“Instead of protecting me, they treated me like a murderer”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

In the two years since the EU’s inhumane deal with Turkey, the plight of traumatised refugees arriving on the Greek islands has worsened significantly. Instead of refuge, they are being offered prison.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Sunday 18 March 2018

It has been seven years since the conflict in Syria erupted and two years since the Balkan refugee route was shut down and the EU-Turkey deal to return refugees arriving in Greece to Turkey was set in motion, which have led to a severe worsening of the plight of refugees and migrants. Last August, when the Greek authorities succumbed to pressure from Brussels and took on a number of duties previously performed by various NGOs and solidarity initiatives, the conditions on the ground have reached new lows. As things stand, some 13,000 people remain trapped on the Aegean Islands, mostly in what used to be called ‘hotspots‘ but have now been euphemistically re-branded to become ‘reception centres’. A further 30,000 are still stranded on the mainland, many of them for two years or longer.

The Greek authorities have been efficient at guzzling up the European funds pouring in as payment for having turned the country into a buffer against all comers. But when it comes to the actual aid received by the refugees and the migrants, Greece has distinguished itself as slow, sloppy and often completely unresponsive.

The fate of tens of thousands has, thus, been handed over to an incompetent bureaucratic machine, whose main purpose seems to be stalling things to a standstill. Its second objective is to repel the ‘invaders’ massing at the borders. But the refugees and migrants keep pushing in. Owing to the horrendously escalated situation in Syria and the Turkish crackdown on Kurds in Afrin, a substantial mass of people is again making its way to the Aegean Islands. As for Turkey … Well, that destination is currently safe only for the loyal supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his authoritarian policies.

***

“If you’re waiting to die, you can just as safely do that in Syria,” Majd Tabhet, 24, said with a rueful grin. At a glance, it was clear that the articulate and urbane young man had grown highly adept at masking his pain.

After a few hours of conversation – actually a monologue – I was left with the burning question: how was it possible for this young man, who had undergone all the dehumanising savagery of European anti-refugee policies, to retain his basic sanity? And how could he still bear to look into anyone’s eyes without lashing out?

Majd, from Damascus, left his homeland in the wake of the first year of war. On receiving his conscription notice, he realised he that he was absolutely against taking up arms. He preferred to risk everything than to start butchering his friends, colleagues and neighbours, yet he still could not quite bring himself to believe the country had degenerated into all-out war.

“You see, my life was barely starting,” he shrugged helplessly, during our conversation at a social centre on Samos run by volunteers from all over the globe.

Prior to the escalation, Majd had been following the developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. He had been listening in on his elders’ talk, and many of them had been foretelling the tragedy. It seemed obvious to Majd that pent-up hatred was boiling on every doorstep. Unfortunately, the regime had been prepared for the ensuing wave of protests. And Bashar al-Assad proved highly skilled at learning from his fellow tyrants’ missteps.

Majd’s conscription into the state military was followed by a very similar ‘invitation’ to join the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Fortunately, the young man had already applied for the post of a steward with a Saudi charter jet company. He hadn’t exactly held high hopes of getting the job, but his perfect English and his innate resourcefulness and charm had apparently made an impression on his future employers.

Instead of to the barracks and the frontline, he was relocated high above to the Asian sky.

“I was so relieved. I managed to avoid the slaughter. And it was a good job, you know. But I simply couldn’t adjust to life in Saudi Arabia. Being a moderate Muslim, I found pretty much all of it alien, intrusive, unnatural and just plain weird. Everything there revolves around faith and countless ‘special rules’ one never heard of in Syria. I must confess it had a very repelling effect on me. My ideas about Islam were beginning to crumble. I was tumbling into an identity crisis. My personality was beginning to split,” Majd recalled.

As had been the case with thousands of his fellow refugees, his asylum application had been twice rejected by the Greek authorities. His current fate was to await deportation to Turkey, according to the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Majd has spent most of his stay on the island at the infamous Vathy refugee camp, where the living standards are even worse than those at the similar hot-spots on Lesbos and Chios. On the day we met, two days of incessant rain had finally let up. For a long while now, no journalists had been allowed into these hellholes of human misery. But I managed to enter Vathy with the help of a group of residents, who didn’t need much to persuade me of the outrageousness of their situation.

The camp itself had been set up on a slope above the island’s capital. A muddy creek was running down the steep incline forming the ground floor, with drying laundry hanging off the ubiquitous barbed wire. A thin, knock-kneed boy was sitting in the mud and eating what remained of his breakfast. Suddenly, a rat shot by.

It was a far from uncommon sight. The camp was riddled with vermin. But for the most part, this was the least of the refugees’ concerns. On some days, the camp’s residents needed to queue for up to two hours to get fed. Their tents were so thin they were only suited for warm and dry summer nights. In the camp’s upper section, where the unaccompanied children were being housed, the ground was strewn with broken glass and all possible kinds of refuse. The boys and the young men were simply left to fend for themselves. A gag-inducing reek was blowing in from what could only charitably be described as toilet facilities. Many of the families here were spending most of their time hiding inside the containers. The campsite was simply not safe, especially for women.

Here, sexual violence has long become the norm. Alcohol, drugs and vicious brawls are abundant. Many of the camp’s traumatised and thoroughly humiliated inmates were finally beginning to lose their patience. Their anger was primarily directed at the continent of Europe, whose bureaucrats had seemingly solved the refugee problem by turning it into a life-sized Raft of the Medusa.

Anywhere but home

In 2015, three years after Majd arrived in Saudi Arabia, all the Syrian employees in Saudi companies were notified they were to return to their homeland. Syria and Saudi Arabia had severed all contact. Majd had ten days to decide on his next destination. All he knew for certain was that he would not be returning to Syria.

Had he been foolish enough to do so, he would have been jailed – either by the government or by the rebels. During his three-year stint abroad, both regime troops and rebel soldiers had repeatedly visited his family to look for him.

Given that Majd only possessed a Syrian passport, he was not exactly spoiled for choice. So he flew to Turkey. He had managed to save up some money, but he was painfully aware that he would be unable to go home for a long time. He rented a room in a house in Istanbul, where 22 other Syrians were already residing. Many of them had just recently arrived straight from the battlefield. They were exhausted and traumatised veteran soldiers. Many of them had also been thoroughly radicalised. Having already turned his back on Islam, Majd found their company exceedingly unpleasant. Since so few of them had work, they spent their empty hours preaching their religious and political doctrines to him.

“‘Leave me alone,'” I would tell them. ‘I don’t believe a word you say,'” Majd would tell them. “So they grew hostile. Had we been in Syria, I’m sure I would simply be murdered. Fortunately, they didn’t quite dare do that in Turkey. I was all alone and very exposed. But I refused to pretend and go along with them. It’s not in my nature. I lasted four months among them, then I was forced to leave.”

Through his connections he managed to land a well-paid job with a private company specialising in airplane rentals. During this period, bombs started crashing down on the section of Damascus where Majd’s family lived. Tanks were invading the outskirts of his neighbourhood.

It was the first half of 2015, when countless thousands of Syrian refugees had already struck off for the Aegean islands and beyond … hoping to reach Germany and northern Europe. Majd’s family – father, mother, brother, sister – decided to flee for Turkey. They arrived virtually penniless. For the period he remained in Turkey, it fell to Majd to support them. They were barely scraping by.

Throughout this period, the serious and introspective young man kept exploring Christianity and ‘seeking out a new way’. Following his visit to a small Orthodox church on the outskirts of Istanbul, a gang of young men beat him for being an ‘infidel’.

At the hospital where he was taken afterwards, he was questioned by the police. The Turkish policemen added a number of their own threats to the bargain. Majd no longer felt safe in Turkey. He knew he needed to push on to anywhere in the European Union, which he thought of as the Land of Freedom and Democracy – anywhere he could freely exercise his religious beliefs and address as many complex issues as he pleased.

“Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Europe,” he confessed 18 months after his arrival in Samos, speaking in a quiet, weary, all but defeated tone.

Monolithic migrant masses

“European refugee policy, and especially the conditions at the reception centres, is stripping the refugees of all dignity. They are being treated as a homogeneous mass, instead of as human beings, instead of as individuals with unique fates,” Aliki Meimaridou, the woman in charge of a Samos refugee mental-health support project run by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).

Meirmaidu had been working on the island since last November. In her assessment, the refugees’ living conditions are absolutely scandalous. “Housing them amid all the mud and the rats in these overcrowded camps is humiliating. It is also not safe, especially for the women. There is a great deal of stress, depression and self-harm,” she explains. “These people have lost all control over their lives. Here on Samos, all the international human-rights conventions are being violated on a daily basis. Everything is just wrong. The procedures for obtaining asylum status are slow and chaotic, and the bureaucrats can do pretty much as they please.”

But the hardships the inmates face do not end there. “Their mental health is getting progressively worse,” the Greek humanitarian worker was quick to add. “Severe new traumas are piling up onto the prior ones. Relief is almost non-existent. The local solidarity movement has done its utmost to help. But I have to tell you: our mission here ends in March, and we shall leave highly frustrated… It shouldn’t be our task to plug up the holes in the official refugee policies. It is an almost purely political problem. One has to wonder where all the money pouring into Greece is ending up.”

Aliki Meimaridou also explained how the so-called ‘hierarchy of vulnerability’ system has led some refugees harm themselves intentionally and even to a number of calculated pregnancies because they see how pregnant women are granted swifter passage through the hell of Samos. “All this is pure pathology. These poor, aggressively passivised people are afraid to confess to getting better. Why? Because they know it would surely rob them of any chance of obtaining the medical certificate enabling them to proceed to Athens.”

Too late for refuge

Majd Tabhet arrived in Greece on 11 October 2016, just over six months after the so-called Balkan refugee route was shut off. Although Majd knew he was too late, he crossed into Greece anyway because staying in Turkey was growing too dangerous.

After he undertook a perilous night voyage on an overcrowded rubber boat, the police threw him into a huge tent outside a refugee camp. It was raining, and everything was covered in mud. “There were so many people crowded into that tent. We were utterly devastated. Hungry. Filthy. They were treating us like common criminals. We were insulted and pushed around. I could not believe my eyes: this was how Europe was treating refugees? I couldn’t bear to remain in that tent. I escaped the very first night.”

And on that very first night, he was promptly caught and beaten by the island’s police. This left him thoroughly confused, which he remains to this day, in spite of all his subsequent dismal dealings with the Greek bureaucracy. His suffering, however, had gradually delivered him from all his illusions and expectations.

