Over the course of 2015, British songwriter JIM KROFT has given us wonderful journals and insights into his ambitious plan to travel the whole world, meet new people, connect them via the power of music and document the result in the form of stunning documentaries. You are heavily invited to read about his previous trips through China and Africa right here. In an age of increasing skepticism and anxiety towards the knew and unknown the spirit of KROFT works as a lighthouse in the dark, a powerful reminder of all the good things that you can achieve via the power of art, hope and passion.
Still, his latest adventure might be his bravest one so far. When you read this piece, JIM KROFT is travelling the Balkan refugee route on his own, accompanied only by his friend and photographer Bastian Fisher. There is no plan, no concept, just the journey ahead together with all the obstacles and experiences it might bring. Exclusively on NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION the artist will share his thoughts and photographs over the next week in the form of this ongoing piece that will constantly filled with JIM‘s input. There is no concept behind it yet, so we experience it the same way as he does: an unfiltered insight into what’s going on in Europe at the moment.
Scroll to the bottom of this page to get the latest article. And now the word is all his…
Part 1: Experiencing it through my own eyes…
Every time I set out on one of my journeys I have a familiar set of feelings. For all the usefulness of nerves, I usually wrestle with anxiety before departure. I remember flying into Beijing at the beginning of the project and wishing I could turn the plane round. Or the doubts which came up when my Russian friends told me that i was an idiot to travel solo across Russia in winter.
Now as I set off on the fourth of my Journeys, I have the same feelings, but the perspective is different. It has been conditioned by events in Europe over the last year. With the refugee crisis, so many are making journeys of survival – men, woman, and children, who have fled from war, famine and persecution.
How the fundamental survival journey so many are making is effecting our continent
I look at my own feelings – honest, valid, normal feelings when faced with the unknown – and yet they are conditioned by so many of the fundamentals of human life. A place to leave from, a place to return. A stable society, Germany, where I have the privilege of living. Where I can choose to live.
My project Journeys was begun in 2014, and with it I set out on a cultural mission – to gauge the temperature of the world, using the simple tools at my disposal; one man, one guitar, one camera. But what about what is on my door step? I feel, both as a European and as someone working on a project called ‘journeys’, that I have to look at both the fundamental survival journey so many are making, and how it is effecting the continent I live in. It’s for that reason that I’m setting out for the Balkans right now..
This is the Journey I have wrestled most with in my mind, but equally, have felt called to in my heart. Unlike the other journeys, there are no gigs booked, and there is no fixed route or plan. Like the other journeys, I feel the need to take a look with my own eyes.
‘If society does not have time to adapt, then tensions can rise very suddenly’
Last year I felt a huge pride in the reaction of German people as the crisis unfolded. I had the sense I was living in a country showing a rare leadership, in humanitarian terms, on a governmental and societal level. Equally, I felt a huge uncertainty. Why? Because human beings are deeply tribal creatures. And putting a million people into a new country is a combustible mixture. If society does not have time to adapt, then tensions can rise very suddenly.
Since the attacks in Cologne and Hamburg on New Years, there has been a very discernible shift in mood in Germany. The sense of idealism and openness has darkened, and it feels like attitudes are shifting quickly in the opposite direction, rather than finding a middle ground. I feel we are in a seminal moment in European history. It feels that we are polarising. Attitudes have no fixed ground, people’s opinions are swinging like giant pendulums. The great ‘isms’ are clashing, bubbling.
Radical Islamic terrorism has seeded a suspicion of refugees, when that is itself the thing many are running from. People are dying on the waters of our coasts. On our borders we veer from ‘refugees welcome’ to building up great walls. Our society is changing.
I drove over to Berlin many years ago, through free borders, and now, as I write the Schengen agreement is being torn up, and borders controls reinstituted.
What does one make of it all? Where does one find solid ground amongst so much shifting sand? It is within this environment that I find myself and my project. And I have found myself unable to carry on journeying abroad, when there is so much on my doorstep.
I am not a refugee. I am not a politician, policy-maker or aid worker. I have asked myself ‘what is the role of culture’ in such a volatile atmosphere? As I have asked myself this question I have reflected upon my experiences in Russia, China and East Africa. Manifestly, the role of culture – of meeting people of foreign nationalities, playing music with and for them, and screening my films has had the effect of breaking down barriers, instigating conversation and engendering communication. It strikes me now, that more than ever, we need our conversation to remain open and for our barriers – physically and spiritually – to be challenged.
I have argued with myself that art is irrelevant in the face of a humanitarian crisis.Yet conversely I know that there is nothing more important than the dialogue we ourselves have within us. I believe it is the role of culture to engage with with that response. I think that art should engage, absorb, submerge, consume, re-constitute, wrestle with the great challenges and emanations of our existence and time.
