ALBUCCIONE, Italy (CN) — The mob came at the Roma with baseball bats, threw stones and bottles, broke windows and shouted frightening cries: “Kill them all!” “Burn them alive!” “Send them all away!”
This, according to witnesses who spoke to Courthouse News, was the scene last week when a mob of more than 100 people living in a rundown housing estate outside of Rome descended on an adjacent community of Roma, the historically nomadic peoples also known as gypsies.
A series of tragic and violent events erupted Wednesday afternoon, July 17, according to witness accounts and news reports.
First, at around noon, a 13-year-old Roma girl was struck by a vehicle on a nearby highway and suffered near-fatal injuries. The Roma community gathered at the scene on the highway.
Around the same time a group of men kicked in the door of a Roma family living in an apartment inside the Albuccione housing estate and accused it of stealing items from a car. The group of men assaulted the Roma, according to news reports, and demanded they pay $220. Two men were arrested in connection with this assault.
Then a group of Albuccione residents gathered and marched to the adjacent Roma village, allegedly carrying baseball bats and bottles. They assaulted a home near the entrance to the village by throwing stones and bottles, according to witnesses and news reports. Two windows on the home, two gates and two car windows were broken, witnesses said.
As the attack on the Roma home began, the Roma who had gathered on the highway returned to their settlement and faced off with the mob, witnesses said.
The Roma called the police, who showed up and kept the two sides from hurting each other. Some Albuccione residents remained for hours at the entrance to the settlement and hurled insults at the Roma until 2 a.m., according to witnesses. They allegedly shouted such things as “Kill them all!” “Burn them alive!” “Send them all away!”
Police at Carabinieri headquarters in nearby Tivoli declined to speak with Courthouse News about the incident and did not return messages seeking comment.
This was the third “pogrom-like attack” on the outskirts of Italy’s capital Rome in the past three months against Roma, according to Marcello Zuinisi, a lawyer with the National Association of Roma in Italy.
The other two incidents involved neo-Fascists violently protesting the granting of public housing to Roma families.
“These pogroms have been happening for years in Italy,” Zuinisi said in a telephone interview.
But he said the attacks on Roma have gotten worse since Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, took office in June 2018 and fomented hatred against Roma.
This month Salvini issued orders to conduct a census of Roma, an act reminiscent of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini who rounded up Roma in Italy and sent them to German extermination camps.
“In Italy there is a very heavy atmosphere,” Zuinisi said. “It’s a very heavy atmosphere like 1930. Italy is the most racist country in Europe.”
In Albuccione, the attack on the Roma encampment, where about 20 families live, was sparked by allegations that Roma were responsible for thefts at a local school and from a car parked inside the housing estate. Police have not arrested anyone for the alleged thefts, according to residents and news reports.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Giorgio, a 55-year-old Roma man who said he arrived in Italy in 1969 when his family moved away from then-Jugoslavia’s Bosnia-Herzegovina region.
Giorgio would give only his first name for fear of retaliation. Others in the Roma community declined to speak with Courthouse News or spoke on condition of anonymity. The Roma here, including Giorgio, also refused to be photographed.
Giorgio likened what happened to the heinous acts that occurred in Adolf Hitler’s Germany and said he’d seen similar scenes “only on films when the SS slaughtered people in showers [i.e., gas chambers], put people on trains.”
An estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million Roma were killed by the Nazi and Fascist regimes between the 1930s and the end of World War II in 1945, according to historians.
Romani, as they are called too, have lived and traveled in Italy and the rest of Europe for centuries, often earning money as tinsmiths, horse-breeders, knife sharpeners and musicians.
But many Italians accuse Roma of thievery and illegality, fueling hatred toward a minority living on the margins of society.
“The Roma steal,” said Dario Pallotta, a 65-year-old tobacco shop owner in central Rome. “The Roma are disgusting. They’re still out there in their crappy camps full of trash. We should kick them all out.”
Referring to the large numbers of Roma who fled the war in the former Jugoslavia in the early 1990s, he said it was time for them to return to their homelands.
“The war is over, so why aren’t you going back?” the tobacco shop owner said, sitting outside his shop with a friend.
Zuinisi called such statements racist generalizations.
“Thieves are found in all the countries of the world,” he said. “It’s not like every Italian is a mafioso and not every Roma is a thief.”
There are up to 180,000 nomadic people living in Italy today, as many as 130,000 of them Italian citizens, Zuinisi said.
In the Albuccione housing estate, most residents declined to speak with Courthouse News.
Residents said the estate was originally built to house Italian families working for the aeronautic branch of the military, then in the 1970s was illegally occupied by families that lost their homes during urban renewal in Rome that saw poor neighborhoods razed to the ground. Today, the estate is a mix of squats and public housing apartments, residents said.
One 44-year-old man named Luigi said he had no problems with the Roma. He declined to give his last name for fear of becoming a target in the neighborhood, which is known for its far-right sympathizers.
“They don’t bother me,” Luigi said. He works as part of a crew that assembles music stages. “We have to live with them. They’re humans too.”
He said robberies do occur, especially at night, but that he has not been a victim of theft. He suggested that the Roma were to blame for the thefts.
“What do they do for money? That’s what we all ask,” he said. “They have a completely different culture.”
As he spoke with a Courthouse News reporter, a young man dressed in a black shirt and black long shorts passed by and raised his arm in a Nazi salute and uttered: “Sieg Heil!”
The suburbs around Rome are known for its large numbers of far-right sympathizers and the region’s soccer team, Lazio, is infamous for its legions of far-right fans.
Continuing to talk, Luigi said women in the housing estate are the most vocal about wanting to get rid of the Roma.
“They don’t want their children playing with the gypsy kids,” he said.
Giorgio, the man in the Roma community, said many Roma children and those in the Albuccione estate are friends.
“They play together. They go to school together. They are lovers,” he said, sitting outside his simple wooden home with his children and wife nearby.
He said he owns the land where his house is and that he and others there live simply, keeping gardens and doing odd jobs. He said Roma families have been living in that spot for about 30 years. They receive mail, pay their electric bills and have a right to be there, he said.
“This will pass, we hope,” he said, nodding and smoking a cigarette in the shade of his veranda.
He spoke about his experiences in the Bosnian war in the 1990s. He returned to fight — “To defend my home and my people” — and joined the side of the Bosnians against Croatian and Serbian forces. He grimaced and recalled seeing women who had been killed and raped. “War is terrible,” he said. “People don’t understand that, just how terrible war is.”
He added: “I will defend my home,” and referred to a new law passed by Salvini’s government that gives people more rights in Italy to use lethal force to defend themselves in their homes.
“If someone comes into my home to attack, I can kill them,” he said. “That’s what Salvini’s new law says. I will defend my home.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)