In today’s quickly changing media environment, Malala has to cede the floor, at least for now, to Maria, the blonde girl with the green eyes who was found during a police raid on a Roma-camp in Farsala, Greece, and which the press was swift to label the “Mystery Girl”. As if they had discovered the new Mowgli in the urban jungle.
It speaks for itself that anyone of us -and that includes myself- with the heart in the right place, wishes this little girl unconditionally well and that she may live long and happy ever after. So it is my utter hope that the investigation which is currently ongoing to find her real parents leads to the best possible outcome for her … whatever that outcome may be.
Yet, Maria, prominent character as she may be, is hardly the only player in this drama that is unfolding on countless TV-screens and ever so numerous newspapers and magazines around the world. Apart from her, there is of course the Roma couple in whose care she was when police found her; there is the larger Roma community in Greece and vast areas of Europe; there is the Greek police; and there is the media. I believe it is worth dwelling a while on all of them, for what I see now happening yet again, is a trial being conducted in the media (with, let’s face it, a conviction before the Court of Public Opinion already handed out) and quite frankly, I’m disgusted, for Roma gypsies have the right to be treated with the same fairness that we all hope would be bestowed on us, should we ever find ourselves in an awkward situation.
And an awkward situation for sure it is. The question of how Maria got into that camp of Roma’s and who her biological parents then may be, is a fair and just one and deserves a thorough investigation. But then let’s insist that it is thorough and above all fair. The press is eagerly printing the statements of the Greek police that the Roma “parents” have made contradicting statements as to how the girl got into their custody, about the total number of their own children and that they have produced false papers. None of us were on the scene when these interrogations happened, so who am I to deny that this is the case. Bad start for the Roma’s. Yet, fairness forces me to also take a look at the other side of the story that is now dished up in the media.
Most of those media are simply reporting about “a raid” that was carried out by the Greek police on the Roma camp near Farsala. Few are the ones that seem to have the information when exactly that raid was carried out, but I found a few mentioning that it would have taken place last Wednesday, while others say it was on Thursday, so either on October 16 or 17. The first time I learned about this story was in the local press here in the morning of Saturday October 19. That first report already mentioned that a DNA-test had given proof that the girl was not related to the Rom couple. All other sites I checked carry the same information. But try googling how long it takes to get the result from a DNA or parental testing and you’ll be challenged to find any information that gives you a timeframe of less than 3 days. The most common info I came across is between 3 to 10 days, and that is mostly from procedures conducted in the US. Here, in cash-strapped, crisis-ridden Greece, they seem to have had the result out in basically one day, yet up till today, no one has apparently been able to establish something as basic as the correct age of the girl. You’ll find anything from 4 to 6 years old. Does that mean I am doubting that the girl is biologically unrelated to the couple ? Not really, for I have a real hard time believing myself that that girl, with those looks, could be the real daughter of that dark-skinned couple. Yet, in a rather extraordinary twist of fate, today two blond-haired, blue eyed children that were taken from their Roma parents a couple of days ago by the Irish police near Dublin on the same suspicions of abduction, have been restored to those parents for DNA-tests have proven that both really were the children of their respective Roma parents they lived with when they were “found”. Considering that the Greek Roma have now already conceded themselves that Maria is not their natural daughter, it seems that this Irish story will not be repeated there, but it does leave me with the impression that the authorities have jumped very quickly to conclusions purely on visual “evidence” and that I doubt all the proper DNA tests had been conducted and concluded by the time the police broke the story to the world.
Another fact that worries me is the speed with which this story has been brought to the media. I was under the impression that in cases where children were implicated in alleged criminal activities, either as victim or as perpetrator, the normal reaction is to shield them as much as possible from the outside world for their own protection. In this particular case, the police broadcasts the picture of Maria to the entire world the day after they have found her. No upfront investigation via the national Registry, the databases of Interpol or other international organizations dealing with missing children, to narrow the search down to children that have been reported missing, or adopted (!) in, say, the last five years. Apparently nothing of all that (it is hard to assume that this would all have been done in one or two days, is it ?) in favour of a channel that is guaranteed to bring the hoped for attention to the case: the international press. Within hours, the story goes viral and is all over the globe. The names of the Roma “parents” follow a day or two after the story breaks. With the golden rule of justice “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” only a far echo, equally in circles of the police as the press corps, they are immediately branded as culprits and taken into custody on charges of abduction.
The speculation and “Hineininterpretierung” of all the audiovisual material that has been shown in the media is also flabbergasting, to say the least. Exhibit A in case: the very first picture of “Mystery Girl”, with the red background and the purple fingers. Social media and comment sections on forums are flooded with observations by “concerned” people on how Maria must have suffered with those gypsies, for it’s all there, expressed in that fear on her face ! So I wonder: what do all those people expect from a 4 (or 5 or 6) year old, when the place where she lived has just been raided by tens of policemen (and let me now make an educated guess myself here: in not too “polite” a fashion, I’m inclined to believe, considering the usual delicacy we bestow on Roma gypsies) and afterwards someone pulls out a camera and sends a lightning flash straight into your eyes ? I know I would have been scared – VERY scared- at that age. And since yesterday there is this video where the alleged Maria, with a pacifier in her mouth as every newsoutlet eagerly reports (never mind that almost 100% of all children here walk around with pacifiers at that age) is dancing in front of her “adoption” mother. I saw several instances where this again became that she is being trained to dance, either for begging on the streets or for prepping her to become a sexworker. Look carefully at the video: there is only evidence to be found for one single claim and that is the claim by the Roma family of the couple that Maria was treated preferentially over their own children, as indeed there is another seemingly young boy being jerked rather unceremoniously away from her. For the rest, the mother seems intent to prevent her from falling. In all honesty I have seen plenty of videos on YouTube that show much worse things happening to children, with mostly a laughing off-screen voice from the parent holding the camera, than what is going on in this particular video.
So where does all this frenzied reporting leaves us ? With an all but convicted couple and a homeless little girl.
So let’s turn to the “unthinkable”: what if the couples’ claim that they have adopted the girl, albeit in a non-legal way, is true ? What if little Maria is actually still alive, only because of them ? What if for instance Maria was indeed kidnapped, but by other than these Roma people ? What if the abductors had schemed to sell the girl to someone who was interested, but the deal broke off and the felons found themselves burdened with a toddler they had no more buyer for ? So they “deposit” her with the Roma, who agree to take her in, because … yes … she might be useful to them to obtain more child money from the state, or indeed work with them the streets. I am not assuming a total altruistic attitude from these people (although, on a sidenote, when it comes to solidarity, I tend to see more of it among the poorer strata of the population, as they rely on each other for their survival, than among the rich), but between this possibility and branding them right away kidnappers or child traffickers for me is still a very long stretch, for up till now the only verifiable fact seems to be that they have taken care of the girl and raised her for the last few years. All sorts of scenario’s are possible and should be investigated, because in the very worst case, we are going to lock away two people for at least ten years in jail, for the crime of taking care of a child that, in the greater scheme of Life, was never supposed to be their responsibility.
I can already sense what the counter-question to my playing the devil’s advocate in this story will be: if the child was really handed to them by someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t care for it, then why didn’t they report it themselves to the authorities or try to obtain legal custody over it ? Fair question, of course, and in the ideal world, it should have been done. But this is not an ideal world. So imagine being a Roma yourself and you out of the blue get handed over a child with fair hair and blue eyes. Would it really cross your mind to walk into a police station and tell the officer behind the desk: we just received this child from someone else we don’t know and now we’d like to adopt it ? It might, but I think you would let go of that thought the very next second. There’s battles you should not fight, for you know they can never be won. If this Maria episode is telling us anything, then it is that that would be a lost battle even before it began. From another angle, as said before, it is also not hard to see that for the Roma’s, there could have been an incentive in taking up the care for this child, be it in monetary way or as a help in whatever activities it is they engage in.
My point is: even that would still not make them kidnappers or, assuming they didn’t pay for Maria (and obviously neither have sold her), child-traffickers.
They deserve a fair investigation and a fair judgement, but already at this point this seems no longer possible. Can anyone still imagine Maria ultimately being restored to the couple in case of not finding any wrongdoing, except for being Roma ? That chance has already been reduced to zero. There would be a massive outcry of protest from all over the (mainly Western) world. And that is where fairness for me has already gone up in smoke
For frankly, I have little empathy with the common attitude that it is absolutely necessary to haul that girl away from that camp where she was living in “very bad, very unhygienic” circumstances. The pictures I saw of Maria’s house and room don’t really tell me that story, but all in all, I also don’t expect much luxury in a settlement of a group of people that are being treated as the pariah’s from Europe. Yet, those conditions surely are the very same for the tens of other children that I see running and playing in the footage from the camp, yet nobody is mentioning a word about them. Fair hair and green eyes seem to make you genetically entitled to better conditions and more compassion. Lately, a group of European diplomats went to Israel to hand out tents to bedouins in the Negev Desert that were up for “relocation”, as their settlements were said to be illegal (funny claim coming from Israel, don’t you think ?). They were stopped and harassed by the israelian police. The press was quick in covering the ordeal that had befallen these European diplomats, but we were left guessing what happened to the bedouins they were going to help. Though very different in nature, the parallels between these two stories are also obvious.
Thanks also to the enormous media coverage that has been deployed around this case and the angle under which the news has been brought, I genuinely believe we are endangering lives. Not in some sort of dark, secret way by for instance leaking some documents where all names of persons have been edited away from, but in a very matter of fact way, by turning all Roma’s into outlaws, by portraying them -as a community, as a race and not just some individuals- as the scum of the earth. And based on what ? On some irregular documents, being the only evidence so far, on their knack for petty thievery and begging and on their overall different lifestyle from ours. How difficult is it to perceive that, with the recent crimes perpetrated by Greece’s neo-nazi party Golden Dawn against immigrants, the next victims may very well be Roma’s ?
If the recent events in Greece, but also in France and today in Ireland are proving anything, it is that there is a witch-hunt going on against the Roma. And of course they have done and are doing their fair share of crime and no, they are not the easiest of ethnicities to co-exist with. But yet again, in this whole episode that is unfolding, we are showing our exceptional skill in selective memory.
For we conveniently forget it is only few years ago (2008) that the then Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, publicly apologized for the state policy that has continued over a period of more than fifty years, up till as recent as 1982, of forcibly taking away aboriginal children from their parents to have them adopted by the middle class and educate them in the western way. “Institutionalized baby farming”, the practice is now called. White people abducting coloured people. And not just a few, but around 450.000 of them !
We conveniently forget that in Switzerland, also until 1970, 590 children of the Yeniche people, an ethnicity somewhat similar to the Roma, were taken from their parents and institutionalized in orphanages, mental institutions and prisons. White people abducting other people.
We conveniently forget the thousands of children that were abducted during the military dictatorship in Argentina by the (white) regime and for which the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo are still requesting that the truth about their whereabouts would be told to them.
We conveniently forget all those children molested and raped by our own (white) priests.
We conveniently forget the Afghan, Yemenite and Pakistani children killed by our drones and being labeled “collateral damage”
No, today, all the sins of the world are being burdened on the Roma community, for the press believes to have a scoop they can keep going for days, maybe weeks, for the Greek police believes they can finally get some positive PR after all the negative that has come out over the past months and for “evidence” is a word we may not find back anymore in the next print edition of the Oxford English dictionary. In this story, irregularities have definitely taken place and maybe a crime has been committed, but until we are sure, we had better keep our voices down and our conclusions in check.