‘See Naples and Die’ (Vedi Napoli e poi muori)
Corruption, forced evictions, and shady Mafia deals. Romani activist, Jonathan Lee, reports on Naples’ Roma families who are caught in the middle, and investigates the situation on the ground following the eviction of over a thousand Roma from their homes in Gianturco last year.
The ‘camp’, which was home to over a thousand Romani people, was demolished by Neapolitan authorities on the 7th April 2017. The move was an illegal pre-emptive strike, designed to see off attempts by the ERRC and other NGOs to secure an emergency intervention from the European Court of Human Rights, and halt the mass evictions scheduled for the 11th April. Police arrived with bulldozers at the crack of dawn on the day of the eviction. They ordered people from their homes and, while the demolition continued, organised them into groups, choosing 180 Roma to be placed in a new, segregated container camp located at Via Del Riposo, near the airport at the outskirts of the city. Our mission was to gain access to this government camp, assess the situation of the Roma there, investigate the fate of the 800 or so other Roma who were made homeless, and attempt to expose the whole dirty business of the eviction to the public, and to the European Commission.
Anyone who has been to Naples, will be familiar with the chaotic flavour of the city. Its reputation in the rest of the country notwithstanding, Naples is truly an island in mainland Italy. It is a city of eternal contradiction: opulent in its squalor, revelling in the midst of its own suffering, united in its apathy. Everything about the city asserts defiance, vitality and contrast whilst crumbling under its own heavy weight of decentralised authority, corruption, organised crime, and poverty. “She is like an old whore” my Italian friend told me when we were talking about my trip there. “You can glimpse her beauty, but she is worn out - drunk - and way too decadent”.
The port of Naples is vast, bustling and overlooked by the austere Castel Nuovo and grand Royal Palace of Naples. Refugees from North Africa and beyond, who have survived the perilous Mediterranean crossing in a dinghy, now man stalls that line the piazzas. Green space is confined to the distant hill of the Real Bosco, or the centre of small roundabouts shared with shrines to the Madonna. Further into the city, renaissance mansions are host to communities of the homeless in their arches, while many of the habitable upper floors have become mass squats for the underclass of Naples. Poor Italians, poor Arabs, poor Africans, poor Roma; all share buildings around the centre.
Wandering the streets around the old town and the Spaccanapoli, tourists walk past Red Cross workers handing out emergency food packages to the city’s hungry. Amongst them are Romanian Roma. Some from Gianturco, many from some other eviction elsewhere in the city, now forgotten. All are understandably wary of saying which camp they came from, or giving any information on where most of their friends and family members from Gianturco have moved to. After a camp is evicted in Campania, the Roma are dispersed amongst the city’s homeless population, but eventually many will move in with family in smaller camps around the city. The reluctance to say where they live is borne of experience. Every time a camp begins to grow in numbers, it’s not long before authorities turn up to harass and eventually evict the residents. One Romani woman, when asked where she and her children are sleeping now, told me ‘varokai’ – everywhere.
The general reluctance to speak with us (other than being a normal response when complete strangers ask for your address) was also rumoured to be down to threats made by the police. We had heard rumours before we even arrived in Naples that police had visited the Roma at Via del Riposo and elsewhere to warn them off speaking with activists. The cagey answers from Romani people we met, particularly relating to the conduct of the police, was the first alarm bell we got that these rumours might be true. So, with some trepidation we headed out one morning for the new camp at Via del Riposo, wondering if anyone there would speak with us at all.
Gaining access to an ethnically segregated, government run camp isn’t as easy as it sounds. The last we had heard was that Via del Riposo was a fenced off, gated and guarded container camp – purpose built to house the Roma evicted from Gianturco. Amnesty International had been denied entry to the camp around the time of the eviction, but a human rights photographer had managed to gain entry alongside municipality workers carrying out a survey. We opted for a similar approach, and used contacts in the municipality to gain permission to enter the camp.
(A boy pulls a wheelie on his bike at the open entrance to Via del Riposo shelter. © Alex Sturrock)
We arrived earlier than our appointed meeting time so we could take some pictures and see if we could meet any of the residents outside the camp walls. But when we got there, the gates were wide open. There were kids playing on bicycles outside, and a few people were coming and going from the camp. Scrawled across the walls on the roadside was anti-Roma graffiti and threats to burn the shelter to the ground. Instead of private security, a small group of young Romani men leaned against the wall at the entrance to the camp.
"Ame san katar o organizacija Romano, manges te keres vorba?"
We are from a Romani organisation, can I talk to you?
"O Capo si akai" - the captain is there - he replied, gesturing to an Italian man who was walking towards us from the road. Vincenso Esposito was in his fifties with grey hair, wearing a beige suit, a toothy smile, and a shirt open at the collar. He had the air of an estate agent about him, but informed us that he was in fact a Social Worker from the Office of Roma, Sinti & Caminanti (Travellers).
We entered the camp as his entourage, while he called to the kids nearby, ruffling hair, patting heads and play-wrestling with the boys. "Look at this one!" he would exclaim, "you're so cute, I might have to take you away with me!” His faux-paternalistic demeanour amongst the kids took on a more sinister, threatening element when he spoke with the adults. He inquired about progress made in their lives, and took it upon himself to speak on their behalf when our questions strayed near the topics of their welfare, the new camp, racism or the eviction. Nervous smiles stretched from person to person all around us.
We decided to split up so as to avoid the attentions of L'Esposito. We encountered a strange reticence from the residents, and there was a nervous tension which followed the social worker around the camp. He always seemed to be hovering nearby when someone began talking at length with us. I even found myself writing in Romani to stop his peering over my notebook, and his mild-mannered jokey warnings about removing their children (something well within his power) continued throughout our visit. I decided to interview him directly, seeing as he was so keen to be heard.
How are the relations between the locals and the Roma here?
There have been almost no complaints from the local people here, it is very peaceful, it’s not at all like the old camp. There were many complaints about the rubbish before, but now it’s not the case.
There are about 180 Roma here, relocated after the Gianturco eviction -
There was no eviction, there was no eviction. No. They left on their own, we did not evict them. You should not say this, the Roma left of their own [free will].
Police turned up in the early morning with bulldozers and forced the remaining Roma to leave their homes, the other thousand had already left after a campaign of harassment from police for months before.
No, whoever has told you this is lying, these things are not true. They were informed of the day that they would have to leave. And there were not a thousand, no, only a few hundred were ever there.
And 180 of these were moved to here?
Yes, not only from there but also from elsewhere. This is a social shelter for vulnerable people.
This is a social shelter for vulnerable people, are there any non-Roma in the camp?
No. There are over a hundred people here but all are Roma from Romania.
And there is a waiting list to get in here?
Yes, we have more than ten families.
Are any of them non-Roma?
No they are also Roma families from Romania.
And the authorities decide who gets on this list and who gets a place in the camp? Who decides this?
So why are you only placing Roma here Vincenso?
The non-Roma, they do not want to be put in this camp.
That's not what I've seen, we've seen lots and lots of very poor people in the city, homeless Italians, homeless African migrants – do they refuse to live in this shelter too?
This is a social shelter for vulnerable people, it is not a Roma-only policy like that.
But the fact remains, that this is a 100% Roma-only camp. Have you seen the graffiti outside on the walls? It specifically threatens these Roma with death and firebombing their houses.
Yes, this is terrible – it is old though, from 3 years ago when the old informal camp was here and there were problems.
I was told that it was since the eviction from Gianturco.
No, this is old stuff, please it was not an eviction I told you.
Why is it still there after 3 years? Why has the municipality not removed hate speech from the walls of its own shelter?