Citizenship is a universal right, even for ISIS members

 
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By Khaled Diab

The death of Shamima Begum’s infant son underscores the injustice of depriving alleged terrorists and jihadis of their citizenship. It also sets a dangerous precedent that can come back to haunt and hurt everyone in society.

A shooting range in the UK has been using an image of Shamima Begum for target practice.

Sunday 10 March 2019

Two recent cases powerfully reflect the rank hypocrisy of the moment.

Shamima Begum, a teenage girl who ran off, as a minor, to join the Islamic State (ISIS) has had her British citizenship revoked at the stroke of a pen, following which her innocent, blameless three-week-old son reportedly died of pneumonia in a Syrian refugee camp.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, in Belgium, which has also been stripping some extremist Islamists and jihadis of their citizenship, Belgians who voluntarily joined Hitler’s Waffen SS not only have retained their citizenship but still receive a state pension from Germany of up to €1,275 per month, according to Belgian parliamentarians. Worse still, Belgians who were subjected to forced labour by the Nazis allegedly receive a measly €50 a month.

An unknown number of British former SS members, who are living in peaceful retirement in the UK, are also still receiving German pensions, according to the Belgian MPs. Needless to say, they have not had their British citizenship revoked.

Despite extensive searching, I cannot find any records of British Nazis losing their citizenship, yet Britain managed to survive the existential threat of World War II without resorting to depriving people of their nationality. Even those Brits who fought for Hitler’s army, with a few exceptions who were executed for treason, were allowed to reintegrate into society after serving a prison sentence.

Moreover, many British Nazi collaborators faced absolutely no consequences for aiding the enemy, even when it involved war crimes. For example, official papers declassified in the 1990s show the extensive level of collaboration officials and some citizens in the German-occupied Channel Islands offered the Nazis, including in the deportation of 2,000 residents of the islands to concentration camps. Rather than try and prosecute the collaborators and set in motion a reconciliation process, the British government decided to sweep the sordid affair under the carpet.

While there is no excuse for not bringing war criminals and abusers to justice, there are sound historical reasons for why postwar governments resisted the lure of purging unwanted citizens from the record and, for the same reasons, we should not tolerate governments seizing the power to revoke citizenship, no matter the justification.

At the end of the war, memories were still fresh of the path from the notorious 1935 Nuremberg laws – including the Reich Citizenship Law, which stripped Jews of their German citizenship and demoted to the status of inferior “subjects” – to the genocide of the Jews and other minorities, and the persecution of groups deemed undesirable by the Nazis.

Invoking Nazi Germany may strike many as unnecessarily alarmist, but the road from discrimination to persecution can be a surprisingly short and rapid one. Although I am hopeful that we have enough checks and balances in place and have learnt enough from the past as not to return to its darkest episodes, it is worth considering that the Holocaust appeared to be a remote possibility when Hitler rose to power, which was at a time when German Jews enjoyed unprecedented rights and prominence under the Weimar Republic.

It is also worth recalling that the Nazis, faced with stiff opposition from leftists and liberals, started off gradually by, first, in 1933, stripping the citizenship of naturalised Jewish citizens who had immigrated from eastern Europe.

Beyond the possibility of future persecution, the blatantly discriminatory nature of instating a de facto two-tiered citizenship system is unfair and an extremely risky endeavour that could backfire.

Modern legal systems are supposedly based on the equality of citizens in the eyes of the law – hence the depiction of Lady Justice as blindfolded. If the potential danger posed to other citizens is good reason to deprive someone of their citizenship, why has a fanatical teenage mum lost hers, while neo-Nazi and other violent far-right extremists get to keep theirs? How does this selective system defend against the immense threat from fascists and neo-Nazis, like the mass-murdering Norwegian Anders Breivik, or the American disciple his work inspired, who has been arrested for allegedly plotting a major killing spree?

Applying the principle of revocation of citizenship only to naturalised citizens, dual nationals and citizens who are (theoretically) entitled to citizenship elsewhere, who have been almost exclusively Muslims, is an expression of blind bigotry, not blind justice.

Stripping jihadis and extremist Islamists of their citizenship stigmatises the Muslim minority by implying that Muslims must “earn” their citizenship and prove their loyalty, while citizenship is an unshakable birthright for their compatriots that cannot be taken away, no matter what.

Moreover, if citizenship must be earned, and not granted, why do European governments expect other countries to take in their refuse? Take Shamima Begum. She has no connection to her ancestral Bangladesh, which has refused to take her. This means not only that Begum faces the illegal prospect of becoming stateless, with her baby raised in a form of inhumane limbo, the British government has effectively left the burden of hosting her on ISIS’s victims.

The political rhetoric used to justify this kind of (mis)carriage of justice is extremely worrying and has far-reaching implications. For instance, British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a statement when she was home secreatry which claimed: “Citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and the Home Secretary will remove British citizenship from individuals where she feels it is conducive to the public good to do so.”

The absurdity of this logic becomes immediately apparent if we take it to its logical conclusion. If citizenship is a privilege, what have other citizens done to earn it, aside from being born with the right background? If citizenship can be revoked for “the public good”, who can and who should we trust to decide and define this general interest? If the justice system is founded on equality, why should other citizens not be judged by the same yardstick, and what kind of hell would we have created if every person who does not live by or support a certain set of “values” is liable to be erased from the record?

And there are already early signs of this kind of serious and troubling mission creep. At the end of last year, in a landmark ruling, a British-Indian paedophile was stripped of his citizenship and was set to be deported to India. This is an extremely dangerous precedent not only for migrants but also for sex offenders as a whole. And if one group of social pariahs and undesirables can be deprived of their nationality and deported, why would a future unscrupulous government stop there?

This could reach other groups. If Muslims can be treated like this, why not other stigmatised minorities? The extraordinary powers seized by numerous governments following the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks helped pave the way, in the UK, to the Windrush scandal, where Afro-Caribbeans who have been in the UK for (almost) all their lives, and now have British children of their own, have been deported or face deportation. Some were reportedly holders of British passports, while others were eligible but had never applied. Echoing, on a smaller scale, the 19th-century practice of sending unwanted citizens off to penal colonies, the deportations are being justified by the fact that the deportees allegedly committed criminal offences, some very minor.

If minority groups are targeted for the threat they allegedly pose to public safety and security, either as terrorists or criminals, what is to stop violent political fringe or opposition movements from being so targeted in the future? And if the political fringe is one day targeted, why not all perceived “enemies of the state”?

If we are not careful, our fear of violent extremists could hand increasingly authoritarian leaders in the West the power to appoint themselves gatekeepers and defenders of the nation and the national interest. If you want a taster of what this could be like you need only look to the Gulf states who have weaponised citizenship and have been stripping dissidents (and their families) of their nationality.

Citizenship is an inalienable right for everyone and no matter how terrifying and reprehensible we find terrorists, they also have human rights. Society can make these violent extremists pay for their crimes without abandoning the values of human rights, judicial impartiality, democracy and decency.

____

This is the updated version of an article which was first published by The New Arab on  February 2019.

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Island of despair

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek

While the outrage of Europeans has been turned to Donald Trump’s wall and the handling of migrants at the border with Mexico, they ignore a humanitarian disaster closer to home. The EU has left Greece to handle the influx of refugees on its own and those stuck on Lesbos are living in abysmal conditions.

Friday 30 November 2018

The dark-grey sky is wide open. The rain keeps pouring out of it as if from an Asian monsoon. Every now and then a crack of lightning rips open the heavens. Torrents of mud are flowing across ‘the jungle’, the parallel refugee encampment which sprang up alongside the ‘reception and identification centre’ of Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos (Lesbos, in English). The mud is coalescing with the ubiquitous faces, until the mixture forms a small river. No toilet facilities have been provided at the barbed-wire-ringed camp, let alone showers, save for those falling from the clouds.

Some 1,500 people living at the outer edges of Moria camp – currently home to some 7,000 refugees and migrants – are desperately trying to save their pitiful belongings. The filthy bilge is flooding their improvised dwellings. The cardboard-bolstered tents keep sagging under the weight of this Mediterranean monsoon.

Some of the children, who represent over 40% of the refugee and migrant population, nonetheless take to frolicking in the mud. A number of parents try to step in and protect them from the fury of the elements, but their efforts are to no avail. The scavenger dogs seek refuge under the trees. A group of defeated-looking men simply stand there in the rain, silently staring at nothing in particular. The women are struggling to save what little food they have stored in the tents. Since the mice and the rats are constantly on the prowl, the provisions are kept as high from the ground as possible. Despite these efforts, water, which is trickling down from the tents’ ceilings, is now threatening their precious stashes. A number of shrieks and wails can be heard from all over the perimeter.

The very colours are being washed away in the deluge. The one bright thing you can still discern amid the total and all-pervasive greyness is the garishly cheerful sign which, without a hint of irony, bids the inhabitants of the camp ‘Welcome’.

____

“We would have gone anywhere where it was safe. Where we could live like human beings. But the situation here is impossible to bear. We’re struggling to survive. Over here, it’s worse than war,” Alina, 27, tels me in her small tent.

Alina arrived here from the eastern part of Afghanistan, which the EU, for some reason, considers to be a safe country, despite the fact that conditions in the Hindu Kush are worse than at any time since 2001, with the Taliban now controlling two thirds of the Afghan provinces. Things are especially bad for the Hazara, the long-persecuted people whom the horrific experiments in ethnic cleansing sent fleeing to Europe in their tens of thousands.

Should their asylum application get rejected, Alina, her husband and her five children are facing deportation. It is a prospect that chills them to the bone. And for good reason: at least 10 of their compatriots have already been killed or gone missing after being sent back to Afghanistan from Germany or Sweden.

“We set out 13 months ago,” relates Alina, as she sits wedged between her children in the tent designed to accommodate only two people. “We simply had to leave. The fighting had reached our village. We borrowed the money. We first spent almost a year in Turkey. A lot of the time we were living on the street. My husband got work helping out at a cow farm, but the pay was disastrously low. So we decided to take our chances and head to Greece.”

The real irony is that the dire conditions on the other side of the fence, behind the tall barbed wire and surveillance cameras, are comparatively better, even though the ‘official’ camp only provides a single shower for every 84 inhabitants and one toilet for every 72, according to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee. Beyond every low lurks a lower low.

Europe’s migration frontline

In the wake of the European-Turkish refugee deal and the closing of the Balkan refugee route in the spring of 2016, crossing the strait between Turkey and the Aegean islands became much harder. Even the smugglers found themselves in a tough spot after the Turkish authorities started cracking down on the incomers, and after ‘protecting’ the EU’s external borders was entrusted to Frontex, the Union’s border and coastguard agency. The price of the risky voyage to the Greek islands has risen considerably, even though the prospect of reaching central or northern Europe have become slimmer than ever. The Greek islands have now completed their transformation into the frontline of the European migration policies.

