The day at Dunkirk Refugee Camp

Here’s a report on our day at the Women’s Centre in Dunkirk Refugee Camp. A huge thank you to everyone who donated to the GoFundMe campaign — we raised £1600 and every penny is already making a difference.

This thing started off because a friend of mine went to the refugee camps in France a few weeks back on a journalism assignment. We happened to meet for lunch the day after he returned and he told me about the Dunkirk Women’s Centre, which was doing incredible work creating a safe and welcoming space for the camp’s 150-strong group of women and their children. There had been recent reports of a problem with sexual violence in the camp, and there was an ongoing need for nappies for both adults and kids – so neither had to risk going out into the camp to find the toilets after dark.

Frankly this was all news to me. I had wrongly assumed that after the Calais Jungle closed that the system and situation just 30 miles from the UK had improved. That must be the case, I imagined, as I was no longer hearing anything about it on telly or in my FB feed. Which sounds silly when you say it out loud, but there it is.

Anyway, long story short, it seemed like a good idea to not use this as another opportunity to whinge about how fucked up the world is, and instead to actually try to do something about making things even just a little bit better. I spoke with my friend Laura and we figured we’d just hire a van, start a crowdfunder, buy a stack of nappies and drive over to deliver them. We originally planned to put some donations on someone else’s van, but since the Calais camp closed the supply runs from the UK seem to have dwindled and we couldn’t find a van making the trip, so we decided to drive one ourselves and see if we could fill it with the essentials.

Our friends and family were incredibly generous — the crowdfund target was originally set to £200 but over the weeks the donations rolled in and by the time we were due to drive off, the campaign had hit a massive £1600. Amazing. That’s 1300 size 6 nappies, over 500 adult women’s disposable pants, 50 tubs of sudocrem, 100 bottles of baby shampoo, 60 children’s beakers, 100 sponges, 10 bottles of washing up liquid, 1000s of baby wipes and 12 pre-loaded 3 data sim cards, as well as a bunch of clothes and pots and pans donated by some of the kind people in our apartment building. We hired a van, bought petrol and booked our Eurotunnel tickets, with a little money left over for a direct cash donation to the centre. We were ready to go.

Dropping off donations was really easy. It is literally a 3 hour drive from London to Dunkirk with a 30 minute snooze on the Eurotunnel. The Dunkirk camp is just 20km up the road from the Calais terminal, and the supply warehouse is about a 1 km outside of the actual camp, really close to a supermarket complex. It was simple case of driving in off the motorway. The warehouse is well manned and organised with drop off stations for clothes and kitchen equipment, as well as a dedicated room for supplies for the women’s centre.

As we began unloading the van we were met a couple of girls volunteering in Dunkirk from Gynecologie Sans Frontieres. They helped us bring everything inside, and thankfully seemed really pleased with the things we had brought. “Yes, we need this,” they kept saying, which frankly was a relief as while we had stuck pretty diligently to their ‘urgent needs’ list the centre had emailed me two weeks before, it seemed hard to know whether they would still need these things 2 weeks and many donations later. Size 6 nappies however are always in demand, they said, and we saw for ourselves that the supply room was stacked high with size 2 and 3 nappies for small babies (of which there is only one in the camp), compared to just a few packets for the size 6 toddlers, of which there are scores.

We asked the girls from GSF about whether it would be worth us visiting the women’s centre itself, to see how things were set up and if there was anything else we could do to help while we were here. In my emails and text messages with the volunteers at the centre they had asked if we would be visiting them, but even with their encouragement the idea was something we were a little hesitant about; we didn’t want to get there and find ourselves just awkwardly hanging around unable to do anything useful. The GSF girls however didn’t hesitate — ‘of course you should go,’ they said immediately. They gave us directions and a few minutes later we had parked up and wandered towards the security portacabin past four large police security vans. We signed in, and in we went.

The main road at Dunkirk Refugee Camp
The first thing you notice in the camp is that, unsurprisingly, it’s pretty bleak. Pot holed puddled roads are flanked by rows of wooden living huts, each with a number painted onto the outside. One was painted with the words ‘I do not want to be here.’ We couldn’t see the centre. We could see a lot of men — young, generally in black jackets and skinny jeans, milling around alone, in pairs, in groups. No one seemed to particularly notice us, but as two girls we still suddenly felt conspicuous. Even though I’ve been in environments like this before, I was pretty aware that this wasn’t the kind of place we wanted to be hanging around in without a clear sense of where we were going.

Luckily, we noticed a small group of volunteers in high vis jackets close by. They told us they knew where the women’s centre was, and so we followed them along the main ‘road’ through the camp until we reached wooden structure painted with a sign advertising free women’s clothes. The women’s centre. After a few awkward moments at the door unsure of whether to enter, we were welcomed with warm smiles by two of the volunteers running the space, and invited inside.

The centre couldn’t be more of a contrast to the space outside. Bright, colourful; decorated with bunting ribbons and fresh painted murals, a wood burning stove in the middle of the seating area to keep everyone warm. There are posters on the walls advertising creative workshops and baby weaning classes, and around 10-15 women and half a dozen toddlers are sat around knitting, painting nails, drinking tea. Men occasionally drop by with kids, and wait outside at the main door for them to be escorted to meet their mums inside. It really is a safe haven for the 100+ women here, operating in a very difficult environment, and is the only women’s centre still running in the camps in this region.

