Wednesday 28 September 2016

An image from the rice queue in Izmir .... the boy with the war in his eyes

For the past few weeks we have all seen the plight of those whose lives are separated from ours by accidents of birth

Fergal Keane

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

People paddle a boat from Turkey
People paddle a boat from Turkey
young men sleep on concrete railway ties in Croatia
a woman holding a crying baby is pulled out of the crowd of refugees behind a fence that blocks the crossing from Croatia to Slovenia
refugees and migrants arrive in Greece

I have been trying to make sense of the last three weeks on the road but I am struggling. There are rare occasions when the formal constraints of journalism feel inadequate to convey the range and depth of human experience, the sense of the epic which radiates from certain moments in our history. The good editor has indulged me so I have set down in free verse the images and thoughts that will not leave me. Perhaps they will add up to some kind of sense, perhaps not. Unusual but there you go.

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I saw him

in the rice queue at Izmir

the boy with the war in his eyes.

He followed me around

until he lost himself,

in the twilight lanes

A child going nowhere

But forwards

and sideways

and backwards


in the slipstream of

his scattered nation.

And since then

how many?

From Bodrum to Lesbos

to Athens to Skopje

to Belgrade to Budapest

to Horgoz to Tvornik

to Zagreb and

the Slovene border

Mile after weary mile

I have struggled

to look them in the eye

as human to human

without border or nation

But too much separates us

for the privilege of empathy

Too many miles

and blows

and bullets

and betrayals

Our ways separated

by accidents of birth.

On the beach at Lesbos

I saw the small boats

gain purchase on the shore

"God is Great"

they chanted

And splashed into Europe

Had I ever seen such hope?

That woman from Damascus

crying: "I am safe."

The Greek waitress

going from family to family

with gifts

of tenderness and water.

They crowded around us.

How far to the town?

How far to Athens?

How far to Germany?

On the march out of Homs

Under the shells in Kobane

Leaving behind

their houses, farms, shops

Leaving the graves

of parents and children

They came

The blistered and lame

The hardy and game

Calling: how far to the future?

'As far as you can walk'

I should have answered.

And then some more.

But that was at the beginning

of things

Before the road unspooled

and tangled.

And if I had known what lay ahead,

the chaos

and confusion

the sound of gates


all over Europe,

Would I have had the courage

to tell them:

'our leaders

have no plan.

Many among us

do not want you.

We are divided





We chant:

'Refugees Welcome'


'Refugees Go Home'

To us

You are all things at once:

An assault on conscience

An omen of collapse.

You doctors and teachers

You unlettered and broken

All borne forward by

the unstoppable energy

of hope.

You carry all you own

in rucksacks

and plastic bags,

Circled by smugglers

And thieves.

I have learned:

How 1,000 Euro

Takes you to Greece

And 1,500 to Belgrade

But how much

to Vienna?

Let us bargain

On that.

Or not

I hold all the cards

You hold your crying child.

Pay up

or someone else will

Pay up

they are closing borders.

In Europe

of the Enlightenment

Of laws and conventions

You are owed nothing.

At Lesbos port

I saw

A cop with a shaven head

Scream at you:

Get down!

He waved his baton

A bully in plain clothes

Who'd put you

Sitting in the sun

With your crying children.

'Do you realise'

I asked his boss

'How this makes you look?''

And he paused and thought,

Before replying:

"We are in a war

And we have lost control."

Let me be frank here.

Did it not strike you then

that our Europe

was not your Europe,

the one you had mythologised

with its German welcomes

And schools and jobs?

With the artist

Guevara Jessoo

I rode a ferry north.

Guevara of Aleppo

with his pony tail

His long-haired boys

and dancing daughter

And his wife

who could not speak of

home without breaking.


who recalled

an Aleppo

of coffee houses

and music

The city of the 'Yellow Man'

who dressed brightly

to make his neighbours


Until he was bundled

into a car

into blackness forever

But I will not forget


who mourned the

home he lost

and the guitar

he sold to pay for food.

I found him again

in Belgrade

stripped of consolation

the essential fictions of

survival behind him.

There were no promises

I could make

to pave his Balkan roads

with hope.

And that old man at Tvornik

on a day of chaos

and angry young men

And trampled women.

He came from Herat

And he dropped like a stone

His heart failing

in the Balkan autumn.

How we worked on his chest


up and down

And how each gasp

was the sound

of life

fighting for itself.

It fought

and won

But Mustafa

and his lost tribe

must wander on

from border to border

through the vineyards

and orchards

through the cornfields

of Horgoz

Around and around

Back and beyond

Until they meet

the steel embrace

of wire and gates.

I fall asleep

to the sound

of feet marching

And know

they will march forever.

Fergal Keane is a special correspondent with BBC News

Sunday Independent

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