Zimbabwe

It is easy to complain about governments, and important to hold them to account when they so often fall short. Yet in the western world we take for granted our structures and systems; however disappointing our leaders, they function within the framework provided for them.

Not so in Zimbabwe. Without firsthand experience it is difficult to imagine living in a place where no organisation, law, person or system can be relied upon. Where, at the worst moments, people were tortured or killed for little or no reason. Where the capital city has no piped water. Where the ground beneath you shifts at the whim of a tyrant. 

Currently there is a major cash shortage. It is possible, in theory, to withdraw $100 per day but you may queue for an hour only to find the bank has run out. People exchange information: Barclays apparently has cash today, or if you go early in the morning there are less queues at FNB. As many people are paid in cash and don’t have bank accounts, and many shops don’t take credit card, this shortage causes obvious problems. Another result is the huge increase in police roadblocks handing out fines for dubious transgressions. Government officials, including police, weren’t paid last month. They must make up the difference somehow. 


Shades of the ‘Zim dollar days’ when hyper-inflation dragged the country into bankruptcy, have people scared. Nobody wants to return to carrying ‘bricks’ of cash which become worthless overnight. Or buying a weekly cardboard box from the corner shop without knowing the contents, because with the shelves bare anything is welcome. At the moment, though, it seems to be the opposite of those days: enough supplies but no cash. 

Mugabe is paranoid (with good reason). Watching him drive through town is a spectacle. Two police motorbikes go ahead to clear the road; traffic lights and rules are void, the only necessity is to pull over immediately. Failure to do so results in arrest, at best. Then comes the cavalcade, at speed. Two police cars are followed by five black cars, identical to conceal which carries Mugabe. Then come two army vehicles, each with six soldiers covering all angles with automatic rifles. Finally more police cars and an ambulance. 

It is illegal to drive past his official residence (which he doesn’t live in) between 6am and 6pm. Armed guards closely guard it, and his actual residence, and react first and ask questions later. 

It must be tiring to be so worried. Yet he endures, out-staying his welcome beyond any expectation. When elections were outrageously rigged people relied on his advanced age to put an end to his regime. It hasn’t yet. A mean old bully, always watching over his shoulder, for he has hurt almost all of his country’s people, he clings to his power. His private plane is on standby in case he needs to make an escape. A few weeks ago fear drove his wife to an impromptu trip to Singapore.

For there are stirrings that have him rightly concerned. Zimbabweans don’t have a history of protesting against injustice. Perhaps finally that is changing. Evan Marwarire has started a movement, #thisflag. Dedicated, articulate in English and Shona, consistent in his message; is he the person to lead Zimbabwe’s revolution? His commitment cannot be questioned. After organising several successful ‘stayaways’, and thwarting a kidnap attempt, he was arrested and charged with causing unrest and inciting violence (despite one of his key, often repeated messages being non-violence). On arriving at court he found that his charges had been increased to that of treason. 

But #thisflag had already garnered some international attention and Mugabe’s games couldn’t hold sway. Zimbabweans of all colours and backgrounds held vigil outside the court in an unprecedented unity, singing out decades of grief and frustration. One hundred human rights lawyers offered to collectively represent Evan.  The charges were hurriedly dropped and Evan departed for South Africa for his own safety. From there he continues to campaign and his following is growing. There have been gatherings in solidarity around the world. 


More recently the war vets have announced the end of their support. They are one of the few segments of society who have benefited from, or supported, Mugabe’s actions in the past. Now that they feel the discomfort outside of his small favoured circle, they quickly voiced their disapproval. Hypocritical perhaps, but one more straw on that camel’s back.  Is this the time Zimbabwe is finally going to stand up and say, with one breath, ‘enough is enough’? If they do, Mugabe’s sandcastle will crumble quickly. The main concern then would be who would take his place. 

Despite all of this, the media has something wrong: Zimbabwe isn’t dangerous for tourists. Even in the worst times foreigners were not targeted. And visiting Zimbabwe doesn’t mean supporting Mugabe. On the contrary, by spending wisely support can be given to local businesses which desperately need it. This country is has many splendours: it’s land, wildlife to rival Kenya but with a fraction of the traffic, and it’s people. Who, despite hardships that would have many on their knees, unfailingly just “make a plan” and carry on. They are ready to share this exquisite place with anybody who wants to ignore the fear-mongering and explore for themselves. 