We are there about 5 mins before one of the senior volunteers walks over and asks which of us is most practical. I say Laura is: so now Laura is off with long-term (2 month) volunteer Liz to replace the locks on the women’s toilet doors so they’re more secure. Not such an easy job, as it turns out. The door frames need new holes drilled in them to make space for the lock bolts, and the only drill in the camp is quickly running out of battery. Over the next hour, Liz and Laura are trouble-shooting. Maybe they can find a battery. An adapter. Maybe a rock and a screw will do the job. Maybe they can fit blocks of wood to the doors and fit the locks on those, so the bolts slide across the back of the door frame and don’t need new holes drilling at all. But where can we find wood that’s sturdy enough? And screws? And a saw? They head off towards the phone charging station in search of tools.

Meanwhile, the centre’s longer term volunteers invite me to start organising the stock from the warehouse that has just been brought to the free shop next to the women’s centre, so I spend the next few hours sorting through bags of shower gels and shampoos, socks and scarves, stacking size six nappies on top of each other. There was no shampoo left this week, but now there is loads, so we refill the empty boxes from bags brought that morning from the place we had just visited with our donations. Occasionally women come to the door: one searching for a towel to dry her wet hair after a haircut in the centre, another whose baby is sick and needs more nappies. The shop is officially closed, but it seems urgent so we start sorting through boxes picking out the sized 5s.

The stock list for the women’s centre free shop. Female refugees can visit Mon, Weds and Fri afternoons to stock up on essentials.
As I unpack and restock, new volunteers join me, others pop in to say hi and see how things are going. They ask how long we’re staying and whether we can come back sometime. A trickle of new volunteers arrive throughout the afternoon, some who have been before, others for the first time like us. The spirit of the place seems to have this positive and open, ‘everybody muck in’ attitude. If you’re here, you’re here to help, and that help is warmly welcomed. I was honestly surprised by how quickly we were treated as part of the team, and therefore how familiar these volunteers must be with integrating new people into their cohort every day.

After an hour or so I realize Laura had been gone for a while. I wander to the ladies toilet portacabin and find her with Liz amongst around 8 security guards and camp officials (none of whom we had seen at any other point in our day). I really wondered where they had suddenly come from. There is a mix of shouting and arguing and then some laughing, mostly in French. It seems they were not at all happy Liz and Laura had attempted to fix the doors locks by drilling into them, by themselves, as these toilets ‘belong to the mayor’s office’. This seems faintly ridiculous under the circumstances, and after some long deliberations and Liz’s French repetition of the words ‘the locks don’t work, the women are scared’, it seems like the logic of having women’s toilets that actually lock is not lost. Soon enough, one of the camp guards arrives with what appears to be the only large drill on the site and sets to completing the work Laura and Liz started.

There is clapping and cheering when he finishes the job. The crowd has grown and everyone is laughing, mixing languages and giggling at Liz for trying to fix the locks with a long screw and a rock. Everyone seems to be feeling pretty happy that a small solution to an important problem was found, even if it’s one that’s been there for weeks and no one in the official set up has addressed until Liz and Laura decided to take it on.

It’s 4pm suddenly, and we have to leave to get the Eurotunnel home. We wander around finding people we’ve met and worked with that afternoon, hugging and saying goodbyes, before slowly wandering back out of the camp. It’s a total cliché to say it but as we leave I don’t really feel intimidated any more. We know the terrain, we recognise some faces as we pass. One of the men shouts after us telling us to ‘smile’, and we realize he has a Brummy accent and wonder what on earth he is doing here.

Music at the phone charging centre
At the phone charging station near the camp exit, we’re surprised to see a crisp clothed string quartet plays Balkan beats to a crowd. It’s a strange site, a weird burst of normality. In the bustle and the baseline, two of the guys spot us and sidle over, asking us in halting English if we play music. We are being chatted up. And out of nowhere an emotional wave hits me. It really hits me that this is just a place for people who simply do not have a home. Teenagers, women, children. Guys like these two who sigh as we walk away. They are stuck in a life of limbo, without a home. It keeps going through my head and body — these are just people like us, without a home. These are people like us, without a home.

We get to wander out easily, back into the van, onto the Eurotunnel, back to our London flat for dinner time and an order of take out food, which all just feels really weird. Meanwhile this temporary stretch of land to the south of the motorway near Dunkirk there is a barely bearable shelter for around 1500 people who have no other option, sleeping in rickety wooden huts, no electricity after 6pm, cold, damp, without locks on the toilets, unsure of what will happen to them next. According to local reports, the camp is likely to be cleared in the not too distant future. No idea what the plans are for it’s residents.

One thing that is without question however is that this sad state of stasis is made better by the tireless work of a few volunteers — like those at the women’s centre. Just normal people taking some time out of their lives to inject a sense of safety and warmth and colour into the bleakness, while making sure the women and children get the essentials they need.

