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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By Khaled Diab

Once the mother of our world departed, her ghost arrived, plunging me into the memory hole which grief opens up, where the past becomes its own present and the present morphs into a kind of phantom future.

Friday 11 August 2017

Egyptians fondly refer to their country as Um el-Dunya, Mother of the World, drawing comfort for their lacklustre and turbulent present by reaching far back to the ancient past when Egypt was at the summit of the civilisational pyramid.

I am doubtful that the world could have a mother and, if it did, I suspect it would not be Egypt. But there is a mother of my world and, because I have spent the greater part of my life outside my native land, she, in many ways, is, or was, my Egypt.

That is why when mama took a sudden fall and fell seriously ill, Cairo, that heaving city of constant commotion and continuous motion, seemed to dematerialise. Although the 20 million or so souls who inhabit the metropolis were oblivious to the fact that they had become shadows, Cairo’s legendary gridlock melted away before my taxi as it hurtled from the airport to the hospital, as though someone high up had notified the city’s unruly motorists to clear a path for this worried son.

When I entered her room in intensive care, I was horrified by the sight of my mother intubated and struggling with the nurses. Although mum’s flesh was weak, her spirit was still willing and tough. Never one to accept faits accomplis, she was trying to spit out the tubes that had been rammed down her throat. It was only after we comforted her and gently explained that she could not breathe without the machine that she desisted. Cruel to be kind, flashed through my mind.

Seeing my mama bedridden, with a broken hip and a collapsed lung, unable to move and unable to speak was unbearable to witness or to endure. My ‘baby’ brother, Osama, who along with my sister, Ghada, had dealt with the brunt of the emergency, could not bear to be in the room anymore and bowed out for a breather.

Mama’s extreme frailty brought memories flooding back of the once vigorous, uncompromising, outspoken yet gentle and fair woman who raised four children almost single-handedly, and nearly super-humanely.

The same four children who, due to the geography of modern life, were gathered in the same place for the first time in years, feeling, despite their adult masks, faces and costumes they now wore, like helpless children in need of a comforting squeeze from their mummy.

When mum, her multi-shaded eyes lacking the sparkle with which they once shone, finally had the tubes removed, the first words she spoke were in keeping with her character. She asked how we were doing, expressed her satisfaction that her four kids were gathered around her, and complained about the bland hospital food. Ghada was so overjoyed that, in addition to her repeated expressions of love, she regularly told mum, like a mantra to reassure herself, that she would take very good care of her and get her home soon.

I don’t think I’ll ever leave this hospital,” mum said at one point and we, echoing the doctors’ assurances and to reassure ourselves as much as her, told her she’d be back home in a matter of days. But despite a short-lived improvement, my mum turned out to be right and a few weeks later I had to rush back, in a race against the malfunctioning clock of multiple organ failure, arriving just too late to say a final farewell.

Once mum departed, her ghost arrived, so to speak. I plummeted into the memory hole which grief opens up, where the past becomes its own present and the present morphs into a kind of phantom future, where I clasped and grasped at all mum-related remembrances with every tentacle of my mind, in a desperate effort to keep her alive, even if only in the form of my subjective image of her.

Over the years, the space mum took up in my head had diminished due to the many years we had not lived in the same country. But now she was everywhere in my consciousness, even though it distressed me to realise that I did not remember as much as I wanted to, as much as I should, as much as I must – the little essential details, the exact words uttered, the tiny shards that make up the shattered whole. I became aware that location is a vital component of memory. I imagine that when you spend your entire life in the same country, city, town or village, regularly revisiting or passing the same places constantly, this triggers and reinforces memories – when you never or rarely revisit the scene of the time, the recollections gradually fade until they appear to be so dreamlike that you sometimes wonder whether your memories are actually real, and where the real ones end and the invented ones commence.

Mum was also there at her wake, in the memories and words of family and friends, and at subsequent family gatherings. Throughout the ordeal, well-meaning people tried to comfort me by telling me mum had gone to a better place, that God must love her for taking her during Ramadan, supposedly the most blessed month of the year. But my unbelieving ‘soul’ could gain no consolation from their words. With no God, no afterlife, neither heavenly nor hellish, no blessed nor cursed times of year, I could only console myself with the thought that my mother’s pain and suffering had disappeared with her consciousness, that the hell of disease was over, and she now occupied the paradise of oblivion. Of course, she believed in the afterlife and had worked consciously her entire life towards pleasing her Lord. For her sake, I hoped that he truly existed and that he would be there to reward her goodness.

When I went to visit her tomb, mama seemed absent from this alien terrain, even though her remains lay only feet away, under my feet. My brother, Amr, who is the second eldest after me, had prepared a prayer which he recited with his head bowed in front of him, trying to conceal the tears which had involuntarily welled up in his eyes. This was the first time I had seen Amr, who prefers to shield his emotions from sight, cry ever since mum had got sick, though I understand he wept during her burial, which I missed due to a fault by the airline. When I tried to comfort him, we both cried in each other’s embrace, something that has not occurred since we were children.

Egyptian tombs are pretty homely, with an outer house and a subterranean burial chamber, a practice that stretches back to pharaonic times, which is typically shared by the various deceased members of a single family. But this being a new tomb, my mother was the only occupant. The idea that mum was all alone in that cold, dark place shook me severely. Having been born into a large family and raised one herself, my mother had rarely spent time alone, and so the idea of her now being by herself, even if she could no longer feel anything, distressed me.

Reflecting on mum’s life and the central role she had played in shaping mine led me to discover that what I call my conscience is to a large part actually her voice. Iman Khattab may not have made a visible difference to the world but for the many people she embraced and took under her wing – from her younger siblings whom she helped raise to her friends and protégés – my mum made a world of difference. Empirically, it is easy to disprove the notion that only the good die young. But they always die far too soon for the people who loved them and those who were touched by them.

