Children playing on a broken wall in the Vel'ka Ida Roma settlement, in eastern Slovakia. The massive US Steel factory is visible in the background. Photos by Matt Lutton.
Throughout history, sometimes events seem perfectly aligned to spark racial violence. On March 10 of last year, the residents of the small village of Krásnohorské Podhradie, in the mountains of eastern Slovakia, looked up to the hilltop at the center of town to see their beloved 14th-century Krásna Hôrka Castle being engulfed in flames. By the time firefighters made it up the hill, the roof was gone and three bells had melted down into the tower.
The next day, a police spokesman announced that the fire had been caused by two Roma boys, aged 11 and 12, who lived in a ghetto on the edge of the village. They had allegedly been trying to light a cigarette at the bottom of the hill when an unusually strong gust of wind carried a piece of smoldering ash up the mountain, where it ignited wood strewn on the castle grounds. Whether or not they were responsible, the accused and their families were terrified—perhaps because, in the last two years, according to data from the European Roma Rights Center, there have been dozens of violent attacks on Roma in Slovakia—the ethnic group better known as Gypsies. Fearing reprisal, the boys were quickly spirited out of town to stay with relatives, while Roma men prepared throughout the night to defend their community. Ultimately, the boys weren’t charged with any crime because they’re minors, but the damage was done: the image of Gypsy kids setting fire to a hallmark of Slovak national heritage seemed to only reinforce the prejudices many white ethnic Slovaks have toward their country’s poorest citizens. With the burning of Krásna Hôrka Castle, the far right in Slovakia had their equivalent of 1933’s Reichstag fire—the symbolic event needed to justify a crackdown.
In mid-March, I flew to Slovakia and drove out to Krásnohorské Podhradie for a rally to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the burning of Krásna Hôrka. Marian Kotleba, a former teacher and leader of the far right People’s Party-Our Slovakia—named in honor of the clerical-fascist party that ran the Slovak Republic during World War II—had pegged his dim electoral prospects on Krásna Hôrka and his stand against “Gypsy criminality.”
On arrival, I entered a lot beside the municipal offices. A crowd of about 150 people—skinheads, tough-looking townspeople, and about 12 of Marian’s green-clad officer corps—stood around listening to Marian’s speech. My translator suggested parking away from the crowd so that there would be less of a chance of anyone noticing the Hungarian plates on our rental car. “If there’s one thing the neo-Nazis like less than Roma, it’s Hungarians,” he said, only half joking, referring to Slovak resentment of their former imperial neighbor.
A Roma boy with an infected gash who was playing around a trash fire in a feces-strewn field on the edge of the segregated Roma settlement outside the village of Huncovce, Slovakia.
A short, mustached man in black fatigues, Marian Kotleba stood in front of his blue zebra-striped Hummer flanked by two skinheads waving the party’s massive green flags. “We don’t like the way this government deprives polite people in order to improve the position of parasites,” he said in a stern, steady voice. An enormous yellow crane loomed above the castle on the hilltop, making repairs on the castle’s roof. “This burned castle is a symbol of the way it will go if the government doesn’t do anything with this growing and increasing menace,” Marian continued. “If we don’t do anything about it, the situation will continue getting worse… If the state wasn’t creating surprisingly good conditions for these Gypsy extremists, what do you think would happen? They would all go to England. They can go anywhere; they have freedom to move. If they suffer so much in Slovakia, no one is keeping them here. No one will miss them. I don’t have to tell you that I wouldn’t miss them at all.”
Enthusiastic applause rose up from the crowd. For another 20 minutes, Marian railed against the European Union and advocated for the rights of “polite people”—a code term for white ethnic Slovaks. The rally ended with Marian urging the townspeople to “open their eyes and do something.”
After the speech, I spoke with some of the skinheads. One, named Marek, suggested that Roma be put on reservations, “like the ones you all have for Native Americans.” A teenager in gray camo with a patch that read all cops are bastards snarled, “All the Gypsies should be gassed,” before being pulled away by elder neo-Nazis.
Later that evening, in what would be the climax of the day’s events, Marian drove his Hummer into the poor Roma settlement at the edge of the village and threatened the residents. Using a plot of land he had been given by a local sympathizer as leverage, he attempted to evict the Roma and demolish their homes. The residents responded by throwing stones and attacking his Hummer with hammers. In a statement released in the wake of the incident, Marian wrote, “We had only two options. Deal with the situation radically in the style of Milan Juhász [an off-duty police officer in western Slovakia who killed and wounded five Roma men last summer, claiming that he had to “restore order”]. We had four short ball guns and about 250 rounds of ammunition; however, we decided to give one last chance to the police.”