We’re really pleased we got to help for a day, and really humbled by the donations of friends to this cause. We saw exactly where and to whom that money and those nappies are going, and trust us, it will make a difference. Thanks to everyone.

Finally, here’s a picture of a post-it on one of the walls at the centre. I liked it, and thought you might too.

If you’d like to support the centre or find out more about their work, you can visit their Facebook page, or just make a donation on their brand new website. You can share this story with your friends. And of course, you can always drive over and volunteer for a day or a week or two — you’re always welcome. 

UK Election media review: are our politicians tackling the issues?

We are five weeks away from the UK General Election. That’s right, five weeks.

A shock, given that we have yet to see any real debate or discussion from our future leaders on any of the things that actually matter to people’s lives. Or have we?

I decided to test this hunch. I reviewed the media coverage from the past week to uncover whether the key parties bothered to say anything of real substance and interest on the big issues that matter to the electorate. Or have they just spent the week joshing and jockeying between themselves for kicks. Let’s see shall we.

> So what matters to the electorate?

ComRes/ITV, March 2015
ComRes/ITV, March 2015

First, the election issues. According to the latest poll by ComRes/ITV, the big issues people care about are: the NHS, immigration, the economy, and welfare/benefits — in that order. That list broadly matches a BBC/Populus survey from January, which showed that the issues the electorate most want the media to cover are: NHS, the economy, immigration, welfare/benefits/pensions, and jobs and pay. I decided to go with ComRes as it’s more up to date. And shorter.

> How do we know if politicians have said anything substantive on these issues?

A quick and dirty method. I reviewed the front pages of three newspapers — The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Sun — for the week 17 March – 24 March — to see if an announcement had made the headlines. Big thanks to Nick Sutton’s Tomorrow’s Papers Today tumblr…it was surprisingly hard to find an archive of front pages.

To be honest, I didn’t have time to review articles beyond the front page, but I figured that if the party/politician is announcing something of real substance, it should make it onto the front page. (Admittedly, there are many arguments that challenge this assumption. Having been a government press officer for a time I know first hand just how much news from government totally fails to get media pick-up. But that’s another blog.)

Anyway. To get a bit more 24/7 coverage in the sample and to make up for my front page bias, I also reviewed the Facebook feeds for C4 News, ITV News and BBC News for the same period. What I was looking for was any policy announcement-led news from any party on any one of these big issues over the past week.

> Here are the results. 

Hot issue number 1 – the NHS (number of pieces of coverage: 4)

There was nothing at all from any party on any of these media channels until today. This evening, Channel 4 made a valiant effort to get the parties to say something of interest on healthcare. They invited both the health secretary, Lid Dem Health minister and shadow health minister on the show for a ‘#YourNHS debate’. They served three Facebook posts on the matter over the course of this evening (as well as an earlier post on Cameron being shouted at at an Age UK event.) There was some discussion between the parties on how to meet the £8billion shortfall in the NHS budget by 2020. Few clear differences emerged however, with Jeremy Hunt and Andy Burnham largely agreeing with each other that treating cancer is ‘a good thing’. Thank god.

But aside from that moment on Channel 4 today, a deafening silence from the politicians on the NHS.

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Hot issue number two – immigration (number of pieces of coverage: 0)

Nothing at all from the politicians on these chosen media channels all week. The Guardian is however running its own special report on the benefits of immigration, presumably in the absence of anyone else making a cogent argument on the matter. But putting aside this media-led reporting, none of the major parties have tackled immigration in any way this week. Probably this is a good thing – at least it keeps Farage off our screens for a little longer. So let’s not complain too much on this one.

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Hot issue numbers three and four, the economy and welfare (number of pieces of coverage: 24)

The budget announcement on Thursday managed to put a big tick in the ‘Economy’ box, and a bit of a pencil mark in the ‘Welfare’ box. Well done George — front page and Facebook news points across all outlets for a pile of measures including cutting income tax rates, ISA benefits, some changes to pension pots and extra funding for mental health services.

Admittedly, this a bit of a cheat, as the budget isn’t strictly a manifesto pledge from a potential new government. But still; I was becoming a bit depressed by they sheer lack of announcements on the issues (without the budget we would have been on zero again). So I’m including it. Policies were announced and plans were made, all on issues that people actually care about, and in a substantial enough way to make it onto all three front pages. The Sun’s effort was particularly entertaining. (It’s worth noting this was the ONLY political story to make The Sun front page all week. Zayn Malik’s hiatus from 1D has been much bigger news in their world.) tumblr_nlfj3ociQF1u5f06vo1_1280

And what about all the general leadership / coalition / candidate based shenanigans? (number of pieces of coverage: 14)

Setting aside the coverage on the budget, it’s here that we see the biggest overall volume of front page and FB news across all media outlets. Whether it’s Boris pretending to look flattered that Cameron has named him a potential successor; Salmond boasting about all the power-broking he will be able to do in a Labour-SNP voting bloc; or Cameron finally acquiescing to a 7-way TV debate, these ‘news stories’ made the front page of all but The Sun (of course. see above.), and into the newsfeeds of all three TV stations.

What does this tell us?

Nothing good. But maybe they just haven’t really gotten started yet? Here’s hoping.


Album de la Revolucion Cubana

In London’s Tate Modern right now, in the midst of the brilliant Conflict Time Photography exhibit on the 3rd floor, is a curious set of rooms called A Guide for the Protection of the Public In Peace Time. It’s a strange space curated by a group called the Archive of Modern Conflict; apparently a publishing house concerned with artefacts of the past; forming them together in new and unusual ways. And in this room of propaganda and subversion, I see this image on the wall.


I was, its fair to say, pretty stunned. You see, I’d seen this image before. It is the cover image for a comic picture book called Album De La Revolucion Cubana, which I found on a market stall in Plaza des Armes in old Havana back in May this year. It’s now perched on my Hackney living room bookshelf.

A bit of a surprise, I can tell you, to see something you picked up at a market for a tenner displayed on the wall of one of the world’s greatest contemporary art galleries. And seeing it displayed in this way lead me to want to find out more about it.

The book itself is fascinating. Designed for children, it is a blow by blow retelling of Castro’s guerilla war with Batista’s government from 1952 to 1959. What makes it particularly special though is that each scene in the revolution is told by an individual picture card, which it seems were given away with cans of Felices canned fruit, collected and stuck into the book by kids. I remember when I got it how struck I was by the design and approach – it seemed to me to be a particularly overt piece of marketing designed to sell the story of the revolution, which is kind of ironic given this is a country that deliberately closed itself off to the usual blends of brand capitalism.


Castro, of course, is presented as the hero, inspired by Jose Marti’s Cuban independence movement in the 1800s (that’s his face hovering in the sky behind Fidel on the book’s cover), and flanked by his brother Raul and of course the beautiful Che. Each page comes with illustrations of guns and grenades, Cuban flags and army tanks, and even though the commentary is in Spanish, the drama jumps out of the illustrations – underhand backroom dealings by Batista, the suffering and sacrifice of the Cuban people, the bravery of the guerillas, fighting for the future of their country.

There’s a fair bit of chatter about the book online. Over on dropby, one Cuban man describes it as “a plaything from my childhood” which he since found in a restaurant in California – owned by a man who also found the book in Havana’s Plaza des Armes. Then on the Libriquarian site for ‘the sale of fine books’, the curators are displaying the Album with a $2000 price tag.

For a moment I’m pretty excited. Not that I’d sell my copy of course. But to see that others have found it too and recognise it as a special piece of history reminds me of my own wide-eyed excitement when I flicked through its pages back in the hot Havana sun.

On closer inspection however, it’s very clear that mine is a copy, rather than an original. The pages are too white; the picture cards are tinted in a distinctly photocopied way. Nevermind. It’s the symbolism of it I like – somehow enhanced by the fact that some enterprising market stall owner has decided to occasionally recreate the full thing now, in 2014, sticking in each of the 271 pictures by hand in the hope of selling it at a profit to a tourist like me.


Dinner with a North Korean defector

We’re in a back room of a Korean restaurant, sat around a low table contorting Western knees into a cross legged position that probably hasn’t been attempted since school assembly days. For most of us that was a very long time ago.

We’re here to listen to this man’s story of how and why he escaped North Korea, and what he thinks about things there, and here, in this leafy Surrey suburb just a 20 minute train ride from London Waterloo.

He’s a youngish looking forty-something year old. He nods at our English-speaking questions, then looks to the women on his right to translate them into Korean. Even with the ‘lost in translation’ translation, his speech holds to a regular pace. Then she translates his words about “escaping from hell” in the same way – with the even tone you might use for giving directions or reading a shopping list.

He grew up trusting the system, he says. He grew up learning that it was good, and that South Korea and America were bad. It was only when he joined the army and travelled around the country that he realised that it wasn’t just his village that was suffering.

He began to experience doubt. When asked to cook a meal for the soldiers, the only way to get food is to steal it from a nearby farm. “How could this be good?” he says. When he visited his sister, she deprived her daughter of food so he could eat. He didn’t know she had done so – only finding out when his niece, left alone, came across a bag of corn supplies, ate and drank water too quickly for her malnourished stomach, so it bloated and burst. She died, and it was then he knew he could not stay in North Korea.

He didn’t know if it would be better somewhere else. He didn’t know anything about what it would be like on the other side of the river. He couldn’t tell anyone he was thinking of trying to get out. Every third or forth person was a spy. Army personnel were required to ‘confess’ once a week on anything they had heard or seen that was suspicious.

He says he felt he had to try anyway. He says he was curious.

His crossing took four and a half hours. The water was shallow and every 50 metres there was a guard. At one point he bumps into a rock, and finds it is a soldier sleeping.

I ask him if he thought he would make it.

He says no. But he was willing to take the risk.

In one pocket he had a knife, and in the other a candy bar. You die or not, he says. Had he been caught – and he thought he would be caught – he would have killed himself. And the candy bar? He says he thought he might need to do a lot of walking if he made it to the other side. He would need it for energy.

When he reached the other side, he says he saw an apple tree, and it was then he knew he had been deceived by his country. The ground beneath the tree was scattered with rotting apples. This was unthinkable to him, he says. That food would be so abundant that it would be left to over ripen and rot on the floor.

He says that escaping takes courage. He says that that river to him represented the difference between heaven and hell.

He says he has no regrets. He says though that he thought the regime would change within 10 years and he would be able to see his parents again. It’s been nine years now, and it hasn’t changed. And his parents are getting older.

And so the story ends, and we walk back out onto Kingston Road in South West London, bellies full and collars turned up against the February cold.

I can’t stop thinking about the guts of the man – to go it alone, with a knife in one pocket and a candy bar in the other, with no idea what it would be like on the other side. Just in the curious hope it might be better.

For the latest news on North Korea, visit To visit North Korea there are a number of tour operators who will take you in from China. Try Political Tours for an in-depth look at the place and its people.  

Enter Zimbabwe

As I fly into Zimbabwe on the SA40 from Jo’Burg, I read a passage in this book called ‘Africa Trek’. which talks about border crossings. The author is saying that you can tell a lot about a country by the mood at the border. And if he had to categorise the mood at the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe, it would be ‘sad’.

I’m wishing I hadn’t opened this darn book. ‘Sad’ is not what I’m hoping for when I touch-down at Victoria Falls. If anything, I’ve been feeling optimistic. In Cape Town, South African after South African has been telling me how beautiful Zim is, and how things there aren’t as bad as they have been in recent years. But here’s this passage, and it reminds me how much trauma and breakage this place has seen.

The twist to and the reason for my ‘enter Zimbabwe’ tale is that my mum grew up here. Back in the late 1950s, my intrepid grandfather couldn’t resist the idea of journeying for weeks on end on a boat to this relatively unknown and vast continent, putting his engineering skills to the test on a new power station in the tiny village of Munyati, 270km from the nearest city of Bulawayo.

And so my mum and my uncle grew up with strange accents, their childhoods packed with giant animals and wild landscapes and running around barefoot until the soles of their feet were like leather, seemingly miles from the struggles over rights and justice playing out all across this epic land.

Those tales were told to my brother and I from our earliest days, and so, Zimbabwe has always existed in a kind of mythical stasis in my head. Over the years I’ve met many other children of that Rhodesian generation, and we’ve recognised in each other a similar heritage of both awe at our parents’ fantastical upbringings, and a kind of time-travelling shame at the wider political environment in which they lived.

And yet, as the plane touches down, I fill up with sensations of connection and nostalgia; the kind usually reserved for a long-overdue homecoming. I practically run to the tiny terminal, excitedly joining an ordered queue as we file into Victoria Falls’ passport office, commenting on the humidity of the middle day. My fellow travellers are from all over the world – China, Japan, Germany, Australia. I’m here alone, but I don’t feel alone. I see my name on a taxi board and soon drive off down a clean new tarmac road; lush green forest on either side and, above the tree-line, the billowing spray of the Falls, ‘the smoke that thunders’. Within an hour, I’m on the mighty Zambezi river, the sun setting behind palm trees as families of sleepy hippos bob around in mercury waters beneath a sky of fast flocking birds.

This journey into Zim felt professional and ordered, calm and warm. No doubt, we’re in a protected space here, a long way from Harare or Bulawayo, or any number of towns and villages beyond international view. But it is a better entry than I could have hoped for, and a more emotional one too.

So if I were to pick one one word to define this border crossing, I’m not exactly sure what I would choose. But ‘sad’? I don’t think that’s it. Not here, at least.

The trouble with writing about Kosovo

This year I went to Kosovo a lot.

‘Kosovo?’ I hear you say, ‘Why on earth would you go to Kosovo?’

Good question. After all, tourists aren’t really going to Kosovo. In most people’s heads, Kosovo is still a mash up of ethnic hatred and post-war reconstruction and memories of atrocities we’d all rather forget.

That war was however nearly fifteen years ago now, so it would be fair to assume that things in that tiny landlocked corner of the Balkans might have changed a little in that time. Which is why I went.

To be fair, I also went because the lovely people at the British Council and Kosovan Foreign Ministry paid for me to get there, giving the amazing opportunity to dash all over the country on a Political Tour and talk to all sorts of very important people so I could write about it for BA’s High Life magazine.

And having gotten just a little bit under the skin of the place (and, for the place to have gotten a little bit under mine), I met a guy who was the creative director of an incredible documentary film festival in the pretty town of Prizren and saw the potential for another story. So I pitched it to The Guardian, and lo and behold I was back there this summer too.

Which means I’ve been to Kosovo twice this year.

What I found out is there’s a hell of a lot of stories to tell about Kosovo. And very few of them have been told yet. I’ve tried to tell two of them – with varying success – for those afore mentioned publications. I’ve just written a 101 word summary about what I thought it was like there, which of course feels a bit one dimensional and a little glib and doesn’t quite do the place any sort of justice.

Which is what’s proving to be the problem. How can one person’s writing about a place ever do it any sort of justice?

A freelance writer I had working for me recently wrote a lovely blog about how all travel writing is a kind of process of translation. The writer sees and experiences a place, they do their best to learn all they can about it, and then they attempt to communicate all that that experience was within a 1000 word word-limit.