“I had fled slaughter and religious violence, but here they were treating me like a criminal, like a piece of garbage. I had to ask myself: why should I even apply for a Greek asylum? It was clear this was not a good place. And also not a safe place, at least not for me,” he said. “But what choice did I have? I put in my application and spent the next several months in that camp. Among the rats. In an atmosphere of barely contained violence. With absolutely terrible food and severe overcrowding. Amid all this human chaos.”

Majd tried to manage as best as he could. He co-operated with the local solidarity movement and the various NGOs. He put in many hours as a translator. He helped out the stream of refugees arriving at the island. He sought out a local orthodox priest and informed him of his plight. The priest lost little time initiating him into the faith.

Crisis of faith

For Majd, Islam was now firmly consigned to the past, and he started learning about the rituals and the basic tenets of the Orthodox church. Soon after, he was baptised. He arrived at his first asylum interview with a broken nose. The previous day, he had been roughed up by a band of refugees who saw him emerging from the church. After a five month wait, his application was turned down. A local lawyer helped him formulate an appeal. But it got turned down as well. Majd’s status as a single young male had stripped him of most of his chances. The first time he was turned down, Majd was shocked. The second time his entire world came crashing down.

“All I wanted was to be safe,” he told me with tears in his eyes. Majd had by then realised he was to be deported. He was sharing a tiny tent with two and sometimes three companions in a chaotic and very dangerous camp. The camp’s official capacity was 700 people, but it was currently housing at least 1,500. Last August and September, as many as 2,200 were crammed there in absolutely savage conditions. And fresh refugees were arriving all the time. Every other day, a fresh boatload of them was delivered to Samos. The situation on the other Aegean Islands was much the same.

The UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov confirms that recent months has seen a steady flow of vulnerable refugees into Greece: “Roughly 40% of those arriving in this last period are children. Many of them are parentless. There has also been an increase in invalids among the new arrivals. The situation is extremely sensitive.” Cheshirkov also drew the attention to the severe overcrowding and catastrophic conditions at the reception centres on the islands, especially on Lesbos and Samos. The most vulnerable refugees are being transferred to the mainland. “The reception centres have become a dangerous environment for women. There is very little oversight of what goes on. Sexual violence is on the rise. We at the UNHCR have recently pointed all this out in our official report,” he explains.

 

 

A hundreds days of destitution

To avoid deportation, Majd Tabhet accepted his Orthodox priest’s offer to move in to the monastery for a while. But he knew he would not be able to hide for long. After a few weeks, he was apprehended by the police. This was during last autumn. Majd was immediately put in a small detention cell at the local police station. Over the next few months, he was to share the cubicle with all sorts of criminals and a number of fellow refugees.

It marked the beginning of the worst hundred days of his life.

Several times, Majd was convinced he was losing his mind. It felt like he was constantly fending off demons. He refused to be put on antidepressants or any other kind of medicine. He was subjected to the vagaries of his various cellmates’ fates. Apart from them, he was completely cut off from the world. His lawyer could not – or would not – help. The humanitarian workers were powerless, as they themselves were exposed to increased regulation from Brussels and Athens.

For a hundred days, Majd did not see the light of day. There was no room to exercise in the overcrowded prison. Sleep was very hard to come by. Hygiene was horrendous, to put it mildly. The food was a disaster as well.

Twice, the Syrian convert was transported to a different location. At one of those two detention facilities, the cell he shared with three Algerian men was constantly illuminated by a bright red light. It was pure torture. Then, one morning, Majd simply collapsed. He was taken to a hospital to run some tests. Upon reading the results, the attending doctor announced that sugar levels in his blood were in the potentially lethal range. She gave the policeman who brought him a good talking to. Then she wrote a recommendation that Majd should be released immediately.

However, the Greek bureaucracy refused to give in without a fight. Majd’s release certificate took 12 days to arrive from Athens. In the meantime, the exhausted and severely ill young man nearly lost his mind. “I’ve been to many places, but they only jailed me in Europe,” Majd spat. “Instead of protecting me, they treated me like a murderer.”

The words were pouring out of the young man along with his tears. “The whole system here is rotten, I simply can’t understand it. They had all the relevant information about me, but it didn’t seem to matter one bit. If I had lied or faked severe illness or lunacy, I would have long reached Germany. But I’m still stuck here. I’m not even on my way to Athens. I have fought, I have suffered … And now I’m completely lost, with no chance of continuing my journey. I’m trapped on this island, and sooner or later I’ll get deported to Turkey. It simply doesn’t make any sense.”

On any given day now, Majd runs the risk of being approached on the street by police officers who could either send him off to Turkey or imprison him again. By this point, he wouldn’t mind returning to Turkey that much, he admitted. The crestfallen refugee couldn’t find a single reason to sustain his faith in Europe. His life melting away, every day here seemed lost to him. Seeing that he was obviously running out of energy, it was little wonder his days were getting shorter and shorter. All he felt like doing was sleeping.

From talking to him, it was clear that the years of suffering had seriously hurt him. He knew very well he needed help. But there was none to be had, even from the God whom he had so feverishly sought out. “When you’re beaten to the ground, nobody will pick you up. Not even God. I managed to learn that much.”

From wedding planner to war photographer

Majida Ali, 41, hails from the vicinity of the besieged Eastern Ghouta. She spent years suffering in both regime and rebel prisons, where her body and soul were stolen from her. Utterly ruined, she eventually managed to flee to Greece through Turkey. Once she arrived, she was forced to face the entire spectrum of local bureaucratic savagery.

Before the war broke out, Majida was living some of the best years of her life. After completing her degree in economics and political science, she started a wedding planning company, which became a huge success in Damascus. For a time, Majida was able enjoy the finer things in life, turning herself into a minor celebrity in the process. That last part was to prove the engine of her undoing.

In the spring of 2011 war broke out. Majida had grown up in a military family: her late father had been a high-ranking officer in the Syrian army. Owing to her tremendous respect for the army, she refused to give credence to the reports of regime atrocities against protesters. She was also unable to believe the news of the sudden emergence of foreign fighters is some parts of Damascus.

No, she firmly told herself: such a thing was simply impossible in the Syria she knew.

So she took to the streets to establish what was actually going on. She took many pictures of the protests and the first tanks rolling through the streets of her home town. Frantically darting her way through the initial shoot-outs and bombings, she took in the first heaps of corpses.

It took a few weeks for the last of her illusions to crumble. What she found hardest to grasp was how perfectly ordinary people could overnight morph into cold-blooded killers… And how easily the old, repressed hatreds could be catalysed into outbreaks of collective lunacy.

Eight years later, no end to the lunacy is in sight.

Turning herself into a citizen-journalist, Majida set out to document the various forms of violence erupting around her. Then her friends and relatives started disappearing. After a few months, she was arrested by government soldiers. On account of the photographs found on her camera’s memory card, she was immediately jailed. For a month she was beaten and tortured. She became the victim of several sexual assaults. She could see people dying all around her from the wounds sustained through torture.

Majida eventually managed to secure her release from the government prison by drawing on her family’s connections. She knew very well she could not remain home. She wandered all over Syria: writing, taking photos and reinventing herself as she went along.

It wasn’t long before she was apprehended by the members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). At first, she believed their intentions were honourable. But she was wrong. She was accused of collaborating with the regime and thrown into an improvised jail cell. There, the whole sordid tale of the regime prison repeated itself, until, as she puts it, the woman in her was eviscerated.

“During the five war years I spent in Syria,” she told me, “I spent about half that time in various prisons. It didn’t much matter if they were of the government, rebel or Islamist variety: the jailers’ approach was basically the same. Yet I also managed to learn so much. Some of the worst criminals had taught me a number of things. You know, I can turn myself into a regular Ali Baba.”

***

Before her final escape from the war-torn land, she was again imprisoned by the regime. This time, she was convinced she would not make it. The authorities had actually notified her family that she was dead. What remained of her relatives even held a symbolic funeral for her.

After all the violence and suffering, Majida finally lost the connection to her soul. Her connection with the outside world had been broken long ago. On 17 March 2016, she was released. The help of friends got her first to Turkey, and then two weeks later, here, to Greece. But she was too late. The Balkan corridor had been welded shut.

“When we arrived on Samos,” Majida Ali went on, “We were all put inside a closed camp. It was just one more prison. I can tell you I wasn’t myself at the time. I was profoundly traumatised. I even lost my memory for a while. I didn’t have a clear idea of who or what I was. I had no home left. I was so alone and vulnerable. I wasn’t at all familiar with my rights. I was in dire need of all kinds of assistance.”

Throughout our conversation, she kept flicking anxious glances at her cell phone. She was perpetually terrified of receiving a call from Eastern Ghouta and the Damascan quarters that had been bombed hard over the past few weeks. Ten days earlier, the regime bombardment had cost her another sister. Altogether, she had lost 45 relatives in the Syrian war.

Her three brothers were currently held in three different prisons. She had no clear confirmation they were even still alive. Her gravest fears concerned her mother, who, after the bombs had flattened the family home, had moved to a safer part of Damascus where she now spends her days preparing meals for four hundred people.

“My mother is my hero, you know,” Maida related, laughing and crying at the same time. “She is the only one I can trust. She tells me not to worry. She sometimes scolds me for giving in to panic – she says my time would be better spent improving my situation.”

Their refugee status is nothing new for Majida Ali’s family. Her grandfather had been a reputable Palestinian businessman. Fleeing Israeli violence, he left the country in 1949. He bought a large plot of land on the outskirts of Damascus and built housing for numerous Palestinian families.

“I don’t know, it seems being refugees is my family’s eternal fate. And the fate of thousands of other families from our country. Together, we are a mirror to the world. The mirror to all of us,” Majida observed. “Maybe that’s why I can’t bear to plan for the future. My very genes are aware that tomorrow my world could be turned upside down again.”

For five months Majida had been residing at Vathy, a 21st-century concentration camp and one of Europe’s human landfills. Once more utterly alone, she was again exposed to sexual harassment. It was her first contact with the continent of Europe: danger instead of safety, prison instead of aid, humiliation in place of dignity; bureaucracy masquerading as justice. It took 14 months after she filed her application for the first official interview to take place.

