7 lives

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Alkebu-Lan. Source: http://cyon.se

-“Daddy, why are some borders like straight lines?” – she asked, while she was looking at the map.

– “Because, you see, they only go through the desert, and there are no mountains or rivers to use as delimitation. In the desert you can trace a long straight line and there wouldn’t be one single house to go around.”

How interesting, she thought, and she went on with her studies.

-“Daddy, why are some borders like straight lines” – he asked, while he was looking at the map.

-“Because, you see, someone far far away drew them on a piece of paper, without ever having been in the country, and people built the frontier through towns and even houses, so you might end up on one side, and your brother on the other.”

How interesting, he thought, and he went on with his studies.

And they both grew up, and kept on studying, and learning about the world and its countries, and memorizing each country’s capital, even though Africa is always the hardest. They lived in a global world and had many relatives abroad, hers were called expats and his were called immigrants. She saw many volunteers depart and he saw them arrive and take photos with local children. They were both young and bright and, who knows how or on what pretext, one day they fell in love.

But even though the heart knows no borders, the truth was that they lived separated by the equator. Not the geographic one but the one which divides the legal and the illegal people. So when he tried to apply for a visa to go visit her, the woman at the booth rejected him without even looking at his papers and the elaborately written invitation letter.

He was heartbroken, but not surprised. And he decided to act. He found a trafficker, one of the simsar, who promised to get him through the Mediterranean with a group of Syrians and even gave him a life jacket of unconfirmed quality all for 2,300 euro. They were intercepted a couple of times by the coastal guards and returned to the shore, but he kept trying until one time the boat was so loaded that when a bigger wave came it started sinking under the weight. Everyone started struggling to stay on the surface and he felt two arms grabbing him and pulling him underwater.

He then decided to jump the wire fences at the Spanish-Moroccan in Melilla with the Senegalese boys. They woke up early in the morning and walked for hours towards the border and once there, they climbed up the 6-meter fence, full of barbed wire, blades and anti-climbing mesh. They heard the sirens and his friends urged him to hurry up, but he touched his armpit and saw that one of the blades had cut through his artery. He felt the blood running down his body and told them to continue without him before fainting and falling down from the fence.

The next option he thought of was paying a coyote a fee of $4,000 in order to be smuggled through the Mexico-U.S. border along with some Mexicans. They jumped the wall together and spent hours hiding in the bushes at night. They wanted to avoid the Border Patrol and took a longer route through the hot Sonoran desert. At one point the coyote told them he would leave for a couple of hours to check the route, but when he did not return until the end of the day they knew he had abandoned them. After one more day, they went out of water completely and he felt how his body was becoming weaker and weaker, his mouth dry and his face red. He saw everything melt into black and he crumbled onto the ground.

He then tried to enter Bulgaria through its border with Turkey. He joined a group of Afghans and had to pay another smuggler some 1,000 euro in order to cross the border at night and take a long trek across woods and rivers. They had to sleep during the day and trek by night because of the monitoring cameras. It was supposed that a car had to wait for them close to the nearest village but suddenly they heard the sound of motors. Some ATVs were approaching them but they were only civilians so the group calmed down. However, the men on the ATVs attacked them, beat them and pushed them to the ground, shouting “Back to Turkey! Go, now! Turcia! Obratno! No Bulgaria for you.” He decided to quickly run away and escape but one of the men took out his gun and shot him in the back.

He also tried sneaking into a plane traveling from Delhi to London, together with a boy who was fleeing from accusations of pertaining to Sikh militants. They payed a man for information on how to get into the luggage cabin of the plane through the wheel cavity and bribed some baggage handlers to not report them when they hid next to the plane. But then, when they mounted on the wheel and the plane started to take off, they saw there was no access whatsoever to the luggage cabin. The plane was ascending and the two of them hid in the wheel cavity, shivering from the freezing cold and panting from the lack of oxygen. He saw the boy curl and pass out and he himself lost control over his body, shortly before falling.

