Gypsies in Belgrade

Above is a photo I took last weekend. We were on the way to an open market in New Belgrade. We stopped at the traffic light, and these three gypsies were asking for handouts from cars waiting in line. At the major intersections downtown and in New Belgrade, it is common to have gypsy beggars or window washers. It has been a source of fascination for our family since our arrival. This is my second post (for my first post, click here) on the gypsies and I intend to do more while I am living here.

I recently finished reading Isabel Fonseca’s excellent book, “Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey” in which she writes of her experiences of living with the Romany people of several Eastern European countries for 4 years.

There are over 100,000 gypsies living in Belgrade. They are an on-going social problem in the city. They get little support from the government and have difficulty integrating themselves into modern, Serbian society. The latest news was the government moving (bulldozing) of a settlement in New Belgrade. It seems that no one wants them to live in their neighborhood. There are gypsies that are successful, but most are extremely poor and outside of normal society. Beside hustling for money at intersections, they are also seen collecting cardboard and other recyclable materials or selling junk at markets in New Belgrade.

They remind me of the Aboriginal people of Australia. They have their completely separate culture and lifestyle living right next to a majority “Western” culture. They are closer to the North American Indians, and are more integrated than the Aboriginals, but the same view applies. Like the Slavs, the migrated to Serbia from the east. Researchers discovered they originally came from India, leaving about 16-20 generations ago (approximately 12th century). They stopped in central Asia (Armenia) and reached Serbia and eastern Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Their official name possibly dates back to their original caste in India. Fragments of their Indian origin are maintained today in many words in their language and their Hindu-like customs of cleanliness and superstition.

Their original nomadic lifestyle has ended in modern times.  Today they are mostly poor, illiterate, living on the edges of cities and towns. There are an estimated 6 -11 million gypsies world wide with most in Eastern Europe. The biggest population is in Romania. Fonseca reasons they were used as slaves in historical Romania and that explains the high numbers there. They have been persecuted since their arrival to Europe. They are the forgotten part of the Holocaust.

The girl above is probably the mother of the baby in her arms. Gypsies have their own cultural norms and one of them is to become a mother as soon as physically possible. What is amazing is many are illiterate with no concept of history, time, and Western cultural literacy.

Ocean is up and I need to attend to her. I’ll be writing more in the near future…

Below are some excerpts from the Rom News Network a website based in Germany that produces news items about the Romany people. I took the excerpts from an article by Olga Nikolic, called, “Life on the Margins of Society” from 2001.

“Romanies form the youngest portion of the population in Serbia – over a half, 62 per cent of them, are under the age of 25, while only 4,1 per cent of them are over 60 years-old. The said age structure is accounted for by experts as the result of high birth and death rates and a low average life expectancy. According to some statistics, the average Romany life span is 10 per cent shorter than is the case when all other citizens of Serbia

Dragoljub Atanackovic, the president of the Romany Congressional Party, claims that 90 per cent of Romanies live in extremely insanitary conditions and that in Belgrade itself there are 60 enclaves with over 90 thousand Romanies living in wretched circumstances. “The social position of Romanies is exceptionally difficult. But three per cent of the population of working age are employed, only 31 per cent have primary school education, the rest are half-illiterate or illiterate. We do not have a single newspaper in our mother tongue or a radio and TV program financed by the government.

According to statistics, the rate of unemployment among Romanies is four times higher than is the case with the country’s majority nation and in the past ten years the negative ratio has doubled. Every fifth Romany of working age is illiterate and every third has merely primary education. A fifth of all Romany families have no earnings whatsoever, while the majority barely survive by doing odd jobs in the black market sector, such as selling contraband cigarettes and similar smuggled goods or by collecting secondary materials.”

2 thoughts on “Gypsies in Belgrade

  • Really cool write-up 🙂 I’m an American who’s been in Belgrade for a little over a week so far–staying for a month. Found your entry while looking up “gypsy cars” in Belgrade (I don’t know what they’re actually called but they’re very bare-bones vehicles that look like farm equipment, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about) having seen a bunch of them in my neighborhood in the Bohemian District and was pleasantly surprised to find such a well-though-out ethnography of this culture from another “outsider”, awesome.

    I’ve been keeping a journal of my travels as well… I can only aspire to have such astute observations as yours!

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