An Interview with Charaf Zerzar about Border Violence and Knowledge Disparities.
Charaf Zerzar & Dorothée Krämer
This is the long version of the interview that was published in the printed magazine.
The borders of today’s Europe are enforced through violent and illegal practices of exclusion. People on the Move experience border violence and pushbacks on a daily basis – yet their experience is excluded from public discourse. Meanwhile politicians and authorities get away with simply denying all allegations. In this situation of lacking accountability, grassroots organisations, activists, and journalists try to raise awareness, to collect evidence and to inform the public about what is happening on the ground. We spoke to Charaf Zerzar, member of the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) in Northern Greece. The network collects testimonies of people who experienced pushbacks in order to document their experience and raise awareness about the situation.
D: Charaf, do you want to introduce yourself?
C: Sure, my name is Charaf, I am 22 years old. I am North African, Algerian exactly, and I am working with BVMN as a cultural mediator and interpreter.
D: Could you tell us a bit about the work of BVMN?
What BVMN is trying to do is to educate people in Europe about what is actually happening at the borders. Illegal pushbacks, often conducted with a lot of violence, are a daily reality of People on the Move. But the experience that undocumented people make is not taken into account in the public discourse. By collecting their testimonies, we try to make their voice heard and bear witness. The community of undocumented people is oppressed in many ways; they are always in fear of a pushback and they have to struggle every day to fulfil their basic needs. It is hard for them to make their experience heard. The struggles of minorities and oppressed people are always too little known. By collecting their testimonies, we try to raise awareness about the situation.
D: What is the situation like for People on the Move here in Northern Greece?
C: The people we speak to are mainly undocumented People on the Move. Here we mainly meet people who were pushed back from Greece to Turkey and made it back and people who were pushed back to Greece from North Macedonia or Albania. But these pushbacks happen also in the Aegean Sea, all along the Balkan route and at other internal and external European borders. Here in Greece it is currently very hard to apply for asylum. Instead of getting access to the asylum system, some people get apprehended in the centre of Thessaloniki, taken to a police station and being eventually pushed back to Turkey over the Evros river, despite telling the officers that they want to apply for asylum. But people have a right to apply for asylum, so these pushbacks are really illegal. We collected testimonies of people who were pushed back together with over 100 people. Many respondents say they were beaten by police or military; they get their valuables stolen, sometimes they get forced to undress or take off their shoes and walk barefoot. Sometimes sexual harassment takes place. These pushbacks happen not only illegally and outside of any legal framework, but also with extensive use of violence and practices of torture.
D: While you speak to people who experienced pushbacks on a daily base, state authorities still deny that this is happening..
C: Yes, it is an absurd situation. There are so many people who experience it, so much evidence collected by BVMN and other organisations and journalists, but the pushbacks and the violence just continue to happen. Politicians just claim it is fake news and that’s it.
D: Can you explain a bit more about your daily work? How does the testimony collection happen?
As a cultural mediator, I speak to the People on the Move from the community in the area. If I hear that somebody experienced a pushback, I will explain the work that we do and ask if that person wants to give a testimony. And most of them really want to speak to us, even though we tell them that it will not help their individual situation. There is a really strong solidarity among the community. Even if it will not help them personally, they want to tell their story, hoping that it can help others who might come after them and finally put an end to it. They are in a very bad situation, but they really know what solidarity means. To me this is really noble.
D: What happens next, if they want to speak to you?
C: If they give their consent, we conduct an interview with them in which we try to get an understanding of what happened to them. From where have they been pushed back? Which police was involved? Was international police involved? Was violence being used? We make sure they always feel safe and comfortable and they can stop the interview at any time. We try to collect accurate and detailed information, but we also make sure we don’t publish information that could harm them. After the interview we write a report that is then published on the website. At the moment, there are 1170 testimonies published on the website. Beside the database there is also a map on which every pushback that we documented is located. In this map you see the violence that European borders mean for People on the Move.
D: You hear stories of people who experienced border violence on a daily base and you have also been affected personally. What mean borders to you?
C: First of all, it is hard to keep hearing these kinds of stories. It is so sad that we are living in the 21century and such horrible things are happening again and again in Europe. I think what we see here at the borders is a long-lasting effect of colonialism. In Algeria, the borders that still exist today were defined by the French colonizers. They are means to control, to exert power, for the French to benefit. The people who try to come to Europe today would never come if Europeans and western colonizers didn’t go to their place and fucked it up in the first place. Now border violence in Europe makes sure they don’t get their fair share.
D: What do you think of Europe? How did your image of Europe change through coming here?
C: It changed a lot, because what we have been told in school and in our society wasn’t enough. Not everything was wrong but it wasn’t enough, and for sure some stuff was wrong. When you come here and you experience things and meet people, have conversations, then you gain another perspective. For me it feels like a compromise sometimes. In the beginning I was struggling to understand the culture. But now I can use both, sometimes with my community I am Algerian, with international volunteers and members of BVMN I am more western. But what I noticed is that some Europeans still have the white saviour mind-set. I really want Europeans to understand that western culture is not superior to other cultures. You should not try to fix others, not say you respect them and then our actions don’t show it. Your culture is not the perfect culture, and you should not act as a master who would fix other places, because that is how colonies started, and that is how the world got fucked in the first place.
D: Do you see a continuity of this mind-set and of colonialism in general?
