How did I got involved in Human Rights Issues? Actually, it’s a long story. In the spring 2000, I took David Maybury-Lewis’ seminar on Anthropology and Social Issues. I had already noticed the existence of web sites in Italian dialects. Back then, the Internet was not a place one would look for ethnic identities. But that was what I wanted to research. Furthermore, I wanted to explore the ethnic diversities of my native Italy. Even today Italy is not particularly known as a place of ethnic diversities. So, when it was time to write a term paper, I went to David’s office with my little laptop, and showed him all the web sites that were the forums for those identities.
And he, as the great teacher that he is, said:
Write this paper, because I want to read it.
His trust in me was complete. It was up to me not to fall flat on my face.
That paper became the kernel of my thesis: how the Internet becomes a forum for linguistic minorities, a virtual symposium, and a formidable teaching tool. Furthermore, I have investigated the profound ethnic diversity in a Nation State of the western world. This happens to be true of most Nation States formed in the 19th century, in a process that I have called “internal colonialism.” A dominant group prevails, to the expense of other groups that become “minorities.” And the human and cultural cost has been great. I formed then a need to work for the defense of the minorities that are silenced and forgotten.
After the seminar I joined Cultural Survival, and there I began my work for human rights. I investigated the conditions of the Innu, an indigenous people in Labrador, and of the Roma (Gypsies) in Italy. I translated some of my papers in Italian and published them in Internet human rights sites and magazines. I was invited to join the Italian League for Human rights, and plan to continue to work with them. My work has been recognized at the Harvard Commencement and I received one of the Derek Bok awards for public service. I am now beginning research on the human rights violations suffered by the native Hawaiians. What follows are papers on the Innu published in Parlamento and Cultural Survival, and a paper on the Roma published in Bhumi magazine.
A cry for help from the Innu of Labrador: ”Our children want to die”
English translation of a paper published in Italy in the magazine Parlamento, the official publication of the Federazione Internazionale dei Diritti dell’Uomo.
The articles in the newspapers were hard to believe: a child burns to death, the fire devouring his lungs, escaping from his mouth in a fiery silent scream. He dies in this horrible manner because he is addicted to gasoline sniffing. After his death his friends keep on sniffing the deadly fumes, because they want to be with him. During the gasoline-induced hallucinations, they can see him. My God, readers asked, how can this be possible?
In the early months of 2001, North American media covered extensively the terrible conditions of many Innu children. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, most Canadian newspapers and CNN all covered this tragic situation.
The images were compelling and stark: children, some only six or seven years old, hugging a plastic bag half filled with gas as another child would hug his teddy bear, huddled together around a fire in the frigid Labrador nights. The inevitable tragedy horrified everyone when one of the children literally burst into flames.
The most immediate question in these cases is “where are the parents”. But the sad reality is that the tragedy of these children is but the last one of a long history of suffering of a people robbed of their land, their culture, and their identity. None of the articles has given an adequate background on the causes of the present disintegration of this small society.
It is hard to imagine a place where unemployment, alcoholism, family violence and self-destructive behavior are the rule rather than the exception. It is even harder to imagine priests and teachers who are sent to nurture and teach “civilized behavior” to indigenous peoples, and instead inflict physical and sexual abuse on the children. It is hard to imagine politicians who have a history of stalling on negotiations while the development of natural resources of disputed indigenous land goes on. The story of the Innu of Labrador is one of the most tragic examples of what can go wrong when a Western power decides unilaterally who owns the land within its borders, and what to do with the indigenous peoples who live within its borders. Unfortunately western history is full of such instances. But what makes the history of the Innu so tragic is that it is going on right now, and it started only 50 years ago. During the UN decade of Indigenous Peoples, their suffering condemns all of us.