We need it to, because it gives voice to the best of us, and it fucking well reminds us who we are.
So I am leaving in the morning to live in a van for the next month. The plan is to drive through to Greece, and to head back gradually through the Balkans. In an environment that is hardening I hope to take a look at the human reality. With my own eyes and not through the prism of news.
I will be carrying on the filming side of the project. My guitar will accompany me as ever. At one stage I thought to leave it, but I played in a refugee camp in Cologne before Christmas, and it just brought a lot of joy. And joy, or a smile, is one of the things we need most, where ever we are and whatever were are going through. And if a little moment of that is all I have to contribute, then at least that is something.
Part 2: Speeding through the Balkans
We arrived in Greece late on Wednesday night. We though that we’d arrive by Friday, but some type of demon took over Basti, who drove an 18 hour shift straight on the first day. I didn’t even get behind the wheels until the second day, he’d just entered some type of zone. Bastian Fischer is one of the best photographers I’ve ever come across, and I’m lucky enough that during my years in Berlin he’s also become one of my best friends. The route has taken us through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia, and finally Greece where we arrived late last night in torrential rain.
During the trip we passed through each border without checks, and saw cars with number plates from Sweden, Germany, as well as the local countries. It’s a phenomenon that is curiously European, and hard earned historically. This sense of openness makes me proud of the continent I live in, and I wonder if we really appreciate its uniqueness. As countries argue over the ripping up of the Shengen agreement, I wonder if those who would so readily tear it up understand its preciousness. I think that the response to the challenges our continent faces should not be met be forgetting who we are, our values, or a sense of preserving what has been so hard to create. Anyway, rolling on with some good chats, chuckles & a renewed sense that the road has its own particular lessons teach.
Part 3: A second chance in Thessaloniki
We arrived in Greece after driving 48 straight, that’s just over 2000 kilometres eaten by the beautiful little yellow submarine that is carrying us. It wasn’t until we arrived in Greece that things started to go a little hay wire. By haywire I mean that every single road to Athens was blocked by police and there were, literally, 100’s of burning fires by the side of every road. We circled around the same highway in criss cross self repeating cycles as if in a David Lynch movie. All around us police sirens swirled and the pillars of fires blazed. We eventually gave in the ghost and headed in the only direction possible which was Thessaloniki.
Finding ourselves in a car park by the Aegean Sea, we found some food in a local restaurant. George our waiter sat down with us, pulled out a pack of smokes, and informed us that the farmers were protesting and had shut down all the roads to Athens. Anyway, we felt lucky that the farmers were striking as George turned out to be a fine fellow and a raconteur of sorts. We had our first interview with a Greek local, and he proved a man with broad philosophic convictions and a wicked sense of humour to boot. On asking him his feeling about the influx of refugees he told us that ‘every single human being deserves a second chance‘ and that it is in the nature, history and culture of Greek people to afford this to them.
George’s humanitarianism struck a note in me. He felt that the ‘world needs reformatted and that culture is the tool through which to do it’. Having gone through deep reservations about whether it was appropriate for me, as a musician, to be making this trip – literally, wrestling with myself and my conscience, it was something of a tonic.
He reflected the conclusion I had had before leaving – that culture is more relevant now than ever, and in particular in relation to this situation. But having my own conclusion spoken back at me by a local touched my hearing and built in me what feels like the first affirmation on this journey.
Yes, I have struggled with anxiety about going. But I realise now that I’d be the wrong person to go if I didn’t have those anxieties. It’s our capacity to doubt that keeps us open, keeps us questioning, keeps us searching. And though I often hate them, I feel like they have been an acid test, and only in engaging with them could I find the legitimacy of feeling and conviction, at the last, to make this journey.
We arrived in Greece not as a destination but in the spirit of looking for a beginning. In reaching the end of the road in Southern Europe, we realised that the only beginning for us can mean the beginning that is meant for the refugees. And that means the Isle of Lesbos, the first European port, for those setting off from Syria.
Connected by the most simple things
To that effect we have dashed southwards to Athens where we hoped to catch a ferry. Once again Zeus, or rather the Greek farmers were against us, and the 600 km drive turned into a 10 hour drive around the coasts and mountains of Greece. We missed the ferry we were aiming for, so found ourselves beautifully stranded in the Port of Athens, which it turns out it, is a rather special spot.
Next to where we parked up we discovered a little shelter housed by a group of young men. We got chatting and soon established that they were Moroccan and had been sleeping rough in the harbour for 70 days. They invited us to sit with them and were particularly excited that I was Scottish. It seems that Morocco recently thrashed us 3-0 at Football, something they would not let me forget the entire evening. How the most simple of things connect us, and nothing more so than laughter!
