Gypsy Scandal Rocks Rome

Rome’s government abruptly evicted hundreds of immigrants from its largest gypsy camp last week. Eliza Griswold goes inside the new ghettos.

Under the watch of Rome’s openly neo-fascist Mayor, Gianni Alemanno, the city is forcibly evicting families from its largest gypsy camp. For the past three decades, Casilino 900—named for its street address on Rome’s eastern periphery—has been home to roughly 700 ethnic Roma people, many of whom are refugees fleeing war and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. They arrived here in Rome, as in other European capitals, seeking refuge, and quickly became the scourge of local Romans as well as convenient political pawns.

In the new camps, the Roma live in containers: small trailers set on a gravel bed in grids. Every entrance is a manned police checkpoint.

For the Roma in Rome, the situation has never been worse. In Italy, anti-immigrant sentiment is at an all-time high. Mayor Alemanno and his pro-Berlusconi administration came to power in May 2008 on the most aggressive anti-immigration platform in recent history, promising “immediate expulsions” of Rome’s 20,000 illegal immigrants, and creating Emergenza Nomadi, an umbrella plan that grants the government emergency executive powers to round up the city’s roughly 7,500 Roma and move them into government-owned “mega-camps.”

As a result, over the past several days, more than 96 families have quit Casilino 900—some whether they wanted to leave or not—while bulldozers move in behind them and knock down the shanties where some have lived for decades. Now, the rutted lot, which has no running water or electricity, is a maze of crumbled walls, car batteries, odd shoes, and other signs of a people forced to leave in a hurry.

On one recent afternoon in Casilino 900, Nura, who is 70 and goes by the one name, was sitting outside a shanty on stilts where she has lived for 28 years. She was one of the camp’s first arrivals, and came from the Balkans to this gulley between a highway, an abandoned airstrip, and a graveyard of cars, nearly 30 years ago. (Her name is spray-painted in green on the raw wood boards of her house.)

“I will not move. I will go live under a tree, or by a river,” she said, sitting on her stoop, her hair in two braids that lay on her voluminous bosom. Her daughter, Zaida, in her 40s, sat on a discarded oxygen tank, and her granddaughter, Sarah, 17, stood next to one of two baby carriages filled with pots and shoes on their cluttered plot. “I planted that tree there,” Nura said, extending her hand toward a sturdy, 25-foot-high tree. The sapling’s limbs were now strong enough to support the laundry that Nura had hung from its branches.

The three women were smoking Diana brand cigarettes, waiting in the scant winter sunlight for the police to turn up and tell them to move. Nura, like hundreds of others, is terrified about moving to one of the state’s authorized camps. First, she fears for her family’s safety. Nura is a Muslim from Bosnia-Herzogovina, and the old ethnic and religious divisions of the Balkans have followed many of the Roma to their new homes. The other pressing issue is access to medical care. Both Nura and her daughter Zaida have to make weekly trips to the nearby hospital, and from the new government camp of Via Salone, reaching such medical care will be impossible.

Not surprisingly, the government’s sprawling mega-camps are farther away from the city and the services—hospitals, shops, schools—that the Roma, like everyone else, rely on for their everyday lives. Right now there are 18 Roma camps in Rome (nine are authorized, nine are unauthorized), a number which is to be whittled down a total of ten by the end of 2010. Yet one more issue is that there are not enough places in the new authorized camps for all the people of Casilino 900, or the other dismantled camps.

In the new camps, the Roma live in containers, small trailers set on a gravel bed in grids. The camps are fenced in, and security cameras hang from posts on each block. Every entrance is a manned police checkpoint, and all who want to enter need to show documentation. “24-hour supervision,” as Giuseppe Pecoraro, Rome’s Special Commissioner on the Roma Emergency, recently called it. “We will control everyone who enters and everyone who exits.”

“These camps are ghettos—ethnically divided settlements under constant surveillance where even family members cannot enter,” said Marco Brazzoduro, a 68-year-old former professor of social policy at University of Rome, La Sapienza. Brazzoduro has worked with the Roma for 20 years as a member of Federazione Romanì, a non-profit group that seeks to protect the Roma’s human rights. One of the largest myths about the Roma is that they’re nomads who have no interest in living a settled life, a romantic cultural stereotype that no longer holds true. “They aren’t nomads, they want houses, like everyone else.” Brazzoduro said.

In fact, 60 percent of the Roma are actually Italian citizens—citizens forced to live in ethnically segregated ghettos. The word ghetto has particular power here in Italy. The term originally comes from Venice, where in 1516 the city built a neighborhood for its Jews, and locked them in at night. (The Jews had to pay the salaries of those guarding them.)

On a recent visit to one of the established authorized camps, Via Gordiani—which is about the size of three football fields and already crammed with trailers—police cars lined every one of the dozen or so blocks. Some of the camp’s most recent arrivals—who’d been moved two days earlier from Casilino 900—had already decorated their containers with the trappings of home. On one built-in shelf in a trailer that belonged to a Christian Orthodox family from the former Yugoslavia, three plastic figurines of the Virgin Mary guarded a pair of toddler-sized grey Nikes.

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The mustachioed head of the family, who will not be named for his safety, led his visitors outside for a tour of the new container. “Come see what I stole last night,” he said gleefully, climbing down the cinderblock stairs outside and pulling back an electric meat slicer to reveal a pristine white tarp he’d lifted from outside a Roman shop. The idea was to string the tarp up around the container and make a kind of extra room outside its uniform grid. His house, it seems, would look different—a gesture at making it a home.

The police had, of course, stopped him upon entering the government camp with his bundle. “I told them these were my clothes from the old camp,” he said, cackling a tobacco-filled cough below a top rung of gold teeth. He had scolded the police for asking him for his papers. “I am more Italian than they are,” he said. “I’ve been here longer than they have.” He produced a business card; it read MOVER. In case the police stopped him again with more new acquisitions, he would show them this card.

Eliza Griswold is a New America fellow and a recipient of the 2010 Rome Prize. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Islam and Christianity, will by published by FSG this spring.