The Innu are a semi-nomadic people that traditionally hunted caribou during the winter, and spent the summers on the beaches away from the fly infested interior. In 1949 Newfoundland and Labrador became part of Canada. Nobody thought to pass the news to the Innu, who found themselves to be Canadian citizens, without their knowledge or consent. The vicissitudes of Canadian provincial politics further separated them when their territories were incorporated into French and English speaking provinces. The Innu found themselves divided by provincial rules, by language and, in consequence, by name. The French speaking Innu in Quebec are referred to as Montagnais, the name given to them by the French traders in the 17th century. The Innu in Quebec applied for and received Indian Nation status. The Innu of Labrador, with the promise of better opportunities for their children, were convinced by the Canadian Government and Christian missionaries to settle in permanent villages. They choose at the time not to apply for Indian Nation status, in fear of ending up like the Native Americans in the United States a century before. However, none of their “friends” advised them of the benefits that this status would give them and to their lands. In reality, they found themselves to be at the bottom of the Canadian society. What followed was a systematic disintegration of their culture. They lost their traditional life cycle. They were put on welfare, a few dollars just enough to survive. The welfare system, designed for Canadian people fully integrated in their society, proved to be grossly inadequate for a native people. Tied to the Canadian school system, again designed for Canadian children, they could not take off in the winter to hunt caribou. The “summer vacation” coincided with the black fly period, when these particularly vicious insects render hunting impossible. This people of hunters were confined to villages, clusters of shacks without insulation and the most elementary sanitation. Running water and sewage systems was, however, installed in the housing of Canadian teachers and priests. The few primitive stores were stocked with cheap junk food and canned stuff, and…alcohol. Oh, yes, alcohol was easy to find. Poverty begot alcoholism, alcoholism begot family violence. But the worse atrocities took place in the schools, either local or residential boarding schools, where many children were relocated often without their parent’s consent, by now themselves victim of alcoholism and family violence. In the schools they were beaten when they spoke their language instead of English or French. Testimonials by these unfortunate people in articles and books indicate that in these schools their teachers abused most of them, physically and sexually. Recently the Pope has extended a formal apology for the treatment of indigenous peoples. But back then, to take refuge in the Church was futile. Priests also abused them. The schools taught these children how to be Canadian welfare citizen on the bottom of the social scale, without hope or identity. The Church taught the promise of eternal bliss obtained by a virtuous life, but the reality was one of secrets, shame and terror. Back home there was alcoholism and violence. Meanwhile, Canada started developing the considerable natural resources of Labrador. The Hydroelectric Dam of Churchill Falls has flooded a large part of Innu hunting and burial grounds. Mining of nickel and other metals has created huge environmental problems. A NATO base has been operating in Goose Bay, since the early 60s. Canada has rented the Labrador air space to the NATO countries to conduct maneuvers on low-level flying. These exercises have caused terrible damage on the environment. The NATO base has left another outrage: the birth of several children, called “souvenir babies”, often to mothers only 14 or 15 years old. These children represent so much more than the callous indifference of their fathers. These soldiers evidently were using no protection. How long before venereal diseases and AIDS become another calamity inflicted on this people?
Virtually none of those abused has received any form of psychological help. While many manage to recover, for many more the cycle of violence continues, and children continue to be abused. Innu children that only two generations ago learned their crafts and their identity by following their parents in the forests, are still today learning how to be Canadian citizens at the bottom of the social scale. And many give up on school altogether. The only escape that the Canadian system offers them is addiction to alcohol, somehow so easy to find, particularly when the leaders lack the authority to ban it, or to gasoline fumes, which destroy brain cells and leave the children permanently scarred, when they don’t die. But during the gasoline induced hallucinations they see themselves happy with their friends. Death is so much better than this squalid existence. And many choose to die. The Innu have one of the highest suicide rate among teenagers in the world.
And so we come to this last tragedy: the images of Innu children huddled around fires sniffing gasoline fumes from plastic bags that have shocked the world. Innu leaders, in desperation, asked the help of Canadian health organizations in order to relocate the children in treatment centers. A year later, the children are back home and many of them continue to sniff gas. Innu leaders are very frustrated and discouraged. In speaking during a radio interview on January 8, Wayne Hammond, a clinical psychologist who is advisor on addition programs in Davis Inlet, pointed out that while the children spent several months in a treatment program away from the community, absolutely nothing was done to change the living conditions of the community. The children came back to the same environment that had caused them to start sniffing gasoline in the first place. Former chief Katie Rich has complained that no program has been implemented to treat the severe alcoholism that plagues many parents. However, Health Canada has consistently delayed funds. On the other hand, the decision to send the children back home was taken unilaterally by Health Canada. The Innu leaders were merely told that the kids would be coming back. Their protests that the community was not ready went unanswered.
