This book, published in Germany in 2014 and in the UK this spring, 2016 , is an account of the experience of Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean to reach safety and asylum in Europe. The author, Wolfgang Bauer, is a German journalist working for ‘Die Zeit’. He and photographer Stanislav Krupar posed as teachers of English fleeing a republic in the Caucasus in order to accompany a group of Syrian refugees from Alexandria and to see what they have to endure in order to find a better life in Europe. Their true identities were known to only one of the group, Amar, and he is one of the central characters in the narrative. In fact Bauer and Krupar only accompany the group on their first attempt at crossing the sea; they are picked up by coastguards, thrown into prison in Alexandria and then deported via Turkey back to Germany. The narrative then continues with the further attempts of Amar, Alaa and his brother Hussan to cross the sea- Amar finally gives up on this route and reaches Europe via Africa.
So this is a gruelling account of the crossing, some of which will be familiar to readers from the television news- the ramshackle boats used, the overcrowding on the boats, the lack of food, drinking water and life jackets, the dangerous conditions in which the boats set sail, the deaths by drowning. Less familiar will be the days and weeks of waiting for the crossing, the tension and anxiety caused by never knowing when you will be leaving, the huge amounts of money demanded by everyone involved- the agents, the smugglers, the people in whose apartments you are hanging around in, waiting, the kidnappers who unexpectedly take you to an apartment, lock you in and demand a ransom for your liberation. The lies you are told, thinking you must be nearing Italy when all the time you are cruising the coast of North Africa. The utter helplessness.
And the effect of this is made more real by focusing on the personal stories of the group Bauer is travelling with: Amar is a middle class Syrian who left in 2011 to continue his import business in Egypt. Life became more difficult for Amar and family after the overthrow of Morsi and increasing hostility towards Syrians. Amar realised he could no longer continue to support his family in Egypt and would have to leave. He would go first and they would follow on- if he made it. We follow the story of two brothers Alaa and Hussan, the latter a vulnerable young man, reliant on family members to make decisions for him, now literally tossed onto the seas of fortune. Poignant details from family life , of love and loss make the accounts all the more heart rending- Elias tapes his sister’s medical records to his stomach for safety. She has Down’s syndrome and asthma and he hopes she will receive better medical treatment in Europe.
The refugees’ suffering does not of course stop once they have reached Europe- or Elysium as the chapter headings call it. Alaa and Hussan are also exploited by a taxi driver who charges them 400 Euros to cross the border from Germany to Denmark and a train conductor takes advantage of Alaa’s confusion to pocket 120 Euros from him-I was really shocked at this account. And though decently housed in Sweden, they feel ill at ease in their small town in the middle of forests and lakes-and in the face of a swelling anti- foreigner feeling looming in response to the sudden influx of literally thousands of refugees. I was also shocked at the ease with which passport officials could be bribed in Africa, allowing refugees from the Middle East to enter Europe via Africa on false papers. In this account it seems that money is the only thing which speaks.
Now, as we know, refugees are continuing to make these crossings, exposing themselves to danger, exploitation and death, to arrive in a Europe which is often less than welcoming. In his epilogue to the English Edition, written in December 2015, Bauer lays the blame for the collapse of Syria and the rise of IS at the hands of EU ministers who would not introduce no- fly zones as part of a strategy to combat Assad’s forces. It seems as if Europe is still dragging its heels on finding a solution to the crisis in Syria- the UK is shamefully ungenerous and slow at offering practical help to refugees- as Amelia Gentleman points out in her Guardian article of 03/08/ 2016 on how little Britain has done to get the unaccompanied children out of Calais three months after the Dubs amendment. This personal account of human suffering, endurance, courage and loss, translated with sensitivity into a very readable account by Sarah Pybus, gives us just a glimpse of what the Syrian refugees are going through. Read this and add your voice to Wolfgang Bauer when he ends the epilogue by pleading for us to have mercy. To do something to stop forcing the men, women and children onto the boats.