Bordering on inhumanity: How Slovenia and Croatia illegally deport refugees and migrants

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, Mašenjka Bačić, Nerminka Emrić, Maja Čakarić and Klara Škrinjar, with the support of Journalismfund.eu

Rather than being allowed to apply for asylum, thousands of refugees and migrants attempting to enter Slovenia and Croatia are being illegally and often violently spirited across the border to Bosnia, and out of the EU. 

Image: ©Matej Povše

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Read the personal testimonies of migrants

Western Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a bottleneck for migrants and refugees who are fleeing through the Balkans. In the past year, many of them have been caught en route to Northern or Western Europe in Slovenia and then systematically handed over to Croatian authorities. In Croatia, they are often subjected to police violence. They finally end up in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they are condemned to an interminable wait.

The Slovenian police deny illegal migrants access to asylum and turn a deaf ear to their appeals. These are first-hand accounts of the migrants who we met along the Balkan route from Slovenia to Bosnia. Similar cases are also recorded by NGOs and are being investigated by the Ombudsman.

Such actions systematically contravene international conventions on human rights and are occurring in two EU member states.

The situation today is very different from the one that came as a rude awakening to the public in the fall of 2015.

Memories of those events, during which, according to rough estimates, a million displaced people entered the EU via the Balkans, are perhaps still freshly etched in our minds. The situation on the ground now, however, has changed dramatically.

This migration route to Western and Northern Europe became impassable after the agreement between the European Union and Turkey entered into force. Among other things, it provided for the return of refugees and migrants from Greece to Turkey. The deal’s effects included the termination of mass migrations and an almost complete closure of the Balkan corridor in the spring of 2016. This meant that many migrants were left stranded.

The following year, information emerged regarding the controversial return of displaced people in Slovenia and Croatia to the border with Bosnia, including reports of violence, confiscated and smashed phones, stolen money, thefts and damaged personal belongings.

Despite the existence of numerous testimonies and compelling evidence, the Slovenian and Croatian police outright deny the case put forward by NGOs, the media, migrants and refugees.

In the middle of July, the Croatian Ombudsman published an anonymous complaint from a group of Croatian police officers. In it, they admitted that their superiors had instructed them to return illegal migrants to Bosnia. Many of their colleagues used violence and took away migrants’ belongings while executing these orders. “If we stood up to this, we would get laid off and then how are we supposed to support our families?” wrote a presumably concerned but fearful police officer.

Many displaced people we met along what is left of the Balkan route confirm that such treatment routinely occurs. Among them was a young Syrian family from Hama who made it all the way to Slovenia this spring. “As soon as we crossed the border, we bumped into Slovenian policemen. We tried to apply for asylum but they said that this wasn’t possible; that there ‘is no asylum in Slovenia,’” the father recounted. “They returned us to Croatia where they took our phones. They treated us like savages even though we were travelling with kids. They threw us into a van and took us to near the Bosnian border.”

From there, they went on foot in pouring rain and biting cold to Velika Kladuša, a town in north-west Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is currently one of the hotspots on the Balkan migrant route. The Bosnian Ombudsman estimates that at least 60,000 migrants will enter the country this year, but local authorities warn that the country is ill-prepared for them.

In Velika Kladuša, innkeeper Asim Latić-Latan let the drenched and exhausted Syrian family into the dining room of a former pizzeria, now converted into a makeshift soup kitchen. He has been serving refugees and migrants for a year and a half. Every day, he prepares as many as 800 evening meals for them. His guests are fleeing from war, totalitarian regimes, poverty, violence and climate change, and he serves them dinner.

After arriving, one family ate dinner, their first real meal in a week, the father of two small children told us. He only gave us his initial, A. He was the only refugee who did not wish to reveal his full name among those whose testimonies are published below. He said he feared that the regime in his homeland, where his parents, brothers and sisters remained, would take revenge on his family.

He had left Syria for Europe with his family, brother-in-law and his partner in the hope of asking for international protection when he arrived. He did not expect any complications as he was coming from a war zone and was travelling with children. He was wrong. His family joined the ranks of a mounting number of people who were stripped of their right to asylum before they had even applied for it.

Fast-track refoulement

Slovenian police have denied many undocumented refugees and migrants the right to asylum and handed them over to Croatia.

This practice of blocking the filing of asylum applications and pushing back refugees and migrants began at the end of May 2018. At that time, a now former director-general of the Slovenian police, Simon Velički, issued instructions to police that people who are caught crossing the border illegally by mixed Slovenian-Croatian patrols “should be handed over to Croatian police to be handled by them.”

This was the moment when Slovenia systematically started to begin thwarting the possibility of claiming asylum by deporting refugees and migrants en masse.

Data published by the police on its own website confirms the changes in the treatment of migrants, and also possible irregularities in the procedures used for handling people who enter Slovenian territory with the purpose of applying for international protection.

The number of refoulements, i.e. the forcible return of refugees to countries where they are liable to face persecution, has risen dramatically since last year when, according to data from a report by the Slovenian police, as many as 4,653 people were deported to Croatia, which is 11 times more people compared to the previous three-year average since 2015, when the Balkan migration route was mapped out.

Slovenian and Croatian police deny entry to displaced people on the grounds of a bilateral agreement which the two countries concluded in 2006. This agreement provides for the return of migrants according to a summary procedure.

“It’s appalling that two EU member states simply get rid of some asylum seekers by using a summary procedure to bounce and return them into a third country,” says Amnesty International.

The Ombudsman’s office also warned that such treatment is controversial because the agreement does not absolve the police of the obligation to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Slovenian constitution, laws and other regulations.

If the Slovenian police hand over a foreigner who is caught by a Slovenian-Croatian patrol in Slovenian territory to Croatian security authorities, even though she or he has expressed an intention to apply for asylum, this infringes on the laws of international protection.

This conclusion was reached by the Ombudsman’s office in the report on the treatment of migrants by the police at the border. Due to allegations against the police regarding violations of the right of access to international protection, the Ombudsman’s office, as an autonomous and independent agency, reviewed the work of police.

Among other things, it highlighted the lack of (serious) consideration of the personal circumstances of each individual. From police documents, it was not clear whether a detained person stated his or her intention to claim asylum or whether he or she stated such an intention but was possibly ignored. Such inconsistencies could mean that the police denied some people asylum procedures.

The Ministry of the Interior assured the Ombudsman that everyone is able to find out their rights in police facilities and that brochures are available in various languages. Such provision of information is, according to the Ombudsman, undoubtedly useful, but should be accessible in places where people can leaf through the brochure’s contents.

The Ombudsman insists that an asylum seeker should be granted the possibility to apply for international protection and obtain it in line with the provisions of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, i.e. the Geneva Convention.

“The negligible number of intentions to apply for asylum actually recorded at Črnomelj police station reflects the seriousness of the allegation that some police procedures could be irregular, including collective expulsions which are prohibited in compliance with the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” explained Nataša Kuzmič from the Ombudsman’s office.

In its report from April 2019, the civil society initiative InfoKolpa found that “the practice of violating the legislation by denying the right to asylum” became systematic last June. It states that this practice spread from Črnomelj station to other police stations in the southern border region, such as Metlika, Ilirska Bistrica, and Dragonja.

