Public Anthropologist Award 2022

Public Anthropologist Award (PUAN-A) is awarded to a social and cultural anthropologist who has published an outstanding contribution that addresses – in innovative, engaging and compelling ways – key societal issues related to one or more of the following topics: violence, war, poverty, social movements, freedom, aid, rights, injustice, inequality, social exclusion, racism, health, and environmental challenges.

A contribution can be any published research output – for example a book, peer reviewed article, documentary, etc.

Application: submit your research output together with your CV (2 pages) to Public Anthropologist’s Editor-in-Chief, Antonio De Lauri:

Write PUAN-A + “Title of the research output” in the subject heading.

Prize: A committee chaired by the Editor-in-Chief will select one research output for the Public Anthropologist Award. The author will receive a prize of 500 €.

Deadline for PUAN-A 2022: 15 January 2022 (for outputs published in 2020 and 2021).

For more information on the journal, please visit

Prize Winners

The 2021 winner of the Public Anthropologist Award was Ather Zia for her book Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (University of Washington Press, 2019 & Zubaan Publishing, 2020). Ather Zia is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Gender Studies Program at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. She holds a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines the Indian military occupation, settler colonialism, and women’s collective political and social challenges in the disputed Indian-administered Kashmir. Resisting Disappearance is a powerful narration of the effects of oppression and political disputes on people’s everyday life. The book is engaging and shrewdly written. It effectively summarizes the broad and committed scholarship and research behind it. An excellent example of anthropology’s capacity to both inform and inspire.

Writing a history of the “long summer of migration”: Reflections on activist-academic practices


In this paper we reflect upon our work in camps along the so-called Balkan route in 2016, from a perspective that merges activism, academic insights, and political orientations. Our experiences, the materials we collected, and subsequent reflections led to the creation of the exhibition “Yallah!? Along the Balkan route,” which is located at the intersection of activism, art, and science. In this paper, we contemplate different areas of tension that emerged in our work as supporters of the struggles for open borders from an academic and activist perspective. We also reflect on how we gained specific knowledge through participation in that struggles.


One day in March 2016 we are sitting in a semiformal refugee camp close to Idemoni, a village on the Greek side close to the Greek-Macedonian border. We are sitting in front of the border fence with a Syrian journalist and talking about the situation in Syria. He tells us about the divided city of Aleppo, one part belonging to Assad and the other to the rebels. It is not possible to cross the dividing line and visit family members on the other side. He talks about daily bombings, torn body parts, and how he has been working as a war journalist reporting on all this. He explains that journalists are the first to be killed because they inform about things that should not be too visible. He concludes: “Every day there was a massacre, everyday children died. But if I found a way back, I would go back. All this is better than here.We did not know what to say, realizing the great gulf between us while sitting next to each other and talking. (Personal notes, February 28, 2016)

This article reflects on the tensions existing at the nexus of scholarly and activist issues and practices. They are discussed regarding the experiences of the authors in Idomeni in March 2016 and in other refugee camps later that year too—ones in which the authors supported refugees’ fight for open borders. This article outlines an activist research approach, which we term “struggle as method” based on Lisa Riedner’s notion of “conflict as method” (2014, 2018).[1]

We draw empirically, and retrospectively, on our own activist-academic practices within the struggles for open borders along the so-called Balkan route. The practices discussed in this article derive from the experiences of a small team of four people (students, workers, and activists) who traveled to Greece and Serbia. We were based in a semiformal refugee camp[2] close to Idomeni, a village in Greece close to the Greek-Macedonian border, from February 21 to March 14, 2016. From July 14 to August 5, 2016, we were in northern Greece and visited refugee camps in Katsikas, Derveni, Softex, Nea Kavala, Lagkadikia, and Diavata. In March 2017, we visited Belgrade and spoke to people on the move in a park there as well as in a refugee camp close to the Serbian capital. During our time in Greece, we participated in leftist, self-organized structures providing infrastructural support to refugees. We accompanied refugees in their day to day lives and wrote blogs[3] about their ongoing struggles for open borders. We spoke to many people in these camps, and were able to record 32 audio and video statements from people on the move in English, Arabic, Farsi, and Kurdish.

We followed ongoing daily protests in Idomeni. We asked people protesting open questions: “What do you want people in Germany to know?” “What is going on here?” We recorded responses mostly in short statements close to the protest sites and sometimes longer, more or less political, talks in calmer settings. Our group documented the protests with video recordings and photographs.

The two authors of this article, together with a new team, later transformed the collected material into the exhibition “Yallah!? Along the Balkan route.”[4] This exhibition is located at the intersection of activism, art, and science, and was held in a number of German-speaking regions from fall 2017 to fall 2019.

The engagement at the borders we are reflecting on here started as solely an activist initiative. The two people writing this article only started to make use of their academic backgrounds later on in the project, when it came to creating the exhibition. When we entered the field, we did not discuss carrying out academic research. Nevertheless, we profited from academic insights into field research from Cultural Anthropology during our stay in the camps.

This article focuses on two areas of tension. The first is the breakdown of the Dublin Regulation in the “long summer of migration” (Kasparek and Speer, 2015), and the tensions arising within a humanitarian frame between control and agency. The second area of tension concerns activist-academic research approaches themselves. We will discuss problems of representation claims regarding participation in struggles (Riedner, 2015, 2018) seeking to produce a counter-knowledge “from below” against hegemonic governmental knowledge forms.

Acting in a Humanitarian Framework between Control and Agency

“What we witnessed in the long summer of migration in 2015 was and is not a refugee crisis, but a historical and structural defeat of the European border regime” (Hess et al., 2017, p. 6). The term “long summer of migration” expresses a situation in which “refugees had forced the Austrian and German governments to open their borders in a humanitarian gesture” (Hess and Karakayali, 2017, p. 26). In 2015 a corridor with complete infrastructure from Greece to Central Europe emerged through a series of formal and informal agreements and cooperation initiatives between states situated along the route, being fostered by the European Union. Within this corridor, agents of security as well as formal nongovernmental organizations and ad hoc volunteers were all involved. It can be understood as a humanitarian corridor (Moving Europe, 2016), one emerging as a humanitarian response to the open and visible brutality of state agents and to violent clashes between border guards and refugees along the Balkan route (Moving Europe, 2016).

The corridor arose as a special form of internal border (Hameršak et al., 2020), effectively a humanitarian border “holding together in an uneasy alliance a politics of alienation with a politics of care, and a tactic of abjection and one of reception” (Walters, 2010, p. 145). This humanitarian corridor was then later described as a “formalized corridor” (Beznek et al. 2016; Speer, 2017; Hameršak et al. 2020) so as to emphasize diverse and dynamic processes. From the perspective of the transit states, rational self-interest played its part, with formalization primarily an acceleration of the transit procedure (Speer, 2017), creating an extra-legal space of exception (Sperr, 2017; Kasparek, 2017) serving to bring back under control the dynamics of movement of thousands of migrants (Beznek et al., 2016; Moving Europe, 2016; Tošić, 2017; Kasparek 2017; Hameršak and Plese, 2018). The historical importance of the formalized corridor lies not, therefore, in its closure but in its “formation and its unexpectedly long existence” (Speer, 2017, p. 76).

When we set out on the route, the corridor was not yet closed—although how long it would remain open was contested. We observed several protests. Often, we heard the Arabic slogan of Syrian rebels: “Who does not participate has no courage.” We argue here that, of course, refugees are agents in their own struggles. They are not passive objects, they have agency, and they know how to act in difficult and violent situations. “When I decided to come, I knew it would be difficult. But I decided”—so one woman told us in Halle, Germany, in April 2017. We discuss the power of refugees in two respects. First, refugee “non-movement”—defined as collective actions by non-collective actors; practices carried out by a larger number of ordinary people. […] They contribute significantly to social change” (Bayat, 2012, p. 31). Refugees questioned the Dublin Regulations through everyday practices of collective disregard. The refugees crossed borders and fences repeatedly as part of collective movement in large numbers, a relevant and specific form of resistance and power of action (Moving Europe, 2016; Hess and Karakayali, 2017).

The second source of refugees’ power lies in their visibility within the humanitarian discourse. In Germany at the time, a “welcome culture” was staged and a “civil welcome society” arose (Karakayali and Kleist, 2015). Humanitarian narratives were at play in other countries along the route as well (Greenberg and Spasić, 2017; Jakešević, 2017; Sardelić, 2017; Bužinkić, 2018). Following William Walters, important is “knowledge which problematizes the border as a site of suffering, violence and death, and a political zone of injustice and oppression” (2010, p. 150). While critical theory and research has highlighted the governmental strategies and effects related to humanitarianism, we should not forget that there are other forms of humanitarianism too—notably ones emanating from grassroots activism and campaigns (Allegra, 2017; Brković, 2018, 2020). The established humanitarian regime has potential effects on migrants’ ability to cross borders. One form of agency from below lies in rendering visible brutality, harm, and human rights violations. Following Judith Butler et al., “vulnerability is part of the very meaning and practice of resistance […] characterized by interdependency and public action”(2016, p. 7).

People on the move were able to make use of a humanitarian approach by criticizing structures and people responsible for false humanity.” These individuals are able to adopt and adapt humanitarian arguments to demand unredeemed promises. In many interviews, then, people questioned European or German humanity; additionally We don‘t need false humanitycould be seen on a cardboard sign during protests in Idomeni. “Is this what your humanity looks like?” a person from Afghanistan asked in a camp near Belgrade in May 2017. Another young man told us in Idomeni in February 2016: “The European Union knows no mercy. They are watching us and make promises to us and nothing changes at all.” A woman in Nea Kavala, a refugee camp in Greece, summed up the situation there in July 2016 as follows: “We are only letters to them, nothing more.” Another person in Idomeni, speaking in February 2016, was more pointed besides: “They don’t give a shit!

Others contrasted their experiences in Europe with the situations they had faced in their home countries, challenging the Eurocentric view of the Old Continent as a place of human rights:We had our freedom. We were rebels and protesters in Syria. Here we are in jaila person in Idomeni told us after the border closure in March 2016. The judgment made by a person in a refugee camp in Nea Kavala in July 2016 catches Europe in its own misguided self-image meanwhile: We came here to Europe because people here are civilized and advanced. At least that’s what we thought.

