Published by the Italian weekly magazine Io donna on August 23, 2007

The article was the Italian winner of the European Parliament Journalist Prize, Bruxelles 2008.
Leggi la versione originale in italiano qui

In a town of the Czech Republic, near the Polish border, there is a group of women who have been forced into sterility. Their signatures have been extorted when they were under anesthesia. And now they feel "like apple trees that someone has turned to dry".

Photos by Marco Pighin
Helena Balogova wishes her whole life stayed in a photo album with a green plastic cover that her grandchildren have scribbled on. Here’s Helena when she was young, thin and curly haired. Here’s her mother’s funeral, an old woman inside a coffin with a flowered scarf. And here are Helena’s husband, brothers, her daughter’s daughters, the same little girls who are now leaping around her in this modest and clean apartment in Privoz, a gipsy ghetto in the outskirts of Ostrava, a 300,000 people town in the northern-eastern Czech Republic.
Ostrava used to be the heart of steel and coal of the communist State but nowadays, as the economy of mines has fallen, the area is deeply suffering from unemployment and social depression. 

Helena Balogova is 46 and has always been living inside these buildings made of red bricks eaten by the years. Her most unforgettable memory isn’t kept inside the green photo album she's showing, but it’s on her abdomen: an 11 centimetre cicatrix, still dark, from pubis to navel.
It was 1990 and she had given birth to a baby she had with her new man: it was supposed to be her second life after a violent and mean husband with whom she had three daughters. «It had been a natural childbirth, without any complication», she says, her smile disappearing. «I had asked the doctor for the coil because I preferred to wait for a while before having other children. He told me that I would undergo an operation and then, when I was already dazed by the anaesthesia, he handed me a paper sheet that I wasn’t able to read. I put my signature on it. When I woke up, they told me I would never have children again. I couldn’t believe it, but a few months later another doctor confirmed it: I was sterile. A useless woman. It’s a miracle that my man hasn’t refused me».

Several Helenas live in Ostrava. In this town, Roma people represent over the 10% of the population and most of them are unemployed and discriminated, even if they don’t beg, don’t rob and don’t live in caravan camps but in social houses that are humid and decorated with artificial flowers.
After the Second World War, the communist regime invited many of them to Ostrava from Slovakia and Bulgaria in order to have more workers in the coal mines and to repopulate a town that had been destroyed by bombs and by the nazi deportations (Poland is only 16 kilometres East, with Auschwitz and Nisko concentration camps). But soon the Czech government realized Romas' high birth rate, and was afraid of it: so in 1958 the authorities started to systematically sterilize their women. The public social workers used to encourage Roma women with money, washing machines or coal bags: offers that nobody could refuse.
It was a real eugenic program, documented by several studies and reported also in 1997 by the Czech magazine Tyden.
After the fall of the communist regime, while the new democratic government was condemning its aberrations, in the gynecological units of the country hospitals the doctors were keeping on making gipsy women put their signature upon an unclear paper sheet to authorize the closure of their tubes. No longer with money or washing machines: the new racism used to spoil the ignorance of those women, who thought that “sterilization” was a mysterious Latin word and “closing the tubes” just a temporary contraceptive method.
At the end of the Nineties a formal denounce came from the European Roma Right Centre in Brussels: they declared the abuses on the Roma women’s bodies were going on, in Czech Republic as well as in Slovakia and Hungary. The government of these countries accused the organization of spreading lies. But in Slovakia, the jurist Barbora Bukovska documented 140 cases of Roma sterilizations after 1989: to three of them, in January 2007 the High Court accorded a 50,000 crowns compensation (almost 2,000 euros). Nothing more than a symbolic consolation, but to Ostrava Roma women it'd be enough, as a piece of won back dignity.

