Rome attempts to resettle 6,000 Gypsies

ROME--When a Gypsy woman outran sprinter Ben Johnson after lifting his wallet along the Via Veneto this summer, she vanished into a subway station en route to a squalid world most tourists never see.

Dozens of sprawling settlements of ramshackle trailers and wooden shanties without toilets blot the far reaches of Rome, home to 6,000 or so Gypsies--or Roma, as some prefer to be called.

Gypsies and their often-ragtag ways have been scorned for centuries. A half-million of them perished in Nazi gas chambers and concentration camps in World War II.

With few people willing to hire Gypsies, many have made begging and stealing their livelihood. Because many Gypsies steal, few will hire a Gypsy, and the wheel of loathing and misery keeps turning.

Since late last year, Rome has been trying to eliminate some of the squalor by bulldozing away camps and replacing them with more hygienic settlements vaguely reminiscent of American Indian reservations.

For Roma who pledge to send their children to school instead of into the streets to beg or steal, the city is providing rent-free, prefabricated housing with toilets, free water and electricity.

The city's policy appears tolerant compared to the hand dealt many of Europe's 8 million Gypsies lately.

Every month, hundreds emigrate from Eastern Europe, where most Roma are concentrated, to Western Europe in hopes of finding haven from attacks by skinheads and other extremists as well as better chances at jobs or

decent housing. The movement has alarmed many in the West.

In the spring, Belgium suspended a visa-free travel agreement with Slovakia after Gypsies flooded Belgian authorities with asylum applications. In July, Britain's House of Lords ruled that some Gypsies from Slovakia who were threatened by skinheads did not merit political asylum.

In Italy, though, many Roma families have been here for generations, and some trace ancestors in Italy to the 15th century.

"The Gypsy as nomad doesn't exist anymore. They don't move on," said Enrico Serpieri, a city official working to resettle the Gypsies.

A recent survey found that Italians who were worried about crime fingered Roma as those who cause the most fear. Mindful of that image, the city has started evicting Gypsy families from the new housing if they are suspected of enriching themselves in big-time crime.

Amid the squalor sparkle diamond rings on the fingers of some Gypsy men suspected by authorities of running loan-sharking and prostitution rings. At least one of a score of families who were evicted in the spring towed away their trailer with a shiny new Mercedes.

But Serpieri said that since many Gypsies have no alternative to begging or picking pockets, the city won't kick them out of the new housing for those activities. In any case, many of the pickpockets detained by police are children too young to be prosecuted.

There have been a few small protests by some Romans living near the new camps, as well as by right-wing politicians opposed to Rome's leftist mayor. But Rome hasn't seen violence like that in Eastern Europe, where attacks are blamed on extreme nationalists emboldened by the demise of communism in that region.

Lack of job opportunities

Most residents of the old Gypsy camps sleep in trailers too broken-down to ever hit the road again. Hajro Cismic, who came from Yugoslavia in 1966 hoping to cash in on Italy's boom, built a kind of chalet out of neatly cut wood at the edge of a sprawling lot behind Rome's dog racing track.

In a settlement of 600 Gypsies, its one room, 13 feet by 8 feet, has a peaked roof and fluttering curtains. A mural of a sky in dreamy shades of pink and blue above a farmer plowing a field with oxen gives some feeling of homeland to the Cismics, who are more or less stateless.

Son Sergio, born 30 years ago in Milan in northern Italy, bitterly recalled turning 19 and trying unsuccessfully to join the Italian army. Officials allowed him papers to stay in the country only through his teen years, a fairly common situation for young male Gypsies.

"I was born here. I have five children, all born here," Sergio Cismic said, but without papers he can't get a job.

His mother, Raziza, whose folds of wrinkled skin make her look much older than her 55 years, rummages around for her unemployment card, stamped for the many times she waited in line for work.

"I couldn't even find a job cleaning bathrooms. I didn't even get work for one day," said Raziza Cismic, who was granted Italian citizenship.

Chimed in a cousin, Zoron Cismic: "If I have a job, I send my child to school. If I don't, I send my wife and baby to beg at traffic lights."

Romana Sulimanovic and her husband, Izet Ramovic, did have work--eight months of cleaning offices for the equivalent of $400 a month for the two of them. Then an illness cost her the job.

Life in a settlement

While the Cismics' camp won't be dismantled for a while, Sulimanovic was moved to new housing from another Gypsy camp and she's not sure she likes it.

She fled Bosnia and the ethnic tensions building toward war in the early 1990s when she was barely a teenager, joining the last sizable wave of Gypsies to emigrate to Italy. She lived with some 1,000 others at a 300-acre camp known as Casalina 700, considered one of the largest single settlements of Roma in Western Europe.

That was where she met her husband, and that is where they hammered together a shack to call their own. For the newlyweds, the patchwork of scrap wood gave precious intimacy in a camp where there were eight portable toilets for every 250 residents.

A few months ago, the shack was torn town, and Sulimanovic, her husband and his relatives were transferred to the first of the city's new Gypsy settlements, near railroad tracks on the western edge of Rome.

Under the city's rules, Gypsies without children must share housing. So inside trailer No. 9, Sulimanovic and Ramovic sleep in a tiny room, on a bed with an immaculately clean ruffled spread, while her in-laws stretch out on a mat just outside their bedroom door. A brother-in-law sleeps at the other end of the 40-by 9-foot trailer.

"I'd like a beautiful job, like a secretary; a beautiful house, really nice, where nobody comes in," said Sulimanovic, 22, her loose, long blue dress spotless, her gold front teeth gleaming.

Sometimes she goes begging.

"We're not all alike, but those who don't have work go and rob for their kids to eat," she said, pointing to her many nieces and nephews playing in the dusty alley.