The Gypsies of Cyprus struggle on
KOPHINOU, Cyprus – The ravenous young woman used her hands to pick boiled lentils and rice from a small saucer while keeping a watchful eye on barefoot children playing around a campfire blazing in the weak autumn sun. For more than four days, thin tents in a dusty cornfield in southwest Cyprus were the temporary home of Ramsiye and her extended family – 10 scrawny children happily ripping up a copy of Homer’s Odyssey, an old woman chain- smoking and a clutch of brooding young men. Any day now, her family is due to grow even larger. Squatting on a saucepan which she had turned upside down and improvised as a seat, she rose to reveal a protruding belly. You might call us Gypsies, but we are clean. I wouldn’t feed a dog from that, she said of the offensive hand-me-down saucepan blackened with smoke from earlier uses. An ethnic group distinct from the bickering Greeks and Turks of Cyprus, the Roma have emerged recently from more than a quarter-century of relative obscurity to make their presence felt again. The Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 following a brief Greek-inspired coup, and the resulting partition, signaled a shift to a more settled lifestyle for the Turkish-speaking Roma, based in the northern town of Morphou and the eastern port of Famagusta. But an economic crisis crippling the breakaway state is encouraging the Roma to return to their nomadic ways. Aside from the economic situation (in northern Cyprus), the Roma traditionally are only semi-settled. In Europe and in Cyprus they have never really been satisfied being settled, said Allen Williams of the Dom Research Center, an institution following the history of Middle Eastern Gypsies. Waves of migration Researchers believe the first Roma arrived on the island between 1322 and 1400, when Cyprus was under the rule of the Crusader kings, and the migrants were in a general shift westward from India. Doms are Gypsies of the Middle East and North Africa with historically close ties to their ethnic Roma kin in Europe. But the migrations from their Indian homeland and their languages are different, said Williams. Although geographically in the Middle East, the Gypsies of Cyprus are more closely related to the Roma of Turkey and Greece, he said. At a conservative estimate, there are between 1,000 and 1,200 Roma on the island. The size of the Roma population would have been enough to secure them representation as a minority religious group in Parliament when the constitution was being drafted before independence in 1960. They weren’t organized enough, said Nicos Trimikliniotis, a lecturer in international relations at Intercollege. Their language, known as Kurbetcha, is dying out. Older Roma speak a local dialect, heavily intermingled with Greek and Turkish words, while the younger ones speak Turkish. But underscoring public ignorance of their origins, they were described as Turkish-Cypriot deserters from the north when they first made their appearance en masse last year. It is only recently that the label was dropped. Now they are called Attsingani. It means untouchable, a lower caste, said Trimikliniotis. Generally terms which are demeaning. One word Greeks and Turks of Cyprus use to describe the Roma is kilinjiri, a derogatory term otherwise used to describe someone filthy and unkempt. Fear of the unknown Public reaction to the arrival of the Gypsies has varied from the hackneyed stereotype that they are a bunch of layabouts sponging off government generosity to plain curiosity. Comments by the island’s interior minister that the Roma were not to be treated as luxury tourists and were expected to work probably reinforced the first view. As Cypriots, the Roma are entitled to a weekly welfare stipend, but on the understanding it is only until they find work. Things are better here. We have nowhere to live on the other side, no jobs, said the old woman at the camp. The government says it is trying to find appropriate living quarters for the Roma – preferably miles away from anyone else. If we needed the consent of Cypriots on this matter we would have to make provisions to have the settlements in Lebanon or Syria, said Interior Minister Christodoulos Christodoulou. That said, several Greek Cypriots at Kophinou, a village in Cyprus’s southwest, were neither indifferent nor hostile to their temporary neighbors. Many brought clothes for the children, the lentils were provided by a young man and one woman brought a sack of chickens. Some locals recoil from the living conditions the Roma are placed in even though, in most cases, most acknowledge that it is only temporary until they move on again. You can’t have a couple with their grown-up children, plus relatives, all sharing the one room, said a Greek-Cypriot resident in the Turkish quarter of Limassol. Opposite, his Gypsy neighbors, holding gurgling infants, peer out of the broken panes of what were once windows. It is their living room, a hovel with stained walls where electricity wires have come loose, dangling in the air. Nine people share the house, but spend most of their day sitting outside. They are kilinjiri, hissed a Turkish-Cypriot neighbor.