A sudden slump in asylum seekers

Last June, soon after the above-mentioned instructions were issued, the volume of people stating their intention to apply for asylum at the Črnomelj police station decreased by 95% in only one month – from 98% to 3%.

We asked Slovenian police for updated data on asylum seekers from January 2018 to July 2019 (by individual border police stations), but received none. They explained that gathering the data would constitute a “disproportionate burden” on them.

The statistical report on illegal migration, however, confirms that “the number of foreigners handed over rose considerably due to a strengthened collaboration with Croatian security authorities. The increase was noticed especially in the second half of 2018.”

This year, numbers have hit an all-time high. The number of people whom Slovenian police returned to the authorities of other countries rose by as much as 406% in 2018 compared with 2017. There was also a spike in the number of people returned to the Croatian border – a staggering 507%.

The available official data from the police, nevertheless, shows that the number of filed asylum applications in the first half of 2019 was similar to the same period last year, but that the number of unauthorised crossings of the national border increased by as much as 47%.

The number of refugees and migrants who the Slovenian authorities returned to neighbouring countries under the guise of various bilateral agreements rose even more – by 200%. In the same period last year (from January to June), the authorities deported 1,117 people, whereas this year the number was as much as 3,534 people. By far the most (98%) were returned to the Croatian border.

Urša Regvar from the Legal Information Centre for NGOs (Centre PIC) stated that some asylum seekers still attest to being refused access to asylum procedures, “which confirms our observations and shows that individuals at the border are still being denied access to protection.”

The police claim otherwise: “We have already provided answers to such generalisations and unfounded accusations in the past, as well as explained that we verified each and every one of the concrete cases presented to us. Until now, these allegations were confirmed in none of them.”

For some time, journalists, activists and NGOs have warned that the police procedures at the border are untransparent, carried out systematically and en masse. Last year, these suspicions reached the Slovenian Ombudsman and Information Commissioner. Suspicions of illegal police procedures and possible violations of human rights are being investigated by the Specialised State Prosecutor’s Office. The investigation is ongoing.

A crucial document was appended to the report which states that, last May, the Slovenian police command gave orders to all police stations about how to treat migrants and asylum seekers at the border. Until recently, the document was confidential. “The public, however, is not familiar with the entire content of these instructions, because the police is contesting the disclosure in court, despite the decision of the Information Commissioner that it involves public information,” InfoKolpa added. The procedure is pending.

The systematic and collective expulsion of asylum seekers continued this year. We gathered testimonies that prove this.

Entering the bureaucratic triangle

Not far away from Plitvice National Park, one of the most important Croatian tourist sites, lies the town of Korenica. It looks slightly forlorn, its buildings rather dilapidated.

Although it is just a stone’s throw away from a national treasure, it is off the beaten tourist track. According to Croatian NGOs, the Korenica police station compound has become a “bureaucratic triangle” or “temporary accommodation centre” for a different type of visitors.

Migrants who are captured during unauthorised border crossings are first taken to this faraway police station and then onward to the green border from where they are expelled to Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“It’s true that they bring migrants here,” confirmed a resident of Korenica. As to why, how and how many, she did not know.

However, the report on illegal push-backs and border violence published in April of this year by the NGOs that collaborate in the Border Violence Monitoring initiative contains more testimonies about this particular police station or, to be precise, a garage next to it. According to the news published by the H-alter.org portal, people are detained and mistreated there, and then returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Croatian police categorically deny that they are carrying out push-backs. However, the testimonies of refugees, a series of photographs and videos prove the opposite. Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović herself recently asserted that “a touch of force” is necessary. The irregularities in police treatment are reflected also in official statistics, or rather in their incongruities. The civil initiative Dobrodošli (Welcome) and two NGOs, the Center za mirovne študije (The Center for Peace Studies, CMS) and Are You Syrious, discovered inconsistencies in official data.

In 2018, 8,207 people crossed the Croatian border without permission, 71% more than in the previous year. The rise in unauthorised border crossings was most obvious close to the border with Slovenia and amounted to as much as a 158% increase. In the vicinity of the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian police noted an 88% increase in unauthorised crossings, whereas such crossings in the rest of the country increased by 55%. Of those 8,207, 1,438 were returned to third countries, 1,068 applied for asylum and 536 were detained.

This means that there is only data on a total of 3,042 people who Croatian police detained who attempted to cross the border clandestinely. “Where are the remaining 5,165 people and how did police treat them?” asks Julija Kranjec of CMS. In its report, CMS assumes that these people were illegally refused entry in Croatia. It speculates that the police do not register all of the people they capture.

According to CMS, there are no official statistics on expulsions of refugees from Croatia. In light of data collected by international organisations, they conclude, however, that Croatian police have illegally pushed at least 10,000 people back to neighbouring countries. “I constantly repeat the question: where are these people?” says Maja Kević from the Croatian Ombudsman’s office that receives complaints about illegal returns of migrants to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The majority of complaints in the last annual report of the Ombudsman refer to police procedures against migrants who were apprehended while attempting to cross the border or immediately after.

The Ombudsman’s office also discovered unpublicised internal rules which allow the Croatian police to carry out the push-backs.

According to the statements of XY, one of these rules is supposedly based on an oral order from the end of 2016 and the other on a written document from 15 February 2018. According to instructions from the then Director General of Police Marko Srdarević, police officers must send undocumented migrants found deep inside Croatian territory to a police station near to where they crossed the border and not to the station closest to where they were found – as stipulated in the regulations.

In addition, according to Kević, the Ombudsman’s investigations revealed the existence of a form that is presented to migrants “which, among other things, says that they agree to be returned, do not need a translator, can communicate also with the help of Google Translate and the like.” This is flies in the face of Croatian law. Refugees should be given the option to apply for asylum if they wish to do so. They should be treated individually in order to find out why the entered the country, says Kević.

The form they receive is actually a decision on their departure which demands that they leave the country within seven days. In order to cross the border, they would need to possess valid identity documents which the majority of migrants neither have nor can obtain. “Therefore we think, and also state it in [our] report, that they take them to these outlying police stations in order to get them over the green border,” continued Kević. She thinks that this actually constitutes a violation of human rights, which, considering the large numbers of returns, are being committed en masse.

The Croatian Ministry of the Interior – as is the case with its Slovenian counterpart – consistently denies that border police are engaged in such illegal conduct, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. This May, a Swiss television channel published footage of a policeman pushing migrants over the green border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. When questioned about it, Croatian Interior Minister Davor Božinović said: “This is another futile attempt at throwing accusations against the Croatian police that abides by national and European laws.”

Bosnian camps

The migrants and refugees caught by the Slovenian or Croatian police upon crossing the border end their journey in Bosnia and Herzegovina for an indefinite period of time. Bira, a former factory which produced air conditioners in the northwestern town of Bihać, is one of the largest migrant centres in the country. Every migrant that lives there has attempted to cross the border with Croatia at least once, and then to continue their journey towards Slovenia. Some of them were returned; others succeeded in their attempt, or ended up in Serbia.

According to data from Bihać’s communication office, around 11,000 migrants arrived in Bihać between last April and this June, whereas the Ministry of the Interior of Una-Sana Canton counted 17,000 of them. These were only how many they actually registered. No one can explain this discrepancy since both authorities say they are registering them correctly.

Various displaced people converge on the streets of Bihać: from Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and other Middle Eastern and African countries. Many of them sleep outdoors. Some of them find shelter in abandoned buildings, of which there are plenty in Bosnia. For a long time, no one took care of the migrants without a place to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In July of last year, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) took over the care of refugees and migrants in all of the reception centres across the country. These centres, however, are often full, meaning that many migrants are left on the streets without a roof over their head.

Outside the entrance to the Bira centre there are reception facilities where, during our visit this spring, around 500 people were milling around. When we talked to them, they asked us for help and told us that no one in the Bira centre wants to help them. They claimed that they were not given food or water. Melisa Kljuca, the IOM representative who manages the Bira centre, assured us that everyone is getting regular meals but that the centre is overcrowded.

We also witnessed how security officers from Bakrač, the private security company that protects the Bira centre, used electric stun devices to force the migrants away from the entrance to the reception centre. The use of such devices is prohibited by Bosnian law. We contacted a representative of the Bakrač security company but they were not willing to explain why they use them. Melisa Kljuca of IOM told us, however, that the individual security guards had already been suspended and relocated due to the use of these batons.

That night many migrants were left outside, sleeping in a meadow close to the Bira centre. Not far from Bihać, Bosnian authorities set up tents in a field previously used as a landfill site. The police now send the migrants that they find on the city streets to this improvised camp, called Vučjak. Living there is worse than being in prison, they say.

The Balkan bottleneck 

Migrants usually enter Bosnia and Herzegovina from its eastern border, where there are no reception centres for them. Then they head to the country’s interior, towards Tuzla. As we witnessed on the ground, the brunt of the migrant crisis is borne by a handful of volunteers. They act on their own initiative and are occasionally aided by humanitarian organisations and a few of Tuzla’s residents. Among the most active is local Senad Pirić. He says that they cope as best they can and that they are already exhausted. Their supplies of food, sanitary material and other basic necessities of life are almost gone, but there are more and more migrants pouring in every month.

Displaced people enter the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina or Republika Srpska from the neighbouring Serbia over the Drina River. The government of Republika Srpska, one of the two political entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, insists that it will not help migrants but that it can provide a humanitarian corridor. Hence, police direct everyone who enters the Republika Srpska to the other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Tuzla.

During the late evening hours, several migrants arrive in Tuzla on foot, usually in groups of up to 30 people. They are soaked, hungry and afraid. They gather in front of the assembly centre, in the park or at the main bus station. From there, they continue their journey to Sarajevo. “There is no location in Tuzla that is suitable for living. Public toilets do not operate in the evening. There is also no provision of health services or any help from the responsible authorities,” explained Pirić.

The authorities are intentionally indifferent to this problem, says Pirić, the tireless volunteer, who offers help to refugees and migrants day and night. He says that Bosnia and Herzegovina has no systemic solutions to deal with the migrant crisis. “They are not allowed to enter the EU and here, where they are stranded, they are also not provided with anything,” reflected Pirić, sadly. “They are stuck and can go neither backwards nor forwards.”

“By being unresponsive, the country blatantly infringes on the basic human rights of refugees and migrants, while the EU encourages non-member states to use repressive methods,” finds Nidžara Ahmetašević, a Bosnian activist and journalist who has been following the migrant crisis since 2015.

Denial and indifference

Following three months of intensive fieldwork and data processing, we conclude that the practice of push-backs – denial of entry to refugees and migrants at the border without the possibility of applying for asylum – on the Balkan route continues unhindered in 2019, despite the warnings of national Ombudsmen, NGOs, journalists and other activists in this field.

The clearest proof of this is the testimonies of numerous refugees and migrants to whom we spoke in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly in Velika Kladuša and Bihać – and our verification of the facts on the ground, as well as our combing through and analysis of the available data. The testimonies are of key importance because they provide evidence of the systematic treatment of migrants that contravenes the international conventions on human rights and refugees.

It is impossible to know with any accuracy how many refugees and migrants Slovenian police pushed straight back to Croatia after they crossed the border illegally, because many of them are not included in the Slovenian statistics and often not in the Croatian ones either. In Croatia, the local police – also confirmed in the collected testimonies – employ brutal and cruel measures to return refugees to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where inhumane conditions prevail in the IOM accommodation centres. Many must fend for themselves.

Read the personal testimonies of migrants

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Economic recovery means little to Europe’s working poor

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Europe is experiencing an economic recovery but many of the jobs being created are keeping people poor rather than lifting them out of poverty.

Friday 8 December 2017

The latest forecasts tell a story of economic recovery. Europe is emerging out of a decade-long slump that nearly crippled a handful of countries and stung employment and growth numbers in the rest. People are working again, industry is growing and business confidence is up, except perhaps in Brexit-paralysed Britain. This is surely good news for people living in poverty.

Or not. All this economic good cheer ignores a persistent and often under-reported problem in ‘wealthy’ Europe… having a job means squat if it is poorly paid, unregulated, unstable or just plain unfair. This was the general sentiment at a recent EU-backed meeting in Brussels organised by the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) which heard from a range of people experiencing poverty, especially the working poor.

The European Union’s unemployment rate is currently around 7.5%, which is the lowest rate recorded in the bloc since December 2008. But according to a new EU report on ‘In-work poverty in the EU’, the number of European workers at risk of poverty has actually increased, from 8% in 2007 to 10% today.

Europe knows it has a problem and that there is a window of opportunity in the early stages of the recovery to tackle it. Alluding to Bob Dylan, European Commissioner Marianne Thyssen, who’s responsibilities include employment and social affairs, acknowledged this. “The times, they are a-changin,” she said, and everyone — governments, industry, social partners, unions — needs to ensure no-one gets “left behind or pushed aside” in this changing world.

Yet the stark reality is that Europe’s recovery is opening up an economic no-man’s land between the ownership class and the ‘working poor’. This is a precarious place — especially for the 70 million Europeans who lack the skills or basic numeracy to take full advantage of the digital revolution — where even Europe’s much-vaunted social system seems unable to gain ground. It’s occupied by a growing class of Europeans who are not poor enough for many of the social services and not rich enough to afford decent accommodation and good health, or to start a family, move away from home… or simply to enjoy the benefits of a ‘living wage’.

We live in a world of plenty but wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands,” said EAPN’s Director Leo Williams, which is an “absurd paradox”, he added, in light of the recent Paradise Papers tax-avoidance scandal.

Flexibility leads to poverty

And the causes of this wealth gap are entrenched in labour market principles which are geared towards flexibility and dynamism in order to stimulate growth, new jobs and mobility. But in practice, it engenders a power imbalance between workers and employers which translates into something called ‘low work intensity’. For others, it means low-paid or minimum-wage work, and for Europe’s legions of under-employed youths and graduates it means a succession of internships and other ‘non-standard’ or exotic working conditions crafted by employers to keep labour costs in check. This imbalance has direct consequences on the working poor, ranging from difficulties meeting childcare costs and poor or no housing, to high stress and failing health.