My mother was only two months older than Donald Trump. I wonder what she would have made of his black comedic rise to president, and particularly his toxic views on immigrants, refugees, Muslims and women – all of which mum was, in some form, at one point or another during her life. Despite her sensitive nature and apprehension about hurting people’s feelings, she was not one to take prejudice and bigotry lying down – though she was always a connoisseur of lying down or reclining, often with a well-earned snack and a hot beverage – as demonstrated by the numerous confrontations she had with racists, one of which included a man with a barking Doberman trying to knock down our front door, the way she taught us to stand up for our rights, and how she always stood up for what she thought was right and defended the weak, with little concern for the personal costs.

Although mum was never officially a refugee, she and my father fled into self-imposed exile. In a sort of shotgun wedding, with Egypt’s state insecurity apparatus holding the barrel to their heads, my parents, who were engaged at the time, got married in a hurry when they discovered that a political case was being concocted against my father. Just how serious and far-fetched that case was would only emerge nearly four decades later, during the 2011 revolution, when a revolutionary salvaged the scorched and synched confidential file on my father which state security had been keeping on him and his family.

At first, my parents fled to neighboring Libya, where a young and not-yet-completely-unhinged Gaddafi had recently abolished the monarchy and installed himself as republican monarch, even though he had no official position. Here is where I and one of my brothers, Amr, were born. However, it would not be long before my father could no longer deal with the regime and fell out of favour with it.

Britain, which was still relatively easy to immigrate to back in the mid-70s, was decided upon as our next destination. Mum went back to Egypt to give birth to my sister, Ghada, before joining my father – but she was delayed three years as state security held us hostage by banning us from travelling in the hope of luring dad back to the country. Fearlessly, though she was probably terrified, mum, with a babe-in-arms, a toddler and a young child, sued the government repeatedly, and won every time, while holding down a job, but each time. However, state security had other ideas and defied the courts by re-inserting her name on the no-fly list at the airport.

Eventually, we made it out of Egypt. But getting to England required a multi-nation tour of the Arab world in a frustrating attempt to find that sweet spot where Arab and British bureaucracy converged, a country where my father would be allowed in and the British embassy there would handle our paperwork. But eventually we landed in Thatcherite Britain…

Read part II 

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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

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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.


“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.

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Trapped inside Fortress Europe

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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO, Chios

The plight of the 63,000 refugees and migrants still marooned in Greece should give Europeans pause for thought.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

Wednesday 31 January 2017

In a cave below the remains of a mile-long city wall, a small band of freezing and utterly exhausted men had manged to get a fire going. Outside, the wind was turning vicious. It felt like even the ocean was exasperated, splashing onto the cliffs as if trying to smash through the huddling men’s final illusions. Seeing how these fantasies were already so few and far between, it seemed a rather daunting task, even for an ocean.

Dusk was descending over the damp stone cave in Greece. True, it was somewhat less cold inside, but the men were still shaking like leaves. All of them were Algerian migrants placed at the bottom rung of the food chain here on the modern-day Medusa raft set afloat by the European anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies.

In the moments of relative calm before the wind picked up again, no one much felt like talking. These men had long lost their flair for chatting, and most of their hope had been buried back in the Sahara, in Turkey and somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The rest of the metaphorical mortgage on their future had been foreclosed by the European bureaucrats. By now, the refugees’ stories had become etched on their faces, especially around the eyes. Gazing back at me were the hopeless, worn-down eyes of men who had played the game and lost so horribly they could no longer afford to admit it.

At the moment, some 63,000 refugees and migrants are marooned in Greece, unable to either forge on to the promised land or return to their respective conflict zones.

For months, thousands have been waiting for their first interview after applying for asylum. Many have already had their application turned down. In reaching that decision, the local bureaucrats had decided that Turkey – a country teetering on the brink of war – is a safe country for the refugees.

The bureaucratic apparatus is excruciatingly slow to act. Its members, almost without exception, are ‘only fulfilling their duties’ and ‘obeying the law’. Their collective actions form a perfect algorithm for the banality of evil that has already led to the birth of a new Europe, a morally bankrupt continent stripped of its last vestiges of shame and empathy.

Slogging through humiliation

The Eastern Aegean island of Chios has been described as the “magical Greek island which cures all wanderlust”. It is also one of the frontlines of Europe’s war against refugees and migrants.

For a long time, the local population on Chios distinguished itself with its exemplary and at times heroic care for the incoming refugees. Then last spring, after the EU-Turkey deal on refugees was struck and the Balkan route shut down, the Greek authorities under Brussels patronage set up the infamous “VIAL hotspot“. The first of many, the VIAL was a mix of prison and latter-day concentration camp – vile like its acronym.

In no time at all, similar facilities sprung up on many Aegean islands located near the Turkish coast. Some hotspots have also been set up on the mainland. Like the Moria camp on the Lesbos island, quite singular in its combination of inhuman living conditions and police brutality, the VIAL is by far the most notorious.

On my first visit last April, the entire camp seemed poised on the brink of an explosion. A hunger strike was underway, and the authorities were struggling to quiet things down by relocating hundreds of people to the Souda camp. The improvised camp was located by the sea and close to Chios town. It was run by a coalition of NGOs, whose activists brought food to the refugees and helped them with the horrendously intricate paperwork.

Nine months ago, the fresh arrivals to the island were still filled with hope, enthusiasm and the will to thrive. They had somehow managed to survive both the devastation of their respective homelands and the infinitely treacherous journey to what they thought was the civilised world. Slogging through endless humiliations while grappling with the fact their entire past had been erased, they whole-heartedly gave themselves up to the present to find a semblance of a future.

Today, with Fortress Europe closed off and most of its lustre as the land of refuge and opportunity trampled in the dirt, things are very different.

True, many of the refugees managed to strike on to Athens, and some of them even further on. But on Chios, hundreds of people have been trapped in such shocking conditions for months.

The depression epidemic

The mornings in front of the Souda camp see dozens of refugees come out to kill some time. The camp is situated right by the sea, beside a long canal along the ancient city walls.

The men are conversing quietly and without much enthusiasm. Most of them don’t even seem angry anymore. The muddy and bitterly cold camp has been ransacked by the flu. But even worse has been the epidemic of depression – the collective form of the disease, in firm alliance with the symptoms of what is so clearly post-traumatic stress disorder.

Nine months ago, one could still discern much empathy among the locals, even though the refugee crisis had already deprived them of their tourist-based income. But since then, things have taken a sinister turn. Both empathy and hospitality have a limited shelf-life, at least when not actively cultivated. The masks of political correctness have now fallen, and long-dormant Nazi sleeper cells are stirring back to life.

As ever, the weak and the downtrodden are bearing the brunt of it. Less than two months ago, rocks and Molotov cocktails rained down on the refugee camp. The message couldn’t have been clearer: the island is no longer safe for the refugees and the migrants.

In the nine months following his arrival at Chios, Mustafa E became one of the most recognisable faces on the island. His excellent English and distinct flair for companionship have made him the favourite both of his fellow sufferers and many foreign activists. Yet the robust 42-year-old’s fixed smile cannot fully conceal his pain.

After losing his wife and two children in an Aleppo air raid, Mustafa hasn’t really stopped moving. Even here, in the Souda camp, where he lives in one of the huge tents bearing the UNHCR logo, he gets frequent flashes of paranoia. He literally can’t keep still. When he tries to do so, he gets utterly crushed under the weight of his loss. His family is the one thing he refuses to talk about. Everything else he is all too eager to discuss in an often unstoppable and obsessive fashion.

Apart from flashes of his war-torn land, he is also haunted by the future. For what future can there be for one of tens of thousands of faceless refugees here? And in Greece, of all places – a country once again sacrificed on the altar of Europe’s opportunist agenda, conscripted to serve as the continent’s human waste dump?

The answer, Mustafa feels, is all to apparent.

“Nine months of humiliation was enough. I feel I am about to lose my mind. Everything here is wrong and stupid, everything. What a farce – we are worse off here than dogs without a master. We definitely get treated worse,” he asserts. “Enough already, enough! I will do everything in my power to get away from here. Where will I go? Anywhere, I don’t care. But it is now clear I won’t be allowed to do so legally.”

I was talking to Mustafa in his very poorly heated tent. The words kept pouring out of him like a feverish litany. This man so clearly and so badly needed to state his case.

Before the ground opened up beneath him and swallowed his entire existence, Mustafa Alkhtyibe was the head of a successful marketing firm in Aleppo. But as soon as he started describing his life back then, he all but fell apart with despair. From then on, all he could manage were short, sometimes almost completely unrelated sentences detailing his plight.

His most immediate problem right now was that the Greek authorities had denied his application for asylum. He had already appealed the decision, and had lost the appeal. After all, the European and Greek bureaucrats happen to feel Turkey is perfectly capable of providing safe haven. In Mustafa’s case, being single proved a further factor against him. The fact that the war robbed him of his entire family had made him even more undesirable than he would have otherwise been. And the local paper-shufflers were equally unswayed by the fact that his beloved city of Aleppo had been razed to the ground.

“It seems almost impossible now,” Mustafa winced as he recalled the not-so-distant past. “But before the trouble started, I was totally convinced that Aleppo would be spared most of the fighting. And let me tell you, I quickly lost all faith in the revolution! Why? Because all the smart people soon got arrested or escaped abroad, and were quickly replaced by extremists, criminals and idiots.”

Alternative routes

Mustafa patiently explained to me how he was always looking for alternative routes. “Each day, at least five of my mates here move on to Athens – totally illegally, of course. But the trucks, the traffickers, the false papers, all of that costs money… And I don’t have much left,” he explained. “I’m also counting on some help from my friends. I’m one of the few here ready to stay in Greece, no matter how horrible the situation. I have many skills; I know I can trust myself to survive. But first I need to get out of this awful place.”

Mustafa was serious about getting out. Every day I spent with him served up its own plan, each one more fantastical than the last.

One morning it struck him that his best chance for smuggling himself onto a ferry for Athens would be to bring a small dog. All the attention would be diverted to the dog, Mustafa reasoned, while he himself might go completely unnoticed.

When confronted with the fact that even dogs need their own passports to travel across the European Union, he was completely shattered. “Oh my God, oh my God… What I want more than anything is to go to Luxembourg. Ali Baba-style, of course, there is no other way. They have so few refugees there and so much money… But to get there you need at least €4,500, and I don’t have anywhere near that.”

Mustafa also told me the traffickers have an actual menu. Business is booming, and one can get anywhere one wants, as long as one provides the currency. Canada – €9,000, Germany – €3,500, France – €5,000, Great Britain, €7,000.

With a violent sneeze, Mustafa poured himself another coffee. It was possibly his tenth that day.

The problem is that he doesn’t get much sleep at night, so he broods and scours the internet for possible solutions. In the morning, he would give anything not to get out of bed. “As soon as I get up, I start losing money,” he winces and finishes the coffee.

“I’ll keep trying. I can’t give up.”

A large crowd had gathered in front of the Souda camp. The men were lining up for food, focused on getting their daily rations and bringing them to the women and children waiting somewhere further back. These mealtime conflagrations have long become the emotional fulcrum of camp life, offering the only solace to a radically impoverished existence.

“I am trying not to lose my soul,” said Omar al Salem, 28, from the Syrian town of Deir er Zur. “I’m staying away from conflict. I follow the rules. I don’t stick my neck out for any reason. But it is no good. I’m never going to get out of here this way.”

Omar has been held in the island fort the past five months. What seems like a lifetime ago, he had been lucky enough to get into college just before the war started. He studied economics in the city of Latakia, a regime bastion and, therefore, untouched by most of the war. “Life was good,” Omar remembers. “If always a bit dangerous, since war-profiteering thugs had long taken over control.”

Omar was kept busy with his studies and with his job waiting tables at a restaurant. His greatest hope was for the war to end before he completed his university education. That would free him from the ever-looming prospect of getting conscripted into the army, where he would have to kill friends and neighbours in the vilest armed conflict of our generation. But it was not to be. When Omar graduated, the carnage had only just begun in earnest.

As a Sunni in a Shiia-dominated town, he felt much too exposed to even think about staying. He certainly didn’t feel like helping a thoroughly discredited regime butcher tens of thousands of its own citizens. His other option – to throw his lot with the extremist-controlled Islamic militias – seemed just as unappealing.

So he struck out for Quamishli, a Kurdish town next to the Turkish and Iraqi border. Even though his parents had been residing there for a while, the town wasn’t safe for him. The members of the YPG Kurdish militia, which controls a large part of northern Syria, weren’t exactly welcoming to a fighting-fit Sunni Arab. And so Omar opted to follow the lead of his two brothers who, eighteen months ago, had braved the gauntlet of the Balkan refugee route to reach Germany.

The expensive help of the local smugglers got him through the heavily guarded border, where dozens of refugees had recently been gunned down by the Turkish border patrols. Omar didn’t have enough money to purchase ‘the classic’ on the smugglers’ menu. So he was forced to make do. The smugglers got him a free place on one of the outgoing boats, but in exchange he was tasked with steering it himself all the way to Greece.

Little did he know that his assent could very easily have landed him in jail as a sub-contractor for the smugglers.

It was equally likely he could have proven unequal to the task of navigating the motor boat. He had never before attempted anything like it in his life. For the boat’s 35 passengers, the consequences could have proved fatal.

“We were about half an hour out. Suddenly, I noticed a Turkish coast guard vessel heading straight for us. The sea had turned restless, water was leaking into the boat, so I revved the engine to the max. No, I didn’t feel any fear. I was running on pure instinct. The Turkish boat chose not to follow. It was only after the sea started settling down that it occurred to me how easily we could all have died.”

Omar, too, is one of those dejected souls whose application for asylum has already been turned down by the Greek authorities. He is now awaiting the decision on his appeal, but the most likely outcome by far is that he, too, will soon be deported back to Turkey. This is all part and parcel of the EU-Turkish deal. Yet in the gathering dusk over the bitterly cold refugee camp, he told me he still refuses to lie down and accept defeat.

He had already risked too much to do so. He informed me he was the only person on his boat who had not yet managed to leave Chios. He takes this as proof that it is still possible to reach at least Athens if not the actual promised land. But reaching the Greek capital would set him back €500, and he has no money left. His parents are unable to help him. Perhaps the two brothers will be able to chip in if and when they make any money. Omar proudly informed me they had both been granted asylum in Germany and were doing very well.

Omar is convinced that once he reaches Athens, things are bound to get easier. “I tried several times to get myself to an Athens-bound ferry, but I always got caught. I once bleached my hair so they wouldn’t recognise me. But I still didn’t make it. The last time around, the policemen only gave me a kind smile and redirected me back to the camp. But I’ll keep trying. I can’t give up.”

More than anything else, this young Syrian seemed terrified of losing hope. Hope, after all, is the chief driving force for the traumatised survivors in camps like these all over the Greek coastline. Small wonder then that the European bureaucracy has long been waging a monstrous campaign to confiscate every last shred of hope and rob the incomers of the will to press on.

Second-class refugees

“I could never have imagined I would witness such horrible things – such utter degradation of human life,” says Sharif Alimi, 28, an Afghan Hazara from the Gazni province. I got talking to him as he was boarding the ancient bus regularly transferring the refugees and the migrants between the VIAL hot spot and the Souda camp.

For the previous five years, Sharif had been living in Sweden. But in November he decided to return to Greece, which had served as the first European port of call on his long and arduous path to freedom. The reason for his recent return? Two months ago, his parents arrived to Chios after spending the last years as refugees in Quetta, one of the most dangerous cities in the world for the brutally persecuted Hazara people.

This forced Sharif’s hand. “I simply had to act. I had no choice but to come here and help my parents. I knew what they would be facing. I was imprisoned in many European countries – all told, they put me in jail 17 times. And without a single conviction. The worst of it was in Slovakia, where I was imprisoned for six months. Trust me, I saw very well what Europe had become. How it chooses to treat our people.”

When he got word his parents had arrived in Chios, Sharif managed to put his good job in Sweden on hold and immediately departed for Greece.

After hearing less than half of it, I was convinced Sharif’s story was worth a trilogy of both books and movies. During the 11 years of being Europe’s plaything, he was deported to Afghanistan, Turkey, Greece and twice to Iran. Giving up was not an option. He was treated to an insider’s view of the various flavours of Slavic policemen, the savageness of life on the Italian streets and the recent build-up of French racism. He was only accepted by Sweden a little over five years ago, and he says the Scandinavian country has been very kind to him. He was quick to get a job, which enabled him to get the rest of his life in order.

Today, this would no longer be possible. As reported, Europe is now repatriating Afghan refugees daily, declaring them safe in a land which has scarcely seen any respite from butchery for the past 40 years.

“See You In Sweden”

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

“I couldn’t let my parents share my fate,” Sharif nodded heavily. “So I came down here to help get them to Sweden. So far we have not been successful, but I have no doubt that we soon will be.”

Foregoing the option to sleep in a hotel, this dutiful son has been spending his nights with his parents inside the VIAL hotspot. Every single day he has to crawl in through a hole in the fence that is the best-kept secret around these parts. The VIAL hotspot is otherwise heavily guarded, but once Sharif manages to slip inside, no one finds him particularly suspicious.

Talking to him, it soon became clear he has little interest in comfort and is totally committed to his goal. He had been through everything and more; his pain threshold has been raised to a previously unimaginable level. Once you get to know him, you can so clearly see it written in his face, the scarred and grizzled visage of a true survivor.

In the days we spent together, Sharif and his Swedish girlfriend Zara did everything in their power to relocate the parents to a hotel. Omar was set on providing his mother and father with at least a modicum of comfort and dignity, even if it meant running the risk of himself being jailed again. He was both dignified and fearless in fighting off the policemen and fellow migrants out to humiliate his parents. Without his Swedish passport, Sharif would be quickly and literally vanished from the continent. As things stand, he could clutch this tiny piece of paper and keep fighting for that elusive and infinitely fragile thing called human rights.

“I have made my decision: we are all going to live in Sweden, and that is how it’s going to be,” Sharif told me as we got ready to part ways. “We Afghans, we’re second-class refugees, you know. Absolutely no one here has any time for us, and this goes doubly for the Hazara people. I mean, even in our own country we are mostly seen as foreigners. But what are you going to do? I know nothing can stop us now. So I guess I’ll see you in Sweden, huh?”

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FICTION: Escaping terror firma, Part 4 – Drowning in a sea of dashed dreams

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By Khaled Diab

“I fully expect to be escorted off the ship and onwards towards oblivion, first in a prison cell in Israel and then in the prison of Gaza… But then…”

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Friday 7 October 2016

Alone and lonely, I feel a deep sense of melancholy overcome me. How could I have expected my prison guard to understand my predicament and release me? I scold myself for my naïve streak. I feel an immense fatigue wash over me and, despite everything or perhaps because of it, I succumb to the comforting embrace of slumber. I curl up as best I can on the hard bunk and am immediately overwhelmed by blank darkness. While asleep, I sense we have hit rocky waters… or perhaps it is my rocky dreams that have suddenly erupted upon my inner eye. On the verge of waking, the rocking subsides and rocks me back to sleep.

When I awaken, I am not sure how much time has elapsed. It feels like hours but it could have been minutes. I sit and patiently await a return visit, during which I fully expect to be escorted off the ship and onwards towards oblivion, first in a prison cell in Israel and then in the prison of Gaza, where the chains binding my soul bound to feel thicker and heavier after having come so close to escape.

But the moment refuses to arrive. I wait and I wait and I wonder how it can take so long to reach an Israeli port.

Eventually, I hear the clanking thud of boots on metal and I know my time has arrived. I brace myself. The door swings open to reveal Major Beige and a couple of his subordinates. “Follow me,” he instructs in a neutral tone. When we come up on deck, I am surprised to discover we are still in open waters.

But where?!

My inner compass cannot determine. I interrogate Major Beige with my eyes.

“I’ve never accepted my lot,” he says cryptically, “and neither should you. You’ve done nothing wrong and you’ve wronged no-one. You don’t deserve prison, so I’m returning you to the sea.”

Disbelieving, I stare wordlessly at him, while his comrades look on, some with supportive gazes, others with barely concealed disgust and contempt.

“Over there is Cyprus,” he points, though I can’t see any land in sight. “I can’t get you any closer without infiltrating Cyprus’s territorial waters, and I’m in enough trouble…

“So you’ll have to swim from here,” he says. “If you can,” he adds, his eyes betraying doubt and concern.

“Thank you,” I say, wondering what comeuppance awaits him for his act of mutiny, trying to convey my concern with my eyes.

Discomforted by my gaze, he motions to me with his eyes to move closer.

The officer unlocks my shackles and leads me towards the edge of the ship. I climb back into the sea, barely able to believe that my insane scheme is on the verge of succeeding, unless I drown on the home stretch, and that in a short time I will be taking off my skinsuit to reveal the bikini underneath for the first time ever on a beach.

I turn in the water, drag in a deep breath, and dance ahead. As I head towards my salvation, my mind drifts and swims to the places and, more importantly, the people I’m leaving behind. I wonder when I’ll next see my parents, family and friends and under what circumstances. As I swim towards my escape, I am buoyed by the prospect of possibility after all the impossibility I have lived through, but I am also pulled down by the sinking realisation that even if I survive the sea and find freedom, I will never truly be free.

[The end]

Read part 1 – Hell from the heavens

Read part 2 – Breaking out of the fish bowl

Read part 3 – Shipwrecked delusions

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The generous of the earth in the most wretched of places

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By Khaled Diab

If you’re feeling dejected by the troubled times we live in, remember that human generosity lives on, even in the most wretched of places.
Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Iraqi Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted an ISIS attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine.

Friday 2 September 2016

War. Mass murder. Fanaticism. Bigotry. Racism. Hatred. Environmental devastation. These are depressing times we are living through.

However, scratch beneath the surface of the headlines and beyond the escalating news cycle of violence and you can find human beauty, even in the most wretched of places, at the most wretched of times.

This was driven home to me by what seems to be a startling statistical finding. Iraqis are the most likely people in the world to help a stranger, according to the World Giving Index (WGI).

Let that sink in for a moment. This is a country that was “shocked and awed” by the US and Britain into almost total state collapse, endured years of civil war, is supposedly prey to sectarian and ethnic hatred and is at the mercy of rival militias and warlords, including the infamous and bloodthirsty Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).

Against such a backdrop and in a world where the relative trickle of refugees into Europe is causing continent-wide panic, you would expect Iraqis to fear strangers, to suspect that a passerby in apparent need is actually part of an ambush or a ploy, to keep what little they have for themselves and their nearest and dearest.

Despite this, a full four-fifths of Iraqis report having helped a stranger in the past month. How is this possible?

Part of the reason may be cultural. Arab societies possess elaborate and nuanced social codes demanding oft-excessive generosity and hospitality to visitors and strangers. This is encapsulated in the ancient Arab proverb: “A guest is greeted like a prince, held like a captive [to your generosity] and departs like a poet [to sing your praises].”

And many is the time that I have been made to feel  like the proverbial prince by Arabs I’d never met before. In fact, the most memorable shows of spontaneous generosity from strangers I have encountered in my life were in Egypt.

But culture is only part of the story. Necessity is the mother of generosity. There is a universal human tendency to respond to need and the needy – and a sense of guilt when we do not. In places like Iraq, where the ranks of those in need are enormous, the ranks of those willing to help them also grow, though they can never keep up with the runaway demand.

Conflict- and warzones bring out both the worst in humans and the best. This, to my mind, was symbolically embodied in a single recent incident in Iraq. An ISIS suicide bomber was on his way to take the lives of many innocent worshippers in Balad.

Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine. By preventing the mass murderer from entering the shrine and by taking much of the initial impact of the blast, al-Baldawi committed perhaps the supreme act of generosity: he gave his life to save dozens of others.

And despite Europe’s current (partly unjustified) reputation for selfish individualism, wartime Europe was replete with stories of such heroic, self-sacrificing generosity and solidarity, from the suicidal heroics of World War I trenches to the death-defying resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II and the sheltering of fugitive Jews destined for German death-camps.

Religion also seems to play a role in generosity. When it comes to giving money, Myanmar and Thailand top the WGI. Experts attribute this to the Buddhist practice of Sangha Dana, which encourages people to make donations.

But one must not overestimate the role of religion or assume that secular societies are less giving than pious ones. In the example above, Myanmar was assumed to be the most generous country because a higher percentage of its citizens had given money over the preceding month. But we know nothing of the amounts given and how they relate to income.

So it is entirely possible that in another country where people give away large sums to charity but do so only once or twice a year, citizens would donate a large proportion of their incomes yet appear less generous on the World Giving Index. For example, research has repeatedly found Americans to be the most generous charitable donors in the world as a percentage of income, giving away around 2% of GDP.

However, this does not necessarily make America the most generous country in the world. Like in developing countries with low taxes and huge income disparities, the visible poverty all around forces wealthy people of conscience to give.

In more egalitarian societies, that need is less because of the disguised or invisible forms of collective generosity that do not appear in WGI or statistics on charitable donations. In high-taxation societies with a generous social safety net, “giving” is a legal duty, not an individual choice.

For instance, in the European Union, where such a social model is prevalent, at least nine countries spend over 30% of their gross domestic product on social protection, led by Denmark (34.6%), France (34.2%) and the Netherlands (33.3%).

In addition, although foreign aid is woefully inadequate and wealthier countries are generally reneging on their obligations, a number of countries donate significantly above the benchmark 0.7% of GDP target. These include Sweden (1.4%), the UAE (1.09%), Norway (1.05%), Luxembourg (0.93%) and the Netherlands (0.76%).

This shows how generosity comes in many shapes and sizes, from the individual to the collective. Then there are the intangible, unmeasurable aspects of generosity. A dollar given by someone poor is worth far more than a dollar given by someone wealthy. Help given at great personal risk is worth more than risk-free assistance. Assistance received when you most need it is worth far more than that which is received too late. And a fish given to feed you once is worth far less than giving you the rod or net with which you can feed yourself.

Next time you feel despondent at the selfish taking and destructiveness of the world, look around for the everyday examples of giving which may not capture headlines but do capture a spirit of generosity that may just save humanity from itself.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 August 2016.

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Eutopian nightmares

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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

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

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Wednesday 1 June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above all, the dehumanisation of ourselves.

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

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

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

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This is not a refugee “hotspot”. It’s a prison!

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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Following the EU-Turkey deal, refugees in Greece are being held in so-called “hotspots”, which are actually prisons, and many are now on hunger strike.

This is not a refugee hotspot. Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

This is not a refugee hotspot. Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

Thursday 5 May 2016

Following the closing of the Balkan refugee route and the sealing of the deal between the European Union and Turkey, some 55,000 refugees and migrants remain trapped in Greece. Many of them are being kept inside detention centres, where the living conditions are well beyond disastrous.

The worst of it can be observed on the Aegean island of Chios. On the island, the EU directed the Greek authorities – who had little say in the matter – to seal the fate of tens of thousands of refugees by opening up the VIAL hotspot, where around a thousand people are currently awaiting their fate.

All of them have arrived in Greece since 20 March 2016, when the deal between Brussels and Ankara entered into force. The ruthless bargain prevented the refugees and migrants from pressing on further into Europe, instead cramming them into a number of what are effectively jails.

These institutions are located both on the Greek mainland and on its islands. But the so-called VIAL “hotspot”, which is actually a prison, was soon to attain a special notoriety for becoming the metaphor for the xenophobic and racist European (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies. The strategists in Brussels had decided to turn the already politically, socially and economically ransacked country of Greece into a sort of human wastebin, thereby exacerbating the suffering of tens of thousands of people.

Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

Photo: ©Jure Erzen/Delo

In these times of spreading hatred, racism and growing neo-Nazi parties, it seems especially important to call things by their proper names. The “hotspot” I am currently reporting from is nothing less than the concentration camp of our day.

The camp – located a 20-minute drive away from the island’s capital – presents the visitor with a frightening picture. The refugees and migrants I have been talking to all related stories and experiences that should make the whole of Europe shudder in shame. Yet the very capacity for shame seems to have been driven from the continent by a narcissistic self-obsession and a highly aggressive drive to keep oneself permanently within the comfort zone.

