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Activists work to help Ukraine's Roma

Gilda-Nancy Horvath
March 7, 2022

Once they worked to ensure equal rights for Ukraine's Roma minority. Now Roma activists are helping locate food supplies, organizing border crossings and raising funds for the war effort.

Roma activist Tetiana with the flag of Ukraine painted on her cheek
Roma activist Tetiana uses every spare moment to spread the news of what's really happening in UkraineImage: Privat

Just a few days ago, Tetiana* was planning her wedding and looking forward to starting a new job. But then the Russian bombs began to fly, and everything changed.

"On February 24, at 5 a.m., the first air raid sirens woke me up," said the Roma human rights activist from northeastern Ukraine. "Since then, most of the messages I get only ask one thing: Are you still alive?"

Her friends begged her to leave the country, offering support, an apartment and even another job. But Tetiana won't leave. Her future mother-in-law, 82 years old, can barely make it down to the cellar, let alone to the border. And her fiance can't leave the country, either. Due to martial law in Ukraine, men aged 18 to 60 have to stay and remain available for military conscription.

Tetiana said she feels paralyzed and overwhelmed by what is happening. One day last week, five air raid sirens went off, two of them in the middle of the night. She now uses every spare moment to try and spread the news of what's really happening on the ground in Ukraine.

Natalia, another Roma activist who is also still in the country, recently released a video calling on the world to do more to help Ukraine.

Natalia's appeal: 'Please help us'

On social media, Tetiana also tries to analyze which places might be safe enough to, for instance, go out and get food supplies.

But there is danger everywhere. One recent night, she noticed strange lights in the distance and contacted the local territorial defense group. They explained that it was likely a group of Russian saboteurs.

"They mark civilian houses in order to attack them," she said. "But leaving the house is just as dangerous. A family from my hometown tried to flee to another part of Ukraine. But they were stopped by Russian troops and killed." DW has been unable to substantiate any of these incidents.

Rubble in the city of Okhtyrka after Russian attacks.
The city of Okhtyrka has come under heavy fire from the Russian militaryImage: Privat

Tetiana lives in Okhtyrka, a city between Kharkiv and Kyiv that is likely to be used by the Russian military on its way to the center of the country. It has come under heavy fire, and the Ukrainian ambassador to the US recently said the Russian military had detonated a vacuum, or thermobaric, bomb near .

Russia has denied the charge, and the use of such a weapon has yet to be officially confirmed by external sources.

'Crime against humanity'

"What they [the Russians] are doing to our people is a crime against humanity," said Tetiana.

The International Criminal Court said this week it would open an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Russia.

Before the war began, Tetiana was working as an advocate for vulnerable groups in Ukrainian society like the Roma people, and she said they shouldn't be forgotten now

"The Roma were a disadvantaged group even before the war," she said. "We can't even imagine how they are suffering right now. There are reports of Roma being denied access to neighboring countries at various borders."

Official statistics suggest there are around 50,000 Roma living in Ukraine. However, organizations working with local Roma in Ukraine suggest the number could be far higher, up to around 300,000.

Germany's Society for Threatened Peoples, which advocates for minority rights around the world, has called Roma "the forgotten people," pointing out that many living in Ukraine were never eligible for citizenship.

Despite this, local Roma are now fighting alongside their fellow Ukrainians, said Romani Rose, chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma. Meanwhile, Roma women and children were fleeing eastern parts of the country alongside their Ukrainian counterparts.

DW's Fanny Facsar reports from Chernivtsi

Roma networking

Zola, another Ukrainian human rights activist, was in Berlin visiting her son when the Russian invasion took her by surprise. 

"No one really believed this would happen," she said, adding that nobody in Ukraine had been preparing for war. "Now Kyiv is being bombed hourly."

Since she arrived in the German capital, Zola has been organizing aid and connecting people to the various ongoing Roma-organized campaigns .

The European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network has published a statement condemning war crimes against the Ukrainian people, and called on Russia to stop hostilities. Members of the Roma community and allies can sign the statement.

TernYpe, the international Roma youth network, has established a digital noticeboard on the Padlet application to keep people informed. Roma journalists are also collaborating to bring their stories and other related reports to a central website, Nevimos. And the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture is supporting its Ukrainian partner, the Youth Agency for the Advocacy of Roma Culture, as it tries to raise funds.

All this international support makes Zola proud, as a Ukrainian and as a Roma woman.

Human rights activist Zola, in a blue dress, walks along a rural street
Human rights activist Zola has been organizing aid from BerlinImage: Privat

"Many Roma [in Ukraine] have opened their houses and taken people in," she said. "Many have joined the army and they're fighting for our country. The Ukrainian people are united today like they have never been before."

Zola hopes Ukraine will survive as a nation, and that in the end it will become a member of the European Union.

"I'm absolutely convinced that Ukrainians are Europeans," she said. "They proved that in 2014 during the Maidan revolution and they continue to fight for democracy and freedom today."

*Tetiana and Zola requested their surnames not be published due to concerns for their safety.

This article was originally published in German

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