Belgrade, the geographic center of the Balkans, is the crossroads at which many civilizations crossed their ways since ancient times. Therefore, it cannot be surprising that the Roma wheel stopped there too. In search of a better life, Roma communities settled in illegal settlements spread out all over the city, but mostly at river banks, close to downtown, where their main source of income, secondary raw materials, was available. Wanted nowhere and neglected everywhere, Roma people face many obstacles in their lives. It’s almost impossible for them to climb the social ladder – the reason why most of them remain captured in the vicious circle of poverty. Being exposed to cultural isolation they developed distrust towards other people. Hence, it’s very hard to enter their lives, but we can mostly observe them from distance. While numerous passers-by shy away from such settlements, for a small number of people, like myself, they provide a challenge of discovering how different cultures live.
Those who enter such settlements initially face huge distrust. However, if one comes in good faith and shows genuine interest for their lives, doors begin to open and suddenly that person, once an unwanted stranger, becomes a welcome guest in their homes. They live in cardboard houses that are very close to each other, often without basic hygiene conditions, such as toilets, or running water. However, it’s easy to notice that their homes are clean, particularly having in mind difficult conditions they live in. Women take credit for that, while men usually spend their days searching for secondary raw materials which they sell cheaply based on their weight.
In these settlement, many children do not attend school, since they are considered more useful to their parents if they beg. However, I was mostly fascinated by children ability to enjoy everyday life, despite challenging living conditions. This positive spirit, along with the fact that for Roma people their children are at the center of their universe, made me focus my photographic coverage on the youngest residents of these settlements.
The most famous Roma settlement that I covered was ‘’Gazela’’, named after the bridge which connects old and new parts of Belgrade. In this unhygienic settlement, over 900 people lived in cardboard shacks. Many citizens considered it a shame of the Serbian capital, particularly due to the fact that it had been attracting attention both of foreigners who were on their way to the city center from the airport, and transiting passengers who were driving through Serbia to Greece or Turkey. Since the settlement brought bad publicity to the Serbian capital, the Government decided to destroy it, move the residents to outskirts and settle them in small and sterile metal containers. Despite the Roma community hesitation and resistance, they were forcefully removed at the end of August 2009 which ended their lives in houses that are characteristic for their culture – colorful and made of different materials. An additional reason for their dissatisfaction was that sources of secondary raw materials had become more distant. However, at the same time, they gained hope for the future, since many of their children have finally started going to school and had been given a chance for better life.