During the course of 2015, Greece became the most important European entry point for immigrants and refugees.
Both the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and other human rights organisations have condemned the country for its treatment of migrants and refugees. Arrested at the border or washed up on one of Greece’s many islands, refugees and migrants spend months in overcrowded and filthy detention centres.
Most don’t want to stay in Greece, where it is almost impossible to get refugee status or work legally. Instead, they are trapped in a terrible limbo, unable to return home or continue further into Europe. There are no jobs any more due to the Greek crisis and many end up living on the streets, where they risk arrest and abuse from the police.
Over the past years, I have been photographing many aspects of the refugee crisis in Greece, including the growing tension between migrants and Greeks, who are not used to living side by side with people of other races and faiths.
I, too, am an migrant in Greece. I know how it is to be in limbo. I've also lived through war and conflict in my own country of Serbia. My own experience has equipped me to understand and empathise with the challenges refugees face.
When I was on the beaches of Lesvos to photograph the arrival of boats overfilled with people, dozens and dozens of boats every day, I felt something beautiful which I had been unprepared to witness. In an instant I decided to focus my work not on the drama, but on the beauty. The beauty of all those volunteers and members of NGOs that expect the refugees, boat after boat, to arrive ashore so that they can offer help.
They come from all over the world - Greece, Spain, Norway, Holland, Israel, and many other countries, with just one aim: to help the refugees reach safety, and to prepare them for the next leg of the long journey towards northern Europe. They rescue them out of the overfilled boats, comfort them, give them first aid, warm them up with thermal blankets, feed them, clothe them and lead them to the camps where they will be able to stay for a couple of days before going to Mytilini town and taking the ferry to Piraeus.
These volunteers are heroes who make a huge difference, on the field, in real time, for thousands of people who arrive to the island scared, suffering, unaware of what will be next, but overburdened with what they have left behind.
My images in this book are meant to be a homage to all the volunteers.
The photos have been chronologically organised as a visual narrative, which depicts the story from the moment refugees arrive ashore until they are welcomed to the camps of the island.
“The Aftermath of Despair and a Cartography of Hope”
“The Aftermath of Despair and a Cartography of Hope” investigates life inside the Domiz and Akre camps for Syrian refugees. Domiz Refugee Camp hosts nearly 75.000 people, while Akre accommodates about 1.500 individuals.
Anticipating the trademark miseries of typical camps, I have instead found in Domiz and Akre vibrant communities that comprise all that life entails: not only deaths, funerals, guns and poverty, but also births, weddings, glamour and toys. The two facilities are very different in size, organisation and background: Domiz is a stereotypical makeshift tent encampment sprawling in the desert; Akre, much smaller, was originally a prison: a place of enforced enclosure, now a shelter for hope.
Kurdistan has so far accepted the largest number of Syrian refugees. The vast majority are being cared for at the Domiz camp. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is stretched to the limits in its effort to provide. Domiz has grown into a city of sorts, with an independent economy. Cafes, internet outlets, a smattering of hair salons, a proliferation of wedding businesses. There’s even a watch shop along one of the dirt paths.Both camps are imbued with optimism, echoed by the irrepressible laughter and carefree energy of the children. The air is infused with smells and sounds no different from any other Kurdish village.
Yet life is far from comfortable. Some families have built structures out of breeze blocks, but many still live in tents or shacks made entirely of corrugated metal roofing. In some parts of the camp, 15 or more refugees share a single outhouse. Sewage flows in gutters and collects in fetid pools. Overcrowding, lack of privacy, and competition for services give rise to mistrust and disrupt social cohesion.
Many of these refugees barely escaped with their lives from their home countries. In theory, the state of being a refugee is temporary, but without a place to go back to — a nation, a city, a home — limbo begins to look permanent, a designated space carved out of someone else’s country. In a camp, the basic needs of physical survival might be met, but the rights of citizenship are forfeit, and human aspirations lose both their means and their meaning. It’s their mindset, which privileges dignity as a non-negotiable, that grants them the energy to continue and rebuild. Their dignity, their scorn towards life’s absurdity and their stoicism, are my photography’s focuses. Though it’s told in myriad variations, the only story in war is the story of how to live without fear.
I am this story’s messenger.
“The Sub-Saharan Sisyphus”
“The lucidity that was to constitute Sisyphus' torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” (Camus, A.)
The series of photographs “The Sub-Saharan Sisyphus” depicts Sudanese and Somalis residing in a derelict textile factory: once the flagship of Greek manufacture, now the “Piraiki Patraiki” site lies abandoned near the Greek harbour of Patra. Its current occupants have come from areas where war has been a constant for the most part of five decades. Mainstream media have lost interest in those conflicts; now that the world’s attention is firmly on the Syrian population and their perilous crossing of the Mediterranean, the Somalis and the Sudanese are being largely ignored.
