But it was better than nothing.
Nothing means camping in the woods, surrounded by snow. It means trying to make a fire to keep warm from the broken remains of the near-useless camp.
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Lipa Camp, on the mountain high above the city of Bihać in northern Bosnia, was barely fit for human habitation. Tent structures and flimsy floors provided little protection for the negative temperatures of the icy nights. Rain would blow through the numerous holes whilst hot water and appropriate sanitation were non-existent.
But it was better than nothing.
Nothing means camping in the woods, surrounded by snow. It means trying to make a fire to keep warm from the broken remains of the near-useless camp.
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The Black Book of Pushbacks, this formidable publication, in two enormous volumes, is the most depressing thing you can read.
It documents the illegal removal of refugees and migrants from European Union countries, almost always using violence and other breaches of human rights.
It launched today, International Day for Migrants, with a Zoom conference with German MEP Cornelia Ernst, The Left coordinator in the Parliament’s Civil Liberties committee.
Presentations were by:
• Hope Barker, Policy Analyst, Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN)
• Milena Zajović, President, Are You Syrious and Head of advocacy, BVMN
• Andras Lederer, Senior Advocacy Officer, Hungarian Helsinki Committee
• Neeske Beckmann, head of mission, Seawatch airborne operations
You can watch it back here.
I have to say, it was really depressing listening. More than 12,000 people were effected by illegal activities in 2020. In fact, many many more. I know from first hand experience of collecting reports for BVMN, that incidents go unrecorded, perhaps because the victim doesn't want to talk about their traumatic experience, and also because the scale of the issue is too large for the volunteers on the ground.
The authorities are aware of these illegal acts.
The European Parliament knowingly and willingly funds the border authorities of Croatia and Greece.
Yet human rights violations continue. The passionate and professional contributors to the conference detailed the atrocities in their own fields - how Hungary have legalised pushbacks to Serbia, how Seawatch monitor the Libyan Coastguard.
But there was a message of hope. Hope that the voices of the wronged will be heard and that in the future we will look back with shame on what happened in the past.
To learn more visit borderviolence.eu and to show support to the situation you can donate or buy an e-voucher here
I have always been untidy. I had a pretty big bedroom growing up, with plenty of storage space for clothes, toys and school stuff. Yet I’d still end up with a pile of books next to my bed - usually half read, or lined up to be read next - and clothes covering the floor (all the better to see what you’ve got!). But I seem to be changing…
I’ve spent the last 4 or 5 years being largely nomadic. I cleared out the clutter, packed up some things into storage (thanks to Mum’s garage) and took with me only what I really needed. That first big trip to India, I had a sizable backpack stuffed full, plus another bag as a day pack. Well, who knows what you’re going to need during 4 months in a strange land? But it wasn’t long before I got fed up with carrying bags! In fact, as soon as I got to my cousin’s lofty Mumbai flat, I crammed the contents of the small backpack into the bigger bag so I only had one to carry.
There was one particular day that I bemoaned my big bag the most. I was in Kozhikode in the southern state of Kerala. I had found my way from the bus station to the train station amidst the crazy traffic of retro cars and horses pulling carts but I had ages before the train that would take me to the city of Kochi. There was nowhere to leave bags at the station, so I stubbornly explored the fascinating market with my enormous bag. Sweaty, tired and a little bit cross, I remember giving up and sitting at the station for well over an hour - all thanks to my heavy belongings.
So the next trip I took, I was determined to take less stuff. Encouraged by my budget flight, which charged for hold bags, I packed hand luggage only. My black rucksack was meticulously packed so that everything just fitted in. It was great! I didn’t have to wait at baggage reclaim when I landed at LAX, and I could dash around downtown Hollywood with all my stuff. And who needs much clothing in Hawaii?? Ok I had to wash my few t-shirts pretty frequently thanks to Hilo’s humid climate, but walking up and down the beachfront in Kona waiting for the right time for the airport bus was still enjoyable even with all my stuff.
I love that black bag. It’s walked the Camino de Santiago with me, travelled Peru, Bolivia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand as well as Mexico. The only problem with it is that it packs only from the top, meaning you have to take EVERYTHING out to find the thing at the bottom. Yes, I got used to packing pajamas and wash-bag at the top, but there were frequent occasions when my bunk in the hostel was covered in all my belongings. And this is how things get lost… I had this great t-shirt that I loved from Tribe Nutrition (an awesome, conscious, sports nutrition brand. Check them out here!). It was quite new, cotton and I used it to sleep in. However, it was the same colour as the sheets in the hostel and I left it behind somewhere in Mexico.
Happily I’ve not lost many things whilst globetrotting (pens, hair-ties and a book), but keeping a careful eye on my stuff has made me more tidy. Never leave your wash stuff in the bathroom if you don’t want someone else to use it. Expect your towel to go missing when it looks like everyone else’s travel towel, unless you hang it up carefully near your bed.
But I’ve noticed that it’s not just while I’m backpacking now. My last trip - to France and the Balkans - was by car. I find I now have the habit of putting things back where I took them from and keeping my stuff in one area. Ok that area might not be that tidy (right now, my bag is just dumped out into the bottom of the wardrobe in the apartment that I call home at the moment) but everything is in there, and with the doors shut it looks tidy.
Ask my Mum and she may not agree - my room at her house tends towards the childhood habit of keeping clothes displayed on the floor (yes I do need that many pairs of black leggings), but travel has made me tidier and more aware of where my stuff is - just one more reason to go around the world!
Are you a tidy person? And when you travel? I can’t wait to travel again! Once we can, where do you want to go? And how much stuff will you be taking? Comment below.
I'm very pleased to have written for Independent Catholic News about the situation in Calais. It's important to keep talking about what's going on there, and winter makes everything more horrible. What do you think?
Poorly pitched tents shake in the wind as the rain beats down on the only place that refugees in northern France can call home. Following extensive evictions of the small areas where it is possible to assemble a makeshift camp, families and individuals in Calais and Dunkirk who are from Sudan, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Syria and Eritrea suffer as winter takes hold.
There are still more than 400 people living rough in this part of France. Following the destruction of 'the Jungle' in 2017, conditions for vulnerable people hoping for a safe life are worse than ever.
Autumn has seen a further deterioration of circumstances that affect living conditions. As reported by aid organisation Calais Food Collective...
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Kindness is such a simple concept, which is taught by all religions. In 2017 I was looking for some religious answers, so I went to India to ‘find myself’. I thought perhaps Buddhism would provide more meaningful responses where Christianity had failed to answer. I ended up with more questions than answers at first, here’s how it happened.
Working in the church, you’d think you’d meet honest, helpful and kind people. “Love thy neighbour” and all that. Of course not everyone is the same and many people were nice, but I was often confronted by selfishness and stubbornness when it came to communicating with my church colleagues. By the time I’d been in India for a while, of course I had met a whole host of people. Some of them were lovely, some of them were not. The ones who were not so lovely chipped away at my idea that Buddhism would be the answer to my restless soul. The final hope slipped away whilst I was on a tuktuk near Pushkar in Rajasthan. Pushkar is a sacred place for Hindus, so no meat or eggs are allowed here. Paradise for me as a vegan! Yet on my tuktuk ride to visit Aloo Babba (a holy man famous locally for fasting a lot and eating only potatoes) we passed a giant chicken farm. Long metal sheds just like those found in Norfolk, with feed towers and a dreadful smell. How could a sacred place be so close to an awful factory? Why did anyone living here think that this was ok? Money I suppose, supply and demand. That’s when I realised that hypocrites are everywhere, not just in the church.
I went through an atheist phase, if there is a God, I thought, why is there poverty like I’d seen all over India and Nepal. However, there were a series of other things that led me to where I am now: after a particularly intense yoga class, meditating on a bus, meeting someone special. (You’re going to have to ask me about these occasions in person!)
Now, I kind of think of myself as multireligious. I’m pretty sure there is a God/creative force, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter whether you worship Him/it in a church or temple, but I know for certain that it is good and right to be kind. I think there is much to be learnt from spiritual figures of the past, but mostly I try and apply kindness to everything in my life - from picking up litter as a kindness to others who will come that way, to going to volunteer in the Balkans.
I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion. Have you heard of “The Kindness Guy”? Leon Logothetis made a TV show called “The Kindness Diaries” where he travels the world reliant only on the kindness of others. He shares the homes and meals of people around the world, sometimes surprising their generosity with kind acts in return. The people he meets and the experiences he has are really life-affirming (albeit with a TV camera hanging around). You can watch it on Netflix.
