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archive: A Gypsy awakening

A Gypsy awakening

Posted by Ashok Chowgule (ashokvc@giasbm01.vsnl.net.in)
The Economist
September 11, 1999.


    Title: A Gypsy awakening
    Author:
    Publication: The Economist
    Date: September 11, 1999.
    
    THREE dozen or so bloated corpses of Gypsies from Kosovo were recently
    fished out of the turquoise waters off the coast of Montenegro.
    Perhaps more than 100 had drowned when a boat smuggling them to Italy
    - for about $1,100 a head - sank in a summer storm. Though most were
    illiterate, they had hoped against the odds to make a new life.
    
    There was certainly no going back. The Kosovo Liberation Army, once
    NATO's bombs had made it top dog, ensured that. Accusing Gypsies of
    collaborating with the Serbs (quite a lot did), it had at least winked
    at a campaign of murder, torture, beating and the burning of Gypsy
    neighbour-hoods. Most of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians seem delighted that
    most of the province's Gypsies, maybe as many as 8o,ooo of them, have
    fled.
    
    But the stinking corpses lashed to the sun-soaked deck of a coastguard
    boat are but the latest incident in a sorry saga of persecution. Of
    the 6m or so Gypsies (or Roma) in Europe, nearly three-quarters live
    in the continent's centre and east. Despite and partly because of the
    paternalistic efforts of governments, most of them live in
    poverty-stricken dependence on welfare or petty crime. A 19th century
    French observer's description of them as "Europe's negroes" still
    holds.
    
    Gypsies were often enslaved and lynched with impunity. A
    disproportionate number still end up in prison. Many Gypsy children
    are virtually bereft of parents: in Romania's wretched orphanages,
    three-quarters of the inhabitants are Gypsies. Just to finish school
    is a feat. Like American blacks, Europe's Gypsies often suffer instant
    discrimination based on the colour of their skin. They frequently
    complain of police harassment.
    
    Indeed, in many ways American blacks are far better off. They have a
    large middle class, a measure of cultural unity and self-awareness, a
    strong and sophisticated voice in politics, and numerous role models
    of excellence. Gypsies have none of that. They remain much as they
    have ways been: Europe's phantom nation.
    
    Lobby groups fighting for the Gypsies say that education is the key.
    Too often, Gypsy children are automatically put into "remedial"
    classes where they sink. Campaigners now demand literacy classes for
    adults. They also want Gypsy history to be taught to all children in
    countries with large Gypsy minorities. Public statements like those of
    Slovakia's former populist prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, who
    described Gypsies as "mental retards", would not then go unchallenged.
    
    In particular, more Gypsies now want gadje (as they call other people)
    to acknowledge centuries of racism and slavery (Gypsies were still
    being bought and sold in the Balkans in the 1860s) that culminated in
    the Holocaust, which Gypsies call Porrajmos, meaning "the devouring".
    Some historians now reckon that as many as one million may then have
    been swallowed up, along with the Jews. Recent research, some of it by
    Gypsy scholars, is now pointing up previously unnoticed
    horror-details: how, for instance, Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who
    experimented on concentration-camp victims, liked to put out Gypsy
    children's eyes.
    
    Most Gypsies, however, never got as far as the camps: local police,
    sparing the Nazis the trouble of transport and gas, shot them. In his
    speech accepting the Nobel peace prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel, the
    Jewish campaigner for Holocaust victims, asked the Gypsies'
    forgiveness for "not listening to your story". No Gypsy was asked to
    testify at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials. Western governments made
    scant effort to help Gypsy survivors of the Holocaust. Early Holocaust
    museums virtually ignored their plight.
    
    Mr Wiesel, among others, has helped change that. More Gypsies are
    beginning to lay claim to their own history, holding a string of
    memorial services across Europe and North America in August to
    commemorate the month when several thousand of them had been sent to
    their deaths at Auschwitz. Until recently, says a leading Gypsy
    campaigner, his people scarcely spoke of the Holocaust at all. "Jews
    said, Never forget. We said, Never remember."
    
    Now, belatedly but urgently, Gypsy groups are seeking collective
    compensation for the Holocaust. It will be hard. Gypsies, unlike many
    Jewish families, much of whose property and bank accounts should be
    traceable, tend to lack documentation for what few assets they had.
    Even where it exists, they invariably lack the political and financial
    clout to press their claims.
    
    Still, eagerness to join the European Union has made several Central
    European countries much readier to listen to Gypsy grievances. Local
    councils have begun to appoint Gypsy liaison officers. For every
    company that discriminates against Gypsies, others are trying out job
    preferment. One big Czech shop that has hired Gypsy security guards
    has found that theft has dropped sharply. And charities have sprung up
    in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to help Gypsies with
    housing loans, literacy classes and summer camps for children.
    
    A Palestinian writer, Edward Said, once said that Gypsies were the
    only group about which anything could be said "without challenge or
    demurral". No more.
    



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