At present, Afghans are the most numerous group on Lesvos, constituting more than 40% of the entire refugee population. The Greek authorities, assisted by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, have transported most of the Syrians over to the mainland. According to official UNHCR data, the Syrians were the most numerous group arriving in Greece as a whole in 2018: 41% of all incomers were from Syria, while 20% hailed from Afghanistan, 15% from Iraq and 6% from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The numbers paint a clear picture of the changing flows brought about by EU policy. In the current year, 30% fewer arrivals reached the European Union via the Mediterranean than last year, while Greece has experienced a 40% increase.

At the moment, almost 70,000 refugees and migrants are based in Greece. The very number is a clear testimonial that many have become permanently trapped. The recent developments have put an increasing strain on the housing capacities all over the country. The official limits have long been surpassed. The local asylum system may be markedly more efficient than it was two years ago, but that doesn’t mean it is anything but slow.

At the time of writing, the accommodation centres on the mainland house around 20,000 people. Although the regional authorities in Lesvos issued, at the end of September, the Greek Ministry of Migration with an ultimatum to ‘clean up’ the Moria camp in the next thirty days, the desired changes did not take place at the required pace, with the organised departure of only around 2,000 people from the island to the mainland occurring over the past six weeks.

But fresh newcomers keep rolling in.

____

“We made two different attempts [to cross to Lesvos]. The first time we were caught by the Turkish police,” recounts Alina. “On the second occasion, we hid in the forest for three days and nights. There were seventy-five of us. We all had to fit on to a single rubber boat. The children were absolutely terrified. All I could do was keep pretending everything was just fine. After an hour at sea, the boat sprang a leak. Before long, we were sinking.”

The group was fortunate enough to be picked up by the Greek coast guard. As the Moria camp had long reached its capacity, they were left to fend for themselves. After applying for asylum, they pitched down in the middle of what used to be a grove, located right next to the camp.

“All of this came as a horrendous shock to me. I’ve never seen anything remotely like it. It’s so crowded, and there are no toilets or even running water,” says the petite Hazara woman. “We are so hungry. Every meal means waiting in a line for two or three hours – though there’s no guarantee you will get served. And there’s so much violence here … At night, the children are forbidden from leaving the tent. I myself don’t dare go anywhere without an escort from my husband.”

“The Greek policemen are merely observing the violence. They couldn’t possibly care less for our safety,” she adds.

Just like in her homeland, Alina is surrounded by violence, misery and the threat of sexual assault. The latter is so omnipresent a number of women and girls in the camp have taken to wearing diapers during the night. Healthcare is virtually non-existent. For the (at least) 7,000 people here, a single doctor is available at any given time. Alina’s doctor appointment has been postponed and postponed for over a month now.

No wonder she is terrified something truly horrible is bound to happen. “All of my children are sick. They keep coughing. All of them complain of aching lungs. They have lost a lot of weight. Everything here is so filthy. I am unable to help them,” Alina explains, powerless. “But what will happen when the winter comes? I know we will have to somehow survive it here. We badly need some winter clothes and blankets. We have nothing. Our asylum interview has already taken place, but it takes several months to get a response.”

Follow the money

With all this wretched misery, one can only ask: where did the EU money go, namely €1.6 billion euros allocated to Greece since 2015 to help the refugees? How is it possible that two years after the closing of the Balkan route, people are still living in such festering landfills, cut off from the world and stripped of all resources?

Some Greek journalists refuse to balk at such compelling but difficult questions. A few weeks ago, the Fileleftheros newspaper published a story on the misappropriation of European funds. The defence minister Panos Kamenos, the president of the far-right The Independent Greeks party, responded by sending the police after the two journalists and the editor. The paper had managed to link Kamenos to a local businessman grown rich by what passes as servicing the refugee camps. His company, funded using EU money, was in charge both of the distribution of food and the plumbing. The prices were dictated by the supplier, and the contracts were awarded overnight and without oversight.

At least the journalists were released the very same day they were arrested. Furthermore, the European Anti-Fraud Office immediately launched an investigation into the ‘suspected irregularities’.

____

Ahmad Ebrahimi, 31, is another one of those who, despite completing his interview with the Greek Asylum Service five months ago, has yet to receive his reply. The slight and surprisingly calm young man tells me he is trying to keep a cool head and take advantage of his infinitely bleak and frustrating days at Moria.

Back home in Afghanistan, he was working as a journalist. He was a TV producer, and also produced his own podcast. He enjoyed the work, and was making a decent living, at least by Afghan standards. From a reasonably well-off family – his father owns three stores in Kabul – he has never known penury. Ebrahimi’s desperate flight to Europe was not motivated by economics. The only reason Ahmad set off for Europe was that his status as a journalist – and a Hazara – had made him a target for the Taliban.

Despite being somewhat aware of what was taking place along the European refugee routes, the actual conditions at Lesvos came as a profound shock. “I fled Afghanistan because I wanted to reach the free and democratic world, where I could safely do my work. But here, the situation is unspeakably dreadful,” he reflected. “The camp is in chaos. It is simply not safe for anyone. I mostly keep to myself. I don’t need anything from anyone. All I want is to leave and continue on my journey.”

Ahmed is currently volunteering as an organiser of photo workshops for his fellow refugees and migrants. He is also making a documentary on conditions at the camp. His most fervent hope is to leave this island of the damned and head for the Canadian embassy in Athens. A collaborative stint with a Canadian journalist had opened up the prospect of a North American job. Yet the burned-out Greek – and European – asylum systems are functioning to the tune of a merciless algorithm. Certain inhuman rules are in place, and the fates of individual humans are far from being a priority.

A whole new spectrum of trauma

“I met a number of families in the camp telling me of their escapes from Syria, Afghanistan and the Congo… They managed to flee some of the most atrocious wars on the planet, yet they all feel what they encountered here is much worse. They would rather have bombs falling on them than keep living in such ruinous conditions,” says Idoia Moreno, the coordinator of the Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic located next to the infamous camp.

MSF’s facilities are operating at peak capacity. During our visit, the medics performed a mass vaccination programme on the children across the island’s camps. Moreno informs me she has been stationed in the Congo, the Central African Republic and in Angola. She has served in camps ravaged by the Ebola virus, yet she has never seen anything remotely like Moria.

“In recent months, the camp’s demographics underwent a significant change,” reports Carola Buscemi, a paediatrician stationed at a small field clinic operating on Lesvos since February. “We’ve never had so many children as we do right now. They currently form almost half of the entire refugee population. We are operating in serious crisis conditions – and they should be recognised as such by the authorities in Athens and Brussels. Yet they refuse to do so. For the most part, people here are left to fend for themselves. The children’s medical condition is rapidly deteriorating. Even the ones who arrived healthy are getting sick. And the same goes for the adults. The situation grows more alarming every day. We keep notifying the authorities, but nothing changes.”

Every day, Buscemi treats 25 to 30 refugee and migrant children. According to her, the most pressing problem is respiratory disease, with skin conditions coming in a close second. In the Europe of the 21st century, malnutrition is a major source of suffering as well.

“The food is of very poor quality, hopelessly unsuitable for children. And there is not enough of it to go around. The children are losing weight in front of our eyes. A number of them have simply stopped growing,” she observes. “The stress is a major contributing factor. There is a lot of bed-wetting, anxiety, panic attacks and self-harm. I cannot emphasise enough how rife with psychiatric disorders the camp’s inmates have become. These people have fled savage war conditions, only to come here and face a whole new range of trauma. You can see the wages of post-traumatic stress disorders on every step.”

A few days ago, the Italian doctor treated a seven-year-old Iraqi boy who tried to commit suicide by jumping from a roof. It was his second attempt. The first time, he had already managed to fasten a rope to a tree branch and was only saved in the nick of time.

“It is horrendous,” Buscemi testifies. “I have never seen anything as awful as the situation here. And what makes it worse is that it’s taking place in Europe. Over here, at least, things should be very different.”

Over the past few weeks, the doctors at the clinic have tried to appeal to the international community for help through the media. “The parents at Moria fear their children have already sustained irreparable psychological damage. They come to the clinic telling us their sons and daughters have stopped talking, or that they have harmed themselves in a number of ways,” says Giovanna Bonvini, head of the mental health department at the Greek branch of Médecins Sans Frontieres.

Her colleague Caroline Willeren, the MSF’s coordinator of activities at the Moria camp, is even more direct: “It is a disgrace. Here we are seeing the high human cost paid by the refugees on account of the European-Turkish deal. The political arrangement gave rise to a human catastrophe.”

Fear is a dangerous thing

The local communities can be counted among those who have paid a heavy price for the European migration policies turning the Greek islands, the south of Italy and Malta into a human dumping ground.

It needs to be said that the local communities have displayed a commendable sense of solidarity and empathy. Lesvos, which over the past three years has seen the passage of some 650,000 refugees and migrants, deserves a special mention in this regard. The locals have done their utmost to help the incomers avoid the pitfalls created by the bureaucrats and the politicians. Yet understandably enough, both the patience and the compassion gradually ran out.

Throughout Samos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Lesvos – where the European and Greek authorities set up the infamous reception and identification centres (or ‘hot-spots’) – a great deal of anger and frustration is being voiced. One consequence is the strengthening of the far-right political movements, most notably the Nazi-tinged Golden Dawn.

“The refugees have been turned into a tool of the far right. In an age of populism, fake news, mental laziness and depleted attention spans, their work has never been easier. Serious reflection is a thing of the past,” comments Efi Latsoudi, a long time human rights activist who spoke to me at Nan, the activists’ restaurant in Mitilini, where the local waiters and the refugee chefs work side by side.

Latsoudi fears that both Europe and Greece are hurtling back to a dark place. The refugee crisis strikes her as “tailor-made” for the purposes of dismantling the very concepts of human rights and an open society. In spite of Europe’s slide towards the wrong end of history, she has somehow managed to hold on to her hopes. Lasudi has been helping out the new arrivals since 2008, when, all across the EU, the refugees were still considered as a rather quaint and exotic phenomenon. But even then, a decade ago, a quick scan of the Aegean islands would reveal the shape of the things to come on the horizon.

Latsoudi is, in her own words, devoting all her energies to fighting for what should be the simplest thing in the world: for all people being treated as people. Still, even this redoubtable humanitarian from Lesvos, whom I have been meeting up with for a number of years, can no longer hide her profound exhaustion.

“Fear is a dangerous thing,” Latsoudi picks up our conversation. “The hatred is spreading like brushfire. At the same time, humanitarian work is becoming criminalised. I am concerned this may be nothing short of an epidemic, further weakening the social fabric with each passing day.”