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"
Kindness includes small, everyday things, doing the washing up or buying someone a coffee, without being motivated by an expectation of repayment. Or big things like taking responsibility for someone who needs help. It also includes kindness to oneself, you cannot pour from an empty cup. I forget and relearn these things all the time, I neglect my own well-being and I am sometimes shy and lazy and don’t follow through with things I say I will do. But I remember again and try harder. Kindness and openness have led to many different and extraordinary experiences which I could never have imagined, let alone planned. Situations and encounters which are not just unique to lucky or brave people, but to anyone who wants to be kind and open towards others. I know I can always do more and I will keep trying my hardest to be kind.
Have you had an occasion where being kind has led to something amazing? Comment below!
It was back in January that I last played the organ at Farm Street Church in Mayfair before taking a sabbatical. The world I returned to was very different. Have a read of the article I wrote for the church.
“Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia.”
CS Lewis’ words about belonging can be applied to No Name Kitchen volunteers, I’m NNK for life now, and I try to keep up with the rapidly changing situation in all our bases. (see? I said ‘our’). Šid is sounding pretty difficult right now. Volunteers are being hassled by locals and authorities, plus the situation for people-on-the-move (PotM) both in and out of camps, is increasingly problematic. Here’s a bit more about what’s going on there right now.
A fascist youth group called “Omladina Shida” (Youth of Sid), has recently called for the removal of NNK volunteers from Šid as well the removal of migrants from the municipality.
As reported in Serbia publication Danas – the youth group organised a protest which took place on Sunday 1st November 2020 where they called for the military to be returned to the area. When I was there in June and July, the military were stationed outside of each of the camps supposedly to help with Coronavirus measures, although in reality it had more do with the imminent election. The youth group referred to this, saying:
"The President of the Republic sent the army only as a pre-election marketing trick to collect our votes and to guard those reception centers because the police do not have the capacity to do that,".
They also demand that people not be allowed to return after being deported from Croatia or Hungary – citing fears over the increased Coronavirus numbers in both of those countries as the reason for this.
PotM who once went into town regularly to purchase food and other essential items, now report being scared to do so. In the summer, it was possible to meet friends from the Family Camp in cafes in town. Even while I was there, this became more difficult and recently it was reported that it was impossible to get a haircut from anyone in the town. The situation with both local people and the police has worsened further, one young man living in the jungle said, “if we go into town, they will beat us.”
NNK have reported a dramatic increase in pressure from both locals and police. Photos and videos of volunteers, taken without consent, have appeared on Facebook and Instagram. Not only have police attended and disrupted distributions of food, they have also served six or seven volunteers with removal papers, giving them seven days in which to leave the country. My favourite quote from the article describes NNK as:
"That foreign non-governmental organization of former, current and future drug addicts and losers."
NNK organised an event on Sunday 8th November 2020 as a response to the youth group’s protest and in order to build links with local people. They wanted to explain their work and open up dialogue to discuss the issues felt on both sides. They were subject to insults from onlookers and were told to leave by police. The delightful Mayor of Šid has been driving by the volunteer house in his car, causing stress to those living there. Just like he did to me and Stef on our last day in the town. We were standing outside Family Camp, at an appropriate distance, saying goodbye to our friends. The Mayor drove right up to us, flashed his lights, honked his horn and filmed us from inside the car. He also refused to talk to us about why he was doing this and eventually we left so as not to cause stress to those in the camp.
My own experiences with Serbian people overall was very positive. Almost everyone said 'hello' (well, acutually Zdravo or Dobra dan) on the street and helped with directions when I looked lost. Several incidents of particular kindness come to mind, when my poor little car had a few problems: once being fixed for nothing, another time some passing workmen changing the wheel when I had a flat tyre. Free fruit was a common theme, not to mention the tireless efforts of the team at social justice NGO KlikAktiv who seem to work night and day to help PotM and volunteers, whatever their questions or problems. I sincerely hope that things improve in Šid for the sake of everyone. My good wishes and strong thoughts go to the volunteers and the PotM there now. Keep strong!
Have you got any questions about the situation in Serbia? Or about my time there? Let me know, comment below.
This article was intended for a serious, grownup publication and is now my first publication on Medium.com. Please let me know what you think by commenting below. I really appreciate questions about the situation, feedback on the writing or just nice words!
As the days get shorter and the nights get colder, the residents of Bosnia’s most beautiful region prepare for winter in the mountains. But for the thousands of refugees in the area, the freezing nights are an added peril to those they already face.
The region of Una Sana Canton, next to the border with Croatia, has become the unhappy home for thousands of refugees and migrants who remain trapped between war-torn homelands and the walls of the European Union. The more fortunate few reside in official camps, funded by the EU and administered by the International Organization of Migrants (IOM) — a related organisation of the United Nations. The camps range from isolated Sedra Camp where rooms are crowded and insects are found in the food, to Lipa Camp — 30 kilometres from the city of Bihać and with an intended capacity of 1000 people, tents with row upon row of bunkbeds fill all available space. It was already more than full to capacity when the buses arrived with the evicted residents of Bira Camp. Close to the city, there had been local opposition to this camp for some time, but it was with little warning to staff or police that the remaining residents, including unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable people, were bused to Lipa.
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I’m not sure I would have ever visited Serbia on holiday had it not been for the pandemic and the migrant crisis combined. Perhaps I would have done a long weekend if there were a sale on flights to Belgrade. Even on my break between projects, I hadn’t planned to visit Čačak (pronounced Charchak). Stef and I were travelling in southern Serbia and Kosovo on our way to Bosnia. We visited Niš in Serbia with its ancient Ottoman history and concentration camp museum, before stopping in Kosovar capital Pristina. It was at this point we had to decide how and where to get a Covid PCR test which is required before entering Bosnia. Some map searching and googling led to Čačak. After a whistle-stop visit to beautiful Prizren and it’s many mosques, and a quick stop in the divided city of Mitrovica, we arrived to a small health centre in a random city. Here’s some info about the city, and what we got up to while waiting for the test and for the result.
The city is located just over two hours on the bus from Belgrade, in the West Morava Valley in Central Serbia. There are over 30 monasteries in the vicinity dating from the 14th century. Many of these are located in the Ovcar-Kablar Gorge. More on this later. The city has a bustling main square, busy market and friendly inhabitants. But if you visit, you'll likely spend most of your time out of the city.
We stayed at this mountain cabin near Prejevor, not too far from the centre. It was the perfect antidote to the bustling cities we had been in. Peaceful, green and stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Jovana and her mum Lily welcomed us with coffee, homemade jam and fresh salad before lighting a BBQ to cook corn on the cob. We went for a walk up the hill, passing the orchards of plum trees, the encroaching darkness revealed the multitude of stars.
Hiking and Monasteries
The next morning we set off to scale the mountain of Kablar. We had some vague directions and had a very adventurous drive through old mountain tunnels before arriving to Ovcar Banjar, a tiny town in the river valley. We had a quick look at the hiking map before starting our ascent. There are plenty of trails here and different ways to reach the summit. We of course didn’t notice the ! that accompanied our route. There were very steep sections where scrambling was required, metal handholds had been positioned in some places but it was definitely quite dodgy. The views paid off though. We gained height quickly and the view along the valley in both directions was stunning. We reached the top, sweaty and proud, and sat and ate some chocolate admiring the view, while those who had driven most of the way up bustled to the viewpoint and back. The trail we chose for the descent was much easier going. There were fruit trees to keep us energised, and a really different landscape. None of the same stunning river views though.
We stayed at an apartment in the centre of the city for a couple of nights. I’m not sure I’d recommend the place we stayed but it will remain memorable for a host of reasons…! I had a lovely run through the pedestrianised centre to the river. Then we visited the church as we wandered around. The highlights of many trips are often the food. We found THE best bakery. Serbia is a vegan paradise. No, I’m not joking. Thanks to the Eastern Orthodox tradition of abstaining from animal products on Wednesdays and Fridays, many baked goods are vegan. Zmej pekara was amazing! Not only did they have friendly and patient staff, but a wealth of vegan choice. I think we visited about 4 times in 3 days. The mushroom burek, potato pitta, sweet breads and weird cheesecake thing were all amazing but were however shadowed by THE CHOCOLATE CROISSANT. Chocolate filled and chocolate covered. Bliss.
The market in Čačak was another absolute highlight. The colourful stands of fresh and local produce were a vegan heaven. We were admiring a man’s melon stall and were offered a taste. “Dobro” we had a multilingual conversation about which countries we were from, which somehow resulted in us being given half an enormous melon!
Hiking Mount Ovcar
Undeterred by our adventurous hike, we returned to Ovcar Banjar to scale the second of the twin peaks. The monasteries in this area are extraordinary. Many are still inhabited by monks or nuns, and have ancient wall paintings. The first that we visited was Monastir Preobrazenje where we had to put on long clothes to be allowed to enter. The nuns were very friendly and had provided fruit and water, and the paintings inside the dark chapel were beautiful. We continued our hike on the other side of the river where we saw three or four other monasteries. Another larger one had refreshments for travellers too. It was at this point that we decided that the weather wasn’t quite bad enough to deter us from scaling the peak. It was shortly after this that it started with the thunder and lightning. You’ll have to let me know what the view is like from the top…
If we had more time, there were miles and miles of unexplored paths and numerous other monasteries to visit. And I'd definitely return to the city just to visit the pekara!
What's the best bakery food you've had? Comment below.
Corona Virus has undoubtedly touched all our lives. Every interaction is tinged with a new caution, all plans are made with a new uncertainty. Some people have managed to survive in a relatively unaltered way, others have lost businesses, relationships, homes. I was supposed to be a scuba professional in Mexico, then a church organist in London. When neither of those options were available I went looking for usefulness and adventure - and I found so much more than I could ever have imagined. With all the lows that I have written about, there have been many, many highs too. Here's how it happened.
I nearly didn't go. In April, the restrictions were incredibly tight and despite the piles of paperwork, I heard that it was no longer possible to travel directly to France to volunteer in Calais. I spoke to the organisation, they whispered about another possibility via Belgium, their enthusiasm for my arrival spurred me on. A beautiful sunset, an overnight ferry and a bit of a drive. I could've made another decision. That film Sliding Doors, where you watch both realities play out - the one where she catches the train, and the one where she misses it, the doors slide closed in front of her - it could so easily have been a different reality. I was only going to stay three weeks.
The people I met in France are entirely responsible for what happened next! "There's a guy in Serbia, on his own, why don't you do there?". I can remember the conversation that Stef and I had which resulted in our commitment to join No Name Kitchen. 3 days driving later and my piano and my little British car crosses the 8th country border of the trip, out of the European Union and into the tiny town of Šid in Serbia. I learnt so much in Serbia. I learnt to make huge pots of food, to communicate in different ways in order optimise the reach of our organisation. I learnt some Pashto, some Serbo-croatian, a wariness of the police and where to find the best accidentally vegan pastries. I learnt about the brutality of the Croatian border guard, the hoops that need jumping through to get medical treatment if you're a person on the move, and the hopes and dreams of my new friends. Always hopes, despite everything.
"Serbia is bad, but Bosnia is worse. The police, the camps, the whole situation." Stef and I had decided to have the same time frame. This meant we wanted to go somewhere else after Serbia. Bosnia presented itself when No Name Kitchen wanted to set up something new in Bihać. Sounds mad doesn't it? I'm a church organist but seem to be being trusted to start operations in a new place for an organisation we've been with for 2 months. Me, Stef, the piano and the little British car toured Serbia and Kosovo before arriving in the mountain city. Sliding doors had placed us there with a familiar colleague and rather a lot of freedom to find out the need and work towards filling it. I am still amazed at the trust NNK put in us to do this, and amazed that we were able to use the skills we'd learnt to connect with other organisations and people on the move in a way that seemed very much lacking in the city.
I didn't know it was possible to be so stressed and still be able to function. There were a couple of days in Bihać when circumstances were mindblowingly stressful. There is always more to do, always someone we had to say "I'm sorry, we can't help you today." There are always reports to write, articles to pitch, friends to chat with, plans to make, lists and lists of things to do. There was one day in particular where I had a few minutes. I lay on my bed and wept, then dried my face and went back out there. We had already extended our stay for a few more days to try to fit more in.
On our last day, we went to visit the other No Name Kitchen in Velika Kladuša. It was only going to be to drop off some keys. A lovely lunch later and we couldn't resist going on one more distribution. We were greeted with surprise by guys we'd met in Bihac but were now in VK. "Hello! How are you? Bihać!" We had some nice chats while the distribution happened around us, then said our goodbyes to people on the move and volunteer friends. Being able to drive across the Croatian border with our shiny passports is sickening. Our friends stay months and years at the gate of the European Union, living rough, being beaten, not having enough to eat or a safe place to sleep. But it is still better than the alternative of a war-torn country or persecution for what you think or believe.
I am forever changed by the people I've met. As I write this, with a week's distance in the safety of Germany, I wouldn't change a thing about my pandemic experience and I am excited for my new future, which I can see beginning to spread out in front of me. Always do more.
Donate to the work of No Name Kitchen in Bosnia and all the other bases via this link.
"Place your hand in mine,
Run into the sunset,
Chase the future,
Always be kind."
Hannah the traveller
is a travel and lifestyle blog with focus on running, vegan eating and of course global travel.