On the Road: Reflections from Laureate Jody Williams

Reflections from Nobel peace laureate Jody Williams on Day 1 of the Opening Borders: #WomenRefugeesWelcome Delegation to The Balkans and Germany.


(Monday, November 16, 2015) 


#WomenRefugees Welcome

 I hesitate in writing “first day of….” because that implies I might write again on the 2nd or 3rd and so on days of this trip.  We will see how that goes.  At least today I feel compelled to write.  I think I’ll try to be short or I’ll be writing all night and our schedule for tomorrow starts with “6:30-7:00, breakfast at leisure.”

Say what?  A “leisurely breakfast” if you can get up in time to eat something before getting on the bus to ride from Belgrade, Serbia, to the Serbia-Croatia border where we will spend time first at Adacevi refugee transit center and then Sid train station to meet refugees and volunteers helping them in their transit from Serbia to Croatia and beyond.

Of course, it is patently absurd to even whine about that if you stop for a minute to think about the journey that hundreds of thousands of refugees have made/are making from their destroyed lives in Syria to find refuge in Europe.

Eight, nine, ten thousand a day pass through Serbia, most on their way to Germany or perhaps Sweden.  A mass movement of humanity, offered few services in this country, except from the nongovernmental organizations and volunteers who have worked their butts off for months to help make their journey even a little bit compassionate and humane.

The government doesn’t want to offer services.  God forbid the people fleeing years of war might want to stay here.  As one of the women we met with tonight from the Serbian organizations that work with the refugees said, “People are prepared to tolerate the refugees not accept them.”  So, it is possible to tolerate them for the hours or days they are here passing through to Croatia and beyond.  More than that is quite another story.

Sorry to say that international agencies that have been operating in this region since the disintegration of Yugoslavia and dealing with the refugee crises then, act as if this is something they are just learning.  How many times do we recreate the wheel???

We want to know about the issues affecting women in their journey to refuge.  Today I’ve heard many times throughout the day that it is not easy to give specifics at this point.  The women are traveling in groups of men and women.  They are here on an average of 24 hours.  There is not way to establish trust that could lead to conversations about what they are going through since leaving Syria.

One Serbian woman at the NGO meeting this evening said that it would not be right to even ask difficult questions if you’re not going to be with a women long enough to deal with the impact of her talking about it all.  All of those we met with today said that the stories more likely could come in time after the refugees have reached safe haven.

They’ve said the most important thing for now is to keep families together.  They are concerned that due to sensitivities about women and children refugees, often women and children are being boarded on trains and buses first and separated from husbands and other male family members.  They noted a big issue is refugee women who either are pregnant or have just given birth along the refugee route.  There is nothing in terms of medical care for them or the newborns.


A Couple of Stories from Krnjaca (kar-nit-cha) Reception Center for Refugees & Asylum Seekers

The first thing to say about this center, on the outskirts of Belgrade, is that it has been operating since the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.  In fact, there are about 100 people, many/most old couples who have been in the center since 1992.

We didn’t have the opportunity to talk with them, but the director of the center said that the families were being relocated to apartments/houses and the center itself would be expanded to accommodate about 700 people.  Its current capacity is 300.

Refugees at the center at the moment from the current wars are all young men.  Most from Afghanistan.  We talked to many of them and with a 19-year-old Somali refugee who has been in the camp now for about four months and who is seeking asylum in Serbia.  Below is a photo of several of the Afghan men Shirin and I talked to at the center.  The young men in the center that various delegation members talked with are between the ages of 13/14 and midtwenties.

Their stories are those lost in the ongoing drumbeat of the demonization of those who are not “us.”

These young Afghan men made the harrowing journey through Bulgaria to Serbia, in the hopes they can continue on to European countries that might accept them.  Their prospects in this regard are not good for two reasons:  1) the EU has declared that Afghanistan is not at war so they do not need refuge and 2) priority is now given to Syrian refugees.

Since I’ve already described what happens to refugees passing through Bulgaria, I won’t write it again.  If you want more information, Oxfam has just published a report on the treatment of refugees in that EU-member country.  Not a single voice in the EU has been raised about that treatment.

The 25-year-old man in the green hat with purple stars was internally displaced in Afghanistan – he was an IDP – who moved to ten different places in his country to avoid the war and pressures from all sides fighting there to join up.  His is the lost story of a person who does not want to fight in any war.

He told us that three of his brothers were soldiers in the Afghan military.  The Taliban kidnapped their father to pressure the soldiers to leave the military.  One did.  Then a 7-year-old boy from the family was taken.  The Taliban threatened to behead the child unless the others also left the military.

All the men we talked with said that the situation was more stable under Karzi.  Now the country has begun its descent into civil war.  They said everybody hates everybody and they are caught between the Taliban, ISIS, the Afghan military and NATO bombs.  They had no hope left other than to leave their country….

And now, with Paris, what will be the fate of Muslim men trying to enter Europe – even if they are fleeing attempts to make them fighters in the various sides of wars they do not want to fight?  Most likely they will be painted as possible/probable terrorists, a threat to Europe and the world.

The world has witnessed the Paris attacks on Nov. 13.  Hearts are filled with compassion and sorrow for the innocent victims of these attacks, for Paris and for France – as they should be.

But my own heart is filled with deep dismay and sorrow because of the lack of that same compassion for the innocent victims of similar attacks in Beirut the day before Paris?  Where is that compassion now?  ISIS proudly proclaimed that both of the attacks were theirs.  But Western media attention went to Paris.

Tears went for the people of Paris.  We should cry for Paris.  But we must also cry for Beirut…And for Homs and for Aleppo in Syria.  For Saan’a in Yemen.  For Tikrit, Mosul, Falluja and Basra in Iraq.  And all the other places in the Middle East/North Africa – and the rest of this damn, f**ked up world – where innocents are dying.

Even after decades of activism against war, weapons, and the inequalities and injustices in our world, I find myself horrified, sad, and shaking my head at the ongoing stupidity of the people – sorry but they are almost always men and before recent decades always were men – who lust for violence, war and revenge.

“French President Francois Hollande called on the United States and Russia to join a global coalition to destroy Islamic State in the wake of the attacks across Paris, and announced a wave of measures to combat terror in France.”

“’France is at war,’ Hollande told a joint session of parliament at the Palace of Versailles, promising to increase funds for national security and strengthen anti-terror laws in response to the suicide bombings and shootings that killed 129….

Parliamentarians gave Hollande a standing ovation before spontaneously singing the “Marseillaise” national anthem in a show of political unity…..”

In the war in Syria over the past four-and-a-half years, at least a quarter of a million people have died; at least 4 million people are refugees – most in the surrounding countries of Turkey, Jorden and Lebanon – and hundreds of thousands have been on the move, seeking asylum in Europe.

One hundred twenty-nine dead in Paris – none of whom should have been killed.  Two hundred fifty thousand dead in Syria – none of whom should have been killed.  Millions upon millions of Syrian refugees – none of whom should have had to flee their homes, their communities, their country, their history.

One hundred twenty-nine dead in Paris.  Yes, Mr. Hollande, let’s step up bombing the shit out of Syria – and Iraq while we’re at it.  A brilliant solution to a crisis of the West’s own making.

I’m an optimistic pessimist – but right now, I weep for the world.  ###







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