Kolonia, Kosovo, 14 April 2012. Mentor Malluta is a thin little boy. He has his mother’s olive-colored eyes. And he smiles an eight-year-old’s big-toothed smile when he and his friends play soccer in an over-grazed pasture behind the two-room house his father bought with a few hundred euros he managed to scrape together over the years. If you ask Mentor what he wants to be when he grows up, he’ll answer, “A policeman.” If you had asked Mentor two weeks ago whether he expected his picture to be splashed across the cover of a magazine in Switzerland that was flogging a local crime spree, he would have had no idea of what you were talking about.
Last week, however, Die Weltwoche, a German-language magazine based in Zurich, ran a cover picture of an unnamed brown-skinned boy pointing a gun straight into the reader’s face. It turned out to be Mentor. He was playing with a toy pistol. Within days, the Internet had transported the image around the world. The BBC ran a story about demands that the issue of Die Weltwoche be pulled in Germany because the photo of Mentor was inciting racism. The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and other publications followed suit. And there were calls for banning the publication in Austria and for action to be taken Switzerland.
When the photograph was taken, in 2008, Mentor was standing near a trash dump where his father was engaging in a day-to-day struggle to feed his family. The dump, which no longer exists, was located here beside Kolonia, a cluster of brick homes and a housing project built by Swiss Caritas, a charity organization, that have grown up behind some defunct drying shacks of a tobacco farm on the fringe of the town of Gjakovë, Kosovo.
When the shutter clicked, Mentor was pointing the toy gun at the camera that the photographer was pointing at him. Mentor was all of five years old then. He didn’t tell his parents that someone had taken his picture, because he had no idea that someone had taken his picture. He did not know about cameras or photographs or the World Wide Web. For the adults and kids from the 135 or so families residing in Kolonia, a camera discovered in the dump is something to sell, even if it is broken.
Next to Mentor’s picture, Die Weltwoche’s editors had placed a headline that read: “The Roma are Coming.” Inside the magazine was a story about families of Roma people traveling to Switzerland from Eastern Europe and engaging in “crime tourism.”
The power in the image of Mentor with his pistol hinges on a stereotype of a community long reviled as thieves and beggars. Yet the Roma—ten million of whom live in Europe—are, in fact, among the continent’s most vulnerable people. This prejudice and discrimination against the Roma have roots stretching back for centuries. Violence against them culminated during World War II with an event the Roma call the Porajmos, The Devouring, a campaign by Nazi Germany and its allies to exterminate them.