“It was a time of extreme hardship for me. I think it’s not that much of an exaggeration to say I didn’t exist at all. I made my bed here in the mud and tried to help the others. I got in touch with the local solidarity movement. I took it upon myself to organise a school for the women and children,” recalled the Syrian wedding planner, turned war photographer, turned prisoner of conscience, turned torture victim, turned refugee. “I tried to stay active. Every day, I work very hard to dam the flood of my poisonous thoughts. It is all I can do not to completely lose it. I’m fighting off my pain all the time, all the time… And I’m always steeling myself against the next loss.”

Integrating into the community

When we took a stroll around the island, Majida was cordially greeted by every other person we passed. During the two years she has spent on Samos, she has taken an active part in the local community, even if that community was so conservative it first refused to accept that Majida was still wearing a headscarf.

But things have changed. The derogatory remarks were much rarer now, and as for threats, they all but vanished. For the past few months, Majida had been employed at the Help Now NGO, where she specialises in helping refugees. The people here have got used to her, and she has grown accustomed to them.

When they ask her about the war and her own life story, she usually gives out very vague and generalised answers. She knows that very few people can comprehend what she has been through. And what she is still going through. She has learned to avoid a certain type of men. “I know those eyes,” she told me. “I know what they want.”

Her wish was simply to live, she added. But not on charity – never charity. She has consistently refused any form of monetary aid. Her aim is to live exclusively off her own labour. Until now, she has been successful at the task. Her driving force has become helping out her traumatised peers. She has no intention of returning to her homeland, now or ever. Her Syria no longer exists. Perhaps it never had. Perhaps it had all just been a big illusion, a sordid lie. In fact, this interpretation struck her as the most plausible. How could she otherwise explain that it all ended in such slaughter?

“When I was granted asylum, I decided to stay here on Samos. My friends and acquaintances weren’t sending me very good news of their stay in Europe,” she explains. “Many of them have been badly disappointed. Some of them have been broken by the experience. I, myself, decided to put an end to years of suffering. It was my choice: I decided to choose life.”

 

 

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A Syrian ‘ode to joy’ on Europe’s border

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

A violinist’s inspired and impromptu choice of music at the Greek-Macedonian border tells us a lot about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Monday 7 September 2015

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Dusk was slowly settling over the savannah-like border between Macedonia and Greece. Flocks of doves were gliding over fields of parched and wilted sunflowers. In the distance, a local hunter was slowly negotiating the thicket-strewn terrain, accompanied by his three dogs. Under the trees and leaning against the deserted border posts still demarcating the obsolete Yugoslav state, visibly tired groups of Syrian and Afghan refugees were waiting for a sign.

What they were really waiting for was official permission to continue on the next phase of their doleful odyssey to the heart of Europe. This year, some 200,000 migrants and refugees had already reached their destination through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary – at the moment of our reporting, at least as many were on their way.

On the Greek side of the border, group after group of new arrivals were trudging their way towards the improvised collecting centre by the railway tracks. In a carefully coordinated effort, the Greek and Macedonian police were letting them through the bottleneck at the “wild border”, which, in the last week alone, has been crossed by more than 3,000 people.

At the collecting centre, which had been set up by the Macedonian authorities two weeks ago, Rami Basisah opened his knapsack and took out a violin. The 24-year-old musician went on to give it a few tender, almost enamoured strokes, after which he began to tune it. The seemingly shy and introverted youth – still more of a boy than a man, really – stepped in front of some 600 migrants and refugees waiting for the special train to the Serbian border, the next stage of their journey to what at least some of them still believed to be the promised land.

Rami, who had studied music in the Syrian town of Homs, needed a few moments to pluck up his courage to pluck away at his violin. His friends were encouraging him to take a deep breath and simply start playing. The Macedonian policemen – some of whom had been on duty for the past 30 hours – could only gape in a mixture of worry and confusion. A few of them exchanged silent glances, clearly wondering if they should confiscate the instrument. Theirs was an extremely stressful and demanding job, and most of them had not received proper training for it. Then one of them simply nodded to Rami to indicate it was okay for him to begin.

Rami shifted his stance a few times, taking in the atmosphere. It was becoming clear that he simply had to play. He started slow. The tune felt so gentle it was almost tremulous. The conversations among the refugees came to a halt; the children’s gibes instantly turned to primal awe. Even the policemen began to smile. They were obviously familiar with the melody, at least some of them must have heard it before.

The warm response enabled the young Syrian musician to relax and start giving it his all. Even the most dispassionate ears were beginning to respond to the tune. Rami was getting more and more in the zone. His oppressive thoughts were dispersed, and he was so clearly guided by pure love. He started to smile. His entire face became animated with tender irony.

The air at the collection centre was resonating with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Europe’s official anthem.

Irony? A good joke? A stroke of brilliant political analysis? Spur-of-the-moment psychotherapy?

Photo: © Jure Eržen/Delo

Photo: © Jure Eržen/Delo

The police were now tapping their boots in time with the rhythm. The migrants were clapping enthusiastically to cheer the lad on. After he was done with the Beethoven, Rami halted for a few seconds. Then hlade chose a profoundly rueful, yet ferociously proud traditional Syrian patriotic song. His friends – all of whom hailed from devastated Homs, all of whom were educated and urban young men and women – began to sing. Soon, more and more of the refugees joined in. Rugged old men who had seen and endured unspeakable things were starting to cry. The women hugged their children a little tighter. The icy pain in their chests was temporarily melted down by a fresh flame of hope.

Rami played on and on, oblivious to the his growing audience of refugees. Dusk was settling over the horizon. The stunning performance was concluded with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, an obvious yet still inspired choice. To the almost overwhelming sound of applause, Rami took a bashful bow and put away his instrument.

 “When will this end?”

“I apologise, I made so many mistakes. I was so nervous,” the young musician told me, still breathing hard from the exertion. “You know, this is my reserve violin – it is much much worse than the one that ended up in the sea,” he told me.

Rami left Syria some 40 days earlier. Before that, he had spent two years as a refugee in his own homeland. Two weeks ago, he and his friends had opted for the “classic” route from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. For them, the sea voyage had been the most stressful, dangerous and simply bloodcurdling part of the journey. The suitcase carrying Rami’s very first violin had been flushed into the Aegean Sea. “It still hurts,” he told me in a small voice, making a valiant effort to smile.

The distressed young man who wishes to continue his studies at any European university prepared to give him a chance refused to talk much about himself. As soon as he put down his reserve violin, his movements grew stiff and the contours of his face slipped back into their traumatised scowl. His trance had been broken, and now the anxiety was back with a vengeance. “My goal is to help my brother who fled Homs for Lebanon two years ago,” Rami informed me. “When he left, he promised he would help me get to safety as well. He worked so hard in Lebanon. As soon as he got enough money for my trip to Europe he sent it to me. Now he’s lost his job, and my duty is to help him. I owe him my life.”

____

A full moon was rapidly rising over the horizon, growing brighter by the minute. During the short trip from the border to the collection centre, the refugees and the police all-terrain vehicles were stirring up dust and frightening off the local birds, which had already settled down for the night. The quiet of anxious expectation was occasionally broken by the barking of dogs. The refugees were resting on cardboard mats under a number of dusty tarps. The local humanitarian workers, all of them volunteers, issued them with food, water and used clothes. They were assisted by the visibly exhausted Macedonian soldiers and policemen, whose sole questions for the journalists was: “When will this end?”

This” was the unpunctuated caravan of human tragedy, sent off on its long march to freedom by the aftershocks of history and that most innate thing of all, the survival instinct.

 The Balkan bottleneck

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Photo: © Jure Eržen

From nearby Gevgelija, a special train pulled in to take the next shipment of exhausted and traumatised souls to Tabanovci, a town on the Serbian-Macedonian border. For the past 10 days, the collection centre had also been serving as a railway station for the refugees. This was the fourth such train today, each of them accommodating between 600 and 700 people. The remainder of the refugees reached the Serbian border with the help of special buses and taxi cabs. For the past few weeks, the local “transportation” business has been flourishing, even though last weekend, when the flow was at its heaviest, an official inspection stepped in to curb the dirty business. But in the end, even that could not disrupt the war economy, which is, after all, a special breed of animal. In this supposedly closed-off area, the bushes were always full of the local “merchants” who were there to sell the refugees cigarettes, water and snacks at double price. And if you asked them how they were doing, they simply spat and informed you: “Man, these Afghans – damn it, they really have no money left!”

It is much the same on the other side of the border, where one of the local hopefuls has actually parked a van neatly refitted into an ice-cream shop. Last Sunday, when as many as 150 buses pulled in to disgorge some 7,000 migrants and refugees, the shop was reported to have done excellent business.

____

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Photo: © Jure Eržen

As the air brakes started to squeal, the refugee-packed train gradually came to a halt. To avoid chaos, the police ordered the migrants and the refugees into a number of smaller groups. The tired and grimy travellers kept repeating they were in a hurry, all the while inquiring when the next train for the Serbian border was set to leave. Panic began to settle into the hearts and minds of these exhausted men and women. A few more days and it would no longer be possible to cross the Hungarian border. For the countless thousands of desperate souls, this would mean being trapped in Balkan territory.

“No, I don’t want to describe what we’ve been through. What matters is that we’re finally here. Our lives are no longer in danger. We want to get some air and maybe rest for a while, but unfortunately, that is not possible… We have to leave today. Where do we need to go, what’s the best route in your opinion?” I was asked by a confused-looking female student from Deir ez Zur, one of the key battlefields in the Syrian war. When this visibly traumatised refugee obtained all the relevant information from the police, she went on to acquire a fresh supply of drinking water. Then she and her two younger brothers grabbed the handles of a rather decrepit wheelchair they had used to transport their severely ill father all the way from Syria. “We shall go to wherever they will have us. We have no other choice. We need to take care of our father,” confessed the young student who preferred to remain anonymous. “We’re even fine with staying here in Serbia, as long as we don’t have to sleep out in the cold. We would, of course, like to return home as soon as possible, yet our homes are no longer there.”

 ____

Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

A three-year-old girl woke up from a deep sleep. As soon as she took in the night-time chaos of the highly restless crowd, tears came spilling down her face. The police allowed the handicapped, the wounded, the seriously ill and the mothers with babies to jump to the front of the long line waiting to cross the border. I heard one of the policemen ask a colleague why a certain 75-year-old man – clearly devastated by a number of serious illnesses – would even set out on this journey to cross half the world to reach Germany.

Why, indeed?

