By Dylan C. Robertson
BOLINTIN-DEAL, ROMANIA—Marin Dumitru was working the overnight shift at the local hospital when Cristian Melinte’s dead body arrived. It was the early hours of Easter, 1991, but the 73-year-old nurse remembers it clearly. He knew the young man was killed by a Roma. “We went through hell with these people for years,” he says.
For over two decades, residents of this small village 25 kilometres outside Bucharest were terrorized. They were robbed, assaulted and raped by some members of the town’s Roma minority. Sitting at a café patio, the elderly man recalls frequent burglaries throughout the ’80s. He says thugs, always Roma, would stop villagers on the road to the highway and demand money. Dumitru says police always turned a blind eye. It only got worse after the Romanian Revolution overthrew communism in December, 1989. His granddaughters would often refuse to go outside to use their outdoor toilet, he says.
“They wouldn’t go at night,” he says. “My granddaughters would often wet themselves after we heard about girls being raped.”
Then on the night before Easter, April 6, 1991, Cristian Melinte, 22, came to visit his family. Following orthodox tradition, villagers wore newly sewn clothing to church. They carried home candles they had lit at the altar. Around midnight, Melinte said goodbye to his parents for the last time. The music student started driving back to his Bucharest university dorm. Within minutes, three drunken youth stopped him on the dirt path to the highway. Melinte stepped out of his car. A young Roma man started a fist fight. He pulled out a knife and stabbed Melinte four times. The group ran. Police found Melinte’s body and his killer within two hours.
“He was dead on arrival,” Dumitru remembers. “There was blood everywhere.”
Melinte’s gruesome death illustrates the often visceral contempt that pervades many villages across Europe, emotions that even today can spark mob violence. At the same time, this one village’s inspiring quest for justice — which has ranged from a decrepit shantytown to the ornate halls of the University of Toronto — shows the limits of trying to right century-old wrongs.
Emilian Niculae, 48, remembers smelling burning wood later that Easter Sunday morning. He went to look out the window of his family farmhouse. “I saw big clouds of smoke across the village,” he recalls from a strip-mall patio in Toronto’s Don Mills suburb. “A neighbour ran in and said a mob was coming.”
Niculae’s brother, sister and mother rounded up his nephews and drove off to a nearby forest. Then 20, he hid in the backyard field. He watched as the group looted the house, tossed Molotov cocktails and shoved flaming torches through windows. Many threw stones, while some opened the stable and took off with livestock. “We knew there were problems,” Niculae says. “My family wasn’t surprised by the attack. We just thought only criminals would have been targeted.”
Earlier that day, word of Melinte’s death had spread as families gathered for breakfast. At 10 a.m., the town’s emergency bells had summoned residents to the village square, steps away from the blood-stained sand where Melinte died. Soon some 2,000 were seeking vengeance. Young and old, men and women, the crowd wielded torches and burning sticks. They chanted “Out with the gypsies” and “Set them on fire!” before marching through the village streets.
The crowd initially targeted the house where Melinte’s killer lived, villagers told Human Rights Watch. The young man was arrested within two hours of the murder. His family’s empty house was set ablaze as police stood by. Then the crowd started more arsons. Roma houses were nestled between Romanian homes. As the mob approached, Roma families like Niculae’s fled. The group swarmed each home where they knew Roma lived, raiding whatever they could find. The town electrician disconnected wiring and gas tanks from the houses before the group ignited them, to keep fire from spreading. The mob set 22 houses on fire and destroyed five others. About 10 police followed the crowd. They dispersed the group two hours later when a larger unit arrived.
For the first few weeks, Niculae says his family “lived like animals” in the forest outside Bolintin-Deal, surviving off the land in a makeshift tent.
A group of 30 Roma returned to the village a month later, including Niculae’s mother and brother. They tried to reclaim five houses that had been looted and stoned, but not burned.
Another mob of 200 villagers congregated. They set two more Roma houses ablaze and threw stones at the Roma group. Paramilitary police arrived, rounded up the Roma in large vans and dropped them off on a freeway just outside Bucharest.
Niculae’s family spent a week gathering trash in the capital to buy bread and slept in the streets. He remains resentful.
