Believe you me, theyre waiting for whats going to happen here like manna from heaven, exclaimed Natalino Gasbarro, the foreman of a work team heading the citys project to bring drains, light and new housing to Salone, one of the worst camps for Romes 6,500 or so Rom.

Under the scheme, which began almost a year ago, the shacks at Salone are being pulled down and replaced by heated, prefabricated, two- or three-roomed chalets.

The Rom at Salone are mainly from Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro, and on an afternoon this autumn they were sitting in the sun outside their caravans among tiny scurrying children, in a wasteland of drying mud and puddles.

Until August, Salone was the most notorious of Romes 50 or so Rom encampments and the biggest in Italy, set in remote countryside far beyond the citys eastern outskirts, close to the Rome-LAquila motorway.

Then a platoon of tough, armed vigili urbani moved in to establish order and to ensure that only bona fide Rom get assistance. As a result, about 900 of the original 1,500 residents moved out in a hurry.

The vigili at Salone were the spearhead of an ambitious three-year project, drawn up by Romes city council to prepare the inhabitants of all the citys camps for life in permanent housing in the Italian community. Though referred to in Italian as nomadi, a council handout points out that under communism in eastern Europe, nearly all the Rom enjoyed permanent homes.

Salone is a violent place. Recently a 16-year-old boy from the camp was killed by police after forcing a road-block outside. In a dawn raid in September, police carted off some 50 Rom suspected of various offences, who were then repatriated. In another swoop, 300 stolen cars were confiscated. Children were into sniffing petrol and cocaine. According to Major Antonio Di Maggio, the chief of the vigili, when he first arrived in August the place was plagued by hordes of giant rats, clouds of wasps and stench.

The city aims to transform Salone into one of 12 equipped villages, in which 3,000 Rom will be housed for 36 months while they find jobs. Then, it is hoped, they will be able to afford rent for places of their own, initially with council help. Before graduating to the villages, a further 3,000 will be granted hospitality for a year in six temporary stay areas, more spartanly appointed.

At Salone, one beautiful woman pleaded for money and said her family, headed by grandpa, had been stuck in the camp ever since their escape from Sarajevo. Her 23-year-old husband, clad in denim, stayed in the background, sitting on a bike. Asked what she thought of all the change around her, she shrugged her shoulders. Beckoned over by a bunch from Montenegro, your intrepid scribe was soon being gently pushed in the back by the old head of the clan and told: Go away! Go away! after having a youth ferret through his (empty) shoulder-satchel and a laughing girl nick his pocketed woolly hat. Give it back to him! she was ordered. She did.

There are nine of us here with mouths to feed, shouted out a grandmother washing up a tall pile of pots and plates under an awning stretched between two caravans. Apparently it will all be ready by April, scribe told her. Ill be dead by then! she retorted. All nine came from Belgrade.

On a chair on a proper carpet under an awning sat a neat, combed, 15-year-old boy, who said he had lived in the camp since he was two. He proudly told how he had just got his secondary school certificate at an Italian school in nearby Tor Sapienza. He is one of 2,500 Rom children the council says are already inserted into the school system.

Foreman Gasbarro is a committed person, a champion of the Rom. Go and look in those caravans over there. Theyre comfortable, very clean and hygienic. I myself find them more human than we are, with more of a heart. They certainly work better than the Italians. He has four of them in his team. They dont look at watches all the time. Of course, if you try and play the despot with them, youve had it.

Nicolai Miklaeseu, a well-built, plumpish 21-year-old Romanian, rude with health, came from what he called the most comfortable camp in Rome. Known as Candoni, after the desolate lane in the southern outskirts where it stands, it is complete with water, electricity, a washhouse and even a playing field. Nicolai said the problem facing most of the camps 270 inhabitants was that they badly wanted to work but were unable to do so legally without permits of stay. Their only alternative, he admitted frankly, was to beg and steal. His own complaint was that he was unable to visit the mother of his three small children in jail, because he is not allowed in without a permesso di soggiorno. The police revoked the one he had after a spell of his own inside.

Were soldiering ahead with the project despite real difficulties, one being legality and papers, acknowledged Enrico Serpieri from the press office of the councils social policies department. But the worst hurdle is not communication with the Rom, but being up against a permanent emergency. Things change every day, largely because 1,000 new Romanians, many of whom are Rom, are pouring into Rome every month, and new clandestine campsites are springing up all over.

Picture: The Salone camp east of Rome used to be one of the most notorious

Rom settlements in the city. Photo by Paul Rossi.