Under A Poacher’s Moon

Last night I sat wrapped tightly in a blanket, watching rhinos under the full moon. Here they call it a poacher’s moon. My delight in the magical moment was marred by the knowledge that somewhere not far away there were men hidden, plotting how to access these lumbering beauties, shoot them, and hack their horns out with axes, leaving them to slowly bleed to death. 

Poaching is not a simple problem and it does not have a simple solution. It is linked to international criminal networks who also deal in drugs, arms and human trafficking.  The powerful and wealthy employ desperately poor locals to do the killing and risk capture or death. They also send in oblivious Vietnamese women as trophy hunters, to exploit the legal access to horn. Many countries now have strict sentencing for poachers, others have a shoot to kill policy. But the real players are rarely the ones caught or killed. 

And people are killed, rangers and poachers alike. With most poachers trigger happy it is generally seen as unfair to leave rangers unarmed. Occasionally third parties are killed; it is hard to distinguish movement in the dark when tensions are high. 

Rhinos are not the only victims. The most trafficked animal in the world is one many people have never heard of, the pangolin. Various species are killed for bushmeat; without the high drama of the international trade but equally prevalent. 

Well intentioned conservationists can unwittingly exacerbate, rather than combat, the problem. It is hard from a Western living room to appreciate the complexities of a situation where values are different, corruption exists at incomprehensible levels, and solutions can be counter-intuitive. Such as the fact that banning hunting of endangered species has been shown repeatedly to decrease populations. And the knowledge that for many people here any animal, no matter how glorious or threatened, is a source of meat or danger and nothing else. 

The more I learn here, the more that last point seems key. Unless local people and communities value wildlife, all other conservation efforts are largely in vain. For too long wild places have been the playground of white foreigners, wild creatures their toys. Africans have generally profited little but dealt with the results of human-wildlife conflict: attacks, spoilt crops, loss of livestock. 

So I am learning as much as I can, from academic sources but also from being and doing. Talking to people who work in this field, or those who don’t. Watching how this part of the world works. Trying to understand the problem at its source, away from sentiment and media hype, so that I can share that information. For now, that is my part to play.

I watched the rhinos and wished them a safe night, unmolested despite the betraying luminescence of that poacher’s moon. 

Problem Solving at Piraeus

Do you remember ‘problem solving’ at school? Here is the ultimate test. 

You need to feed and provide for 1500 people living in a facility designed for a small group to pass an idle hour. How do you begin? 

  
With breakfast of course. So you zoom back and forth in the sole vehicle, cramming it with sandwiches, fruit, juice, water, milk, tea. Meanwhile others (hopefully there are others that day) start to organise people into a queue. This was getting easier with the people who had been here for a week and knew the system, but they left. And the new people don’t know how it works here, and are frustrated and anxious. Since the borders closed tension is rising, as trapped people give in to their fear. 

On a good day the queue moves quickly and you have enough of everything and you even have a chance to talk and joke a little as you go. But sometimes the system breaks down because there are not enough volunteers, or a shove escalates into a tussle, or food runs out and there is a delay. On the worst day you find yourself crushed against a table and have to shut the whole thing down and yell and restore order before you continue. 

After breakfast there are other needs: baby milk, soap, information, reassurance, nappies. You try to provide these while working around minor calamities like the store room flooding or the cleaners needing to evacuate the building for a whole day. In case it starts to feel too easy, the port authorities, Greek government and UNHCR conspire to change the plan frequently, provide you with as little information as possible, and ensure that the little information they do dole out is last minute. 

You find yourself saying ‘no’ more than you ever would want to. No, I can’t give you a tent, though you just arrived and it is raining. I don’t have any to give. I’m sorry, maybe later. No, you can’t have more than one tomato. I know after a week of prepackaged cheese sandwiches fresh vegetables are like gold, but if I give you two, somebody else goes without. Please, for my baby. No, I’m sorry, your baby is precious, but not any more so than the hundreds of others here. No, there are no showers. Our society’s standards have slipped so low, you are lucky there are toilets. No, no, I’m sorry.

You cherish the victories, when people ask for things you can provide freely, which let you feel momentarily good about what you are doing. Almost giddy, you press upon the person more than they asked for. Soon enough you will have to say no again. 

