Building barriers to human understanding

IT HAD SEEMED that the story of yet another wall built to separate Roma from non-Roma Slovaks, this time paid for by a collection among non-Roma locals, would be the most shocking story of the past couple of weeks.

IT HAD SEEMED that the story of yet another wall built to separate Roma from non-Roma Slovaks, this time paid for by a collection among non-Roma locals, would be the most shocking story of the past couple of weeks.

But that changed on August 30, when Ľubomír Harman, a 48-year-old resident of Devínska Nová Ves described by his neighbours as taciturn and solitary, took his gun and turned his frustration and we only can guess what else against his neighbours, a family with several Roma members.

After killing six of them he walked out onto the street and began shooting at anything that moved. It was a suburban rampage the like of which Slovakia had not seen before.

The police have already recorded the details of the gun used, counted the bullets and probably estimated how fast they killed the victims; it is already known that Harman was shot in his chest and that he must had been in pain before he fired a bullet into his own head.

Yet what is still unknown and will most probably remain so is the nature of thoughts that passed through his mind, until that final bullet ended them all: all the misery, anger and frustration at which the world can now only guess.

When something deeply terrifying and shocking emerges in society for the first time, it kills people’s confidence that their country is immune to tragedies like the Columbine massacre in Colorado, where 12 students and one teacher were killed.

In that pre-massacre stage, people were watching the news with horror and concern, but still with the feeling that their street was somehow safe and that their small country was somehow immune.

Then Harman comes along and shows that this is not so.

What he also shows is that whenever a shocking human tragedy happens we must all be concerned.

Society will now be left guessing about the root of the frustration that set him off. Racism was quickly proposed as one possible motive. Local journalists have pointed out that their foreign counterparts adopted racism as the motive for the massacre with little hesitation, ignoring the fact that Harman killed other people as well as Roma.

As several readers of The Slovak Spectator have rightly pointed out, some local media rushed to describe the family by using notorious Roma stereotypes and depicting the family as “problematic”.

Yet even if the police did not confirm suggestions, prompted by the fact that some of his victims were Roma, that Harman was driven partly by racism – they instead suggested that a neighbourhood dispute may have lain behind the killings – it does not mean that he wasn’t driven by any such sentiments.

While the following comment may sound like amateurish psychoanalysis, this author would suggest that Harman’s story is that of someone who probably lived alone surrounded by walls that he must have been building for many years, until the frustrations and angers that filled his seclusion spilled over and washed away seven other lives.

Regardless of whether racism is or is not eventually confirmed as a motive, Slovakia should pay more attention to cases where racism is evident, tolerated or overlooked.

Roma have long been among Europe’s most vulnerable minorities and the way the old continent has chosen to treat them in many places is far from kind, generous or even civilised.

This is not only the story of Slovakia but also Hungary, the Czech Republic and even France.

Recently, Amnesty International urged the Slovak government to immediately end the segregation of Roma children in the country's education system.

The human rights watchdog suggested that this practice leaves thousands of Roma children with substandard education. Amnesty International wrote that Slovakia places many Roma children in schools or classes for those with “mild mental disabilities”, or confines them in ethnically segregated mainstream schools and classes.

It seems there are many more walls, not just those in Michalovce or Šarišské Michaľany, where physical barriers have recently been built to isolate Roma settlements from the majority population.

People on both sides find it difficult to cross these walls, even when it comes to thinking about or interpreting massive human tragedies.

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