«Here Roma women use to have even eight children. In their large clans, the ability to procreate means wealth» tells Kumar Vishwanathan, president of “Life together” ngo that helps Roma in Ostrava. He’s a physic teacher, Indian from Kerala transplanted in central Europe for love and come across Ostrava as a volunteer during the floods in 1997 («I had planned to spend here only a summer…»). It was him who gathered Helena Balogova and other 40 women in a room, to let them share their stories of discrimination and shame. «They had known each other for long time and never had spoken about their forced sterilizations», Kumar says. «For Roma women it’s not only a wound in their womanliness: it’s a slap in their tradition».
Irina Dzurkova is a beautiful and thin 40-years-old woman, with a fair blue bra that you can guess under her white t-shirt. She’s offering me a very strong tea in her two rooms-apartment in another gipsy ghetto, Zarubek, while clouds of children are playing in the mud outside. A recent downpour has transformed the courtyard in a bog. The forced sterilization has transformed Irina in a mask of fear: «I haven’t been to the doctor’s since then, and it happened seven years ago. I don’t trust doctors anymore» she whispers in her kitchen with a green fitted carpet that has no intention to stick to the floor. Irina has three daughters and a son, «but I wanted more. I had gone to the hospital for a problem in just one of my ovaries and when I woke up my womb was completely gone». She signed for the sterilization when the anaesthesia was starting to act, like Helena Balogova. In her case, too, the doctors waited for her husband to be gone out of the room. «It’s a thing that I’ve never accepted. I feel like my body is not mine any longer».
Marta Puškova is the only woman of the Ostrava Roma group who has been sterilized during the communist regime. It happened in 1982, when she was 25 and already had three daughters. «I wanted a son», she says while extracting from a drawer the old document that certificates her “volunteer sterilization” with her “gipsy origin”. After that, social workers gave her furniture for her house and 2000 crowns, and she couldn’t understand why. «My husband fell in depression, he started to drink, he was so cold in our intimacy… Our life has changed forever».

Also in Most, in the West of Czech Republic, ten Roma women have denounced forced sterilizations from 1979 to 2003. But victims from Ostrava are the only ones who succeeded in creating a strong team to try to demand for justice. «We went to the ombudsman (a human rights’ defender), and he asked the Health Minister to open an inquiry», Kumar Vishwanathan says. «After a while the Minister answered that everything was legal because those women had signed a regular authorization. But luckily the ombudsman rejected this conclusion: he said that hospitals didn’t respect the women’s right to an informed consent, because the doctors made them sign that document while they were in labour pains or already under the effect of the anaesthesia». This means there are enough elements to expect a compensation from the hospitals and formal apologies from the Czech State: «After 1989 the State has not been directly guilty», Kumar adds, «but it has always closed his eyes so we think it’s responsible as well. For instance, Sweden has recently passed a law to compensate the victims of forced sterilizations from the 30’s to the 70’s: they were insane people, criminals and Roma too. We want our Parliament to pass the same law».
Helena Ferencikova, 25, is a pioneer. She sued the hospital and has just won in tribunal. But she’s not satisfied at all, as she explains among the coloured plastic decorations in her pour apartment: «They sterilized me when I was 19, after my second c-section. On that sheet there was no trace of the word “sterilization”, I am sure they added after I signed. And now the hospital has been condemned only to apologize. It’s too little. It means nothing to me». Helena’s lawyer, Michaela Kopalova from Brno, says she has just made recourse to the Supreme Court in Prague to ask a money compensation, «and now we’re starting other two trials».

«Do you know what is the saddest part of this story?» explodes Elena Gorolova, 38, in a white short dress and a stabbed heart tattooed on her right shoulder. «We had to go out from our country and far from our people to be believed». Elena now works for “Life Together” ngo. She was sterilized in 1990, after her second son’s birth. «A doctor put a sheet in my hands saying: “If you don’t sign you’ll go straight to the gravedigger’s arms”. I was just 21». She’s now got over the feeling that she describes as «a barbaric invasion into our lives», thanks to the fact that she became a sort of spokeswoman for every sterilized Roma women in Ostrava. In 2006 she went to New York to make a speech in front of  the Un Committee against discriminations on women, while a Czech government’s delegation was trying to defend their doctors’ legality and morality. In May 2007 Elena was called as a witness to Strasburg, to a session of European Council dedicated to discriminated ethnic minorities. Although she’s now a strong woman who succeeded in wiping away the sense of humiliation from her face, when I ask her «How do you feel, today?», she answers with words I’ve heard many times, in sad and humid ghettos of this green-grey town: «I feel like an apple tree that somebody has dried». 


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