He then decided to join a group of Iraqis fleeing in a van towards Austria. They were about 90 people and they had paid the driver 1,200 euro per person to get into the back of the van. They traveled stuffed like cattle for hours and they weren’t allowed to bring in much water or food. After six or seven hours everyone started feeling much more heat. The air conditioner has stopper working, they thought, and started banging on the walls of the van. But the driver told them to shut up because they were near a check point and the police was going to hear them. They kept banging and screaming and the boy felt how he was suffocating and was being trampled by the rest of the people struggling to escape the heat.

He could not bear it anymore. He called her, and begged her to come, he was dying to see her, and he loved her so much. She was also so eager to see him and found a great deal with some low cost company, so she packed her luggage.

He came for her at the airport and when she came out of the gate he hugged her tenderly, breathing in the smell of her hair and skin. They kissed and laughed and she complained about the awful food on board, and they talked about politics and everything else. At one point she said, “Oh, borders are so artificial. I can’t believe I believed my father when he once told me that story about the borders in the desert. Borders today are just a vestige of distorted nationalistic and colonially imposed thinking, some stupid lines on a Mercator-projected map.”

The boy said nothing, just smiled, hugged her and thought:

How many people have lost their lives because of a line on a map?


All seven stories are partly or in whole based on real life cases: read more about the drownings in the Mediterranean here, the deaths at the Morocco-Spain border at Melilla here, the crossings of the desert at the Mexico-U.S. border here, the civilian militias at the Bulgarian border here (with first-hand video material here), the story about the two stowaways from Delhi here and the deaths by suffocation in trucks here (also inspired by the novella “Men in the Sun” by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, which tells the story of three Palestinians fleeing from a refugee camp in Lebanon in the empty barrel of a water tanker truck and suffocating to death because of delay at the Kuwaiti border; it can be found here).

Gloria Anzaldúa said in her book Borderlands/La Frontera: “The U.S-Mexican border is an open wound where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” Anzaldúa talks mainly about the lifeblood of the two worlds merging to form a third country, the borderlands, inhabited by people who are crossroads themselves but are frequently voiceless. However, what interests us here is the process of tracing the border and the grating and hemorrhage which are formed all along the non-geographic equator or, as Sousa-Santos refers to it, “the abyss.”

Border studies sustain that the key explanation for partition and the creation of borders are the pressures of democracy and defining the people, frequently combined with external influence which sought to “divide and rule” territories which were left only with the “divide” when the “rule” was removed from the formula.¹ The maps are full of straight lines and externally-imposed borders, such as the Radcliffe line, serving as a frontier between Pakistan and India, the linings after Sykes-Picot, and above all the partition resulting from the Scramble for Africa. 

As Robert Hayden points out, “co-incidentally, but not by coincidence” the dismembering and borderization in some states, like Yugoslavia in ’91, takes place at the same time as the opening of frontiers in others, such as the members of the European Union after the Maastricht treaty in ’91.² The “Global North” lifts up its internal barriers, while more barriers are put in the “Global South.”

The process of frontier creation and increased border control is also accompanied by a tendency of trade liberalization treaties: while there is more and more free movement of goods and capitals, people remain hostages to borders. The global economy produces bigger migration flows from “developing” (exploited) countries, while “developed” (exploiting) countries implement restrictive immigration policies.³

More and more border-walls are created, meant to “prevent illegal movement” such as between the U.S. and Mexico, or to “protect civilians from terrorism” such as the West Bank barrier.⁴ These walls reflect the fear of the circulation of the violence that has been created – the other side of the equator is plagued by economic insecurity and militarization, a “violence continuum” which starts with the devaluation and dehumanization of the people on the other side of the equator.⁵

This post is about life at the two sides of the abyss, about the people who try to escape the violence continuum, about the closed doors they encounter and about the smuggling industry which grows like poison ivy on these closed doors.