C: Yes, this mind-set is still very present, also in the humanitarian sector. In many NGOs, white men are still so dominant. European western white men, trying to fix a migrant’s problem which they never experienced themselves. Maybe they learned something in university, but this is just not the same. And still they think they are able and smart enough to fix these problems. That’s the same mind-set which started colonialism in the first place, this is so problematic! In the community of People on the Move there are so many really educated people, also documented, but for them it is really hard to get involved in these NGOs. This is very sad and frustrating to see.
But there are also NGOs that are working to change the sector to the better by for example making it easy for people from the community of People on the Move to get involved. I think people from the community feel really responsible for their people. When you experienced something yourself, you have a much better understanding. Sometimes people from the community can help much more than international volunteers.
D: You have met many international volunteers from all over the world. Which experiences did you make?
C: That depends, different organizations have different attitudes. Sometimes volunteers or people working with NGOs see themselves as ‘heroes’, while the People on the Move without access to any fundamental provisions are labelled as ‘beneficiaries’. I find this really crazy: Everybody should have food, medical care and a place to stay, these are fundamental rights. And it is the volunteers who gain experiences here and some NGOs even make money. So aren’t they the ones who benefit from the situation? Sometimes I also get the feeling that people want to hear my personal story of suffering before they respect me. But many volunteers I met were really open to learn and to discuss stuff. It is okay to not know, but to not know and think that you know enough and better than everybody, this is really fucked up. When you set up these boundaries, like “I am western, I went to university, I know everything, I don’t need your stories”, then you are in trouble my friend, you are in a big big mushkila problem. So I do a lot of talking and explaining. It used to be tiring for me, because I am one of the few people with this experience who speak fluent English; so many volunteers come to me and have conversations with me. And sometimes I really have to start from scratch. But I feel like I have a responsibility to explain the situation to those who have no clue about it.
D: I always find the situations very interesting in which it suddenly gets obvious how divided the knowledge is, how different the experiences are that People on the Move make here in Europe and the understanding Europeans have about the situation. You once told me about a volunteer who wasn’t aware before coming here that not every person in the world can just get on a plane and fly wherever they want…
C: Yes, that person said: Why do they go from Syria to Turkey and then from Turkey to Greece and they risk drowning in the sea, why don’t they just take the plane from Syria to Germany…
D: …But also a situation last Friday in a testimony collection: We talked to a person that was arrested without any reasons. We were talking about the cell..
C: Yes, he literally said: After spending one night there, you really want to kill yourself, that is how horrible and disgusting it is.
D: Yes, and then for the reporting, I tried to find out more details, because this was a very metaphoric description and in order to do advocacy and litigation, we need “hard facts”. I asked if he had access to water, how many people where in the cell, how big it was, where they slept etc., and then I asked if there was air conditioning. And when you translated the question for him, you started laughing so hard…
C: I was not laughing about your question; it was because I know how bad it is. If you know it is really bad at some point you will just laugh, because you are tired from being sad and feeling disgusting and at one point you will just laugh. When you said that, it was a really innocent question, that is why we laugh..
D: Yes! For me it was just very symbolic. I have never been to prison and especially not to a Greek one and especially not as an undocumented person. The experiences I make are just very very different and also the knowledge and images I have are very different. I knew that there wouln’t be a working air-condition, but it is very hard for me to actually picture what this cell must have looked like..
C: Yes, that is why we really need to talk and listen. I think it is like an exchange, it is really important for me to know what the other person’s perspective is, and not just stay in my bubble. We learn even from babies! Sometimes it seems weird, why do European people not know about all of this? But then I talk to them, they learn, they talk to me, I learn, and I learn what people don’t know, and they teach me about some stuff I don’t know. So it is all about sharing and exchanging ideas, I feel really happy to have this in my life.
D: When looking at the situation of People on the Move in Europe today, I often feel everything is just getting worse. I don’t really know where to start to work for change. Do you think educating people in Europe about the situation here is an action that could eventually drive change?
C: BVMN as a network takes different approaches on this. Some people in the group think that these cases should go to the European Court and can have some legal impact. They do advocacy on a political and legal level. I personally believe in people, in western privileged people who want to learn and raise their voices against their governments. I think it is about awareness, if most of the population is aware, then for sure we change something. It is like a transmittable disease: If someone comes here you will talk to them, have a good conversation, they will learn, you will learn, they go back home, tell their family, their friends, and it will transmit very quickly. I have seen results of having a simple conversation with somebody; it is so powerful, so I really encourage you and everybody to spread what you learned. Sometimes one doesn’t realize how powerful this is. Maybe before you started this job you were just a chilled person, you were thinking there is no problem with just traveling around the world, but since you saw what is happening here, your perspective for sure changed.
D: What do you expect from Europeans?
C: I want European people to understand that being open is not a European thing. Many people think being open minded is western culture, but that is just wrong. Being open is learning from other people, understanding that there is more than what you know.
D: Beside working with BVMN and being involved in many projects, you also do music.
C: Yes recently I started to do it properly, because it is something that really satisfies me.
D: What kind of music do you do, and what is it about?
C: It is hip hop music, mostly it is just about what I feel. It’s about my life, about what I experienced in Algeria and in Europe. I think everybody is politically involved, but my music has nothing to do with politics in the common sense of politics. I would say it is just what I feel, it is a way of processing experiences. Some people call themselves rapper, some call themselves writers. I would call myself a writer.
D: Thank you Charaf for taking the time to share your thoughts with us!
For more information about Pushbacks and the work of BVMN you can visit their website here.