In the Wake of Bulldozers, Russian Roma Look for Justice

The irony, of course, is that Roma families were forced to settle in Dorozhnoe village by government fiat in 1956, under a Soviet forced-settlement decree.

The village, a cluster of simple houses on the outskirts of Kaliningrad City in far western Russia, became home to dozens of Roma families. Over 50 years, a community took root, and generations of families made their lives there.

Then, at the end of May 2006, the government dramatically reversed course. Russian authorities declared their intention to forcibly evict the Roma families from the very land where they had been made to settle decades before.

Between May 29 and June 2, 2006, the government violently carried out its threats, sending bulldozers into the village to flatten the Roma houses into piles of rubble.

Special police forces burned whatever possessions the families could not salvage from the wreckage.

The families, now homeless, filed an application to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the actions of the government constituted a grave threat to their lives and health, amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment, and severed the protected bonds of family life. Five years later, the families are still struggling to rebuild their lives.

Today, the community has been scattered across the region and into neighboring Lithuania. Most now live in primitive plywood shacks used for camping in the summer months, without insulation, heat or running water. During winter, the conditions quickly grow life-threatening, as temperatures drop well below freezing and transportation becomes extremely difficult.

What was once a community now exists only in the collective memories of older family members. For the children, any sense of unity or continuity with the past is obscured by five years of vulnerable subsistence and total alienation from society. Without a permanent address, the families have no access to government services, including health care, employment, and even primary education for the children.

When I interviewed Lyubov’ Matulevich in Kaliningrad City last December, she had just turned 18. She described the key events of her life since the demolition matter-of-factly, as though they had happened to someone else. She told me she had watched as the police bulldozed her home—she was 14 at the time. Not long after, her grandfather died and her mother, Margarita, disappeared. The police told Lyubov’s grandmother that Margarita was probably dead and refused to investigate her disappearance without a bribe.

In the frigid shack where they share a small room, Lyubov’ and her grandmother, Tamara, showed me a faded black-and-white photo of Margarita—all they have left. Lyubov’ has never attended school, but she taught herself how to read and write. When she needs medical care, she calls an ambulance and begs to be taken to the hospital.

I asked Lyubov’ if she thought the other children had suffered as much as she had since the demolition. She shrugged and, without emotion, told me that their situation was identical to hers: “They have no future.”

The families filed a supplementary memorandum in March 2007, informing the European Court of Human Rights that two of the original 33 applicants had died, one of whom, 26-year-old Anastasiya Alexandrovna, was 7 months pregnant when the authorities tore down her house. She died after giving birth, just a month and a half after the demolition, her death the result of a kidney infection she had contracted while living in a tent on the ground where her home once stood.

I went to Kaliningrad to meet with the families of Dorozhnoe village to gather information for another application to have their case heard—this time a request for priority treatment under the court’s Priority Policy, a recent initiative designed to tackle the staggering backlog of cases on its docket. I encountered a group of broken individuals. Many expressed their frustration and varying degrees of skepticism that I could do anything to improve their situation.

As Lyubov’ Matulevich looked me blankly in the eye and answered my questions mechanically, I wondered if she would ever feel the benefits of this exercise. As she signed her name to an affidavit, swearing that she had no future, did she believe our efforts could not possibly change her situation? Or had she simply lost hope that she and her family would ever have their day in court?

In the request filed this week, the applicants in Bagdonavichus v. Russia again ask the court to take action in their case. The request presents an early test of the welcome efforts the court has undertaken to streamline its operations. In the midst of another merciless winter in Kaliningrad, any action by the court could restore some measure of hope that a better future is possible.

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