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Makeshift Camp


Under the Bondy bridge, between the canal and the tramway, is the spot where several Roma families have settled in their caravans. The atmosphere here is coloured by the inhabitants’ kindness, a certain degree of resignation, and great destitution.

A dawn eviction is surely no picnic. As confirmed by everyone here: the 20 May eviction from the site of the former Bobigny station certainly wasn’t.

The police turned up and said to us: get out, or we’ll demolish your caravans,” recalls Gheorghe, a handsome 19-year-old. “They threatened to use tear gas. We didn’t want to leave because we had nowhere to go to. But they called the tow truck which started taking the caravans away. So we opened the doors, they pushed us and brought out the children brutally. A woman felt unwell, but she was taken to the hospital,” relates the young man in fairly good French. They are familiar with evictions, which have become almost an everyday event. They talk about the fifty or so Roma evicted from the camp they had been occupying for two days at Bondy, after having been driven out of Saint-Denis. It’s a subject they could talk about forever, sometimes to the point of losing themselves in figures: “Eighty-seven in two months,” claims one of them.

Everything is rudimentary. On top of the deep-seated feeling of not being wanted anywhere, the Roma are seeing their only possession — their caravans — damaged by each new eviction. The caravans parked below Bondy Bridge bear the scars of past evictions, the patched-up window repairs and roof holes looking like so many war wounds. Around 85 people live in this makeshift camp alongside the tramway. They include sixteen children who go Romain-Rolland school. Everything here is rudimentary: there are no showers or running water. A small generator provides electricity for only some of the camp’s twenty-four caravans.

Bins are overflowing, laundry is drying on string stretched out wherever a spot can be found. Paper, bottles and empty cigarette packets litter the ground. The inhabitants can use the showers at the nearby swimming pool — but only if they can pay the entrance fee. “The council has let us occupy this site, so we set up our caravans here once we’d done some clearing. We found a hut hidden at the back of the site. A Serbian family has been living there for a few months.”

“No thieves or swindlers”

The man talking, small with a hard, lined face, has a strong Eastern European accent. He is known as Al Pacino and introduces himself as a Yugoslavian Jew married to a Romanian. Now 47, he’s been living in France since the age of 10. He gestures with his body and arms as he talks, claims to speak 27 languages and have contacts among the police. “Even the prefect, who came the other day to ask me to take in some young people whose parents are in Romania. But I know they steal so I don’t want them to stay. There are no thieves or swindlers here.”

He expresses his thanks to the council several times. “No, I’m not the head of the camp. I’m just the head of my family,” he stresses.

No work. Nevertheless, “Al Pacino” is on everyone’s lips. If there’s a problem, he’s the one they turn to. He uses his car as a sort of salon, storing his documents, including the full list of the camp’s occupants and a review of press articles on the Roma, and taking the occasional nap there.

And Gheorghe, who’s killing time by playing chess with a friend, what does he dream of? He gets his friend Al Pacino to translate the question, as though not sure of the meaning of the word “dream”. Or maybe his desolate surroundings have made him quite simply forget it. He ponders the question then says: “Finding work so I don’t have to beg. When you’ve got work, you can live well. We Romanians like work, even if it’s hard,” states the father of a one-year-old little boy.

Health concerns. With the arrival of the person in charge of toilet maintenance, the mood suddenly becomes somewhat fraught. Al Pacino calls out to him: “Boss, the toilets won’t flush.” “Well, clothes have been thrown in the toilets, so of course if that’s what you do…!” mutters the man. Al Pacino can’t believe his ears. But peace eventually returns. The camp has only two toilets. “We need four or five!” explains one of the men.

Many of these people have health problems. The NGO Médecins du monde makes regular visits to check how they are doing, examine adults and children alike, and give out prescriptions. Health is Anuta’s main concern. She invites us into her caravan. A small clean well-kept space with fashion posters, knick-knacks and plastic flowers. She’s 41 and tells us straightaway that she is suffering from breast cancer, showing us all her medical records. She receives free healthcare and says she is very well cared for “in Paris, at Saint-Antoine hospital.” She would not benefit from this healthcare in her own country, where her husband is

waiting for her. She has being living for some time with her sister Julia, who made the journey from Romania especially to look after her. Julia is preparing dinner, finely slicing tomatoes and onions. She offers to make coffee. Anuta compares her lack of means with the price of the various medicines she has to buy. She reluctantly admits to begging — “It’s humiliating,” she stresses — outside a bakery in Saint-Denis. And Al Pacino in all this, what is his dream? “I’d like to plant a flower garden in the middle of the site. I know it would need lots of work and at least 500 euros. But it would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

Daniel Georges

Photos: Serge Barthe

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Philippa Bowe Smith