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“Duldung is a permament state of suffering”

INTERVIEW. If anyone knows what it’s like to feel unwelcome, it’s Bosnian-born photographer Nihad Nino Pušija – he was merely ‘tolerated’ as a refugee. The German status of ‘Duldung’ is something that haunts not only him but many of his subjects.

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Photo by Jarka Snajberk

Bosnian-born photographer Nihad Nino Pušija on the unbearable precariousness of being – the condition of Roma and Balkan refugees in Germany. 

When I arrive at his Treptow home, Nihad Nino Pušija is busy taking pictures from his second floor window. “They’re delivering coal. That’s something you soon won’t be able to see anymore. You have to record this while it’s still there.”

In no time we’re seated for Arabic-style tea (mint and black served in ornate glasses) and multicoloured German sweets – presumably his son’s. The walls of the large, cosy living room read like a vast retrospective of his work.

Among his trademark photos of Balkan refugees, Roma-turned-gladiators and gypsy families in Berlin, I recognise a portrait of GDR’s famous transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and a close-up of an unusually cheerful Marina Abramović; there’s also a colour triptych of German actress Heike Makatsch… “You see, I don’t just take depressing photos of refugees and gypsies!”

Nino began working as a photojournalist in his native Sarajevo in the mid-1980s. After three years in England, followed by assignments all over Europe, Nino returned to the Bosnian capital on a Reuters assignment in March 1992, just in time to witness his country’s declaration of independence and the outbreak of war – “Two weeks later the first bombs were falling.”

In April Nino boarded a train from Belgrade to Berlin with “a one-way ticket” and a plan to try his chances getting back to London after a few weeks. But what was supposed to be a simple stopover turned out to be a final destination. “I had friends in Berlin; then I fell in love.” When the war finally came to an end in 1995, Nino chose to stay. And he celebrated the peace agreements in his own way…

When the war officially ended in November 1995, you’d been in Berlin for four years. What was your first reaction?

I don’t know why or how, but I came up with this idea to prepare photos with my blood. Of course things are not as easy as they sound – how do you draw enough blood from yourself?

So I went to my German doctor. I explained the war, my country, how this is the moment I have to do it, and it’s better if you do it than if I cut myself, etc… but the nurse wouldn’t hear it. I’m not sick. She won’t take blood.

So how did you get your blood?

I went to a Turkish doctor and explained my story, and he did it. I selected 13 images – they were photos of Bosnian refugees – and I put the blood on their faces. Then I fixed it with a spray.

What did you do with those blood-photographs?

I showed them to the director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Marina [Abramović] was there. At that time she was doing something about ethnic cleansing at the Venice Biennale. She saw the images and said, “They are too strong, you have to pick out only one.” I only showed it once.

Maybe one day they will show more, when I’m dead or old. You know they are not just faces – they are stories. I always document the stories of the people I photograph. I know all of them, where they are, where they come from. At that time I also collected strange statements from people.

Like what?

Not like, “The Serbs came and killed everybody in our village.” Instead, stories like a woman and a man talking about what they should do when their apartment gets bombed. They pack everything into bags or suitcases, then suddenly the apartment is destroyed and they’re running out and he has an umbrella and she has a plastic bag. They were in shock and took completely different things.

Or, for example, those people in Sarajevo who never leave their shelter for months, because they are so scared. Then they leave one time and they get hit…

Do you believe in fate? Are you religious?

People don’t usually let you photograph private things like eating or sleeping…but I was an insider, I came from the same country, I spoke the same language.

You have to believe in something. I respect all kinds of religions and rituals and stuff, because of family heritage. My mother is Catholic, my father is Muslim. One of my grandmothers was Serbian Orthodox and I also discovered that another one was a gypsy. My wife is a German. Maybe my son will marry a Jewish woman!

In 1997, you published a photo book called Duldung, which documents the life of four Berlin Roma families from Bosnia. How did you start working with Roma?

As a refugee myself, I started documenting my surroundings. These refugees were all coming from former Yugoslavia. They all had the same culture, they only had different religions. Most of them were Muslim. And there were a lot of Roma. At that time I had a lot of jobs with German newspapers, because I had access. People don’t usually let you photograph private things like eating or sleeping…

So how did you manage to come so close?

Because I was an insider, not a German. Because I came from the same country. I spoke the same language. You sit and have a coffee, tell your story, and they start telling you their own stories. Then they start crying, then you start crying…

You shared their situation as a refugee. What was your status back then?

I first came with a tourist visa, then I had a Duldung, then political asylum. It was a step-by-step process. Duldung is a horrible status. But I was lucky. I met some architects and they saw my photographs of refugees.

They said that I could use their darkroom in Schöneberg. After a couple of months living here, I was safe. Because the moment I could develop photos, I could produce something and earn some money.

You said Duldung is horrible…

It is a permanent state of suffering. You are not supposed to work, you are not supposed to go to school. Depending on how long your Duldung is for, you might have to extend it every month, or every two, three, five. Which school is going to take your child if you have a three-month visa? Who’s going to give you a job? You can only wait until your status changes. You can’t even get married.

Duldung means “toleration”: it’s only suspension from deportation.

Yes, for as long as they think returning to your country could be dangerous. When they decide there is no more danger they can send you back immediately. It depends on where you live; it depends even on the worker in the office that day. Maybe the guy working at the Ausländerbehörde had a bad night, or you were not polite enough. In most other countries, decisions about refugee status go to court.

Here, they decide personally. It’s ridiculous, because one immigration officer alone can decide on the fate of a whole family. If the children didn’t go to school enough or you were fined in the subway without a ticket – then he has the power to send you back.

How hard was it for Roma, specifically, to integrate here?

Very hard. The problem is that when all of these people came here, nobody took any care of them. Often they couldn’t find apartments, because they had a lot of children, and people didn’t want them. They were excluded from all kinds of programmes. Nobody spoke their language. They were treated like Bosnians or Serbs, not Roma, until they look for a job or housing and then they were “gypsies”. There was a lot of racism against them.

Against all gypsy clichés, many Roma ended up finding jobs and sending their kids to school…

Yes, if they were lucky they found a place to stay which was not too far east – because of the neo-Nazis – and in a part of the city where there were not so many of them, not Neukölln, Kreuzberg or Wedding! Then they can hide their identities… A few weeks after arriving here I heard that a whole train of refugees was coming from Bosnia and Croatia to Berlin and I went to take pictures.

Four weeks later, I went back to Weißensee to see what had happened to them: all the Roma women had turned blonde! From far off they looked like any other East German women at the time. They would stay in small groups, go shopping without their children. They were like chameleons.

In your book Duldung Deluxe you documented the deportation of Roma youth and families, including the Shalas. They had come here in 1988 and were deported in 2010 after Germany pledged to send 14,000 refugees back to Kosovo. All the kids were born in Germany… why them?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. The father had a job, he worked at McDonald’s. The oldest son was a mechanic. The mother had psychological problems and shouldn’t have been sent back at all. Lufti, the 16-year-old, had diabetes – maybe he’s dead, he couldn’t survive in Kosovo for more than three months without insulin…

Most shocking is perhaps the fact that they deport kids who were born and raised here.

Unlike in other countries, children born in Germany don’t get any particular rights. Yes, and they put the kids, like the rest of the family, in jail for four or five days. The eight-year old son said he dreamt “about jail”. And you have a traumatised child! He doesn’t understand. He has German friends. His older brother has a girlfriend… who cares?

Sometimes they even divide families. They send the man back and the woman and children can stay. In other cases, some of the family members will have unlimited permission to stay – the mum is a nurse and that’s good, but one of her sons still has a Duldung and as soon as he is an adult, they can send him back alone.

And they are sent to live in slums…

A few days after they return, they just throw them onto a garbage dump… they probably don’t have any family there. They try to go to another country right away. Their kids don’t speak the language. It’s a trauma for the children.

What can they do there – become beggars? Gangsters?

I would also become a gangster if I had to feed my family. You fight. But some of them are actually really rich. In the old days they were trading horses. Now they might deal in cars. These ones, they somehow get their papers. They marry, they pay someone.

Can you bribe someone to get papers in Germany?

Of course you can. Like everywhere else in Europe.

If you don’t have the money for that and your Duldung is not extended and you don’t leave, you’re de facto illegal, like that young dad you photographed…

If you don’t leave, they can deport you any time, so you’ve got to live underground. Being illegal in a country is a horrible experience, and even more so if you have children. That man has kids who are six, four and one year old. Just imagine, your child is really sick, you have to take someone else’s health insurance card and go to a doctor who doesn’t know you. I really felt sorry for him.

Is it true the police just show up at your door, even at night?

They give you some time, like two weeks, to leave the country, after which they send someone to check if you are still there. If so, then the police come at 4am. You have 20 minutes to pack, and you’re put in the deportation jail until they find everybody they are supposed to collect. Maybe the oldest boy in the family is visiting his girlfriend. So they wait a couple of days.

And if you want to return to Germany later you have to pay for the deportation costs.

Yes, it’s around €6000. You have to pay, but you cannot be sure you will get back in.

Speaking of debt, what about Germany’s historical debt to the Roma people? They were genocide victims, like the Jews. If we deported one Jewish person the way we are deporting Roma, it would be a huge scandal.

The Roma people don’t have a lobby. They don’t have their own country. The Holocaust against Jews was instantly recognised. The Holocaust against the Roma was recognised in 1982…

It’s ironic that just as Germany is finally giving them a memorial, they are deporting them at the same time. 

Politics always has two sides. On the one hand they cut off your legs, and on the other hand they give you help. If they don’t do the good policies, they can’t get away with the bad policies, it’s as cynical as that!