Because the Syrian conflict is worse than any of those etched on our notoriously short historical memories. Because in the last four and a half years, it has already killed 260,000 people. Because 11 million people have been forced to leave their homes, 4.5 million of them having fled to neighbouring countries. Because vast swathes of the country have been razed to the ground. Because the present is destroying every possibility of a bearable future while – remember Palmyra! – erasing every inkling of the past. Because the western countries who are now treating these people like nuclear waste have done nothing to end the war, have in fact done much to ensure it goes on and on.

Because hope may spring eternal, but there can be no hope when you and your entire family are dead.

Swimming marathon

“We are in a hurry. We’re worried that the Hungarian border will be closed down before we can reach it. We desperately need to catch that train! We don’t have the money for a taxi. In Turkey, we were robbed by the traffickers,” a man named Saeed told me as he stood nervously near the end of one of the queue. The 26-year-old English teacher was from the Syrian town of Latakia, the Assad regime’s stronghold located by the Mediterranean Sea.

Saeed fled the coastal town because he refused to join the government forces. So far, the regime troops’ heavy presence had spared the city from most of the fighting, but mobilisation was becoming inevitable. Saeed refused to shoot at his own people and take part in the utter destruction of his own homeland. When it was his turn to leave for the front, his two obvious options were to go murder his freedom-fighter compatriots or rot in a jail cell with occasional bouts of the sort of savage torture written into the very DNA of Assad’s regime. Saeed decided to take the third option, which was to escape.

Anywhere.

“A few months ago, I fled Latakia for the nearby hills controlled by the Free Syrian Army. They, too, wanted me to join them, but I turned them down. My wife had just given birth. Ahmed is now seven months old, and I didn’t want him to grown up without a father. So I taught English for a while in one of the schools in FSA-held territory, then the entire village was destroyed in a governmental air raid,” Saed recollected. “Most of my neighbours and friends were killed in the strike. I was the one who had to pick up what remained of their bodies and try to put the pieces back together. I could quite easily have gone mad. The whole thing was unspeakably horrible. As soon as I could, I got my wife and son and fled to Turkey,” Saeed went on with his grim tale, darting impatient glances toward the train and the police.

Saeed was one of the eight Syrian refugees who had actually swum from Greece to Turkey. After being swindled and robbed by the Turkish traffickers, they had no recourse but to try to swim the 12km to the Greek island of Kos. They spent 16 hours in the water. They were very cold, but they had managed to secure some life-jackets which enabled them to get plenty of rest. They stuffed all their belongings into a few waterproof bags they tied to their waists. As they slowly made their way, they were overtaken by a few rubber boats carrying their fellow refugees.

“I was not afraid at all,” Saeed beamed at me with the hard-earned optimism of a survivor. “You don’t believe me? But it was really nothing special. I have spent my entire life close to the sea. I’m an excellent swimmer. I knew I could do it. I just had to think of my wife and son who had remained back in Turkey. As soon as possible, they will come to join me in Europe. Oh, and my friends who were swimming next to me – it was no problem for them as well.”

___

Saeed and his swimming companions ultimately reached Kos when the conditions there were at their most chaotic. The police were openly beating up the migrants, who were also beating each other up. Some 500m from the coast, the freezing and dehydrated Syrian swimmers were picked up by the Greek coast guard. “They insulted us and pushed us around for a bit. When we got to the coast, they started beating us. It was horrible,” he recalled. “We didn’t know what to do or where to go. The other refugees told us we needed to register at the police station, since we were not allowed to continue our journey without the necessary papers. We obtained our permits after five days. We immediately got on a ferry to Athens. We didn’t even make a stop there – we knew very well what was going on at the Hungarian border. We took a bus for Thessaloniki and onward to the border, where we arrived today at six in the morning,” Saeed concluded his tale.

He also told me that he could no longer remember the last time he had had a good night’s sleep. “But we must not let our exhaustion get the better of us. We owe it to our families. I owe it to my son. We shall carry on, and nothing is going to stop us,” the long-haired young man added resolutely and firmly shook my hand.

Saeed  is one of several thousands of refugees who are being “stocked” at the Keleti railway station in Budapest by the Hungarian government. He found out that his best friend died while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece.

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The long march from Syria to Europe

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Joining Syrian refugees on their long trek to the EU, Boštjan Videmšek discovers how easy it is to lose faith in humanity and how hard to restore it.

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Thursday 6 August 2015

By the side of the road leading from the small town of Kanjiža in northern Serbia to the Hungarian border, a large band of 40 or so Syrian refugees – women, children, young men, an elder – had just sat down to rest. It was early on a Tuesday evening, and the group was finally getting some respite from the sun. They were plucking not quite ripe plums from a nearby tree and checking their mobile phones on which they had stored the directions for the fastest and safest route to the border.

This was, of course, only one of the numerous groups making their final bid to penetrate the fortress of the European Union. On the flatlands by the oily and quiet Tisa river where we joined the marchers, life was unfolding according to its ancient, decidedly slow rhythms. Most of the residents have long become accustomed to the endless procession of human suffering. In the last few months, Serbia has been turned into yet another waystation for a human tragedy mere language can hardly describe. It is no exaggeration to say this tragedy is sure to become one of the definitive humanitarian stories of the 21st century.

Horrible, just horrible

A few kilometres away from the border, a man in the group started to speak: “If all goes well, we’ll be there in two and a half hours… We’ve been travelling for weeks, some of us for months.”

His name, he told us, was Rami. He was 27 and hailed from the northwestern Syrian city of Raqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate and the Islamic State (ISIS). He fled the city soon after it was captured by the members of the radical Sunni militia. He claims he had no choice. He had received word his name had been put on their death list. During the initial months of the Syrian conflict, he had been working as a journalist and had decided to help out one of his American colleagues. He had even been issued a press card by a prominent international newspapers.

This was not something ISIS was likely to forgive.

“It made no difference that I come from one of Raqa’s strongest families. If I were to stay, they would have certainly killed me, no questions asked. The worst of it was that my own cousins were out to get me too,” Rami reflected, as we trudged on along the dusty local thoroughfare. “Almost all of them had joined ISIS. Almost everyone in Raqa had gone over to them, that is why they’re so strong… Raqa will always be their territory. And so there was no one who could protect me.”

Rami’s first destination was Turkey, where he had to stay longer than he originally planned since he got robbed in Istanbul. It took him a long time to earn enough money to continue on his journey. As soon as he was able to, he set off for the Turkish coast. In the meantime, he learned that his father had been killed, while his brother, who also refused to join the Islamic State, had been severely wounded while fighting the Syrian government forces.

In the Turkish port of Bodrum, one of the region’s hubs for human trafficking, Rami met the other members of the group he was currently travelling with. That was two months ago. Since then, they have not once parted company.

As we walked on, Ali, 28, joined our conversation. He was a civil engineer from Azaz, a town near the Syrian-Turkish border which has seen heavy fighting between various insurgent groups, after being almost completely razed by government bombers. “In Turkey,the traffickers robbed us on two different occasions, and we also got a lot of trouble from the police,” he told us. “We sailed to the Greek island of Kos in a rubber dinghy. The boat was really small, but somehow everyone you see here managed to fit. It seems incredible that we survived. At least half of these people don’t know how to swim. If the boat had capsized, we would all have died. It was horrible, just horrible!”

 A modern-day odyssey

After arriving at Kos, where the recent heavy influx of refugees has plunged the island into chaos, the band of Syrians took a ferry to Athens. Every day, hundreds of refugees and immigrants enter the Greek capital. The Greek authorities, bogged down on countless other domestic and foreign fronts, had virtually stopped dealing with the problem. Their solution was simply to leave the door wide open. It was little wonder that the flood of refugees immediately headed for the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders. A new route to the European Union soon gained prominence, starting in Macedonia and leading through Serbia all the way up to Hungary.

Three weeks ago, Hungary started building a wall measuring 175km in length. Its basic objective is to put a stop to the influx of refugees and immigrants. Yet so far the Hungarians haven’t been very successful at it. In the days we spent on both sides of the border, the situation was quite the contrary. The commencement of the immense construction project has only speeded up the current rate of migration, especially through Macedonia and Serbia, where the authorities understand very well what the erection of such a wall could mean.

In reality, the wall is not so much an actual obstacle for the incoming refugees as it is a clear political statement by the far-right government of Viktor Orbán.

“We made quite a large part of our journey through Greece and Macedonia on foot. It was horrible – it was hot, and we were all so hungry and thirsty… The people there refused to have anything to do with us,” Ali recalled in an effable tone, as if he were describing, say, a lovely view of the sea. “Somewhere in Macedonia, where we were generally treated very badly by the police, they herded us on to some buses which took us to the Serbian border. The entire region was full of refugees.”

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

After a few more days trek, they reached Belgrade. “We all slept in the park. Belgrade, too, is flooded with refugees. But for us, that was actually a good thing, since we managed to get all the information we needed on how to safely cross the Hungarian border,” Ali continued.

In Belgrade, our band of refugees learned there were several viable options for reaching Hungary. The first option was a so-called ‘unaided’ journey, meaning travelling by themselves. The route itself was clearly defined and there was plenty of useful information on how to maximize one’s chances. But since the situation at the border was so unpredictable, this was considered to be the riskiest choice. The alternative was to entrust one’s fate to the professionals, the human traffickers organizing the trip from the cities of northern Vojvodina (like Subotica, Kanjiža, Horgoš) to Hungary and then onward to Austria and Germany. One could even take a taxi from the Hungarian border directly to Vienna, which, according to our sources, would set one back €400. The entire package deal for getting from Serbia to Austria costs somewhere in the neighborhood of €1,500. For the Syrian refugees, the cost of all available options is about three times higher than for the rest. Traffickers consider them to be much wealthier than, for example, Afghans.

To really grasp their predicament, one needs to keep in mind that they are always facing a very real possibility of getting arrested, and that many of them have already spent most of their savings in order to reach Serbia. A large number of them got mugged, either by local criminals, their fellow refugees or even by the police. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of solidarity between different groups of refugees – say between the Syrian and Afghan ones. Sadly, it is quite the contrary.

In Serbia and the wider region, the trafficking sector of the local economy has undergone a considerable boom. The basic set-up is simple, the profits are huge, and the risk is almost non-existent. This is especially so if the traffickers have done their homework and made proper arrangements with the police and the authorities, who are openly aiding refugees in crossing and leaving Serbia as swiftly as possible.

