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Czech Republic: Přednádraží Forced Eviction Struggle Continues

Přednádraží is a street in Ostrava with eleven brick buildings on it, inhabited mostly by Roma families, members of the largest Czech ethnic minority. Since August 2012, it has been a site of an intense struggle against forced evictions imposed on the owner of the houses and the residents by the Ostrava City Council, allegedly due to dilapidation of the houses and particularly due to broken sewage lines.

The Ostrava City Council let the sewage system at Přednádraží dilapidate to its current state of dysfunction during more than ten years of neglect, until August, when it decided to “solve” the problem by evicting the residents and blaming the devastation largely on them and on the owner of the buildings. For most residents, evictions mean displacement and a threat of homelessness, since the authorities did not offer any alternative low cost housing, recommending that the residents move to overcrowded and overpriced hostels. In what is a historical step in the struggle for Roma civil rights, the residents and the owner of the buildings have joined forces with Czech activists and collectively resisted the pressure from the state institutions.

Přednádraží has suffered several severe blows over the last month, however.

While approximately 50 people still remain at the site, in a building that is known as “Number 8,” they are facing the ever-increasing pressure from the institutions as well as physical hardships, with the electricity cut off and their entire water supply available from a single tap, as winter approaches.

On Sep. 20, Romea News reported that Vzájemné soužití [cs], a non-profit advocacy and social work organization focused on Roma rights, run by Kumar Vishwanathan, who has been actively involved in supporting the struggle for Přednádraží, has been evicted from their offices [cs], rented to them by the Ostrava City Council. Vzájemné soužití has not received any rationale for this eviction, and is considering legal action.

On Sep. 25, Czech activist Jakub Polák [en], an outspoken supporter of Přednádraží, heavily involved in the Roma civil rights struggle since the Velvet Revolution, died of cancer. His friends organized an anti-funeral march in his honor in Prague, carrying large banners that said “The Struggle Continues” in Czech and Romani. The event became a beautiful expression of the Czech-Roma solidarity and was attended by a number of Roma rights activists and community representatives.

The Anti-Funeral of Jakub Polák: The Struggle Continues. Photo by Saša Uhlová, used with permission.

Only two days after the news of the death of Jakub Polák, on Sep. 27, Romea News reported [cs] that the owner of the houses at Přednádraží, Oldřich Roztočil, who had stood by the tenants, attempted to commit a suicide. Mr. Roztočil has been the subject of constant harassment by the authorities since his refusal to comply with the evictions order. The Building Works Authority of the City Hall issued him a fine of 30,000 CZK [cs], ordered him to make numerous repairs on the buildings (rendered meaningless by the unresolved sewage situation), and finally ordered him to demolish one of the houses [cs] in an impossible two-week deadline since the order, which would have cost him around 4 million CZK (an initial estimate from a construction company reached an exorbitant amount of 26 million CZK). Mr. Roztočil is currently in a stable condition physically and is recovering.

Oldřich Roztočil debriefing with Přednádraží community representatives and activists. Photo by Daniela Kantorova.

Most recently, the Building Works Authority of Ostrava has started sealing off individual houses at Přednádraží [en] and barring entry of the residents. All residents have moved into the building “Number 8,” and they are planning to stay there whilst they search for funds to make necessary repairs to the building and its sewage system. The residents face continued pressure from the social services agency that is threatening with taking away their children. They also have a reason to fear for personal safety, as the remaining abandoned houses have become target for looting, particularly of any metal parts that can be sold. This type of looting renders the abandoned houses less secure and further increases any future costs of repairs; however, the Ostrava police have not acted to protect the location.

Building 8 at Přednádraží. Photo by Daniela Kantorova.

While the pressure keeps rising, alliances also keep growing.

A new civic group, SOS Přednádraží [cs, en] has started a petition that has at this point 277 signatories, mostly individuals, but also a couple of organizations and groups, including the Czech Helsinki Committee [en] and a hip-hop duo Čokovoko.

At the first ever Roma Pride [en] march in Prague on Oct. 7, members of SOS Přednádraží read a statement in support of Přednádraží. Several activists from Prague have moved to Přednádraží to help guard the houses. Martin Škabraha [cs], the spokesperson of the civil liberties organization ProAlt [en] and a professor of philosophy at the Ostrava University, is planning a public debate about Přednádraží at the university.

Currently at Přednádraží, despite all the painful losses, there is a sense of hope, and as the alliances grow, the authorities do not realize one thing: the absurdity of their actions is becoming clear to a growing circle of the public, which, in a long run, means more support for the Roma civil rights movement.

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