Things escalated after a Roman woman was murdered by a Romanian immigrant who was undocumented.
Considering the anti-immigration hysteria that is going on in the west - how much of Italy's reaction is realistic and and how much is hysteria?
Italians Welcome Army on Streets as Anti-Gipsy Sentiment sweeps the Country
When soldiers arrived with submachine guns to fight crime last week outside Rome's Saxa Rubra metro station, residents of the quiet commuter suburb applauded and shouted "bravo".
The London Telegraph
By Nick Meo in Rome
August 9, 2008
"It's great to see the army here," Luigi Cabras, 60, a civil servant, said with enthusiasm. "There used to be lots of petty stealing, but it's much better now. And the gipsies who were camped around here have gone, thank God."
The station is hardly crime-plagued; a littering problem, some pickpocketing, and car park break-ins, all blamed on gipsies from the squalid camp which used to be next to the station until bulldozers moved in a fortnight ago.
But everybody knows why combat veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq have been deployed, the first time the army has been on the streets of Italy since anti-Mafia operations in the 1990s.
Mr Cabras gestured towards a nearby field and shook his head sadly. "Before things change, you have to have a dead body," he said. What he pointed at was the spot where an admiral's wife was raped and beaten to death in November, in one of Rome's most shocking murders for years.
Giovanna Reggiani, 47, a housewife and religious education teacher, was walking back to her car along a badly-lit road when she was attacked by an illegal immigrant from Romania.
The gipsy community around Saxa Rubra claims that the man arrested for the crime, 24-year-old Nicolae Mailat, was not in fact a gipsy, despite his being detained on one of their camps. But the incident has provoked a nationwide backlash against Italy's 150,000-strong gipsy community, which has seen them portrayed as one of the biggest threats to the Eternal City since the Barbarian invasions.
Gipsies, also known as Roma, have been in Italy for centuries, ever since their ancestors arrived as metalworkers and merchants from India. Many live in houses rather than itinerant camps and have intermarried with Italians, sending their children to school and integrating into society.
But over the past decade, their numbers have almost doubled as poorer, uneducated gipsies arrived from Eastern Europe, some fleeing Balkan wars, others simply in search of a better life, creating additional strains with a host community that has never entirely accepted them.
Unlike many Rome intellectuals, who complain about authoritarianism, Saxa Rubra's white-collar workers are delighted to see the military fully-armed as they set off for work. Fabio Monaci, 25, who has been giving the soldiers discounts at his sandwich shop, feels much safer. "Crime is a real worry in Italy now," he said gravely as he poured an espresso. "But it won't be so bad if we get into a new era of discipline."
That is exactly what is promised by new prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a Right-wing populist who has just ridden into power for the third time with his ex-fascist and xenophobic Northern League allies on a wave of popular fear about crime.
Sending 3,000 troops to guard railway stations and tourist spots has been Mr Berlusconi's boldest move yet, and judging from the mood in the suburbs, the soldiers have won the hearts and minds of the commuting classes, even if they have not struck much of a blow against crime. So far one pickpocket has been detained in the nationwide operation – the military has orders to arrest only suspects caught in the act.
British tourists, who are out in force in Rome's piazzas and trattorias, were a little surprised. "Has there been a coup?" was the bemused response of one pensioner from Scotland.
But after the murder of Mrs Reggiani, most Italians are pleased to see them. The killing was particularly shocking for Romans because their city is considered relatively safe by the standards of other European centres – there is nothing comparable to London's current knife crime epidemic, for example.
Mr Berlusconi declared a "Roma emergency", produced a disputed dossier of alleged immigrant muggings, robberies and murders, and promised to dismantle illegal gipsy camps. So far 700 have been identified. Even more controversial in a nation whose Fascist rulers helped the Nazis deport Jews and gipsies during the Second World War, fingerprinting of gipsies has started, despite the European Union saying the programme encourages xenophobia, and a Roman Catholic group describing it as racist.
On the streets of northern Rome such reservations are hard to find. "All our problems come from foreigners getting drunk, smashing windows and stealing," said Anna Maria Mercure, who at 80 is old enough to remember an earlier era of Italian discipline. "Mussolini had his positive side. The streets were safe in his day."
Whether they are genuinely more dangerous now is disputed, but even Left-wingers are as concerned as those on the Right and aware that there is no straightforward solution to a difficult and emotive social problem. And whatever the truth of the matter, gipsy encampments up and down the country are the main targets as long-simmering tensions erupt into open hostility.
The residents of the Rome suburb of Centocelle, a pleasant, tree-lined district of modest apartment blocks, finally lost patience last week with the gipsies in a local camp called Casalina 900, a miniature shanty town where rats and naked children run amid piles of half-burnt rubbish. The residents, mainly gipsies who fled the Balkans, have coexisted uncomfortably with their Italian neighbours for more than a decade.
That all came to an end last week when camp residents burnt some old tyres instead of taking them to the dump, creating clouds of acrid black smoke. In the current political climate, it became the catalyst for a near riot, with Centocelle's residents staging a demonstration in the middle of a major highway.
"I would kill them all," said Virginia Cristell, a mother in her 40s. "Send them to the country – or send them somewhere. They are dirty and there are lots of problems with burglary and thieving. They make toxic smoke."
Soon her second wish will come true. Rome's new Right-wing mayor, Gianni Alemanno, promised the middle-class troublemakers that if they gave up their road protest he would get rid of the camp.
For the inhabitants of Casalino 900, the bulldozers will be another of life's frequent disasters. Afterwards they will scavenge what possessions they can and move off to some other patch of unoccupied land.
The camp has been sealed off by police, but The Sunday Telegraph found a hole in the fence. Inside we found dislike of Italy and fear of the future. But the teenage mothers suckling infants have grown up in Rome and most speak only Italian. One camp resident, Najo Adzovic, 37, said he had deserted the Federal Yugoslav Army and fled to Italy when he was ordered to slaughter 15 Muslims during the Balkan wars. "I don't like the police outside our camp or the military presence on our streets," he said. "There is some petty crime committed by gipsies because our people are poor, but we are not all criminals."
The fingerprint policy that has them so worried – and fearful that the Government is trying to drive them out of Italy – has been drawn up by the junior party in Mr Berlusconi's coalition, Alleanza Nationale. Until it reinvented itself in the 1990s, it was a neo-fascist party.
Marco Marsilio, a member of Italy's lower house of parliament, is an amiable young politician who made an articulate case for fingerprinting. He said it was to help protect gipsy children who he insisted were bought and sold as beggars; critics claim he is nothing but a myth peddler.
"The Leftists aren't able to understand this fear of crime because they have an ideological prejudice against law and order," said Mr Marsilio. His colleague, Alessandro Cochi, laughed off a 1930s-style propaganda poster in his office of a wild-eyed man giving a stiff-arm salute; he was not a fascist, he said, nor was Italy suffering a fascist wave.
That, however, is not the view of Goffredo Bezzecchi, 69, an Italian gipsy who came close to death after Italian Fascists tried to send his family to the death camps. They escaped before they could be deported. Mr Bezzecchi, who was fingerprinted at his home near Milan last month, feels history is at risk of repeating itself. "These things were done in the Fascist days when gipsies were killed or sent to concentration camps," he said. "The politicians should remember that we are human, not garbage."
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