The Boy Behind the Photo

It is as if we are criminals, as if a little boy has taken up a deadly weapon.
Regjep Malluta

Kolonia, Kosovo, April 14, 2012. Mentor Malluta is a thin little boy. He has his mother’s olive-colored eyes. And he smiles an eight-year-old’s big-toothed smile when he and his friends play soccer in an over-grazed pasture behind the two-room house his father bought with a few hundred euros he managed to scrape together over the years. If you ask Mentor what he wants to be when he grows up, he’ll answer, “A policeman.” If you had asked Mentor two weeks ago whether he expected his picture to be splashed across the cover of a magazine in Switzerland that was flogging a local crime spree, he would have had no idea of what you were talking about.

Last week, however, Die Weltwoche, a German-language magazine based in Zurich, ran a cover picture of an unnamed brown-skinned boy pointing a gun straight into the reader’s face. It turned out to be Mentor. He was playing with a toy pistol. Within days, the Internet had transported the image around the world. The BBC ran a story about demands that the issue of Die Weltwoche be pulled in Germany because the photo of Mentor was inciting racism. The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and other publications followed suit. And there were calls for banning the publication in Austria and for action to be taken Switzerland.

When the photograph was taken, in 2008, Mentor was standing near a trash dump where his father was engaging in a day-to-day struggle to feed his family. The dump, which no longer exists, was located here beside Kolonia, a cluster of brick homes and a housing project built by Swiss Caritas, a charity organization, that have grown up behind some defunct drying shacks of a tobacco farm on the fringe of the town of Gjakovë, Kosovo.

When the shutter clicked, Mentor was pointing the toy gun at the camera that the photographer was pointing at him. Mentor was all of five years old then. He didn’t tell his parents that someone had taken his picture, because he had no idea that someone had taken his picture. He did not know about cameras or photographs or the World Wide Web. For the adults and kids from the 135 or so families residing in Kolonia, a camera discovered in the dump is something to sell, even if it is broken.

Next to Mentor’s picture, Die Weltwoche’s editors had placed a headline that read: “The Roma are Coming.” Inside the magazine was a story about families of Roma people traveling to Switzerland from Eastern Europe and engaging in “crime tourism.”

The power in the image of Mentor with his pistol hinges on a stereotype of a community long reviled as thieves and beggars. Yet the Roma—ten million of whom live in Europe—are, in fact, among the continent's most vulnerable people. This prejudice and discrimination against the Roma have roots stretching back for centuries. Violence against them culminated during World War II with an event the Roma call the Porajmos, The Devouring, a campaign by Nazi Germany and its allies to exterminate them.

Organizations working to protect the rights of the Roma people lambasted Die Weltwoche for exploiting Mentor’s image to feed popular prejudice against the Roma. The photographer who took the picture, Livio Mancini, objected, saying he was attempting to draw attention to the misery of the people he witnessed combing through the trash in Kolonia to pick out plastic, paper, and metal that could be recycled. The photo agency that sold Die Weltwoche the rights to Mentor’s picture has told reporters that the magazine perverted its intended meaning.

In Europe today, press attacks on the Roma are not innocuous rhetoric. Roma activists consider Die Weltwoche’s use of the image amounts to be scapegoating, which, during this period of severe social stress due to the economic crisis, can have serious consequences for individual Roma and for the Roma people as a whole. In Hungary several years ago, neo-Nazis undertook individual serial killings of Roma. In the Czech Republic, extremists tossed fire bombs into Roma houses. The police in France, Italy, and other European Union countries have expelled Roma from the settlements they were inhabiting on the periphery of large cities. School administrators have shunted Roma kids into schools for children with mental disabilities.

A multi-layered fear walks beside too many Roma people, and especially the poorest of them, as they go about their lives. It includes the fear of running afoul of extremist members of the majority population among whom the Roma happen to be living; the fear of being victims of crime and not having police protection; the fear that comes from being illiterate and knowing too little about the outside world; the fear that coming days will not deliver the next meal; the fear of suffering disease or accident and not being able to obtain medical care; the fear that a storm will blow the roof off the house and leave everyone inside soaked and miserable; the fear generated by stories of angry outsiders setting fire to “gypsy” neighborhoods, plowing them under, and scattering their residents like the powerful winds that blow down from the mountains of High Albania and whip across the overgrazed pasture beside Kolonia.

