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Alain Keler, “Nobody thought it was important to take an interest in the Roma; they have become ghosts”

Translated Monday 27 August 2012, by Elaine Scott and reviewed by Bill Scoble

From Eastern Europe, where the Roma are originally from, to the slums of France, Alain Keler travels the continent to photograph the Roma, “the minority of minorities”.

For years, photographic reporter, Alain Keler, has traveled around Eastern Europe meeting ethnic minority groups, in particular the Roma. Part of his report has been published in Revue XXI in the form of a comic strip in collaboration with photographer, Emmanuel Guibert, before his book, Des nouvelles d’Alain, was released last year.

You have carried out numerous reports on the Roma in the villages of Eastern Europe. Why do they leave?

Alain Keler. To put it simply, the same thing happened all over Eastern Europe: during the communist regime, the Roma were forced to work. When the Eastern Bloc collapsed, many unprofitable factories closed. The first to be dismissed were the Roma, because they had no education and especially because they were Roma... With increasing unemployment, they were unable to find work. They had been cast aside from a society which was becoming more and more competitive. Without doubt, they probably isolated themselves as well. At the beginning of the 1990s, Roma villages were raided and destroyed. With a lack of government policy, it was difficult to help them, particularly with regards to education. In Slovakia, Roma children were judged to be too disruptive and sent to schools for children with mental disabilities. It’s terrible, their chances of integrating themselves in society are taken away from them at an early age.

In former Yugoslavia, the situation was a little different, was it not?

Alain Keler. In Kosovo, when the Serbs left the country at the end of 1999, the first thing the Albanians did was burn down the houses of Roma families who were accused of collaborating with the Serbs. Many left, particularly for Serbia as they share the same language. They became ghosts: without any identification documents they lived in the forests near Belgrade and worked by salvaging metal. Nobody has ever thought it was important to take an interest in them and it has stayed like that for about 20 years in all of these countries. Whilst others taste the pleasures of an ultra-liberal society, the Roma are completely cast aside. In Romania, they are very poor and live in small villages, far from anywhere. Fortunately, some are able to get out.

How do you react to the evacuation of camps in France over the last few weeks?

Alain Keler. Badly. I was very surprised. The words are less violent but we are finding ourselves in the same situation as under Hortefeux and Guéant. I thought that the government would be wise enough to organise meetings between associations and ministers to try and resolve the situation. The Roma live in appalling conditions and sanitation is terrible, there are rats and diseases spread easily. I thought that there would be some real thought into getting rid of the slums so that families are treated better and are able to stabilise themselves.

However, 80% of French people say that they are in favour of the eviction of the Roma camps...

Alain Keler. Public opinion has been manipulated by the preceding government. When I say that I am reporting on the Roma, people often react by treating them like thieves. It is based on a children’s story of gypsy thieves which has been told for years. They don’t know what they are talking about and never try to understand why these people live here in these terrible conditions. If all the slums are evacuated, that will not resolve our problems! Immigrants, whether Jewish, Italian or North African, have always been rejected. When we give them a chance, they can enrich French society.

As a photographer, how are you treated by the Roma?

Alain Keler. Quite well, especially in places where I return regularly. It takes time, giving them photos, making exchanges... It is a delicate situation especially when they are on the front page and the media are there all the time. It annoys them to be treated like animals in a zoo and I can understand that. If somebody came to my house and started taking photos, I wouldn’t be very happy...

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