In this report, in-work poverty means household income is below the poverty line or threshold despite a full or part-time worker living there. The poverty threshold is defined as under 60% of the average household income (before housing costs).

Real-life struggles told by delegates invited from all over Europe to the ‘people experiencing poverty’ meeting were aimed at EU policy-makers and social actors. A single mother of four spoke of a life “treading water” and feeling socially excluded in the UK. “We really want justice, not judgement,” she said, and to be “cared for, not criticised” by society.

A delegate from Portugal said that even with two household incomes one full-time and one part-time her family struggled to make ends meet. Failing health and dwindling disposable income offered little hope for her children’s future. “I want work and stability… to be able to live not only survive,” she said.

Great stock has been put in the new European Pillar of Social Rights to guide the EU towards a more inclusive model of fair jobs and economic growth. Europe’s leaders recently gathered at a summit in Sweden to discuss a wide range of issues — education, training, lifelong learning, social protection, housing, fair wages, old-age pensions, in-work poverty, etc. — and to pledge support for the Pillar.

But for the quiet-spoken Croatian delegate back at the ‘people experiencing poverty’ meeting, who lamented the broken financial and political systems that can’t even prevent homelessness in ‘wealthy’ Europe, the imminent future looks less hopeful. He wondered how he would be able to afford to leave the shelter he calls home when his earnings are swallowed up by his poor health and the struggle for daily survival.

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The adventures of Rami and his magic violin

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Syrian Rami Basisah and his violin have been through hell and high water together. His childhood dream of becoming a world-famous musician is about to come true. But the trauma of losing is country means he cannot enjoy his success.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

Tuesday 12 September 2017

A strong, refreshing breeze was caressing the mountains high above a prestigious Swiss holiday resort. At the height of summer, the soft and fragrant grasses could barely be greener. From the nearby glacier, flashes of white brilliance were glistening in the afternoon sun. A small cluster of mountain bikers were hurtling down a steep trail towards the valley below, while a number of hikers topped to marvel at their courage. Herds of cows were munching on the grass or staring off into space. But instead of the Swiss horns and accordion you might expect as mood music for this quintessential scene, the exuberant sound of a violin playing Arabic rhythms and the laughter of a boy who had survived echoed in the Alpine valley.

Rami Basisah, 22, a Syrian refugee from the countryside between Homs and Hama, was playing to chase away his demons. Applying the bow with a series of flourishes, he was doing what he could to fight off his strong emotions.

His violin is his best friend and trusted companion. It is both the core of his identity and his ticket to freedom, his passport to safety and perhaps even a modicum of prosperity. In his mind, the idyllic Swiss mountains all around us formed the perfect counter-point to the Syrian carnage. Yet a single glance would tell you Rami was present only in the most basic physical sense. This was clear from his every move and every word, spoken or unspoken. It was also embedded in every note of the music issuing from beneath his fingertips.

The sound of music

“I used to dream about this when I was a kid. Every day I used to dream of playing the violin before European audiences as the people clapped and cheered,” Rami told me as he put the instrument away. His violin was always with him. He never let it out of his sight. He knew very well what it had helped him overcome.

But the tragedy-ridden path to fulfilling Rami’s childhood dream has made it hard to enjoy the achievement. “I can’t really say I’m happy,” he confessed. “I’m confused. I’m not sure what is happening to me, or even where I am. I mean, yeah, things are great and I’m very grateful… But my thoughts are somewhere else. Above all, I really want to help my brother, who’s spent the past three years as a refugee in Lebanon. And I want my parents and my three sisters, who remained in Syria, to be safe.”

The dark-haired youth’s stare was a compelling one, powered by a mixture of hard questions and a resolution not often seen in one so young.

“The events are starting to overtake me,” he confided. “This is becoming so huge. Everybody wants something from me, and I’m not yet fully prepared. I don’t even know if I’m good enough, you see. What I want is a little peace and quiet, a true friend and some love. Yes, that’s right, all I want is a normal life… But everything around me has been the opposite of normal for such a long time. I can sometimes no longer tell what’s real and what’s not.”

Following a string of happy coincidences, Rami had been invited to the Swiss Alps as a special guest of the prestigious classical music festival in Klosters. Up here, the traumatised and very lonely Syrian musician was awarded the opportunity to play in front of one of the world’s most demanding audiences. The onlookers may have been knowledgeable and refined, verging on the blasé, but Rami still managed to take their breath away… and not just with his indisputable musical talent.

The border concerto

Rami performs ‘Ode to Joy’ Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

August 2015: darkness was slowly descending over the savannah-like border between Greece and Macedonia. Startled flocks of doves were sweeping over the wizened sunflower fields. A local hunter, dressed in an army shirt, was leading his three dogs through the brush. Tired yet relaxed-looking clusters of Syrian and Afghan refugees were lounging under the trees and near the deserted border guard facilities.

This was the heyday of the so-called Balkan refugee route, and the men and women were waiting for permission to move on. All the time, fresh groups of refugees and migrants kept rolling in from the Greek side of the border. At the nearby reception centre, Rami, who was 20 at the time, took out his violin from his travelling bag. Giving it a long, affectionate stroke, he went on to tune the strings. The bashful and introverted young man then stepped in front of a mass of his fellow refugees waiting to catch the next train to the Serbian border.

His friends were encouraging him to abandon himself to the moment and just start playing. But it still took Rami, a former student of music at Homs university, a while to work up his courage. The Macedonian police watched on in bewilderment, trading glances and wondering if they should possibly confiscate the instrument. Then one of them motioned to Rami that he was free to proceed.

The young man began playing, slowly at first, even somewhat timidly. A hush descended over the crowd of refugees, their lively chatter turning to primal awe. The police officers’ faces broke into a grin when they recognised the melody. The refugees’ warm response had a visibly relaxing effect on the young musician. He started playing with redoubled vigour, drawing in even the most apathetic ears. Rami was getting more and more in the zone. His stifling thoughts finally dispelled, he was guided by pure love. Yet he was far from being in a trance. He was all too aware of what was going on.

As he smiled, his face was suffused with a hard-boiled irony. The reception centre was ringing with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which the EU had adopted as its anthem. Was this indeed irony? Or more of an inspired prank? A spurt of brilliant political analysis? Improvised psychotherapy? Whatever it was, the police themselves were soon keeping time with their boots.

When he was finished, the audience clapped and urged Rami to play on. He paused for a few seconds. Then his violin gave birth to the profoundly mournful, yet also movingly proud tones of a Syrian patriotic song.

His friends – all of them from the vicinity of Homs, all of them educated and urban – began to sing along. Many of the others were happy to join in, men and women who had nearly forgotten dignity could occasionally be found in the world as well. Some of them were soon weeping openly. The women hugged their children a little tighter to themselves. For a few precious minutes, the ice of pain was melted by the fire of hope. Rami played on… And on. The new refugees kept rolling in. It was getting close to total darkness.

The astonishing concerto ended with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, both an obvious and spirited choice. There was plenty of applause. Rami gave a bashful bow. As soon as he put away his violin, his motions became stiff, and the contours of his face slid back into their default traumatised expression. His trance broken, anxiety was king once again.

