Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Roma girls

Three Roma girls whose families were expelled in 2012 from the center of Belgrade and relocated in shipping containers in the village of Makis, outside the Serbian capital. Their former homesite was considered a squalid eyesore that the city wants to develop with high-rise apartments and high rent retail outlets.

Pressing the shutter button is the easy part of photography. I’m currently in Macedonia, part of a several-nation journey to write about and photograph Roma communities in Europe. Last week I was in Serbia, and one day went to a collection of containers plunked down in the middle of nowhere outside of Belgrade. The metal boxes are home to several dozen Roma families that were recently relocated from the center of the Serbian capital, where their settlement was considered an eyesore and an obstacle to developing modern high rise apartments and high rent retail stores. So the city gave them the containers and a free one-way ride out of town.

Roma have many historical reasons to distrust outsiders, and voyeur photographers are usually chased away. Not surprisingly, when I climbed out of the taxi at the edge of Containerville, some women stared at me. When I started pulling cameras out of my bag, they started shouting, Bezi! Bezi! — "Go away!" Being a sensitive guy, methinks this is gonna be one of those days. Along with Jovana Savic, my translator from Church World Service, I had arranged to meet a woman from a local Roma school who knew many of the families there. When I went and stood by her, people quit yelling at me, but they nonetheless kept giving me the evil eye. Then one of the women realized that she remembered me from when I had visited their urban squatter settlement one cold and snowy day last February. Then another one remembered me. The welcome got a bit warmer. Then I pulled the pièce de résistance out of my bag: some prints of several images I had captured during that earlier visit. In that instant I went from an unwelcome gadje to an old friend, and some of the women who’d been yelling at me to leave were now dragging me to their containers to show me their new home and have me photograph them anew. Soon we were sitting drinking coffee inside one of the containers, talking with a family I’d interviewed at length last winter. They had taken the printed photo I'd given to them and stuck it to the wall of their "living room" with a magnet. (Those interviews will provide material for articles I’ll write about the Roma early next year for Response, the magazine of United Methodist Women.)

After several hours amidst the containers, we went looking for other families, and found them in a even more depressing unofficial settlement nearby. Their small houses built of recycled scrap material made the containers look luxurious by comparison. One family I sought out had been kicked out of the containers because of fighting. Another woman I interviewed at length hadn’t qualified for a container because even though she’d lived in Belgrade for 12 years, she hadn’t established legal residence there, so when the city kicked the Roma out they sent her and her kids to her home village in the south of the country. She worked for two weeks picking crops to earn the bus fare back to Belgrade, where she’s living in what looks like a garbage dump and spends much of her days begging at a nearby McDonalds—it being almost impossible for illiterate Roma women to get jobs in the formal economy. We talked at length about the hopes she has for her daughters.

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