Journey through hatred
By Hassan Mahamdallie
"IN MY opinion the only way to deal with Gypsies is with a long whip and a small yard." Those words come from a far right leader in Slovakia, Eastern Europe. They could easily have dripped from the editorials of the Sun or Daily Mail. A lynch mob element in the British media have taken it upon themselves to persecute the tiny number of Roma Gypsies arriving here. Ann Widdecombe and Jack Straw have also lined up to "crack the whip". There could be no better time to read Isabel Fonseca's book Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey.
The anti-Gypsy brigade say they are not being racist. But if they had said what they say about Roma about black people or Jewish peo- ple there would rightly be uproar. The abuse levelled at the Roma is chilling considering that the Nazis murdered up to half a million Gypsies in the death camps. Fonseca quotes Hungarian Gypsy Karoly Lendvai's memory of when his community fell victim to the Nazis: "As we were marched, others joined our group, more Gypsies and more gendarmes. Some babies died along the way, and some would-be escapees were shot, left by the roadside. We were in a camp about two weeks with hardly any food. More people died as typhus broke out, and others were killed. The dead were thrown into a huge pit covered with quicklime. There were layers and layers of dead. We were herded into cattle cars."
The Roma arrived in Europe from India about 1,000 years ago. Some experts believe they walked from India to Persia and into Armenia. In Europe some settled on the land, but most remained migrant skilled labourers such as blacksmiths. The landowners in what is now Romania enslaved them from the 14th century up to the mid-19th century. Rulers persecuted the Gypsies to deflect away from the crisis in society. They were the target of bloody pogroms in the 19th century.
Myths spread that the Roma were robbers and cannibals who snatched children. In exactly the same way as racists justified the oppression of black people, European writers used the Bible to say that Gypsies came from the cursed descendants of Cain. Today Roma Gypsies are labelled "niggers" and "blacks" because of their dark skins. They are targets for racism. This scapegoating has accelerated since the collapse of the East European state capitalist economies in 1989.
The economic crisis in places such as Albania, the Czech and Slovak republics, and the former Yugoslavia has pushed Gypsies to the margins of society. They are blamed for everything. Yet, as Fonseca points out, an ethnic breakdown by the Romanian Ministry of the Interior found that 11 percent of petty crime was committed by Gypsies, who make up 11 percent of the population.
Roma die ten to 15 years younger than the rest of the population, and are more likely to contract diseases connected with poverty. Fonseca writes of visiting a Gypsy settlement in Albania where people were living in mud huts, twig shacks and plastic bags. Unemployment is epidemic, which is one reason why Roma are forced to travel across Europe.
She also tells of attacks on Gypsies in Romania, including lynchings and the burning of whole settlements. Her book was published in 1995, and so does not cover the escalation of such attacks. Bury Me Standing is a timely reminder of what Roma Gypsies have been through and are going through today.
- Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey, by Isabel Fonseca, Vintage, �7.99. Available from Bookmarks, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE. Phone 020 7637 1848 (include �1.20 postage).