“Forgive me,” he smiled, still catching his breath from his exertions. “I’ve made a number of mistakes. I was so very nervous.” Just before he was swallowed up by the crowd, we exchanged contact details and promised we would stay in touch.

A crescendo of memories

The superb acoustics at the St Jakob church in Klosters had helped it become one of the music festival’s main venues. Outside, the Swiss organisers were mingling with the guests. The heavy heat was something of a drag on the mood, along with the overdressed atmosphere and the often bizarrely refined manners.

Rami, a lad from a different world altogether, stepped out of the car. He was besieged by doubt and fear. Confused and still rather innocent of the European music scene, he was about to perform in front of David Whelton – the festival’s acoustics director, the long-time head of the British Philharmonia Orchestra and one of the most influential people in the world of classical music.

As we caught each other’s eye, it was as if the ground beneath both our feet gave a momentary shudder.

So here we were. Rami’s concert at the Macedonian-Greek border and the feature article I’d written about it had helped to turn his life upside down… And now, two years on in Switzerland, it seemed like a miracle.

“Wow! Hey! Oh my God, this can’t be happening.”

His words sounded about as shaky as he looked. Our embrace lasted a long time, our limbs heavy and joyously light at the same time.

“I didn’t think we’d ever get to see each other again. Everything is coming back to me now, everything… Well, how could I forget it? The war, the journey, the Macedonian performance, our meeting, and then the horrible journey to Germany,” Rami reminisced. 

Prior to our brief encounter at the Greek-Macedonian border, Rami had already spent 40 days in flight. Before that, he had been a refugee in his own homeland for two years. He now told me he wanted to continue with his studies at whichever European music academy would have him. Overall, he did not feel like talking too much about himself or the war.

“I need to do everything I can to help my brother. He fled Homs two years ago and went to Lebanon. As he left, he promised he’d help me reach safety. He worked so hard over there in Lebanon. When he got enough money to fund my trip to Europe, he sent it to me right away,” Rami explained. “Now he’s lost his job. And so it is my duty to help him out somehow. I owe him my life.”

Instead of focusing on the moment and the incredibly important rehearsal ahead, Rami was swept under a barrage of memories. He was grasping for concentration, but the thoughts were simply coming on too strong. For a few minutes at least, the music became what it actually is: an ancillary, secondary thing. But then David Whelton determined that, at least for the moment, Rami’s heart would migrate to where the music was.

A brother’s sacrifice

Rami left his homeland on 30 July 2015. From the regime-controlled Al Bayadiya village, located between Homs and Hama, he took a taxi to Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast. Along with a number of fellow refugees, none of whom he had met before, he then took a bus to Beirut.

They first had to wait 15 hours to cross the Syria-Lebanon border. Rami had arranged a meeting with his older brother Faheed, a fellow musician who had fled to Lebanon a year before. At a time when the Balkan refugee route was still open and Germany was boasting an open-door refugee policy, Faheed summoned his younger brother to Lebanon and told him he would pay for his long trip to Europe.

In Beirut, Rami collected his plane ticket to Turkey. It was very difficult for him to say goodbye to his brother again, Faheed being something of a central figure in Rami’s life. Their farewell was extra hard on Rami since he knew his brother also wanted to reach Europe but was willing to sacrifice himself for his younger sibling on account of his exceptional musical talent.

And so Rami was sent on as a sort of vanguard force, one charged with the exceedingly important task of ‘making it’… Not only for his own sake, but for the sake of the entire family – father, mother and three sisters – staying behind in Syria.

Farewells and hard roads

“At the airport, I played a farewell song,” Rami Basisah recalled, as we strolled through the idyllic Swiss mountain village, which had been transformed into a temporary backdrop to the mad bruising toboggan his life had long become. “It was tough on both of us. I so wished he was on that plane with me. My brother saved my life.”

Rami flew to Izmir on the Mediterranean coast, where he was supposed to meet the people who would ‘manage’ his entry to Europe. But things didn’t work out as planned. So he first had to reach Istanbul to make the necessary arrangements. At the time, as many as 10,000 refugees were sailing to the Greek Aegean islands daily. The smuggling business was booming. The Turkish authorities were content to look the other way and leave the incomers at the complete mercy of the smuggling industry.

While Rami waited for the fateful call, he met a few of the local musicians in Istanbul, along with a number of very talented refugees. Together, they played a series of spontaneous concerts at Taksim square, in the heart of Istanbul, and were met with unexpected warmth from the passers-by.

When the call came, Rami and a group of 39 fellow refugees travelled back to Izmir, destined to become their jump-off point for Kos, Lesbos and other Eastern Aegean islands.

It took them no less than five attempts to reach Greece. On the first one, the water flooded their crowded rubber dinghy, causing it to start sinking a few hundred meters off the Turkish coast. Compulsively holding on to his violin, Rami managed to swim back to the shore. But the saltwater had done extensive damage to the sensitive instrument, especially to the strings.

The second time they tried to set out, the Turkish police chased them off the beach moments before they were to embark. And so Rami and his fellow refugees decided they would try their luck from Bodrum, Turkey’s second great launch point for the refugees’ heading for Greece.

The third attempt saw them trying to row off by themselves, but the coast guard again sent them back. They opted to regroup into a few smaller groups of eight. On the fourth try, three smaller boats cast off together. The one Rami was on was powered by an electrical battery. “We were going very slow,” he recalls. “Our boat was commanded by a man from Pakistan. When we reached the open sea, water started leaking in. The Pakistani wanted to push on. In the distance we could already see the lights from Kos. We would need about an hour to get there. But the other refugees decided to force our ‘captain’ – a few actual blows were necessary – to turn the boat back to Turkey.”

They somehow managed to reach the shore, where, in Rami’s colourful phrase, they were ‘met by the mob’. The criminals roughed up the Pakistani pretty badly, while making the other refugees pick up their boat and set off on a night-time march.

Even though the men were armed, Rami and one of his mates refused to go with them. They knew that the boat’s battery was empty and that the smugglers would be sending the group to their deaths. So they stayed on the coast and watched the sea filling up with refugee boats. Suddenly the police appeared and snatched them up. The two of them spent the day at the Bodrum police station. “They were pretty nice to us Syrian refugees over there,” Rami continued his tale. “But they beat the others, especially the Africans and the Pakistanis.”

When he and his mate were released, they had to fend for themselves. They eventually hooked up with another group of smugglers, who placed them with yet another group of refugees.

On the fifth attempt, luck finally smiled down on the by now all but exhausted and bankrupt Rami. Since it was a Turkish national holiday, most of the policemen had stayed home, and the sea was rather calm for a change.

“I was completely fed up,” he remembered. “I was prepared to take some major risks if necessary. I was on the verge of really losing it. Anyway, we were going very slow again, and then sometime near the halfway mark the electric battery went again. This time we didn’t turn back. We had two big paddles on the boat. I took hold of one of them, the other one went to a strong young guy from Latakia. As it was getting light, we sent our coordinates to the Greek coast guard. They came to pick us up. On their boat, I saw four dead refugees from my previous group.”