Once you get out in the field and see how things work, it could hardly be more obvious which way the wind blows.

“In Germany, they’re sure to help us” 

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Right after the war started, Ali lost his job in a privately owned company, yet he decided to stick it out in Azaz. In the summer of 2012, the Free Syrian Army gained control of the city for a while, then the Islamic extremists took over. In a flash, the dream of the Syrian revolution became but a tragic memory. What started out as an insurgency against the ruling regime degenerated into a brutal civil war. Countless people started fleeing the devastated country.

“I’m glad that I’m not married and that I don’t have any children. It is so much easier for me this way,” he explained, reflected a common sentiment among young refugees, as we proceeded towards the small Vojvodinian village of Mortanoš, the last notable settlement before the Hungarian border. “Most members of my family had fled to Turkey and decided to stay there. I, on the other hand, am young and I’ve had a good education. I’m going to do everything I can to get a job so I can take care of my parents.”

Where? “I want to go to Germany… In Germany, they’re sure to take us in and help us – after all, we’re refugees, we come from Syria,” he said, with perhaps unfounded optimism.

Like most members of this tattered little group, Ali was growing increasingly cheerful with every step closer to the border. As we entered Mortanoš, the entire group decided to rest. The women sat down on the grass, the children were visibly tired. The men took to discussing the optimal route for this final phase of the Serbian crossing. The local plum trees were quickly being relieved of fruit; it was getting darker by the minute. The refugees knew very well they were approaching the critical part of the journey. Only a little more than 4km were now separating them from the European Union. A gentle breeze picked up over the Pannonian plains.

“What can we do? Like everyone everywhere, we only have one wish. To live in peace. To be safe. Look how lovely this place is. It is so peaceful and quiet. There are fruit trees everywhere,” described Rami enthusiastically. “The people leave us alone, and there is plenty of water. I could certainly live here. You know, right now this seems like a paradise from my dreams.” It was obvious that Rami was getting a little carried away, but how could anyone blame him? With every kilometer, he was becoming less of an attention-starved showman and more of an excited little boy.

Basic human decency

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

At the village’s outer edge, the refugees were approached by a merry-looking elderly fellow, who offered them water from the hose in his garage. The Syrians were visibly confused. As the village dogs’ barking approached a crescendo, they kept exchanging glances. The last few years have made them forget what basic human decency felt like. For them, it had become the exception that proved the rule.

After a few moments, one of the refugees handed out an empty plastic bottle to the old Serbian. Then the others slowly followed suit. Bashful yet profoundly grateful smiles were spreading over their faces as the older man used one hand to pour the water and the other to shoo away the mosquitoes.

“You need to follow the river,” the hospitable local told them in place of a goodbye. “But not up on the banks, you need to go as low down as possible, otherwise the police can spot you. But I haven’t seen them here today…. Here, take some more plums.”

“But you need to be very careful, okay? Good luck to you,” the old man added in parting.

It is very easy to lose one’s faith in humanity. It is infinitely harder to regain it.

As we pushed on, a hush fell over the group. The closer we got to the border, the more the refugees were instinctively huddling together. One of the marching men took hold of his three-year-old daughter and put her on his shoulders. The group’s one elderly man was getting noticeably short of breath but – with the help of a sturdy wooden stick – he somehow still managed to keep pace with the rest. One of the refugees took out a tattered copy of the Quran and started to pray. The sun was slowly setting far away on the horizon. To our right, we could see a stretch of dense boggy forest and the Tisa river. To our left, there was haystack-strewn grassland, a few distant hamlets and the road leading to the official border crossings and further on toward Subotica. The evening light was growing softer as we trekked on to the soundtrack of dogs barking in the distance. Every now and then, we could see a stork touch down in a nearby field. For this particular band of migrants, these were all scenes of Xanadu-like tranquility. A perfect illusion.

“To be honest, I have no idea where we are. I hope we’re on the right track. We really need to hurry. We have to reach Hungary tonight. Once we get across the border we need to avoid being caught by the police. If that happens, we could lose a few weeks,” Rami pointed, his voice growing ever more quiet. “Our group would get broken up, and we also need to avoid getting fingerprinted. That would mean that, even when we reach Germany, they could simply send us back to Hungary at any time. No one here wants to stay in Hungary. Personally, I would much rather stay in Serbia because the people were nicest to us there. Everywhere else we were treated like criminals.”

In Europe, he told me, he is eager to get work – any sort of work at all, as long as it would help him live in peace and safety. Ali, the blue-eyed engineer, felt exactly the same way. Both of them had had their share of the savagery of war. All they wanted was for the people of their new homeland to show a little understanding.

The members of the group weren’t entirely clear on where they needed to veer off into the forest to avoid getting caught by the police. The border itself was rather poorly marked – in some places, there were no noticeable markings at all. And so the group decided to simply follow the tracks left by their predecessors. A trail of discarded objects led them onward. And at the precise moment when their doubts about having chosen the right path were turning critical, two local cyclists drove by down the nearby embankment. Opening their backpacks, the two men distributed a number of plastic water bottles “for the children” and relayed the vital information that the border was now only a 10-minute walk away.

“Simply follow the river all the way. We haven’t seen a single policeman,” one of the cyclists said to encourage them before their imminent ordeal.

Hungarian border patrol

We moved on. In the distance, we could already see the ramp marking the border area where movement is strictly prohibited. Heavy dusk was falling over us, bringing anxiety to the faces of the advancing refugees. The mosquitoes were now out in full force. The women conferred among themselves and decided to make the children put on an additional layer of clothing. The men – many of them had fled their country to another continent with only a small sporty knapsack on their shoulder – were putting the final touches to the group’s strategy. Many of their phones were starting to malfunction.

We crossed the dark Serbian-Hungarian border in complete silence. Only a few steps past the first Hungarian boundary stone the group came to a halt.

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Rami put down his backpack and carefully set out on a reconnaissance mission – some hundred meters ahead, he detected a border patrol. He could identify one car and four policemen interrogating a small group of refugees. Two portable toilets were standing next to the police vehicle like some sort of mirage. Business as usual? It was clear that the mere four Hungarian policemen would be unable to stop our group of refugees. We had heard that the border guards often turn a blind eye. Despite the fact that the government had undertaken the huge anti-humanitarian project of putting up the wall, the Hungarian policemen are mostly treating the refugees with fairness and even respect.

But this was, of course, not something the group could definitively rely on. The moment of truth was fast approaching. Anxiety and even plain fear were returning to the refugees’ faces. They had long learned that the combination of borders and uniforms can mean the difference between life and death for them. The anxiety and terror on their faces was thus a matter of pure reflexes, and in such situations, reason is always trailing far behind. The night had fallen, but the moon was mercilessly illuminating the exhausted faces. The refugees quickly slipped into the nearby forest, from which one could hear clear signs of life. As you would expect, our group of refugees wasn’t the only one preparing for the final push into the heart of Europe. We were now on Hungarian soil. All the refugees needed to do to complete this crucial stage on their long journey was to evade the patrol. The children ate a few cookies and plums from their mothers’ backpacks. The rest drank some water. They were all waiting for Rami’s sign.

We bade them farewell.

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Greek islands: No holiday in the sun for Syrian refugees

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Kos is straining under the influx of Syrian refugees.  Though locals are hospitable, the refugees are desperate to move on but where or how eludes them.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Over the past couple of months, the Eastern Aegean islands have become the main gateway for the refugees and the immigrants seeking entrance into the European Union. The mere few kilometres separating the Greek islands from the Turkish coast have long been one of the Turkish traffickers’ favourite approaches, while the sheer volume of people making their escape to a hoped-for better life has never been greater.

“You know the most devastating irony of all? That we have to pay one thousand euros to get from Bodrum to Kos, while the return trip costs the tourists only €10,” said Amir Obada, a thirty-year-old Syrian standing with me in the shade cast by the abandoned hotel Captain Elias on the outskirts of the Greek island of Kos.

Amir comes from the famous Christian town of Malula in Syria, where a bitter struggle between government forces, the Islamic State, various insurgent militias and armed groups of local Christians has been taking place for the past few years.

When the war broke out, Amir was just finishing his studies in chemistry. His father was one of the professors at the Malula university, which got shut down on account of the fighting. As a devout pacifist, Amir refused to pick up a rifle. Staying home, he assured me, was not an option. His family home got shredded in the crossfire. And so he set off for Turkey and then to one of the Eastern Aegean islands, where a serious humanitarian crises has been developing over the past few months.

The Greek authorities found themselves unprepared for such a massive inflow of people. So far this year, the island of Kos alone has seen the arrival of some 7,500 migrants and refugees – six times more than was the case over the same period in 2014. Most of them had come in from Syria and Afghanistan. During the second half of May and the first days of June, Kos – still much favoured by tourists from all over the world – was in a state of turmoil. Anywhere between 100 and 500 people were arriving daily by rubber dinghies and small sailboats from the Turkish coast.

One of them was Amir Obada, who set off on his journey accompanied by five of his friends and relatives from Syria. At the time of our interview, he was sharing a small room with them in the squalid, abandoned hotel with no electricity and no functioning toilet facilities.

Walk west

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

“I’m so glad I’m safe. I don’t know what else to say. These last two years I’ve seen some things that, well… I still can’t believe I managed to escape the war,” Amir confesses. “But I can’t help thinking about my parents and relatives who are still in Syria – I think about them all the time. Unlike most of my travelling companions, I’m not married and I don’t have any children. In a time of war, that is a huge advantage.”

Amir proudly produced his ticket for the evening ferry to Athens. The Greek authorities – at least partly because of the approaching peak of the tourist season – had recently introduced the so-called fast-track for Syrian refugees. This means that the people arriving daily aren’t given too much hassle. After they reach Athens, they are issued with a permit for a six-month stay, which can later mostly be renewed without great difficulty.

None of the many refugees I talked to wished to remain in Greece. They understood all too well that the country is in a state of profound crisis, and that things can only get worse. “I had to leave behind my wife and four children – they’re waiting for me in the countryside near Damascus. I promised them that, once I reached Europe, I would do everything in my power to help them join me,” Muhammad Issa, 45, told me, as he sat in a cramped room filled with old mattresses, tattered blankets and empty plastic water bottles. “Yes, I know it’s going to be very hard. But I simply couldn’t have brought them along on such a dangerous journey. It was too risky. And the children were too small.”

