From Bad To Horrific In A Gypsy Ghetto

Twelve kilometers from the center of Rome, Elena is sitting outside her rust-eaten camper with her 3-year-old son on her lap. Her gaze is lost in the strands of matted hair that tumble out of her headscarf. One of her large, brass earrings has fallen off and lies, temporarily forgotten, next to her rubber flip-flops. Mourning the death of her month-old daughter, she has been crying for eight days. "My baby Margota didn't have to die," Elena sobs. "But now what will I do if they take me far away from her grave?"

Elena, who doesn't give her last name, is a 19-year-old Gypsy. More correctly put, she is a Rom. She and her family live in Casilino 700, so-called after its street address. It's one of the 36 Romani camps in and around Italy's capital city. Italians have given the camps various nicknames. They are called the favelas of Italy, after the shanty towns that ring Rio de Janeiro; Casilino is called Little Calcutta. With 1,600 inhabitants, Casilino is the largest Romani camp in Western Europe. And Elena's problem is simple: The municipal government is dismantling it.

Casilino is 30 years old, and for much of that time, it existed in an uneasy peace with the rest of Rome. But the fall of the Berlin Wall and the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia created a new wave of Roma immigration into Italy. Eager to escape poverty and discrimination--or violence in such places as Kosovo--Roma began pouring into Italy in the early 1980s, and the flow hasn't ceased since. Elena and her family fled their home in Romania, where the daily violation of Romani rights--police beatings, murders, segregation, and the like--is well documented. She is now one of 100,000 Roma living in Italy, 40,000 of whom have come from the former Yugoslavia.

The Romani camps are a political issue as well as a social problem. Indeed, in my visits to the camps, I accompanied representatives of the European Roma Rights Center, which is evaluating the human rights situation of the Roma in Italy. It's tricky terrain. On one hand, Italy prides itself as a nation with sound social policies and a long tradition of charity. But the friction caused by the Roma is mounting, as it is in other European countries with Romani minorities. Many Italians look upon the Roma as nothing more than criminals, pickpockets, beggars, and all-around undesirables.

The decision to dismantle Casilino was announced last year by Mayor Francesco Rutelli after one of the many deaths of children in the camps. But the city's policy, and the summary manner of carrying it out, many say, has made things worse. Elena's deceased daughter is a grim example. She choked on her vomit while separated from her mother during a police raid.

For Elena and other Roma, daily life is a precarious exercise in improvisation, involving everything from begging to scavenging to day labor. Less than a third of the Roma now in Italy have resident permits; by law, even those born here are not guaranteed citizenship. So for some, dismantling the camp will be followed by expulsion--which means a one-way ticket back to their countries of origin. And the city government makes no apologies. It asserts that clearing out the camps is essential to fight crime and improve conditions for the Roma. But the city administration's perspective, it must be said, is something less than sympathetic. "Gypsies tend to destroy everything that makes a camp function, leaving them in horrible shape," says Luigi Lusi, a consultant "for nomad affairs" appointed by the mayor. "It is our task to weed out the bad ones and send them away."

FIRESTORM. Few Italians question the notion that the Roma camps have become a problem--for those who live in them as much as for the rest of Rome. There are no public services in Casilino: no gas, no electricity. Rats cross the camp's unpaved roads fearlessly. Before the authorities began dismantling Casilino last year, it had all of nine chemical toilets--one for every 180 people. But does Rome have programs in place to improve the Roma's lot? Or is it effectively reinforcing the notion that they must live in isolation? For many, these are urgent questions. "There's no doubt that something has to be done about Casilino," says Lieutenant Ferdinando Bucci, who formerly worked in a police unit assigned to the camp. "But the `how' and `what' leave a lot of room for criticism."

As things now stand, Casilino will be gone by the end of June. But the fate of its residents is provoking a firestorm of controversy. Rutelli has ordered some inhabitants transferred to camps that are still "authorized" in various neighborhoods around Rome. But after widespread protests in the neighborhoods, deportations have been on the rise. So far this year, according to Rom Riunirci, a research organization concerned with Romani affairs, more than 550 Roma have been expelled from the Rome area. Such actions are drawing heavy criticism from international human rights organizations. "The expulsions have broken every rule in the book," says Claude Cahn, publications director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest. "The European Convention on Human Rights prohibits mass expulsions. And this is not to mention the Italian laws that were breached."

Although the government insists that it has done nothing wrong, it even singles out Roma in national legislation. When Parliament approved the protection of ethnic and linguistic minorities last year, it excluded Romanes, the Romani language, from the law. But there is some resistance among legislators. A group of center-left parties is now preparing a bill to strengthen existing laws to protect Romani rights.

As with non-European citizens in Italy, Roma have the precarious label of extracomunitari, meaning they come from outside the European Union. As Luigi Lusi's title indicates, the government still considers them nomadic--and not in need of housing. But this is an outmoded idea: While some Roma still travel, many have left the road behind. "It is obvious that we no longer harness up the horse and move from place to place daily," says Ivo, a Bosnian who abandoned a four-bedroom house and a job as a metalworker. "Not even my grandfather was part of the traveling culture."

Politicians are taking full advantage of the xenophobia aroused by a wave of petty crime linked to immigrants and Roma. At a recent rally for a legislator from the conservative Northern League, flyers made racist fun of the Roma. A week later an angry mob led by the same candidate attacked a camp of Roma on the outskirts of Milan.

From Bad to Horrific in a Gypsy Ghetto

Casilino provokes similar anger. The mayor and the media call it everything from "a breeding pot for thieves" to "a 20th century plague in the making." "Brace yourself, and then go to Casilino," advises Dimitrina Petrova, director of the European Roma Rights Center. Casilino 700 was one of many sites she visited on her mission in Italy--and one of the worst. It says something about Italy, surely, that leaving a camp such as Casilino inspires more fear and pessimism than hope. If its conditions are unhealthy, most of the Roma feel that to exist in a ghetto is preferable to expulsion, which is fast emerging as the government's favored solution. For the Roma, the solution of choice seems to lie between the less frightening of two nightmares.