Seeing Things For Myself


PRAGUE – I’m no war correspondent. (Though, rubber bullets whizzing overhead, in a night-time street battle during Albania’s 1997 civil unrest, wasn’t exactly fluffy feature-writing. Read here, here and here.)

In fact, in recent years the only time my reporting from Central and Eastern Europe turns “dangerous” is when I enter Roma neighborhoods. At least, that’s what everyone seems to tell me: “Don’t go in that Gypsy ghetto – you won’t get out alive!”

It’s one of the ugliest stereotypes of a heavily stereotyped minority: the Roma are so savage, the mere sight of an outsider gadjo on their street will unleash the beast within. Yet here I am, unscathed, after exploring Roma quarters in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kosovo, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

I don’t doubt isolated incidence of violence, where, say, local police or media perhaps went in provocatively, were surrounded and attacked. Centuries of victimization make Roma understandably suspicious of the majority population’s intentions.

Or, an ordinary person may wind up in the wrong place, wrong time. The most tragic example: in October 2006, a Hungarian teacher driving through the northeast village of Olaszliszka struck a Romani girl with his car. Some say she wasn’t hit, let alone injured. Who knows? Nevertheless, the incensed crowd of Roma beat the motorist to death – while his two daughters watched.

As journalists, we have a simple but ethical duty: if one source bad-mouths, or even demonizes, another, we must give the second side a chance to defend itself. Even if that means overcoming our own fears, implanted and fanned by others.

With that in mind, I’ve devised a strategy for reporters to enter Roma neighborhoods – and win over their denizens. I shared this with two participants from my latest journalism training in Prague.

After all, this is a battle I find myself fighting every single time I tell a local about my plans to visit a Roma neighborhood: eyes widen, they look at me like I’m crazy, or hopelessly naïve. (Like when I told New Yorkers I planned to take a bike ride through Harlem.)

The worst was in Bulgaria last summer. I was doing a “shoulder-to-shoulder” training with a young Bulgarian Roma journalist, and we had a Bulgarian interpreter on hand. In the Black Sea coastal city of Varna, we looked into the phenomenon of local politicians buying the votes of poor, disillusioned Roma. I wanted to visit the mahala – or Roma quarter – known as “Maksuda.”

Remarkably, it wasn’t the Bulgarian interpreter who refused to go in; it was the Roma journalist. “You don’t understand,” my young colleague pleaded. Because he was from a different town, with a university education, he also worried that he’d be viewed with hostility. And me? Red meat, apparently.

We argued about my need to try and break through this stereotype of danger. Heck, here was a fellow Roma even perpetuating the stereotype. Let me test this theory, I said, half-joking: “Besides, if I get beaten up, it’ll make for a better story.” He didn’t want that on his conscience.

Eventually, we called a local community leader, interviewed him outside the neighborhood, and he led us back into the community. When the locals saw him with us, that was the stamp of approval. We sat for a couple hours, sipped Turkish coffee, and conducted interviews.

That, of course, is the best approach: enter with someone they respect. Moreover, offer courteous greetings in the local language. Treat people with respect, and they’ll spot the sincerity.

Going in solo, with interpreter, could also be pulled off, I’m sure. But it’d require much faster talking. In that event, I’d quickly ask for a local leader, then chip away at their distrust.

Once in, I’ve learned a second tactic. Many of these folks are poor beyond what we can imagine. They don’t own cameras. Rarely are they photographed. I’d never pull out my camera right away, as no one likes to be treated like animals in a zoo, or circus freak-show. First, develop rapport and comfort, then ask if they’d mind you taking a few photos.

Thank goodness for the digital camera. With the “playback” option, nothing makes them smile or giggle more than seeing their image frozen in time. Especially, kids. If the parents indicate no problem, take a photo of the kids, show them, and they’ll ham it up. Demand grows, tension wanes, and suddenly you’re a non-threat, more or less welcome to interview and photograph others. (Like here.)

But what if you don’t know where to find a community leader? What then? I found myself with this dilemma on a hot afternoon this June, in Hungary, when I wanted to visit the Roma neighborhood in Heves, a town with bedrock support for the far-right, anti-Roma Jobbik party.

One Hungarian warned that I’d be “torn to pieces” if I went in. Another said, “It was nice knowing you.” My Hungarian interpreter, Daniel, was rattled; he wanted no part of this. “It may be worth it for your story, but not the $50 you’re paying me,” Daniel wailed.

Without contacts, I improvised. We waited a few blocks from the Roma neighborhood, easily identifiable by scores of Roma milling about on the unpaved road, the only one around. There was a flower shop, bakery, cafe – plenty of places to find Romani customers.

Sitting in the café for a quick espresso, I soon saw a Romani father and son bicycling up. They bought 12 slices of a chocolate-covered honey cake, evidently for a party or family gathering. In Hungarian, I introduced myself, handed him a business card. Noting his obvious suspicion, I explained that I’d interviewed Jobbik supporters, now wanted to ask Roma their reaction.

“They also told me it’s dangerous to visit your neighborhood,” I said with a smile. “But I don’t believe them.” He understood what I meant.

Sit tight, he said, as he’d have to get that cake home before it melted under a sweltering sun. He returned 15 minutes later, followed by an older community leader on his own bike.

We chatted for 30 minutes, and he opened up. Then I made my pitch: would he mind briefly showing us around his neighborhood? Done.

Minutes later, we were in, walking along their pebble-covered lane, attracting curious, gawking onlookers. Then, freely interviewing and photographing the crowd. (See my photos posted with this blog item.) Daniel was so struck by it all, he asked me to shoot a photo of him with some of the guys we interviewed.

“I’ve got to show my friends this,” he said.

This method, complete with the snapshots-technique, is what I shared with a Canadian-American reporting duo last week, young women writing about Roma issues for the first time. They earned the trust of a Czech activist, who then arranged a visit to a Roma-dominated apartment block.

In one family’s cramped, decrepit apartment, the mother offered coffee and cigarettes. She seemed touched that anyone cared enough to ask about her situation. They chatted, they laughed.

“It all felt very natural and organic,” the Canadian reporter, Katie Dangerfield, later told me. “If you act like you’re scared of them, they’ll treat you the same way. But we felt like we really wanted to hear her story. Now I want to go back and speak with more Roma.”

Which is the way it ought to be.

Journalism, Roma