References:

  1. O’Leary, Brendan. “Partition.” Companion to Border Studies. Eds. Wilson, Thomas M. and Donnan, Hastings.Wiley-Blackwell, March 2012. p.34. Print.
  2. Hayden, Robert. From Yugoslavia to the Western Balkans : Studies of a European Disunion, 1991-2011. Brill, October 2012. p. ix. Print.
  3. Massey, Douglas S. “Patterns and Processes of International Migration in the 21st Century.” Conference on African Migration in Comparative Perspective, 2003. p.21. Print.
  4. Borneman, John. “Border Regimes, the Circulation of Violence and the Neo-Authoritarian Turn.” Companion to Border Studies. Eds. Wilson, Thomas M. and Donnan, Hastings. Wiley-Blackwell, March 2012. p.120. Print
  5. Boehm, Deborah A. “US-Mexico Mixed Migration in an Age of Deportation: An Inquiry into the Transnational Circulation of Violence.” Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol.30, no.1. 2011, p.11

I recommend:

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/video/2016/jul/04/can-i-jump-palestinian-artist-at-mexicous-border-video?CMP=share_btn_fb – “Can I Jump?” An exploration of the ideological boundaries between the US and the Middle East by the Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar at the Mexico-U.S. border  

http://www.elmundo.es/internacional/2015/09/15/55f7ca37268e3e2f178b45aa.html – The messages on the life jackets of refugees crossing the Mediterranean

http://www.borderfilmproject.com/en/ – The Border Film Project: An art collaborative that distributed disposable cameras to undocumented migrants crossing the desert and American Minutemen trying to stop them.

Thoughts

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“Then which is the correct female sexuality?” – she was thinking – “We are so plagued by the dichotomy between  the two Marys, you are either the virgin mother or the prostitute. And prostitutes are the negative norm, girls don’t want to be whores, they don’t want to be called whores, to break the rules on how to dress and how much sex to have.  I am the negative norm, the measure for dirtiness…”

“Or they want you to be a whore but, you see, only for them.”

“And dominant feminism sucks… I too am feminism, why use the same old patriarchal methods to discredit me? Why try to convince me that I am unfree and victim of machism when it is your sexuality which is also at stake, always fluctuating on the saint-whore scale? And besides, prostitution isn’t inherently more oppressive than anything else under capitalism. Still, is there more structural oppression in being a prostitute or in not being able to be one?”

– Mm, yes…

“But then, almost everyone does it for the money. Where is the frontier between necessity and freedom? What is autonomy? What is empowerment? How can I know if I’m free or not, when everyone in this world is in chains… And seen from the inside, the dark world of prostitution becomes surprisingly human and normal.”

“Also. I want to punch them in the face every time they use “whore” as an offense. And when they talk in my “defense” with false paternalism to save my soul. My dignity is fine, thank you. And also make up your mind, am I a victim or just a vicious woman?”

– Oh yes, baby, go on. Have some more.

“Is this an exercise of power of men over women? Fucking Foucault says nothing about gender or prostitution when he talks about power. He is so into knowledge and bodies and bio-power and Victorian stuff, but why does he pretend women don’t exist? I’m sure he was a nice person, but not being attracted to girls does not excuse you for excluding them from the world.”

“And the body is such a product of discourse and a target of power, a constructed sin and a sacralized possession. When you are selling sex, are you selling your body, like a liver, or are you working with it, as with your hands? In the end, the most intimate thing you have is not your body, it’s your mind…”

– Oh yes, yes… Good boy.

“People just don’t realize what an important function prostitutes have and what kind of a professional it takes to make love to whomever, and what a double life we always live. But am I proud to be a whore?”

And with all of those reflections in her head, she stood up and took her baby son into her arms after the good meal and put him to sleep. Then she went on to make herself a warm cup of tea, call the nanny and prepare for work, while she was wondering:

Will my son ever be a proud son of a bitch?