We all shared some food and some drinks and I was dumbfounded at how high spirited they were, especially as several of their group had been detained by police and exported. All of them had tried to cross the Greek border to Macedonia, but had been sent back as only Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees are allowed through.
We asked why they hoped to travel to Europe, and it emerged that there are two reasons. First of all, they all had family and were heading to different cities to join them – from Madrid to Majorca. They miss them. Second, they simply feel there is no future back home for them.
One, Mustafa said that absolutely nothing will make him go back. I went to bed marvelling at how this charismatic group of homeless refugees welcomed some strangers into their temporary abode, laughed with them, shared something of themselves, and sent us home each with an ‘Arab hug’ – not one, but two hugs on the point of departure.
Part 4: A Miracle at the harbour
Today I saw Greek homeless men cooking food, on a mass scale, for refugees. Not discriminating who can get what dependent or defined by nationality, but simply, food for the hungry, cooked by the hungry. I’m not sure about whether miracles exist or not, but I felt that I witnessed something miraculous. Something with the shape and colour and innocence of miracles.
During the day I went to use the toilet in the waiting area of the Athens harbour. It is full to the brim, split evenly between homeless locals and refugees. On leaving I saw a group of people, locals, setting up a pop-up-soup-kitchen. I asked if they needed help peeling potatoes, grabbed a peeler from the van, and took my place next to the local Athenians, and some homeless men. One of them, Thomas, was deeply critical of the size and shape of my potato cutting, but under intense scrutiny and instruction, I gradually became a better pupil, much to the delight of my toothless master.
After a few hours, and as the light died down, an orderly line formed of both homeless people and refugees. I was lucky enough, after everyone was fed, even to get a taste myself, and dam hell, it was the best meal I’ve had in some time! All the locals contributed something, and Lydia, a farmer, topped it all off with a huge jug of Greek olive oil, all of which of course went into the broth.
It struck me that something which is not so often reported about in the news is the positive side of this crisis.
What I mean is that even in my very short time on the road, I have come across so many open attitudes, interesting insights and people contributing in their small way. Yes, I am very aware that the Golden Dawn (far right party) is a huge growing concern in Greece, and not to be, for a moment, to take lightly. But I do marvel at the capacity of these local people – whose economy is in taters – and their ability to contribute, to welcome and to share.
These are values which appear so scare in such times as ours. But in digging a little deeper, I am heartened to the core to discover that they are, after all, not in such short supply. And if a homeless fella with nothing in the world can find such a contribution to make, I feel inspired to look again at my own.
Part 5: A Life Jacket Graveyard
Just a small fraction of the life jackets at a dumping yard in the North of Lesvos. The dumping site just a fraction of the life jackets on Lesvos. The life jackets on Lesvos just a fraction of the life jackets on Greek Islands. That’s before mentioning those swallowed by the sea. I’ll never forget how many are the size of a child’s. Or that each jacket signifies a human life.
We had planned to ‘fit in’ visiting this site, which we had heard about from a local. However we couldn’t prepare for its impact, it’s scale, how utterly pregnant with meaning it is. We ended up spending much of the day there, first without cameras, to introject, and then with our film gear.
It was an experience with a degree of, if not ambiguity, then duality. The primal experience – shock, awe, anger, sadness, contemplation – shifted at some point to the hope of doing it justice artistically. By that I mean the responsibility to capture its intrinsic power in a way which communicates something of its reality in film.
To that effect, I ended up re-shooting every shot I took as the evening light fell. I never saw a sight where darkness and beauty merged in such a morally unacceptable way. I was reminded of Monet’s guilt at his fascination with the changing hues of his wife’s face during terminal illness.
I have written how I was uncertain originally about what role culture has in the face of a humanitarian crisis. My discomfort resurfaced during shooting. But also I know that terrible stories need retold in new ways, so that our conscience does not deaden. And what I was exploring was not the surface of glowing neon against flattened mono-hues, but an attempt to let the journey made by every jacket continue.
In this way I think the life jackets themselves have a role to play. It’s the job of culture to re-animate their significance, and keep our cultural conscience awake. Rather than deadening as the news reports history in, often, the monochrome hues of an ‘objective’ narrative.
Part 6: Sara
I will never forget last night as long as I live. There is simply no leap the imagination can make to replicate these scenes. Scenes which happen over and over every night, and only the latest of which I have participated in. We arrived at 11pm last night and only finally left at 12 noon today simply because every human hand was needed. And those were by far not enough. During the night, our beach alone handles around 10 boats with I don’t know, 40 to 60 people per boat. I’m talking mothers, children, screaming babies, teenagers, Dads, old men and woman. Freezing cold. Soaked in rain, waves, panic. Some in a 2 hour crossing. Some in 6. At night in the dark.
