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.
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."
I am often asked, by reporters and friends, why people leave their home countries. There are some generalisations to be made - war, Taliban, religious persecution. But there are an incredible number of individual reasons. I met one guy who is a musician and wants to be a rock guitarist. This isn't possible in Iran, it was dangerous for him to express himself with music. It is the same for this man, the man with the tattoos. I met him only once, he asked me to take the following report for the Internal Violence reporting system we have, and to tell everyone, to share the news of how illegal and inhumane the treatment of people is here in Bosnia. We had a kind translator who helped with the report, a person on the move with incredible language skills. After the translator had gone we managed to chat with his English, a bit of Google but mostly non-verbally. We had tattoos in common, enjoyed hanging out for a bit. He doesn't have Facebook, he wrote down my number, but I never heard from him again. The reports we make are anonymous but I am very sorry that I didn't ask his name. I hope I never meet him again because he was successful in crossing to Italy and he is already beginning the asylum process.
The following report is a common occurrence. Everyone I meet has been beaten, robbed and humiliated. This is not ok.
On 25th August 2020, 20 or 30 people were sleeping outside of Borici camp in Bihac, Bosnia. The man making this report is a 37 year old from Iran. He described how, at 6am, 6 police came and woke them up, three officers were in blue clothes and three were in black clothes. Some people ran away but others were caught. Four police cars came to take them to the police station where they were taken one by one into another room. Each person was beaten - the reporter particularly mentions his friends, a 17 year old, 19 year old and 32 year old from Kurdish Iran. The reporter had bruising on his back and arms from being hit with a police baton. The police asked about the reporter’s tattoos and why he has white hair (he looks different to most people on the move so stands out) - he said that each of his many tattoos symbolise freedom and peace. Later the entire group from outside Borici, plus other people gathered from around the city were deported to Otoka. 200 people were taken on buses, including minors. Otoka is a deserted field between the Federation and Republika Srpska. People on the move are trapped by the river to the north, train tracks to the south, the Srpska police to the east and Federation police to the west. There is no shop, no water, no shelter.
One aspect of the work of No Name Kitchen is to report border violence via Border Violence Monitoring Network, but we are hearing increasing reports of internal violence from authorities. Border violence includes the illegal act of pushing people back without offering the chance to claim asylum, internal violence doesn't include this. At the moment we collect the internal violence reports but they don't get published with the rest - instead they will be used to make a report all together. Everyone I speak to hear in Bosnia wants us to tell their stories and make sure that the European Union is aware of what is happening here. So I'm publishing this report here.
I met this guy in Serbia. He was hanging out with some guys from Afghanistan who he'd just met and was quite shy and unsure of the situation. He spoke some English but we mostly had a conversation using Google translate. After we finished the interview he told me that he can't video call his Mum at the moment because of the injury to his face. And he showed me amazing pictures of his home town and the beautiful scenery. As with many people I meet, he didn't leave because he wanted to, he had no choice.
On 20th July 2020 a group of 15 men were sleeping in the jungle in Greece near the border with North Macedonia. The people in the group were aged between 16 and 40 and from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey plus the respondent who is from Iran. They had been staying in the forest area between Polykastro and the border with North Macedonia, west of Idomeni and had been there for 7 days. They were woken in the night, at approximately 11pm, by the barking of a police dog. 5 police vehicles and 10 to 15 officers were present. Some of the officers were wearing the blue and navy blue uniform of the Greek police and others were not in uniform. There was one police dog. Everyone ran away but the respondent reports having a “problem with my heart”, so couldn’t run far. “I was one metre away from the police and I approached them to surrender. One metre away they released the dog to attack me.”
The police dog was wearing a metal muzzle and was released twice, the first time the muzzle injured the respondent on his eyebrow, cutting it, and the second time it hit him on the lip. “My face was bloody.” The officers then handcuffed him and put him and some others from the group in the back of a van. The respondent describes the van as being like those used in Iran for transporting dangerous criminals. “Before I came to Europe I thought only the agents in my country were bad, but now I see that the agents in Europe are bad also.” The group members who had been caught were held in the van for an hour in the location where they had been sleeping.
They were then taken to the police station, around 30 or 40 minutes drive away. The respondent was held in the police station for around 4 hours. The officers gave him something to clean the blood from his face but no other medical assistance. At 5am they released him and told him to go to the hospital. “When they saw my condition they were scared… I was afraid to go to the city, they deport to Turkey and then Turkey to Iran.” He then walked from the police station for 3 hours along the train tracks to reach his friends while he was still covered in blood.
Hannah the traveller
is a travel and lifestyle blog with focus on running, vegan eating and of course global travel.