The protagonist of this story is inspired by several women: the Spanish prostitute Natalia Ferrari, the US porn star Stoya, and the revolutionary Swiss prostitute Grisélidis Réal, as well as the the Spanish prostitute María José who shared with me her experience of being a mother and a prostitute (she started working as a prostitute in order to pay for a brain tumor surgery of her son but after the operation her ex-husband hired a detective and took away her custody. Today, her son is a grown-up man who loves his mother and takes pride in being called “son of a bitch.” María José is normally reluctant to talk a lot about her experience because she holds that her rights should be recognized no matter what her story is).

The experience of Maria José is an example of how the dominant whore-mother dichotomy excludes prostitutes permanently from being “normal women” and mothers, while mothers are desexualized. The fact that prostitutes are automatically considered bad mothers leads to institutions taking away their children even if they are perfectly taken care of. (Read more about prostitute mothers here). 

The character I have created cannot represent the diversity within the collective of sex workers and the opinions of character do not stand for the experience of every prostitute around the globe. While I support sex work, especially when it is independent, I need to emphasize that coercion and exploitation are impermissible and to recognize that prostitution is in many cases “the choice made by those who have no choice,” forced by sex and race discrimination, poverty, sexual and verbal abuse, poor education and a job that does not pay a living wage (Farley, 102-103). Prostitutes are a vulnerable group frequently exposed to economic exploitation, social isolation, verbal abuse, threats, sexual assault, etc. 

Most importantly, it is the stigma and the conception of prostitution as immoral which keep the industry away from public attention and deprive prostitutes of many of their rights. When governments do regulate prostitution, it is out of an interest for imposing taxes and rarely out of a concern for sex workers. Political discourse on prostitution abounds with issues of public nuisance and moral order while safety and protection are rarely discussed and even though poverty is cited as the main reason for why people enter into prostitution, anti-prostitution policies concentrate on intellectual and moral solutions, such as reducing “male demand on sex.”

A dialogue between former and current prostitutes documented in “Prostituciones: diálogos sobre el sexo de pago” concludes that the measures which are truly needed by prostitutes are eradication of violence, protection of voluntary sex workers’ rights, security, rigor in assuring the norms for condoms unconditionally, support for trade unions, information about the rights of sex workers and especially immigrants, and actions towards empowerment, visibility, leadership.

Ultimately, I’m including a quote by the former prostitute Lilith on being invisible:

“This is the most outrageous thing. That we are doubly punished. We are considered victims but we are also punished for being prostitutes. Look, when I suffered aggression they tried to strangle me, there was a moment when I thought I was going to die. I knew I was going to die and I was waiting for death. It was not knowing that you’re about to die because when you’re being strangled, at first it hurts, then the blood… but then, when you are becoming unconscious, it stops hurting. Dying doesn’t hurt. What hurts is knowing that the dude will remain unpunished, because justice will not prosecute him because it was just a prostitute who died. That’s what hurts. That hurts infinitely more than… I didn’t fear death, I felt rage that surely nothing was going to happen to that guy. And at that moment, that was what made me more outraged than knowing I was about to die.”

References:

  1. Farley, Melissa. “Prostitution, Trafficking, and Cultural Amnesia: What We Must Not Know in Order To Keep the Business of Sexual Exploitation Running Smoothly.” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. 5 March, 2003.
  2. Isabel Holgado Ferández (Ed.) Prostituciones: Diálogos sobre sexo de pago. Barcelona: Icaria Antrazyt, 2003. 

This post is an exercise in dignifying prostitutes and rejecting the social stigma they are surrounded by. For more inspiration you can refer to:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kR1J8lT2JNk – Top 10 Movie Prostitutes. Note the imagery constructed for prostitutes.
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4raFYN1ph8 – The Dark Side of the Heart, the most poetic love story between a man, a prostitute and death.
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRoGsw_qUMo – A song by the great rhapsodist of prostitutes, Joaquín Sabina, which goes:
    “The virgin of sin, the bride of the flower of saliva, the sex with love of the married ones./ Owner of such a five-star heart, that even the son of a god, when he saw her, went to her/ And never did she charge him, the Magdalene”

I recommend:

https://libcom.org/files/Caliban%20and%20the%20Witch.pdf – Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation” in which she investigates the figure of the witch, which is folclorized today, but which designated the powerful women which nascent capitalism persecuted in the Middle Ages.