Innu leaders have designed programs that are based on native healing practices. Entire families are taken in the bush to practice hunting, fishing, and to regain a connection with their culture. These programs have had a good success rate where they could be implemented. According to Kevin Head , of the 19 youngsters who went to the Canadian Behavioral Health foundation in Manitoba, 15 went back to sniffing, while of the 18 who went to the (native) mobile treatment program at Border Beacon, only 9 went back to sniffing. This evidence would strongly suggest that the native programs have a much higher success rate. Yet, Health Canada does not allocate the necessary funding. Gasoline sniffing is a lethal addiction. It causes irreversible brain damage, and has caused terrible injuries and some deaths. The situation of these communities is desperate: children who wander with bags full of gasoline while their parents abuse alcohol and drugs. Yet, the treatment programs that could cure them and give them back their cultural identity is denied them by the very system that has taken their land from them.
Yet, gradually the resilience of this people has resurfaced. Many of these abused children have managed to recover, and have grown to be the leaders of today. They have reintroduced life in the bush, hunting and fishing, and traditional ceremonies, crafts and survival skills. They have organized their own governments and their own recovery programs. Their aim is to insert their people in the modern international world, while recovering their cultural identity and their sovereignty in their land. But the obstacles they face are enormous, and here again the enemy is still the Canadian government that keeps stalling in allocating funds for recovery programs. The Innu situation is tragic and very complex, and it will need long term recovery programs. The most urgent issue is their achievement of Indian Nation status by all groups. It is imperative that they have a strong voice in what is happening in their own land. They must have a voice in their own and their children recovery. Fifty years of abuse on the hands of the Canadian government have caused unbelievable damages. The road to their recovery will be arduous, and possible only if they all will be able to embark on it as Innu, not Canadian welfare recipients.
Goose Bay Foreign Military Training Web Site: http://www.capitalnet.com/~pmogb/website/home_e.html
Canada-sponsored studies on environmental impact of LLF: http://www.capitalnet.com/~pmogb/website/environment/institute/presentation96_emp_e.html
Official website of Goose Bay Military Operations: http://www.capitalnet.com/~pmogb/website/home_e.html
Websites on Innu:
Wadden, Mary Nitassinan. The Innu Struggle to Reclaim their Homeland
1991 Douglas and McGuire
Brody, Hug and
Markham, Nigel Hunters and Bombers Video, 1991
The Roma in Italy
For most Europeans the Roma, or Gypsies, or Zingari, as they are called in Italy, are a common sight on the city streets: beggars or peddlers, they are somebody to avoid or at the most to give a spare coin. I remember passing them by on my way to school as a child in Italy: they walked in small groups of unkempt women and children, some of them my age, their hands stretched out in a silent request. Sometimes what they asked for was not that spare coin: once I was sitting contentedly in the park eating an ice cream and rocking gently my niece’s pram, proud of being the only aunt in elementary school. A gypsy girl walked up to my bench and begged for my ice cream. I was stunned, and the only thing I could think of while I gave it to her was “she doesn’t mind my germs?”
As I grew up I was only dimly aware of the reality of the Zingari in our midst. There are images in my memory: it was summer in Rome, and I was twenty years old. I was strolling along the Tiber going home. My printed skirt danced with the wind around my ankles; my hair, long that summer, was tied with a scarf. A small boy looked at me from his doorway. I was about to wave a friendly “ciao” to him when he burst into tears and ran home crying “mamma, una zingara”. Zingare, Mamma says, steal children. But that did not strike me as odd. “Do I look like a Zingara?” was my only thought, and up my hair went, in a dignified, urban chignon.
The years went by. I married, left Italy, raised my family, and eventually decided to finish Graduate School. I made Italy and its ethnic minorities my area of study. It is my way to be a part of my homeland, to keep homesickness tucked away deep inside my soul. As a scholar, I go back to Italy with some frequency. And it is during one of my trips that my most memorable encounter with the Gypsies took place. I got mugged.