In the early evening, I got to talking to an Afghan girl named Geza who spoke perfect English. I met her next to a hole in the camp’s fence. Many of the refugees were using the hole to get in and out of the camp, especially since the police presence was startlingly light on account of the holidays.

“We are being treated like garbage – as if we had the plague or something,” Geza told me: “We can no longer bear this. There are worms and caterpillars inside our food. There is not enough water, and a lot of what we get isn’t even drinkable. There is not nearly enough medicine, and many of us have grown severely ill. The children have had the worst of it. Almost half of everyone here is underage. We have no idea what we’ve done to be treated this way. All we wanted was to live in peace.”

Geza told me she and her husband Farhan had fled both the Taliban and the Islamic State. “Please tell everyone what’s happening to us here. This is a crime. We are all so hungry. And we are being humiliated. Me and my husband, we have been here for 40 days. Right after we arrived, we put in an application to be granted asylum. We were supposed to get a response 10 days ago, but nothing happened. No one in this camp was given a reply. And so we are waiting. We have no information to go on. We are cut off from the world. Both me and Farhan are very scared they will send us back to Afghanistan.”

This is a common, virtually universal fear among the residents of the VIAL detention centre. As recently as a week ago, the entire institution was hermetically sealed – until the exhausted and severely traumatised refugees decided to stage a protest. A certain threshold seemed to have been reached, and the local authorities made the tactical decision to permit their wards at least a modicum of free movement.

Yet the prison is located far from both the town and the port, which is why most people opted to search for food in the nearby villages, where all the shops were closed on account of Orthodox Easter. One enterprising local set up a vending stall right in front of the hotspot. The prices were about three times what one would pay in the town, yet the vast majority of the refugees and the migrants had already spent what money they had to get to Europe.

Most of them were also not at all eager to stray too far from the prison. One can hardly blame them for not feeling safe. The last few weeks saw a number of far-right groups attack both the refugees and the volunteers helping them. After 18 months of an open-door policy, the impoverished and economically ravaged island has finally refused to welcome the influx of fresh refugees. From what I could see, the islanders did this more to appease Brussels than from any genuine feelings of resentment or enmity. Be that as it may, the island which has been turned into a prison is one of the key images for envisioning our fast-approaching common European future.

“It is impossible to live here. There are as many as 20 of us inside a single container. During the day the whole place gets unbearably hot. I am sick to my stomach all the time – all the time,” I was told by a very dignified lady named Batul Rahim, standing at the front door of the modern concentration camp. “We have no privacy, we’re hungry, and our children are exhausted. Most of them have no idea what is going on, and I think it is really better that way… I fled Mosul because of the Islamic State – they would have killed us for being Christians. All Christians were forced to escape, and a lot of them lost their lives.”

With a tearful break in her voice, Rahim told me she was a mother of a two-year old boy named Samuel and a three-year-old girl, Sonia, who were hiding behind her legs. “The world has forgotten about us. Some of our relatives managed to reach Germany and the Netherlands, while we have been thrown to rot in this jail.”

The grief-stricken woman also expressed her mortal fear that the European bureaucrats were about to send her back to hell. Had I decided to soothe her worries, I would have been forced to lie to her face. Virtually all the Syrians I encountered were telling stories of a devastated homeland and their bankrupt illusions about Europe.

Koda, a 57-year-old Iranian from Esfahan, told me he had arrived in Greece a mere four hours too late – on the very morning of 20 March when the bargain between the EU and Turkey raised the drawbridge, the bargain that seems certain to wreck hundreds of thousands of lives.

Ironically, the deal between the European Union and Turkey has been hailed as a great coup for European diplomacy, as if it has somehow solved the refugee question rather than exacerbated it. After the Balkan refugee route got closed and the Turkish authorities set about fulfilling their well-rewarded new array of tasks, the number of refugees and migrants reaching the Greek islands experienced a huge drop.

Most of those who had already been to Greece only to be thwarted by the closing down of the Macedonian-Greek border ended up in the so-called hotspots. At an improvised tent settlement in Idomeni, some 11,000 people are still waiting for the border to open. But they are waiting for a miracle that is simply not on the horizon – short of an actual miracle. Some 3,000 people are currently residing in the port of Piraeus, waiting for the holiday’s end when the Greek authorities are set to cart them off to prisons. Precious few of them are likely to reach the desired goal of their journey – meaning Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden. They have made an investment of a lifetime in gathering both the gumption and the resources to flee the ravages of their war-torn lands only to be thrown in jail. And one thing is certain: they shall remain there for much longer than only a few weeks.

“Europe has her mouth full of human rights. If I remember correctly, your soldiers came to Afghanistan in the name of human rights as well, true? Well, I have come to Europe and I am certainly human. But where are my rights?” asked a 27-year-old Afghan named Hekmetulla Hakani, as he stood in front of the VIAL hotspot. “Me and my wife and my daughter have been trapped here for 40 days. My daughter is only 10-months-old. This is so horrible. I simply want to go home and die there.”

Hailing from the city of Helmand, Hakani had worked as a translator on NATO’s ISAF mission, which earned him enough credible Taliban threats to force him to flee for his life. “They have imprisoned us here like terrorists. It is as if they don’t think we’re even human. We are suffering so hard, we have no idea what will happen to us. The policemen are telling us to simply wait – the ones that will even talk to us, that is, because most of them won’t. A lot of the children here are seriously ill. And we have no money left. There is nowhere for us to go,” Hakani insisted.

“Why does it have to be this way? What have we done? Why does Europe hate us so much?” the former NATO translator asked in frustration and bewilderment.

