Photographers' Blog

Squatting in Brussels

Brussels, Belgium

By Yves Herman

Once a church and convent, the “Gesu squat” is a huge building which has long been home to an eclectic group of residents.

But now, if a project by a Swiss developer gets the green light, it may be turned into a hotel and luxury apartments, and its inhabitants will face expulsion. At first, Gesu was occupied by artists, who organized events and exhibitions between 2009 and 2012. They had to leave, however, after clashes with newcomers – mainly people in precarious situations looking for a place to live.

Some 160 residents, including 60 children, have lived at the Gesu squat for more than three years. But over the past few months, the number of inhabitants has grown so large that authorities have become worried about them bothering neighboring communities.

Only a few metro stops from Brussels’s famous tourists sites and European institutions, the Gesu church and convent were bought by a Swiss developer named Rosebud Heritage in 2007. The company said that residents could live there until building works started.

Most of the people at Gesu are immigrants from countries including the Czech Republic, Spain and Brazil, who want to settle in Belgium. A few of the families have already lived in Belgium for a long time, and some have stayed in the squat for months or years. But the residents, the landlord and the authorities have signed an agreement saying that they must leave within two months if the project to build a hotel is approved.

Inside Mongolia’s Ger District

Ulan Bator, Mongolia

By Carlos Barria

As the sun tucks behind the hills near the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, Baljirjantsan Otgonseren, 32, walks out of her “Ger,” a traditional Mongolian tent, looking for her daughter. The girl is watching the last sunbeams of the day stretch over the settlement known as the Ger District — a sprawling residential area that has grown so fast in ten years, it has evolved from a transient slum to a legal residential zone.

Like many other residents, Otgonseren and her family migrated from the grasslands to the capital looking for better opportunities. They left behind a traditional nomadic lifestyle in favor of city life and a shot at participating in their country’s rapid economic growth. Recent natural disasters have played a part too. For example, the 2010 “Zud,” a Mongolian term for an extremely snowy period, helped convince many to settle in one place for good.

According to a 2010 National Population Center census, roughly 30,000 to 40,000 people move to the capital every year. As a country, Mongolia is considered the world’s least densely populated nation; with 2.8 million people spread over 1.5 million square kilometers (580,000 square miles).

House in the middle of the road

Wenling, China

By Aly Song

“Right now, buying a house like this would cost me more than 2 million yuan, but the government only offered me 260,015 to move, where could I go?” 67-year-old Luo Baogen said while smoking a cigarette in front of his partially demolished “nail house”, standing alone in the middle of a road in Wenling city, China’s eastern Zhejiang province. “Nail house” refers to the last houses in an area owned by people who refuse to move to make room for new developments.

GALLERY: A HOUSE IN THE ROAD

About 500 kilometers (310 miles) from Shanghai, this house quickly became an Internet hot topic after local news reports bearing dramatic photographs went public last week.

Considering a follow-up story and to have some more pictures of our own, I traveled there with a Reuters TV colleague on Saturday.

Demolition of a gypsy community

Madrid, Spain

By Susana Vera

I remember the first time I saw Milagros Echevarria. She was in her house slippers, battling with the rubble piled up outside her home, with only a simple broom as a weapon. It was like watching David face Goliath.

The short, sturdy woman was working doggedly. She would only stop to remove rotting garbage from the debris and toss it into a nearby dumpster. “If I don’t do this every day, rats are going to eat us alive”, she told me. In the months that followed, I witnessed the same scene over and over, even when the rubbish threatening to invade her home had become the actual remains of the house itself.

GALLERY: GYPSY COMMUNITY DEMOLISHED

Milagros moved to the Spanish gypsy settlement of Puerta de Hierro in 1974, as a young girl of 12, still wearing pigtails. At the age of 13 she married her cousin Antonio Gabarri and by 14 she was pregnant with their first child, Carolina.

Ireland’s ghost towns

“If you build it, they will come.” The iconic quote from the film Field of Dreams seems like a rebuke to Ireland’s misguided builders and planners as the depressing sight of rows of newly built empty houses – windows broken and doors flapping in the wind – stretch out in the distance.

I’d come to Co Leitrim, in the west of Ireland, to see for myself the so-called ghost housing estates that first came to the public’s attention four years ago as the Celtic Tiger collapsed leaving thousands of developers bankrupt and projects half finished. Surely in four years, something would have been done about this national embarrassment – so obvious a sign of the demise of Ireland’s once envied economy?

But endless talk of charity schemes buying over the developments to house Ireland’s sizeable homeless population , huge price cuts to entice buyers or even demolition have come to nothing as thousands of houses once commanding price tags of over E250,000 still lie empty. The only solution that seems to have been put into action is fencing off the estates – hiding the embarrassing problem behind huge hoardings – leaving the houses to crumble into disrepair away from the gaze of despairing neighbours who paid full price for an identical house just 200 yards away.