liberal-bolshevist Zionists” to start thinking about where to flee. Last year the Jobbik party, in coalition with Fidesz, obtained a two-thirds majority in parliament, which doesn't bode well for Hungary’s 700,000 Romanis representing the country’s main ethnic minority.
The vigilante groups that came to Gyöngyöspata were mainly former members of the Jobbik’s now banned military arm, Magyar Garda (Hungarian Guard), co-founded by Jobbik leader Gábor Vona to “carry out the real change of regime and to rescue Hungarians.” The members were allegedly sworn in dressed in Nazi-like uniforms. In March, the Jobbik leader spoke to hundreds of these vigilantes at Gyöngyöspata’s marketplace. He said that because police officers are unable to properly defend the innocent, the Jobbiks would start organizing nationwide divisions that will.
The problems with the vigilante groups in Gyöngyöspata increased steadily during April and culminated over Easter. Janos Farkas, the chairman of the local Roma council, invited us over for coffee and told us about the hell his people had gone through. The skinheads weren’t the worst of their problems—that was a new group of men who showed up from the Védérö organization (which roughly translates to “military strength”). Dressed in camouflage uniforms and red berets. They carried arms and addressed one another using the codes of the ancient fascist Hungarian Guard. After buying a house in Gyöngyöspata, their leader, Tamas Eszes, a 47-year-old karate instructor, brought in his paramilitaries, who are feared even by Jobbik supporters.
Only a slope separates Eszes’ and Farkas’ houses, and they can see each other from their living room windows. One day, the Védérös came storming down the slope towards the Roma settlement with axes and rods, injuring four, including a 14-year-old boy who was knocked unconscious. Farkas told me that the young Roma defended their houses and injured some Védérö fighters. The Védérö then announced they were going to send 2,000 of their supporters to a three-day training camp in Gyöngyöspata over Easter. That was the last straw for the Romanis, who fled the village in Red Cross buses.
The government spokesman tried to play down the situation, calling the Romanis’ flight an “Easter excursion,” but it had already gotten the attention of the European Union. One hundred and fifty foreign policemen showed up in Gyöngyöspata on the morning on Good Friday, surprising the Védérö at their training camp and arresting Eszes and other loyalists. Interior Minister Sandor Pinter came to the village to let the media take photos of him in Farkas’ kitchen, and for the next few days the police prevented non-villagers to enter.
Despite his arrest, Eszes ran for mayor in July. He didn’t take home the majority of the votes—a Jobbik candidate did—but there is every indication that the new mayor will take a hard stance against the Roma. We tried to get an interview with him, but he refused to speak to us. Farkas says he still hasn’t visited their settlement.
The Roma returned to Gyöngyöspata as soon as the situation calmed down. Today, there are no men in uniform wandering the streets. The new mayor has announced that the village will finally get a proper police station, but the situation is far from solved—the locals still speak badly of their Roma neighbors, and Farkas and his peers still fear Eszes. Last year, the Jobbik party declared the integration of the Roma minority to be a failure and proposed forcefully placing them in camps. If anything, things are looking much worse.
Photos by Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek