Exactly 74 years ago today, 15-year-old French Traveller, Raymond Gûreme, was arrested along with his parents and six siblings and taken to a detention camp in Linas-Monthléry in Nazi-occupied France.
He went on to experience years of abuse at the hands of the Nazis for being a Traveller. Now, seven decades later, he lives like many Travellers on the margins of society with discrimination still part of his daily life. He was recently beaten in a police raid.
Raymond and his family were arrested on 27 November 1940 following an order by the German occupying forces that all ‘Gypsies’ in France had to be sent to detention camps. They were immediately transferred to Linas-Monthléry in the southern outskirts of Paris.
“We had a miserable life there, it was horrible. In the shacks there were only wooden beds, there was no electricity, no lamps, blankets or heating. The only food available was watery soup with some vegetables,” he recently told an Amnesty International team who visited him.
Raymond miraculously escaped Linas-Monthléry in 1941 but was later re-arrested and deported to a forced labour camp in Germany.
Three years later, a railway driver who was part of the resistance helped him escape again by smuggling him on a train from Frankfurt to Paris.
“If this driver had not helped me, I would have ended up in a furnace,” Raymond said.
Back in France, Raymond immediately joined the resistance but it would take another six years for him to be reunited with his parents and siblings, who had managed to escape to Belgium.
“Dungeon of collective memory”
Each one of the days he was forced to spend in Linas-Monthléryhad stuck in Raymond’s memory so much that in 1968 he made the brave decision to buy a piece of land next to where the camp used to be and set up his caravan there.
“I looked at the hill where the camp was. That was the place of the crime perpetrated against our freedom and our humanity. I felt the need to stay there, in a sort of silent face-to-face with the camp,” he explained.
More than 70 years from that ordeal, Raymond speaks about his life with the passion yet bitterness of someone who has never experienced the true meaning of justice.
“French authorities put the imprisonment of Travellers in the dungeon of collective memory. There was no space for my sorrow. Nor for me as a citizen,” he said in his memoirs.
He rarely remembers a time in his life when he hasn’t faced abuse and discrimination in his country of birth.
The latest incident took place in September, when around 40 French police officers entered the land where around 150 Travellers live.
89-year-old Raymond was resting in his caravan at the time.
“I was inside my caravan and heard a noise. Suddenly the door opened and a cop came in. I asked if he had a warrant and he said ‘we are not in America’,” Raymond explained.
“When I told the police officers to leave, one started pushing me and hitting me with batons. He pushed me out of the trailer and then hit me again.”
The police officers hardly asked any questions. The community were later told they were chasing some armed men.
Violence immediately escalated and police fired tear gas at the several men, women and children standing around Raymond’s caravan.
The episode was so violent, Raymond’s daughter, Viviane, said her father has barely recovered from the shock.
“In France it seems better not to show that we are Travellers because there is a lot of racism and discrimination. In the past, before the war, it was really different. We were welcomed when we arrived with our mobile circus. People were happy because we broke news to them as they had no TV and did not read newspapers. Today, however, people are afraid when they see a caravan.”
The French authorities are investigating the episode although concerns remain regarding the impartiality and thoroughness of the investigation, as it’s in the hands of another police unit. While it may be under the supervision of the regional prosecutor’s office, it is essentially the police investigating the police. And Amnesty International’s research shows that these investigations are often less than thorough, partial and largely ineffective.
Raymond’s experience is far from unique. Across France there are 350,000 Travellers. Many, like him face discrimination and abuse.
To see an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor suffering such abuse today is difficult to stomach.
“Police in France sometimes refuse to abide by the most basic human rights standards. If French authorities do not impartially and thoroughly investigate allegations of police violence, they are sending the dangerous message that the police is above the law,” said Marco Perolini, an Amnesty International’s Researcher who met Raymond.
“Instead they must ensure that police officers are brought to justice whenever they use force disproportionately. Anything less will only demonstrate that France is not the country of freedom and equality it claims to be.”