Europe was criticized for making people vulnerable and for rendering false humanity visible, as articulated by a young man in Belgrade in May 2017: If you want to kill us, kill us directly. Finish, finish the game. We are playing a game. We’re the football, you know? One kicks us, the other side kicks us. On the border is the goalkeeper. And he kicks us; they catch us and send us back. So we are the football, and we don’t know when the game will be over. 

Activist-Academic Research Struggles

In this section we discuss engaged anthropology and reflect on our own academic-activist practices. We begin with a review of the main results of the “Writing Culture Debate” and the “Crisis of Representation” before moving on to activist-academic practices of social criticism, advocacy, and struggle as method.

Within cultural anthropology, reflections on power relations between the research field and researchers have become an increasingly important theme. The Writing Culture Debate in the 1970s and 1980s shifted the self-understanding of anthropological writings from the idea of objectively observing the truth, captured in texts, to the process of constructing knowledge and truth (Clifford and Marcus, 1986; Marcus and Fischer, 1986; Berg and Fuchs, 1993). The idea developed that academic writing creates the worlds it describes and that “ethnographic studies can legitimately be called fictions” (Clifford, 1993, p.110). Interwoven with findings from feminist academic criticism and postcolonial theory, power dimensions in the field, the subject position of the researcher, and the process of producing knowledge became central features of reflexive research practice. The relation between the subject and object of observation began to be questioned (Holmes and Marcus, 2005; Faubion and Marcus, 2009), along with the modes of representation of “the other” (Said, 1979; Stacey, 1988; Escobar and Restrepo, 2005; Browne and Nash, 2010; Fabian, 2014). The idea of “situated knowledge” (Haraway, 1988) became central, recognizing that our knowledge is always local, fragmented, and situated in a particular context.

Ethnographic research is based on participation and observation. It is precisely here that the production of knowledge passes through sensations, interpretations, and the researcher her or himself, who becomes the medium of knowledge production (Duden, 2004; Bendix, 2006). The central problems, ones that every researcher has to deal with, can be summarized in terms of questions of representation: Who speaks for whom? Who is heard, and who remains invisible? Which dimensions of power are reproduced or undermined? What kind of power relations are at stake, reproduced, and questioned through different kinds of research and knowledge production? Who profits from the research?

Through these debates, new forms of writings—ones more experimental and creative—were discussed that make the researcher and the context of the research visible. New fields of Anthropology such as Science and Technology Studies emerged, with the relationship between researcher and the researched no longer following the classical approach of studying down; studying through or studying up were now possible too (Nader, 1969; Wedel, 2004; Hannerz, 2006; Reinhold and Wright, 2011). Furthermore the simple exploration of locally fixed and locally ascertainable cultures was questioned (Abu-Lughood, 1996; Ferguson and Gupta, 1997; Welz, 1998), opening up the field to multi-sited ethnography (Marcus, 1995) able to follow the contours and networks between people, ideas, and objects (Welz, 1998; Burawoy et al., 2000; Hess, 2005).

Our main concern here is how the performativity of knowledge production can be used in the sense of consciously engaged research. Following John Law and John Urry, “social investigation makes worlds, then it can, in some measure, think about the worlds it wants to help to make” (2004, p. 391). If our writings and methods create the world and are never absolutely true, but depend rather on our individual point of view, we can discuss how to use “the power to bring new worlds into being [and] become open to possibility rather than limitations of the possible” (Gibson-Graham, 2008, p. 3). We understand our work as a productive interaction between academic and activist knowledge (König and Steffen, 2013), where the difference between the two “dissolves as soon as we look at the concrete ethnographic research practice” (Riedner and Weissmann, 2013, p. 196). However, “in such a situation, contradictions and tensions inevitably arise – a paradox that has to be endured” (König and Steffen, 2014, p. 272). While debates on engaged anthropology in Germany are still in their infancy, in the Anglo-Saxon context they are highly developed, differentiating between engaged anthropology, action anthropology, activist research, and public anthropology. Setha M. Low and Sally Engle Merry (2010) cluster these modes of engagement into six specific domains: sharing and support; teaching and public education; social critique; collaboration; advocacy; and, activism.

“Thank You for the Media!”

Thus far we have described a contested political situation along the so-called Balkan route between the control function of humanitarianism and the agency of people on the move themselves. We decided to focus on our accompaniment and support of the latter’s ongoing protests, which were directed at the politics of exclusivity, because the visibility of the perspective “from below”—or, better, migrants’ perspectives—seemed to be of great relevance. Methodologically we can situate our practices here under the research approaches of social critique and advocacy. In terms of social critique, we tried to understand the effects of policies on the people at the borders and highlight the “linkages between individual or group suffering and structural factors by examining harms in historical context and within relations of power” (Merry and Low, 2010, p. 208). One relevant aspect of social critique that we were able to grasp quickly during our stay in Idomeni concerns the depoliticizing humanitarianism described above, against which we tried to highlight the agency of people on the move themselves.

However, this humanitarian control function of the corridor was not the only prerequisite for the official closure of the route. In Idomeni in winter 2015/2016, having the right papers was the ticket to entering the corridor. Only people able to prove a certain citizenship were allowed to cross borders, thus creating a hierarchy. Many of those who were no longer allowed to pass borders were excluded and sent away from the official camps, saw food supplies cut, or were evicted by the police and brought to detention centers. Although some of the protesters continued to call for unity among the various status groups, this filtering by nationality had a number of effects on solidarity between refugees of different origins. “We’re all refugees here, why is there a difference?” a woman from Afghanistan told us in Idomeni in March 2016. We analyzed this as a policy of splitting up different groups of refugees in order to minimize their subversive power and to prevent them from challenging borders by passing across them collectively, in the sense of Asef Bayat’s (2012) “life as politics.” We described it as the old way of governance of “divide and rule.” A refugee we spoke to depicted documents and citizenship as follows: “The papers are like money, they are like gold now. It is more important than being human. Without papers, you are nothing, not a human being”(Interview in Idomeni, February 28, 2016).

We also tried to make the diverse critiques of refugees visible by sharing them on our blog. In an advocacy sense, therefore, we attempted hereby to “assist [local] communities in organizing efforts, giving testimony, [and] witnessing human rights violations”(Low and Merry, 2010, p. 210). In one case, we also encountered police violence in the form of brutal revenge after protests. People called us at night when they realized that some protest leaders were attacked and severely beaten by the border guards. We found the affected people in the hospital and in the camp, connected them with lawyers, discussed matters with them, and tried to support one person in bringing their case to court. We collected witness documents such as the following, which we published together with a larger report:[5]

And suddenly three men crossed the Macedonian border. They were the heads of the protest, which was here on the tracks. […] The Macedonian soldiers recognized them too and one told him to raise his hands, so he can search him. The police, the Macedonian soldier, punched him in the face. […] One of the soldiers starts to kick him at every point of his body – into his face, on his legs, in his side, on his back. […] They beat him up so violently – it was terrible. Then they started to stun him with stun guns. And then they brought him back to Greece – one of them. They have taken one of them with them, they did not send him back to Greece. I do not know what happened to him, if they have let him go or taken him with them. I do not know. But the other two were sent back to Greece. (Eyewitness report from March 6, 2016, in Idomeni)

Beyond this case, we aimed to provide space for people to express their respective demands and views. We asked people on the move what information and requests they wanted to convey to those from Northern European countries such as Germany. We collected many contemporary witness documents, in which these individuals described the situation faced or criticized the local and global politics of inequality. The situation worldwide or the influence of the West on the conflicts from which they had fled were cited here, such as in the statement “this president [of Afghanistan] was not elected by the people of Afghanistan” made by a woman from there in Idomeni in March 2016. In Diavata refugee camp, Greece, another woman from Afghanistan told us angrily, in July 2016, about the involvement of the West in her native country and how it avoided any responsibility for the refugees subsequently coming to Europe. Accordingly, these migration flows were produced precisely through these policies: “Bomb Afghanistan completely so that we are all destroyed at once.” A young man from Syria, meanwhile, argued in Idomeni in February 2016 that: “Every country sells weapons. Everyone supports any group while they fight.”

We discussed the political situation in Germany and Europe and the changing right-wing narratives with different people stuck at the borders. In the debates on the murders at the offices of the newspaper Charly Hebdo in Paris, France, in January 2015 or on the attack of Anis Amri on the Christmas market in Berlin, Germany, in December 2016, people from Muslim countries were described as a threat to security in general. From the perspective of people stuck at the border, the debates should be more nuanced and situated in their wider context: “Many people say that if they go back to Syria, they will have to fight for [Islamic State] or Al-Nusra. This is the only work in war in Syria” a man in Idomeni explained in February 2016. Another young person from Afghanistan noted in May 2017 in Belgrade: “Christian? Muslim? That means nothing. If you have a good heart, that’s all. You were born in a Christian country; I was born in a Muslim country. So this is my fault?”

Even though we sought to publish original statements and support people making violence visible, ultimately the power of representation remains with us. We cut the audio statements, we put them on our blog, we spoke with only a handful of people, we framed the statements with small explanatory texts, we contextualized them, and we published the material through our networks.

A fundamental dilemma of a lot of ethnological work becomes apparent here, namely, the focus on the perspective of disenfranchised, marginalized and discriminated people and groups, who, nevertheless, only have their say through the mediation of the researchers, with whom the power of representation ultimately remains. (Schramm, 2013, p. 222)

The relevant question here, one that we cannot definitively resolve, remains who benefits from the insights gained through participation—namely by receiving attention and acknowledgment. Activism on the Balkan route was, meanwhile, well recognized in Germany, both within leftist circles and wider society (Reflectionist collective, 2016). The enormous focus on policy negotiations regarding the Balkan route interlinked with the discourse of the welcome culture, and white Germans helping there had the effect of giving attention and recognition to refugee struggles in Germany. Resources for and recognition of solidarity work in Germany became noticeably less important and less visible, which had an impact on the self-organized struggles of refugees in Germany. The Lampedusa in Hamburg[6] or the Refugee Activists of Oranienplatz[7] in Berlin, for example, hardly got the chance to draw attention to their own claims during the long summer of migration. In the context of helping, “the mass media put white Germans without any refugee or migration background in the spotlight” (Danielzik and Bendix, 2017, p. 198). In our situation in Idomeni, it meant being in danger of speaking for people instead of supporting their attempts to build self-organized structures or to further realize existing ones capable of being heard.

