Tomorrow Die Zeit will release my short film “The March of Hope”. It will be a year to the day since it was shot, during which many thousands of refugees left Idomeni. Below I’ve written some memories and an introduction to the film. The raw footage is being used in a legal case by the ECCHR (European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights ). I’d like to say special thanks to so many people who have contributed to translating the film into German, English, Arabic, Dutch and Greek. It is a huge moment politically in Europe, and anyone who knows my work knows that I am passionate in my belief that the arts have an important contribution to make to the dialogue. In particular in its capacity to be a flag bearer for the humanity which our politics too often forgets. I hope to that end the film is seen as a contribution.
It’s been a year now since 1000’s of refugees left Idomeni in a bid to reach safe safe asylum in Northern Europe.
Basti and I were ourselves in the heart of our journey, but by that stage had already been in Idomeni for nearly 3 weeks. We had arrived a few days after Austria shut down her borders, with the Balkan countries quickly following suit.
We’d arrived in Idomeni on a night I will never forget. A small group of refugees had tried to storm the gate, and the Macedonian border army reacted with great force. As such we arrived in the camp to veritable pandemonium, with tear gas thick in the air, an atmosphere of high excitement and evidently miserable conditions.
Little did we know that the conditions would worsen so quickly. The Greek government was blindsided. Already broke and struggling with the refugee crisis, it was ill prepared. In shutting down the borders, the EU was not just shutting out refugees, but effectively abandoning Greece to deal with the consequences of the crisis alone.
Basti and I watched in amazement as the camp grew from 3000 people to 15,000. It’s hard to convey the experience of being there. Why? Because no matter how close you touch upon the refugee experience, you can’t pretend to get close to the reality.
But what I can say is that the hardest thing to witness over this period was the slow sense of hope dying. People had escaped war zones, had relatives killed, crossed oceans in perilous waters – yet all through this hardship these people carried some type of burning fire, some type of expression of the very core of life – that is, the will to live crystallised in the will to survive.
Yet in Idomeni, these hopes died. And I believe the very hardest thing was not the utterly terrible conditions, but the sense that hope was dying.
And as hope died, that sense of defiance took perhaps one of its hardest punches.
Nevertheless all of us who experienced Idomeni – whether press, volunteer or aid worker, will never forget the courage we witnessed.
At night the press corps would leave for hotels in the surrounding villages. Basti and I would stay in our camper van, which my friend Muhammad quipped was the “penthouse of Idomeni”. And of course it was. But it also gave us a closer proximity to the refugees, and a position of trust. We were invited by our neighbours in the tents surrounding the van to join their حي – that is the neighbourhood.
When it came to the event of March 14th – the exodus, we were tipped off by some of our close refugee friends that something was planned for the following morning. As such we were there from the moment the first refugees started preparing & discussing the departure. At one stage it seemed that the depressed atmosphere in the camp wouldn’t summon the energy for this exit. But over the course of a couple of hours, the numbers grew, and in total astonishment we saw as a huge portion of the camp made its exit.
ABOUT THE FILM
Tomorrow Die Zeit will publish my short film “The March of Hope”.
The film is a first hand account of the events of a day which symbolises so many aspects of the “refugee crisis”. It looks both at the realities facing refugees on arrival, and what it means to be a European at this time. My perspective is of someone who loves both the continent I live & has a been blessed to get to know personally many refugees and to learn their stories. Yes, I am fully aware of the complexities of the situation.
I also feel it important to challenge some of the characterisations put out nowadays which tend to simplify complicated issues into “us vs them” narratives. The world is beautifully complex, and it is our challenge of the spirit to meet those issues with the deepest tools our humanity affords us.
The film is on the one hand a personal reflection of what it means to be a European and on the other an emotional response to the profound challenges faced by refugees.
The title “The March of Hope” reflects my fundamental belief that when history falls into dark times, it is our humanity which remains the inextinguishable light which leads us forward.
Beyond that it serves to practical purposes:
2) Secondly, I wanted to counter many of the lies written about the events on the 14th of March, especially in the far Right press. Beyond the courage of the refugees, one of the things which will always live with me was the dedication and focus of the volunteers and Aid Workers. Many of these people had their names blackened by misreporting by people that were not there. Since then “Fake News” has come common place, and is thrown around whenever people or institutions have agendas potentially compromised by inconvenient truths. As such, I’d like to say very clearly:
This film is an account of a day witnessed first hand. It’s events are recounted as clearly as I can. In that it is a documentation of what I witnessed.
Concurrently it is an interpretation. I have not tried to hide my subjective feelings about what I saw or experienced. To that end the viewer is free to agree or disagree with my perspective.
However, 2 things of which I have little doubt about are:
a) The lack of information and living conditions at Idomeni backed the refugees into a corner. Ultimately the decision to leave was an act of desperation, and an inevitable proactive response to a camp which the UNHCR stated was “on the verge of a humanitarian crisis”
b) The volunteers acted in the best possible faith. Whereas they were characterised as facilitating and orchestrating an “invasion of Macedonia” , what actually happened was that the volunteers followed the refugees and did their dam best to make sure that children didn’t drown in treacherous waters, or handicapped men in wheelchairs get stuck in the mountains of Macedonia.
When you see another human being is in mortal danger in front of you, you help. At least that’s what most of us would do.
It’s easy if you’re sitting on a laptop at home to judge how someone else acts in a critical situation. But when you’re there there is not time for objective evaluation. You either help someone in trouble, or you don’t. It’s that simple. And that make you who you are. Or who you are not.
Simply put, those accounts were written by people who weren’t there. I was there for 2 hours while the core group of refugees discussed whether to leave, and it was from that group that the march began. It was no left wing plot orchestrated by radicals. That theory has been put forward I believe to mask the fact that we as Europeans had left woman and children starving in rain sodden tents in the mud. The volunteers had responded to that challenge, and should be applauded for their work, and even more that they embodied the what is the highest point of European civilisation – the will to stand up for someone’s human rights:- regardless of colour, creed, gender, religion or status.
The film is an extract from the feature documentary which will be released later in the year. Special to Die Zeit, to Basti, Tim and to all of the people who have helped with the subtitling.