Boštjan Videmšek, war reporter and journalist. Photo: Uroš Hočevar/Delo
I met Boštjan Videmšek on a Saturday evening, near the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ljubljana, where most of the “conventional” journalists get their degrees. Not Boštjan, he and his work are anything but conventional. He is a foreign correspondent and crisis reporter for the biggest Slovenian daily, DELO. He spent the last 18 years reporting from all possible war and conflict zones around the globe, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Syria, Libya, DR Congo, Somalia, Gaza, Lebanon, Pakistan, Central Asia, Egypt, Kosovo... His work has been published in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Atlantic Post, BBC World, El Periodico, Gato Pardo, Periodismo Humano, Revolve Magazine (where he used to be an editor-at-large), El Diairo, Ahora Semanal, The Chronikler, Politico…the list goes on. Videmšek is an author of four books. 21st Century Conflicts: Remnants of War(s) was published in the US in 2012. Revolt: Arab Spring vs. European Fall (2013) was a bestseller in his native Slovenia. Same goes for Ultrablues (2014), a book about ultramarathon running that he co-authored.

He won several national and international professional awards and was chosen as one of the European Young Leader in 2015. He was nominated for the European Press Prize in 2016. He dedicated his last six years to reporting on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean - mostly in Greece, which he calls his "second home." His new book (On the Run: Modern Exodus) is field report/essay/reportage/analysis based on more than 2500 interviews. It has just been published in Slovenia, and it will also published in Germany in July. Videmšek also wrote a screenplay for a theatrical play, Rokova modrina, which was put on stage last autumn. Born in 1975, he studied Sociology of Culture and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana and is a member of TFAS alumni (Euro-Mediterranean University) in Athens and Washington.

Despite its general unwelcoming, even hostile, attitude toward refugees, Europe remains a promised land.

Even the worst Europe has to offer is comparatively better than the situation these people are trying to escape. Through the eyes of a spoiled European, who has enjoyed decades of relative prosperity, the financial crisis perhaps seems like a nuclear catastrophe. However, on a scale of pain and suffering people are experiencing around the world, it is almost not worth mentioning. We are still living quite well, and are doing so mainly at the expense of those who are the refugees now. Europe is ultimately still a much better place to live in, and will most likely remain an attractive destination for all those trying to make a better living.

Is it justified to distinguish between economic immigrants and refugees?

Photo: Jure Eržen
Yes, it is a distinction I reluctantly had to make and have then used throughout the book. Despite my aversion towards classifying some people as refugees and others as economic immigrants, this distinction being abused for political purposes, one has to admit that there are some fundamental differences between the two. Someone trying to make it out of Aleppo so as not to be killed by the regime or by Russian bombing or to fall prey to intrusions of the Islamic State is definitely worse off. Then there are people who make conscious decisions and are carefully planning their journeys to Spanish strawberry fields or construction yards of southern Italy. More often than not, such economic migrations are not just family projects, but projects of whole villages or ethnic communities. Such a community chooses two to three individuals, usually well-educated and physically strong, and gathers together from ten to fifteen thousand dollars for their journey.

It seems these people are in a kind of limbo. They cannot afford to go back and they are not allowed to go forward.

Economic migration was, and still is, most common in the western and central African states, especially after the civil wars in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Liberia. At the time, Sahel became one of the busiest migrant routes to Europe, usually through Morocco or Libya. Communities that invest a lot into these individuals have immense expectations of them. It functions almost as a kind of commune or cooperative, but en route to Melilla, there is huge competition, indeed it is a survival of the fittest. It is a kind of social Darwinism, with elements of The Raft of the Medusa, accelerated by geo-strategy and history. These people know, all the time, with whom they need to talk. Everything is organized.

Indeed, it is a kind of limbo, but one that is spinning. Every individual on this journey does everything in his or her power to be the master of their destiny, while always knowing that they are not. Thus many become much more religious than they were at home. In this spinning limbo, an interplay of physics and metaphysics is creating a new mindset. These people are heroes.

A series of revolutions, known as the Arab Spring, further complicated the situation many of these people had to face. In 2011, when it all began, hopes for a democratic renewal were very high, but has the democratic alternative ever stood a real chance, or has it been doomed to fail from the very beginning?

