An image from An episode in the life of an iron collector by Danis Tanović

Nazif Mujić has died – a comet that arrived from obscurity to the Berlin Film Festival and disappeared into the darkest pitch. The discrimination of Roma people in Europe in this memory

27/03/2018 -  Azra Nuhefendić

He used to leave home at about five o'clock in the morning, trying to get ahead of the others in order to find iron scraps – what people would throw away secretly, during the night, in illegal landfills, in the woods, along the river, in the streams, behind others' houses, along the streets, in the fields, outside inhabited settlements.

Nazif collected old iron, and experience had taught him that the best profits came from the bulkiest wrecks like refrigerators, carcasses of cars, exhausted batteries, cheap kitchens, and similar stuff.

If you were to find a battered car, for example, you were good for the day: lunch was assured, and maybe a little more. Nazif calmly dismantled the carcass, collected all the scrap, and sold it at 20 or 15 cents per pound. Well, it wasn't an exorbitant figure, but Nazif was aiming for survival. He was glad if the harvest allowed him, his wife Senada, the two daughters, and the third one coming to eat.

Nazif knew well the places where people threw what they no longer needed. So, first thing in the morning, he checked the illegal landfills, and if he did not find anything interesting, then for the rest of the day he would rummage through the bins.

Even from broken pots, from discarded pipes, from irons that did not work, from old radiators, from broken boilers, from metal lids, from metal fences, from steel wires – from all this stuff, one could gain something by weighing it on the scale. 2,5 euros for a kilo of brass, 1 or 2 Bosnian marks for one kilogram of aluminum – that meant a portion of pita, the typical Bosnian dish, plus a yoghurt. But if one happened to find some copper, then yes, that was a lucky day: for a kilo of copper meant 4 euros, or 8 Bosnian marks.

Nazif had heard of some iron collectors, "colleagues" of his, who had dismantled an entire bridge overnight and then sold it as old iron, or of friends, neighbours, acquaintances who, in search of iron, entered the minefields, unreported, and lost their skin.

He had also heard of certain collectors who secretly stole statues of national heroes from the parks. Made in copper or bronze, precious stuff! But this did not mean that Nazif was like them. In fact, national heroes were very respectable for Nazif and he would never touch their monuments. And then, it was not necessary to aim so high, "everyone has their own nafaka", that is their destiny.

Nazif believed in his nafaka, but also tried to help her out. Every morning he and his wife, Senada, greeted each other repeating some superstitious rituals. Before leaving the house, Nazif slipped on his shirt inside out, to protect himself from evil spirits, his wife poured a little water behind him so that the day's work would go well and flow smoothly like water, and if Nazif happened to forget something at home, he never came back, it would have been bad luck.

All his family's hopes were on him, he was the only one to earn anything. But, while they worried about Nazif, his pregnant wife Senada felt sick. She needed urgent medical attention. 

At this point, you must know the story too, as the story of Nazif and his wife Senada made not only the local newspapers, but also the international media.

Nazif and his family are Bosnian Roma. In normal circumstances – or better, in normal countries – ethnicity should not have any importance. But being Roma in Bosnia means being discriminated in advance, being the last among the last. Bosnian Roma are the most unfortunate among the wretched. They are poor and unemployed, without education due to poverty.

According to the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina (made and signed with the Dayton Peace Accords) a Roma person cannot become president of the country (nor can a Jew). Sure, Nazif and his wife did not aim so high – they needed only the bare minimum and, in this case that gave him so much notoriety, access to medical care.

Nazif's wife risked dying of sepsis, as the fetus in her womb was dead. They ran from the emergency room to the hospital, from one doctor to another seeking help, but were rejected by everyone, because Senada did not have a healthcare card. 

They would have let her die, but her case was reported by the newspapers. The shock and anger shook someone's conscience and finally forced the doctors to rescue Mrs. Mujić and save her. And here another story could start, that of the healthcare system of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the time of the Yugoslav healthcare system, it had been praised by the World Health Organization (WHO) and ranked among the best in the world. But in our day it has sunk into a deep abyss, where a person can be left to die, as in the case of Mrs. Mujić.

The story of Nazif and Senada caught the attention of Bosnian director Danis Tanović, Oscar winner for the film No Man's Land. In less than ten days, he shot the film An episode in the life of an iron collector, about the story of the Mujić family, starring them as protagonists playing themselves. At the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, Nazif won the Silver Bear for Best Actor.

The film, the prize, the story and the Mujićs who played themselves – it was a real show at the Berlin Film Festival. The audience stood up and applauded for twelve minutes. The Mujić family from the muddy street, from the illegal shack in a remote place in a country like Bosnia, the poorest in Europe, walked over the red carpet and smiled in front of an international and worldly public. If this is not a fairy tale, what else could it be?

How many Hollywood actors would give everything to boast a biography like Nazif's, literally passed "from rags to stars"? Nazif brought home the silver (metal) statuette. He was welcomed as a hero among the neighbours of Svatovac, a village in the north of Bosnia, where other Roma people like him lived in illegal shacks, out of the city without roads, sewers, and drinking water. All those, and there were many, who wanted to be photographed with famous Nazif Mujić, had to wear rubber boots to walk on the mud that surrounded the houses of Svatovac.

Among the many enthusiasts of winning Nazif's triumph, the one that struck me the most was a Bosnian man who, before the Mujićs came back from Berlin, had a truck of firewood dumped in front of their house. "When they come back they will need to heat the house", he said. This gesture, perhaps more than anything else, showed the misery in which Nazif and his family lived.

After the award of the prestigious Festival, Nazif did not dream of an acting career, but he hoped to improve his life and that of his family.

For many, not just for the Bosnian Roma, Germany is the promised land. Nazif expected that the prize would help him, once in Germany, to apply for and obtain asylum. He was rejected once, twice, three times. Back in Bosnia, he reached his home "on a bulldozer" because the rain of the previous days had made it impossible to travel the road differently.

And he continued to live in poverty. Two years ago, he was forced to sell his Silver Bear for 4,000 euros. "What else could one expect from a firaun", (firaun a word even more despicable than "gypsy") people commented on social media. Perhaps they expected him to hold on to the statuette, and dignifiedly die of hunger?

Nazif Mujić died at the age of 48 during the Berlin Film Festival. Sick, in poverty, in a house without heating.

In those days, I listened to an Italian radio programme that broadcast live coverage of the Berlin International Film Festival. Apart from the news about the Festival, the disappearance of some "96-year-old" soubrette was announced every now and then. No mention, however, of the death of Nazif, a comet that came from obscurity and disappeared into the darkest pitch.

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