Even if we could not overcome the problem of representation, our approach of recording voices to spread refugee perspectives was greatly welcomed. Many people in the refugee camps came to us and wanted to make a statement. We also found messages such as “Thank You for the Media!” written on banners or pieces of cardboard, which referred to the importance of increased visibility in the German and European discourses. The option of creating visibility and audibility, which we have, is a resource that we can use—one, of course, also appropriated and consciously used by people on the move themselves too. These individuals realized that they could make use of us and other media outlets to express their views on the ongoing contemporary debates and to produce a counternarrative to criminalizing and racist European tropes.

“Struggle as Method”—Going One Step Further

In the following section, we want to go one step further. In our stay at the borders we did not just record voices and spread views. We tried to go beyond just monitoring the protests. We thought about how we could make best use of our resources and privileges while attempting to build relations with people on the move. We also tried to connect with local people to acknowledge the diversity of struggles encountered. We hence now build on and expand Riedner’s aforementioned concept of “conflict as method,” which we frame here as “struggle as method.”

By reflecting on hierarchies, we tried to make use of our privileges and resources. We collected money by means of an appeal for donations; we were mobile (with a car available) and able to organize things and collect information; we had technical infrastructure support such as computers, cameras, and sound-recording equipment. In addition to such physical devices, we come from political movements possessing also specific knowledge and with access to particular networks and information.

We contacted some of the organizers and leading figures of the protests in Idomeni at that time. We tried to find out what they needed and, from time to time, bought materials people told us would be useful. We purchased shoes, which were really needed for long flight routes, when people needed to walk long distances over invisible routes, or the border guards took them away during an illegal pushback. We bought spray-paint cans and materials for banners. Sometimes, we had political discussions with people in front of the border fences about the situations in Syria, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, and Germany and how they were interlinked. We were asked our opinions regarding ongoing struggles in Germany and how the protests in Idomeni could be better heard there. We were asked about right-wing attacks on refugees or the political debate and changing laws in Germany. Within our team, we considered how to intensify contacts and spread these individuals’ writings or press releases—instead of our own—via our networks. We also discussed how to extend our shared political discussions on what kind of support and collaboration people might find useful.

Methodologically, we tried to understand the perspectives of people on the move themselves. These practices refer to the concept of collaboration with the researched. In such collaborative approaches, the researched became subjects of the research. Researchers hereby work together with people in organizations or social movements or share the leadership of the research concept with the researched (Low and Merry, 2010; Kollaborative Forschungsgruppe Racial Profiling, 2019). Holmes and Marcus (2007) identified the relevance of “para-ethnography” within research, defined as knowledge-making by those within different fields of expertise. This knowledge-making comprises much more than facts; of relevance here are feelings, intuition, anecdotes, and similar too. These two authors claim that: “The traditional informants of ethnography must be rethought as counterparts rather than ‘others’ – as both subjects and intellectual partners in inquiry” (Holmes and Marcus, 2007, p. 236). While they describe this para-ethnography as capturing the peculiarities of research conducted in fields with experts, we use feminist and postcolonial theory to argue that para-ethnography is also relevant in hierarchical fields—where the supposedly inferior can be understood as experts on their situations, in fact.

Taking feminist and postcolonial critiques into consideration, critical research thus claims not to reproduce existing categories but to find practices that elude, refuse, and exceed existing categorizations (Foucault, 1993; Butler, 2002; Lorey, 2014). The research approach of the “Autonomy of Migration” tries to refute existing categories through its attribution processes, focusing rather on the practices of migration “to investigate what goes through these conditions of current forms of socialization in order to point beyond” (Bojadžijev and Karakayali, 2007, p. 203). This rejects the hegemonic discourses problematizing (flight-)migration as such, analyzing instead precisely these forms of migration governance (Bojadžijev and Karakayali, 2007; Karakayali, 2008; Riedner, 2014). Adopting this Autonomy of Migration point of view does not mean that we left our own subject position void or abandoned our own positionality within a hierarchical system; rather, it shows how the theory of situated knowledge opens up “scope for alliances and criticism that goes far beyond the perspective of being affected” (Schramm, 2017, p. 223).

Moreover, Isabell Lorey (2014) criticizes a focus on subject positions linked to debates on intersectionality and calls for a focus on the transgression of categories—both practical and theoretical. For the purpose of exceeding existing categories, feminist theorist Rosi Braidotti (2011) goes beyond the description of a research view, outlining instead a utopian version of the European subject. In this philosophical and ethical construction, a new normative subject takes responsibility for previous productions of Europe such as Eurocentrism, racism, antisemitism, and fascism. In this utopian draft, the normative subject is based on the realities of the marginalized. Similar to the Autonomy of Migration, the perspective is turned upside down and consequently makes marginalized truth hegemonic and normal. Braidotti envisions a nomadic, multi-fragmented, hybrid post-European subject that becomes “minoritarian” in nature.

Starting from these theoretical reflections and utopian drafts on making research on an eye-to-eye level, how can we approach this in concrete situations? How can we collaborate and work together to become minor or to think with the idea of the Autonomy of Migration in mind? Without claiming to have found a perfect solution to all these problems regarding hierarchies, we have at least discovered beginnings and attempts to counter the effectiveness of ruling subjectifications. We had the possibility of joining in the perspectives “from below” by participating in the protests, talking to people, and asking how to support them with our resources. We can identify our practices on the one hand as collaboration, thereby understanding the refugees as experts on their own situations. On the other, we describe our methods as an analytical lens for the struggles encountered, which Riedner (2014) separates from the perspective on the struggles of those affected by power relations. The latter stresses the relevance of being a part of those struggles: “Concrete participation in negotiations seems to be very helpful in order to be able to adopt such a perspective and also to make a concrete contribution to emancipatory changes” (Riedner, 2014, p. 12). She called this approach, as noted, “conflict as method,” which we changed here into “struggle as method” given that we participated mainly in collective border struggles instead of various different conflicts. Following Riedner, we want to argue that it is vital to overcome the neutral position of the academic, to exchange with the field, and to change one’s own knowledge, view, and subjectification. Most relevant is to let the struggles have a subjective, physical, and material effect on oneself (Riedner, 2018).

From this involvement in the conflicts and struggles, a new perspective on the situation arose. However, Participation in such struggles and making use of privileges are not reducible to the production of situated knowledge. Involvement in the struggles and the gained knowledge were also key to developing forms of activism and solidarity transcending subject positions. Like Riedner suggested, involvement in the struggles had a subjective effect on our positions within the field. Some activists as well lose certain privileges in coming into contact with state repression. Nevertheless, what we have focused on here is how we acquired a special form of knowledge—which is itself part of the struggles occurring. These perspectives later resulted in the preparation of the exhibition “Yallah!? Along the Balkan route.” We benefited, therefore, from our multiple involvements as activists and academics, which cannot be easily separated within our practices on the Balkan route: drawing on our diverse involvement in (academic and activist) knowledge production, we could share a different narrative and different views from below on the ongoing processes at the borders. We were thereby able to analyze the ongoing situation as academics and activists, connect to refugees in discussing what to do exactly, and to reflect on our activist-academic practices as well as on our shared knowledge.

And the struggle goes on …

This article has explored how we dealt with the different areas of tension at the nexus of scholarly and activist discourses and practices, mostly consisting of questions of humanitarianism and representation in the field. We cannot claim that we avoided every pitfall, but we showed how we attempted to make use of our privileges by talking to the people involved and finding out what could be useful to them. We described how we were able to gain insights into the perspective of the struggles occurring, which led to an activist-academic production of knowledge. This knowledge about governance, repression, and agency was subsequently communicated to a wider audience through the exhibition “Yallah!? Along the Balkan route.”


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[1]      All quotations originally in German have been translated by the authors themselves.

[2]      The term “semiformal” expresses that the camp near Idomeni was initially self-organized and emerged spontaneously from among the people on the move themselves, but then over time various state and non-state infrastructures were added there.






The Black Holes of Lesbos: Border Violence, Asylum and Racism at Moria Camp


Following the historic summer of 2015, when nearly 1 million people transited through Greece and overcame multiple border barriers within Europe, Lesbos was rapidly reconfigured as one of the main epicenters of a renewed violent phase of mobility control and militarization through the implementation of the “hotspot approach”.

Introduced by the European Agenda on Migration as an emergency response,[1] organizations such as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX), the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Europol were deployed at the European Union’s external borders in order to assist, monitor and assist frontline states such as Greece to register and fingerprint migrants. A historical step toward the Europeanization of border regulations in the Aegean Islands, this hotspot approach has contributed to the proliferation of buffer spaces such as Lesbos, the reconfiguration of the recently destroyed Moria camp as a violent EU hotspot on October 2015 and the subsequent entry into force of the EU–Turkey deal of March 2016.[2] This deal, through the then new Greek asylum law 4375/2016, allowed for the detention, illegalization and deportation of migrants on the basis of nationality, thus denying them any chance for international protection in Europe.

This post is based on research conducted during a three-month period between September and December 2016 in Lesbos, where I participated in ethnography-volunteering with a small humanitarian organization in the Kara Tepe refugee camp, 5 kilometers from the former Moria camp. However, in seeking to determine why migrant populations of certain nationalities were living in Moria under conditions of prolonged detention, riots and frequent deaths, receiving no humanitarian aid and without access to the asylum process in Lesbos, I left the camp at Kara Tepe in order to meet with them in the streets, public squares and ports of Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, and later in the depths of the Moria camp.

Asylum, migrant detention and the power of deportability in Lesbos

In October 2016, during one of several demonstrations in Mytilene against the EU’s border policies, I met Jack,[3] a young Algerian asylum seeker living in Moria. Jack, along with hundreds of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Algerian and Cameroonian migrants, have been fishing, protesting and surviving in Moria camp because they belong to nationalities with an asylum recognition rate that is less than 25% of the EU average as calculated by the EUROSTAT database; thus, their cases are considered a priority and are not assessed for long periods by the Greek Asylum Office and EASO. As part of the EU–Turkey deal, Greece had to enact a new asylum law, 4375/2016, which includes key elements of European regulations (Hänsel and Kasparek, 2020). The Europeanization of the new asylum law became one of the most effective mechanisms of the EU border regime in recent years in the Mediterranean in that it created an exclusionary procedure in terms of nationality and racial discriminations under international law, as well as deepening Greece’s role as post-colony of the central economies of the EU. As a consequence, the Greek asylum process was separated into two parts: one for the mainland, and another exclusively for the Aegean Islands called a “fast-track border procedure”, reconfiguring Lesbos as a novel border laboratory with the aim of illegalizing and indefinitely immobilizing migrant populations under the threat of deportation.

I contend, therefore, that the restrictive and violent fast-track border procedure was based above all on the channeling of asylum seekers into different but similarly exclusive procedural routes based on asylum recognition rates (above and below 25%) measured by nationality and calculated based on EUROSTAT statistics. At the end of 2016, migrants from nationalities with high acceptance rates (above 25%) and potential refugees such as Syrians were subjected to the controversial admissibility interview—a filtering system prior to the asylum examination aimed at preventing people with a high probability of protection according to the Geneva Refugee Convention from applying for asylum in Greece on the grounds that Turkey is considered a safe third country for asylum seekers, as established by the EU–Turkey deal.   

Migrants of nationalities with low recognition rates (below 25%), however, were entered directly into the Greek asylum examination process. While this pathway was supposed to be fast due to their “expected rejection” (Hänsel and Kasparek, 2020) by the Greek Asylum Office and EASO, the detention experiences of Jack and dozens of others I met demonstrate how border procedures turned out to be even more violent, slow, opaque and confusing for these “economic migrants” than for potential refugees.

After entering Moria from Turkey in summer 2016, Jack was arrested on the beach by the Hellenic Coast Guard and placed in detention in the so-called pre-removal center, a high-security detention area within Moria with a capacity of up to 420 people. As an Algerian belonging to one of the nationalities of “bad Arabs”, as Jack described it, he was subjected to the racist “Pilot Project” of the Greek Police: a detention procedure launched after summer 2016 and exclusively targeting single men coming from certain “low profile” countries considered to constitute a danger to European security and the international public order, such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While the ultimate goal of the program was the deportation of these economic migrants, the vast majority of people like Jack were released and left to fend for themselves in the Moria camp after three months of isolation, uncertainty and violence under arbitrary and illegal detention by the Greek state and the EU agencies (Saranti, 2019).

Although Syrian refugees, whose suffering and the conflicts they are fleeing at home have received international media coverage, are more likely to obtain international protection in Greece, migrants of nationalities with both high and low asylum recognition rates were placed in a position of deportability (De Genova, 2002) and legal uncertainty as soon as they arrived in Moria. Therefore, I assert that the fast-track border procedure under the new asylum law 4375/2016 is subjecting virtually all asylum seekers on Lesbos to processes of illegalization, immobility and the possibility of deportation based on nationality, with the aim to make them voluntarily renounce their right to asylum. This procedure is an attempt to establish a legally institutionalized process of refoulement, so that the power to deport or impose that possibility is the cornerstone of this procedure, which generates feelings of anxiety, worry, suffering and anger among migrants.

Black holes, racism and anti-Black policing in the ruins of empire 

At the end of November 2016, I entered Moria with Hiroshima, a Congolese friend of Jack who led me inside the camp through a small hole in the fence, allowing me to carry out a quick transgressive ethnography. Inside the African area, as some of the residents called it, Hiroshima introduced me to his fellow migrants from Cameroon, Congo, Senegal and Mali. Having been politically persecuted and completely ignored by the Greek state and the EU for more than eight months at the time we met, they lamented above all being racialized by the Greek Asylum Office and EASO because they were Black and seemingly not deserving of international protection as they were considered only “economic migrants”.

Visiting the African area under the guidance of Hiroshima and his friends helped me see how Moria, a militarized and prison-like camp, operated under a similarly concentrated organizational system instituted by the Greek state and the EU, and within the humanitarian framework. Inspired by Suárez (2015), I conceived of the African area as a black hole of Moria. What is a black hole? I propose that it can be understood as a fragmented border space (Hänsel, 2020) where displaced Black bodies from the former European colonies in Africa are racialized and dehumanized through practices such as policing, isolation and abandonment. These practices converge under the opaque, changing and illegible legal framework of the Greek asylum procedure, creating “grey zones” (Knudsen and Frederiksen, 2015) where the lines between legal and illegal are blurred so that many rights are restricted, physical violence is inflicted and humanitarian aid is abandoned, resulting in the exposure to social (Cacho, 2012) and physical death of those who enter into its gravitational field.

The black holes are those ruins of empire (Stoler, 2013) located in the limits of the Global North that could not be externalized outside the borders of Europe, so they are framed in a historical continuity of spatial re-actualization of specific violence against racialized bodies such as those of Blacks (Mbembe, 2003). Therefore, I believe that they are not exceptional and novel spaces in the context of the global securitization of borders, but rather constantly renewed practices that derive from the colonial system of white supremacy originating in the enslavement of non-Western societies.

In this vein, Wilderson (2003) asserts that the seizure and control of the Black body during slavery was achieved through gratuitous, non-contingent and instrumental violence in a foundational scenario of modernity. This powerful argument dismantles the humanist conception of Western violence as a contingent and defensive resource to locate it rather as an offensive and punitive methodology that has placed the Black body outside the category of the human since the very beginning of modernity, as proposed by Saucier and Woods (2014). Drawing on these authors, I therefore consider that asylum seekers such as Hiroshima and his fellow migrants were not violently abandoned and illegalized simply for having arrived irregularly in Europe in the wake of the EU–Turkey deal. Rather, their Black bodies, daring to be/being outside of Africa at the gates of the former empire, exposed them to the racist and gratuitous. Thus, black holes are specifically governed primarily by the motivation and duty of the “culture of anti-Black policing established by slavery” as codified through the fast-track border procedure, thus legalizing spatial confinement and humanitarian abandonment for the perpetuation of dehumanization (Ibid.:62).

While Jack was intensely illegalized, placed in the deportability zone (De Genova, 2002) by the Greek state and FRONTEX in the pre-removal center and forced to voluntarily renounce his right to asylum after being racialized as a “bad Arab” of an undesirable nationality, Hiroshima and his peers were situated under the specter of deportability because their bodies were illegalized and racialized centuries ago. They were rendered neglected, abandoned and dehumanized as a product of the most primordial racism based on biological classifications in the most hidden layers of Moria, until they were finally allowed to begin their asylum process as an effect of the recurring riots, fires and anti-racist demonstrations.

Jack and Hiroshima and his fellow migrants were differently illegalized and racialized but similarly subjected to degrading forms of violence without being allowed to apply for international protection. Their experiences reveal how the Greek asylum process, under the effects of the EU–Turkey statement, is based on a complex racialized and white supremacist structure that conceives, reproduces and perpetuates a clear and historical hierarchy of different types of humans based on both phenotypical and cultural differences, thus structuring them as threatening, dangerous or simply inferior and expendable.

Beyond the racial hierarchies based on both biological and cultural classifications for the selection of a reduced percentage of those deserving protection, I end by stating that, ultimately, all the migrants at Moria have been subjected to a process of indefinite immobility in Lesbos that prevents them from pursuing their life projects. Hence, the detention and deportability of Jack, and the abandonment and dehumanization of Congolese migrants such as Hiroshima, reflect the differentiated effects of racism, with anti-Black policing (Saucier and Woods, 2014) being the most visceral form of violence inflicted by the Greek state and the EU.


Cacho, Lisa Marie (2012) Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected, New York University Press.

De Genova, Nicholas (2002) “Migrant “Illegality” and Deportability in Everyday Life,” Annual Review of Anthropology 31, pp. 419–447.

Hänsel, Valeria (2020) “Returns Without Warranty: The Grey Zone of “Voluntary Return” in the Framework of the EU–Turkey Deal,” Les Cahiers de Tunisie 226–227, pp. 21–29.

Hänsel, Valeria and Kasparek, Bernd (2020) Hotspot-Lager als Blaupause für die Reform des Gemeinsamen Europäischen Asylsystems? Politikfolgenabschätzung des Hotspot-Ansatzes in Griechenland, Rat für Migration.

Knudsen, Ida and Frederiksen, Martin (2015) Ethnographies of Grey Zones in Eastern Europe: Relations, Borders and Invisibilities, Anthem Press.

Mbembe, Achile (2003) “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15 (1), pp. 11–40.

Saranti, Elli (2019) Locked Up Without Rights: Nationality-Based Detention in the Moria Refugee Camp, HIAS Greece, Mytilene.

Saucier, Paul and Woods, Tryon (2014) “Ex Aqua: The Mediterranean Basin, Africans on the Move, and the Politics of Policing,” Theoria 61 (141), pp. 55–75.

Stoler, Ann Laura (Ed.) (2013) Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, Duke University Press.

Suárez, Liliana (2015) “Migration and Refuge in the Mediterranean, Beyond Borders,” Dialectología y tradiciones Populares, 70 (2), pp. 265–276.

Wilderson, Frank (2003) “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whiter the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities 9 (2), pp. 225–240.

[1] A European Agenda on Migration, European Commission (2015), (Accessed 21 February 2021).

[2] European Council, EU–Turkey statement, 18 March 2016, (Accessed 23 February 2021).

[3] The names used in this article are pseudonyms chosen by the migrants themselves. Their real names do not appear here to protect their identities.

Suggested by Public Anthropologist: All I Eat Is Medicine

Public Anthropologist‘s suggested reading today is All I Eat Is Medicine. Going Hungry in Mozambique’s AIDS Economy.

In times of Covid-19, nuanced ethnographic accounts of therapeutic politics and implications are particularly welcome. In this new book, Ippolytos Kalofonos engages with the different ways in which the scaling up of HIV/AIDS treatment in Mozambique significantly altered the ordinary lives of many people. Although HIV/AIDS treatment arguably saved lives, Kalofonos shows that its forms of implementation also reproduced the exploitation and exclusion that characterized the escalation of the epidemic in the first place.

As the narrative guides the reader through the experiences of individuals and families, we clearly see the interconnection of epidemic, health intervention, hunger, and inequality.  