One little girl, lost from her parents, faints in my arms and I don’t know if she’s going to die of cold right there, and I don’t know what to fucking do because I’m panicking and the medics are frantically resuscitating another child. Who does not make it. Who dies, right there on the beach next to me, while her parents scream and scream. And every clever opinion and narrative I’ve come across just noise and nonsense next to this. You’re talking kids dying on our shores next to their screaming parents, and not one measly article in the BBC news today.
I take off the water sodden top of the girl, Sara and she wakes, freaking out because she does not know where she is or who I am. Her Mum finally finds us amongst the commotion and we get her dry & put warm clothes on her upper body.
After that I realise that there is no use in anything but to hug this little girl until she warms up.
At some stage by the grace of God she starts even smiling & I poke her nose, she laughs and I realise it’s not me getting her through it, it’s her getting me through it. We get the family at last into the bus to Moria, and the next boat arrives. I have never scene such a sight, and I salute all the people who suffered the journey and all the INCREDIBLE volunteers and aid workers there – every night.
Later I found the audio from the camera slung around my neck:
Part 7: The story of Nowrosalind
No single moment has educated me more about refugees than speaking with this brave young man from Afghanistan. It is Afghans who from this week can no longer cross the border from Greece into Macedonia.
I was spending a second day in Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos. The camp is divided into two parts. The main part is an old military base. It’s very very ominous, with huge grey walls, barbed wire. It’s virtually impossible to get in, so we spent our time in another camp outside its walls – but in eyesight. Its called ‘Better Days for Moria’ or sometimes Afghan Hill. It is mainly for people who are not able to get entry into Moria.
Basti and I interviewed several people there, but by far the most resonant for me was with this young man, Nowrosalin from Afghanistan. I’ve never felt so close to some’s pain than this. It was humbling on so many levels. As someone who has a project called ‘Journeys’ I felt I had finally met someone who had made the fundamental journey we make as humans – that is to cherish our lives, and to protect them, but doing whatever it takes to survive to find a safe home.
‘My country is not for a human, it is only good for terrorists, not for normal humans…the terrorists will kill me….I am a human, I have a dream…..its too hard for us, we all need a good life….because of that we are traveling on water, on river, on ocean..I want to go to school and I make a dream….’
We are currently on the north side of the Island and are heading back for a final night on the beaches tonight before heading to the Greece-Macedonia border. We are going to stop at Moria & I’m going to try to get inside the main camp with a hoodie. Maybe its possible with a hoodie. The irony of trying to break into a camp where everyone wants to get out is not lost on me.
Part 8: Growing Despair
We have travelled back from Lesvos. Arrived in Athens which was full of Afghan refugees. We visited Viktoria Square and spoke to many. These poor people have been shipped back down from the north since the border with Macedonia close. Spoke to several – they are running from both the Taliban and Isis, and recounted some horrendous stories. Conditions were not good. Not even porta-loos. Where is the response from the EU? Again and again there is a sense of Greece being abandoned to deal with this crisis alone. And Afghans all now in no mans land – nowhere forward, nowhere back, nowhere present.
Arrived yesterday at the Idomeni gate, on the Macedonia, Greek border. I spoke to the UNHCR representative, off the record because there is a lot of paranoia here. He said there are 8000 – today it is now 10,000. He said that he thinks we are 36 hours from a full scale humanitarian crisis. Average 500 more arriving daily. It’s desperate.
Peaceful protest today arranged by Refugees. Moments of passion followed by a sit down vigil, speeches and thanks to the worlds press. Organised in the middle of the camp away from the gate to Macedonia. Impressed at this – most are very very disappointed with those who broke through yesterday. Most people looking to join family and to find safety. I must say – main impression is great strength in tough conditions and a very friendly bunch. I stress – the majority of people are young – kids and families.
People have asked me how to help with what is fast becoming a humanitarian crisis. I have spoken to MSF, Save the Children and Intervolv. What they urgently need are TENTS. Many people have no shelter. A pregnant woman just asked the representative I spoke to for one, and they could do nothing. A second night in the cold beckons. She is just one of many many. If you want to send a tent here is the address:
61200 Polycastro (Polikastro)
Phone: 030 2343 025003
I am really shocked by the lack of information, guidance and basics being given to the refugees. No one – from Aid workers, to Macedonian police – knows when the border will open again. People are getting desperate. Last night it rained torrentially and that resulted in huge mud pools. Kids soaked with no way to dry till the sun finally came up. But harder for a lot is that they feel the borders will not open. It is causing despair, and that has been the single hardest thing to see since I left. Even on Lesvos you had a sense that there was a gleam of hope with people.
This is an ongoing article that will be continued over the course of the next weeks by JIM KROFT himself. Whenever there’s the possibility for a new post and words you will be informed by NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION. Therefore, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to get all the updates on this project.
All photos of the journey by Bastian Fischer.