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Roma people
Vlasta Malá, 49, shows a photo of granddaughter Natálka, 2, who suffered severe burns in the attack and remains hospitalized.
May 6, 2009

Roma family recounts arsonist attack

Parents face hostile community as 2-year-old daughter recovers from severe burns

Vítkov, north Moravia

A Molotov cocktail smashed through the window, then another, spreading flames and bits of broken glass across the foam mattress where Anna Sivaková slept with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter.

The burning liquid splashed over Sivaková’s arm, as she was closest to the window. Her nightgown ignited instantly, and she struggled to tear it off as it scorched her skin. The couple’s three other children, asleep in the same room, were awakened by her frantic screams to get out as quickly as they could.

Scared and confused, the little ones, instead, scrambled to find their grandparents in the next room, where the flames from a third Molotov cocktail had begun devouring the walls.

Vlasta Malá grabbed her frightened grandchildren and ran with them out the door. Out front, she spotted a dark-colored car stopped under the streetlight.

To the 49-year-old grandmother, the car appeared to be an older blue or black model with wings on its tail, like an old-fashioned Cadillac. Its stereo, which until now had been silent, began blaring some kind of heavy metal music that Malá was unable to distinguish.

A young man, perhaps in his 20s, dressed in a light-colored shirt, stood next to the open passenger door.

“Gypsies! Burn to death!” she heard him yell, before he ducked inside and the car pulled away, down the hill and into darkness.

Roma people
Vlasta Malá, 49, shows a photo of granddaughter Natálka, 2, who suffered severe burns in the attack and remains hospitalized.

Vlasta Malá had lived at 58 Opavská street in her hometown of Vítkov, north Moravia, for 26 years. She raised six children and housed four grandchildren in that cozy two-room house, and felt her Roma family had become reasonably well integrated alongside the other white families in the small, remote town.

“I’ve always had good relationships with my neighbors,” Malá said. “We’ve never had complaints.”

Yet those who attacked her house that early April 19 morning must have been familiar with the neighborhood. They must have known a Roma family lived there. And they must have known how to switch off the house’s water main, Malá reasoned, since, when her husband tried to douse the fire, no water came out of the tap.

“It was done by someone who knew us and knew the house,” Malá said. “It had to have been someone local.”

As of press time, however, police in the town of 6,254 people had yet to make any arrests, and had yet to determine whether the attack was racially motivated.

Clinging to life

In the chaos of the fire, Malá’s three grandchildren, ages 4, 6 and 10, tried to run back to the house to find their parents. As the car made its getaway, the grandmother threw the children over a fence into a neighboring yard to keep them at a safe distance.

Malá’s daughter then ran out of the house, with 2-year-old Natálka covered in flames. The toddler had been wearing an outfit made of synthetic material, and Malá pounced on her, ripping off the burning material as quickly as she could.

Natálka’s hair came out in pieces. Sivaková, 27, herself badly burned, scrambled over the fence. Malá handed the toddler over to her. One of the adults ran to a neighbor’s house to call for the fire department and an ambulance.

By the time help arrived, however, there was nothing left of the house worth saving.

Sivačková, her husband Pavel Kudrik, 33, and Natálka were rushed to hospital with severe burns, with Natálka barely clinging to life.

Kudrik, who was released from hospital April 30, said he spent the past week and a half constantly thinking about his youngest daughter. Doctors don’t want Natálka contracting any infections in her weakened state, so they won’t allow visitors to see her until perhaps later this week, he said. Her condition is improving gradually, and it looks like she will survive, although she will likely need medical treatment for the rest of her life.

Sivaková’s health had also improved enough to allow her to rejoin her family May 2.

Now the family must piece their lives back together in a town that suddenly feels hostile.

Relocating is not an option, however, because, as Malá explains, where else would they go?

“Some people have expressed their condolences,” said Zdena Malá, 23, Sivaková’s half-sister. “But a lot of people just laugh at it. They think, ‘Why are they making such a big deal out of it?’ Some people even think we planned it.”

Kudrik, who has been in trouble with the law in the past for stealing construction materials to trade for money, was granted a prison suspension by President Václav Klaus in the wake of the fire for a separate, driving-related offense. Kudrik admitted he had been caught driving without a license on multiple occasions, and had been dodging the authorities since December, when he was supposed to begin serving a one-year sentence.

Kudrik said he knowingly broke the law so that he could travel to work as a bricklayer to support his family, but he could think of nothing that could have brought such violence upon them.

“I didn’t feel at odds with anybody,” he said, adding it will be difficult to explain the attack to his children. “I don’t know how I’ll answer the question, ‘Why did this happen?’ ”

Finding employment here is difficult if you’re Roma, Vlasta Malá explained, noting that her household relies on government assistance. One of her sons is training to become an auto mechanic, and Malá herself is a trained seamstress. Actually getting work is another matter.

If you respond to a job ad in the newspaper, they might tell you over the phone that the position is open, she said. “But, if you show up, and they see you’re Roma, they’ll tell you the position is already full.”

Living together

In Vítkov’s main square, some of the family’s white townsfolk freely offered their thoughts on the attack but declined to give their full names.

“They deserved it,” said Karel, 58. “If you live together with them you’d understand why I feel this way.”

Karel said the Roma are “noisy,” are constantly in trouble with police and their children “run wild on the streets.” The relationship between races “is not good here,” he said. “Ask anyone and they’ll tell you the same.”

Karel added he does greet his Roma neighbors when he encounters them in public, but that he doesn’t trust them.

Milada, 58, said she feels sorry for the injured toddler but thinks the incident has been getting more attention than it deserves. “If it had happened to [a nonminority], there would not be such a vehement reaction,” she said, adding that the apparent special treatment the family is receiving “will make it more difficult for everyone to live together.”

In their temporary shelter, granted by the municipality, family members said they certainly don’t feel as though they are receiving any special treatment. Three generations, seven people in total, share two cramped rooms behind a veterinarian clinic, with only five beds. A few feet away, the clinic houses its dogs.

Town officials have told the family there are no vacant apartments for them. “If this happened to a white, mainstream Czech family and they were given these housing conditions, this would have been a huge scandal,” said Kudrik’s aunt Marie Červenáková, adding that, if the victims were white, the town would at least offer to put them up in a hotel.

Despite the poor housing situation, Malá noted she is grateful for the support that has been flowing in from across the country. Donors have contributed more than 200,000 Kč, which will go toward a new home for the family.

Yet the nightmare is far from over. “I see fires every night,” Malá said. “I can’t sleep. I can’t keep food down.”

She said she does not seek revenge on the perpetrators, only justice. “I don’t think an eye for an eye is a good way to deal with it. I just want them to be caught.”

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