Some two and a half years ago, a similar task – getting his loved ones safely out of Syria – was undertaken by Yassin Sinno, 26. He somehow managed to escape Malula and reach London through Turkey. The British authorities approved his request for asylum. Earning his living as a waiter in a coffee shop in Yorkshire, he is now free to travel all over the European Union. He came to the island of Kos to pick up his brothers Mahmmoud and Hussein, who had sailed here in the same boat as Amir Obada.

“I can’t describe my joy at seeing them again… It was God’s will that we met again, and we all cried,” Yassin grinned, going on to describe how he had arranged his two brothers’ entire trip from Syria to Greece. The goal now is to get to Athens and seek out one of the more competent ‘contacts’ who can get his siblings further on their way. The official routes toward Great Britain are out of the question. At this time, the only remotely tenable way out of Greece and on to Western Europe is the extremely dangerous and arduous walk through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary.

Muhammad Issa managed to reach Greece on his second attempt. The first time around he was caught by the Turkish police. He was thrown in jail for two days and was then released. In Bodrum and all over the nearby coastal cities in Turkey, where the trafficking trade is booming, this is more or less a matter of routine. “There were 44 of us on the rubber boat. It was very dangerous. We went out around midnight. The trip only took two and a half hours,” Muhammed recalled in the ruined hotel. “I was very scared, because I can’t swim. When we got to Kos, they took us in with decency and kindness. It’s just that here, where we are now stationed, things are quite unbearable. But tonight we’re moving on.”

Amir Obada didn’t have a clear (geographical) destination in front of him. He was more than willing to go anywhere where he could continue his studies in chemistry. His country of choice would be Sweden, yet he knew all too well that this choice, for him, might prove to be an unattainable luxury. He was prepared, he said, to start from scratch. In order to reach Greece he had had to invest a great deal of his savings. This is the reason why on arriving to Kos, like most of his friends and companions, he took up lodgings in the filthy and dilapidated ruin on the outskirts of Hippocrates’ town.

In front of the main building, a few Afghan teenagers were kicking around a somewhat deflated football. On a meadow nearby, a pair of cows were grazing in the sun, while a number of Pakistani men were lying in the shade.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

On a platform in front of what remains of the hotel, the local authorities have set up a system of pipes providing the residents with drinkable water. This was where the refugees could also wash and shave. As I strolled by, some of them were washing their clothes and mending the decrepit shoes that still needed to get them over the long trek to Central Europe.

“I’m not used to living like this,” Amir frowned at me.  “Until the war, we lived very well back home in Syria. I have to admit that the people here greeted us kindly, but there are no resources to be spared for us refugees.” Amir chose his rundown lodgings in order to save money. “I’ll need every coin I got to get me further off into Europe. I have decided to walk,” he informs me. “I intend to cross Macedonia and Serbia to get to Hungary. Once there, I will probably take a train through Austria all the way to Germany. To be honest, I don’t have much choice.”

Good Samaritans

As he told me of his plans, Amir’s comrades were nodding their silent agreement. No one among them was able to produce anything resembling a clear-cut plan. They were hoping for one of the target European countries to grant them asylum. As of yet, no one had informed them how to apply or even what basic rights had been accorded to them. In general, the presence of the international humanitarian outfits on the island of Kos was much too scarce for comfort. The necessary infrastructure for helping the migrants and refugees was virtually non-existent. For the most part, these tormented souls were depending on the help of local good Samaritans. For the most basic medical support, a small itinerant band of Doctors without Borders (MSF) was on hand to provide assistance.

“The island was completely unprepared for such a crisis. The sheer number of incoming people is staggering. And it is only likely to get bigger. The smugglers’ routes have been changed. Right now, the Eastern Aegean islands are the most popular location. Kos, Lesbos, Leros, Samos… The Greek authorities are trying to help, but they themselves are struggling under some pretty heavy loads. There’s no infrastructure here to help us help these poor people. So we had to improvise,” explains Aggelos Kallinis, the local UNHCR representative, who was speaking to me in front of the local police station, where hundreds of people were waiting every day to obtain the permits enabling them to proceed to Athens. “We’ve managed to enlist the help of the local community, some NGOs and a number of local volunteers. Surprisingly, many of them have risen to the occasion, but the situation is still rough, very rough.”

All-inclusive solidarity

©Boštjan Videmšek

©Boštjan Videmšek

On a daily basis, the Kos Solidarity volunteer group comes to the Captain Elias ‘hotel’ to distribute food, clothes, shoes and items of basic hygiene. When these local Samaritans – Sofia (a primary school teacher), Elena (a doctor), Alexander (a primary school teacher) and Jorgos (a businessman) – arrive to bring the refugees their one daily meal, a huge cheer can be heard from far away. The children, some of them not even ten years old, cling hard to the visiting humanitarian workers who can barely control the surges of the starving crowd. Under the vicious sun, the locals keep handing out the food prepared especially for the migrants in the kitchens of some of the nearby hotels.

There is plenty of food, enough to last the whole day. A tremendous gratitude can be felt emanating from the crowd, but also a great sense of shame. At home, these people weren’t used to living off their fellow humans’ pity. Quite the contrary. The Syrians and the Afghans come from arguably two of the most hospitable countries in the world. My long years of war reporting have taught me that a country’s hospitality usually bears a direct correlation to the scope of the tragedies experienced by the country’s population.

 

A tired man in his mid-forties, flanked by four of his six children, was observing the distribution of food from a distance. Visibly anxious, he obviously wanted to reach out and get his fair share, yet his pride wouldn’t let him. “I come from the Golan Heights, right near the Israeli border. Sometime before the war I moved to a suburb of Damascus, where I started a small business. I was doing very well. I built myself a big house and got married. Everything was fine. I had a good life,” Bilal informed me rather angrily.

During the first two years of war, not much trouble came to his neighbourhood, but his business slowly ground to a halt. About a year ago, his house got razed in the fighting. “The Free Syrian Army and the government forces were fighting for control of our mahala. A bomb was thrown directly on my house,” he recalled. “I don’t know who dropped that bomb, and frankly I don’t care. Me, my wife and six children – we got out of there as fast as we could.”

By now, there was a distinct tremble to Bilal’s voice. He landed on Kos last Friday. Huddled at the hotel with his family, he was waiting to proceed towards Athens, and then… And then? “I don’t know. I don’t have a plan. My only goal is to for us to be free and to be safe. To get where we are now, we had to spend quite a lot of money. The trip took twenty-two days,” he described.

“From Syria, we went to Lebanon, then we flew to Turkey. We had to pay off a huge number of people. You know that merely to go from Turkey to Greece by boat you have to pay one thousand euros per person,” Bilal continued. “I mean, of course we would like to move on! Maybe to Germany or even Scandinavia. But I know it’s going to be very hard. I want to find work. I have a lot of skills and experience.”

As I talked to Bilal, his wife and two youngest children lingered in the cold room of the abandoned hotel. The lady didn’t feel very well. Some time ago, she underwent a complicated and dangerous operation. Breast cancer had taken a visible toll, yet she still managed to endure the risky and exhausting journey to freedom. “I can’t wait for my [wife] to get well, so we can all relax and start living again,” Bilal said quietly: “Inshallah, God willing!” He was still making a strong effort not to join the line formed by his fellow refugees waiting for food.

Absolute uncertainty

In the hot Aegean mid-afternoon, a pair of young Syrian girls were simultaneously leaning against a wall and against each other. They had been doing their best not to fall asleep, but their exhaustion had finally prevailed. Sleeping, they were breathing in unison, with their mouths open, joined at the hip as if they were Siamese twins.

But the trauma of everything these two little girls had been through was etched deeply onto their young, sleeping faces.

Only a few hours before, they had arrived in Kos at the break of dawn in a rubber dinghy, along with their parents and a number of other Syrian refugees. “Hey, do you need a room? A hotel? Cheap – very cheap!” an older local woman accosted the family as they stood waiting in line in front of the police station. The two sleeping girls’ parents hesitated for a moment. As to their immediate future, they had very little relevant information to go on, even though they had been waiting in the crowd since early morning.

“Only for one night? Just to get some rest? We want to move on as soon as we can, madam,” the father replied and gently woke his daughters. Once they stopped propping each other, they nearly collapsed from exhaustion. Their mother gave them a warm hug.

They then scooped up their pitiful possessions and followed the Greek woman’s lead.

This “lucky” family may have managed to escape the bloodiest conflict of our time, and they may have just passed the major mark of having successfully landed in the EU. But their future was still heartbreakingly uncertain.

____

Follow  Boštjan Videmšek on Twitter

His website is: bostjanvidemsek.com

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The Syrian Kurd who went blind because he’d seen too much

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

From the man literally blinded by horrors to the girl whose dream is to read books,  we meet the Syrian Kurds fleeing the ISIS onslaught on Kobani.

A Kurdish boy in a mosque in Suruc. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

A Kurdish boy in a mosque in Suruc. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 7 October 2014

During the day, the hill on the Turkish-Syrian border had been as desolately sandy as its surroundings. The night’s downpour had turned it into a pile of muddy goo. As I approached the border fence, a crowd of Kurdish men was observing the battle between the Kurdish defenders of Kobani and the Islamic State (ISIS) fighters. The Islamic State militia units were attacking backed by heavy artillery. The Kurds were responding with automatic-rifle fire and an occasional home-made rocket.

An abandoned Turkish military post on the border with Syria. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

An abandoned Turkish military post on the border with Syria. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Some soldiers of the Turkish army were also observing the action taking place on the Syrian side of the border. They were mostly doing it from the safety of their armoured vehicles ‒ which seemed like a good idea, since there weren’t all that many of them around. Their mood was one of wary apathy. As the battle grew in scope and ferocity, one could see some hundred Kurdish refugees lined up along the barbed wire separating the two countries. It was heartwrenchingly obvious they were hoping the Turks might still let them in. As things stood, they were caught in the crossfire.

Yet another haunting image from this desperate struggle, yet another reminder of the savagery of Syria’s civil war. As I watched, the whole bloody mess seemed so wretchedly complex that any solution granting safety to the civilian population seemed all but foredoomed.

A brief respite

Along with fourteen relatives, Omar Issa, 67, reached Turkey about a week ago. His pitiful expedition, hailing from the border-town of Karacha, has pitched a tent on an open field crossed by a muddy creek.