It is very difficult to agree with this, but I guess I would have to, nonetheless. I believe it was Tolstoy whom they once asked what he thinks about the French Revolution. His response was that it is still too early to judge it. Five years have passed since the Arab Spring, five very intense years, and I believe it is still not the time to give any final judgements about the whole process. Having said that, it is still true that especially Syria has faced a horrific counter process. At a certain moment, the last remnants of shame have been lost in the sphere of politics, geopolitics and strategies, which basically means that the remainder of ethics has died away. Syrian battlefields are a clear example of that. The sheer brutality of this war is incomparable to any conflict I have seen in the last two decades, and I have seen most of them up close. 

Tahrir, the famous square in Cairo, where protests against Hosni Mubarak have taken place, was an especially powerful symbol of the Arab Spring. What was your experience at the time?

I’ve witnessed the whole process first-hand, and I must say that it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Living through an actual change, when thousands were willing to give their lives for the betterment of the lives of millions, is something exceptional. Unfortunately, only three to four months later, in April 2011, it became obvious that nothing was going to actually happen or change. A group that began protesting was indeed a minority of the some 75 million in Egyptian society. The majority remained passive and have not engaged politically in this time. During the dictatorship of Mubarak, these people lost their political essence and could not have revived it in the short time span of Tahrir (the name means freedom in Arabic) protests.

In a certain moment, at the time of Mubarak's fall, the protestors, intoxicated by their victory, even left the square. This was a huge mistake and a very symbolic moment, the space of freedom had been abandoned, rather than occupied and defended. In such a space, perhaps a democratic alternative could be eventually forged, but it hasn’t been. In the 2011 general elections, there was no party that would represent people who protested in Tahrir. Instead of physics, the political space was filled with metaphysics, since there was no democratic alternative, the Muslim brotherhood presented itself as a religious alternative.

However, when the brotherhood tried to seize power, the military already knew it had won, because of their total control of the “deep state,” a state within a state, they will never manage to effectively wield power. In July 2013, the army made a coup d’etat and any remnants of the Arab Spring were done away with.

You’ve already mentioned that Syria was a very different case…

Photo: Jure Eržen
In Syria, the window of freedom was opened much more widely. The problem is that something we all hate should go through this window— international military intervention. At the same time, it was obvious all along that such an intervention was not going to happen. When the leadership of the Syrian opposition realized that they cannot count on foreign help, they began working with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar. It could be seen as a very unprincipled decision, but a logical one, nonetheless. This meant that instead of (very conditionally speaking) Western armies, undemocratic, para-armies began entering Syrian war.

Experienced and financially-backed jihadist fighters entered the scene. Thus, the Syrian upheaval lost its virginity very quickly, but it lost it by rape—one with extensive support of Bashar al-Assad. It was in his best interest that the protests become demonized by their actions, and he did all he could to help. In the first weeks of the uprising, in March and April 2011, he released from his notorious prisons a couple thousand extreme Islamists. 

On the other hand, it was the regime of Assad that gave the strongest support to Islamists in the years 2004-2007. People who were sent to Iraqi fields of death began returning sometime after the uprising against Assad. People that are today the regimes' greatest adversaries had been its best friends just a few years ago. The Islamic State was born in Iraq, not in Syria. The situation is a complete clusterf*ck.

All things considered, one could say that there is a whole “refugee industry.” This might seem cynical, but the situation itself is cynical.

The fact is that ordinary people are just commodities changing hands. Everyone tries to make a profit on the refugee route. Local people in Izmir, Turkey, are selling life vests, arranging boat trips to Greece, where others are already waiting for these boats and their engines. Even former refugees themselves are sometimes intermediaries for the smugglers. It is estimated that all of this accounts for around 180 million EUR of monthly traffic, all of it untaxed.

On a more macro level, this shows through the EU signing a kind of “trade agreement” with Turkey for 6 billion EUR that is being used to stopping the influx of refugees into Europe. This means that people are being forced to stay in horrible conditions in Syria. Already 900 kilometers of wall and fences have been built on the Turkish-Syrian border. This is how EU money has been used. Things that people are experiencing as a direct consequence of EU decisions are horrific. I have seen a lot, but I will never forget an image of the Syrian mother with two daughters in her hands. She was begging Turkish border patrol to let her through into Syria, as one of her daughters was horribly sick and could get treatment there, but she was forced to wait for so long that this child died in her arms. This is what it has all come down to.

Despite the dramatic media coverage of the whole refugee crisis, it seems very few people understand what refugees are really going through.

Yes, at a recent roundtable about my new book, I’ve asked people how many have actually met a refugee? Everyone was quiet. The only way to go beyond a black-and-white picture is to learn about the personal stories. Humanism, that is pure humanism, one not burdened by ideological agendas, is the only response that counts and helps people.