*Pic: Richard Flanagan’s picture of Syrian refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos, January 2016 …
Booker prize winner Richard Flanagan visits Lebanon, Greece and Serbia to report on the plight of the 5 million Syrians fleeing their country. ‘Forced to choose between life and death,’ he writes, ‘they choose life’
“Yesterday was the funeral,” Ramadan says. “It was very cold. We make sure Yasmin always has family around her.”
Yasmin wears a red scarf, maroon jumper and blue jeans. She is small and slight. Her face seems unable to assemble itself into any form of meaning. Nothing shapes it. Her eyes are terrible to behold. Blank and pitiless. Yet, in the bare backstreet apartment in Mytilini on the Greek island of Lesbos in which we meet on a sub-zero winter’s night, she is the centre of the room, physically, emotionally, spiritually. The large extended family gathered around Yasmin – a dozen or more brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, her mother and her father, Ramadan, an aged carpenter – seem to spin around her.
And in this strange vortex nothing holds.
Yasmin’s family has come from Bassouta, an ancient Kurdish town in Afrin, near Aleppo, and joined the great exodus of our age, that of 5 million Syrians fleeing their country to anywhere they can find sanctuary. Old Testament in its stories, epic in scale, inconceivable until you witness it, that great river of refugees spills into neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and the overflow – to date more than a million people – washes into Europe across the fatal waters of the Aegean Sea.
“We were three hours in a black rubber boat,” Ramadan says. “There were 50 people. We were all on top of each other.”
The family show me. They entwine limbs and contort torsos in strange and terrible poses. Yasmin’s nine months pregnant sister, Hanna, says that people were lying on top of her.
I am told how Yasmin was on her knees holding her four-year-old son, Ramo, above her. The air temperature just above freezing, the boat was soon half sunk, and Yasmin wet through. But if she didn’t continue holding Ramo up he might have been crushed to death or drowned beneath the compressed mass of desperate people.
Then something happened.
Ramadan looks up. He seems 70 but is 54.
“We lost track of where the children were,” Ramadan says.
I have a photo in my writing room of my three daughters looking out over a mountain range in Slovenia that leads to the Austrian border – the same mountain pass to which Heba, Yasmin and Edris and Ramadan and so many countless others were now all headed. My daughters’ grandparents fled over those mountains as refugees in 1958. And that same year, in a refugee camp in southern Austria, Majda, my wife, their mother, was conceived.
Refugees are not like you and me. They are you and me. That terrible river of the wretched and the damned flowing through Europe is my family.
And there is no time in the future in which they might be helped. The only time we have is now.
• John Martinkus in Comments: Well done Richard, This is probably the most important story in the world right now and it is not being covered to the extent that it should be.