The tent provides a modicum of protection for no less than 18 families. Less than a kilometre to the west, a vicious firefight between the Kurds and the ISIS militiamen was raging on. Ignoring the explosions, the children were merrily frolicking around the creek. The women were catching up on the laundry, while the older men – pretty much everyone who could fight remained back in Syria – were sitting on plastic chairs, smoking and drinking tea. There seemed to be no end to the political debates.

“As soon as the Islamic State was formed in Syria, I knew that sooner or later they would be coming for us, the Kurds!” Omar told me. “To them, we are worth less than animals. We had to run, you understand? They’d already taken over all the neighbouring villages. Can you imagine our horror? So we packed what we could and drove here, to the border.”

“Then it took them two whole days to let us pass, the Turks,” he recalls. “Yes, we do feel safe here. But the housing situation is horrible, just horrible. It’s cold and it’s wet, and the winter is approaching fast – all of us can feel it.”

I spent quite a long time speaking with this traditionally dressed Kurdish elder, who only a few weeks ago used to grow olives and tend his flock. During our conversation, Omar revealed that two of his sons had stayed home to fight. He expressed great concern that the city of Kobani was about to fall. In his opinion, it would mean a great disaster for the Kurds and many others beside. “Under Bashar al Assad’s regime, we were safe, but we had no freedom,” he mused softly. “It was very very hard for us. And now… Well, now we are free men, but we are trembling for our lives.”

The consensus among the refugees seemed to be that they were entirely dependent on the help of their relatives on the Turkish side of the border. “They have helped us a great deal, and we are very grateful to them,” said one of those who had taken flight across the border. “But it is obvious we will not be able to hold out for much longer. We left everything behind. We are now left entirely at the mercy of the international community. There is, of course, no lack of promises; but we are now desperate for some actual assistance.”

Kurdish refugees. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Kurdish refugees. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

The majority of the Kurds that did manage to cross the border took refuge in nearby Suruc. With every day, the situation there grew more volatile. The people in the streets were visibly exhausted, some were openly raging at the sheer monstrous inhumanity of their predicament. Only a few kilometres away, their loved ones were being massacred, and they were powerless to help. Yet some also admitted it was little wonder Turkey had decided to close the border. After all, over the last fortnight the population of the filthy, down-trodden town of Suruc has more than doubled.

No-one really knew the exact number of the inflowing Kurdish refugees. All available housing was bulging at the seams, and many of the refugees were left with no recourse but to sleep in parks and darkened underpasses. Quite a number of them have pitched improvised tents in the surrounding fields. All of them were left entirely to their own devices and whatever help the locals were able to supply. At the time of my arrival, precious little actual humanitarian relief had managed to reach Suruc, a town that was visibly tottering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

“The ISIS men were sure to kidnap us and sell us into slavery”

Naima Khalil, 19, introduced herself to me as a Syrian Kurd from Kobani. In the chaos that had become her existence there by the Syrian-Turkish border, she longed for the safety and stability provided by her school and a small collection of books she had to leave behind.

Accompanied by her mother, father, brother and five sisters, she fled eight days ago. The ISIS militiamen have been tightening their grip on this thoroughly besieged city, until Naima’s father decided they could no longer run the risk of staying put. The father was all too aware what happened to many others who failed to flee the Sunni extremist elsewhere.

“Our father was afraid for us, women,” Naima explained with a diffident shrug. “The ISIS men were sure to kidnap us and sell us into slavery. It’s what happened to so many girls in Syria and Iraq. So what could we do? We gathered what we could and ran for our lives. You know, there’s been no electricity or running water in Kobani for a while now. We suffered there for three years. We had to dig our own well. But we knew that in the surrounding villages, things were even worse.”

This swarthy nineteen-year-old, Naima, was talking to me in commendably fluent English. Back in Syria, she and her family have managed to survive three years of constant war. It wasn’t always the case, but in Kobani, the Kurds had opted to join the Syrian revolution. During the first months of the insurgency against the Assad regime, a few peaceful demonstrations took place in Kobani. The government forces arrested a number of people, but for some reason they didn’t bring their heel down as brutally as they did in Homs or Da’ara. The summer of 2012 saw a “tactical” retreat of Assad’s forces from the Kurdish territories. The Kurds wasted little time in forming their own local authorities and setting up their own dedicated, if rather tiny, army. They declared an autonomous Kurdish zone and decided to name it Rojave.

For Naima, this meant the end of her schooling. It also meant an end to her hope of going on to study medicine – something she’d dreamt about throughout her entire childhood. The road to Aleppo, where the university is situated and where she was meant to take her entrance exams, became “impassable”. In reality, this means the road became one of the focal points for the clashes between the various insurgent groups, the government forces, the Kurds and the burgeoning ISIS.

There is no getting around the fact that the situation is mercilessly complex. The sudden rise of the ISIS’s fierce, hate-crazed militiamen can be defined as the illegitimate offspring of decades of American foreign policies, Saudi funding and the Turkish fear of the Kurds getting organised. The Islamic State fighters first decisively destroyed the Syrian insurgency against the Assad regime, then they crossed the Iraqi border to establish what they call a “caliphate”. After that, they wasted little time to get on with their business of rooting out all dissent to their militant creed. After the Yaezidis, the Kurds were next in line. Over the course of the last two weeks, over a hundred Kurdish villages were taken by the militiamen. Some 130,000 Kurds were forced to flee to Turkey via the nearby border, which was proving increasingly porous. With every passing day, the chaos only intensified.

Naima Khalil is just one of the countless innocent souls caught up in the lunacy. “I am angry and I am sad,” she admitted. “The Turkish children here are set on frightening me by telling me the Islamists are coming here to murder me, while the grown men want only to humiliate me. Most days, I can barely gather the courage to step out of the house where we live along with three other families.”

And how did Naima manage to find this accommodation? “Oh, one of my father’s acquaintances sort of lent it to us for 10 days. The bad news is that the day after tomorrow we have to leave, and then we’ll be left to the streets. We simply don’t know what to do. There’s no money left. My parents spent what little we had on getting us out of there alive. Perhaps… Perhaps we’ll be forced to go to Istanbul. To live on the streets. I’ll start looking for work as soon as we get there.”

“There is nothing I want more than to go back to school, but I guess that’s not going to happen, huh,” she added, before breaking down into heavy sobs. Then Naima summoned what courage and optimism she had left and asked me if I had a book in English. “Anything, anything at all,” she pleaded. As far back as she could remember, all she really wanted to do was read. “My father, he wants me to grab any chance at education life gives me. Even when I was not able to go to school, I studied all the time ‒ I studied at home, where else?” she described. “I read everything I could get my hands on. I don’t want to be like most of my friends: their parents married them off to make sure they were safe but losing them their freedom in the bargain. I simply couldn’t do that. Not for all the safety in the world. After all, my mother Najaf has always been a fierce advocate of women’s rights.”

This last bit allowed Naima to regain some measure of composure and even pride. As we talked, we stood amid a vast crowd of Kurdish refugees who’d gathered here for the lentil soup. This brackish-looking concoction was being distributed by Turkish humanitarian workers from titanic aluminium vats. In this dusty, anxiety-ravaged town of Suruc, Naima told me, she felt more trapped than anywhere before. “These local men, they are staring at me, and they are staring and staring, and I am always looking away… And every day, I get more afraid of them, of what they might do to me. You know, this… This is not my world. This should not be my world.”

Mohammed Chechu: Blinded by tragedy. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Mohammed Chechu: Blinded by tragedy. Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Mohammed Chechu, a Kurdish refugee from a village near Kobani, lost his sight some 18 months ago. He claims it was because he had seen too much horror. Along with his family, he left Syria for the border town of 12 twelve days ago. His village – just like all the other Kurdish villages in the region – was taken over by the Islamic State.

“Since I can’t see, I hardly ever left the house. One day, I heard shouting in the streets. People were very frightened. They were telling each other that in the neighbouring villages, the Islamists were slitting throats and rounding up the women to sell them into slavery,” he recounted. “My greatest fear was that my blindness would make me a burden for everyone. I was determined to stay in the house, come what may, but my family convinced me to help them gather a few things and flee. We had to leave behind everything we worked for so hard. Our house, our car, our animals, our life.”

I spoke to Mohammed inside a mosque, where at least 300 Kurdish refugees have been crammed together for the past fortnight. He told me that it took his family two whole days to make the trip. They spent a night at the Turkish border, then the Turkish soldiers decided to let them pass.

Many of Mohammed’s relatives stayed back in Kobani: cousins, nephews, even many of his friends who have never before as much as lifted a walking stick in anger, let alone a Kalashnikov rifle. But they knew enough to know their fate was entirely in their own hands. No help has yet been given to them, and they have learned to expect none. The coalition was mostly bombing oil refineries – its priorities couldn’t be more clear. Meanwhile, the Kurds were perishing by the thousands, and hardly for the first time. Given the long brutal history of this proud, self-reliant people, it is no wonder so few of its members are willing to place any trust in the international community. The vast majority claim they would much prefer to die valiantly in battle. But perhaps their greatest problem is that, at this crucial moment in history, there is precious little unity between the 25 million Kurds of the Middle East, let alone a focused political agenda. So far, none of their brothers have come to the aid of the Syrian Kurds in the Kobani province. They have their own battles to fight.

“It’s hard. The worst part is that my blindness prevents me from taking care of my family,” Mohammed went on. “Instead, they have to take care of me! I’m completely useless. Like myself, my wife also used to be a teacher in our school. But as soon as I lost my sight, she had to drop all that and devote herself fully to the needs of our family.”

Mohammed’s unseeing eyes have honed other forms of sight and insight. “For this past week, all I’ve done is sit around and listen to people talk. I also smoke a lot and think, think, think. I may be blind, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the human pain and suffering all around me. So many people are forced to sleep in the streets. We are so cold – but there is no help in sight. Winter’s coming, and things are only going to get worse. I’m afraid that there will come a point when they will simply decide to trample us into the ground… I’m very grateful to Turkey for letting us in, but now someone else should step in and help, too!«

In this most unfortunate exile, Mohammed is accompanied by three sons and a daughter. The youngest of his sons is 12 and has recently been diagnosed with a very serious type of diabetes. “No medicine is available for him here. And we also have no money for the treatment. I know he got sick because of me. And because of the war.” Throughout our conversation, Mohammed fought valiantly to keep his emotions in check, but this is where he lost control, and tears came pouring out of his dark, sightless eyes.

I want to teach again.”