http://www.salon.com/2013/02/24/the_feminist_pornographer/ – An interview with Tristan Taormino, a feminist pornographer and co-editor of the “Feminist Porn Book”

http://www.playgroundmag.net/articulos/reportajes/Cosas-inspiradoras-aprendi-curso_0_1660633922.html – A report (in Spanish) on a prostitution course led by the Barcelona-based organization “Hetaria,” which reveals many subtleties about being a prostitute

A “Professionalization Manual”(in Spanish) created by the organization “Genera” with useful advice for everyone who starts practicing prostitution:

 

 

 

Jeux d’enfants

They played together all day long. She was a princess and he was her knight.

He chased monsters for her, battled invaders and protected her from everything. She wore dresses and was so pretty she was used to being adored and praised by everyone. She liked dancing and drawing and sometimes teasing him, but only because she liked him so much.

They didn’t question their roles – it is like this in our world. Why should a girl be a princess and a boy be a warrior. Why mustn’t boys cry and why mustn’t girls go out alone. They didn’t ask, they just played.

And sometimes they even held hands.

In the end, the world was made like this, and everyone seemed to follow the rules. Adults praised them for being brave soldiers or beautiful dancers, and children listened attentively and soaked up like little sponges every instruction about what the world is like and how we should behave.

Adults talked about heaven and hell, and being good or bad. If you were good, they gave you sweets and money, and they also promised you would live in heaven if you died as a martyr.

They taught you whom to love and whom to hate, and how to use a Kalashnikov. They told you to lie down after throwing the grenade and how to strip and reassemble a gun, like in the movies. They also showed you many videos of killings and they didn’t allow you to turn away.

They taught you to declare: “I must listen and obey, even if I have to die.”

And this is how children lived, and how they played among the rifles, and how they listened and obeyed, and hated and loved.

And if anyone trusted the small voice inside their heads, the one that all children have and which always asks “but why?,” adults made sure to find a good punishment as a lesson for everyone. Children were learning it is not safe to listen to that voice. (And truly, across the world, this voice is what gets people into trouble, children and adults alike.)

-“Hurry up! You’re almost late!” – she urged him. The boy had an impulse to kiss her on the cheek, but someone could see them. So they just parted ways. He was supposed to go on a secret mission that day and he ran straight to the headquarters. For those types of missions, he was perfect, because adults chose the children who seemed most inconspicuous.

He was her hero. The girl was so curious and nervous for him that she secretly followed him and waited until he went out of the headquarters pushing his bike.

The boy was advancing with a steady pace towards one of the crowded streets of the town. He reached one corner and began to slow down. From her hiding place, she saw the explosion, an enormous dark blast which made the earth shake. She heard windows breaking and car alarms going off and the smoke, dust and flames forced her to close her eyes. She stepped out and started running back home, wanting to cry and scream but not being able to.

That night, when she had dance for the fighters, she could not stop thinking about him. He was probably already a martyr. She knew the adult world had its rules and she was not allowed to ask questions, or to question answers. She just hoped she would grow up soon.

How can we defend children’s fundamental right to ask: “but why?”


The story about the suicide detonation of the boy is real and it happened in 2014 in Afghanistan.

This post was inspired by Al-Jazeera’s documentary about ISIS in Afghanistan and their military-educational program for children. The use of children under 15 in armed conflict is considered a war crime but according to the UN around 300 000 children worldwide are recruited by governments and armed groups and are continuously exploited.

Non-government armed groups abduct or recruit children through coercion or by giving them money and protection. If the father or an older brother is a fighter, it is more probable that the child also joins the ranks. Some groups lead expansive indoctrination campaigns and seek to establish an influence in schooling systems. But the principle driver, according to Child Soldiers Intl., is poverty. 

