Plight of the Gypsies

Home is where they have to take you in. But for the Roma refugees who've come to St. Louis, there's no such place.

That's Gypsy Day, May 6, otherwise known as St. George's Day. "It was originally a Serbian festival," says Elvis, "but they like too much the gypsy music, so without us there is no Gurgev Dan. Now," he adds, "the gypsies alone are making the party. If someone in your family is dead and he is not at the day with you, you light a cigarette for him, for his soul."

On a traditional Gurgev Dan, bonfires blaze at dawn and the coffee bubbles strong and fragrant in tin pots. By mid-morning, the sweet crackle of roasting pig has claimed the air. After dinner, the young men, half-drunk, jump the flames, and the poets set candles in Styrofoam and float them on the blackening river. Then the violins start, their music pulling dancers toward a clearing, and the children, eyes filled with the blurred bright colors of their mothers' whirling skirts, fall fast asleep on the hard ground.

The custom probably won't continue here: too many rules about bonfires, and curfew, and river access, and alcohol outdoors. That's the sort of contrast that makes people romanticize gypsy life, imagining it as a passionate freedom from bourgeois constraints; an outlet for what is vivid, soulful and irrational; a repository of ancient lore and mystery.

Early in the war, when soldiers showed up in Zavidovici asking to buy four vans, Avdija Huskic knew what to do. Well-schooled in his grandmother's import- export business, the teenager urged the men to take them for nothing. "I give it to you guys," he said. "If I live in this place, I want it to be safe."

Pleased, the soldiers suggested he come along with them and drive the vans, join in the struggle. The mood changed instantly. "I don't want to kill nobody, I don't want to drive nothing," retorted Huskic, backing away.

One of the soldiers stepped closer. "You see what is happening," he said, his voice raw. "Serbs are killing us."

"To me," the boy repeated stubbornly, "everybody is the same."

The hate he saw in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now sees here, bewilders him. "Many priests tell me about Adam and Eva, the first people," remarks Huskic. "You might say that you're American and he's Serbian and I'm Bosnian -- but we all came from those two people."

Born in Zavidovici, he grew up with his beloved grandmother, and when she died in 1985, he struck out on his own, finding relatives in other countries and learning how to buy Italian robes and linens, carry them across borders and sell them at a profit. Then, sensing the impending war -- "We know trouble before anybody else" -- Huskic tried to get Croatian papers but was refused. Eventually he was found hiding out in a small Croatian town without documentation and sent to a camp on the tiny island of Obonjan.

"For 17 months, you don't see cars," he says, making it as tragic as not seeing the sun. He doesn't talk abut the violence there or explain why his forearms don't completely straighten anymore. Instead, he cheerfully describes the size of the "mice," holding his hands a foot apart. "We shooed them away; we didn't kill them. I tried to put wood up to block them out; I used -- like for a shoe -- laces. Everybody was amazed that I made a door. But the wind was really strong and cold, and you only had one blanket, so you put half under you and the rest tried to pull it over you, and made a pillow with your clothes.

"There were maybe 4,000 people there," he continues. "They said, 'How come you have Avdija name? That is Muslim name,' and I said, 'We don't have gypsy names, we have Serb or Muslim or Catholic -- we have those names. Then a policeman said, 'If you are close to that Serb, I will break your leg.' And I said, 'The man is the same to me as you. He is just a man.'"

While confined on Obonjan, Huskic watched his friend steal the police ferryboat he'd just washed and head, like so many others, for Italy. "I hosed the boat, put the keys back and left, and he came inside, took the keys and made a run for it. The police boat could make that 45-minute ferry crossing in three minutes. My friend had been beaten by the Croatian police, so he told the Italians, 'Go ahead and arrest me.' Later he called me on the phone and said he'd gotten papers as a refugee."

With the help of an American journalist, Huskic, too, secured permission to leave, arriving in the U.S. on Sept. 7, 1995. He stayed nearly two years in Binghamton, N.Y., then, at age 22, came on his own to St. Louis. Standing in line at the crowded, chaotic International Institute, Huskic -- whose thin, sensitive features and smoldering eyes would startle most American women into shyness -- met his future wife, also Romani. She came from Prijedor, a city north of his hometown. "I had a really nice suit," he grins, "and I took my haircut, and I had 1,000 German marks glued under my shoes. So all the time I am checking out my shoes. I saw her walking with her brother, and then I heard her trying to send something to Switzerland, and I offered to write 'Switzerland' for her. She said, 'You're gypsy?'"

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