Some years ago I returned to Rome to take some photographs for a series of lectures I was preparing. My camera and bag slung over my shoulder, I was about to enter the Museo delle Terme in front of the train station when a group of three zingare bumped into me. For a moment I recoiled in shock. Then I had the presence of mind to look into my bag, and yes, my wallet was missing. Outrage took over and I vehemently demanded my wallet back, using expressions in the Roman dialect I must confess I had no idea I knew in the first place. The women were as shocked as I had been a few seconds before. What they had assumed was an American tourist turned out to be a very infuriated Italian woman who had no intention of keeping quiet. One of them meekly took my wallet from the recesses of her clothing and handed it back to me. And so another episode entered in the folklore of my family: “careful with Lucia, not even the zingare can mug her.”
As my study of Italian minorities progressed, it was inevitable that eventually I would turn my attention to this people without homeland, who live among their host cultures yet manage to retain their own distinctive identity. Who are they, I asked myself.
About 130,000 Roma live in Italy today. Most of them have been settled there for several centuries. Yet, one of the names they are known by is “Nomadi”, nomads. The elusiveness of this people is reflected in the confusion of the many names they go by. For Americans they are Roma, (singular Rom). In England they are known as Travelers. Elsewhere in Europe they are the Gitanes, or the Gypsies. In Italy, where Roma is the name of the capital, they are called Nomads, or Rom, or Sinti, depending on where they live. But whatever name they go by, however they manage to make a living, they are determined to keep their traditions and their identity. What they take from the host culture is more than repaid by what they have given. Their music has been appropriate by the “mainstream” cultures in which they live. The passionate violin rhapsodies in Eastern Europe and the flamenco in Spain all stem from Roma music. Chased away from village to village since medieval times, they kept to their ancestral occupations: musicians, circus keepers, fortune tellers, traders and handymen. The arrival of a Gypsy caravan in a village meant that goods and horses could be purchased or sold, tools could be repaired, and just as importantly, the village could have a festival filled with music, dance, and fortune telling. This last part cannot be underestimated. Crop planting, marriages, large purchased where important decisions that needed to be performed under auspicious omens. A fortuneteller was an essential figure in the communities. Eventually, the emerging power of the Churches would fight off the fortunetellers and with them the entire groups. This remained true even for the Roma that embraced Christianity
During this time the Roma developed a cultural rejection of anything “Gajo” (plural Gaje), anything that was not Roma. W.R. Rishi, a Rom author, explains that the very word Gajo conveys a deep suspicion for the outsiders. Gaje were not to be trusted. The Roma life events, their marriage ceremonies, the birth of children, were to be kept away from Gaje. This resulted in a problem for European authorities that had no way to keep track of the Roma within their borders. The distrust had another negative outcome: because in many cases Gaje villagers would refuse to do business with Roma, theft against Gaje was seen as a necessary way to make a living. This is one of the most serious problems that persists today and is well recognized by Roma Leaders.
Roma suffered greatly during the Fascist era, when they were herded to extermination camps in Germany perhaps more mercilessly than the Jewish Italians. Several thousand Italian Roma were subjected to “medical” experiments and died in those camps. Today at best they are tolerated as a nuisance, and at worst they are confined in camps or arbitrarily evicted. Unfortunately the only way the Roma come to the public attention is when crime is reported by the Cronaca Nera, the newspaper reports on crime. For the past several years, since the wars in the Balkans have caused many dispossessed Roma to migrate to Italy, their situation has deteriorated sharply, and Italian authorities seem totally uninformed on the complex issues surrounding the Roma. Crime rings among the Roma do exist, but it is the majority of Roma that are its victims. The most common plot is to search for crippled children in some poor areas in Eastern Europe, and take those children away from their families with the promise of medical care. Instead, these children are forced to beg in the streets of Western European cities. Such was the case of Milena, a Romanian girl I met in Rome in 2002. She had horribly deformed feet and was unable to walk. Pushing herself on a small skateboard, her poor deformed feet stretched in front of her, she proffered a paper cup to the busy shoppers and tourists. A couple of streets away a boy, bearing a striking resemblance to Milena, and also deformed, hobbled on crutches. They were obviously relatives, perhaps brother and sister, taken from their family in Romania and put to beg in the elegant streets around the Piazza di Spagna. Milena’s friendly smile, her simple trust, still haunts me. She will never see a hospital. What will happen to her? Why was the police blind to her misery?
