7 Jul 2014

Attack on teenager shines a light on the plight of France’s Roma

sw-106-wThe shopping trolley is the iconic symbol of Roma life in France. You see them everywhere in the slum-like camps, groaning under the weight of household detritus, destined for the flee market; used as grills; or as a convenient transport for tired children. They have invariably been liberated from supermarkets.

It’s because of the omnipresence of the supermarket trolley in the Roma community that one of them was used, one assumes, as a grisly prop on 13 June this year to dump the apparently lifeless body of 17-year-old Darius. Darius is still alive, cheating death on life support in a French hospital.

In the early evening of 13 June he was abducted from his camp on the outskirts of Paris by a small army of 50 youths armed with spears, machetes and guns. They blocked off a main avenue during rush hour with impunity and snatched young Darius. Then they beat him to a pulp, partially burned him and poured battery acid into his mouth, dissolving part of his jaw.

It was an horrific crime. And it was a miracle that Darius survived at all. The attackers came from a place called the City of Poets,  a rather ironic name for one of Paris’s more notorious housing estates. They were all French African and they had come to teach Darius a lesson.

He had been caught stealing on numerous occasions. Computers, tablets, jewellery and money. They had asked him to return the stolen goods. He refused and almost paid for it with his life.

The horrific nature of his injuries meant that his near-death made the headlines. France was shocked. The president said the crime ran counter to French values, and the National Front seized on the fact that Darius had been tortured not by French racists but by African immigrants.

Freelance photographer Steven Wassenaar has been photographing Roma communities near Paris since 2006, raising awareness of their plight and showing the positive aspects of the community to society.

The crime was a one-off. It has not heralded an epidemic of tribal warfare between the Roma and other immigrants, but it has exposed a world of brutality amongst two communities who consider France their home but who have only ever been caressed by French society, reluctantly at that, and never fully embraced.

The police are taking their time in looking for Darius’s attackers. So far no-one has been arrested or charged. And in the City of Poets we saw no evidence of any police presence. We were told by local community leaders it was too dangerous to film there. All this happened 10 miles from the Eiffel Tower. It might as well have taken place on a different planet.

Yasmina, aged 10, in the former Roma camp where Darius used to live before the attack. Credit: Freelance photographer Steven Wassenaar

Matt Frei’s report was filmed by Jim Wickens, assisted by Paris based investigative journalist Carolyn Lebel and photographer Steven Wassenaar.

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