BRADU, Romania -- At one end of this tiny village on the Carpathian plain stands a clutch of ramshackle wooden sheds where eight families live amid mud, rotting food and barking dogs.
There are old, bearded men with weathered faces and missing teeth, pink-faced boys wearing black felt caps, and women in head scarves and hand-stiched skirts that are a luminous checkerboard of blacks, reds, yellows and blues.
They call themselves Romany people, though most of the world knows them as Gypsies. They are Europe's fastest-growing ethnic minority -- and, centuries after their arrival, they continue to be its least understood.
Throughout history, the Gypsies have been enslaved, stigmatized as beggars and thieves, subjected to genocide by the Nazis and cultural repression under communism. Now, they are under threat again.
The onset of democracy in Eastern Europe, where more than two-thirds of the continent's six million Gypsies live, gave Gypsy communities political rights and a newfound vigor to assert them. But it also unleashed centuries-old ethnic hatreds that are bringing new violence and new fears.
Many Gypsies are wondering if they might have been better off under the old Communist regimes. Tens of thousands are fleeing to the West.
"It's worse than before, and it was never very good," said Maria Stefan, 30, a mother of four in Bradu who lives with her family on a dirt floor in a room not much larger than the interior of a van.
Her father Nicolae, 61, survived deportation to the Soviet Union during World War II and returned to work for 25 years as a farmer in an agricultural cooperative. Now he, like others in the village, is unable to find a job.
"The Gypsies are a good people," he said, "but we are lost now."
Traditional Gypsy occupations like metalworking, carving and horse trading are dying. What jobs there are, Gypsies say, go to Romanians.
"Economic conditions have not gotten worse," said Gheorge Raducanu, the Gypsies' sole representative in the Romanian Parliament, "but the way the Romanian community looks at us has."
"Economically, the Gypsies are facing a catastrophe. It is a result of discrimination," said Manush Romanov, until recently a Gypsy member of Bulgaria's Parliament. "Gypsy labor is the lowest paid, even in normal times. Now, with such high unemployment, there are no jobs for Gypsies."
The Gypsies' nomadic ancestors are believed to have trekked out of northern India 1,000 years ago. They have roamed Europe since the Middle Ages, influencing Hungary's great classical composers with their distinctive music and bringing flamingo dancing to the Spanish along the way.
Still, most Europeans continue to distrust their strange customs and language, viewing them largely as social parasites and confining them to the outskirts of cities and towns.
A recent survey concluded that "Gypsies are clearly the most disliked ethnic group in Europe." In Czechoslovakia, more than 90 percent of those surveyed had unfavorable opinions of Gypsies.
"They are from another time with a different set of rules," said Dan Pavel, a Romanian journalist. "They fill the roll of 'enemy of society.' "
The vast majority live in poverty, crowded into urban slums or scattered among backward villages. Infant mortality rates are high. Few children go to school with regularity. Adult illiteracy rates run from 65 to 90 percent.
Conditions are worst in Eastern Europe, where in the past 22 months thousands of Gypsies, most of them from Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, have set out to make a new life in Western Europe.
They could be the cutting edge of what some expect will be the largest Gypsy migration westward this century. "It could rival the last very important movement of gypsy communities at the end of the 19th century when slavery was abolished in Romania," said Jean-Pierre Liegeois, a French expert on Gypsies.
Like their nomadic ancestors, these travelers have met hostility along the way. They have been jailed in Hungary, beaten in Czechoslovakia, chased out of train stations in Poland.
The Gypsies are traveling west in search of jobs and a better life. But they are leaving for another reason as well -- a growing fear of persecution.
Communism denied Gypsies their rights, forcing them to abandon their nomadic ways, to take regular jobs and to go to school. But it also controlled age-old ethnic hostilities. Today, the lid is off. In a time of economic and political uncertainty, Gypsies again are being made scapegoats.
"Roma [Gypsies] are caught in a political game beyond their control," said Nicolae Gheorge, a Romanian sociologist and leading Gypsy activist. "They are victims of the consequences of the post-Cold War era."
In virtually every East European country, Gypsies have been attacked by angry crowds that have ransacked and burned their homes and chased them from their communities. Dozens of such incidents have been reported in Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria.