An interview with René Schuijlenburg, film maker and creator of “Digging Holes in Fortress Europe,” which will be released January 17th.
The film is about a convoy of activists who traveled the Balkan Route in Eastern Europe to assist refugees. What parts of the trip will the film focus on?
The film was created through the eyes of Vicky and I. The convoy was fairly large, and sometimes we split up to support refugees at different spots along the Balkan route. The film also documents our experiences and actions.
How many people participated in the Cars of Hope convoy? What makes the Balkan route such a hostile place for refugees?
Our convoy consisted of 17 people in 5 cars. Along the way, another car and a truck joined us. The treatment of refugees is rough on the Balkan route. In many camps, refugees had to sleep in tents without a heater through cold nights. Some were forced to sleep outside. Refugees are often confronted with police violence. In our film, there is an interview with a refugee who witnessed the murder of someone from his group by a Bulgarian police officer.
What obstacles did you face from authorities when trying to obtain footage for the film?
It was really difficult to make this film. In many of the refugee camps in Slovenia and Croatia, its was forbidden to film and to take pictures. We had to film with a hidden camera, or from a distance. This means that the quality of the footage isn’t always the best, especially as we also used some live stream material. We think that its important to show people the conditions in the camps, so we worked with what we have.
What about interference from the NGOs and the state authorities at each camp, and the pressure they put on people to join their efforts? How did your group resist?
Almost all camps were state organised. Most of the people who worked for the “official” NGO’s cooperated with state authorities and accepted the (what we call) “camp regime”. The activists in our convoy were always walking a thin line. On one hand we all had to follow the rules of the state organised camps in order to get access, and to be able to support refugees inside these camps. On the other hand, we used every gap we could find to document and monitor the situation, and to provide support to refugees beyond the official rules.
Not all activists did this, but the people from our group all did. For me, the work in state organised camps caused a permanent conflict inside myself, and I am glad that we were also able to support refugees outside state organised camps. We built a mobile charging station outside a motel near Sid (Serbia), where refugees had to wait for up to 14 hours before being transferred to the train station in Sid. Here we didn’t ask for permission, we just did our thing and provided some help and supported self-organised structures among refugees. On the last day we did the same in front of the main train station in Salzburg, Austria.
It must have been a traumatic, as well as an eye opening experience. What did people do to cope with what they saw there?
As Vicky and I arrived at the camp in Opatovac, Croatia others from our group were already there. We were shocked and said to each other, “imagine these images you see here in black & white, and you will get an idea of what concentration camps in the 1940’s looked like.“ Of course there were no gas chambers, but the way the numerous police officers behaved, the fact that the refugees where not allowed to leave the camps on their own, and the atmosphere inside the Opatovac camp all reminded us of the camps we’ve seen in documentary films about Word War II. I was truly shocked. Police officers were always yelling at people. There is one phrase that will stay in my head for the rest of my life: “One line!” Often refugees inside the Opatovac camp were not allowed to walk together, they always had to line up, one after the other. Police officers were shouting “One line!” all the time at the refugees. I had previously known that the European Union (EU) has inhumane border policies, but my experiences at the Balkan route still changed a lot. Besides documenting the inhumane treatment and police violence against refugees inside the camps, we spoke with many refugees. You can see the fear and the horror in people’s eyes when they talk about their journey. They described crossing the sea on small boats overloaded with people, and many of the refugees we spoke with saw people drowning. They describe their treatment on train stations by police officers as violence. It was all much worse than I had previously thought. It will take time to cope with it. Vicky and I spoke a lot with each other, but its difficult. After we came back, we flew to Tenerife (Canary islands) and one of the first things we heard there was that a boat full of refugees capsized on its way from Morroco to the Canary islands, and many people drowned. As soon as you are along the outer borders of the EU, you are confronted with the reality of deaths that result from EU border policies, that’s why we call it “Fortress Europe”.
What are the future plans of the activists who were involved in the Cars of Hope convoy? How can people join or support Cars of Hope?
We‘ve planned a meeting in February to discuss projects that we will do in 2016. We are very inspired by the good work of people from groups like the Dresden Balkan Konvoi from Dresden (Germany), and the people of Mosaik Hilfskonvoi from Düsseldorf (Also from Germany). As the EU is closing its borders to more and more people, the focus is now on places like Idomeni at the Greek/Macedonian border, and the Greek islands where boats with refugees arrive after crossing the Aegean sea between Turkey and Greece. Others support refugees in the camp in Calais, France. Our next project will probably be on the Greek islands.
People can support and join Cars of Hope Wuppertal by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also follow our work on Twitter (@carsofhopewtal), at Facebook, or on our blog where we will also release our film in the coming week.
Check out the trailer for “Digging holes in Fortress Europe” below: