IRAQ

The Iraqi gypsies living on the fringes of society

Iraq's gypsies are one of the country's tiniest minorities. They're also one of its most scorned. Deprived of work and education, the gypsies live like pariahs in ramshackle villages completely cut-off from major cities. Our Observer visited one such village in the region of Diwaniya, 200 kilometres south of the capital Baghdad.

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Gypsies in a village 200 kilometres south of Baghdad. 

Iraq's gypsies are one of the country's tiniest minorities. They're also one of its most scorned. Deprived of work and education, the gypsies live like pariahs in ramshackle villages completely cut off from major cities. Our Observer visited one such village in the region of Diwaniya, 200 kilometres south of the capital Baghdad.

Iraq’s gypsy population is estimated to be between 50,000 and 200,000 people. They are generally organised in tight-knit communities and live in villages that lie scattered on the outskirts of large cities - particularly in the region of Basra, Baghdad and Nasiriya. Other Iraqis tend to marginalise the country's tiny minority of gypsies, who are often derided for behaving unlike mainstream society.

"There are 400 children in the village, but the authorities decided it wasn't worth opening a school here"

Our Observer Tahseen al-Zarkani is a blogger for 'Arablog'. He visited a village inhabited by gypsies in Diwaniya - a region that lies a few hundred kilometres south of Baghdad.

"Around 200 families live in this village of improvised shacks. There's no drinking water, so tanker lorries deliver 200 litres of it each week. But since there's barely enough of it for everyone, some of the water has to be re-used. That creates obvious hygiene problems.

On top of that, a few years ago the local authorities set up a rubbish dump just next to the village. Diseases like typhoid and asthma started spreading among the residents. It's only recently that authorities have opened a small clinic in the village, thanks to NGOs that put pressure on the local government in Diwaniya. But the 400 children who live here are illiterate because the authorities decided it wasn't worth opening up a school for them.

Before the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, this village thrived on song and dance. People in the area came to take part in evenings organised by the gypsies. They also came for the prostitution... Since the old dictator fell, their situation has dramatically deteriorated [Editor's note: Saddam Hussein didn't tend to press his iron first on gypsy minorities]. And as extremist groups continue rising in power, it's only getting worse. In 2003, the Mahdi Army raided the village and forced its inhabitants to flee [Editor's note: the Mahdi Army is a powerful Shiite militia created in 2003 by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr]. Not all families dared to return.

Despite being completely isolated, the gypsies are nonetheless one of the most important minorities here. In the run-up to every election, candidates come and make countless promises. But they never keep them."

Abou Majed is the chief of the village that our Observer visited.

"We ask the authorities to provide us with the same services that nearly all Iraqis benefit from: work, education and health. Here, we lack everything. Not only that, but we're also kept in isolation by the authorities. The police that keep watch over the entrance to the village force anyone that comes to see us to undergo harsh questioning and searches. Sometimes even members of our own families can't get into the village.

For several years, we've also been demanding compensation for the possessions that were stolen from us in 2003. But nothing's come of it.

Our youth excel at certain jobs: we've got designers, blacksmiths, electricians, but nobody's interested in us. Nearly all of the village youth are unemployed. No companies, not even public bodies, want to employ them. We're unjustly marginalised: we've been in the region for a very long time. We're real Iraqis."

Post written by FRANCE 24 journalist Djamel Belayachi.

All photos taken by Tahseen al-Zarkani.