The Sound of Barking Dogs: Expelling the Roma from Belvil

Alarmed to the eviction in advance, photographers Matt Lutton and Darko Stanimirovic distributed disposable cameras so that the residents could document their own dispossession.

Photographs by Matt Lutton

“Look where they took us now,” says the young Roma man of his new environs. “There is nothing around here. Nothing!”

He is one of many who were evicted from homes in Belvil near downtown Belgrade and moved to Jabučki Rit, an encampment so isolated that it seems surreal. “Where do I earn money? They say they will help us with food, but I don’t want charity. I never took charity in my life, because I could provide everything by myself. Now it is simply impossible… ”

Belvil sits in Novi Beograd (New Belgrade), across the river from the old capital. Developed during the halcyon days of Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1960s, the neighborhood was originally envisioned as a gleaming modern center of government buildings, high-rise apartments, and broad avenues. In 2009, part of the area was claimed by more than 250 Roma families, who arrived because they had been displaced from their community in Gazela.

According to the 2011 census, there are about 148,000 Roma in Serbia. However, this formal statistic may drastically underestimate the true size of their population, who live primarily in illegal settlements and shantytowns. The Roma are targets of racism and discrimination, and victims of the persistent poverty that results from both. Many of those living near Belgrade eke out an income by rag picking and recycling the discarded belongings of the more affluent.

The Belvil camp began because of an eviction and ended because of one. A European Union-funded project to build a bridge across the Sava River, which along with the Danube delineates Belgrade, was set to run approach ramps and roads through Belvil. Anything in the way, especially an eyesore like the Roma settlement, had to go.

During the prior eviction of Gazela, police had been brutal and peremptory, and had denied access to journalists. This time, Roma rights activists and the local government were better coordinated— at least in theory.

Hundreds of families were divided into three categories: those with Belgrade residency papers; war refugees from Kosovo; and those holding documents only valid in other places, or none at all. Members of this last group, who make up roughly sixty percent of the settlement, were offered bus tickets back to their respective hometowns and told to leave.

The first two groups, however, were entitled to new housing in camps composed of prefabricated containers hooked up to power and water. Unfortunately, as with the FEMA trailers for Hurricane Katrina’s displaced, the structures were small—smaller than prison cells in terms of square footage per resident—and poorly ventilated. The sites were without shade and located very far from the city center.

Local Serbs in the town of Resnik reacted to the planned site by rioting, throwing stones at the police to protest the construction of a container park for the lucky Roma families that had been assigned a spot.

The Belvil Roma felt that they were in an impossible situation.They admitted that they were occupying the land illegally, but could not afford lawyers. Even if they received an assignment to a container, settling so far from removed from downtown would make it difficult to sustain livelihoods as Belgrade’s de facto recycling service. They would also not be allowed to collect or store scrap at the container sites–even that marginal source of income is under private control by large sanitation companies.

The Sound of Barking Dogs: Expelling the Roma from Belvil

Alarmed to the eviction in advance, photographers Matt Lutton and Darko Stanimirovic distributed disposable cameras so that the residents could document their own dispossession.

Roma community photographs

But the day of the eviction still came.

At 5 a.m. on April 26, the Belgrade city government showed up with trucks to move possessions and buses to move the people. Animal control teams went in to remove dogs, feral and otherwise, with tranquilizer blowdarts. It became a harrowing and emotional scene as the dogs began to bark in panic and fear.

The residents tried to remain calm, resigned to the fact that they didn’t have any good options left. But when their belongings were loaded onto the trucks, many broke down in tears. They were losing their homes for an uncertain future. They had no idea where they would be taken. They had never been shown the containers.

During the afternoon, one of the wood-frame homes burned. It appeared to have been set on fire in a final protest by its former residents. Bulldozers crunched the makeshift structures into piles of debris.

Mayor Dragan Đilas arrived to hold a press conference, accompanied by local television reporters who were all wearing brand-new, identical rubber boots. A former activist against Slobodan Milosevic’s authoritarian regime, Đilas said that they are advancing policies for the greater good.

“Only six of the children [from the Belvil camp] go to school,” the mayor reported, but photographer Matt Lutton believes that this is a gross underestimate, meant to assuage public opinion of the eviction.

Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Director, John Dalhuisen said, “The Serbian government is flagrantly violating international law by allowing Belgrade city authorities to carry out this eviction.” He reiterated Amnesty’s “call for a law which would prohibit forced evictions and stipulate safeguards for all evictions.”

The city said each family would be given a one-time payment of twenty thousand dinars (230 U.S. dollars) to help them resettle. The families were also promised food, but they never received it. It took months for five families, relocated to an abandoned warehouse in the southern Serbian city of Nis, to get running water.

Photographers Matt Lutton and Darko Stanimirović knew of the Belvil eviction in advance. With support from the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest, Hungary, they distributed disposable cameras to the residents so that they could document their own experiences.

Matt Lutton is an American photographer based in Belgrade, Serbia. He studied with the Comparative History of Ideas Department and the Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies Center at the University of Washington. He has photographed for diverse publications including the New York Times and The FADER and presented three solo exhibitions in his hometown of Seattle in 2008.

Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Since 1996, he has worked in China, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and many other places in the Middle East and Central Asia. In the US, Alan has explored the South, following the historic trail of the civil rights movement and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, covered the 2008 presidential campaign, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. He is a contributing photographer to Newsweek and the New York Times, and member of Facing Change: Documenting America.

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