She goes on to relate how she is still haunted by the memories of last spring, when the local neo-Nazis launched a savage assault on the Kurdish refugees, who had fled the violence of the former members of extremist Sunni Arab militias at Moria and resorted to sleeping in the parks. Even two years ago, Latsoudi informs me, she would have never expected such a thing on Lesvos, one of the great historical entry points for migrants.

“After all this time, I still feel as if we are living in a warzone. So many unforgivable things have happened. We have fallen because we failed to protect the people. The whole of Europe has fallen with us. What we are witnessing is an utter dehumanisation of the refugee problem,” she says. “The systemic violation of asylum rights is affecting the entire continent. Before long, we are all bound to experience the effects of this basic erosion of common decency. Here on Lesvos, we are still struggling to hold on to our sense of community and solidarity. On the other islands, that fight seems all but lost.”

____

As far back as 2012, a group of Lesvos volunteers began utilising the premises of a former summer camp on the outskirts of Mytilini to set up the PIKPA refugee settlement. Back then, there was no such thing as official refugee camps, so the incomers had to seek shelter on the beaches, in the parks and in the forests.

In 2015, when Lesvos was turned into one of the focal points of the Balkan refugee route, a single day could easily bring in as many as 10,000 new refugees. By then, the local activists had already restored the former campsite and started putting up wooden shacks. While Moria was being turned into a suffocating prison, PIKPA was there to provide the most vulnerable among the refugees with a place where they could take at least an occasional unfettered breath.

Today, the open refugee shelter is funded by donations and managed entirely by volunteers, who keep arriving from all over the world. On several occasions, the local authorities, spurred on by the local business community (especially hotel-owners), tried to shut the place down. One of the cases against PIKPA is still to be decided on by the local courts. Yet as if to spite their persecutors, the volunteers refused to shut down the operation for even a single day.

At the moment, the volunteer-managed camp provides sanctuary to a hundred refugees, who are living in the best conditions I have seen over the last few years. The shelter’s personnel picked them out among the most vulnerable members of the Moria camp. PIKPA is now providing shelter to a number of pregnant women, single mothers, orphaned children and some of the most profoundly traumatised casualties of war. At PIKPA, they are housed in neat small wooden structures and provided with basic medical and psychological assistance. They are also treated to the wildest of luxuries like regular meals, their own kindergarten service, courses in English and Greek, plus the option to start preparing their children for joining the Greek schooling system. Work therapy is also provided for any who might benefit from it.

____

After the savage downpour is spent, a couple of tiny Syrian girls start dragging a plastic boat each over the humongous puddles covering the PIKPA basketball court. After a few moments, the girls let out a festive laugh. For a few moments at least, the trauma of war and of the subsequent desperate flight is overpowered by the sheer joy of being young and playing outside.

“If I hadn’t made it here, I would have lost my mind. They saved my life. They also managed to salvage my basic humanity,” says Muhammad Z, a 27-year-old man from the Syrian coastal town of Latakia.

Muhammad joins me for a long stroll around the PIKPA compound. He reached Lesvos in august 2016, a little less than six months after the Balkan refugee route was shut down. He left Latakia, one of Bashar al Assad’s main strongholds, because he decided he could not participate in the murdering of his friends, relatives and other compatriots, who had ended up on the other side of his country’s chaotic and unimaginably violent divide.

Muhammad managed to avoid being mobilised, but knew very well what lay in store for him following his decision. Even before that, he had been jailed by the regime for no apparent reason. They beat him up savagely and also tortured him in a number of other ways, only to release him after a month, which was nothing short of a miracle. A number of his friends were not so lucky.

Muhammad struck out for Europe accompanied by his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law, and their two children. Upon reaching Lesvos, the entire group applied for asylum. After months of waiting, the bureaucrats decided to split up the family, turning down Muhammad and his mother’s applications without an explanation. Twice in a row, their appeals got overruled as well. Under the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal, the pair of them should have long been returned to Turkey.

“In Moria, I was really starting to lose it,” the timid and friendly young man continues in fluent English. “Everything was wrong. The fights, the chaos, the awful food, the unbelievable crowdedness. The fires. The protests. I simply wanted to stop breathing. It was easier back home, even with the war. When the bomb hits, you die, and that’s it. Over here, the suffering just never ends. My mother was suffering terribly. She would cry all the time. Fortunately, the activists came to our aid. We have been living here at PIKPA for a year now. The volunteers helped me to remain a human being, one still capable of hoping and believing. They respect me here, and this has done wonders to restore my dignity.”

After a while, Muhammad opens up some more and tells me he lives and breathes for the weekly football matches between the refugees and the volunteers. This is hardly surprising, since back home in Latakia, he had just signed his first professional contract with a local premier division team, while also working as a trained optician.

“I used to have a great life,” Muhammad shakes his head. “I was hoping for a serious football career. I was doing quite well. But then the war broke out, and everything stopped in its tracks. My team fell apart. Very soon after, my father was killed by a bomb. After my first arrest, I realised I needed to leave. My mother insisted on going with me. The two of us, we’re very connected. Without her, I would have long reached Germany or Sweden … But it is my duty to remain by her side.”

It is quite impossible to convey the hope in this young man’s eyes when he relates how a team of volunteer lawyers promised to help reopen both his and his mother’s cases. “I only rarely dare to venture outside PIKPA,” he winces, “Because I’m too afraid they might arrest me and send me back to Turkey.”

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An explosive musical comeback

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Arab audiences are not ready for the return to music of a pop superstar who became a Salafist extremist and allegedly took up arms against the Lebanese state.

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Eyebrows were raised when the Egyptian media production company AG Group announced that the controversial Lebanese-Palestinian singer Fadel Shaker had been contracted to sing the theme song of the much-awaited Ramadan series ‘Ladena Aqwal Okhra’ (‘We have Something Else To Say’) starring the veteran actress Yousra, alongside Shereen Reda and Najla Badr.

Last September, a Lebanese military court sentenced Shaker in absentia to 15 years in prison after convicting him for his alleged role in a 2013 attack on the Lebanese army that left 18 soldiers dead in the southern city of Sidon.

Reactions from audiences and celebrities were mixed: while some welcomed Shaker’s return as a triumph of ‘good over evil’, others regarded it as rewarding a murderer with blood on his hands. Singers such as the Lebanese Wael Gassar, Fares Karam, Melhm Zain, Elissa and Assi Helani supported Shaker’s return, while the likes of Ragheb Alama and Rami Ayash were stridently opposed.

The song, which was released on YouTube on 8 May, has been viewed over 3 million times, which could be an indication that many people have forgiven Shaker and longed for his return, as well as that the controversy has drawn the curious.

The biggest surprise came when, less than 48 hours after the track’s release, AG Group decided to remove the song from the series, which was announced in a press release reiterating the Cairo-based production company’s support for Lebanon and its armed forces. This came following widespread criticism of the company in Lebanon, including the mother of one of the dead soldiers appealing on TV for the removal of Shaker’s song.

In an interview with an Egyptian TV channel, on 9 May, the co-creator of the series, Medhat al-Adl, admitted: “We didn’t study the legal standpoint regarding Fadl Shaker in Lebanon. We basically made our decision from a purely artistic perspective.”

“When we learnt that his problem has not been solved and that there are questions over his legal situation,” al-Adl elaborated, “we decided, out of our respect for the feelings of the Lebanese people, to do without the voice of Fadel Shaker.”

Shaker was quoted as saying he was surprised by the move. Egyptian TV host Wael Elebrashy said he had called the singer, who denied  the charges against him. Elebrashy insinuated that Shaker was the “victim” of political and sectarian forces, claiming that Hizbullah and pro-Assad supporters in Lebanon were the ones behind Shaker’s situation and his dismissal.

In 2012, Shaker quit his music career on religious grounds, claiming that singing is ‘haram’ (forbidden religiously) which upset his colleagues and fellow singers. Soon afterwards Shaker changed his name to Hajj Shaker and went on to pledge allegiance to Lebanese Salafist cleric Ahmed Al Assir.

Shaker’s alleged decision to take up arms with Al Assir’s supporters in 2013 in an attack against the Lebanese army led to him being sentenced, in absentia, to 15 years’ imprisonment with hard labour, a fine of 800,000 Lebanese Lira and the removal of his civil rights.

Ever since, Shaker was spotted sporadically at events where he performed religiously inspired songs in Ain al-Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp which is generally not accessible to the Lebanese military.

Shaker appeared on a local TV station sporting a beard typical of ultra-conservative Salafists. Images and videos have also emerged of Shaker with Islamist militants. Shaker has long denied the accusations against him. In an interview with the Lebanese TV channel MTV two years ago, Shaker insisted that he does belong to any political or religious group and that his relationship with Al Assir does not go beyond the fact that Shaker prays at a mosque where Al Assir preaches. Shaker also insisted that the weapons he was carrying in the videos were licensed by Lebanese military intelligence and he never used them except in self-defence, after a Hizbullah brigade launched a militant attack against Shaker’s village and ransacked his home, stealing more than $940,00, then torching it, according to Shaker. He goes on to claim that he did not fire a single bullet but he was shot at along with Al Assir’s men by Hizbullah.

The whereabouts of Shaker are still unknown. The producers said they had contracted Shaker for the theme song through his son.

Born in the Lebanese city of Sidon, Shaker shot to fame in 1998 with his hit ‘Meta, Habibi, Meta’ (‘When, Darling, When’), which earned him the title ‘King of Romance’ and made him superstar across the Arab world. He went on to release more hits and performed alongside international stars, such as Mariah Carey and Jimmy Cliff.

The whole situation is rather baffling and could have easily been avoided had AG Group done its homework. If the production company did not know about the history of someone as famous as Shaker, this raises serious questions about its professionalism. If the company knew about his past but decided to choose him on artistic merit, this raises the question of why it buckled so quickly to popular pressure. In light of all the free publicity the series has received, there is also the possibility that this was a cynical publicity stunt.

Whether the reason, it appears that Arab audiences, especially the Lebanese, are not yet ready to forgive Fadel Shaker.

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“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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Post-ISIS Mosul, pt 2: Home is where the hurt is

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Despite the destruction, pain, trauma and dread for the future, Mosul’s tough and long-suffering are returning to the ruins of their devastated city.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Read part 1

Thursday 21 October 2017

Before the offensive to seize back Mosul  from the control of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), almost 2.5 million people had been living in Iraq’s second-largest city. Since then, over a million have been evacuated, especially from the western Sunni districts. A joint effort by the Iraqi security forces and local humanitarian organisations, this was  one of the greatest humanitarian evacuations in human history. The evacuation may have saved a huge number of lives, but hundreds of thousands still lost their homes.

Some 5.8 million Iraqis were driven from their homes after the Islamic State, in 2014, conquered huge and mostly undefended swathes of territory. As things stand, 3.2 million remain displaced, and 600,000 of them are from Mosul.