The last time Mohammed stepped in front of a class was two years ago, when the government forces temporarily left the Kurdish areas, which enabled the Kurds to organise their own schools. Even then, his eyesight was starting to fail. He is convinced that the stress was the main cause. He had seen so many atrocities, perpetrated both by the regime and then the various Islamic militias that started to brutalise his homelands. The viciousness kept mounting and mounting, much like the war itself. Mohammed finally went blind about a year and a half ago.

“For a while, all I could see were shadows, and then not even that,” he recalls. “It was… It was like a sort of death. But I didn’t lose hope. After a few weeks, I regained at least some of my spirit and convinced myself that there will come a day when I would see again, and then I could once more step into a classroom of happy children, all of them willing to learn.”

But one needs considerable foresight to see that distant day through the heavy fog of conflict. “You know, Syria is now seeing a generation of children who had to leave school altogether – an uneducated, traumatised generation… It is the worst thing that could have happened.” From the quiet, plaintive way he spoke, it was clear that Mohammed still hadn’t come to grips with all the horrors that recently befell him and his people. But in spite of his blindness, his deep dark eyes kept staring right at mine, and I was startled to note that at times those poor sightless eyes were still sparkling – and with, of all things, hope.

Almost the entire territory of Syria has been ravaged by war, and the roads connecting the major urban centres have been the most dangerous parts of this fallen country… Nevertheless, a few months ago, Mohammed’s wife still decided to gather the last of their savings and take her husband to a renowned neurologist in Damascus. One day, she simply started the car and set off toward the capital. At every checkpoint, they were stopped and questioned, and the surly men with machine-guns often made very explicit threats to boot. They were stopped by the government troops, the ISIS militiamen, the members of the Free Syrian Army and a number of unidentifiable ruffians, all of these warlords the new rulers of the divided state. All in all, it took them thirty-six hours to reach Damascus. They spent the night in their car, in the middle of the desert.

“My wife was able to get some sleep. I didn’t. I was much too terrified,” Mohammed said of the nerve-wracking journey. “All the time, I was listening to the various noises, wondering what each of them meant. A few times, panic almost had me by the throat. But I was also looking forward to seeing the specialist. I was really hopeful that he could help me.”

Hope remains

When they arrived, the neurologists saw Mohammed straight away. He examined his eyes very assiduously, and to the patient’s great surprise he declared there was nothing wrong with them. The problem is of a purely neurological nature, that much is now certain. According to the specialist, the blindness was caused by some elaborate glitch of the nerves in Mohammed’s brain. The patient found himself much heartened by the news, since the neurologist openly told him that there was an excellent chance of him regaining his sight if proper treatment could be secured.

“The return trip may have been just as dangerous as the drive to Damascus. But this time around, I was warm all over with a feeling not unlike happiness,” Mohammed remembered. “The very mention of the possibility that I might see again cheered me up no end. On my return, I was a different man, full of hope.” But this hope lies at some considerable distance in space, time and opportunity. “The [doctor] from Damascus told me that a certain clinic in Spain specialises in the exact form of dysfunction I was diagnosed with having! But he didn’t tell me its name or location, and in all the excitement I forgot to ask. I’m glad to say that I have a relative in Spain, who promised he would help me find this clinic… But I have no idea how I’m going to get there. I have neither the funds nor the necessary papers.”

Mohammed Chechu also sent the results of his examination to a Palestinian doctor in Jordan. He is still waiting for the reply. But these last few weeks, his eyes have regained a small semblance of their former function. He cannot exactly see anything, but he can sometimes “feel” movement in front of his eyes, he says – and now and then he finds himself sensing a shift in the quality of the light. If he places his palm directly in front of his eyes, he can sometimes convince himself that he can discern a few of its features. But if an object is placed more than 10cm away, he cannot see it at all. “All the time I hope and pray. I want to be a man again, someone who can take care of his family, my poor beloved wife and children, who had been so traumatised by this senseless war,” he expresses his yearning. “In my opinion, only someone who is able to serve others can fully appreciate the marvel of what it means to be human.”

Mohammed ends our conversation by apologising for being so “selfish”. “I do apologise for going on like this, for focusing almost entirely on my own problems. This unspeakable tragedy, well… The truth is we’re all in it together, and our pain is only growing worse. Please help us.”

____

Follow  Boštjan Videmšek on Twitter: @bosthi

His website is: bostjanvidemsek.com

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Syria needs joint Arab action to end violence

 
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By Khaled Diab

It is up to the Arab world to stop the bloodshed in Syria – unlikely as this may sound, and despite Arab League failure so far.

While the world watches on, millions of Syrians have been displaced internally or made refugees. The Zaatari camp has become Jordan's third largest population centre. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

While the world watches on, millions of Syrians have been displaced internally or made refugees. The Zaatari camp has become Jordan’s third largest population centre. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

Thursday 19 September 2013

Like back in 1958, Syria is again the volatile battlefield of a medley of rival local, regional and international actors. But unlike then, Syria has not managed this time to edge back from the brink. Instead, it has become embroiled in a bloody and devastating civil war – not to mention a proxy war – that shows no sign of letting up.

When the tyrant insisted on making peaceful change impossible, he ended up making violent change inevitable. What had started as a non-violent social uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship quickly escalated as bloody repression led disgusted army officers to defect and take up arms against the state’s increasingly violent repression.

Divisions within the Arab world over Syria are rife, as they are among the major international players, between hawks and doves, ideologues and pragmatists, humanitarians and power brokers. Bizarre allegiances have formed and shifted. Currently backing the Syrian government are Russia, Iran, China and Hizbullah, with the opposition supported by the US, the UK, France and wealthy Gulf monarchies, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey has gone from being an ally of Damascus (early in the conflict) to headquartering the Free Syrian Army.

Meanwhile, Egypt is shifting towards a more pro-Assad position, on the back of the threat of US air strikes against a fellow Arab state, a public sense of grievance against Washington for its perceived backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and anti-Islamist sentiment which has turned many Egyptians against everything toppled President Mohamed Morsi stood for.

As each state and non-state player competes to advance or safeguard its own “vital interests”, few of the active players seem to have an interest in the well-being of Syrians and Syria. And it is the conflict mongers who are enjoying the upper hand, with arms flooding into Syria, escalating the fighting further.

At the United Nations, it looks like a sequel of the Cold War is at play, with the United States trying to preserve its dwindling hegemony in the Middle East, and Russia struggling to claw back some of its lost influence. Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama both seem to be suffering from chronic irony deficiency, the symptoms of which are a severely inhibited ability to see the plain hypocrisy of their rhetoric and the destructiveness of their positions.

 The UN should have been the right address for defusing this conflict from its earliest days, but such is the nature of this world body that when it is most needed, it is usually at its most impotent.  This has to do with its faulty architecture, which concentrates real power, including the dreaded veto, in the hands of just five countries.

Even today, it is not too late for the United Nations to redeem itself. The permanent members of the Security Council can decide to set aside their narrow self-interests and, for a change, agree to pursue the greater good of humanity by deploying tens of thousands of blue helmets with a robust mandate to end the violence. But given the ongoing deadlock, despite the relative breakthrough on chemical weapons, this seems highly improbable.

But with the international community fixated on chemical weapons but in paralysis over action to stop the plentiful non-chemical killings, it must be time now for the region to pull up its bootstraps and pitch in to sort out this mess, depressingly unlikely as it may seem – and that means action by the Arab League.

Like with many other crises before, the Arab League’s efforts, genuine as they were at some points, have amounted to nothing. Even the Arab League’s daring act of suspending Syria and imposing sanctions on the Damascus regime did little to intimidate Assad, underscoring just how little leverage Arab countries seem to exercise over each other.

Like the Arab Peace Initiative for Israel and Palestine, the Arab League peace plan  for Syria lies on the shelf collecting dust following the withdrawal of its monitors from Syria in January 2012 owing to “a harsh new government crackdown”, in the words of Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.

These failures do not encourage optimism, especially in light of how divided the League is over the way forward and how some of its members in the Gulf are actively sending arms and funds to the rebels.

However, the situation has changed dramatically. Although the civil war in Syria is far away for members of the UN Security Council and so does not immediately challenge their security, the Arab League cannot afford to be so complacent, especially given the danger that the conflict can spill over into the wider region in an unpredictable and unexpected ways.

The Assad regime, now that it has turned much of the country into rubble and displaced millions, may be suffering from war fatigue, and could be looking round for an exit strategy. The rebels are at a military disadvantage and are in deadlock in their efforts to dislodge the regime militarily, and so may also be looking for a return to more peaceful means. This may make Arab mediation efforts more fruitful this time around.

Moreover, Arab League efforts are likely to be seen as more legitimate by the regime and the main rebel factions, not to mention the wider Arab world. In fact, the eventual prospect of returning Syria, where the ideology of pan-Arabism was born, to the Arab fold, could be used as a carrot to draw Damascus towards a negotiated solution.

So what can the Arab League do? The top priority upon which everyone should be able to agree – even those helping to bankroll the conflict – is that the violence needs to stop, both for humanitarian reasons and for pragmatic self-interest.

Taking a leaf out of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council and its peacekeeping efforts across the continent, the Arab League can work towards negotiating a ceasefire and deploying peacekeepers from Arab countries that do not have a direct stake in the conflict. In fact, the Arab League needs to forge its own mutual security mechanism, in light of the growing likelihood of armed conflict within and between states in the region, while success could help pave the way to more enduring regional integration once this specific volatile period has passed.

Once the guns fall silent, Arab League mediators can help hammer out an interim agreement for the peaceful transition of power.

Although this seems like an unlikely scenario, especially in light of the Arab League’s reputation as an ineffectual talking shop, largely due to the absence of mechanisms to enforce its resolutions, there are precedents. Arab mediation efforts successfully stopped Black September in Jordan from turning into a full-blown civil war and, eventually and after too much bloodshed, helped end the Lebanese civil war.

Today, the stakes are arguably far higher, as Syria is a more pivotal state in a region which is already far more volatile, making it in every Arab state’s interest to take action. Whether they will step up is a very open question. For example, the Gulf states, who wrongly think they are far away and who have for decades seen Syria’s secular pan-Arabism as a threat, are trying to use their petrodollars to hold back the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions or to give them a conservative, Islamic hew, may feel less inclined to join efforts to end the conflict.

But ultimately, when fellow Arabs are being slaughtered and their country turned to dust, allied Arab action is the human and humane action to take.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 16 September 2013.

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