“I did nothing to deserve what happened to my family,” he says. “I’m a human being.”
His family moved in with relatives for a few months. Like other victims, they sold their land at giveaway rates and bought a meagre, rundown house outside Bucharest. He started volunteering with Roma advocacy groups, hoping they could undo the wrongs he suffered.
“I had to find a way to get justice,” Niculae says.
Bolintin-Deal is a mid-range farming town where everyone knows each other. Just half an hour from Bucharest’s IT hubs and luxury malls, horse-drawn buggies stroll along dirt roads, crossing rickety Dacia sedans.
The only remarkable thing about this village is the bright marble cross that comes into view off the highway.
It replaced the town square two decades ago, where the mob had first gathered. Cristian Melinte’s black-and-white photo rests at the heart of the cross.
Down the street sits St. Nicholas church. The orthodox sanctuary is adorned with icons of saints and golden chandeliers. It doubles as a social hub, and today two men sit with a young priest chatting over a plate of chips.
Toni Epure, 44, is a traffic cop on his day off. He sits straight up when he hears Melinte’s name.
“You see my goosebumps?” he says, pointing to his arm. “We were like brothers.”
The two grew up together and Melinte was planning to propose to Epure’s sister, Liliana, after finishing his music degree. She has never married.
Epure won’t specify his involvement in the arsons.
“I did the same thing the other participants did,” he grins.
Villagers like Epure believed Roma had suffered less under communism. Many villagers claim Roma would bribe their way out of police investigations.
“We were tortured for so many years,” Epure says, complaining about the thefts, fights and robberies that marred his teenage years. He remembers avoiding certain streets in a village that then totalled 4,000. He safeguarded his bicycle with as much caution as he would in downtown Bucharest.
By 1991, tensions had been escalating. The collapse of communism left poor villages like Bolintin-Deal without a stable economic structure. The local construction industry collapsed, while farmers had their subsidies cut off.
More people reported shakedowns and break-ins in this town of 4,000. Just weeks before Melinte’s death, the local nightclub was closed. Parents wouldn’t let their children walk home at night.
Epure describes Melinte’s death as “the drop that made the cup overflow.” He says police knew better than to intervene during the arsons. The mayor at the time was part of the mob, as was a local priest who refused to speak with this reporter.
“Police saw us gathering. They shut off the alarm bells, but that was it,” Epure says. “We went to make justice. I don’t think we did anything bad. We earned our freedom after this.”
No one was prosecuted for the arsons for seven years.
Meanwhile, Melinte’s killer was sentenced to 20 years in jail just a few weeks after the stabbing. Within months of the pogrom, Niculae and 23 other villagers filed grievances requesting compensation. Court officials did nothing. In 1993, Romania joined the Council of Europe, placing it under jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. The next year, a Human Rights Watch researcher investigated the compensation claims, noting that the judicial delay breached Romania’s Council obligations. Within a month, the district court suddenly processed the grievances. A judge granted all 24 victims compensation, but halved the value of their homes on grounds of provocation. They were also denied adjustment for inflation, which had reached 30 per cent.
In 1995, Niculae began working with advocacy groups to prepare a case for the new continental court. The case would argue that police complicity and judicial inaction amounted to violating the victims’ rights to safety and justice.
Niculae says police started following him around Bucharest. For months, they’d stop him in public, telling him to drop the case.
“I was probably young and crazy to keep fighting,” he laughs. “I’m glad I wasn’t smart enough to stop.”
One night, security police raided Niculae’s house and stole documents, according to court records. They threw him and his brother into the back of a police car, beating him on the way to a police station.
In jail, Niculae called foreign human rights workers, who convinced the sheriff to release the pair without charges.
Niculae left Romania to take a research job with an NGO in Hungary. There, he finally submitted an application to the European Court of Human Rights, which accepted the case in 1999.
Meanwhile, 13 of the 2,000 mob participants were convicted in 1998, seven years after the arsons. They were imprisoned on trespassing and destruction charges. Each served a term of less than six months.
Roma people are believed to have migrated from South Asia a thousand years ago. First documented in Romania in the 14th century, they were trafficked as slaves until the mid-19th century. They then established separate communes or travelled nomadically, doing business with locals but living outside mainstream society.