These people literally have no place to go back to, or they are rightly fearful of returning to the crater that used to be their city, dreading the next wave of violent vengeance – this time of the sectarian variety. During my travels across the refugee camps in northern Iraq, I met numerous people who were actively prevented from returning by the security forces and the Shia militias. In all this chaos, everyone agrees on one thing: Mosul is never going to be itself again.

The western parts of the city remain monstrously empty. Life may be flowing back into the eastern part of town, but west Mosul has been sacrificed. It was clear in advance it was going to be erased. It would be impossible to describe the sheer kinetic force employed to tear down this old and once proudly independent city. The immensity of the destruction can only be grasped first-hand.

Two boys are staring off into space amid the rubble. Not much beside the great absence of things that used to be is on display. It feels like even time itself has died here. The past has been erased, the present is a flat line going nowhere, and no one can imagine anything resembling a tolerable future.

Yet in spite of all this, some of the residents have decided to return. And like the trees that have sprouted up through the cracks in the concrete, these people are now subsisting on crumbs amid the wreckage of their homes. There are no stray dogs to be glimpsed around here. Even the smartest and toughest of alley cats seem to have been eliminated.

During the final weeks of the campaign, a great hunger had descended over west Mosul. People ate whatever they could get their hands on to survive. The Islamic State had confiscated most of the food. What was available was savagely expensive – a kilogram of sugar could set one back as much as $50. In many places, there was no electricity or drinking water. West Mosul, especially its old city centre, had been turned into a constantly bombarded, open-air concentration camp. Caught in the crossfire, the city’s inhabitants were slowly turned into yet another tool of war.

“We were very lucky. All of us survived. But we lost everything we had. My son used to have a shop in the old part of town. The entire family was dependent on that shop. Now it is gone. Everything is gone,” described Ahmed Haji Jasim, 70, who had spent the entire offensive here in Mosul. We were talking to him in the spacious and relatively undamaged guest room in his flat in the al-Rifai quarter. Jasim and his family managed to survive thanks to the bunker they had built in the building’s basement. During the worst of the bombardment, they didn’t leave their hideout for five days. They had to stay put even as they heard most of their belongings above them burning away.

“The worst of it was that we knew we could die at any moment,” the old and tired-looking gentleman told us, sitting under a giant busted clock. “It took such a long time for things to calm down. We were terrified all the time. The food was extremely expensive.”

Before the offensive, Jasim used to be a reasonably well-off man. Now he and his family are facing destitution. “But we’re set to remain here. Where else can we go? After 35 years of bloody conflict, I can no longer trust anyone. No, this was not a liberation. It is clear that the future for both Iraq and Mosul is going to be grim.”

Besieged by death

As if everything else they had done was not bad enough, ISIS fanatics, in a crime against the future, had purposefully worked to dismantle the local medical infrastructure. “What you see here is not rebuilding; it is reanimation,” said Hasan Ibrahim, the new managing director of the West Mosul General Hospital, the main hospital in west Mosul, flashing us a rueful smile. Our meeting took place in Ibrahim’s improvised office somewhere in the maze of charred walls and gutted recovery rooms, the consequence of the Islamic State’s decision to burn the hospital to the ground.

This badly damaged wonder of resilience is currently the only functioning major healthcare institution in the ransacked urban desert. As soon as the Iraqi forces took control of the district on 15 May 2017, the remaining hospital staff took to resurrecting the facilities. With the assistance of the UN’s Population Fund (UNFPA) and ECHO, the EU’s humanitarian agency, this stupendous project has managed to get off the ground.

“We’ve seen almost total destruction of the premises,” Ibrahim continued. “ISIS took out all our equipment. The demand for our services is staggering. As we re-entered the hospital, the fighting was still going on. Right here, very, very close to us. It was terrifying.”

The hospital’s managing director still serves as an active surgeon. In the past, he had been arrested four times by ISIS thugs. He had been put on trial twice. The first time because his trousers were too long, the second time, because they were deemed too short after he had dutifully shortened them. This is not a joke. But Dr Ibrahim still managed to laugh as he recounted the story. He was also quick to add he had been exceptionally lucky to escape unharmed.

“For the last two months, we functioned as an ER unit. It was horrible, just horrible… Even before all this madness, our staff hadn’t been receiving their paychecks for three years. I can tell you, they’re not receiving them now, but they’re still performing their duties with exemplary dedication.”

As things stood, 25 people were ’employed’ at the hospital. After our interview, the managing director led us up a flight of soot-streaked stairs for a tour of the hospital’s burnt-out upper floors. We ended up on the roof, from where one could survey the totality of west Mosul’s devastation.

The main and only hospital in west Mosul is doing what it can to help some life persevere amid the rubble. The hospital’s underground facilities may be in dire need of complete renovation, but that has not stopped the staff from using it as an improvised maternity ward. Opened at the beginning of June 2017, it was allocated a team of one doctor and two midwives.

During our visit, the modest premises, which were reminiscent of the field hospitals of yore, were a hive of lively activity. It wasn’t yet noon, and the world was already two infant souls richer. That morning, Suria Shaab Ahmad, 42, had given birth to the little girl she was now clutching to her breast on her bed.

It was her fifth child. “Five is enough,” Suria laughed merrily in spite of her apparent exhaustion, a mere two hours after the delivery. Then she told me she had been escorted to the hospital by her 62-year-old mother. Suria’s husband had simply disappeared – or, much more probably, been disappeared… Like hundreds of other Sunni men who had vanished without a trace.

“We come from the Bousefa quarter in west Mosul,” Suria’s mother informed, as she sat patiently next to her daughter and her tiny granddaughter. “Thirteen months ago when the offensive started, we were forced to run. Our house had been burned down. Everything we owned had gone up in flames. We moved to the old city centre.”

Grandma had, herself, brought six children into the world. Five of them are still alive – only her son Mohammed, a member of the Iraqi army, had been gunned down by the extremists. His family searched for him for a long time. He had been hiding in a hole under the house that Suria’s family had fled to. “It was horrible… They had killed my son and burned down that house as well. Following the liberation, we returned to Bousefa to live in a house where Daesh supporters used to live. Where else were we supposed to go?”

Suria’s mother spoke in a forceful, seemingly unruffled manner. But then she could hardly afford to seem ruffled. This robust matronly lady knew very well, as I was also aware, that the survival of an entire family hinged on her fortitude.

“Today is a nice day. We are happy. Life is starting over again. I’m trying to find a name for my little girl. Perhaps you’ve got a suggestion?” Suria Shaab Ahmad asked me.

Nur? Light?

“Ha ha, that’s going to be tough – we already have four girls named Nur in the family,” Suria smiled and kept stroking her precious newborn daughter.

Still and in spite of everything, let there be Light.

Read part 1

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Hypocrisy and the Holy Land

 
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By Khaled Diab

In their reactions to Donald Trump’s hypocritical Jerusalem declaration, many Arab and Muslims leaders have exhibited their own grotesque double standards.

At the behest of the Turkish president, Islamic leaders gathered for an extraordinary summit to denounce Trump’s declaration.
Source: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Twitter account

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Exercising his peerless talent to make enemies and infuriate people, Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there changes nothing on the ground – except perhaps highlighting the extent of American hypocrisy and how Washington was never an impartial broker.

Nevertheless, Jerusalem is a city of enormous symbolic significance, not just to Jews and westerners but also to Arab Muslims and Christians, and the Palestinian struggle has been at the heart of Arab and Muslim consciousness for generations.

This partly explains why a merely symbolic announcement from Trump has triggered such angry reactions both in Arab corridors of power and on the streets. Another factor is the need to forge a semblance of unity in this bitterly divided region.

Arab League foreign ministers warned that Trump’s move “deepens tension, ignites anger and threatens to plunge the region into more violence and chaos,” as though it was not already mired in both.

In keeping with the League’s track record of futile, toothless endeavours, the ministers said they would seek a UN Security Council resolution rejecting Trump’s move, as though the US was not a veto-wielding permanent member.

Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, urged the Arab world to adopt economic sanctions against the United States. While Bassil was outspoken in his defence of Palestine, his position towards Palestinians is a different matter.

The foreign minister has previously stirred controversy with his opposition to the naturalisation of not only the recently arrived Syrian refugees but also the Palestinian refugees who have lived in Lebanon for decades. Bassil is even against allowing Lebanese women to pass on their nationality to their children if they are married to a Palestinian or a Syrian.

While Bassil is an extreme and bigoted example, loving Palestine but disliking the Palestinians is a fairly common dissonance in Lebanon. This is reflected in how angry protesters clashed with riot police outside the American embassy in Beirut, with some denouncing the US as the “enemy of Palestine”.

Meanwhile, nearly half a million registered Palestinian refugees call Lebanon home, many of whom live in poverty and socio-economic marginalisation, excluded from numerous professions, in one of the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, including the infamous Shatila in southern Beirut.

Of course, Lebanon has been a frontline state in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has integrated some Palestinians and its failure to integrate the remainder partly rests on the fear of what this would do to the country’s delicate balance of power, which dangerously and precariously hinges on a sectarian fulcrum. Some Lebanese are opposed to the integration of Palestinians on the grounds that this keeps the Palestinian cause alive, even if it exacts a heavy human cost.

At a rally in Beirut last week, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaking by video link, urged Palestinians to rise up against Israel and vowed that “Jerusalem and Palestine and the Palestinian people and the Palestinian resistance in all its factions” would become his group’s top priority.

One wonders why the Palestinians of Syria were not a priority for Nasrallah, whose militia has been actively supporting the Assad regime in its destruction of Syria, including Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, upon which the regime and its allies have inflicted a cruel siege and fought a number of battles.

Not to be outdone, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to lead Islamic efforts to resist the US move, even hosting a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to prove his point. Calling Israel a “child-murderer state”, Erdoğan pledged to “continue our struggle within law and democracy… Our road map will show that it will not be easy for them to realize their plans.” What Erdoğan failed to mention is that he has almost destroyed Turkey’s democracy and undermined the rule of law through a systematic campaign to jail journalists and critics and to purge the state of opponents and enemies, both real and perceived.

After the summit, Erdoğan pledged to open a Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem. However, he built a cunning escape hatch into his plan by claiming that he could not, for now, open this embassy, because East Jerusalem is under occupation. This sounds like low-risk grandstanding to me, as Turkey already has a consulate in Sheikh Jarrah. He could declare that the embassy, if he really wanted, and hang a sign outside, even if it pissed off the Israelis or led to the Israeli taking action against the consulate-cum-embassy.

The reason Erdoğan talks the walk but does not walk the talk is because of all the Turkish interests at stake. What is also absent from Erdoğan’s inflammatory remarks is that, increasingly isolated like Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, he ratified a lucrative reconciliation deal last year with Israel, the country he accused of infanticide.

