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Despair in Gypsy ghetto town in eastern Romania
by Alina Wolfe Murray and George Jahn

The Associated Press    Translate This Article
29 September 2010

BARBULESTI, Romania (AP) - This predominantly Gypsy town an hour's drive from Romania's bustling capital seems stuck in another century.

Horse-drawn carriages churn muddy roads into near impassability. Many homes are little more than rundown shacks. Families are large, but often see children die in infancy.

It's little wonder that scores of Barbulesti's Roma, as the Gypsies are known, have used their EU passports to seek a better life in western Europe. But as the EU announces legal action against France over its policy of mass expulsions, some returnee Gypsies are saying poverty at home is better than the hardships they face on French streets.

'It was like being in the jungle,' Brazilianu Moise said of the three months begging in the central French city of Orleans. 'I am not returning.'

The European Commission on Wednesday slapped France with a stern legal warning over its expulsion of more than 1,000 Gypsies in recent weeks, after their improvised settlements were destroyed and they were rounded up to be flown home.

The commission said it has officially demanded that Paris apply EU rules allowing free movement of EU citizens—a step that could eventually lead to a court case against France.

The French campaign has unleashed a deluge of criticism from senior officials in the EU, the United Nations, and the Vatican. They charge that President Nicolas Sarkozy is pursuing a blanket offensive against an already discriminated ethnic group, instead of homing in on individuals violating EU residency rules.

But many of Europe's estimated 10 to 12 million Roma are finding life to be wretched wherever they go. And some say that while things are bad at home, at least it's home.

Moise is happy at least to be reunited with his wife, Julieta, and their five surviving children. Two others died of diarrhea at age 2, the third, a 10-year-old, of unspecified causes.

The burly 34-year old with a buzz cut is distrustful of visitors and answered curtly when pressed for details of his life in France—or the circumstances of his expulsion two days ago.

'The French authorities acted like there was no God,' he said. 'They told us we were garbage.'

He pulled out a cell phone to show grainy images of squalor inside an abandoned windowless warehouse that for him and 19 others—'including children'—was home in Orleans.

Fellow resident Maria Bacanu lives with her 5 children, her daughter's husband and their three children in a three-room shack, topped by a leaky tar-painted cardboard roof. She said she came back from France voluntarily in December because of concerns of what would happen to her if she were caught living illegally there.

'I was afraid of the police asking for papers,' said the head-scarved 46-year old. 'I don't want to return.'

Some 200 of France's expelled Gypsies come from Barbulesti, said Ion Cutitaru, mayor of this town of about 7,000 people, 60 kilometers (about 40 miles) east of the capital Bucharest.

Not all share the view of Moise and Bacanu that life is more bearable back home.

Cutitaru, a Roma, said about half have already returned to France or other EU nations where begging brings in more money that the meager social benefits available in one of the EU's poorest members. Long-term unemployed here receive the equivalent of just euro10 a month for each child plus other monthly benefits of around euro45.

Only 50 Barbulesti residents are legally employed, he said, leaving many Roma nostalgic for Communist times, when 'there were jobs, clothes and education.'

Such memories are widespread—even if built on false premises. Instead of promoting education and equal opportunity, Marxist governments kept Roma on society's lower rungs by enticing them to do menial labor for relatively high wages, leaving them ill prepared for the challenges of capitalism.

Moise declined to say how he will make a living. But life for him, his wife and their children holds little promise.

With Romanian schooling done in shifts, 'sometimes children wait till their siblings come home from school so they can use the same clothes and shoes,' said Cutitaru, the mayor.

Most Roma girls leave school before completing fourth grade. Boys usually leave four years later. That perpetuates their lot as unskilled, often jobless, and dependent on state benefits. Girls are usually matched with future husbands before puberty and married at 16, when they start bearing children.

Romania has an overall birthrate of about 10.5 per 1,000 people - far below the replacement rate. But Cutitaru said his town's Roma have babies at a rate double the national average.

That, in turn, feeds Roma misery by creating future generations with no schooling, employment or future at home, or abroad.

'What can we do?' exclaimed Julieta Moise, her helpless expression mirroring the desperation felt by most of those in the community.

'We have no jobs and have lots of children.'


Associated Press writer Alison Mutler contributed to this report from Bucharest. Jahn reported from Vienna.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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