Why We Stopped Attacking the Romani

Roma

They moved into a roofless shack in May of 1996 and lived there for over a month before anyone in our neighborhood noticed them. They were a family of gypsies, a well-regarded one before the war according to my grandfather Lazar, looking for a safe place to rest their weary heads. When they stumbled upon a wooden hut that reeked of cow dung, they were more than elated to make it their new home. Unfortunately for Ciga Angad and his family, they were unaware of the destructiveness caused by perpetual fear and boredom in this small post-war Herzegovinian town, Gacko.  

The father of the family, Ciga Angad, was a short but powerfully-built man whose legs were so crooked that they outlined a perfect oval when he stood still. He had another peculiarity, too, which as soon as it was seen, became the talk of entire town and all the surrounding villages. My own two eyes saw it on more than one occasion.

Soon after they arrived, Ciga Angad built an outdoor shower for his family. Just like their home, this wooden structure was full of holes and crevices through which all the neighborhood boys shamelessly gawked and all the housewives bashfully glanced whenever they ‘happened’ to walk near it. Within hours after his first scrubbing, the entire town had heard about Ciga Angad.

The more religiously fervent men said that Ciga Angad’s oversized equipment was a curse from God for not following the teachings of Orthodox Christianity. The more religiously fervent women disagreed, and said it was a blessing. The more lighthearted among us joked that our new neighbor never had to fear any leg injuries because he held a spare one in his trousers. “No policeman would ever dare to arrest Angad,” was the beginning of one of countless Ciga Angad jokes, “because they would fall into the deepest depression if they saw the size of his baton.”  

Nonetheless, Ciga Angad and his family were an object of derision for most of the adults in our small town. Every day for well over a month, a gang of about 20 school-age boys surrounded Ciga Angad’s small wooden shack to shout obscenities and pull cruel, dangerous pranks. We set so many water traps that after about a week, Ciga Angad couldn’t walk properly more than three or four steps without ducking and covering his head in fear of getting soaked. We threw mud and eggs at our new neighbors, wrote on their tattered clothes and shoes whenever they put them outside to dry, but our hateful were most damaging.

“Death to Gypsies!” was our most popular chant. “Gypsies get out,” was written on a piece of paper and stapled to Ciga Angad’s shack. In big red letters, another read read: “Gypsies are an inferior race.”

Ciga Angad’s wife Goroganka, a five-foot walking skeleton, took the abuse with a restraint of a nun. Every now and then she politely asked us to leave her family alone, but as soon as one of the bigger boys threatened her with clenched fists, she would only sigh as if to say: “I never really expected you to understand.”

But her husband’s patience drained completely when their three little children were taunted. Bitterly annoyed by the incessant name calling, cursing and threats, he would run out of his home grunting and frowning, ready for confrontation. But outside, he was inevitably met by a group of rowdy boys huddled together, most of them taller than him by a head and ready for a fight.

After observing one incident in which Ciga Angad returned to his house weeping and wiping egg yoke from his temple, my grandmother Baba Jela decided to write a poem and send it to each of the bullying boys’ parents, including mine:

 

Both Ivan and Goran were hurled into this world,
Ivan’s was a smooth birth but Goran’s was knarled.

For Ivan’s fifth birthday his dad gave him a beautiful puzzle,
For Goran’s fifth birthday his dad handed him a beer to guzzle.

By his fifteenth birthday Ivan had learned English and French,
From his fifteenth to sixteenth Goran sat on a prison bench.

Already at twenty-three Ivan was happily married,
On his twenty-fourth birthday next to his mama Goran was buried.


If you can’t help the poor, then leave them alone,
They have enough problems on their own.

 

Soon after, the boys in the neighborhood stopped their attacks, and Ciga Angad’s son Mudra joined our gang to help us loot corn from people’s gardens and chess pieces from a local chess club. But the peace was born from sheer luck and boredom. Out of embarrassment and fear of losing all my friends, I had never delivered the letters to their intended recipients.

Blog post courtesy of Milan Djurasovic, a Bosnian American collage artist, blogger, and book author. He currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, Russia. His educational background is in psychology and history.
Illustration by Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat