That is how starts the mammoth text which I wrote and then placed over a single photograph in Crossings, a cross-platform, multi-lingual and multi-format intervention. What I mean with all that I explain here, but first things first…
In 2015 there were 3771 recorded deaths in failed sea-crossings in the Mediterranean alone. This number not only reflects the deaths in the Mediterranean and the Aegean alone, but also acts as a subsection to the total number of deaths in illegal border crossings all around the world. The humanity as a whole is on the run and forced migration is more visible today than it ever was. There are cameras everywhere. Even the migrants and the refugees are carrying them, and where they fail documentation is available through the aid workers and the odd journalist that accompanies this massive population shift.
Those of you that know me also know that I have been documenting forced migration in different geographies since 1997. Having “missed” the Bosnian war, I had moved back to Turkey from the United States to cover the Kosovo conflict. For the first time in my life I was truly on my own. Despite having worked as a stringer before, freelancing out of a war zone with no safety net was new to me. And I was young and excited and curious. Before I set out for Kosovo, a good friend from Newsweek who had covered the war in Bosnia offered one valuable tip: “cover the refugee families,” she said. I would find out what she actually meant when I finally arrived in Northern Albania, and despite my initial urge to cross into Kosovo to cover the “war”, I stayed back instead, for two and a half years, on the other side of the borders: I chose to stay with the families, and follow them, document their lives, record their stories in their own words, and track their journey from the border crossings to make shift camps onto organized camps and further onto their homes soon as the borders reopened and a swift return of refugees back to Kosovo took place.
That was the beginning of what I would later call The Refugee Project, a documentary photography project focusing on the lives of families and individuals who have been forced to flee their homes because their lives were in imminent danger. My journey would later take me to Azerbaijan in search of the internally displaced people who have been stranded in train wagons and empty school buildings long enough for an entirely new generation to emerge in those makeshift dwellings. Later, onto Northern Pakistan, to camps which overtime had turned into large sprawling neighborhoods, with people trying to survive on barren land. And further into Afghanistan in search of other internally displaced groups of people, women, children, and elderly mostly, living under tarp covered tents in the sub-zero temperatures of the Hindu Kush range. And from there onto scorched earth, burnt villages and devastated populations taking refuge under solitary trees for shade in the Sahel with the war in Darfur raging on. The drought, the famine, and death in large numbers.
What we are seeing now, people carrying their belongings on their backs, being trapped in between borders in no man’s land, the mass exodus, the “refugee crisis in the heart of Europe” we all lived through that, all of that, back not so long ago, in the end of the 90’s, and again “in the heart of Europe.” What we are seeing now is a replay, one of many in fact, however as replays go this is the one with utmost visuals. Photographs, videos, visual documents they are everywhere. Migrants and refugees now have smart phones and social media accounts in which they share the details of their journey. The digital footprints are much like a cry out for legitimacy: “I have a facebook account, I am a real person with a real life, I am not a statistic”. Still, not in any single time in history have we been so furiously bombarded with so much information, stories all of which are equally moving, crying out for our attention, all forgotten in a matter of days.
In 1999 when the families from Kosovo went back to the destruction they call home, a country laid bare with months of fighting, landmines, UXOs everywhere, infrastructure shot, famine at bay, I wanted to stay and trek further North towards Mitrovica. “The city is divided, ethnic tensions are running high, I will have a lot of stories I can file for you from there,” I told to my editor in Sygma Photo Agency, one of the three major Photo Agencies at the time operating out of Paris and New York. “We are their only chance to have their voices heard, noone else cares,” I added. “No,” Matthias said, “you will do no such thing. You will go back home, take some time off, and get Kosovo out of your system. No one is interested any more.” He was right. At the speed of light the fighting, the mass exodus, the devastation right there at “the heart of Europe” they were all forgotten. Kosovo once again fell into oblivion much as the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants fleeing unforgotten wars in Africa fell off the media grid the minute they landed at Lampedusa.
Lampedusa is an island off the tip of Italy in the Mediterranean and it is one of the main hubs of entry for those risking their lives crossing the sea for the safe arms of continental Europe. What these people who risk their lives in the high seas for this fairy tale of a continent do not know is what awaits them upon arrival: a cold legal system and several bilateral agreements between their country and the European nations signed in exchange for money and investment which mostly translates into investment by the governments in arms and munition back in their homeland. Money to keep them “at bay” that in turn feeds more wars, conflicts and repression, which in turn cause poverty and hunger and death, and which, in turn, forces masses to flee. And when “the masses” flee, they attempt to reach safety in the “developed world” which in turn waves a piece of paper in their faces, a readmission agreement, and sends them back to where they set off from. This, is the most vicious of all cycles.
to be continued…