Albion Monitor /Features
[Editor's note: Soon the weather will turn warm in Eastern Europe, and with the change of season comes a time of particular peril for the Roma people, better known as "Gypsies." Mobs have attacked them and burned their homes almost every summer since the fall of Communism. Racist violence against Roma is commonplace because they are the most hated -- and most widespread -- minority in Europe. Sonoma County journalist Steven Barmazel recently visited Romania and filed this report.

The Romani Rights Web is a good source for more information on the Roma people, and their current struggle for U.N. recognition and fundamental human rights.]

Caravans of Fire

by Steven Barmazel

In the land straddling the Carpathian mountains, "Gypsy" and "criminal" are synonyms

The Gypsy with the gold-toothed grin snatches the sunglasses from my shirt pocket and dashes through his caravan camp. Zigzagging between brightly painted wagons, he vanishes behind a tattered canvas tent.

My companion Gabriella Cojocaru, an executive secretary from Bucharest, has not dared leave the Dacia which she parked beside the highway. The theft turns her frantic.

"Come back!" she screams, daring to lower her window only a crack. "They'll slit your throat for sure!"

A thieving, murdering Gypsy is a stereotype embraced by virtually all Romanians. In the land straddling the Carpathian mountains, "Gypsy" and "criminal" are synonyms. Romanians expect the worst of Gypsies, but I, a Westerner, do not. Though stereotypes can be self-fulfilling, disbelief does not always protect the innocent.

And so I stand in a Gypsy camp, minus my prescription Ray Bans.

I keep strolling through the stream-side camp, photographing wagons, hand-worked copper cauldrons and women in colorful costumes. I end up at the back of the tent that the thief ducked into and flip it open.

There he is on a wagon, curled up on some bedding. He snores wheezingly to show that he's been sleeping here all along. I wave a dollar under his nose, and the Gypsy hands over my shades. And flashes a grin.

Some countries, including Poland and Slovakia, imposed mass sterilization

It's lunchtime in Bucharest's Victory Plaza, and Springtime, a trendy sidewalk cafe, is packed. Newly rich Romanians squeeze up to shiny counters to order hamburgers, cokes and fries. For one meal, a couple can easily spend an average worker's weekly wage. But Springtime is not for average workers. It's for Romania's elite, which has discovered fast-food chic.

Seated in a plastic chair on the cafe's sunny patio, I have a clear view of the Government Building across the plaza. This beached leviathan holds the offices of senior bureaucrats from several ministries.

Also eyeing the building from their offices on the plaza are people at the Soros Foundation's Social Science Center, which is trying to bring some Western insight to Romanian public discourse. I am at Springtime to meet with the Center's director, Henry "Chip" Carey, an American political scientist from Columbia University.

"The story of the Roma is the story of Europe," Carey says over a dish of shewarma. "They are a minority in search of a home, and they're all over Europe."

An estimated 8 million Gypsies, or Roma as they prefer to be called, live in Europe. About three-fourths are concentrated in the former East Bloc. Though scattered among many states, they share a history and maintain their own language and social hierarchy.

With borders in Europe breaking down, problems easily splash across several countries. "How governments deal with the Roma will tell the continent's future," Carey predicts.

Recent events indicate that Europe will be nasty and brutish, especially for minorities. Ethnic cleansing has devastated the former Yugoslavia, and Roma and other minorities are being attacked throughout the former eastern bloc. Many Roma are beaten each year in Romania, and hundreds of their homes have been damaged or destroyed.

In 1992 some 30,000 Roma fled Romania for Germany, triggering anti-foreigner protests there. In the eastern city of Rostock, neo-Nazis torched government housing that sheltered Romani asylum seekers. Neighbors told journalists the attack was justified because of the Roma's "dirty" and "disorderly" behavior.

Such attacks, and political debates about the "Gypsy problem," sent shivers up several spines. But these events should have surprised nobody. Under the Nazis, Germans slaughtered some 500,000 Roma. The Romani holocaust, or Porajmos, was second in magnitude only to the Jewish one.

Germans have banned and hunted Roma almost since Roma arrived in their country, in the early 15th century. They accused Roma of spying, spreading the plague and (because they came from the East) treason to Christendom. Several laws encouraged the murder of Roma and rape of Romani women.

Throughout Eastern Europe, Roma are commonly viewed as a pathologically criminal group. Until 1989 Roma policy in Poland, for example, was enforced by the interior (police) ministry. Some countries, including Poland and Slovakia, imposed mass sterilization.

After the 1992 influx, Germany paid Romania US$21 million to take back the Roma. Ian Hancock, the Romani representative to the United Nations described to me how would-be refugees were handcuffed for the flight home until Lufthansa refused to fly shackled passengers.