Roma represent at least 3 per cent of Romania’s population, with enough clout to form political parties. Unlike in Western Europe, most Romanian Roma can be classified by more than 20 family clans according to their historic trade or craft.
Mihai Bejanaru, for example, is from the respected kalderash clan: former blacksmiths whose clan name comes from the word cauldron. Bejanaru runs a successful renovation company around Bolintin-Deal, though worked abroad for a decade after the mob attacks.
“Even some respected Roma were affected by the events. It didn’t feel very safe, so I left,” he says. The percentage of Roma in town dropped from 10 to less than three.
“As Roma, we adjust. We always adapt.”
Following their clan groupings, Roma who historically bred and sold horses now work in auto trading and repair, while artisan clans perform at Romanian weddings. Many Roma live in ornate houses with pagoda-like roofs, evoking their South Asian origin.
But some clans haven’t found a useful adaptation for their trade, such as the ursari, or bear trainers. Known for the rough skills needed to domesticate bears for transport and entertainment, many train animals to perform tricks for tourists. Others have turned to theft and human trafficking.
Romania’s postwar dictatorship forcibly relocated thousands of Roma in a half-hearted attempt at harmonizing ethnic demographics nationwide, regardless of inter-clan tension. Clans whose trades didn’t fit communist ideals were forced into agricultural work, including the ursari who arrived in Bolintin-Deal in the mid-1950s.
Some Roma took part in the 1991 pogrom, as many villagers are quick to point out.
“The people who caused the problems (before the arsons), they were ursari,” says Fanuta Berbecel, a Roma in her 30s who works as an assistant in the mayor’s office and doesn’t identify with a clan. “They’re gone now. We don’t have problems.”
Dumitru, the 73-year-old man at the café, concedes that some Roma victims of the pogrom were innocent. He points up the street to where a respected blacksmith family lived, saying neighbours tried to stop them from being ousted.
But he still stands by the mob’s actions. “I lived an honest life, so why not them?” Dumitru says.
He mentions a neighbour who bought a necklace abroad for his wife. It was stolen in a burglary and was seen on the neck of the police chief’s wife weeks later.
Mob participants found stolen possessions in the houses they looted. Local media reported that a truck believed to have disappeared months earlier was uncovered in a haystack.
“It was a bad time here in Romania. People were desperate and everyone did bad things. But some of those gypsies took full advantage of us,” he says. “Given our situation, I think the pogrom was justified.”
When the 13 mob participants were convicted in 1998, the county’s police chief told a Hungarian magazine that he didn’t initially charge anyone because he felt most of the mob’s 2,000 perpetrators had “a certain right to self-defence.”
Niculae came to Canada in 2001 to visit a friend. His term was done at the Hungarian NGO and his court case sat idle with no lawyer to take it on. He couldn’t find work in Romania and police started visiting him to talk about the court case.
He came to Toronto on a vacation visa, mulling over a refugee claim. He saw his Roma friend thriving in Canada, and applied for asylum.
Within four years, Niculae was granted refugee status on grounds of persecution. In the meanwhile, he sought legal help for his case. His immigration lawyer referred him to the International Human Rights Program.
The University of Toronto program had just launched a legal clinic, giving students hands-on experience researching and leading international cases under professorial supervision.
The clinic took on Niculae’s case and assigned a dozen students through what would be a seven-year process.
Some students travelled to Romania to interview victims, detailing the history of each of the 24 people who had made a claim back in 1991.
Other students like Nader Hasan calculated damages, assessed the government’s response and wrote deputations, comparing the Bolintin-Deal arsons with other court rulings.
“It was really shocking to see what these people had been through, and how little help they were given,” Hasan says.
The U of T group found that many victims still had no stable living arrangements, and three had since died. The group submitted a 60-page deputation in 2005, arguing the Romanian government failed to uphold the European Convention on Human Rights.
The students noted the complicity of police and the mayor in the violence, the perpetrators’ light sentences that only came seven years afterwards and the lack of social programs to help victims re-establish themselves.