Walking around, certain faces are familiar. The people who resisted the buses to the army camps, chose instead to stay. You smile at the man with the bandaged face, who got punched the other day. He is luckier than the one with a knife wound. Yes, tension is high. You high five cheeky kids, who trail around after you, bored and restless. You take a much needed break with the teenagers who have been working alongside you all week, who have become friends. You worry desperately when despair empties the face of one of them, and you find out his family is missing. You comfort a fellow volunteer, who is hysterical because she saw an unconscious child. 

Occasionally you have to step outside for a minute, where children are playing, and breathe. You might pick up rubbish or talk to people. Something to keep busy, because if you stop for too long you must face the real problem: these people have nowhere to go. And to that problem no solution is in sight. 

David or Goliath?

  
Idealism is easy and free. It makes us feel powerful. We lean into the world, determined to push it back onto its axis. We push and push. If we are lucky, something shifts a tiny bit. Sometimes, exhausted, we slump.

As somebody with more experience than me put it recently, “there is a reason most humanitarians are cynical alcoholics”. I arrived here with a healthy level of cynacism about charities and the aid industry already installed. It has been simultaneously nurtured and stomped on. 

Lesvos is currently a kaleidoscope mix of people: locals who have dropped everything to save dying children on their kitchen tables, locals just trying to get on with their lives, war survivors seeking a new life, opportunists trying to make a quick buck. And volunteers of every hue: Greek anarchists, British grannies, Spanish lifeguards and Singaporean businessmen. Some are independant volunteers, helping wherever they see a need. Many small NGOs or unregistered groups have sprung up in the last few months. 

The large, international charities are also here. It is they who sometimes feed my cynacism. Medicins Sans Frontieres is undoubtedly doing good work. But their tent inside Moria compound closes at midnight, after which time there is no official medics onsite to cater to the thousands of inhabitants. The doctors of the camp outside the fence, including the incredible woman who started it and regularly works twenty hour shifts, are denied entry by the Greek authorities. Those who arrive in the early hours, hypothermic or injured, must hope they find a volunteer who can direct them outside the walls, and that they have the ability to walk there. 

Save The Children has a tent, which is closed on Sundays. Apparently the children need to schedule their requirement for salvation during normal business hours. 

Oxfam has a tent which distributes necessities such as sleeping bags, hats, head torches and rucksacks. But the process is a tedious exercise in bureaucracy, demeaning to volunteers and recipients, and leaves many lacking what they need. 

Just as the system threatens to relegate me to the cynical alcoholics table for evermore, out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of the others. Thousands of people working together, or sometimes alone. Shunned by the system, they work around, above and below it, and sometimes break straight through it. There are so many groups it is impossible to keep track of them all. Their offers are similar: safe landing, warmth, food and smiles for those who need them. 

Recently, authorities are putting more and more restrictions on them. Kitchens are closed down, taking away the possibility of soup and leaving increasingly creative sandwich choices. Medics are increasingly regulated. Volunteers are threatened with arrest for smuggling if they step into the water to lift a child ashore. They persist. 

They provide an alternative version of humanity. And raise the question of how we could create a system which has the best of both worlds? We need the influence, supporters, marketing and finances of a major international NGO, with the human touch, common sense, lack of red tape, and ability to respond quickly of a grassroots movement. Answers on a postcard please . . . 

Frontex ‘Rescue’

To clear up any illusions that Europe is a paradigm of human rights, here is what happened in Skala Sikamineas last night. 

Around 1am a boat approached shore. Following the recent pattern, the Greek coastguard and Frontex tried to direct it to the harbour. The boat instead landed on the beach a short distance away. Instead of allowing the people to go to one of the two camps right there, as is the normal procedure, Greek police and Frontex representatives of several nationalities detained them. This was done in quite an aggressive way and the people were directed to sit in the town square, still wet. 

The official reason given was the suspicion that there were smugglers aboard. The fact that shivering children were unlikely to be smugglers didn’t seem to be taken into consideration. Neither did the possibility of allowing the people to get warm and dry while they were being investigated, despite the numerous people available to make that possible. 

In contradiction of the official justification, a Frontex representative was overheard stating that they were being made an example of, as they had ignored directions and landed in the wrong place. 

Demonstrating yet again the huge hearts of the local people here, the local taverna owner opened his doors to the refugees, and then proceeded to give the Greek police a tongue lashing. 

People from that boat were taken directly to Moria, without a chance to change or eat, aside from the few provisions volunteers managed to bring to them in town. 

Following this, the lifeguard teams were threatened with arrest for obstructing the work of the official vessels. So when a second boat arrived it had no help, just the ‘directions’ from the coastguard, which mainly involve bright lights and shouting: possibly more terrifying than helpful. Thankfully volunteers on shore were able to guide the boat in fairly well and everybody got out safely. 

So, citizens of Europe, or the world, this is how our official agencies act on our behalf. Although it is far from the worst thing that has happened here, it shows a lack of basic decency that I find sad. 

Battleships, and being a baby-holding bouncer

It seems crass and beyond insensitive to compare the attempted boat crossings to a game, but I couldn’t help it this morning as I watched four ‘official’ boats haggling over one filled with refugees. Frontex threw in a few high speed sweeping manoeuvres to demonstrate their superior boat power. The lifeguard team attempted to perform their role of guiding a safe landing. The others (coastguard?) hovered like anxious children about to lose a favourite toy. 

  
Meanwhile, the Turkish coastguard’s newest method in their attempts to turn boats back is to turn high pressured hoses on them. In the early morning stillness terrified screams could be heard from our shores. 

Lighthouse camp, where I work, is a warm bubble where guests are welcomed and provided for without question. The relief of arriving safely means the atmosphere is usually cheerful. It is possible to forget sometimes the tragedy closing in all around our little haven. 

For the last two days, after previously experiencing the chaos of the changing tent without one, I designated myself the role of bouncer. Only two or three mother-child groups, or individual women, coming in at once means that they can each have somebody helping them, and avoids the tent being packed to capacity and resembling an ‘everything must go’ sale. 

An unexpected bonus of being bouncer is that I spent most of the morning cuddling babies. As a convenient person who must remain in one place anyway, I was designated baby holder while mums got changed. 

But I also sat by the fire and spoke to a women, about my age, who was here with her three children but had no idea where her husband was. An old woman who told many stories with great intensity and expression, despite not having any common language with her audience, let tears flow uninterrupted during parts of her story, telling us horrors we will probably never comprehend. 

Emotions chase each other across their faces, smiles slipping away as memories rise up unbidden. Tears fall and the group absorbs those emotions, as the only service they can offer. And then somebody cracks a joke or a child demands attention, and the moment dissolves. 

Moments from camp

After a lull of over a week, during which most volunteers began to go stir crazy, five boats arrived in a twelve hour period. A largely inexperienced team and some relaxing of preparations, due to the recent quiet spell, led to minor disorganisation. There were a few medical issues to be taken care of. But everybody left us warm and dry, with full bellies, smiles and kisses. 

  
A whirlwind of activity while providing for guests was followed by a steady slog of tidying, restocking, airing tents, clearing rubbish, and gathering wet clothes to go to Dirty Girls. Today we also had new boxes of donations to sort. After twelve non-stop hours, apart from a ten minute lunch break at 4.30, some moments stand out:
While helping change the clothes of an elderly woman in the medical tent, she retrieved a folded piece of paper, covered in handwriting and wrapped in plastic. Casting it at me, her eyes conveyed that it was important. Wondering what precious information I cradled, I also marvelled at her ability to maintain dignity while half naked, being dressed by three strangers babbling in a foreign tongue, in a tent on an island far from home. Thankfully her son was located and accompanied her to the hospital. 

The production of a box of (almost definitely fake) Armani sweatshirts caused a swarm of young male guests, and one female volunteer. Much hilarity ensued. It’s the little things that make a difference, cliched but true. 

A future Oscar winner, president, or schwindler named Marwa enslaved the whole camp. Using a cute eight year old face to best advantage, she charmed her way into a variety of privileges before her wickedly cheeky reality was recognised. While her mum ‘shopped’ and her unnaturally happy baby brother was passed around, she did laps, trailing bemused volunteers. 
It seems that the predictions were possibly true. The three NATO boats and sudden enthusiasm of Frontex are inadequate to turn back the boats now that better weather has allowed more than a trickle to make the attempt. It will be interesting to see if this proves to be the case over the next days and weeks.