As Mia Bloom and John Horgan explain it in the article “The Rise of the Child Terrorist,” recruitment methods used by terrorist groups “are similar to those employed by sexual predators: gaining trust and establishing rapport, fulfilling emotional needs, and then isolating a victim from family and friends. Eventually, the terrorist group begins to shift the victim’s moral viewpoint. In ISIS’ case, terrorists subject the children to violent videos, as sexual predators would expose their victims to pornography. In both scenarios, the child is made to think that violent or abnormal sexual behaviors are normal.”¹

Children in armed groups are used as messengers, spies and suicide bombers, and are frequently subjected to sexual abuse. We must stop thinking of children in military groups in terms of military exploitation of boys and sexual exploitation of girls, because both sexes are subjected to both but girl soldiers and sexually abused boys are often unrecognized and untreated.

In the training camps of groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, the Taliban, Lord’s Resistance Army and others, a new generation is being bred with the culture of violence. They are forced to watch executions and are frequently given drugs to desensitize them to violence. Children are also objects of serious indoctrination with the purpose to form them as “ideologically pure fighters” who are absolutely loyal (see this video about the children of ISIS). 

This is how the world of children becomes the projection of adults’ ideologies and children become both aggressors and victims. Researchers normally sustain that the decisions of children cannot be considered voluntary because they always act from a position of poverty, lack of knowledge and judgement and coercion,² but the anthropologist David M. Rosen sustains that this humanitarian and protectionist discourse of children as innocent, malleable and irrational victims is oversimplistic and argues that children have been active actors in places such as Palestine, Sierra Leone and Poland during the Holocaust.³ 

It is important to explore more deeply the psychology of child combatants and to adopt a more nuanced view of childhood and children’s agency: psychologist Cecilia Wainryb has conducted a very compelling study on how youths grapple with the violence they have perpetrated and how they reconcile it with their moral values. She says that they tend to experience some kind of moral disengagement and to feel confusion and distress when trying to make sense of their wrongdoings. For Wainryb, children’s capacity to restore their view of themselves as good people (moral agency construction) is crucial in order to go back and function in the social world.⁴

Traditionally, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) programs have preferred to include only adult male ex-combatants for the sake of efficiency and have failed to focus on women, boys and girls.⁵ Recently, there is an increasing effort to organize de-radicalization classes for Syrian child refugees who have been trained by IS, Pakistani or Afghan children trained by the Taliban, etc. These programs are meant to “deprogram them ideologically” and treat the post-traumatic stress disorder they tend to suffer after having been beaten and abused and having been forced to witness or commit crimes and violence.

Ex-combatants frequently develop a “fear network” which triggers a cascade of trauma-related memories when stimulated by only peripherally related topics. Children say their head is full of nightmares and memories and they may develop a constant alertness, aggressive outbreaks, depression, “survivor´s guilt” and substance addictions which are obstacles to their moving forward and reintegrating into society.² What is important to remember is that by taking the gun out of their hands we are far from solving the complex issues and distress in child soldiers’ minds and hearts.

I recommend:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-horrors-theyve-seen-a-child-psychologist-assesses-the-art-of-africas-former-child-soldiers-8411950.html – Drawings of child soldiers which reveal many of the atrocities they have witnessed; psychologists consider these drawings as children’s attempts to gain control over the chaos

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/dancingboys – A documentary about bacha bazi, the dancing boys of Afghanistan, used for entertainment and sexual slavery

References:

  1. Bloom, Mia, and John Horgan. “The Rise of the Child Terrorist.” Foreign Affairs 9 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2015-02-09/rise-child-terrorist
  2. Schauer, Elisabeth and Thomas Elbert. “The Psychological Impact of Child Soldering.” Trauma Rehabilitation after War and Conflict. Ed. E. Martz.  Springer Science & Business Media, 2010. 311-360.  
  3. Rosen, David M. “Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism.” Rutgers University Press, 2005.
  4. Wainryb, C. “And So They Ordered Me to Kill a Person”: Conceptualizing the Impacts of Child Soldiering on the Development of Moral Agency.” Human Development 54. 2011. 273-300.
  5. Hanson, Stephanie. “Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) in Africa.” Council on Foreign Affairs 16 Feb. 2007. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. http://www.cfr.org/world/disarmament-demobilization-reintegration-ddr-africa/p12650

S.S.

I am going to tell you a story about S.S, a young boy from a Roma family, whose grandparents had emigrated from Ukraine at the beginning of the 20th century and had settled in Cincinnati.

As a child, it was hard for S.S. to be Roma because he suffered prejudice and bullying and he felt embarrassed by his parents’ way of life. This feeling of shame is something he would of course regret as an adult, but it is difficult for children to be the target of prejudice and not to look for the fault in themselves.

In any way, S.S. had a dream and he always worked towards it. Since he was little, he wanted to make movies, and he made his first one about a train wreck between his toy trains when he was eight. When he was sixteen, he wrote and directed his first independent film, Firelight, and this is how it all started.

S.S. was quickly noticed and became a brilliant young director, having even to drop out of college to pursue a contract with Universal Studios – he was the youngest person ever to be signed for a long term deal in Hollywood! He created an incredible career directing many, many emblematic movies which in fact became the epitomes for blockbusters and made S.S. the highest-grossing director in history. Not bad for a Roma boy!

After years of glamour and action movies, there came a moment when S.S. decided it was time to make more socially conscious movies and to transmit a more profound view on some of the world’s issues, like war, terror, slave trade and genocide. This is when he thought about paying homage to his Roma community and the horrors it had been through.

Even though S.S. was born in the U.S. and after World War II, he knew much about the Roma and Sinti peoples of Europe that had been the victims of one of the biggest genocides of all times, the Holocaust, also known as the Porajmos in Romani. The antiziganist National Socialists in Germany had set out to exterminate all Romani people of Europe because they were a menace for the Aryan race-based state.

The Romani peoples had a long history of oppression and discrimination ever since in the 6th century they first migrated from their homeland, the regions of Rajasthan and Punjab in what is today Northern India. They were dispersed all around the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, but always lived in closed, marginalized communities with a very different lifestyle from those who surrounded them.

The Romani, which include the Roma, the Sinti, the Manoush, the Kale and many others, were always an invisible part of history and their existence was almost never documented in the dominant narrative. Europeans were so misinformed about their community that they usually called them gypsies, believing that they came from Egypt (‘gypcian). The Romani were stigmatized and persecuted throughout the history of Europe, but the Holocaust was the absolute peak of the antiziganist genocide.

After the end of WWII, the Roma and Sinti Holocaust was condemned all over the world and many books and movies depicted the concentration camps, the massacres and violations of the human rights of Romanies, such as the abhorrent medical experiments led in the camps.

The Holocaust was studied by many intellectuals who tried to find the answer to how it was possible for humans to produce such absolute evil and not realize how morally wrong it was – some claimed that the banality of evil stemmed from the fact that nobody ever questioned the ruling ideology. This is why the world believed that now that it realized the evil it had committed against the Romani people, it wouldn’t repeat it ever again.

One solution that was proposed in order to end with antiziganism once and for all and to provide the Roma with a safe area for the development of the budding Romani nationalism, was to encourage the migration of their people back to their ancestral land in India.

The migration of the Roma towards India had already begun and had intensified with the thousands of people trying to escape the Holocaust. The incipient Romani nationalism had its own flag, which represented the heavens and the earth, with a red wheel in the center to symbolize the itinerant tradition of the Romani people.

The flag of the Romani people, created in 1933

The flag of the Romani people, created in 1933

The settlement of Romanies in India started in the region of Punjab and Rajasthan, in the Thar desert. Little by little, a new state began to emerge, after the local population had been displaced, and it was called Romanisthan. Finally the Roma people could reunite after being in the diaspora for so long, could renovate the Romani language which had become so diverse, and could live without oppression.

Or at least without being the victims of oppression, but that is another story that we would tell another time.

The question here is: what happened with the young Roma film director?

Map of Romanisthan

Map of Romanisthan

Well, S.S. directed the movie about the Roma and Sinti Holocaust, and it became a blockbuster, as always. He filled up the movie salons and ignited the conscience of the public about the horrors that had happened to his people. However, he also created a controversy (which, unfortunately, had nothing to do with the $1 million he donated to Romanisthan during the wars against the Indians and Paquistanis that the Roma were leading.)

The voices which rose against S.S. blamed him in fact for appropriating the Holocaust and creating a “kitschy,” dramatic version of the events which turned the Holocaust into a consumer good, made within the Holocaust cannon and promoting a Holocaust sentimentalism.

There were even some who dared to say that the Romani were not the only victims of the Holocaust and that many Jews and Slavs were also persecuted and killed in the concentration camps. “But how?” – you would ask – “Wasn’t the Holocaust the manifestation of Nazi antiziganism?” In fact, the Nazis were not only antiziganist, but racist in general, because their credo was based on the racial supremacy of the Aryan race justified by all types of pseudo-scientific proofs.

However, the Roma somehow became the most famous victims of the Holocaust and thanks to that antiziganism became a taboo all over the world. The other ethnicities, such as the Jews, remained marginalized and are still today victims of antisemitism in their daily lives, remaining only a footnote in most narratives about the Holocaust.

Who knows whether the young film director was misinformed or just preferred to center his movie on the Roma people. Be as it is, what is important is to ask ourselves:

Will the tragedy of the Roma be forgotten if all victims are made part of the Holocaust story?



This piece is not meant to discredit or deny in any way the horrendous experience of Jews during the Holocaust but to promote a view that Jews were not the only victims of the Nazi genocide.

The dominant narrative about the Holocaust is a Judeocentric one which divides the victims in either Jewish or non-Jewish and states that the genocide was targeted only at Jews.¹ But firstly, it is advisable that we ask ourselves what really the definition of genocide is and how politics shaped it.

Nazi Germany arguably had a broadly racist biological vision that by no means was limited to antisemitism: the victims included Soviet POWs, homosexuals, disabled and mentally ill people, Slavs such as Poles, Slovenes and Serbs, Freemasons, Jehovah’s witnesses, Spanish republicans and others. Here I have concentrated on the Roma and Sinti because their lack of written history makes them especially invisible in historiography.

Nobody knows the total number of Roma and Sinti victims and while the US Holocaust Memorial Museum indicates 250 thousand,² the International Organization for Migration points to up to 1.5 million victims, not only murdered in gas chambers but also massacred on the spot around Europe.³ Only in 1979 the German government admitted that the persecution of the Roma and Sinti was racially motivated and made them eligible for compensation.

Antiziganism is far from disappeared and, as Ian Hancock indicates, “[o]ver the past three decades, the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest has documented dozens of murders of Roma by skinheads and other neo-Nazi gangs. Deportation, sterilisation and murder, not seventy years ago but today. For Romanies, the war is far from over.”⁴ 

I recommend:

http://www.romasinti.eu – The stories of six Roma and Sinti children

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1985-02-07/news/8501080137_1_josef-mengele-israel-and-west-germany-auschwitz – Auschwitz survivors recall the horror of Nazi medical experiments

http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/holocaust/reflections.htm – Reflections on the Holocaust by survivors and intellectuals. Especially the Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész’s reflection on the representation of the Holocaust in Schindler’s list and Life is Beautiful in “Who Owns Auschwitz?”

References:

  1. Niewyk, Donald L., and Francis R. Nicosia. The Columbia Guide To The Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press (2000). eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 9 Nov. 2015.
  2. Genocide of European Roma (Gypsies) 1939-1945. Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005219
  3. Hancock, I. “True Romanies and the Holocaust: A Re-evaluation and an overview.” The Historiography of the Holocaust, Palgrave Macmillan, (2005): pp. 383–396. Print
  4. Hancock, I. “1938 and the porrajmos: A pivotal year in romani history.” Global Dialogue (Online) 15(1) (2013): 107-117. Print. Retrieved from http://www.worlddialogue.org/content.php?id=552