But every place is so big, so multi-layered, they can never really, fully succeed. They can give an idea, the beginnings of a sense of things, suggestions perhaps. They can offer attempts at insights which never quite capture but at least point towards the truth of the matter, or at least their version of it. They can add that to the body of all the other things that have been written and hope to add something new and authentic.

In essence, they can just do their best.

The trouble with writing about Kosovo however is all that and more. Because not only is there the challenge of writing an accurate version of the place, but there is also the challenge that because very few others are writing about it, there are so many versions to be written.

The version I want to write is about what it’s like right now. The young energy and the cool hangouts and the start-up creativity; the girls with fringes and boys with beards; the techno beat pumping from backstreet apartments. The guys running off-piste ski weekends and the club owners capitalising on the fact this very young population really just want to have some fun.

But there is another version. Like the 2000 people still missing and the mothers still hoping their sons will walk through the door.

Another friend of mine says you should never use the phrase ‘xxxxxx is a city of contrasts’ in a travel piece – that it’s such a hackneyed, well-worn phrase that it’s become meaningless. But in Kosovo’s case, it’s true. It is a place of contrasts. As Nathan Coley’s Pristina installation last year proudly proclaimed in light bulbs; it’s a place beyond belief.

Which probably means that until there are more people writing about it so you can aggregate all those different viewpoints, you should just go and see it for yourself.

And until then, here are some pictures of my version…

Kino lumbarghi in Prizren
Kino lumbarghi in Prizren
Serb Orthodox Decani Monestry
Serb Orthodox Decani Monestry
Snow in Brezovica
Snow in Brezovica
Big Kosovan Landscapes
Big Kosovan Landscapes
Newborn monument in Pristina
Newborn monument in Pristina

Mali: Please don’t stop the music

When world music super-group Tinariwen took the Barbican stage last November, typically dressed in traditional Sahara sand-shielding scarves and clutching electric guitars set to ‘blues’, the audience knew they were about to see something special. People shuffled forward on their seats, whooping and clapping. The lady in front of us leaned over to her friend’s ear, “you know, it really is amazing they’re here at all.” “Where else would they be?” came the reply, followed by a shared, knowing, eyebrow-raised half-laugh.

Of course, if you’re not into your world music, which to be fair most people probably aren’t, the name Tinariwen won’t mean much. I can’t say it meant too much to me at this point, even though Songlines had just announced them as their band of the year. What I had clocked however, which you might have too, is that just a few weeks before large parts of Tinariwen’s home nation, Mali, had fallen into mujahedeen control. The country’s new leaders enforced a strict form of Islamic law – which included a ban on music. Tinariwen, like the many other Malian musicians touring the world, were now in a kind of cultural exile.

For somewhere like Mali, it’s hard to imagine a more damaging law. This West African nation might be known for arid, desert landscapes and crippling poverty, but it’s also known for its music. Stalwarts like Armadou and Marium and Toumani Diabate have developed a global fanbase, while newcomer Rokia Traore was the first act announced at Glastonbury this year. Music is in Mali’s blood.

Toumani Diabate at Festival au Desert 2007. This year's festival has been cancelled.
Toumani Diabate at Festival au Desert 2007. This year’s festival has been cancelled.

So why ban music? It’s certainly true that in many authoritarian or dictatorial regimes, tight control on the arts – and on music in particular – seems to have been a common feature. During the cold war years for instance, live music performances were tightly licensed to the point of being banned across Eastern Europe; with popular musicians targetted by the secret police for being involved with something so ‘subversive’. In a recent – and brilliant – article on in Delayed Gratification magazine entitled “They feared us because in music you cannot cheat” – 70s Czech rock band Plastic People talk about the pressure to vet their lyrics, how fans were arrested on route to their gigs, of being tortured, imprisoned.

Indeed, it’s easy to see that if your goal is to control people and curtail freedom of expression, then music poses a genuine threat. There isn’t much that feels more freeing than singing a song or busting crazy moves in a packed dancefloor. And in Mali, the role of music seems to be as much about identity as it is about freedom. In a Time article this May by Aryn Baker, a Bamako-based music producer said, “the way music functions in Mali is to empower people by reminding them who they are and where they come from. You eliminate that, and it becomes easier to control them.”

That said, that doesn’t seem to be what’s going in here. Control and authoritarianism seem to have a place, yes, but there is a religious texture to this particular ban that doesn’t have the ring of a purely localised instrument of power.

Should we be worried? Should we do more to fight for and support local, traditional music – the kind you hear wafting from courtyards and dance to at weddings? And at the other end of the scale, should we think twice about the commodised globalised autotuned sameness that plays from so many radio stations, inspiring people to sing not for the joy of singing, but in the hope of one day ‘getting famous’?

In the words of Joni Mitchell, you don’t know what you got til it’s gone. Music is one of those things we take for granted; it’s only when it is banned that we perhaps realise just how important it is. As the beautiful Malian singer and musician Fatou Diawara said recently in an interview with NPR, “music, it’ a kind of hope for us. Even if we are not musicians, people need music.”

Photo credit: Flickr, The Queen’s Hall

Travel notes: things I noticed in Mumbai

This post isn’t really a post, just a collection of observations from 3 days in Bombay.