State–INGOs Relationship in Turkey

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in June 2015 and joined an INGO (International Non-Governmental Organization) in November 2015. Since then, I have been working in several different organizations. Over the past five years, I have observed inefficient relationships between INGOs operating in Turkey and the Turkish state, leading to negative consequences for the vulnerable people who have been receiving aid. In response to the Syrian civil war which began in 2011, INGOs and local NGOs opened up in Turkey, mainly in southern provinces such as Kilis, Gaziantep, Hatay, and Şanlıurfa. They aimed to address the needs of those who fled from the civil war, many of whom moved to Turkey.

Fruitful collaboration between Turkey and I/NGOs was the precondition for an effective humanitarian campaign. However, this relationship has often proved to be unproductive. The lack of recripocal understanding between humanitarian organizations and the Turkish state, as well as interest-based politics, have negatively impacted the capacity to reach the most vulnerable.

Traditionally, Turkey is not an aid receiving country. For this reason, INGOs that have extensively worked in countries and regions where weak or failed states depend on international aid have not always been able to adapt to the institutional and bureaucratic context of the Turkish state. INGOs have structures, procedures, and rules that have been developed to substitute some of the functions of the state. These functions vary from human resources to finance or security. However, the mindset of INGOs relevant to weaker states often clashed with Turkey’s strong and pervasive state apparatus. For instance, some INGOs were fined for not complying with labor law or failing to register the organization properly.

Essentialism, defined as “the assumption that groups, categories or classes of objects have one or several defining features exclusive to all members of that category”,[1] can explain the approach of some Western INGOs in Turkey. In other words, in the INGOs’ approach, Turkey was yet another failed state in the broad humanitarian space.

Parallel to essentialism, a certain dose of idealism has been followed by INGOs in Turkey, whereby universal humanitarian principles were seen as non-negotiable – i.e. they coud not be compromised for the sake of the relationship with the Turkish state.

Finally, there have been practical difficulties in navigating this complex terrain. For example, delivering aid to SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and PYD (Democratic Union Party)-held territories proved particularly challenging. Turkey considers SDF and PYD as PKK’s (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) sister organizations, therefore a no-go area in terms of aid. Some organizations were therefore fined by the Turkish state for delivering aid to SDF/PYD/PKK-controlled territories: Mercy Corps, for instance, was forced to shut down its office in Turkey.[2] Opting for a result-oriented approach, other organizations decided to deliver aid to SDF/PYD/PKK-controlled areas through Northern Iraq.

Sadık and Zorba argue that humanitarian diplomacy’s primary goal is saving innocent people.[3] This implies that both international organizations and local NGOs have to negotiate and find a compromise with the hosting state (or other non-state actors) to implement their projects. Moreover, humanitarian organizations have a duty of care for their own staff members, and the security of staff might be challenged in a country such as Turkey where aid delivery is highly politicized.

In Turkey, humanitarian diplomacy is articulated through the complex infrastructure of the Turkish state. Since the state administration is highly centralized and any decision on activities to be carried out in the provinces needs to be approved by the relative ministries in Ankara, a national-level perspective is crucial. Thus, while INGO representatives at the field level should retain their grounded relations, top-level communication should be followed in the capital. Indeed, essentialism and idealism have, at least partly, characterized the work of INGOs in Turkey. This approach clashed with Turkey’s politics of aid both at the higher institutional level and at the field level, making it more difficult to effectivey implement projects and reach the most vulnerable. To reduce institutional tensions and facilitate the realization of projects, context analysis should always be conducted before starting to operate in one particular country. As often argued, “The purpose of context analysis is to allow humanitarians to better understand the socio-cultural, political, economic and geographic factors.”[4]

In my experience of I/NGOs conducting context analysis, there are two common mistakes. Firstly, context analysis should be conducted by a country expert. Most context analyses I have seen were not done by Turkish experts, but rather by staff members working from the organizations’ headquarters. Secondly, the context analysis should not stay on the shelf waiting for the dust. On the contrary, context analysis should be one of the reference documents during each project’s (finance-hr-logistics-program) decision-making process. Although this is not a solution for smoothly navigating difficult institutional environments such as the Turkish state infrastructure, it might set a better starting point.

[1] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griddiths, and Helen Tiffin, Post Colonial Studies: Key Concepts, 96.

[2] “Mercy Corps Closes Operations in Turkey,” Relief Web, [Accessed March 3, 2021].

[3] Giray Sadık and Hilal Zorba, “Humanitarian Diplomacy for Syrian Refugees and Turkey-EU Relations,” The Journal of Migration Studies, 3(2017): 17.

[4] “Context Analysis,” PHAP, [Accessed November 2, 2020].

The Lion’s War: Life Histories, Forgotten Art and Alternative Geographies. An Interview with Paolo Israel

I Interviewed Paolo Israel on December 10, 2020, via Zoom, as has become the norm during the pandemic. Our conversation revolved around war and violence in Mozambique, especially the insurgency that is currently raging in Cabo Delgado province. In our conversation we looked critically at Harry West’s take on witchcraft, the limitations of Marxist and post-Marxist views of the insurgency, the ethical conundrums of using data distributed via social media without consent, and the challenges of the double lack of access to a field that has been closed by war and a pandemic.

Paolo is an anthropologist and historian, currently a senior lecturer at the University of Western Cape. He holds a PhD from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, in Paris, focusing on Makonde masquerades in northern Mozambique. At present he is working on two projects. The first is a nonfiction book titled The Magical Lions of Muidumbe, in which he blends interviews, life stories, descriptions of dance and anecdotes to provide a panoramic view of a witch-hunt and also society in Muidumbe, where it occurred. The second project is a history of the 1960 Mueda massacre, for which he has studied Portuguese intelligence documents and interviewed several actors.

Paolo Israel interviewing Simon Nshusha, Matambalane, 2014 (picture by Fidel Mbalale/courtesy of Paolo Israel)

A detail about the picture. Paolo is wearing a white necklace, which was tied around his neck during the ritual of kummwangalela (patronage) held for Nyusi during the 2014 elections. This ceremony took place in Muidumbe at all national elections. Anyone who so wished received the necklace from a master of ceremonies (these were always women, the mothers of the initiates), and was obliged not to remove it until the candidate was victorious.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Carmeliza: Thank you for accepting this interview and for giving me your time. I’m going to make this an informal talk and see where it takes us. We can work around your research, your interests. You sent me a particularly good list of these, so we can talk around the issues raised. We will conclude with the violence that Cabo Delgado is experiencing today. Let us begin with life histories. I have read some of your writings. One of those that you sent, an obituary of Simon Nshusha [pictured above], was also published in the weekly Savana. You look at the past from the perspective of lived history, and a lot of your publications are about life histories. Tell me a little bit about the insights that you have gathered through this, and how your work has grown into this specific way of doing anthropology and history.

Paolo: Thank you for the question. I’m interested in life histories and in stories in general. As I mentioned, my academic career has moved between anthropology and history. I would say that probably what keeps them together for me is my interest in storytelling. My research in Cabo Delgado initially tried to re-inject a sense of historicity into the tradition of Mapiko masquerades, which were viewed in terms of the colonial paradigm, as something unchanging, traditional and tribal. That required my reconstruction of the histories not only of the people involved, but also of the masks and genres involved. And some of the latter can be viewed as characters.

Mbangi, the transformation of a crazy mask since colonial times

For instance, one of the masks used dated back to precolonial times—the only mask from those times whose memory I managed to collect. It was called Mbangi, and it was basically a crazy guy. This mask, representing a guy dressed in leaves, was used as a resistance tool against the Portuguese invasion in 1917. Essentially it was used as a decoy to scare and distract the invading soldiers, whom the Makonde would then shoot with arrows. From these beginnings, it moved into a genre of masquerading called Nshindo, which is performed during funerary wakes, where it became just a sort of funny character. And then from there it was transformed again into Neijale, a mask that emerged after independence: a jester who does not go to FRELIMO’s political meetings and goes astray instead.

But then I also became interested in life stories. This was complemented by work that I had been doing on the history of the Mueda massacre [that took place on 16 June 1960]. With people’s life stories I’ve been trying to complement the drier histories that one gets from the colonial archive. You mentioned Simon Nshusha, who was probably the first person to openly, if not directly, ask for independence, provoking the colonial administrator into a fury and revealing the activities of the association he was part of. And Nshusha died just around the time of the first Al-Shabaab attacks in Muidumbe, on the Makonde plateau, this year [in April 2020].

Pedro Seguro, voluntary child soldier of the liberation war

There are two other life stories that I have been working on recently. One is that of my friend Pedro Seguro, who was the former administrator of the Muidumbe district. He was born during colonialism and exposed to the structural oppression of colonialism. And then he went to fight in the liberation war right at its beginning, in 1966. He was sixteen, technically a child soldier; but he and others in his position did not think of themselves as child soldiers because they were not coerced. He proceeded with his studies at the Mozambique Institute,[1] and got caught up in the troubles there. Though it was not his fault, he was sent back to the front. He fought in what were called the second, third and fourth sectors of Cabo Delgado, then went for training in the Soviet Union. He became administrator, and visited Muidumbe just around the time it was occupied by RENAMO in 1991. He fought to reclaim Nangololo, and the village of Muambula, from RENAMO. And then he retired, finally, in 2005. He was my host when I was there. His passion was building houses, which he could not do because his life had been captured by the struggles, by the state.

Seguro built a big house in the village, then a pensão [boarding house] and many more. And then finally everything was burned down in this year’s attack, when the Al-Shabaab got into Muidumbe in April. They threw a bomb into his house, and it exploded inside. I think they made this gesture because it was a big house, and maybe they knew it was the house of the former administrator. In the second attack, Pedro was still there, and he stayed a week in the bush before managing to escape, being brought back to safety by his first son. So his is the life of someone who has gone through three wars in his lifetime. In the long evenings I spent with him, during which we would eat by candlelight, because there was no electricity, he told many anecdotes from the war. He always ended by saying “A guerra não vale a pena” [the war is not worth it]. He said that he did not expect to have to fight another war after the struggle for independence. And now there is a third war. It is very sad, and it gives us a sense of what the province of Cabo Delgado is like.

Conscripted soldiers of the civil war

Another of my friends has a similar story. He was born during the liberation war, and fought in the civil war as a soldier. He was conscripted by force by the state, and then was finally demobilized in 1994. In the last attack on Muidumbe he was forced to stay for two weeks in the bushes. His house burned, his fields were lost, everything was lost. And now he is a refugee in Pemba. These are typical stories at the moment.

Carmeliza: Sometimes the personal histories get forgotten in the statistics. When one says that it is the Al-Shabaab, or terrorists, or insurgents, and then the Defense Forces, these are nameless figures. But when one starts naming the insurgents, because they have names, they have parents, they have siblings in the villages, people know them. Then it takes on another character. One gets a different sense of the violence and the war, wouldn’t you agree?

Paolo: Yes. I also think that we don’t have enough life stories of the insurgents. We don’t even have many refugee life stories yet. I remember when I was at the conference at Pemba last year (2019), there were a few testimonies. We have even fewer from the insurgent side. Sergio Chichava just published one. I think it’s particularly important to try to understand events from that side as well; what leads people down that route.[2]

Carmeliza: I like the life story you told about this Makonde kid who went to the mines and then came back as an insurgent.

Paolo: It’s not entirely confirmed. You get this information from rumors. But it’s one of the stories I heard, about a kid who left at a certain point for the Namanhumbir [ruby] mines (in Montepuez) to work there as a garimpeiro [artisanal miner]. This garimpeiro business is quite old. I remember in 2002, when I began fieldwork there on the streets of Pemba, people were selling all sorts of semi-precious stones. I don’t know exactly what they were, but it was tourmalines and such. There was one mine that was at the border between Meluco and Muidumbe, called Shashasha. My friend and research assistant, who passed away before all of this began, worked there, and he told me a bit how it was. There were foreign people who were illegally overseeing the mine: Somalians, Tanzanians. So, it’s an experience that the kids from the village had before the Namanhumbir mines were found. The story of this kid is that he went there, his family didn’t hear from him for a long time, and then apparently he came back in April as an insurgent. The speculation is why. No one really has an answer. But I think one point is that there’s a sense of oppression from a gerontocracy of war veterans. In Mueda and Muidumbe and the whole Makonde area there were already a lot of pensions at the beginning of the 2000s. After 2005, in the Guebuza era, people were showered with pensions. People who didn’t exist got pensions; forty-year-old people got pensions. Many young people from the new generation, they didn’t want to work the fields because there just wasn’t any hope anymore. Some still had a link to that kind of culture, but then all the opportunities were blocked by this big gerontocracy of war veterans. There were cases of kids who went and stole pensions from their parents. There was a lot of that: hit the old grandma on the head and steal the pension in a very violent way. This could build into that kind of marginalidade [marginality] of village youth.

Carmeliza: Sort of a generational clash?

Paolo: A generational clash, definitely. I wrote about the story of the War of Lions. This happened when I was there, and as much as it was couched in a discourse of witchcraft, and there was a tension between the traditional authorities and the state, it was very much a youth rebellion. So you could already see youth tension in the early 2000s. It is probably some of the same angst that has fueled Al-Shabaab on the coast.

The permanence and naturalization of violence

If I can interject something here about the mines. You can find online a short video of torture in the Namanhumbir mines. Besides people being buried alive, if you look at that video, you can see it’s basically a reeducation camp. Because it’s not only violence going on. What the video showed was these garimpeiros who were made to stand still, with the guards going around and whipping them. And then they were made to say things such as “Eu sou um marginal”: I am a marginal. So there seems to be something about that culture that comes up in terms of histories of violence. I wonder if this is some replication here that has a direct link to the place’s history? That is a working hypothesis for now.


If you look at the chicote [whip], the law of the chicote never went away in Cabo Delgado. I don’t know about the other provinces of Mozambique. I remember when a video leaked of a woman being chicoteada [flogged] and everybody was surprised. That has been happening, not every second day, but every week and very often. There are all kind of milicianos [militias] who administer floggings. I think that because of the closer relationship with the liberation struggle, things are more entrenched. It’s my sense, at least, but I don’t have hard comparative data to confirm it.


My research assistant got an inordinate amount of chambocos [clubbing] one time, after being accused of stealing a can of paint—which belonged to me, by the way. When I was away, he was given twenty-five lashes by the policia communitária [community police], which are known there as grupo 12. He ended up pissing blood. That is how it was.

Operacão não pisa pneu [Operation do not step on the tire]

In the 2000s, in Pemba, there was this operation called Operacão não pisa pneu. It was pioneered by Joaquim Nido (the police commander) and José Pacheco (the governor). They cleaned up the streets of Pemba. The meaning of não pisa pneu was that if they caught you loitering about after the informal curfew that was enforced, the police would pick you up and you had to get in the back of a truck sem pisar pneu (which meant without stepping on its tires). They would throw you in.

The curfew was there to crush the criminality in Pemba. And it worked, but it was very violent. So it is part of this genealogy of violence. You have the Montepuez jail massacre,[3] you have Operacão não pisa pneu. Then you have the riots in Mocimboa, which curiously people aren’t mentioning that much. That was a sign things were about to explode.

Carmeliza: I remember Mocimboa as the only place in the country where ethnic tensions come up during elections, even though there’s violence in other places, like for example Gaza. But the violence in Mocimboa and what happened in Montepuez was very particular in terms of consequences and the number of dead.

Paolo: In Mocimboa, there were clear ethno, political and religious fault lines. I was in Muidumbe during the 2005 campaign, and I saw from very close up how everything was completely entangled. What happened is that from Mueda truckloads of Makonde headed to Mocimboa, all with FRELIMO flags, and marched on [majority Mwani] Mocimboa for the last day of campaign. It was really like a conquest march. And then they came back. That was not even a year before the riots, which happened in the aftermath of the first Guebuza election, in 2004. People weren’t happy and there was a riot, a big riot, in Mocimboa in September 2005. But it went a bit under the radar. It wasn’t as bad as the Montepuez case, but more or less the same intensity.

Carmeliza: So there’s a general uprising of the youth and against these old men in power. But the issue with the mines is also interesting. I mean, the violence around them is extreme. Something that people don’t talk about is the youth that come to Montepuez from all over the north of the country. I did five years of fieldwork in Cuamba, and the young men there are disappearing to the Namanhumbir mines. That’s where they go. It seems that even though the Mozambican state isn’t present and has managed to establish a weak unity, people on the ground are establishing their own networks. There are some connections that transcend administrative boundaries. And that takes me on to the issue of forgotten art and alternative geographies. I’m not sure if your masquerades are a forgotten art, because they’re not so forgotten in my opinion.

Paolo: The masks are not forgotten. And it should be said that, oddly enough, they haven’t made it onto the UNESCO heritage list yet. With a Makonde president, that’s rather bizarre. But anyhow, the masquerades are well known. But what I meant by forgotten art, it’s partly a personal consideration, that when you know these places that are now at the center of the insurgency get turned into names that make the international news, they’re obviously framed within a certain discourse of war, as a humanitarian emergency, etc. They become markers on maps of atrocity and war, often misspelled. But each of them is a site of art, of culture, and there’s almost an underlying geography to the province that isn’t a geography of ethnic tension or violence, but a geography of beauty. I could begin with Tufo and Mapiko in Mocimboa. And if you go south, to Mbau. Mbau was the site where in January 2021 the first major defeat by the FDA occurred. There were over 100 soldiers from the Escola de Sargentos de Boane who were attacked frontally by the insurgents. I think twenty-two soldiers died. It was the first military incident where you could see that these people could take on the Mozambican army. Mbau was the birthplace of famous singers called Namwalu and Shambili. They were masters of a singing style in which one voice follows the other. And it’s amazing. These songs are making the rounds now on social media because one of them begins by saying “Why war in Mozambique?” Of course, it refers to the civil war. “What is this war in Mozambique? Where does it come from?”

There was a tradition of masquerading calling Nshindo in which masks would dance through the night and throughout the day—amazing masquerades. In Nakitenge it was the same. In Myangalewa, there were masquerades, songs and timbilas. In Mwatidi, there was a youth mask who went around on a bike, called Naupanga. In Awashi, where the naked woman was killed,[4] there were many dance groups. Each of these places, which are now wastelands, had this kind of deep history of art [see the map at the end of the interview].

Awashi was kind of famous even before this event. Maybe because it’s like a crossroads; you can’t miss it when you go anywhere, you need to pass it. And they sold these roots, ming’oko, that people are eating now to survive. Near Awasi and Nshinda there was this man who sang with the pankwe [traditional zither]. An amazing Pankwe singer. Another amazing pankwe singer used to live around Luchete. He used to wander all those villages, which are now wastelands and the insurgents’ bases, from Mocimboa to Mucojo (Luchete, Naquidunga, Nazimoja). He was a storyteller. I met him once, and I had the good luck to record him. He was a bit crazy, hunchbacked, and he went around the villages. He didn’t have a house and he just improvised these songs on a zither, which he called Iwaya.

An iwaya/magita/magalamponi/pankwe (picture by Rui Assubuji/courtesy of Paolo Israel)

There was one song he sang that was a story of how he was captured by RENAMO people and was basically taken around the province. It portrays a geography of war that looks very much like this war. He was taken around as a slave, and tried to reach the Makonde. There is a war being fought with arrows and guns. The main point is that one should not forget that this province is very rich with art, dance, sculpture and music, and all this is being ignored and annihilated by the conflict.

Carmeliza: Do you feel that this war is destroying art in ways that previous wars did not manage to do?

Paolo: Maybe it will survive the war in some way. But the emptying out that is happening now hasn’t happened in the same way before. Obviously, when there’s war, there’s a strong impact on those forms of expression. The last years of the RENAMO war were the same. People weren’t paying attention to art. But now you have a situation in which from Mocimboa until Awasi, and then up to Myangalewa and the coast, most of the villages have emptied out.

Carmeliza: I want to go into our written exchanges now. When you sent me your wonderful personal trajectory, my comment was that I found it interesting that you didn’t mention Harry West. You mentioned that you respect him and he influences you. For me, you two are the biggest references for Makonde history and anthropology and culture. And I don’t think anyone else has done such profound work. Also, you’ve worked on similar things, but differently. You said that you disagree with some of his readings of witchcraft. I’m curious to hear how you disagree and why.

Paolo: First, I’d like to say that Yusuf Adam needs to be recognized. Yusuf Adam has done a lot of work, so you can’t leave him out of the “Makondologists.” You go to Yusuf’s house and it’s a treasure trove of field notes. I have a huge personal respect for Yusuf. Recently, and this has been blocked by COVID-19, we’ve initiated a project of digitization of all the interviews that the Oficina [de História] team made in 1981,[5] of which 150 survived in the Arquivo Historico and another forty at the Centro de Estudos Africanos.

