“I wish for my children to grow up in a society where they are told the history – the way it was. Where they can learn from historic events and mistakes”, the Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, wrote after Facebook had deleted one of her posts.
Over the course of the last few years, hundreds of new writers and volunteers, have done precisely this. We have conveyed history – just the way it is. From various beaches across the Mediterranean Sea, we have, in a number of closed groups, shared, posted, written and exchanged photographs in our search for lost children, and every single day we have considered what we will and can post on Facebook. As a group of chroniclers without access to editors, we have created our own rules and regulations for editing. On the top of most of these groups it says: Do not post pictures of dead children here, please use the missing children groups for that.
These writings by volunteers are practically becoming a genre of its own. They are often written in haste, in a state of affect, and on location. Supplemented with pictures and videos, they are unique sources for documentation, written by those who stand on the front lines of the refugee crisis. When these writers put down their screens and leave their keyboards, they return to the reality they just described, and as they continue to help people in need, their texts reach large reading groups unfiltered, and begin to take on a life of their own.
February 27th, 2016
I have, on my phone, a picture of eight smiling children, three little girls dressed in pink. One of them has a braid just like mine, hanging loosely at one side. Another one is wearing a red knitted hat that looks homemade. One of the little boys in the picture is holding a football under his arm, and his big brother struggles to roll up a JoJo! They are five siblings and three cousins, and they could have been the children of any one of us.
I have received an inquiry from one of the largest newspapers in the country. The children’s grandfather is in Norway and hasn’t heard from them since they left Turkey. The Norwegian journalist would like to know if we have seen the children – if we could help! My answer is yes, we have seen the children.
On my phone I have a picture of eight little children. One of them has a braid that hangs loosely on one side, just like me. It has become wet, and she has lost her ribbon. Her skin is beautiful, almost porcelain blue. She looks like a doll, almost transparent. One of the boys has his jacket as if glued tight against his body, and around his arms he wears a pair of arm floats meant for a kid’s pool. He has lost his football. He won’t be needing it. Never again will he get to play football. I know this, his grandfather doesn’t.
The newspaper insists, have I seen the children? Are they safe? Together?
Yes they are together, they are beautiful, they are small, they are cold, they are wet – they are dead – all of them! Everyone on that damn boat is dead.
How the hell am I supposed to hit send, and with that contribute to further break down a grandfather from Damascus who is waiting for any sign of his family? They are all dead. I have pictures of them on my phone. I have to brace myself, I have to wait a few minutes before once again becoming the messenger from hell!
It would take more than two months before one of the largest newspapers in the country would write about the same event, but it would have been on my Facebook Wall since the night of the shipwreck.
The Journey to Lesvos
When I decided, in the fall of 2015, to spend my Christmas and large portions of 2016 on the Greek island of Lesvos, I decided that I would need a dissemination plan. To go to the Greek islands as a volunteer that fall was not in and of itself unique. Numerous Norwegians had already done the same. Now, in the middle of 2018, we estimate that more than four thousand Norwegians have travelled to Lesvos, Chios, or Samos as volunteers over the course of the last four years.
If I was to choose to leave my child and family for Christmas to stand on the front lines of the refugee crisis, I wanted, with what I knew of about writing, Likes, and dissemination of information, that my voice be heard. I chose to view my first journey to Lesvos as a project and gave it the working title of There is a war out there, and someone needs to tell the world what is happening. I wanted to tell the story of what was happening in the Mediterranean in a way that made the reader see the chaos on the coasts of Italy and Greece with their own eyes. Therefore, I contacted two photography students who agreed to join me on my journey. The result was thousands of pictures and hours of video footage.
The Boats Arrived
The first time I myself was affected by the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean was in 2001. Being half Maltese and half Norwegian I have for my entire life lived in transit between my two homelands. The small southern Maltese fishing village of Birzebuggia would this year receive unexpected international media attention. One day at Pretty Bay, the bay where I myself had learned to swim, hundreds of asylum seekers arrived pressed together in a tiny wooden boat. The unprepared citizens of this Maltese village frantically rushed in to help save lives. This was one of the first major arrivals of boat refugees in Malta, and the beginning of a fifteen-year long challenge with being Europe’s southernmost country, and a springboard from Libya into Europe. What happened on that beach that day, stirred something deep inside of me, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when the Maltese photographer Darrin Zammit Lupi started seriously documenting this crisis for The Times of Malta and Reuters, that I decided to keep myself consistently updated on the situation at my own childhood beach. The fact that Norwegians mostly appear as apathetic and ignorant of what had happened close to their holiday paradises made me angry and frustrated. It wasn’t until the large shipwreck in the waters between Malta and Lampedusa in 2013, more than twelve years after the citizens of Birzebuggia had picked up the first people on the beach, that something changed, though it would still take a long time before the Norwegian press showed any noteworthy interest for the refugees who tried to cross the Mediterranean.
It’s just before noon on December 29th, 2015. I stand on a beach on Lesvos with freezing water up to the waist and, together with other volunteers, receive one boat after the other with wet, frightened refugees. While we stand there picking up dead children from the coasts of Europe, the then Norwegian Minister for Immigration Sylvi Listhaug appeared on TV speaking warmly about tightening restrictions. My level of tolerance has been reached. During a little break I wrote a post on my Facebook wall about how desperate the situation really was. This is a post that describes the process of receiving the boats on the beach, and that we lack any and all resources necessary for ensuring the refugees safe passage onwards.
December 29th, 2015 (short excerpt)
Dear Sylvi, if you really wish to help them where they are, then help us help them.
Come to Lesvos. Join us on the journey. Do not speak of things you have not seen, do not be afraid to lose face. Stand with me on the beach on day, just one day, and hold the hand of a pregnant woman, feel the life inside of her, fold your arms around a weeping boy, and help an old woman put on socks. If you do not want to see them in Norway, then have the decency to tell them face to face, because we feel like messengers from hell on your behalf, and we are speechless every time they ask through their tears where they are supposed to go next.
I press post, turn off my Mac, and leave it in a pickup filled with socks and warm blankets before returning to the beach. All the while new boats are arriving. A few hours later the post has been shared over three thousand times. It was then that the largest newspaper in Norway, Aftenposten, calls. They wish to print the text in its entirety and on December 30th, 2015, that Facebook post, written in a state of desperation, was printed in Aftenposten. In the middle of the Christmas season, I had reached into the warm and sheltered Christmas decorated homes of the Norwegian public. My plan of using Facebook-updates as a source of dissemination is working. A few hours after Aftenposten had called, I received a call from Nettavisen. I assumed as a matter of course that they have read the same text, but it turns out they hadn’t. They were calling because they had read the post I wrote from the beach on Christmas Eve a few days earlier, the post about holding a dying girl, named Sonia, in my arms under the Christmas star. Nettavisen decides that they want to print an interview with me and to publish what was from then on referred to as The Letter to Listhaug. I myself would be on my way home to Norway soon to continue gathering the means to go back again.
On New Year’s Eve I stand alone at Oslo Airport Gardermoen as I open my phone to tell those at home that I have landed. Both on Messenger, SMS, and MMS I have received numerous threats and hate speech. It is clear that the trolls on Nettavisen have awoken, and that was the first time it hit me that writing about the refugee crisis on Facebook could have enormous consequences. As a translator and journalist, I am used to having an editorial office backing be up, and from being an active member of PEN and an editor myself I am used to being the one who has to make the tough decisions. However, as a Facebook writer, I stand alone. Not just when it comes to what I kind of texts and pictures I publish, but also when it comes to what I decide not to write. Had I thought this all through before I started my project? I drive homeward and ask my son to lock the door.
Updates and Preparations
In last year’s last issue of the literature magazine PROSA, the editor Sindre Hovdenakk writes about the Nobel prize winner Svetlana Aleksijevitsj. With her original literary genres, she is ground breaking within a new direction of nonfiction prose. With very few exceptions she is hardly ever present as the narrator in her own texts. It is the sources and interview subjects who are speaking to us, but her books are very powerful and important. She conveys journalism in a new and effective way, all the while writing in both an aesthetical and grotesque manner.
During the fall before I went to Lesvos, Svetlana Aleksijevitsj received the Nobel Price for literature. I had followed her authorship closely and had read all of her books translated into Norwegian. Her voice fascinated me, and I wondered how I could transfer if only a small part of this way of telling stories in the form of Facebook posts. During the period before I left I reread everything I had regarding war- and travel literature. I dug up a few old textbooks and reread everything, from my own paper from The University of Oslo on Literature and Travel, to Robert Fisk.
There is a huge amount of good war journalism. Each and every war has had their writers who risked their life to document the events; writers who were smuggled into places where others flee from, writers who hide with their photographers, writers who give it their all to document events that large portions of the world can’t bear dealing with. They are all necessary, and their texts are very important.
Conscious use of social media both in the form of fiction and nonfiction was not a new phenomenon. There are plenty of examples of good prose written on Facebook that have resulted in published books, and already in Prosa nr. 6 2014 the Norwegian critic Merete Røsvik Granlund wrote an extremely interesting text about Status Updates.
However, I would find the use of another genre entirely. A sort of Facebook documentary genre that, from a literary viewpoint had to be good enough, all the while not having the time for processing or source criticism. Without editors breathing down my neck I would become a witness on the front lines of the refugee crisis.
The Difficult Choices
Without any experience as foreign affairs reporter in a place that could remind one of war torn areas, I would constantly be faced with both ethical decisions as well as decisions on how far I could push myself before I would reach my personal limit on how much I could bear to experience and describe. Evaluations as to where the line can be drawn, what I can tell about and how graphic one can be on for example social media, had to be done at the same time as I found myself living the events I was documenting.
With the Norwegian documentary journalist Tormod Strand’s text on Documentation and Responsibility fresh in mind, I tried to prepare both myself and my two young photographers for our role as witnesses on this journey. In a text in Prosa 1 2015, Strand writes about the conflict between being a reporter, and still being a fellow human being.
Strand writes: To put things bluntly: When does the role of journalist end, and where does your responsibility as a human being begin? Should I stand by and watch and simply convey to my viewers as a bomb is planted in the heart of Oslo, or should I stop the bomber? In this case the answer is obvious, but when I bore witness to genital mutilation in Somalia, the answer wasn’t as clear. I chose to stand by my role as a journalist.
Knowing well that we were there to document as well as to assist, we had many good discussions about this both before we left and while we were there. The young photographers reflected on this and wanted for us to imagine as many worst-case scenarios as possible in advance. We all agreed that if it was a matter of life or death and there weren’t enough volunteers on the beach, they were to put down their camera equipment and assume the role as relief workers.
Equally as important as deciding what one should publish, is deciding what not to say. As volunteers and communicators, we see events that no journalists who journey down for only a few days have the opportunity to discover. Facebook updates is different from ordinary journalism, and I have many times been in doubt as to what I can share after garnering many regular followers on Facebook.
Whistle Blowers Who Aren’t Heard
On February 16th, 2016, Frances Webber held a presentation at the Oslo House of Literature. Webber has for over thirty years specialized in immigration rights, rights of refugees and human rights. She talked about the importance of reporting injustice wherever it is found. We had seen injustice each and every day on Lesvos. After the presentation I asked her bluntly what one is supposed to do when one sees the larger organizations go back on their words. What do we do when UNHCR tells us to hold back food rations for a day, so that we would have food for everyone a day later when a Norwegian delegation from The Ministry of Foreign Affairs would arrive on Lesvos? What do we do when the barbed wire fences surrounding the refugee camps on Lesvos are removed the morning before Angelina Jolie and the world press would arrive on inspection for a few hours, just to see them put back up a few hours later? What do we do when thousands of refugees are locked inside buses that are placed in cramped alleyways while a delegation from the EU and the Greek president visit the refugee camps, and when we see Norwegian journalists led down the paths that had been cleaned up thoroughly the day before? Webber asks us to alert people, so we write, on Facebook, but because Facebook posts aren’t considered a credible format, we aren’t heard.