Squeezed onto seven islands, each with a hazy high rise skyline, bordered by litter strewn beaches and breakers. Battered old non-AC taxis and rickshaw rides through busy roads like a street car rally. The constant symphony of car horns of every note and tone.

The ladies only train carriage; a man wheeling his torso on a make-shift skateboard through the spaces between us, sat up straight, head high, shouting about the passport covers he’s selling. Three hijab covered women use me as an arm rest as they haul their bodies out of their seats, mascara-heavy eyes smiling. Hot hot sunshine.

Non-AC taxis in Mumbai - cheaper and more fun than their AC brothers.
Non-AC taxis in Mumbai – cheaper and more fun than their AC brothers.

Sweet small children with open faces who call you ‘ma’am’ or ‘madam’, asking you to buy a postcard or bangle from their ‘small business’. Respectful sideways wobbles of the head as you explain – ‘no thank you’. Colaba’s crumbling colonial homes on attractive tree-lined streets decorated with roadworks bollards and barriers lit up with fairy lights like Christmas.

Laburnam Rd in Mumbai, near the Gandhi museum
Laburnam Rd in Mumbai, near the Gandhi museum

Hazy sunsets on a deep semi-clean beach. Teenage b-boys attempt head spins and break dance moves in front of a friendly crowd of mostly girls.

Swish shoreditch-esque restaurants in bling Bandra, the Pali Village cafe, serving European fusion cuisine at London prices in a concrete candle lit room. The rip off Polpo – tapas not Italian. California calm Yoga House cafe – exceptional marsala chai tea while we surf their wifi. A Polish reggae band play a bad soundsystem in a hot rooftop bar. Calcutta based indie pop band Neel and the Lightbulbs wow us in The Blue Frog with their sweet story-telling and killer guitar playing. Dancing to Metalica in Totos – drinks served by middle-aged men in super mario outfits.

Bandra B-Boys
Bandra B-Boys

Endorphin-filled Old Monk rum making for freestyle dancing to Kanye West in our friend’s cool bachelor apartment, the projector pointing at an angle along a white wall as video ballet dancers strike angular poses. Girls in cocktail dresses, short skirts, hot pants; put together and manicured, hair quaffed, high heels. The men with beautifully symmetrical faces and elegant cheek bones, wide shoulders and tiny waists. Toned, tall.

People travelling in gangs. Kind old men keen to point you in the right direction, issuing repeated warnings about being extra careful in bustling old Victoria train station.The mind-blowing opulence of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, built for princes and maharajas, every vase, chair, painting each something from a museum or art gallery.

Suite used by John and Yoko at the Taj Mahal Palace
Suite used by John and Yoko at the Taj Mahal Palace

Litter everywhere. Plastic bags bobbing in the sea. The mangrove marshes used as washing lines for Bandra’s slum-dwellers, kids running around as mums hang out colourful clothes to dry in the relentless sunshine. More car horns. Heat. Mobile phone rings. Italian restaurants.

A serene temple up some crumbling stairs, passing women say outside their front doors to catch some evening air. Serenity. Small children from Rajasthan ask us where we are from then run away giggling. Bazaars of coriander and chillis and red onions. Spices and garlic. Antique doors, compasses, time pieces, car parts.

Food markets near the Chor Bazaar
Food markets near the Chor Bazaar

Being on guard and letting it down. More speedy rickshaws who don’t know where they are going – directing them with iphone GPS on streets you’ve never been on. Energy. Assurance and confidence. Frustration at a 5% growth rate. A city and people getting up late but on the up.

Why Monocle radio is the saviour of travel-starved global citizens

It’s Friday night and I’m sat in my dining room. I’ve just finished a bowl of homemade spicy parsnip soup, the kitchen still looks like a grenade has hit it, and my blood pressure is steadily returning to normal after a too-hectic week; soothed by the prospect of the food and friend filled weekend ahead.

But this isn’t an ordinary Friday night. In fact, something pretty exciting has happened, which is making this night an entirely satisfying and wholly atypical evening. Yes, this is the Friday night that from this day forth will be remembered as the night that I discovered the Monocle 24 Radio app.

Right now, I am listening to its long, languishing documentary on the Toronto brunch scene. While the scratchy audio sounds like a dispatch from an intrepid journo reporting war-torn insights from across the barricades; the story being told – of bearded /scraggly-fringed media-types gathering together over eggs and bloody marys in cafes decorated in street art and playing The XX – is as familiar as my own Sunday plans in London most weekends.

Next, we cut into a steady, relaxed conversation between a British journo and a Québécois cheese affineur on what makes a good comte. And now some designer is explaining how he turned his studio into a pop-up restaurant selling Mexican street food, where customers are treated to limited edition designed t-shirts once they finish their meal.

Monocle radio

I can’t tell you how happy this is making me. As anyone whose perused this blog will know, one of my great loves is travelling somewhere totally new, exploring the city, and then scouring its neighbourhoods for the kind of arty-ish cafes that are in no small way dissimilar to the places where I spend too many comfortable hours not 15mins from my house near Broadway market.