Far from facilitating integration into Italian society, with adequate housing and jobs, Italian authorities fall back to long standing anti-Roma sentiment in Italy by conducting abusive raids on their settlements, and in some cases, expelling from Italy whichever Rom is handy, often without checking on whom precisely they are expelling. Gino Battaglia reports of a case in which two children were deported to the former Yugoslavia while their frantic parents were searching for them in Rome. These raids are a common occurrence in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Typically, the police rounds up people from their camps early in the morning, oblivious of the needs of some of them. A young mother was denied permission to pick up a few supplies for her sick infant who had recently undergone open-heart surgery. Deported to Bosnia and thrown into conditions of extreme misery, the child’s chance for survival are now virtually null.
Politicians exploited the anti-Roma sentiments during the elections in April 2000, when Umberto Bossi, candidate of the Lega del Nord, promised to clean up the cities of “Zingari, marocchini e delinquenti”, i.e. Roma, north African immigrants and criminals. This lack of information is typical. Authorities see only the “zingaro”, the Rom. And for the authorities all zingari are guilty.
Yet, the great majority of Roma want nothing more than to settle down, get a job, and send their children to school. This was evident to me during a field research I conducted in Italy in September 2001. I visited a camp located in the outskirts of Rome, at the Testaccio locality. Don Bruno Nicolini, a Catholic priest in charge of Roma affairs in Rome, had introduced me to Mirko, a Bosnian Rom who has been living in Italy for 30 years. The camp was located outside the city, tucked away in the fields and accessible only by dirt roads. A high metal fence surrounded the camp, split in two by another fence. I asked Mirko why the division. On one side, he told me, lived the Christian Roma. On the other lived the Muslim. There are several camps outside Rome. Yet the city government, in its wisdom, has recreated a Bosnia situation. I asked Mirko the reason for the fence. Were there difficulties among the two groups? With the utmost courtesy, and firmness, he declined to answer.
During this field trip I had brought my teen aged son Michael with me. He acted as my photographer, a bit perplexed by this new role of his mom he had never really seen before. We arrived on a Friday. In the Muslim camp women were busy cleaning up their belongings, using hoses attached to spigots of cold water, the only source of water in the camps. The Christian camp appeared utterly deserted. When Michael and I arrived in our car, Mirko came out of his small camper to great us. We sat under a makeshift tent attached to the camper. The reason why the camp appeared deserted became clear when Mirko’s little girl asked Michael to have her picture taken. Her mother rushed out of the camper and took her inside. “No pictures of us, please” Mirko said. So we took pictures of the orderly, deserted street, lined by small campers. How many people were watching us from the closed windows? But these people were refugees from the Balkans, used to arbitrary Police raids. How much was I to be trusted, this Gajo woman with her Gajo big American son in their rental car? Mirko and his wife and two daughters lived in one of these campers. The space was cramped and allowed no privacy. It was cold in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer, so that Mirko hang a small tent to provide some shade. For this, the city government has sued him for illegal construction. Yet, Mirko held a job in school programs aimed to provide Roma with job skills. I asked him “What do you want for your daughters?” “School,” he said, “possibly university”. We smiled in reciprocal understanding, this father with his two daughters inside the camper and this Gajo mother with her big Gajo son. We wanted the same things. “What is the major obstacle”, I asked. “The obstacles are many, but the most immediate one is the prohibitive cost of books”. Yes, I remember my own childhood in Italy. Italian schools do not provide books. Every fall, full of anticipation, we all went to the bookstores to buy our own books. But this is a luxury very few Roma can afford.
The second camp I visited was in Latina, a city some 50 kilometers south of Rome. Years ago the Roma were enclosed in a camp originally built in 1956 to house Hungarian refugees. As the city spread the camp was deemed inconvenient, an eye sore among the smart modern buildings. So the Roma were evicted and spread in small camps outside the city. The one I visited counted 5 campers inhabited by an extended family, consisting of a woman in her fifties and the four grown children of two marriages. Her two husbands belonged to two different occupation guilds, and the children have kept the respective fathers’ traditional jobs. So two families were “Calderash”, metal traders and workers, and two were “Giostrari”, amusements camp keepers and musicians. As it is common in Roma societies, the job guilds, or “familie”, are often at odds with each other. This case, even if the families were half siblings, was no exception, and there was considerable animosity between the two small groups, while the matriarch kept to wry, indulgent neutrality. The women were eager to provide a decent apartment for their children; they kept saying that they were willing to work as building janitors, cleaning stairs and doing other odd jobs for the apartment complex.
The facilities in the camp were primitive. There was only one source of water, a cold water spigot. The outside toilet and shower were broken down, so that people had to go in the fields to relieve themselves, and had to wash in laundry tubs inside their campers. Despite the abysmal conditions, there was a sense of optimism. While I was there Adele Gambon, the director of the Opera Nomadi, the office in charge of Roma affairs, procured clean clothes and school bags for the children. School was to open soon, and she was planning to introduce the Roma children to the classrooms.
The Roma in Latina have made a remarkable progress. Virtually all Roma children complete 8th grade. This is a tremendous step ahead for them, whose most crucial problem is lack of schooling. After that the boys start work with their fathers, and the girls learn to keep house. Most Roma are married by the time they are 18.
Other groups of families, or Kumpanies, have settled in Latina. Their family professions, the Giostrari, the amusement park keepers and the Ursari, the animal tamers, are more lucrative and make it easier to settle. I visited one extended family that has been living in the same house for the past 25 years. The house was meticulously clean and well furnished. The children climbed on my lap and clamored to have their picture taken, and the parents made no objections, In fact, they took the pictures of me with their kids. Unlike the women in the camps, who put on smart Capri pants to pose for me, the women in this house dressed in the traditional Gypsy long skirt and full blouse. They could afford a seamstress, they told me with some pride, who sews for them. When I wanted to take pictures of them, they stopped me so that they could put on their earrings. They wanted to look like proper Gitanes, they told me. Their sense of identity has not been diluted with the comforts of decent living. On the contrary, it has been reinforced.
I went back to Latina in October 2002, this time alone, since Michael had started University. My son’s natural progress from High School to college had an extraordinary parallel in a Roma family, who had found an apartment in a housing project. They were planning to send their daughter Lulu` to a Vocational High School, where she will study Hotel Cuisine. These cases are still very rare but very encouraging. The problem facing the Roma children, and the host schools, are many. The schools are chronically understaffed and totally unprepared for the challenges from this alien subculture. Some of the children bring to school a distrust ingrained from generations of mistreatments, that they manifest by “acting out” in class. But progress in undeniable: when the children go to school and the parents obtain housing, the cycle of poverty, and crime, will eventually be broken: there are no longer Roma beggars in Latina. On the day of my visit Lulu` was helping her mother folding laundry and keeping her little brothers tidy before going to school. She confided to me “I am not going to wear long skirts, you know” Her mother, stately in her full skirt and long hair tied with a scarf, asked me “are there people like us in America?” I smiled, thinking of the women who wanted to look like proper Gitanes, and of a girl so long ago, who put up her hair because she had been taken for a Gypsy. “Who knows” I replied, touching lightly Lulu’s cheek “perhaps you will want to wear long skirts by then.”
On my way back I saw a small playground with a slide, a train and a merry-go-round. It was run by a Roma family. Their children rode the little train with the other children. It is a peaceful sight still rare for the Roma. Rare, but possible.
Battaglia, G. La Pentola di Rame. Melusina Editrice, Rome, 1992
Fraser, A. The Gypsies Blackwell Press Oxford, UK and Cambridge, USA 1992-95
Puxon, G. Roma: Europe’s Gypsies Minority Rights Group International 1987
Rehfisch, F. Gypsies, Tinkers and Other Travelers Academic Press London New York San Francisco 1975
Silverman, C. Persecution and Politicization: Roma (Gypsies) of Eastern Europe in Cultural Survival Quarterly Summer 1995
Roma rights: www.errc.org
Associazione Popoli Minacciati: http://www.gfbv.it/3dossier/errc-it.html
Kusturica E. and Mihic G, Time of the Gypsies, 1990 Sarayevo Productions