July 22, 2008

Italians Ignore Bodies of Dead Roma Girls Left on Beach

By Peter Popham

Italy shamed over photo highlighting growing disquiet over treatment of Gypsies. By Peter Popham

It is another balmy weekend on the beach in Naples. By the rocks, a couple soak up the southern Italian sun. A young man in sunglasses and a white T-shirt saunters by, playing with his mobile phone. Inches away, their feet poking from under beach towels that cover their faces and bodies, lie two drowned Roma children.

The girls, Cristina, 16, and Violetta, 14, were buried last night as the fallout from the circumstances of their deaths reverberated throughout Italy.

It is an image that has crystallised the mounting disquiet in the country over the treatment of Roma, coming after camps have been burnt and the government has embarked on a bid to fingerprint every member of the minority.

The sisters drowned at Torregaveta beach near Naples on Saturday after taking a dip in treacherous waters. Their corpses were recovered - then left on the beach for hours as holidaymakers continued to sunbathe and picnic around them. The girls had gone to the beach near Naples with another sister, Diana, nine, and a 16- year-old cousin, Manuela, to make money selling coloured magnets and other trinkets to sunbathers. But it was fiercely hot all day and, about 2pm, the girls surrendered to the temptation of a cooling dip - even though they apparently did not know how to swim.

"The sea was rough," said Enzo Esposito of Opera Nomadi, Italy's biggest Roma organisation. "Christina and Violetta went farther out than the other two and a big wave came out of nowhere and dashed them on to the rocks. For a few moments, they disappeared; Manuela, who was in shallow water with Diana, came to the shore, helped out by people on the beach, and ran to try and get help. When they came back, the bodies of her cousins had reappeared. They were already dead."

It was a tragedy that could happen on any beach. But what happened next has stunned Italy. The girls' bodies were laid on the sand. Some pious soul donated towels to preserve the most basic decencies. Then beach life resumed.

The indifference was taken as shocking proof that many Italians no longer have human feelings for the Roma, even though the communities have lived side by side for generations. Attitudes have been chilling for years, aggravated by sensational coverage of crimes allegedly committed by Gypsies, and a widespread confusion of Roma with ordinary, non-Roma Romanians.

The government has launched a high-profile campaign against the Roma community, including fingerprinting the entire population. The move has been condemned as a return to the racial registers introduced by the Fascists in the 1930s. But the Mayor of Monte di Procida, where Torregaveta beach is located, defended his citizens' behaviour. When the Roma girls got into difficulties, he said, "there was a race among the bathers and the coastguard and the carabinieri to try and help them".

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