From there, it could have been a swift journey from Kos to the Ode to Joy concerto at the Macedonian-Greek border… But Rami decided to hang back in Athens for a while to wait for a friend, visit some relatives and get new strings for his violin. It was a decision destined to mark his life in completely unexpected and very profound ways.

Answered prayers

At the great concert hall in Klosters, the Swedish philharmonic orchestra from Malmö was playing Beethoven, whom, along with Vivaldi, is Rami’s favourite composer. It was raining heavily outside. At times, the downpour turned so heavy the sound of raindrops pounding the roof worked its way into the intensity of the music.

“This man – what music! What madness! Oh, the violent mood swings…. This is exactly how I feel. That’s why I feel so close to Beethoven,” Rami whispered to me during the concert.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

He still looked pretty lost in the Swiss setting. Even the well-wishers who came over to pay their respects succeeded in making him uncomfortable. This was simply not his world. After a few more minutes of listening to the music, his attention was shot and wandered off to who knew where. He suddenly became very tired. He nodded off, but his entire body gave a violent shudder that brought him to again. His first instinct was to cover the whole thing up, to pretend nothing had happened, that he had been listening all along… But to no avail.

Tears flowed from his eyes. “I would like to play on such a stage one day too, so I can help my family,” he whispered, avoiding the curiously appraising looks from the members of a high society still governed by strictly demarcated etiquette, much like in the times of the great European monarchies.

That same day, Rami spiced up the rather staid atmosphere at the festival sponsors’ lunch with a string of Arab melodies. A few hours later, he performed at a mountain lodge in front of NGO members of from all around the world. Rami’s musical performance was so brutally honest even this normally so garrulous and cocky crowd was left speechless.

One of the festival’s main sponsors, who wishes to remain anonymous, was grinning from ear to ear. Inviting Rami, despite his being somewhat lost in time and space, had proven a great success. Near the end of May, his CD Rami: My Journey (by Decca), recorded in collaboration with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, was presented on the legendary British Classic FM radio. Among the many listeners who had voted it Album of the Week was a retired businessman who went on to invite Rami to Switzerland. He decided the young Syrian violinist deserved all the help he could get.

Musical doors

That August, in 2015, when Rami crossed the Greek-Macedonian border, where my Jure Eržen took his iconic photo which would later be chosen by Classic FM radio as one of the 10 most iconic photographs of wartime music, the Balkan refugee route to Germany was still open… though it was increasingly strewn with obstacles and humiliations.

Rami ventured forth to Serbia and then on to Hungary, Austria and Germany. He was accompanied by two friends named Mohammed and Mudhar, both of whom he had met in Turkey. Amid the chaos reigning at the various borders they stuck together and helped each other out. In the Serbian town of Preševo the police broke them up. His two friends were allowed to continue, while Rami was taken into custody. After a six-hour wait at the station, one of the policemen asked him what was in his bag.

“It’s a violin,” Rami replied.

“Is it yours?” the policeman wanted to know. “Can you play?”

“Yes.”

“Well then, why don’t you play something for us?”

Rami knew exactly what to do. Relying on his tried-and-tested formula, he once again played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, this time in the south of Serbia. The policeman was so thrilled he called his wife on his mobile so she could partake in the ‘solo concert’. In a matter of minutes, Rami was issued with the papers enabling him to push on.

At Belgrade, where tens of thousands of refugees were waiting for the next stage of their journey to the promised lands, he bought a ticket for a train to Budapest… But this was a tactical mistake. At the time, the Hungarian government was finishing the building of the fence at the Serbian border and was turning its attention to the border with Croatia. Viktor Orban’s government was starting to implement a series of systematic anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies.

Rami and his two friends had to get off the train before they even reached the Hungarian border. They crossed the border via the classic route at the time, winding through the forests. “I was very afraid. I didn’t want to go on, but my friends convinced me otherwise. Mohammed was the one who carried my violin. We walked for a long time. Then we were arrested by the Hungarian police. The three of us got separated again. I was suddenly left without my violin and without my friends.”

Rami spent the next week at a small refugee camp. Even now, he didn’t feel much like dwelling on this period. He was almost devoured by various mites, he said, and his allergies were killing him. He was then relocated to a bigger camp, where he was finally able to sate his hunger, wash up and don a fresh set of clothes.

But all he cared about was resuming his journey. He escaped the camp during the changing of the guard and somehow found his way to Budapest. He reached the capital’s central railway station at a time when the authorities had halted the trains carrying refugees to Austria and then onward to Germany and northern Europe.

“Things were pretty crazy at the station… There were at least 20,000 of us. We were shouting that we wanted to go on to Germany. We talked to the press. A lot of good people came to see us, they brought food, drink, clothes and medicine,” Rami remembers.

Along with his fellow sufferers, our involuntarily intrepid violinist set off from Budapest to Austria. After a few hours’ walk, the Hungarian authorities backed down a little – at least enough to allow the refugees to use the buses. A number of perfect strangers from Austria and Germany drove over to pick them up and transport them north in their cars. Crowds of thousands were gathering at the German railway stations to greet the incomers. It was a time when it still seemed that European humaneness, however fragile and hard-won, might prevail. But this proved to be just one more in a series of tremendous illusions.

Like so many of his fellows, Rami was quick to grasp that Germany was not nearly ready to receive almost a million Syrian refugees: not politically, not logistically, not bureaucratically.

For several months, he was moved from one overcrowded camp to the next. At a camp near Aachen, a woman handed him a small violin and asked him to play something for her. Since he was happy to oblige, the woman made a recording of his performance and played it to the conductor of the local orchestra.

The man invited Rami to take part in two different concerts, while his story began to spread across Europe with the help of various newspaper and magazine articles. Soon a number of agents were calling to offer their services, while the maestro from Aachen offered him a permanent place in the band as well as accommodation. But Rami had to wait for his asylum request to be granted, and so his first serious chance at a better life eventually fell through.

The washing machines ft. Bach

An order was issued for his relocation to yet another camp, situated inside a basketball arena near the city of Lahr. “The place was crammed with people. We were sleeping virtually on top of each other. I was only able to play my violin outside or in the laundry room, where I had to compete with the rumble of the washing machines. So I mostly played Bach,” the young Syrian violinist recalls with a mischievous glint in his eye.

As rumours of his musical acumen spread, an old lady from one of the local churches came to visit at the camp. As a Christian himself, Rami had no problem complying with her request to come play at the church. The people in charge of it were also among those quick to recognise his indisputable talent, so they invited him to join their ranks. But Rami was still ‘in the waiting room’.

In March 2016, the German authorities finally granted him asylum. Teresia and Winfred Oelbe, an elderly couple from the village of Niederschopfheim, offered him a place to stay – a room and a bathroom, free of charge. The brunt of the young man’s ordeal had finally drawn to a close. A few weeks later he signed a deal with Decca, the British publishing house, whose executives learned both of his lengthy plight and his technical accomplishment. It wasn’t long before his CD was released, consisting of his own compositions and a few adaptations.