After the international journalists, one by one, left Lesvos, the importance of our choice to document the crisis became clearer and clearer. When we received the last boat that arrived at Lesvos before the EU/Turkey agreement came into force on March 20th 2016, and the first boat after, there wasn’t a single Norwegian journalist to be found on the island. It was excruciating to go from receiving boats, give the refugees food, socks and hugs and registering them one day, to not being allowed near the beach on the next without threats of being arrested after Frontex started intercepting the boats out at sea, and incarcerating them in detention camps. Over night we went from being their hopes on the beach to becoming their messengers from hell.
March 20th 2016
The very last ferry with legally registered refugees is about to leave the port in Lesvos. This is history. The new laws have come into effect. From 6 a.m. today no one will be registered in Moria anymore. The ones left on the quay are those without papers, those without money, those without a future and not a single place to stay! Over 400 people arrived at the island today, but it was too late. Lives have been lost, futures crushed. Within the camps there are lonely children surrounded by barbed wire fences and three layers of barriers, within the camps there are hundreds of people without papers who will be going nowhere, within the camps are the families who arrived during this last night.
A few Norwegian volunteers took pictures and documented what happened this night in the harbour in Lesvos. What I captured with my own camera, are the only pictures captured by a Norwegian journalist. I am not very impressed. Once again, my Facebook post reaches thousands of Facebook readers. Just a few hours go by, and I am called up by NRK (the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation).
Texts That Grow
After some time, I start noticing a pattern as to when I would be contacted by the media. Every time I write a post of a certain length, relatively graphic, written within the crossroads between literary realism and prose, with a touch of heart breaking photographs, they are shared, and subsequently, the media gives me a call. During the Christmas season of 2016 I was asked to guest host the radio program Christmas in P2. Producers in the NRK had followed my texts and wished for me to tell my story on air. Once again, I would have my voice sound into the heart of Norwegian homes during Christmas.
A year had passed since my first posts from Lesvos began to find their way to readers all across the country. During the year between these two Christmas weeks, the texts had been to more places than I as a freelance journalist had managed to reach through an entire lifetime. The stories had reached readers in Norsk Ukeblad, been printed nearly every month in Akershus Amstidene, been printed in Aftenposten and Nettavisen, and had been cited in Dagbladet. In the newspaper Nationen’s story the headline read I Can Tell You How Dead Children Smell. The posts had also been on Dagsrevyen (daily news programme on NRK) and Søndagsrevyen (Sunday news programme on NRK), several times on NRK radio, including EKKO, and they had been read aloud at NOAS’ campaign “Jewelry for a Refugee” at Det norske teatret (The Norwegian Theatre). In the journals Mellom, Samtiden and Prosa, they had been incorporated into longer articles and I had been a guest at the talk show Good Morning Norway on TV2. During the fall of 2016 the texts were a part of the opening night of Festning Europa at Det norske teatret. I have now received a grant to write a book about the events.
In an Eternal War Zone
In many ways, the project There is a war out there, and someone needs to tell the world what is happening, could be considered a success. For years I have steadily conveyed the events in the Mediterranean via posts from Lesvos, Libanon, Lampedusa or Malta. When as much as ten thousand people arrive in the span of under thirty hours, one cannot pretend that nothing is happening – even though the Norwegian press hardly writes about it. Therefore, I will keep writing for as long as I have it in me to continue. However, the writing comes with a price, as it often feels like living in an eternal war zone.
Two Theatre Plays
I wish to shine a light on two plays that take place on the Mediterranean beaches. In very different ways Festning Europa and Lampedusa stages what is happening. They are both very impactful and important.
By Kristian Lykkeslet Strømskag
Det norske teatret
Oslo September 1st, 2016
A simple pile of sand with a bucket and a spade is placed in the middle of the scene and the image of a boat filled to the brim with refugees hangs in the background. This is what meets the audience during the premiere of Festning Europa. The spectators are invited on a journey to a vacation island in the Mediterranean. I was invited to the opening night to take part in a section of the play where the players interrupt the pre-written script and enter into a dialogue with the audience. My article in Samtiden What the Hell Europe – Where are You? has reached the actors at the theatre, and portions of the text I have written becomes a part of the improvisational interruption. They wish for me to speak to the audience. I am introduced and become a part of the production. “I have invited someone here today.” says the actor Kjærsti Odden Skjeldal. “… however, Quintano is probably best known as the one who wrote the Letter to Listhaug last Christmas…”
The actor Morten Svartveit looks at me and asks what the toughest part of documenting the refugee crisis was. I answer: “I can tell you about the smell of dead children, but that is something no one wants to hear.” After a few seconds of silence, he says: Then perhaps, that is what we must do – perhaps we must stand here on this stage and depict the smell of dead children so that people may listen.
By Anders Lustgarten
St. James Cavalier Malta Theatre
Valletta October 26th, 2016
In the four hundred years old amphitheatre in Valletta, the only prop is a large stone, shaped like the island of Lampedusa, placed in the middle of a sea blue carpet. The audience sits close to the stage, and as the Maltese actor Mikhail Basmadjian steps into the light, he looks straight at the audience and shouts in desperation: Europe – where the fuck are you? For three years the fisherman from Lampedusa has caught more corpses than fish in his net. Basmadjian steps towards me, looks into my eyes and says:
Dead kids weigh fucking nothing. That´s what I´ve learned today. I almost lose my breath. Painfully aware of what dead children weigh. You need a cuple of men to hault an adult corpse out of the water but it only takes one arm to hault in a dead kid. (…) This morning, a migrant boat, unusually overloaded even by the standards of migrant boats, overturned almost within sight of Rabbit Beach. So far we are looking at north of 350 dead. Mainly children. Children and women. They run women-only boats now, cos they weigh less and you can get more in and then in the middle of the ocean, the smugglers can stop the boat and say there´s one more payment… It´s bad enough when they´re twenty-five. When they´re five…
Playwright Anders Lustgarden lets the fisherman tell us that which Kristian Lykkeslet Strømskag left for the audience. In a storm the fisherman climbs onto his Lampedusa cliff. While he with one hand scouts for boats, he once more points towards us in the hall.
The bodies of the drowned are more varied than you´d think. Some are warped, rotted, bloated to three times their natural size, twisted into fantastical and disgusting shapes (…) Others are calm, no signs of struggle, as if they´re dozing in the sun on a lazy summer afternoon and a tap on the arm will bring them gently awake. Those are the hardest. Because they´re the most human. They´re overwhelmingly young, the dead.
The state of a drowned corpse depends on several factors. How long it´s been in the water. Temperature. They fall apart in your hands. If they´ve been in the drink a while. Slide apart and fall to pieces. The sensation is like … like oiled lumpy rubbish bags sliding through your fingers.
I´ve not been able to sleep much. Lot of nightmares. The rotten fingers of the drowned clutching at my neck. Grey faces of the long dead staring up from the seabed. People I´d forgotten I´d fished out sitting on the end of the bed, glaring at me, seawater pooling on the sheets. They never speak, but the briny carrion stink of them… Staring at me as if somehow I´ve betrayed them. I swear I´ve woken up more than one because of that smell.
I close my eyes. The recognition is intense. I live with that smell each and every night.
Journalists – Where are You?
As I write this text I sit on my rooftop terrace in Malta and look upon the waves. There is a storm in the Mediterranean, and I alternate between living in Malta and Norway as I journey to Lesvos and Lebanon.
Every day I follow the rescue workers from MOAS, Sea Watch, Proactiva Open Arms and MSF with my eyes as they leave from or return to the harbour in Valletta. Every day I hear the helicopter that leaves from the air base in Luqa, and every day the newspapers in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea report of tragic shipwrecks that happen every day, and even more deaths. Around five to seven thousand people are retrieved from the sea each and every day. I sit here and wonder where the Scandinavian journalists could be, and repeat to myself, probably redundantly: How close must a child be when it drowns before anyone cares? One meter? Ten? Ten kilometres? Today more than 3300 people are transported to Lampedusa. They are now sending boats with only women and children across the Mediterranean because the passengers are smaller so that there is room for more passengers in each boat. Most of the deceased are thus some of the weakest among us.
There is not a single Norwegian Journalist on Lampedusa today.
I order a plane ticket. I have posts that need to be written.
This text was originally written in Norwegian for the magazine Prosa.