About West, he did amazing work, and I think he was more systematic than me at the beginning. He was accompanied by Marcos Mandumbwe, who was also amazing. When I began my work, West was the reference figure. His book Kupilikula came out as I was finishing my fieldwork, but I’d read his PhD. I had no intention of working on witchcraft at all because that was his topic. But then in 2002 as I was doing fieldwork, lions began to eat people in the lowlands of Muidumbe, and in reaction to this there was widespread suspicion in the district. Pedro Seguro, the administrator (whose life history we discussed at the beginning), was suspected of being the mastermind behind the lions and of coordinating an international trafficking of organs that these ghost lions harvested. And I was accused of being his foreign buyer.

You can read a lot of things into those events and Harry has written about them. I was there, and I had the fortune to do research with Estevao Mpalume from the Ministerio da Cultura, a local scholar who is amazingly skilled in interviewing. I learned how to interview with him. I’ve been writing about this recently, and just to be able to relisten to those interviews led by somebody who has an amazing skill at asking questions without shame is such a boon. Now I’m able to understand what was going on; at the time I wasn’t. I was just sitting and listening to the translations at the end. Harry came later, with his analysis of this war of lions, about which he also wrote an article, which I think was a bit more secondhand. And I agree with some of his understandings of this event and of witchcraft in general, which can be read as a metaphor for neoliberal predation—the Commaroff argument that witchcraft is a metaphor for popular dissatisfaction with global forces, and that there’s a symmetry between the occult nature of witchcraft and the occult nature of the flows of capital, in this case organs.

What this analysis misses is the violence. I think that if you look at witchcraft as discourse, it’s just talk. But then when it escalates into witch-hunts, which was the case at the time, when twenty-five people got lynched, then you need to have something else that accounts for the violence that takes place. And you need to think about that violence. And the sort of playful, metaphorical, discursive nature of witchcraft needs to be philosophically paused. I think that witchcraft is always both metaphorical and non-metaphorical. It’s always a metaphor when you say that somebody is a witch; you’re always saying that somebody is unsociable or selfish, greedy, envious. You point to some major flaw of the person or you point to some major social crisis.

At the same time, if you discuss witchcraft only as a metaphor, then the metaphor loses its power, because to use it as a metaphor you have to believe in witchcraft in a literal way. And after working on that and after listening again to all the interviews, I think that to work on witchcraft you need to believe in it a little bit. If you take a purely secular approach you’re going to miss out. You need to leave the door slightly open to the possibility of something that’s beyond your understanding.

Carmeliza: I’ll now discuss one thing that you’re now into, and I guess because you haven’t been to the field, a way of following it is by following social media. How has this been? How has it been to not be able to go to the field, partly because of the violence that’s going on so it’s a no-go area and partly because the possibility of an alternative source of information is there. How has this transition from actual field to the digital field been for you?

Paolo: I was in Cabo Delgado between 2017 and 2018. So I was there for about a month when the insurgency began. I traveled around and went to Pangane and to Mucojo in late 2017, early 2018. I was doing research on Ningore. I don’t know if you heard about him. It’s a very fascinating history. He was the biggest witch hunter of Cabo Delgado, and maybe in the country, who operated in the 1980s. It was a mass movement, the Ningore movement. I haven’t written about it yet. But basically Ningore made the rounds of the whole province to exorcise witches with a machete. There was a deep connection between this exorcism and reactivating practices that were done in the colonial period. But he cleansed people during the civil war. And I think there was a connection between that and the anxiety about the enemy. So, we were interviewing the Ningore family, which was from Mucojo. I could see, especially because I’ve been to Pangane before, how the place has changed. It was a gut feeling, but also I spoke to some people. There was a sense of Islamic radicalization in Pangane. It was very, very palpable.

Then I went back last year (2019) for the Pemba conference. Not to do fieldwork, just to attend. And I wanted to go to my Muidumbe. It would still have been possible. The roads were a bit dangerous, but not too bad. I couldn’t go because my plane ticket didn’t allow it. And then COVID-19 came. So, 2020 for me was like these places I have known don’t exist anymore. Myangalewa, I spent three weeks in that village researching this and that, it was taken off the map. People don’t live there anymore. Shitashi, I spent quite some time there. There was a massacre. People don’t live there now. Mbau, Nakitenge, I had a very good friend from there, we spent weeks there. They were the first to go.

So I tried to phone people. The line between personal concern and fieldwork is very thin. You’re just phoning people to see whether they’re alive or not and then they tell you stories. At the beginning of the year, there was this huge trouble in communication due to a surveillance system that the government had put in place. Someone told me it was Chinese software, but basically after you made a few phone calls to specific areas they identified your phone. And then you heard a voice that said with an Asian accent: “Hello, hello, I cannot hear you! Hello, hello!” And then they hung up. I couldn’t phone anybody because my phone had been targeted. So I started changing phones. I used my wife’s phone, then someone else’s. Then after a while your phone works again, so you can phone again. Or else they recorded you. There was a conversation where you talked with somebody for two minutes and then the conversation began again. You heard the person say: “Kaka, umumi?” Brother, how are you? The person told me this a few minutes ago: why is he repeating the same thing? To sum up, there was this blockage of information.

And then the big anxiety, I couldn’t travel because COVID-19 had arrived. I had plans to go to Maputo. I had some hopes to go to Cabo Delgado. In April, when Muidumbe was attacked, I got to talk for the first time with friends. So that’s when the social media thing kicked in. There are several chats. There’s the Pinnacle News Chat, which is amazing. And there are Makonde chats. The media that are most shared are these little voice notes that people send from the war zones. And I can listen to and understand those in Makonde. I don’t have access to any others. They really give you a sense of practical information, or emotional information, or judgment about things.

Just to mention a few that were deserving of analysis. One of them generated the news about the 117 insurgents killed in Awasi by FDS. It was a recording. There’s an intellectual point here to be made about orality. You can sort of gauge the trustworthiness. People always ask, well, where’s the sound clip? A written message isn’t trustworthy. But if you hear somebody saying, my friend, here we are, they are bombarding, throwing this and that from helicopters, the people believe it. And there’s a reason for that. People can read the local codes; people can read the accent of the person. People can understand from the message whether the person knows the local geography and so whether the person is from there or not. People have ways of gauging the information.

Another example is an eighteen-minute clip from a militiaman from a village in Muidumbe, who describes with an extraordinary amount of detail the first hours of the attack and his own experiences. It’s an amazing document that came through social media.

Carmeliza: Now there’s a law against disseminating messages via social media. You’re liable for any message you disseminate. If a person didn’t give consent, they can take you to court. Technically they can take anyone who has disseminated a message to court. You shouldn’t be sharing without consent.

Paolo: That’s interesting. There’s also an interesting ethical discussion to be had about this. I’m one of those who’s against ethics by regulatory committee. How can you regulate anthropology and field work by filling in forms? What happens if I phone a family member to find out how the situation goes and the family member doesn’t know that the call is being recorded? The person phones in good faith because they want to know if the family member is alive. At the same time, they record the conversation, and they share it with the world without any kind of ethical clearance. And that lands on my cell phone. What do I do with this? It’s an ethical quandary if the person who gave that information did not agree.

Carmeliza: Technically, from what I understand, you shouldn’t record or disseminate things from others, even if you share them in a public group. And I think the intention is in a way to control information, the circulation of information related to the war and other things. Because social media is extremely powerful in Mozambique.

Paolo: Yes. If you look at how this information is being generated., one of the major actors at the moment is Pinnacle News. It’s this little independent news agency based in Nacala. And it’s all basically posited on sharing. The way it operates, it has a lot of groups and people who post. Sometimes they just tweak the message. For instance, the news of the massacre in Mwatibi, we still don’t have clarity about that, but it made the BBC and Al Jazeera. That was Pinnacle News; it came from social media. Somebody has either voice messaged or texted Pinnacle, and the news jumped from there to Carta de Mocambique, from Carta de Mocambique to Al Jazeera.

People are following Pinnacle. But it’s very wobbly. It’s a very anarchic space. But when you read news by Pinnacle, it means somebody has said it. And there’s a sort of checking. More, sometimes there are jokes. There was one in May that people were debating whether it was a fake. It was a sort of gallows humor. There’s this guy who phones:

“ – Hello. Who’s there on the phone?

– Who’s there?

– Who’s there?

– No, who are you?

– No, the owner of this phone is dead. I cut his throat. He was my uncle. No, I cut his throat.

– Who are you?

– I am an Al-Shabaab.”

The person who speaks is clearly a Makonde. One speaks in Makonde and the other speaks Makonde with a Mwani accent. He goes on and verbalizes what the Al-Shabaab are going to do. Now we want to get to Mueda, to kill Nyusi [the president], to kill Pachinuapa [a veteran general owner of mines in Namanhumbir – both Makonde], to destroy everything. It was very popular. Through gallows humor, it was a popular interpretation of the reasoning of the Al-Shabaab.

Carmeliza: There are two clips of the insurgents when they came into the Mocimboa and Quissanga, in which there’s apparently popular support for the Al-Shabaab. There’s this clip about a Mwani kid from the islands who kept saying “You know me, you know who I am. I am a child of the land, and I am here to liberate you because this government is unfair. It’s not treating you fairly.” It’s the first time that something is mentioned about the unfairness of the government and the like. I’m not talking about what’s discussed in the Makonde closed channels, but what’s going around in public channels. There’s not been much mention of the reasons for this war.

Paolo: When it comes to this insurgency, there’s a lack of understanding of its ideological underpinnings. I think that partly it’s because we have a Marxist or post-Marxist field that’s so saturated with the idea that everything boils down to economic causes. Surely the economic forces are there, but I think there’s work to be done on the specific ideological underpinnings. And I think that especially in the initial phases of the insurgency, there was too much dismissal of the Islamist side. People have now changed their minds. Eric Mourier-Genoud stressed the local much more. Yussuf was a bit skeptical about the Islamist factor, but now he’s worried. Hanlon did not change his mind. But I think there has been a shift into acknowledging that it is an important factor. But we still do not know clearly what the ideology is exactly. But it is not an incidental factor. This is my take, my sense.