Over the course of four years, the Romanian government issued a series of appeals, claiming the victims had provoked the attack. It declined to meet with the U of T team and noted that Romania hadn’t been part of the court’s jurisdiction until two years after the arsons.
“With all the suffering, the facts of this case were heart-wrenching,” says Darryl Robinson, a law professor who supervised the students. “The government was content to let this sit as long as possible, and gave outrageously low figures” of the cost of damages.
In May 2009 — 18 years after the pogrom and seven years into the court case — the U of T team won a successful verdict. The Romanian government was ordered to compensate the victims a total of €565,000.
In Bolintin-Deal, almost all non-Roma villagers say they felt re-victimized that their tax money was used to pay the settlement after years of strife.
While not as poor as neighbouring Moldova or Bulgaria, Romania has the second-lowest GDP in the European Union. The minimum wage here is one euro per hour.
Sorin Nutǎ, a mayoral clerk for over three decades, observed the pogrom but didn’t take part. At the height of the recent economic crisis, a poll found 63 per cent of Romanians, including Nutǎ, said their life was better under communism.
Driving around the village’s outskirts, he pases poor Roma families wheeling scrap metal on horse-drawn carts. He points to new industrial plants, owned by European multinationals seduced by the country’s cheap labour force.
“Why don’t you write about that,” he says pointedly.
He eventually drives through the village streets, following the route the mob took and pointing to where the houses used to stand. Some newer homes have been built, while half the sites remain open grass pits.
Although the settlement guarantees victim families a right of return, none have come back.
The Romanian government also agreed to implement anti-discrimination education programs in the county’s schools. Local groups say no action has been taken.
At the mayor’s office, Nutǎ and his colleagues flip through the 24 Roma names listed in the settlement, struggling to recall which of their former neighbours are alive and where they live.
The U of T team also found it hard to locate the victims, who like many Roma live communally, share similar names within their clan and change address frequently.
Eventually, a mayoral secretary points to two names and scribbles the address of one of the victims.
Sidef Nicolae – no relation to Niculae – sits at a plastic kitchen table on the lawn outside his house in Măgurele, in a rural slum of scrapyards and storage lockers on the outskirts of Bucharest.
The scruffy 47-year-old wipes the sweat off his brow and onto his swim trunks, the only clothing he’s wearing.
Four young children run around, while two teenage girls sit nearby in bright dresses wearing deep-red lipstick and loop earrings. Three shirtless teenage boys are shovelling holes in the backyard garden.
Their barebones house is made of large cement bricks with a roof. There are no windows and no insulation. The structure sits beside a dirt road, where a police van stops to remind the family they are squatting on public land.
“I’m so desperate I could kill,” says Nicolae, who can only find occasional hard labour jobs, despite the automotive engineering degree clasped in his hand.
Nicolae and his wife Viorica Ion look after 11 children; some are their sons and daughters while others are nieces and nephews whose parents work out-of-town. Their story mirrors Niculae’s.
“I could smell the flames,” says Ion, passing her husband a tank top to wear. “Someone yelled ‘they’re coming with fire’ and I grabbed my children,”
The four left in a car and slept under a Bucharest overpass before moving into a relative’s crowded house.
Nicolae says he and his wife received €22,000 from the settlement, but it has been used up for “living expenses.” Nicolae asks me if I have any extra cash. He also asks if I know any Canadian immigration consultants.
The family used half their compensation in an unsuccessful attempt to migrate to France in 2004. France has since faced an influx of Romanian asylum seekers, leading to mass deportations in 2010.
As for the rest of the settlement money, Nicolae shrugs and says his mother managed it, pointing to an elderly woman sitting on the side of the road. The woman’s white hair is bundled above a dark, wrinkled face. Looking up with a scowl, she refuses to answer questions.
Back in Don Mills, Niculae points to a university press release, which calls the case a historic victory.
“It gave me back dignity,” he says.
He’s unfazed by photos of the slum family in Măgurele. He’s unsurprised the villagers are unhappy with the settlement.
“I think of Roma in Europe like black people in the States. You have small and big victories; it takes decades.”
Niculae is now raising a baby girl with a Roma woman. He’s also writing a book about the arsons and his court case.
“I will tell this story until the day I die,” he says.