While Turkey has longstanding official relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, which severely reprimanded Egypt for its peace deal with Israel and ostensibly upholds the Arab boycott of Israel, is seeking closer ties, not to work towards peace and reconciliation in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to build a mutual alliance against Iran, Riyadh’s belligerent regional rival.

Regardless of which side of the Gulf spat they stand on, much of the Gulf Co-operation Council has been hungrily eyeing Israeli technology, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar all finding covert paths, via middle countries, through which to import Israeli products, including military ones.

This, along with Saudi Arabia’s hatred of Hamas and murderous starvation of Yemen, could explain the muted reaction from Riyadh compared with other Arab and Muslim capitals. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is keen to build an axis of autocrats with wannabe dictator Donald Trump in Washington.

Egypt’s reaction has also been fairly reserved. This is partly because of the mutual appreciation society President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi enjoys with Donald Trump, and partly because Egypt has an ambivalent relationship with the Palestinians.

On the one hand, the Egyptian regime has helped Israel maintain its blockade of Gaza by keeping its Rafah crossing mostly closed and has stoked hatred and fear towards Hamas. On the other hand, Egypt has been a central mediator, though hardly an unbiased broker, in intra-Palestinian efforts to mend bridges, helping clinch the recent reconciliation accord between Fatah and Hamas.

Beyond the regimes, on the street, where outrage is generally more genuine, much of the anger has been on behalf of stones and symbols rather than flesh and blood humans, and has featured a troubling element of religious bigotry.

Over and above the chanting of tired and outdated slogans, there has been little in the way of creative new approaches to break the deadlock and support the Palestinians.

____

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in German in Die Zeit on 14 December 2017.

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The adventures of Rami and his magic violin

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

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

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

Tuesday 12 September 2017

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

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

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

The sound of music

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

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

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

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

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

The border concerto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A crescendo of memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brother’s sacrifice

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

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

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

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

Farewells and hard roads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answered prayers

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

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

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

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

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

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

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

Musical doors

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

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

“It’s a violin,” Rami replied.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The washing machines ft. Bach

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

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

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

Collateral damage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Greek island teaches Europe how to welcome refugees

 
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Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

The Greek island of Tilos has hosted more than seven times its population in refugees… and has done so with dignity, respect and with its own limited resource.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Tuesday 15 August 2017

A tired middle-aged man, dressed for autumn even though it was a sweltering July afternoon, was quietly staring out at the clear blue sea. His old soldier’s face had a frozen, immutable aspect to it, but you could still sense he was awash with emotion. With the sun mercilessly beating down on the nape of his neck, he was stoically yet carefully monitoring his five children chase one another on the almost deserted beach. Every now and then a thought escaped his lips – usually no more than a word or two. In these conditions, it was hard to remain of sound mind if one didn’t have an occasional chat with oneself.

“I haven’t slept for five years,” the man eventually told me. “Five years! Can you even imagine what that means?”

Mohsen is a former high-ranking officer in the Syrian government forces. He hails from the northern city of Hasaqa where the Kurds form the majority of the population… A city where, from the war’s outbreak in the spring of 2011, the members of the Kurdish militia have often coordinated their manoeuvres with the officials in Damascus. This marriage of convenience somehow held out to the present day.

Mohsen used to command 400 men. For a long time, he had managed to hold on to his hope that all-out war could be avoided. His hopes withstood even the fact that after the first few weeks of the mostly peaceful demonstrations against the Bashar al Assad regime, his superiors ordered him to start jailing the protesters en masse.

The demonstrations in the Kurdish-majority region were not as intensive as those in other parts of Syria. About a year into the riots, when the country had already plummeted into the abyss of war, his superiors ordered Mohsen to relinquish his command to the Kurdish units.

It was not the first direct order this proud Syrian patriot refused to carry out. The crux of his argument was that Syria was Syrian, not Sunni, Shi’a, Kurdish or Christian. Since he was very popular with his soldiers and revered by many of his superior officers, the authorities chose not to jail him. Instead, they transferred and demoted him. He knew what was coming next.

“I no longer have a future, but my children do”

Pressure was slowly put on Mohsen’s family. The mukhabarat, the country’s security and intelligence service, followed his every move and monitored his every word. Eventually, they imprisoned his brother. Then he was given another impossible order: his unit was to open fire on the protesters.

This was when the international fighters looking for a holy war had already started reaching Syria through the Turkish border. And with them, intelligence officers and arms dealers. Mohsen rounded up his soldiers and told them he was deserting. His men were free to either join him or comply with the orders from Damascus. Some of them decided to join him. At the end of 2012, he struck off for Iraqi Kurdistan, accompanied by his family and a number of his former troops.

He managed to get a job in Dohuk, but the Syrian intelligence was hot on his trail. He was considered a traitor, and the war soon splashed over the Syrian border to the north of Iraq.

In June 2014, after the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS or ISIS) took Mosul, the extremist Sunni militia began conquering the Kurdish territories. As ISIS neared Dohuk, the outlook became increasingly grim. Despite his dreams of the Syrian war ending, Mohsen finally resigned himself to a refugee’s fate.

He took his family to Turkey, where he knew he was not safe on account of his status as a ‘traitor’. Still, he spent more than two years in the vicinity of Izmir, after deciding not to register as a refugee. When the Balkan route opened up, it was generally seen as everyone’s golden chance to reach Europe. Yet Mohsen waited, hoping against hope the situation back home might still somehow improve.

When he learned that he had been stripped of all his assets in Hasaqa, he realised this was no longer an option.

After the EU and the Turkish government struck their bargain, things became much worse for the Syrian refugees in Turkey. Sadly, Mohsen was too late to strike off for Greece… Too late for his family to be granted permission to spend the rest of the war in Germany.

“I decided to try to reach Europe because of the children. I no longer have a future, but they do. It’s my duty to do everything I can to help them on their way. Forty days we waited for a boat, and then the smugglers boarded us onto a small ship. There were so many of us… And it was very very cold. The captain was taking the ship around in circles. I knew something was not right. Maybe he was drunk? We changed our course countless times, and then we hit a huge rock. Eventually, we were rescued and transported to Greece,” Mohsen says, describing the scenes from eight months earlier.

Mohsen was talking to me on the small Southern Aegean island of Tilos, which he now calls his home. “Here on Tilos all I wanted was to get some rest,” he smiles. “But now I would very much like to stay. These people have treated me like a human being. I had already forgotten what that even means. I feel welcome, safe and useful here – seeing how I can take care of the kids while my wife goes off to work… I can simply say that I’m living again. And I have begun to enjoy a good night’s sleep. After five years. I am so grateful for all that.”

Tilos Hospitality Centre

Along with his wife and five children Mohsen resides at the Tilos Hospitality Centre, a tidy refugee settlement in the seaside village of Livadia. This sleepy yet somehow still lively village is proof positive of what can be achieved when humanity triumphs over fear, prejudice, xenophobia, racism, and politics.

The centre, which is made up of 10 comfortable residential units housing 46 Syrian refugees, is decidedly not a refugee camp. It is an open, free and dignified residential area providing shelter for people whose lives have been completely wrecked by the war. It is a place of hope and – the importance of this cannot be overstated – of activity.

Many refugees, especially the women, had little trouble finding work on the island. At the time of our visit, coinciding with the height of the tourism season, not a soul on the island was unemployed. Quite the contrary: many of the locals are working 18-hour shifts.

Tourism is Tilos’ main source of income, so the summer months have to be milked for all their worth. The refugees are paid perfectly respectable wages in the hotels, restaurants, bistros and at the local bakery. Legal help has also been made available to them, while the Tilos Hospitality Centre is constantly visited by volunteers from all over Europe. The centre is both a study in the humane integration of war-torn souls and an antithesis to the sum of the EU’s (anti-)refugee and (anti-)immigrant policies.

This commendably complex approach is far from accidental; the islet of Tilos is a paragon of progressiveness in other respects as well. In a few months, Tilos is set to become the first Mediterranean island to boast energy self-sufficiency. One hundred percent of its power will be drawn from renewable sources like the sun and the wind. This warm green refuge has thus become the meeting place of two key issues affecting our present and future: migration and renewable energy. Most of the dominant Syrian-war narratives have proven all too oblivious to the fact that climate change has been a major factor contributing to the conflict’s escalation, especially by driving the impoverished rural masses to leave their drought-scarred land and move to the cities.

On Tilos, the local community is functioning like one giant cooperative: interdependent, highly responsible, free of ideology and propelled by humanism. Tilos was, in 2008, the location of the first gay marriage in Greece. From as far back as 1993, hunting has been completely outlawed on the island, which is in its entirety protected by the EU’s Natura 2000 programme.

Tilos is the future as it might have and could have been across Europe, had other places not succumbed to xenophobia and fear. Simplicity so complex it boggles the mind.

“Doing what is normal and what is right”

The island is located only 17km from the Turkish coast. Outside the tourist season, it is inhabited by only 823 people (and approximately 10,000 free-ranging goats). Between 2013 and 2016, more than 6,000 refugees landed here. Most of the incomers had been dumped by the smugglers on the smaller beaches – they had simply been left there to die, since the cliffs and the rocks made it impossible to leave.

The local activists, led by the mayor Maria Kamma-Alfieri, soon cracked the smugglers’ pattern. They started following the Tilos-bound boats to be able to gather the shocked, traumatised and often severely dehydrated refugees from the remote beaches. Nearly every resident of the island with a boat or a small ship had taken to the sea, saving hundreds and hundreds of lives.

At first, the rescued refugees were housed at the local orthodox church, only to be transferred to a deserted barracks. Almost no help was coming from outside, so the living conditions were rather poor, while the incomers only grew in number. Yet the people of Tilos refused to give up. They decided they would do everything in their power to help.

In the end, they managed to defeat both – the state and the EU bureaucrats. A year ago, the Tilos Hospitality Centre, housing exclusively Syrian families, opened its doors in Livadia. For the locals, this aim was self-explanatory, a product of their basic decency and genuine desire to help. For those of us who have spent the better part of a decade chronicling the refugees’ tragedy, it was a quite a shock. This alone tells a lot about how things stand.

“We’re simply doing what is normal and what is right,” shrugged Elena Pissa, a driving force behind the centre. “We are normal human beings. We know what to do, that’s all. But unfortunately, you’re also quite right: in this racist and selfish world, what we’ve done here on Tilos is unusual – exceptional even. And that’s a scary thought, isn’t it?”

I got talking to Elena over a cup of ice-cold cappuccino. I could sense she was a deeply tired woman. She had long forgotten what a holiday felt like.

From morning to late afternoon, she takes care of her wards. She helps refugees in every way possible: she takes care of the paperwork, calls up the relevant officials, arranges emergency medical appointments, forms legal strategies with lawyers, finds work, mediates in their family disputes, coaches her colleagues and keeps up everyone’s morale. When she is finished with her duties at the refugees’ settlement, she relocates to her tourist shop in the village, where she remains until 11 at night.

Her business is not exactly thriving. It has not been the best of seasons for Tilos, but Elena is holding on, having to provide for herself and her 11-year-old son. This activist with a degree in management from Athens hasn’t even been to the beach this year. By focusing so hard on the needs of others, she has been neglecting her own. Elena has little time for compromises. Now is simply not the time. Greece has found itself on the frontline of the battle for what remains of Europe’s basic human decency, and Elena is a crack commando of the grassroots’ special forces.

Wills and ways

So what’s so special about Tilos?” I asked the mayor; Maria Kamma-Aliferi, who had taken over the helm after the sudden death of her legendarily progressive predecessor Tasos Aliferi. Maria has been serving as the mayor for the last six years. She has never ran in an election. Around here, it is deemed enough that she has the people’s support and a college education.

The thing about Tilos it’s probably how the people here are keen to embrace innovation. Like renewable energy sources. On many other islands or even in the mainland cities, the reactions would have been mostly negative. But here we’re very serious about the environment. Its protection is our basic aim. If the community is an open one, free of prejudice and taboos, then everything is so much easier. I guess this is why we see our achievements as something completely normal. We are working towards our objectives step by step, carefully planning our moves in advance. The key is always focusing on the good of the community. You can’t just force on people something they do not want. Once they established the refugees were not a threat, they quickly opened up. In time, they realised the refugees’ presence could even prove beneficial to the future of our island. Much the same can be said of our renewable energy project.”

According to the mayor, Tilos has never suffered much from xenophobia. As recently as 15 years ago, the small island had been almost deserted, its young people moving away en masse. The local school used to be empty then, while it now takes care of the needs of 80 children… A number sure to experience a significant boost in the autumn, when the refugee youngsters are set to join in.

The island was close to being dead,” the mayor recalls. “But then our solidarity came to the fore. When the first refugees started coming in, our small community immediately accepted them in our midst. The first hospitality centre was built by the local volunteers. We made all of it ourselves.”

According to Maria Kamma-Aliferi, the most important thing was for the island’s residents to come face to face with the people, particularly the children, who had undergone unspeakable horrors. “When we looked into the little ones’ eyes, we could see naked fear. The smugglers simply dropped these poor boys and girls on a bunch of rocks. They were shaking like leaves. How can you remain neutral and unperturbed when you see a freezing crying baby no more than twenty days old? These people’s only crime is to have survived,” she notes.

The island may be facing numerous problems, mostly of the financial and infrastructural variety. But the locals are firmly set on pursuing their hospitable policies. They have long stopped counting on help from Athens – not only because of the state’s long stumble on  the brink of bankruptcy but also because of its traditional neglect of its more remote islands and regions.

The mayor seemed hopeful the Greek state might at least aid the islanders with respect to the refugees, since the island’s council is planning the opening of a dairy processing company as a joint venture between four local and four refugee families. The entire project is estimated at around €150,000, and any scrap of help from Athens would be welcome.

“Our problems need to be viewed as a challenge. We have made our choice, so there is no question of changing course. Regardless of how small the island is, we’ve already managed to take care of thousands of refugees. If only some of our larger [regions] could muster up the will – think of all that could be accomplished. I can only hope that some of them might yet be inspired by what’s happening here,” she urges.

Improvised fun

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

In the late morning heat, a huge and fairly slobbery mongrel dog was chasing a saggy punctured ball thrown by the refugee children. Little boys and girls were darting off all over the place, the dog was happily barking… But both sounds were drowned out by the sound of the cicadas.

Abu Kareem from Daraa, who was eight and bizarrely confident, picked up a guitar and started playing something remotely resembling a tune. His older sister Hiba gave him a pointed glance and quickly confiscated the instrument, taking it up herself to play a traditional Greek melody. An elderly Syrian refugee lady was hanging laundry. A delicious smell wafted over from a nearby kitchen. All over the clean and comfortable settlement, even those refugees who worked the night shift were slowly waking up.

As for the sleepyhead children, they were being roused from their slumber by a Belgian volunteer named Sofie De Bois. Summer school was about to kick off, providing Greek and English classes to the refugees and Arabic lessons to the activists. Sofie, a 24-year-old student, runs a series of fairly improvised psycho-therapeutic workshops. They consist of drawing classes, chess, guitar and electric piano lessons, some pretty wild looking yoga, something resembling a jazz ensemble – and a lot of happy noise-making needing no justification whatsoever. After finishing up, Sofie then spends her evenings and nights waiting tables in one of the cafeterias.

The local activists were seated around a huge wooden table in the shade. Most of them have been actively saving lives for the past few years. A number were currently employed by the Solidarity Now project financed by the UNHCR. Their contracts are good until the end of 2017. They are hoping they will get renewed, but lately they have started to worry.

Over the past two months, the Greek authorities – spurred on by the EU – have chased the NGOs from most of the islands. From 1 August 2017, the Greek government took over the control of the so-called refugee ‘hotspots‘, which are prisons in everything but name.

This, at least, is the official plan. For the migrants and refugees trapped in Greece, this is catastrophic news. The Greek authorities have neither the personnel nor the finances to take care of the country’s 50,000 refugees, most of whom got stuck here after the closing of the so-called Balkan refugee route, stranded between their destination somewhere in central or northern Europe and the increasingly unstable Turkey.

The ‘residential centres’ on the islands are currently holding more than 10,000 people. Most of them have been there for more than six months. An additional 2,200 can be found on the mainland. The state has turned this precarious situation into a business opportunity, as the funds Brussels used to allocate to the NGOs will now be rerouted straight to Athens. But for the Tilos Hospitality Centre, the pernicious new arrangement will not come into effect until the new year at least.

When the ground quakes

Maysoon al-Deri, 30, also comes from Daraa – a city in the southeast of Syria, where the insurgency against Bashar al-Assad was first sparked. It was a spark that soon triggered a civil war, which then exploded into a global conflict of sorts, given how many countries are currently involved in the conflict.

The war didn’t need long to claim the home of this mother of five young children, ranging from the ages of two to ten. In spite of her house being destroyed, Maysoon remained in the war-torn city until 20 February 2016, when she set off for the Turkish border. A large portion of her journey was through ISIS-controlled territory. For the first time in her life, Maysoon put on a burqa – purely for safety reasons. She didn’t take it off for almost two months. This is how long she, her husband and their children had to wait to cross the Syrian-Turkish border. When they finally reached Turkey, the pathway to Europe had already been welded shut. After the deal involving €6 billion had been struck, the Turkish authorities began to implement heightened security measures to restrict the refugees’ movements. They also cracked down on some of the smuggling ‘ networks.

The family managed to contact a smuggler who, on second attempt, got them to the Greek island of Lesbos. For the first time, actual shots were fired at them – not by ISIS but by the Turkish coast guard. They then spent four months in the infamous residential centre of Moria, in essence the modern version of a concentration camp. “It was a very warlike experience,” Maysoon recounts of her experience there. “We have horrible memories! The situation there was inhumane, simply inhumane!”

Last September, when the UNHCR authorised the family to relocate to Tilos, a glimmer of hope returned to their lives.

“When we got here, I was ill and absolutely exhausted. It took a long while before I regained some of my strength. The people here were helping me on every step of the way. I’ll always be grateful,” she told us at the Hospitality Centre on the morning after a forceful earthquake had shaken Greece, including Tilos. Maysoon’s head was covered with a headscarf, and it seemed she still hadn’t completely woken up. She had slept straight through the earthquake, being rather used to heavy turbulence. Yet some of the refugees had been given quite a jolt. Many of the children were terrified that the war had caught up with them again.

Maysoon has spent the last 10 months here on Tilos. The small Aegean island has become her temporary home. Until the war in Syria simmers down, she refuses to budge. She is especially proud of having found work waiting tables at one of the local restaurants. Come autumn, the older contingent of her kids is set to enter school here. Her husband has also managed to find a semblance of peace.

“I’ve stopped dreaming of Germany or other European countries,” she smiled. “I know it’s hard for refugees anywhere you go. Here, we have everything we need. We won’t have it better anywhere else. The people here are so helpful, they took us in… things are very nice and warm and peaceful.” Maysoon told me she still sometimes catches herself gazing at the sea, wondering how it was possible all her children had survived the journey. “So many – so many have drowned,” she remarked. Just last year, some 5,500 people perished in the Mediterranean sea trying to reach Europe. This year, the tally currently stands at 2,500, making the death toll more than 30,000 since the turn of the millennium.

“I didn’t think I could ever get rid of the fear… For a long time, I was so afraid someone might come after us. It’s such a relief to be able to take a walk at one in the morning, after I’ve finished up at the restaurant… I walk along the beach and think, ‘It is so peaceful and quiet there by the sea. People respect me here,'” reflects Maysoon.

Maysoon’s train of thought was broken by a burst of hysterical crying from her two-year-old son. A toy car made of steel got stuck to his lip. The problem was quickly solved, but the toddler’s tears kept flowing. “He tries to eat everything he can get his hands on, everything,” the boy’s mother smiles.

Before she came to Tilos, Maysoon al-Deri never had a job. “I’m so happy to be able to work here. This way I can feel free, strong and self-dependent. True, I get tired quite a lot, but it’s a good feeling. I hope it lasts.”

The fact that many of the women have found employment while the men stay at home to tend to the children is a revolution in its own right. At first, there were some problems, Elena Pissa recalls, since it was necessary to break down the cultural barriers. But a little tenacity went a long way. In just a few months, integration fell into step with emancipation.

“For the first time in my life, I have a job! I’m cleaning apartments and preparing breakfast. It’s not particularly hard work, and I’m having a good time doing it,” Waala al-Hariri smiled bashfully.

A whole new circle of hell

Waala, 28, is a mother of two. She reached Tilos last November after spending close to eight hard months on Lesbos. Along with her husband and two children she had fled the war, only to face a whole new circle of hell over here in Europe.

For a long time, she was simply unable to comprehend it. “There were 80 of us on the boat I arrived on. The smuggler was laughing, telling us we were taking a trip with the Death Tourist Agency. It was so horrible. Every time I think back on the journey, I start crying.”

As she was telling me this, Waala’s sharp green eyes were cutting through me like twin laser beams. In Syria, she had to quit school just before graduation on account of getting married. Her ambition is to continue with her education and one day open a beauty salon. But not on Tilos, not here in Greece. Like many of the local refugees she and her family wish to push on towards Germany. The relatively ideal living conditions on Tilos are not enough to keep them here, since many of them are desperate to reunite with family members located somewhere to the north.

“To be frank,” Waala says, “what I really want is to return home… But the war is not going to be over for a long time. Our house was badly damaged in a bombing raid. All Syrians should be on their way back to rebuild their country, but I know this won’t be possible for a long, long time.”

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Uganda’s refugee crisis, part 2: The world’s largest refugee camp

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Uganda’s open door policy has created Bidibidi, the world’s largest refugee camp, of which few outsiders have heard. The strain of housing so many refugee has placed an unbearable strain on this poor country, yet no help is forthcoming.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Thursday 20 July 2017

Read part 1

The Bidibidi refugee camp (some call it a ‘settlement’) is the world’s largest refugee camp, where just under 300,000 people are currently residing. As recently as a year ago, no refugees were settled here – and there were also not very many roads across the savannah. Instead, there was a plenitude of trees and at least some water. Now you have a great many roads, very few trees and no water. The wells have been sucked dry.

The camp – spread out across almost 250 square kilometres – gets its water supplies from incoming trucks. The cost is punishingly steep, and the logistics of servicing such a huge mass of people are staggering. Yet the camp’s perimeter, unlike the perimeters of similar camps around the world, is not fenced in with barbed wire and watchtowers. It is also not patrolled by heavily armed policemen or members of private security firms.

Last December, the Ugandan authorities decided they would stop letting additional refugees in. Half a dozen new refugee settlements quickly sprang up along the Western Nile area. In many places, the refugees now form the majority of the population. Relations with the local communities have grown increasingly strained, since not enough basic resources are available to meet everyone’s needs. This is especially true of water and arable land.

The Ugandan refugee policy seems to be nearing at breaking point. The authorities in Kampala insist the borders shall remain open for refugees, but they are also asking for help from the international community. Precious little of it seems to be forthcoming. “As people who suffered greatly in the past, we refuse to close our doors to anyone who comes to us fleeing war,” the government press secretary Shaban Banatriza explained to journalists. “Uganda will continue to do all in its power to help the refugees in their plight.”

The NGO budgets are now almost depleted. In the current crisis-riddled year, the UN has only secured 15% of the money needed to properly handle the situation. The organisation is in dire need of an additional €810 million for this year. Much the same is true for virtually every other key source of humanitarian relief. The European Union, for example, struggles to secure €20 million for the period up until 2020.

“The fact is that the situation in northern Uganda and, of course, Southern Sudan is growing worse. Yet the people – and the local authorities as well – remain very hospitable. They themselves have experienced war, and they know what suffering is like. Uganda is the Germany of East Africa,” claims Kristian Schmidt, head of the EU delegation in Uganda.

We sat down to talk to him in Kampala. While the European Union, with its half a billion citizens, is groaning under the burden of a few hundred thousand people, Uganda is struggling on. “Despite all its problems, Uganda persists in its open-door policy for refugees and daily takes care of 1.2 million people,” explains Schmidt. “This is something the Europeans should be made aware of. Uganda needs and deserves our help. We need to support this model of refugee policy – after all, it is also in our own best interests. Uganda is part of the solution.”

The European ambassador to Uganda is convinced the war in South Sudan will last for a long time. This means that the flow of refugees southward will continue as well.

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for refugees, feels the same way. He believes Uganda will not be able to manage the world’s largest and most urgent refugee crisis on its own. “We are at a breaking point,” Grandi recently stated.

Uganda is being put under ever greater pressure. The resources are limited, while the country’s own population – officially the second youngest in all of Africa – is experiencing a rapid surge of its own. By 2035, the number of Ugandans is expected to double. This means that Uganda will grow ever more reliant on foreign aid. And there almost certainly won’t be enough of it to go around.

When there were fewer refugees, the Ugandan open policy actually functioned as a successful economic model. The country received substantial amounts of international funds, infrastructure was being built, the market was expanding, new jobs were created, the countryside was undergoing rapid modernisation. According to research, the refugees contributed much to the country’s economic progress.

Now things are starting to spiral out of control. Uganda is growing increasingly more isolated. This is a very dangerous development. Despite the robust fettle of the Ugandan security forces, the South Sudan conflict could quickly spread across the border. Memories of the blood-drenched Congo tragedy, the Burundi war and the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda are still fresh in everyone’s minds. The expectation and fear of the conflict spreading out to the Great Lakes area is a menacing.

The growing tensions between various ethnic groups are also much in evidence all over the refugee camps. At the same time, rumours are spreading of different paramilitary groups, mostly organised along ethnic lines, recruiting young people en masse all over the refugee settlements. The young, jobless and desperate men are said to be easy prey for the paramilitaries’ fiery rhetoric. And there is certainly no shortage of arms in Uganda, the hub of the arms trade in Africa, both the licit and the illicit kind.

To sum it up, even greater trouble seems to be brewing. And the EU’s ambassador Kristian Schmidt is not one to mask his awareness of the fact: “The key to resolving this whole mess lies in Juba. The leaders of South Sudan have proved irresponsible. We should sit them down at the same table and give them a little push to start negotiating. But it’s not looking well. There is little political will to end the conflict. In reality, it is quite the contrary.”

In informal conversations a number of EU representatives let us know they were worried the Ugandan ‘open model’ might be on the verge of collapse. The number of incoming refugees is too great, and the relief programmes have been entirely dependent on foreign aid for quite some time. As already stated, these foreign funds are drying up – no matter how urgent the crisis. In the European Union of today, empathy for someone else’s pain is now officially no longer even a public relations bullet point.

War trauma

In front of her improvised dwelling at the Bidibidi camp, Gladys Win was making the local version of sweet fried dough. She told me she was 19 years old and hailed from the western part of South Sudan. The air all around her was growing rich with the fragrance of freshly prepared food. The aroma had already drawn in at least 20 starving children.

The nearby savannah road was filled with trucks and motorcycles stirring up clouds of red dust. In the middle of the afternoon, the equatorial sun was at its most excruciating.

“If I can get the flour for free, then I can actually make a little money,” Gladys smiled while her friend started breast-feeding her baby. Last autumn, the two friends arrived in Uganda together. After leaving home, they spent six months hiding in the bush. They now didn’t feel like remembering that period; they said it was simply too much to bear.

“All I wanted was to reach somewhere safe,” Gladys recalled: “Anywhere – anywhere at all. I had no idea where I was. We fled our village during a raid. I was able to get my four-year-old daughter and take her with me. There was no time to snatch anything else. My parents stayed behind. I haven’t heard from them for a long time. I have no idea how they are doing, no clue if they’re even still alive. My father told me to run away, he said things were about to turn very ugly for young women. What else could I do but listen to him.”

Gladys used to visit the primary school here in Uganda. Then, following the emancipation, she returned to South Sudan. Bad timing? “No one could begin to imagine something like that would happen. We should have known better, huh? Several generations in a row have been brought up during wartime. And our rotten greedy leaders betrayed us wholesale. The Dinka people want to have it all, so they started to murder us,” she said. Gladys violently shook her head before fully devoting herself to baking the cakes.

Her distant relative Remo Bulem quickly picked up the tale of recent atrocities. “As we were hiding in the bush, they at first killed us only with guns,” the 30-year-old schoolteacher winced: “Then, when they started to run out of ammo, they brought out their machetes. I’ve seen… too much. So much death, and why? The government soldiers murder everyone they catch. By now, it is no longer possible to separate the soldiers from the rebels and the criminals. A tribal coalition has been formed to fight the ruling Dinkas. Us civilians, well, we’ve become a burden to all the key players. We are very short on water, and there’s been almost no food for close to a year now. The people are dying of hunger all over the place.”

The words kept pouring out of the visibly traumatised schoolteacher. “I don’t think I’ll ever return to South Sudan. I have been informed they have burned down my house and looted the school where I used to teach. Our village has become deserted. They have also killed or stolen all our animals.”

Accompanied by seven of his close relatives, Remo eventually fled here to Uganda. He very much wants to teach again, but he’s been unable to land a job. The vast majority of teachers in both refugee and ‘normal’ institutions are locals.

***

“It is so hard for me to listen to the other refugees’ tales… I keep reliving my own traumas. They killed my uncle and my neighbour in front of my eyes. I have not been able to find any peace here. The women, we’re the ones who suffer the most. Many men escaped on their own, or they joined one of the armed groups. While we are always such easy prey,” says Stella Yunimba, 26, who managed to get a job in the camp as a translator.

“I realise how privileged I am,” she nodded. “I can take care of my daughter, Precious, here. But things get worse every day. I miss my husband – I haven’t had word from him for six months. I have no idea where he is, or if he’s even still alive. An incredible number of people have gone missing – an incredible number.”

A great many of the Dinka people are on the run as well. The South Sudan conflict is far from straightforward. The Dinkas have been caught in the crossfire. The authorities in Juba, the oil- and military-based rural oligarchy infected with the God complex, have been recruiting young men. The ones who prove unwilling to cooperate in ethnic cleansing have been persecuted. On the other hand, the Dinka villages are being raided by the members of other ethnic groups, especially the Nuer people, who – according to our information – have been supplied with weapons and instructions directly from Khartoum. The eruption of war in South Sudan is likely to have pleased Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, the war criminal that he is, who may well regard it as divine punishment for the breakaway region.

It was a textbook example of divide and conquer.

Hunger

“My fear is that we’ll die of hunger. We have nothing left. We’ve been starving for months,” sobbed Madame Yar from the city of Bor, where the South Sudanese war actually broke out.

I was talking to her in the huge Kiryandongo settlement in central Uganda. The emaciated lady with deeply sunk cheekbones and painfully bulging eyes could barely muster the strength for the next few sentences. “All we have known is hunger and disease. We have been staying here for two years. It gets worse every day. There is almost no help to be had. Us Dinkas, we can’t get any jobs. We’re trapped. There is nowhere we can go.”

Madame Yar was sitting on the hardened mud floor. Her relatives were gathered around her. All of them were rake-thin and exhausted to the limits of their endurance. A tall deaf-mute boy, Madame Yar’s cousin, kept staring off into space, completely lost. Heavy clouds were descending over the camp where some 52 000 people were currently residing – heavy clouds promising at least a modicum of rain. But it was not to be: the rain hasn’t fallen for a few weeks now, and it didn’t fall that day.

“On my every day off, I go and see my family. I was very lucky to have been accepted to the teaching school in Gulu. I’m staying at a boarding school, and my life is pretty good. I get free schooling, food and lodgings. But I am not able to help my family, which makes me so very sad. When I go to visit them at the camp, I can see they are getting worse and worse. I hope they somehow pull through, so we can one day return home together,” a tall teenager dressed in modern clothes whose name was Tir explained in perfect English.

As things stood, Tir was her family’s only hope. Her cultured, really rather lovely appearance seemed at odds with her decidedly dark thoughts. In her hometown of Bor, she had witnessed first-hand what the human animal is capable of doing. When she began to describe the images of utter dehumanisation, she began shaking like a leaf. “Back home, all we could hear were guns and screaming.”

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Uganda’s refugee crisis, part 1: “Back home, all we could hear were guns and screaming”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Northern Uganda houses more refugees than entered the European Union during the peak of the “refugee crisis”. And Uganda has only 8% of the EU’s population and a fraction of its resources.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

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Monday 26 June 2017

It was lunchtime at the Impevi refugee camp and registration centre in the Ugandan West Nile province. Hundreds of children had formed an orderly queue under the white tarps of the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. The children were refugees from the horrendous war raging just a few kilometres away in South Sudan. Their eyes, sunk deep into their emaciated faces, were shining with anticipation. They were clutching one aluminium plate each and waiting for their first meal of the unbearably hot day.

The heat had long glued the atmosphere into a stifling, static soup. Now and then, one of the boys’ faces broke into a bashful smile. The mothers were standing nearby, dignified if a bit distracted while waiting in their own long queues. There were very few adult men around, barely enough to form a sample. This demographic metaphor of the world’s most urgent and also most under-reported refugee crisis could hardly be any more clear-cut. And any more telling.

Uganda, with its population of 39 million, is now host to more than 1.2 million refugees. Some 900,000 of them are from South Sudan.

Uganda is renowned for being the continent’s most hospitable country to refugees. Most of the ones currently staying here had arrived in the last 10 months. As many as 65% are under the age of 18 and 85% of them are women and children. Uganda is currently hosting more refugees than entered the entire European Union, with its affluent population of half a billion citizens, at the peak of the “refugee crisis” in 2015. According to estimates, by the end of this year, at least another half a million refugees are sure to arrive in Uganda, all of them fleeing the horrors of war.

The conflict in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, is only growing in scope. After the republic declared its independence in July 2011, it quickly descended into war: this time not against the north and the Islamist regime in Khartoum, but against some of its own peoples. Ethnic violence erupted near the end of 2013 following the clash between president Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar. This then exploded into an all-out civil war. This is a war marked by ethnic cleansing, unspeakable savagery, famine, pronounced disinterest from the international community and the western media – and of course by the endless columns of refugees furiously marching southward.

The thing is: south is the only direction for them to run. Their flight is in no way a bid for a better life but rather a desperate scramble for survival. As far as they are concerned, there can be no such thing as ‘a better life’: war is all they know and all they have ever known. Thousands of them are now refugees twice over, and many have fled to Uganda for the third time.

“They are murdering us – they’re killing us like flies! Help,” Bill Mahas, 19, called out from a cluster of exhausted teenagers in threadbare clothes, skirted by a number of half-naked toddlers. Hundreds of people were loitering about, waiting for the next stage of their desperate journey. The buses kept dropping off fresh loads of refugees, while trucks picked up the ones who had managed to get registered and transporting them onward to the camps.

“I have been here for three days,” the visibly tired youth told me: “They promised we’d be sent on to nice clean facilities within a single day. But so far we haven’t even been registered. We are so hungry and thirsty… We only get to eat once each day, and there is a chronic water shortage. We sleep outside – look, over there by the garbage. The whole place reeks, and we really want to move on.”

The journey from the South Sudanese city of Yei took Bill and a number of friends and relatives 60 days. Two whole months of beating their path through the bush while hiding from the government troops from the ranks of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). According to testimonies, these troops have been engaged in ethnic cleansing operations ever since July last year.

“If the Ugandans don’t want us here, let them just say so,” Tobias Data, 32, joined the conversation. “We’ll simply return home and die in our homeland. My wife and my son had already fled here a year ago. They first set out for the Democratic Republic of Congo, then they pressed on to Uganda. When it became too dangerous, I went on the run myself. The government troops started killing people left and right, while our villages have also been raided by the rebels and by various groups of criminals. I am determined to seek out my family, but they won’t let me move on.”

Tobias’ father had perished on the journey, which had taken four days. Tobias also had to watch a number of his acquaintances go under. The soldiers mowed them down with bullets and slashed their necks with machetes.

This was the second time Tobias has come to Uganda as a refugee. The first time was when he was a schoolboy, at the time of the civil war between the north and the south. He has fond memories of Uganda, which in 2006 adopted a special policy of awarding each refugee their own patch of land, the right to work and move freely, as well as the right to start a small business.

Yet predictably enough, history recently started repeating itself. South Sudan was engulfed by a new war, caused by ethnic divisions imposed from within and without, as well as by the unjust division of oil riches.

Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

War, famine, drought and climate change

The women were lugging plastic bags filled with water across the red dirt. They had been walking since early morning. The children dragged heavy suitcases and carried dry branches their mothers would later need to cook dinner. Local youths were weaving their way among them, trying to make a coin or two by turning their Chinese-made motorcycles into a taxi service. Near the end of the rainy season, when northern Uganda is supposed to be thoroughly water-logged, the ground was completely dry, and the wells were lethally empty. The results of climate change had joined forces with the wages of war – a fatal combination, if ever there was one.

At present, the lives of some 5.5 million residents of South Sudan are under existential threat from famine: 5.5 million out of the 9 million still left in this thoroughly cursed land. Things are a bit better in the refugee camps – mostly large villages or small towns all over northern Uganda… But the hunger is still reaching epidemic proportions. According to official UNHCR statistics, two thirds of all children are malnourished, a quarter of all children severely so.

“The people here have been caught in a vicious circle. Everybody knows that things are much worse in South Sudan, while Uganda is coming apart at the seams because of its humane refugee policies. And then you have to factor in the refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Burundi. As always, it is especially hard on the children. Many of them had arrived here unescorted. Hundreds of families had got separated on the road,” I was told by Reika Farkas, a member of the UNHCR emergency team, as she showed me around the registration centre. On the day of our visit, 1,600 new refugees had poured in.

This was Reika’s final day at the camp – her three-month mandate was drawing to a close. She was clearly and bravely fighting off both her fatigue and her realistic pessimism. “This is one giant emergency ward,” she scowled: “The frontline of a truly colossal human tragedy. It’s hard work, and it never stops. There are so few of us here. And our budget has almost been depleted. All of us here, we’re nothing short of miracle workers. The refugees never stay longer than three days, and we manage to get them all registered – every single one. At its worst, more than 3000 people were passing through each day. It was unimaginably crowded and exhausting. But we’ve managed to set up a working system, and we’ve prevented chaos from breaking out. The only question is for how long.”

When asked about her own country’s refugee policies, the Hungarian humanitarian worker felt too ashamed to answer.

War instead of peace

When South Sudan gained its independence after decades of conflict with the Khartoum government, there was an air of optimism that the world’s youngest nation would be able to reap the fruits of peace. Instead, it rapidly descended into infighting and open warfare. “People in uniforms started to come to our village. I don’t know who they were. They came almost every day. They were killing men and raping young women. It all started very quickly, almost overnight. We used to lead such normal, peaceful lives. We tended our gardens, visited each other,” explained a 45-year-old lady named Estgha Tabu.

I got talking to her as she stood in front of her cabin on the outskirts of the Impevi camp. Her tarp-covered temporary residence had been patched together from wood and plastic. Like most refugees staying at the camp, she hailed from a village near the city of Yei. She reached Uganda after several weeks of walking and hiding in the bush along with her four daughters (Viola, 17, Suzan, 15, Ataz, 10, and Sara, 6). Her first husband had succumbed to AIDS, and the second one was killed during the escape.

The visibly ill and devastated Estgha is now all the support her four girls have left. She said she couldn’t really tell me how the five of them had managed to survive… And, what is more, to survive unmolested, unlike thousands of other women and girls. The bush is crawling with sexual predators. Rape has been turned into an instrument of war, sometimes even into a communication tool. “No, I don’t feel safe here. I have great trouble falling asleep. I’m so scared. I keep thinking they’re sure to come after us and murder us. Like they murdered my husband. There is a lot of very bad people around. The border is very close,” Estgha told me while sitting on a patch of canvas in the shade provided by a dry Savannah tree. Since she was a widow and quite ill, the camp’s managers let her set up her residence about a kilometre from the camp’s chaotic centre. Estgha and her daughters now reside near the new dusty road leading to the border with South Sudan. The Ugandan authorities granted them the use of a plot of land measuring 50×50 metres. In theory, such plots are available for tilling and are supposed to ensure the refugees need not fear going hungry.

Officially, Uganda has made it into a policy to allocate 100×100 metre plots to every refugee family. This was the case up until last summer’s exodus from South Sudan. Then the farmable land quickly began to run out – not unlike the funds in the local and international humanitarian budgets. The authorities took to awarding less and less land, and now there was virtually none left. “There’s not much I can grow here,” Estgha informed me: “The soil is full of rocks and stones, and it is also very salty. I would need an awful lot of water to get anything done, but there is not nearly enough to go around. The water has been rationed to 13 litres a day per refugee. This is meant to cover all our needs – from washing to drinking and cooking and farming. It is nowhere near enough. It’s tough here, very tough.”

Estgha Tabu is another refugee who had been here before. She had first escaped to Uganda for the period between 1994 and 2005 (when a peace treaty finally put an end to Sudan’s civil war). When she set out on the journey back home, she was overjoyed and firmly convinced she would never need to run again. “Then death came for us once more… I don’t even know how this new war started – nobody does. All I know is that I lost my husband and my home. There is never again going to be peace in South Sudan. Everybody is killing everybody else. It’s much worse now than 20 years ago. Things are also worse here, in Uganda. There are so many of us that they can’t take proper care of everyone. And so many more are sure to come.”

What Estgha missed most was her huge garden, along with her hens and her goats. Back home, she had everything she needed. She also missed her health and her youth, when she was “pretty, strong and full of energy – and now the end is coming.” She was very worried about her daughters, who stood by shyly listening in on our conversation. Every now and then, one would jump in to help with the translation. The older pair have been enrolled into the local school for refugees, but not the younger two. That would be too expensive.

Their mother’s days are much the same. She wakes up at sunrise, gets the fire going and fixes porridge for the girls’ breakfast. Since she is in such poor health (and also constantly afraid someone might oust her from her lodgings), she spends a large part of the day in front of the cabin. She washes the laundry and rests. She only strikes off to fetch some water and the wood for the next day’s fire. The latter is starting to run out. The sheer mass of the people here has meant a devastating drain on the environment. This is why the NGOs painted the younger trees in the camp’s vicinity with red lines, marking them as off-limits. And so the refugees now have to walk as far as ten kilometres to get their wood.

In the evening, Estgha Tabu usually makes another portion of porridge. Then she sits down with her daughters to enjoy the slightly cooler evening air. Another day in the refugee camp has drawn to a close. Such an existence doesn’t really lend itself to pondering life’s great existential questions.

All that matters is survival.

Read part 2

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