The current Balkan conflict isn't the first time foreign correspondents have sent dispatches to say the gypsies refuse to take sides; there's one in the New York Times archives dated March 23, 1915. That was the first World War; in the second, they had no time to be neutral. Hitler was too busy slaughtering somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million of them in what the Roma call "Porrajmos," the Devouring. Without much notice from the rest of the world, the Roma grieved and recovered, and they now number around 12 million. They live everywhere in the world, more than half of them in Europe and more than 1 million in the U.S.
The Devouring has ceased, but the hatred that fueled it still thrives. For every Amnesty International report documenting human-rights abuses against the Roma, there are five new accounts of conflict or rejection. Earlier this month in Metchka, all 600 Bulgarians voted to expel the town's 300 Roma. In a recent survey, 92 percent of Romanians said they didn't want gypsies as neighbors. Last fall in the Czech Republic, the townspeople of Usti nad Labem worked through the night to build a high wall segregating two apartment buildings full of allegedly noisy, dirty, intractable Roma.
The European Union commission condemned Usti nad Labem's solution, saying Europe wanted no more walls. Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel, who once called gypsies "a litmus test of a civil society," patiently waited for local citizens to find a better resolution. Finally the wall was ruled illegal by the Czech Parliament (a ruling since found unconstitutional) and the wall was sold to a zoo.
In the U.S., the last law aimed at a particular ethnic group was a 1917 New Jersey law that allowed towns to "license and regulate ... roving bands of nomads, commonly called gypsies" -- and it was only removed from the books two years ago. In 1992, the New York Times published a public-opinion poll surveying national attitudes toward 58 different ethnic and racial groups over a 25-year period, and for the entire quarter-century, gypsies were ranked at the very bottom -- even though most Americans had never met a gypsy.