Only a handful of the families in Kolonia speak the Roma language, follow Roma customs, or even consider themselves to be Roma. Most of these families are members of two smaller minority groups, both recognized by Kosovo’s post-1999 constitution: the Egyptian and Ashkelije peoples. They share common ethnic roots with the Roma. But Egyptians and Ashkelije speak Albanian, not Roma, as their mother tongue and have adopted Albanian customs.

Regardless of these cultural differences, here in Gjakovë, Albanians refer to the Egyptians, Ashkelije, and Roma collectively as magjup (mah JOOP). And too many Albanians believe the magjup were allies of the Serbs who misruled Kosovo and oppressed its majority Albanians for years before the NATO bombing campaign of 1999 effectively, and controversially, handed Kosovo its independence.

Mentor Malluta and his family belong to Kosovo’s Egyptian minority. His 32-year-old father, Regjep, grew up in Kolonia, in a section of an abandoned tobacco warehouse where about 20 families—with about 150 members—occupied different sections subdivided by makeshift walls of brick and wood. Regjep attended elementary school. He accompanied his mother as she begged for coins on Gjakovë’s streets. He was living in the warehouse in Kolonia when NATO intervened to halt Serb military operations in Kosovo in 1999 and took cover with his sister when a NATO jet bombed a nearby hillside. Regjep knew he had never collaborated with the Serbs. He chose to ride out the conflict at home instead of fleeing, as many Roma did, into the unknown with all his belongings packed atop his horse cart. He was here after the war when foreign charities built a preschool and instituted an educational-support program for the kids. He was here when Alyssa Milano, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for the United States, paid a visit.

An acute fear of standing out was Regjep’s reaction to the news that Mentor’s picture had been transmitted all around the world. “I went crazy when I saw my son in that magazine,” he said. “I haven’t slept in three days. I still feel depressed. I am very afraid. I am afraid of political questions. I am afraid that everyone on the outside will see this picture. It is as if we are criminals, as if a little boy has taken up a deadly weapon.”

Regjep says he fears sending Mentor and his two daughters back to school. He says he has never been a criminal. He says he has worked his entire life for very little. He has provided his family with a home that is painted and clean. Carpets cover the floor. The family members sleep on foam-rubber pads covered with a fabric. A wood stove keeps them warm, and Regjep’s wife, Teuta, uses it to prepare pots of vegetable soup. The house has electricity. There is a water spigot inside. In one corner stands an old television set and a personal computer and a music system—all of which work. The computer is even connected to the Internet.

For years after the war, Regjep managed to support Teuta and Mentor and his sisters, Shkurta, now 10, and Senita, 6, by collecting discarded plastic, paper, and metal and selling it to recycling companies. On a good day, a person could earn about ten euros combing through the trash; but good days have become fewer and fewer because so many people are picking anything of value from Gjakovë’s trash and because the local government has out-sourced management of the town’s dumps to local companies that hire men at 200 euros a month to do recycling. As the profit opportunity in free-lance recycling was shrinking, Regjep took out a loan, bought a portable saw, and now earns a living by cutting two to three cubic meters of firewood in an average day at two euros a cubic meter. There is little or no work over the summer.

“This magazine has damaged my honor and thrown mud on our entire community,” he said. “Among our people, honor is very, very important. We aren’t criminals. We aren’t killers. If we were killers, we would have nowhere to go, nowhere.”

“I intend to file a lawsuit against this magazine. If it were in Kosovo, I would know exactly what to do. But I don’t know, because this is international."

“No one has offered to help me yet, but I will not give up.”

“We have enough hardship already.”

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As a teacher who has spoken about the tragic bias against the Roma throughout Europe for many years, i hope that there will be someone to sue the magazine and to aid the family. This is outrageous - does any one ever learn anything from the past? Those in media, in government, in leadership positions have obligations to avoid the human tragedies of the 20th century.

This type of journalism is inexcusable. The Roma have been brutally marginalized enough - utilizing a photo of a child playing for such purposes is criminal. Even in countries with free speech there are laws against crying "fire" in a crowded theater - as it incites dangerous stampedes. The same condition applies here as a sadly already fearful public rushes to judgement against a little boy and his family.

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