Murder Mystery: Who's Killing Hungary's Gypsies?

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Bela Szandelszky / AP

This Roma Gypsy man named Jeno Koka was a victim of right-wing extremist aggression toward Gypsies, which is on the rise in Central and Eastern Europe.

Jeno Koka's killers shot him in the chest moments after he had bid good night to his wife Eva and stepped from his house on his way to a shift at the nearby pharmaceutical factory where he worked.

The 54-year-old grandfather bled to death only a few paces from his doorstep.

Although Koka's wife said she never heard the shot that felled her husband, hundreds of thousands of others across Hungary did.

Koka's murder on April 22 was the fifth in recent months of a member of Hungary's 600,000-strong Roma community. Hungarian police believe that a small group of killers is targeting Roma, who are also known as gypsies and remain one of the most marginalized and neglected groups in Europe. (Read: "Child Migrants on Hunger Strike.")

At Koka's funeral, as a septet of folk musicians played a dirge, some 400 mourners stood beneath canopies of pine and birch boughs listening glumly as the Rev. Sandor Gaal described the murder as part of a "storm" now enveloping Hungary. "The storm struck at our brother in Tiszalök," Gaal said. "The storm has upset life in this town."

It's not only Tiszalök. The murders, which began last November, have unsettled all of Hungary. "They just keep on killing Roma people," says a 35-year-old woman at the funeral, who refused to identify herself or her village because she feared being attacked herself.

Hungarian National Police High Commissioner Jozsef Bencze says he has 100 investigators working the case, and has set up a response network so police can lock down any area in Hungary within five minutes of receiving word of a new attack. Police have also announced a reward worth $231,000 for information resulting in an arrest in any of the murders. "The noose is tightening around these perpetrators," he told TIME.

Relations between ethnic Hungarians and Roma, who account for 6% of the country's ten million people, have never been easy. Recent problems date to 2006 when a driver was beaten to death, reportedly by Roma bystanders, after his car hit, but did not seriously injure, a Roma child. Tensions grew a year later with the formation of a national paramilitary civilian group, which calls itself the Magyar Garda (Hungarian Guard.) With uniforms that bear right wing nationalist symbols, the Garda drew the ire of the Roma community because of the group's stated mandate to protect Hungarians against 'Roma crime.' (Read: "Is Hungary the Financial Crisis' Next Iceland?")

Anger became open violence last year when Roma homes and citizens were shot at, and firebombed with Molotov cocktails. The first fatalities, a Roma couple living in the eastern village of Nagycsécs, occurred in November. In February in a village 39 miles (63 km) south of Budapest, Csaba Csorba, 27, and his four-year-old son were gunned down after firebombs had been used to flush them from their house.

Police commissioner Bencze says that his officers are investigating as many as 18 incidents of anti-Roma violence, and believe that eight attacks could be the work of the same person or people who killed Koka. "The attacks are usually with Molotov cocktails and various types of firearms," says Bencze. "The attacks are usually at night, and against houses which are on the outskirts of the villages."

Koka's home at the end of Nefelejcs Utca (Forget Me Not Street) on the edge of Tiszalök's Roma quarter bolsters Bencze's contention that the killer or killers plan their attacks and escapes carefully. By positioning themselves on the outskirts of the community, Koka's killers were able to lie in wait unobserved, and slip away without witnesses seeing their vehicle. According to a source in the Roma National Council, Koka's killers were careful not to leave a shell casing behind as evidence.

Police say that the killers may have military training. "You can't exclude the possibility that these people got their training in the army or a law enforcement institution," Bencze said, "or the foreign legion or the Balkan wars."

As the investigation drags on, Roma leaders fear that anger within their community could lead to reprisal attacks. "It is important to know that it is hard for us to keep holding our people back," says Mihaly Balogh, local leader of the National Roma Council in Tiszalök. "I tell everyone that we have a police force that is there to protect us ... But if the murders are not solved soon, it will be very difficult to stop people from acting."

A wave of revenge attacks, Balogh says, would have "terrible consequences" in a country that has become a racial powder keg and has been hit hard by the global economic crisis. "There are parties that are saying that the Roma [are] to blame for the problems in the country," says Orban Kolompar, president of the National Roma Council, who believes the economic downturn will lead to increased support for far-right parties with anti-Roma platforms in both European parliamentary elections this year and Hungarian national elections next. "Voters who are disillusioned [by the crisis] may join them."

But police chief Bencze, who attended Koka's funeral this week, says the first attacks predate Wall Street's collapse and that it's too easy to blame the economic problems alone. "There can be many possible motivations behind this crime, such as racial hatred," he said. "We'll know for sure when we've caught the criminals."

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