Invariably they have been smuggled either in boats from Djibouti to Yemen, or hidden in trucks through Egypt, as part of a wider trafficking network involving several countries. Corruption is endemic in the region and human trafficking a lucrative trade. Each year, tens of thousands of people from the Horn of Africa are led through Arabian territories, and on to the European Union. Like the mythical Sisyphus, they carried their rock to the top of the mountain; now they’re watching helplessly as it rolls back down.
Upon arrival in Greece, their mythologised conception of Europe crumbles: they realise their journey is far from over, that they are at the mountain’s foot once more. Using the factory as their shelter, expedition base, and eventually, home, they keep trying their luck at jumping under the cargo trucks which cross the Adriatic sea into Italy - a practice they call “dingling”. Luck favours a few: the rest get trapped at the factory for months. Soon, they fall into routines and rituals that establish a community: scavenged meals are shared and ethnic differences are reconciled. Though in transit, they live in limbo, trapped in a fissure between time and space – an absurd “station” in their life journey.
Albert Camus said: “the lucidity that was to constitute Sisyphus' torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”Using leftover charcoal from their fire, they leave traces on the walls: poetry and coded messages interspersed with symbols and drawings, tell the narrative of despair and hope – the rolling of their rock, the promised land which inches away every time it appears within reach.
The scorn, the pain, and the dignity of everyday is where my photographs focus.The series of photographs presented here are part of my documentary project following their routes, tracing the pathways of their journey, observing their rock. I join them in the pursuit of an idea, a story, at the same time chasing my own spectres of an ideal existence.
En route to the Balkans / Eidomeni
More than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015, sparking a crisis, as European countries struggled to cope with the influx, and creating a division in the EU over how best to deal with resettling the population.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and poverty from mostly Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, passed through the Greek border town of Idomeni onwards to the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M.), taking the Balkan route to Northern Europe, which has since been sealed shut. The former point of passage is now a massive unofficial camp, accommodating more than ten thousand stranded refugees.
These pictures are not a work of art; they are the depiction of a harsh reality, filtered through the subjective view of the photographer.
They were shot on Lesvos in October 2015 and in Idomeni in March 2016 during assignments for the Athens News Agency and the European Pressphoto Agency. These pictures are not a work of art; they are the depiction of a harsh reality, filtered through the subjective view of the photographer.
As a photographer, I feel also a witness of the events that take place right beofre my eyes.
During the 2015 refugee crisis I followed arrivals to the Greek islands. I visited Kos, Chios and Lesvos. Later on I went to Idomeni, at the border between Greece and F.Y.R.O.M.
The images I saw in those places were very powerful, and very similar. Thousands of Syrian and Afghan war refugees were putting their own and their children’s lives at risk in hope of a better and more peaceful future, far from the war. During the summer of 2015, almost one million refugees and migrants crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands, with the ultimate goal of reaching Europe.
The ultimate toll of this migration - which has developed into a humanitarian crisis, is several thousands dead, drowned at sea. There are also several thousands unaccompanied children who have disappeared due to criminal trafficking gangs.
The reasons for this refugee crisis are known, and culpability traceable. I realised once more that politicians are not concerned with human lives; they give importance only to economic interests, which end up destroying countries and their people; like it is happening in Syria right now.
Fragments of Evidence
Covering the refugee crisis made me always reflect on the fundamental ethics of my work as a photo journalist. Ethics state I must try and remain an observer and be neutral to what takes place in front of my camera. I simply can't do this.
I feel it is my duty to document these people, whom war and hardship have led to another country. My pictures are like pieces of a puzzle, fragments of evidence about what has unfolded to be one of the worst refugee crises in many decades. Taking sides in this documentation may undermine my credentials as a reporter but I feel it makes me a better human being. The price I have to pay in terms of my work, is the fact that I feel uncomfortable showing these pictures. Compliments about my work make my very embarrassed, probably out of guilt in the idea that my audience is more or less safe from life-threatening situations and my pictures will benefit me more than those I have photographed.
Almost all of my work presented here is in camps and I try to show both the conditions and the daily life of these people that are so near and yet so far away from us and our own lives.
"...to walk into an open cage"
It has been said that cinema mitates real life. The settings that the cinematographer has carefully selected, present a glorified version of reality. The gifted and experienced actors mediate so that the script can come into life. The director artfully combines the above-mentioned factors to create his masterpiece.
What happens, though, when the enchanting landscape and the brilliant actors enter the realm of reality and this drama becomes their actual life? The harsh truth of the refugee crisis surpasses any drama script. Wars, prosecutions and natural disasters have forced millions of people to abandon their former lives, to seek a better future in the West, where this perilous endeavour will be rewarded with safety, peace and dignity. The European states, unable to fulfil their initial promises, closed their borders, leading the protagonists of this tragedy to walk into an open cage.
Over the past two years, Greece has been enduring a phenomenal refugee crisis. In the past year and a half alone, more than one million people have crossed the Greek borders. Island like Lesvos and Chios were named by the international media as the Greek “Ellis islands”.
This is not the first time that Greece is the gateway to central Europe. Looking back in the past, thousands of migrants and refugees have followed exactly the same itinerary with the difference that many of them decided to stay in Greece. These photos are part of a wider photo-essay that starts with photos from the Turkish- Syrian borders to Calais in France. The story started to be documented in 2012 and it’s called “The European Dream”.
My interest stems from witnessing Pakistani and Syrian classmates as a child and as a student. Their parallel existence, sharing our school and city but leading lives of stark contrast to ours, has left an indelible impression on my mind.
Today, after five years of warfare and internal upheavals, thousands of people have decided to make the great exodus. Similarly dispiriting is the countries like Afghanistan and Iraq which have been plagued for years by the presence of extremist groups. Families with children, elderly relatives and young men with their women, pay thousands of dollars, walk hundreds of kilometeres, squeeze into cars and boats, all in search of a better life.
Before going to Lesvos to cover the refugee crisis I thought I knew what to expect. The number of images to which I had been exposed, created an illusion of intimacy - yet it was a totally different reality that I faced.
As soon as I saw through binoculars the first boat approaching, I felt shivers down my spine. Witnessing such events and interacting with these people, have radically changed my personal perspective on life. Ultimately the protagonists of my pictures are the ones who make me see things from another perspective - a more humane one.
My contribution to The Itinerary draws on my on-going project, "Fragments of Life". The project attempts an overarching documentation of the journey(s) of splintered lives, torn apart by events beyond their control. It follows these individuals as they try to make sense of their shattered realities and observes their strife to re-assemble their lives in geo-political contexts that are unknown and often perilous. The series of photos shown in this book are a depiction of the refugee and migration flows to the Greek island of Lesvos and to the capital city of Athens, during the turbulent years of 2015 and 2016.
"My Name is"
As Greece’s geographical location has turned it into the Eastern frontier of the EU, the country's struggling to manage the large flow, most of whom wish to go further west to other EU countries.
In September 2011, Greece started constructing a 12,5 Km ‘anti-immigration’ fence across the Evros River which is the natural Greek-Turkish border. Since December of 2012, when the fence was completed, the safest and easiest route to Europe has been shut down. The only alternative is the dangerous sea crossing of the Aegean Sea from Turkey, mostly to the Greek Islands of Lesvos and Kos.
Migrants and asylum seekers, in most cases, don’t have legal papers and passports in order to continue their journey. All they have is a voice:
“My name is Omar, I am from Syria. I came to Greece before two years and three months. I came from Istanbul.”
"My name is Mohammed, I’m from Syria. I used to be a university student.”
“My Name is Abdala Omar, I was working in Syria as a teeth technician. I came to Greece illegally, by boat from Turkey.”
“I went of course to Turkey at first, from Turkey I came to Greece. We arrived near the borders of Greece, from there we walked for three hours to reach the river by the border. The one that is near Alexandroupolis."
"There were 20 people in our boat, we were all from Syria. When we got there (on the Greek side), police was shouting at us, to go back to Turkey. The guys from the other boat, from Morocco, Afghanistan and Pakistan, ran towards Greece. We got out of the boat. The police shouted to us “back!". Women began to cry because a police officer pulled his gun out. We went back on the boat. It was drifting in the middle of the river. It kept drifting. We were afraid and we shouted for help. I told myself that my life ends here. Suddenly the wave pushed us back to the Greek borders. We got out and sat there for half an hour.”
“I met with the person (the smuggler) in Bodrum. This person took me to a hotel room and he gave me a lifejacket. He told me to stay there until he called me. At one o’clock in the morning a bus came to take us to the shore. He told us to stay calm and out of sight. In the shore before entering the plastic boat we were told to leave most of our luggages behind to make the boat lighter. After two hours in the sea the smuggler showed us a light on the Greek shore and he told us to go towards this point and then he jumped out of the boat. The first night after my arrival on Kos I stayed in the lobby of a small hotel, two days on the camp and then I got my papers and I went to Athens. I tried two times to cross the F.Y.R.O.M. borders."
In December 2014, Mohammed crossed the borders between Greece and F.Y.R.O.M., this was his fifth attempt.In January 2015, he arrived in Austria.
In August 2015, Omar left Greece towards western Europe. He currently lives in Germany.
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