It takes over six hours to reach eastern Slovakia's Revúca by bus from Bratislava, and another 30 minutes to get to Magnezitovce, a village of 450 where in early July a middle-aged Roma father was beaten to death.
The village resembles Timbuctoo in more ways than one. Most of the villagers are simple, hospitable and well-meaning people in whom the name Bratislava evokes respect, as for a sophisticated, mysterious and somewhat alien place. Visiting journalists are bear-led from house to house, caressed by stout women in black skirts, offered coffee and biscuits at each doorstep.
For these people, the murder of 51 year-old Karol Sendrei has come as a bomb in their midst, stirring emotions and animosities that villagers struggle to express. All say that Magnezitovce has never had a race problem, and that the fight between the Sendrei men and the Hudák family on July 5 was the upshot of a long-running feud, not an expression of white/Roma conflict.
But the villagers are also faced with the brutal reality that Karol Sendrei died on July 6 in police custody, and that his sons after being released from custody needed extensive hospital treatment. Eyewitnesses say the police who arrived to break up the Sendrei-Hudák fight used billy clubs and kicks to subdue the three Roma; the sons say they were all beaten for another 12 hours at the nearby Revúca police station; the police deny all, and admit only that the Roma were handcuffed to a steel bar over their heads because they were too drunk to be interrogated. Who knows the truth? Feuds are something everyone in the village understands; such horrific police behaviour - whether maltreatment or negligence - is not.
If confusion reigns in Magnezitovce, it is many times magnified in sophisticated, mysterious Bratislava, where national newspapers and television stations leapt to judgement immediately after Sendrei's death with banners such as "Racism in Uniform" and "The Magnezitovce Tragedy had a Racial Motive". Political leaders, meanwhile, remained coy, with not a single cabinet member attending Sendrei's funeral July 10, and only a lame press release on July 11 to prove that the murder had been noticed by the Government Office. Minority analysts are predicting another wave of Roma migration. Roma leaders are invoking the example of Martin Luther King in what they claim is a struggle against the racist Slovak majority.
Clearly, someone has to step in quickly and dispel the confusion. That role will likely fall to Banská Bystrica region chief investigator Ján Krankuš. He will be under a lot of pressure to exonerate the police, for a village scrap is one thing, and police brutality against Roma an event of international significance. On the other hand, the weight of appearance will work in the opposite direction: a doctor who examined the prisoners before they went to the police station found the three suffering from only surface injuries, while the autopsy report on Karol Sendrei after he died in custody says he suffered skull fractures, massive internal bleeding, punctured lungs and a ruptured liver, broken ribs, a broken jaw and a fractured sternum.
But it is crucial that neither the appearance of police brutality, nor the importance for Slovakia's international image that the police be found innocent, be allowed to shape Krankuš's findings. It is also vital that the Dzurinda government come up with a more intelligent strategy for coexistence between the Roma and ethnic Slovak society than it has so far, and that it stop pretending the problem doesn't exist. That feeble government communiqué says it all: "The government has tasked the Interior Minister with quickly suggesting measures to restore confidence in police officers as the guarantors of rights and public order." Not, that is, with 'quickly suggesting measures' to improve the quality of policing in Slovakia.
But while a quick and clear verdict in the case may clear up confusion in Bratislava, it may do little to heal wounds in Magnezitovce. One father is dead, another up on charges of assault causing death. Whereas before the village lived as one, now its white residents feel their mayor is being set up by the police to take the blame for Sendrei's death; the Roma, for their part, are beginning to speak of mayor Hudák's family as racists, even though they acknowledge they never thought so before.
Sendrei's murder, in the end, is many tales woven into one, none more poignant than that of mayor Hudák's daughter, who arrived home from her July 8 graduation to see her father being taken into custody for killing a village resident he had known for years. While 'the truth' of what happened may seem attainable in Bratislava, Sendrei's murder seems to have released a Pandora's box of evils in Magnetizovce, each of them more alien than the last.