Natasha Tatarova, 1968-2000
The heroic life of an asylum seeker
NATASHA TATAROVA, asylum seeker, died on 23 May in south London. Her obituary was tucked away in the Guardian. It should have been on the front page of every newspaper. Natasha Tatarova's life story shows one example of the suffering and the courage of people who are routinely derided as "bogus asylum seekers". This obituary, a fuller version of the one which appeared in the Guardian, is by AMANDA SEBESTYEN, voluntary co-ordinator for Europe Roma and member of the National Union of Journalists.
NATASHA TATAROVA, who has died in a fire in south London, was an outstanding figure among the Slovak Roma refugee diaspora. No one who met her even briefly is likely to forget her. She was born into a family of musicians, and as a child Natasha performed as a singer and dancer with her father, the clarinettist Jozef Badzo. Early training left Natasha with a dancer's poise and self discipline, a compelling presence and awesome elegance.
The Badzos toured former Czechoslovakia and Germany until Natasha's early marriage to Milan Tatar ended her performing career. She became the backbone of an extended family, cooking banquets for up to 100 people at weddings and funerals. The events of 1997 were to channel her driving will into bringing her immediate relatives out of danger. The Tatar family, like most of the Romany exodus which reached Britain in the summer of 1997, came from Michalovce in eastern Slovakia. During the 1990s this remote region near the Ukrainian border became a site of violent terror against the Roma population aided, if not implemented, by local mayors and police.
Michalovce itself became notorious for spearheading the eviction of Roma from their housing alongside white Slovaks into a ghetto estate on the outside of town. These moves were increasingly enforced by Ku Klux Klan and other local white supremacist skinhead gangs using rape and murderous beatings. Today Michalovce is a law unto itself-a byword for gangsterism in which the local police are reputed to be complicit. Over 80 percent of the Slovak asylum seekers have been returned there from Britain. Milan Tatar, Natasha's husband, managed to keep a skilled job when most of the Roma were being thrown out of the newly privatised companies.
Soon this Gypsy family's good car and nicely furnished flat were arousing hostility from their white neighbours. Milan was subjected to a series of knife attacks, during the last of which he recognised the son of the local police chief. Reporting incidents to the authorities had always been unsuccessful, and was now impossible.
The Tatars moved out to a quiet village called Bracovce. In this new home they suffered the final gang attack which drove them from Slovakia, and made them one of the first and only Slovak asylum cases to gain "Leave to Remain" from a British court. What was done to Natasha in front of her husband and children left her with permanent injuries. She had to have a hysterectomy, and suffered recurrent kidney problems for the rest of her life.
Milan was beaten so badly that a broken rib pierced his lung. After the hospital refused to X-ray him, an infection developed and one lung had to be removed. In this state they arrived in Dover and almost immediately began helping out around their hotel, later being housed in a single room bed and breakfast in Deal where they asked for a work permit as soon as legally possible.
After the National Front march on Dover in the autumn of 1997 they were so terrified that they asked English friends to find them a flat in Deal where Gillian Casebourne of the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) became a close family friend.
The atrocities the couple had suffered meant that-pending the home secretary's planned readjustment of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention-any British court which heard the facts accurately was bound to grant the Tatars leave to remain in Britain.
Many other Slovak refugees had stories just as terrible read and dismissed "on the papers", with legal representatives who did not even turn up in court. Despair
In the atmosphere of disbelief and suspicion surrounding Roma refugees in autumn 1997, the Tatars' adjudicator stressed that leave would be strictly reviewed within one year. The Home Office then counter-appealed the case, leaving the Tatars in limbo along with other Slovak families remaining in Britain. The family relocated in spring 1998 when Natasha's parents sought asylum and could only receive support in south London.
Natasha had learned English with impressive speed and was working as a part time interpreter for the Refugee Arrivals Project. She was determined to achieve permanent refugee status by avoiding the "shame" of requesting state assistance, and the couple began working night and day in a series of catering and building jobs.
The gates had been closed against Slovak emigration in the summer of 1998. Following a manufactured press outcry the home secretary imposed visas on Slovakia and arranged to post British immigration officials in Slovak airports. Hundreds of Roma families were separated from close relatives who had stayed behind to save for their tickets.
The tide turned against the Tatars in spite of all Natasha's efforts. Her parents, brother and sister were refused asylum or "voluntarily" went back in despair. This March her brother Marek Badzo nearly died from an attack by hooded officers inside Michalovce police station. The case was extreme enough to be reported on the Slovak national TV network, and the police then admitted to "mistaken identity".
Natasha was sent video footage of her brother's frightening injuries, which she hoped to show to the British media. But by now constant overwork and insecurity about the future had broken her marriage.
As a separated woman she had to start her independent asylum case all over again. She and her children moved to the bleak block in Penge where she died last week trying to save her teenage cousins Lucie and Milan "Kolody" Sivak. The probable cause of the fire was a gas leak ignited by a cigarette. Natasha was able to drop her three young children to safety onto mattresses which neighbours spread to catch them beneath the third-floor flat. Rastik Sivak, 17, fell from a window and now has a broken spine. Natasha leapt to safety herself but landed on a wall and was almost certainly severely injured.
But when she heard the screams of Lucie and Kolody she ran back upstairs. They were not seen alive again. Every day the balcony of the charred and boarded flat is heaped with flowers from the local Sainsbury's. In the upset over the separation earlier this year, Milan Tatar was caught drinking and driving. Astonishingly he was sent to Belmarsh, the high security prison best known for housing IRA members.
When he was released to visit his surviving children in their different hospitals he was handcuffed and chained to a prison officer. Natasha is survived by her daughters Natashka and Marcella. Her son Martin is in intensive care in King's College Hospital, as is Rastik Sivak in St Thomas's.
The dead boy, Kolody Sivak (15), who used to amaze his Dover landlords with his appetite for study, had at school in Slovakia been put in a dog's collar and lead, made to walk on all fours and bark. There had also been repeated assaults on the elder surviving daughter Sylvia as she went to and from school. Yet the Sivak asylum case remains undecided. Natasha's mother, brother and sister have come to London to take her body home and decide on the children's future. Her father was refused a visa by a British emigration officer in Slovakia who claimed that Mr Badzo was a fraud and could prove no relation to his daughter.
After a day of ringing the British embassy by hospital social workers and KRAN, a consular official declared that the father's admission would still be refused because the family had previously sought asylum. Mrs Sivak's sister in Belgium is also being refused entry. Now even in death it appears that the British state is determined this family will be divided.
- Send messages of support or condolence via Europe Roma, PO Box 14874, London NW1 0WF. Phone 07947 647 798.