Now, you may think this is a little pointless, or perhaps even a little ‘affected’. “Travel the world only to find places just like those you visit at home? You’re no better than those people who don’t leave their hotel without knowing the location of the nearest McDonald’s,” you might think. And to be fair, you would have an excellent point. I am quite conscious that at times my travel preferences reflect something of a cliché – someone who with no trace of irony would happily call themselves a global citizen while also going nuts when they find a spot in the backstreets of an unlikely town that has solid wifi, indie electro music and serves soya lattes.

The thing is, I’m not sure these two things are mutually exclusive. I don’t want to stay in my London comfort cafe zone. I want to explore. I want to see how people live and work and relax and party. I want local people to have me round for dinner at their place and feed me their favourite meal; listening to their favourite music. I want those uncomfortable moments when I have virtually no idea what’s being said, or what I’m eating, or how the hell I’m going to find my way back to my Air Bnb ‘home’.

But I also want to know that wherever I am in the world; from NYC’s Lower East Side to the central drag in Ramallah, that there are people there who are just a little bit like me. Who like the things I like. Who relax the way I relax. And not because I want everything to be the same everywhere like in some anti-globalisation horror story, but because I really like being reminded that whatever country you’re in and wherever you’re from, people aren’t really all that different.

Which is why I’m loving Monocle 24. I’m over-worked and travel-starved, and London in all its cloud-covered glory is starting to feel like a bit of a fortress. I’m itching to be somewhere different on the unspoken promise that it might get me back into a more optimistic and enlightened perspective that’s seemingly full of possibility.

But it’s Friday night, I’m tired, it’s cold out, and I have to clean up my kitchen. So thank god there are radio stations like this one to plug into for a few hours – reminding me that there are a whole world of as yet unvisited places out there serving my favourite hot beverage where I’ll feel oddly at home.

Monocle 24 radio is the latest classy content production from Tyler Brûlé, whose Monocle magazine has been described as “a meeting between Foreign Policy and Vanity Fair”. Check it out here

The Path to Peace in the Middle East? A Documentary Review

In a packed cinema in Tel Aviv, the screen is filled with the image of Adriaan Vlok, South Africa’s former Minister for Law and Order, washing the feet of a grief stricken mother whose son’s death he ordered (one of the “Mamelodi 10“), during the Apartheid years, while saying “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for what we did to you people.” The women next to me hands me a tissue, and I turn round to look at the audience behind me, noticing that I’m far from the only one struggling to maintain their composure.

Photo Credit: Erez Laufer

This is day five of the Docaviv film festival and the Israeli premiere of One Day After Peace – a documentary following the journey of Robi Damelin, an Israeli peace activist, who is investigating the South African Truth and Reconciliation process after her son is killed by a Palestinian sniper in the West Bank while he was serving at an Israeli military checkpoint. Her aim is to see whether this process, which has been applied after conflicts in Ireland, Rwanda, and in Canada and the United States (between the state and Native American populations), could one day work in Israel and Palestine. She is also wrestling with her own grief, seeking a meeting with her son’s killer in the hope that by understanding why it happened she might gain some closure.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process, we learn, is a radical one. Perpetrators of violence and killings from each side of the conflict are invited to testify before a commission (and often the families of victims) and speak honestly about the events of the time, focusing how it happened and who was involved. They do not need to apologise – although some do – and families do not need to forgive – although some do that too. What they do need to do is speak honestly and acknowledge what happened, on the record, without omission. In return, they receive amnesty from prosecution, while the involved parties hope this process will end the cycle of violence.

The film makes it clear that the process isn’t perfect. Damelin speaks to victims like Shirley Gunn who was initially framed by Vlok for the bombing of Khotso House, who feel the TRC didn’t go far enough, as well as perpetrators who rejected the process and faced prosecution because they felt their actions were justified; “it was war, it was necessary”. Damelin also journeys into Palestine, meeting and bonding with mothers of Palestinians killed in the conflict, while facing the criticism at home for doing so.

The main message of this film however is that for peace to come, this kind of process is absolutely essential. As one of the men who testified before South Africa’s TRC says, “it is painful to touch a scar, but sometimes you need to touch it so that, slowly, it can begin to heal”.

However, we are also left feeling we are a long way from that kind of resolution in the Middle East. Robi’s son’s killer agrees to meet her, but makes it clear that he thinks she is crazy to want to reconcile with him. And Robi herself admits that Truth and Reconciliation can only come as part of a genuine peace framework, which is currently sorely lacking.

Seeing the reactions to this movie in the Tel Aviv Cinemateque however provided some pause for hope. On Bishop Desmond Tutu’s final words – that the TRC is based on the premise that it is possible for people to change, and that one day that change will come to Israel and Palestine – the cinema erupted in applause. As Robi herself took to the stage, this applause turned into a standing ovation.

Peace may be difficult to imagine, but this brave and inspiring film puts the process in a global, historical context that helps us glimpse what might be possible. It happened in South Africa after nearly fifty years of Apartheid and 200 years of white rule. It happened in Rwanda after nearly a million Tutsis were murdered in just 100 days. So, as the audience left Cinemateque 3 and walked back into Tel Aviv’s streets, we were left with one challenging question; if reconciliation can happen there, under those circumstances, then why not here?

This post was originally published on the Urban Times on 8th May