According to Hancock, Roma didn't see a single pfennig of the resettlement money. And the Romanian government was unapologetic. "They left for Germany without any help from us, and they can come back the same way," commented Deputy Labor and Social Protection Minister Constantin Alecu, the Romanian official responsible for distributing the money.

Setting aside money for benefits such as job training would not help returnees, he told a group of journalists, "because most of them are Gypsies, and they don't really want to work."

Roma may be loathed, but their culture is loved

In an open bazaar in Rahova, a working-class neighborhood in southern Bucharest, several Roma hawk items ranging from soap to used plumbing parts. One stall enjoys a particularly brisk trade. Run by an ethnic Romanian, it sells cassettes of Romani music. A stream of customers -- all look Romanian -- slip selections into the seller's boom box and haggle over prices.

Roma may be loathed, but their culture is loved. "Much of what Romanians think of as their own music is really Roma," I recall Carey telling me at Springtime.

A Romani housewares seller at the next stall beckons me. "Please, call me George," says Livian Ionescu, and offers me a crate to sit on. "I will tell you about Roma today."

His introduction makes me smile. Roma in North America also often call themselves George when dealing with Gadze, outsiders.

"Things were better under Ceausescu," George shouts as frenetic strains of violins blast from his neighbor's boom box. "Everything is deteriorating now. Everything is expensive, and salaries are low. I need to save five months for one t-shirt."

A trained auto mechanic, George, 19, can't find work in his trade. He earns US$30 a month hawking wares for a trading company. An orphan, he is the only provider for six brothers and sisters, he says.

"When I stand in a line minding my own business, people call me a pickpocket. I never heard such accusations before 1989. Under Ceausescu, there was order."

How ironic. Roma view Ceausescu, the Demon of the Danube, as a protector.

"Romanians resent successful Roma and fear poor ones as potential thieves"

It's Friday evening, and the shadows of drab apartment blocs stretch across a quiet street. Romani boys play soccer in the road. Georgeta Muntean, a prominent pollster, is taking me for a stroll near her home. "People in this neighborhood are a mix of blue and white collars," she says. "University professors live right next to 'drunk Gypsies.'"

Recent polls by Muntean and others indicate that the vast majority of Romanians despise Roma. They can't even bear them as work mates.

"Intolerance has increased a lot (since the revolution)," she says. "There's so much turmoil and no way to vent your frustration at the nomenklatura. So minorities become an obvious target. Romanians resent successful Roma and fear poor ones as potential thieves."

Muntean points to a small kiosk, the only shop among a long row of apartments. "When that store first opened, people smashed the windows and said, 'I won't buy from that filthy Gypsy woman!' But it's the only store around here. Now everybody likes it."

We pass several Romani street vendors selling flowers, cigarettes. A man seated on a low stool services disposable lighters. Roma are natural entrepreneurs and traders, says Muntean. Communists castigated them as speculators. "In 1989 they were the only group with extensive experience in the free market."

Surprisingly few Roma are doing well now that capitalism has supposedly arrived. Most don't have enough money for large-scale trading, so they must work for wages. But jobs are scarce, and Roma face great discrimination.

We pass a factory building with boarded windows and a weed-choked yard. "That one used to make fine optics," Muntean says. "Blue-collar Roma lost everything -- their jobs, their housing," she says. "They are the first to be fired. They are skilled workers, but have no training certificates."

For six centuries, the essence of Romani life in Europe changed little -- discrimination, poverty and homelessness

Roma were the first non-whites whom Europeans had to accommodate in their midst, said Hancock. They originated in northwest India, and their language, Romani, is closely akin to Punjabi and Urdu, the official language of Pakistan. "Roma are an Asian population, speaking an Asian language and maintaining an Asian culture," he said. "Our world view is Asian."

Romani religion, for example, blends the dualism of Persian Zoroastrianism with the pantheon of Hindu gods. Especially important is Kali, a vengeful, destructive goddess. Roma follow purity rules akin to those of caste-conscious Indians, rules which strike most Europeans as bizarre.

The origins of Roma are lost to history, and anthropologists have pieced together only bits of their story. What follows is the version Hancock believes to be most likely.

About a 1,000 years ago a Rajput king, threatened by Moslem invaders from the north, formed army units from Dravidians and other low-caste subjects. Defeated, the soldiers scattered and were pressed westward across the Persian and Ottoman empires. By the late 13th century, the Ottomans pushed the Roma into Europe.

Europe was recovering from the Crusades and suffered a labor shortage. Roma filled the void of artisans, especially smiths.