Since my encouter with these inmates, the situation at the VIAL prison camp has gone from bad to worse. Today, Wednesday 4 May, many of the refugees went on hunger strike, with some going as far as to sew their lips together. “I’m going to kill myself. I will cut my throat with the razor-wire. I will bleed slowly. It won’t hurt … I can’t stand this any more. I’m sick. Everything hurts,” screamed Hamid, a distressed Palestinian-Syrian from Yarmouk camp who is now among the hunger strikers who have sewed their lips together. “We know what will happen to us. I can see my future it the eyes of the policemen. Or in the eyes of local people. They hate us. We are not people to them. I want to die.”

Something must be seriously wrong when someone who has risked their lives to escape death in the hopes of finding a safe refuge decides that life is not worth living anymore.

Extra police have been deployed to deal with the situation. But the answer does not lie in finding better ways to keep the inmates locked up, but to set them free. After all, these refugees have committed no crime, save to believe that Europe could provide them with a humane shelter from the hell they have fled.

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Bombing ISIS in Syria will not tackle extremism in Brussels

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By Khaled Diab

Rather than airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS), Belgium should strike at the root causes of homegrown extremism.

Bruxelles est (Re)belle. Miguel Discart

Bruxelles est (Re)belle.
Miguel Discart

Tuesday 5 April 2016

When we moved from Europe back to the Middle East, some of our Belgian friends who were unfamiliar with the region were worried about us and expressed concern for our safety.

So it felt bizarre that my wife and I found ourselves checking on the well-being of friends in Belgium after the terrorist attacks at Brussels airport and in the capital’s metro system, which claimed at least 31 lives and left another 330 injured, some in critical condition. To add to the irony, colleagues and friends in Gaza, who have more than enough on their plates, contacted my wife to check that her family was all right.

The scenes of the destruction and slaughter seemed almost unreal when juxtaposed against the casual, everyday mundanity with which I have used both hubs over the years. However, although the onslaught was shocking, it was sadly not surprising, especially following the Paris attacks in November of last year. “We feared a terrorist attack, and it occurred,” declared the Belgian premier Charles Michel solemnly.

Brussels is, after all, not only the capital of Belgium, it is also the unofficial capital of the European Union and hosts NATO’s headquarters. It is also home to a pool of disillusioned and marginalised young Muslims who can be preyed upon by jihadist recruiters.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the fear is palpable, even for those who are determined not to allow terror to guide their lives. “It’s not easy not to have fear,” one Belgian admitted to me, “and I try not to fear, just love.”

Belgium’s Muslim minority is not only fearful of the terrorists but also the almost inevitable backlash from the mainstream. “It was always a dream for me to have a [trendy] beard,” recalls Hassan Al Hilou, a 16-year-old Iraqi-Belgian student and entrepreneur who has started up an online platform for youth. “But I am scared of my own hair and scared of my own name.”

Syrian refugees are also feeling the heat. “I have escaped from a war zone and now I am feeling threatened just walking down the street.” one refugee who has received threats was quoted as saying.

In addition to the solidarity, defiance and soul-searching has come the inevitable finger pointing, with reports of suspected intelligence failures and bungling, which prompted Justice Minister Jan Jambon to try to tender his resignation.

However, it is easy to find fault and condemn in hindsight, as happened previously in the United States after the 11 September attacks, or in Paris, London and Madrid, amongst others. But, at the end of the day, even after all the precautions are taken, determined killers will eventually locate a weakness or gap to exploit. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in Belgium’s defence.

Some criticism is also agenda-driven. It seems to have become almost routine for governments and interest groups to seize on every terror attack to roll back civil liberties and trample on our privacy.

The EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove hinted at this in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre when he urged European representatives to “never let a good crisis go to waste”. And true enough, Kerchove pounced on the Brussels bombings to try to blast through controversial legislation on airline passenger data.

This tendency has me and many others who value our hard-won freedoms worried. “We are gradually moving towards a state in which our security will come at a heavy price,” says my friend Jan, despite his concern about extremist activity in his neighbourhood, Molenbeek, an area of Brussels dubbed as “jihad central” by the more sensationalist segments of the media. “I hate the voices who say that it is either freedom or security.”

Just as occurred with the Front National in France following the Paris attacks, the latest atrocities have provided Belgium’s faltering far-right with a surge in support, with its ripple effects empowering everyone from Geert Wilders in neighbouring Holland to Donald Trump across the Atlantic.

The anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang claims that its support has grown by 25% since the attacks while the fringe white supremacist Voorpost says its membership doubled in just three days. Vlaams Belang’s leader Tom Van Grieken has already seized on the opportunity to demand a “water-tight” border policy and the “preventive detention” of known Islamic extremists, which sounds like far-right code for harassing Muslims.

Later, the far-right party went further to demand the reintroduction of the death penalty for Muslim terrorists and their accomplices (but preusambly not for non-Muslim ones) and, like Trump across the Atlantic, the VB wants to ban foreign Muslims from entering Belgium.

But some are hopeful that the combined power of young Muslim and mainstream moderates of the divide can overcome the religious and racial supremacists. “I believe in this generation,” insists Hassan Al Hilou. “We know how to accept everyone and their cultures, how to live together with love and not with hate.”

For its part, the Belgian government immediately unveiled plans to resume airstrikes against ISIS targets, as if bombing Syria or Iraq would somehow de-radicalise extremists in Brussels.

As I’ve argued in before, the government’s fixation on security and the “war on terrorism” diverts vital resources from the policies that would prevent the homegrown terrorist threat, which draws on the alienation, disenchantment, exclusion and marginalisation felt by inner-city Muslim youth, making them softer targets for extremist brainwashing.

The way to deprive jihadist recruiters of a fresh supply of young people willing to die would be to give youth greater reasons to live, by promoting respectful integration and mutual tolerance, as well as investing in education and job creation.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in The National on 28 March 2015.

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