Collateral damage

When all his social and concert-related responsibilities at the mountain resort were dispensed with, the visibly exhausted young musician retired to his hotel room as soon as possible. He needed a bit of peace and quiet to reflect. These last few years of turmoil hadn’t exactly provided a lot of opportunity for that. Events, he told me, were again starting to overtake him. More than anything he needed someone he could confide in: a good listener, someone he could trust, someone who would neither expect nor demand anything of him, at least for the time being.

“I am very grateful to all these kind people. I know I’ve been very very fortunate. But more than anything I’m interested in how to best help my brother, without whom I would never have got this far. He sacrificed everything for me! You know, I’ve felt so alone much of my time here in Germany. I miss my family, my friends – I really miss my old life. I’m learning to speak both German and English over the internet while trying to get in touch with my acquaintances, who are scattered all over Germany. Let me tell you, it’s not easy,” he told me while absently fondling his violin in his hotel room.

He was quick to add he was keen to avoid being seen as a victim. Unlike hundreds of thousands of refugees and those who never even got the chance to get out of Syria, he was very lucky – and he was all too aware of the fact. “My friend Mudhar, for instance – he wasn’t half as lucky as I was. When he got to Germany, he started having these headaches. They kept getting worse and worse. And so they finally took him to a doctor, who eventually found a tumour in his brain. His condition rapidly deteriorated, and he soon died. I miss him very much.”

Rami buried his face into his hands, sinking down into his thoughts. His body was twitching uncontrollably. His head was between his knees in a sort of foetal spasm. He looked for all the world like a heavily wounded child. All of a sudden, he was unable to answer a single question, not even with a syllable.

The next day he told me he was sleeping poorly, very poorly indeed. His post-traumatic stress disorder felt all-pervasive, but nobody seemed to be addressing the issue. Instead, everyone was focusing on how hot Rami had suddenly become, how popular. His anxiety, even depression behind closed four walls was merely the collateral damage of success. Yet I am happy to report that a safety net has nonetheless started to form around him – an informal network of people not interested in him as a product but rather as a human being. People who had felt enough pain in their lives that they can understand and accept it when they see it in someone else.

So what was there to do? A long road still ahead of him, Rami picked up his beloved instrument to help him confront his stark realities.

Play on, Rami,” I whispered as we embraced in another temporary farewell. “Play on.”

And play on he has and he will, spectacularly. On Tuesday 19 September 2017, Rami is set to perform at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall, and I will be there to watch him bring down the house.

 

 

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Eutopian nightmares

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

By raising the drawbridge in the face of desperate refugees and succumbing to bigotry and hatred, the EU’s utopian ideals are being abandoned for a dystopian reality.

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Wednesday 1 June 2016

When Slovenia’s army began to erect a barbed-wire fence on its border with Croatia in November 2015, almost a decade had passed since that historic day when the former Yugoslav republic was admitted into the European Union. During this period, we had become accustomed to the wonderful fact that there were no borders within the EU – at least not of the visible kind. Despite the savage quickening of the economic, financial, social and political crisis, free travel all over Europe had become a matter of great simplicity. It was something one could count on, something that almost went without saying.

And so we only started to debate this entire business of borders, fences, barbed wire and “the strengthening of Europe’s external borders” when these outer frontiers were already in great peril. But contrary to popular belief, that peril didn’t really come from the refugees and economic migrants who started pouring in on a large scale in 2014 and 2015.

In fact, the refugees and the migrants were the ones who, by breaking through the physical frontiers, were making clear that Europe’s borders had never been truly eliminated. Quite the contrary. The more the old continent had been opening up internally, the more it had been beefing up its outer ramparts. And so, slowly but inexorably, a thing some of us like to call Fortress Europe had been born – this enormous yet infinitely fragile and self-obsessed ivory tower… And the more fragile and self-obsessed it became, the more removed from its lofty freedom-loving ideals its immediate future had become. And in 2015, that immediate future had finally merged with the present.

The discourse – both in private and in public – was soon radicalised beyond repair. The cankerous genie of the far-right had broken out of its bottle, and its twisted worldview soon became the norm. The differences between Europe’s high castles and “the streets” were soon dissolved. Instead of the alarm that should be ringing out in every house and every soul still clinging to a shred of human decency, all one could hear was a thunderous silence. The core of the entire continent has been radicalised with a ferocity quite unprecedented in modern times.

The people of Europe took to acting as if it was quite natural that the incoming refugees should have no names, faces, fates, stories and future. Even worse: we started treating people on the run from war zones as if they were so much nuclear waste; as if we had all been stripped of any semblance of historical memory; as if the entire continent had been living a giant all-pervasive lie, which had clouded our judgment and had left us quite satisfied with this vague and infinitely flimsy idea… An idea that – a quarter of a century after the collapse of the iron curtain – had been thoroughly humiliated by the construction of the two walls on the Hungarian-Serbian and the Slovenian-Croatian borders.

As hard as it is to state this out loud, the flood of refugees and terrorism Europe has witnessed in recent years is partly a consequence of its failed foreign, immigration and integration policies. Its neglect of its neighbours in the Middle East and Central Asia, and its neglected immigrant neighbourhoods at home, not to mention the active role a number of European countries have played in fuelling conflict, war and despotism in the Middle East, have blown back in the form of large-scale radicalisation.

For the European Union, the crises it is experiencing today are the consequence of decades of living in a bubble, of distancing itself from reality – both within Europe and in its neighbouring regions – while immersing itself ever further into the heartless algorithms of an ever-burgeoning bureaucracy. What happened was the consequence of decades of catastrophic delusions and of failed immigration policies and processes; of our being unable to grasp the realities, let alone confront them or respond to them in a constructive and proactive manner which could result in (at least) our moral distancing from the wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. Instead we fuelled them, through our indifference, ignorance, arms exports, ill-conceived military interventions, our favouring of trade over human rights and dignity, our support of dictators and violent, authoritarian regimes.

It is little wonder Europe was so quick to adopt the language of war: Europe, after all, had proven quite adept at starting wars while being absolutely awful at putting a stop to them. Given its historical legacy, it is hardly surprising the continent was so quick to renounce its ideals and keel over before the challenges of the present moment.

The post-terror developments in Europe are also tragic in their predictability.

First, the shutting down of borders, both inwardly and outwardly. Then the “Americanisation” of our security and the systematic creation of fear. The rapidly escalating division between “us” and “them”. The spine-chilling rise of private security firms. The radicalisation of policies, fomenting grave polarisation within society, increasing our internal frictions and fostering the rise of the far-right and even neo-Nazis, the European equivalent of Daesh. The outbreak of populism, the vanishing of what remained of our common European identity, the strengthening of both benign and malignant strains of nationalism. The crumbling of the masks dictated by our mostly feigned political correctness and the streamlining of both racism and xenophobia. The triumph of reflexes over reflection. The dehumanisation of refugees, who have left their ransacked homes fleeing the exact same demonic violence Europe had first faced in Madrid, then in London, then Paris and now Brussels.

Above all, the dehumanisation of ourselves.