Their skills were in great demand. To ensure a steady supply, the rulers of Wallachia and Moldavia, the core of modern Romania, enslaved the Roma. Widely used by nobles and clergy, Romani slaves were legally freed in 1864. Fearing reenslavement, many fled the region. Of those who stayed many remained on the estates and monasteries that had owned them.

It was a bad decision. Centuries of slavery had cemented Romanian prejudices against Roma. And the country continued as one of the worst places for Roma until the Holocaust, when the rest of Europe proved no haven either. Over the course of six centuries, the essence of Romani life in Europe changed little -- discrimination, poverty and homelessness.

The Communists kept a tight lid on ethnic violence, and anti-Roma attacks were unheard of

The palatial modernist house sits among shade trees near a lake. A fountain laps soothingly inside the former Communist guest house. Outside, birds hop between tree branches, chirping merrily. This is the home of Larry Watts, Bucharest director of the Project on Ethnic Relations (PER), a Princeton-based NGO promoting dialogue between ethnic groups.

Looking out on the sylvan estate from Watts' terrace, it is easy to be lulled into believing that Romanians and Roma can live side by side. But Watts warns that peaceful coexistence is a pipedream.

"Anti-Roma prejudice is incredibly deep and widespread. Officials don't even understand that saying 'All Gypsies are criminals' is based on prejudice. In some countries, like Slovakia, they've learned to temper their language. But this is for foreign consumption. The attitude is still the same.

"The press is also to blame. Newspapers often say 'The Gypsies' committed this or that crime. It's the only ethnic group so identified, and so it perpetuates the problem."

Romanians burn Romani homes out of frustration with the justice system, Watts explains. Many times Roma have been arrested for thefts, only to be released after a few days. Locals know -- or think they know -- who among their neighbors stole from them. So they take matters into their own hands.

"There's a very low threshold to spark violence against Roma. If people know Roma have been stealing from them, it's easy to burn down a house, especially if the owners aren't in it." Often a single incident triggers the burning out of an entire Romani community, a PER report on mob violence concluded.

Mobs easily overwhelm -- and often beat -- rural police who act to protect Roma, says Watts, who advises police on community relations. "A community of 3,000-7,000 may have two police and two phones, one for the police and one for the mayor. And mob violence is hard to investigate."

The Communists kept a tight lid on ethnic violence, and anti-Roma attacks were unheard of. In the 1950s and '60s they forcibly settled nomadic Roma in towns and villages. Guaranteed jobs and housing dampened resentment among local peasants. But as Romania's economy goes through seismic shifts, Roma suffer the most.

In the countryside, agricultural cooperatives are being disbanded and their land returned to the peasant families from which the Communists took it. A drive across Romania reveals a tremendous building boom -- it appears peasants are doubling their housing.

But Roma are left in the cold. With the cooperatives gone, they have no jobs. And since they never held title, they get no land either.

Cooperatives also provided Roma, along with other Romanians, something not listed in official documents -- rich pickings to steal. An occasional chicken or vegetables helped sustain families. "Stealing from state cooperatives was ok," Watts explains. "But now when Roma steal, it's from neighbors. So they can't steal, and they can't get jobs either. Roma are in a major bind."

According to Watts, the court system is stacked against Roma. "The judiciary is now independent, which means politicians can't pressure it. But it's unreformed, so it doesn't prosecute local Old Boys. Roma are not getting a fair shake."

Watts puts great hope in the police, which is ironic since they were seen as tools of the old regime. "The police get blamed when (anti-Roma) incidents occur, so they are motivated to end them," he explains.

Police response to a 1994 house-burning has fostered a period of relative safety for Roma. Strong evidence indicated that two Roma killed a shepherd in Satu Mare, in the northwest corner of Romania, and stole his flock. Soon after, 11 Romani houses were burned. Police arrested at least nine Romanians for the arson.

These were the first arrests for any home-burning, Watts said. And no Romani home has since been torched, according to PER.

Still, few believe the peace will last.

"August to October is the hot season, literally and figuratively," Watts said. "In small towns and villages, people see each other every day (so resentment easily builds up). If (Romanians) don't get their act together, there will be more violence."

I leave Watts' house at sunset and walk around the lake. The House of the Free Press, near the western shore, is turning to silhouette. The sky's orange glow gives the massive building, a wedding cake topped with a phallic tower, a sinister beauty. George Orwell couldn't have more aptly named the House. It holds the offices of most Romanian newspapers, which are still run by ex-Communists.

I smile at the irony and take off my sunglasses. As I slip them into my shirt pocket, I recall the Romani caravan. People like those itinerant Roma have had six centuries of the hot season. With Eastern Europe in turmoil, and the world ignoring Romani troubles, things are sure to get even hotter.

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Albion Monitor May 27, 1996 (

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