LONDON - In the hours after the mutilated body of a 9-year-old girl was found in a forest near the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, rumors spread quickly that a local Roma man had been arrested — and violent retribution followed.
A meeting of local leaders the same day in August last year denounced nearby Roma as criminals and demanded evictions, while a mob circled homes, pelting buildings with rocks and trashing a community where many Roma had lived for a decade, said rights groups.
By early September, all two dozen Roma targeted, including 17 children, had fled.
A year on, they remain in temporary housing in Izmail, southwest Ukraine, and say they are unable to return home to their village of Loshchinovka for fear of further violence, according to the Roma Human Rights Center (RHRC).
Rights groups say the attack follows a pattern of xenophobic "pogroms" across Ukraine against the Roma, also known as gypsies, to which the state has turned a blind eye.
With ancestral roots in India, the Roma migrated to eastern Europe in the 10th century and have a history marked by persecution.
Since Ukraine's "Euromaiden" revolution of 2014, government agencies — bogged down in a series of economic and political crises and a conflict with Russian-backed forces in the east — have failed to guarantee the safety of Roma, said Volodymyr Kondur, head of Odessa RHRC.
"The situation has become more complicated throughout Ukraine: Roma are not protected, the state is not able to provide security," Kondur, who works to represent the affected communities in Izmail, told Reuters.
There are between 120,000 and 400,000 Roma in Ukraine who face poverty and discrimination, with limited access to justice and their property rights barely protected, according to the European Roma Rights Centre.
In the year since the Odessa riot, there have been at least eight mass attacks on Roma, in the metropolitan regions of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv as well as the rural areas of Transcarpathi and Chernigov, said Kondur.
Ukraine's Interior Ministry said 20 police officers in Odessa had undergone training since the attacks to teach them how to deal with hate crimes and investigate Roma communities without discrimination.
A spokesman said police and local authorities have planned further training exercises to encourage cooperation with Roma communities, including a series of classes for Roma participants on legal rights.
Ukraine's 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
In Odessa, 22-year-old Roma man, Mykhaylo Chebotar, accused of the young girl's rape and murder, is in custody and is scheduled to go on trial October 19, according to the Ukrainian Human Rights Information Center.
But campaigners said an entire community has been collectively punished with exile.
Oleg Shynkarenko, a writer and activist at the advocacy group the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union (UHHRU) likens the story to a Ukrainian retelling of To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel about a lawyer defending a black man against murder charges, amid racial hatred in the American South.
"Nobody knows if that gypsy man is the real murderer, because the trial is not finished, but the locals have destroyed Roma's buildings and state officials did not stop it or even condemn it," Shynkarenko told Reuters.
Odessa State Regional Administration did not respond to written questions or phone calls.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president who was then governor of Odessa State, singled out Chebotar for blame in the murder case in a news conference the day after the attack.
Saakashvili said he understood the anger directed at the Roma, claiming Chebotar was among "anti-social elements" in the village that he said were involved in "massive drug dealing."
Such sweeping charges are "indicative of the treatment that many Roma in Ukraine experience on a regular basis," said Neil Clarke, European Managing Director of Minority Rights Group International.
Kondur said authorities have offered no answers about when the Roma families can return to Loshchinovka or why police did not intervene to stop the vigilante attacks.
Rights groups' demands for alternative housing for the Roma have not been met, with authorities blaming the war and the country's economic troubles for their inability to provide homes, he added.
Attempts by the community to pursue justice in courts have moved slowly but, in April, UHHRU lawyer Yulia Lisova secured a hearing in Ukraine's administrative courts that will consider whether Roma's rights were violated by the authorities' failure to protect them from attack.
"If we get the result in defense of the Roma, the community will understand that there will always be a punishment for crimes. Then people will think about their actions before they commit," Kondur said.