These developments are something to be feared at least as much as the next terrorist attacks, which are at this point inevitable. We should be at least as afraid of these developments as we should be afraid of the thunderous silence created by our lack of reflection and the by now chronic absence of critical reasoning… That awful, inexcusable silence of our ever so comfortable European minds, the silence that will ultimately enable the extremists to shriek at the highest possible frequencies. This is what the so-called Islamic State could understand as their victory.

As early as 2004, the Dutch migration researcher Paul Scheffer told me that Europe is treading a dark and dangerous path. He went on to explain he felt that its grave mistake was to ignore some fundamental parts of human nature, and all under the guise of multiculturalism and tolerance. Holland was, he said, the best example of that wishful thinking with (socio-economically) limited expiry date.  “We were passing each other by looking the other way so determinedly that we ended up colliding,” Scheffer opined at the time when Europe was facing its first major terrorist attack in Madrid and the Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh (the maker of Submission) was murdered in Amsterdam by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim Mohammed Bouyeri. The idea of the functioning multicultural society was for the very first time shaken to the bones. Even a dozen years ago, Scheffer was well aware of what was likely to happen to a continent steeped in a chronic lack of reflection in the times of growing open conflicts.

The tragedies were as awfully, inexcusably predictable as the future we are now facing – a future we have done virtually everything in our power to facilitate.

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Rude Mediterranean awakening

 
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By Christian Nielsen

“Croatia, the Mediterranean as it once was,” the ad says. I didn’t realise that meant rude.

25 August 2009

Reader warning! The following may contain flagrant stereotyping, unsubstantiated opinions and some spite.

I was warned before venturing to this beautiful part of the world, where the Adriatic melts into the Ionian and Mediterranean Seas, that the locals can be on the brusque side. It came from a couple of people who have been known to bring out the shittier side in others, so I put it down to that.

But they weren’t that far off. Rude officialdom at Split’s customs is to be expected, but when it carries over to a good chunk of your other ‘tourist’ exchanges, you have to start wondering whether you’re dealing with some sort of national hump.

Questions are often met with a blank-faced reply. Overt, even idiotic, efforts to smile broadly during exchanges with the locals – you know, the way you do in foreign countries to avoid misunderstandings – are greeted with bemusement.  And humour seems at best to win pity.

You could easily notch all this up to language or miscommunication, but the rudest locals so far seem to be those with the best English.

An example, you demand. I rented a scooter last week from an operator in Bol, an attractive port town on the Island of Brac. I put on my friendly voice, asked questions about the scooter and prices etc., and even ventured some private information that I have a similar scooter at home, to which one would expect a polite “Oh, really? Or that’s nice. Or what kind?” … Nothing. The guy took my deposit and said pick it up tomorrow.

Okay.

Next day, I picked up the Sym 200CC scooter from his partner (wife?). A bit friendlier, she told me the price was 400 kuna and I handed over two 200 bills. I expected change of 50 for the deposit already paid. None came, so I presumed she would keep my deposit for the helmet or as a surety on a full tank when the scooter was returned. I asked for some touring tips and how to get to some local ruins. Sharpish answer: “You can’t take the scooter off road!” Of course, the map didn’t really indicate the ruins were off road. A few more tips of varying utility and that was it.

The husband then showed up and the wife took the next customer. He gave me a demo of how to operate the scooter while I took photos of the damaged parts before riding off, just in case. He pointed out there was an extra helmet under the seat. I said that I’ve only signed one out – proffering again extra info on why the other wouldn’t be needed. His brow furrowed just enough to tell me I was unnecessary.

More was to come. On returning the scooter, I filled it up at the petrol station but apparently it wasn’t enough. He said bluntly “I filled it this morning, you fill it now!” I tried to explain I had just done so, but it was clear this was a pointless exercise. The guy at the station looked at me like I was daft when I returned to put another 10 kunar in the tank. Thinking words were needed here as well, I said the scooter guy said it wasn’t full. Response? Not even a shrug.

Back again to return the vehicle and I asked if I’d get my deposit back now everything was in order – it was back on time, under the 200km limit and with no additional damage.

“Deposit? You already got it!” He called his wife and she claimed it had been given to me already. I argued that the €7 euro equivalent was not a lot of money for me, but it was a matter of principle. She asked why I hadn’t said something in the morning. Of course, I said I thought of it but assumed it was part of the procedure. Why wouldn’t it be?

Anyway, this went on for a while. The husband took the phone away from me mid-sentence and just handed back my driving licence and deposit, which I took to be confirmation that the deal was over – the goods had been returned in a fit state. Of course, I may discover spite wills out in weeks to come if  a bogus bill for damages arrives on my doorstep…

I’m not new to travelling, so this rant is not the paranoid delusions of someone unaccustomed to new cultures. I’ve visited every continent bar Antarctica and most countries bordering the Mediterranean, and nowhere have I come across this sort of discourtesy or perhaps it’s diffidence.

(No, wait, I have come across something of the sort in Israel but the curt replies there are not devoid passion.)

I choose a word like discourtesy instead of, say, hostility because the way we are treated is not aggressive, and there is no apparent singling out of nationalities, even if they could guess where my wife and I come from (different countries). We both have the impression that the Croats are just not ready for the world, or at least the sun-hat-wearing western world that answers the call to visit “the Mediterranean as it once was!”

If this is the way the Mediterranean used to be, I’m curious to know when that was. Perhaps it was when the Illyrians were trading horses in the 4th century BC or around the time of the Peloponnesian War a century or so later. I’m only guessing here. I’m also only guessing rudeness would be more common during the challenging times of antiquity.

Tough love

Maybe I hit on something there with the challenging times thing. They (the experts) tell us we’re going through some pretty tough economic times at the moment. But the region we are visiting seems pretty bustling to me; the boats are full, the scooters all rented days ahead, the hotels booked out.

(Of course, I could do some solid journalistic research to establish that the region of Dalmatia is not really suffering a massive downturn in visitors in 2009, but I can’t be arsed. And this is venting, not reporting.)

So, the ‘tough times’ excuse for the apparent sourness doesn’t seem to wash in this case. On reflection, it could be closer to the Israel ‘tough love’ case. Croats and Israelis might well share a bone to pick with the world, both bearing the scars of recent wars. And in Croatia’s case you’ve also got the communist legacy to deal with, which could manifest in distrust of strangers, certainly a hint of stoicism.

Maybe if you stay long enough, the smiles might come easier or I might learn to read the body language better. Maybe if I knew more about the country’s history and culture, or learnt more than the basic good mornings and thank yous in Croatian, the door might begin to open. But that’s probably too many maybes.

Sometimes it takes rebirth to forget the past and in a round about way I can already read some positive signs here. The Croats smile freely at my baby boy. He is engaging and very cute so it’s hard not to grin. But these are stoical people, so it is not nothing to see them scratching his double chin or patting his silky baby hair. And then look up at me or my wife for a microsecond before moving on.

And, just for the record, the island of Brac is worth visiting despite some coolish hospitality and the odd rude bugger – yes, you scooter man (be thankful I don‘t name and shame you). And the people who rented us an apartment were generous, helpful and warm.

It shows that rudeness isn’t in the water or totally embedded in the collective mindset. Like history, I’m sure it can be overcome. I’ll be back one day to test the theory.

© Copyright – Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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