I was listening to Liazzat Bonate talking at ASA the other day,[6] and talking to another colleague of mine, Andrea Brigaglia, who’s a specialist on Boko Haram. There seems to be something very peculiar about the kind of Islamic State ideology that’s different from the al-Qaida one, insofar as there’s much more emphasis on chaos, on Armageddon, on the end of the world. And that seems to be the modus operandi at the moment. This is something that Salvador Forquilha mentioned as well. They don’t do it like RENAMO did, finding support. They aim at emptying out the space.

There’s work to be done in that respect, but from somebody who understands Arabic, Swahili. Somebody who has a good grasp of the longue durée histories. And I think Liazzat is the one who’s best placed to do that.

Carmeliza: In a way, I understand why there was this reluctance in centralizing Islam. Because in an Islamophobic world, to centralize Islam becomes dangerous for the Muslim people who aren’t involved, for the non-radicals, even for conservative non radicals. There are a lot of people who are extremely conservative Muslims, but they’re not Islamist radicals. The point that was made by Liv Tønessen was an important one: that to be a Muslim, if we take this as an ISIS standpoint, is a very narrow vision of who is Muslim. Which means that everyone can be a victim. So rather than a clash between religions, it’s a purification of Islam—a point that Liazzat also made.

Paolo: There’s the whole war on terror discourse that one easily falls prey to. That’s something else you see on social media. In the Makonde social media, you begin to see Islamophobia. With the destruction of Nangololo there was a lot of grassroots Islamophobia. And that’s definitely something that it is very risky.

Another point for which I don’t have clear proof, but one that also needs to be considered, is the history of banditry as a possibility. That’s how RENAMO operated. That’s something that was said a lot, last year especially. That some people adhered to this to make a life out of banditry. It’s a possibility.

[1] The Mozambique Institute was created in 1963 in Dar-es-Salaam by FRELIMO, the liberation front. It was managed by Janet Mondlane, the American-born wife of FRELIMO’s leader, Eduardo Mondlane. It collected funds and oversaw the humanitarian works of the front, chiefly education. The troubles were a student rebellion against Janet Mondlane that occurred in 1968–69. They protested the predominance of white teachers, being forced to go to the war’s front lines, and political assassinations on the Cabo Delgado front (see Costa, C., 2018. ‘O Instituto Moçambicano e o Estado Social dentro da FRELIMO.’ Tese realizada no âmbito do Doutoramento em História. Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto).

[2] More has been published since the interview: see Macalane, J. and Jafar, J. (2021). Ataques Terroristas em Cabo Delgado (2017–2020): as causas do fenómeno pela boca da população de Mocímboa da Praia. Universidade Rovuma. Extensão de Cabo Delgado.

[3] An incident where around 100 people affiliated with the opposition were suffocated after they had been crammed into a small jail cell in a prison in Montepuez.

[4] This refers to an incident where four gunmen beat and shot dead a woman that they accused of being an insurgent. They filmed the incident, which went viral on social media and spurred international condemnation and a report on human righst violations the incident by Amnesty International.

[5] The Oficina de História was part of the Center for African Studies (CEA) at the University Eduardo Mondlane. Created in 1980, it set to rewrite Mozambican history using oral sources and focusing on subordinate historical actors such as peasants and guerrilla fighters. The focus of the Oficina was contemporary history, “focusing on the old liberated zones in the post-independence era, the socialisation of the countryside and the cooperativization of communal villages” (see Fernandes, C. 2013. History writing and state legitimisation in postcolonial Mozambique: the case of the History Workshop, Centre for African Studies, 1980-1986. Kronos, 39(1), 131–57).

[6] African Studies Association, USA.

The loss of “proximity” senses

Ruth Finnegan in her Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Interconnection (2002) explains that human face-to-face communication is characterized by multimodality, that is, by the fact that we always communicate using a variety of interdependent channels at the same time. The tone of voice, the effectiveness of the gaze, facial expressions, body posture, hand and arm gestures, the regulated use of touch, the evocative sense of smell, the symbolic power of clothing – all of these are elements of human interconnectedness.

Communicating is thus a highly polysemic process that is difficult to define and describe as it involves an extraordinary quantity of interdependent elements, in which the participants form an active and creative relationship.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown have caused an unexpected restriction of the multiple modalities of human interconnection, reducing both our extraordinary and our daily social relationship to what can be communicated to the two dimensions of a screen.

As a consequence, the sense of sight is enhanced compared with others, leading to a persistent visual overexposure that tires and depresses us, causing, in the long run, the sensation of a loss of energy. As a secondary schoolteacher confided to me during an in-depth interview on remote teaching:

… the particular thing that we have all noticed: you put energy in there but it does not return, whereas in a direct relationship energies return; whenever you enter a classroom you feel that the energies do arrive, what you give comes back to you somehow, you feel tired but emotionally fortified; in there it is pure exhaustion, total alienation.

Furthermore, in digital communication, sight and hearing no longer work in synergy but produce a kind of continuous cognitive dissonance since, online, there is always a time lapse, more or less accentuated, between what I see (the speaker’s face) and what I listen to (the words that come to me a little later, sometimes slowed down, sometimes accelerated); the sense of touch, then, locked up in our homes, is reduced to typing on a keyboard, clicking, scrolling or even to frantic washing and disinfecting for fear of infection.

There is an even more direct relationship between Covid-19 and our senses: the symptomatology of the disease manifests itself in several cases with ageusia, the loss of taste, and anosmia, the loss of smell.

Much has been said about the obligation, imposed by the need to contain the spread of the disease, to maintain a physical distance and not to touch each other, and much has also been said about the social suffering caused by these prohibitions. However, less attention has been paid to the loss of smell and taste. Yet smell and taste are the most intimate senses, anthropologically defined as “proximity senses”. We do not have a standardized system of coding and verbalization for them as is the case for the “remote senses” – sight and hearing –- though they operate, more widely than the other senses, at the emotional and affective levels of experience.

A person’s smell is part of their uniqueness – it suggests mutual intimacy and can form a special, close bond with another person; the smells of the places we frequent represent a particularly emotive basis for the sense of belonging to a community, for social inclusion and exclusion (commonly, the foreigner “stinks”). Moreover, the sense of smell comes into play  during ceremonial and therapeutic moments, those most linked to the symbolic and even ritual dimensions of culture. It is able to stimulate the deeply moving memory of places, people, situations.

Taste is the sense that most subtly and unconsciously binds us to our tradition and cultural memory. As Le Breton writes in Sensing the World: An Anthropology of the Senses, our favourite flavours constitute a secret and timeless bond that reminds us of the table of our childhood and, even further, to our feeding mother. Taste metaphorically defines pleasure – expressions such as “to savour life” or “to taste the beauty of a landscape” are frequently used – and besides, a beloved food or drink produces instant, intense, satisfying well-being.

Symbolically, the pandemic, just as it takes our breath away, takes away not only the most emotional and intimate parts of our senses, but also the most mysterious side of human relationality. As it temporarily makes these senses dormant in the infected, so it hides them from social life, since taste and smell are precisely the senses that cannot be experienced and communicated through the digital channel, which now characterizes most of our daily communications. If we can share our ideas through remote meetings, view a photo or listen to good music on our social networks, we cannot share aromas, perfumes, fragrances, flavours on a digital platform.

Therefore, the symptomatology of Covid-19 involves the loss of the sense of proximity and leaves some open questions: does it foreshadow the future of a humanity without smell or taste, senses to be considered as superfluous for digital humans? Or does it urge us to pay attention to that irreducible background of physicality, which we have rediscovered as an important component of human interconnection? Or, finally, does it remind us that communication, and therefore sociality, implies not only a cognitive level but also affective and emotional processes that we are unwilling to give up?


Originally published in Italian as La perdita dei “sensi di prossimità”


Review of “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code” (by Judith Helfand, distributed by Bullfrog Films, 2018).

The film “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code” is based on the book – “Heatwave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago”.[1] The title of the film is a powerful depiction of the heatwave that ravaged across the city of Chicago in 1995.

The opening lines by Judith Helfand – “what is the best way to prepare for a disaster” – sets the tone well for what to expect in the film. The film begins with Helfand’s own experience during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Helfand explains that possessing a disaster preparedness kit can be a luxury for millions of people. During Sandy, Helfand uses her social capital (family) to move to safety and highlights that millions of others do not have the same social capital and safety nets. Further, the majority of the people do not have access to basic disaster preparedness kits. Later, the focus in the film shifts to the devastating heat wave in Chicago in 1995. The film shows the disproportionate impacts of the heatwave on the elderly and the Black and African American communities in poor neighborhoods. These impacts are clearly linked to poverty and the systemic construction of risk and vulnerability. Although the film effectively discusses “unnatural disasters”, it reiterates the use of the term “natural” disasters. Social science disaster research has provided ample evidence for decades that disasters are not natural. Hazards are natural.[2] A natural hazard becomes a disaster when it interacts with factors of risk, vulnerability, and exposure. The factors of vulnerability are rooted in historical systems of power and injustice, access to resources (financial, social, political). The various factors of vulnerability determine the level of disproportionate impacts different communities might face during disasters. By using the term “natural” disasters, we give an easy escape route to governments and corporations to blame nature or the climate instead of addressing issues of risk and vulnerability.

Disasters reveal layers of societal inequalities[3] in the form of disproportionate impacts. The COVID-19 pandemic has further unfolded this story across the world.[4] In the film, taking a deeper analysis of the Chicago heatwave of 1995, it is made clear how root causes of vulnerabilities such as systemic racism[5] play a central and significant role in disaster impacts.[6] The interviews and powerful accounts of many individuals in the film are examples to show the real causes of these disproportionate impacts on certain groups of people. For example, poverty and lack of access to resources make it almost impossible for some groups to prepare for disasters. Yet, after every disaster, governments and other actors continue to rebuild status quo and sometimes create new risk in this process of disaster recovery. Briefly, the film also highlights the impact of the Hurricane Katrina of 2005 showing similar patterns of disproportionate disaster effects on different communities. Although Katrina occurred a decade after the Chicago heatwave, it appears that not much has changed with regard to vulnerability of some groups of people. Disaster related memories seem to be short and learnings from disasters seem to be minimal. The film highlights an interesting conversation on the need to redefine disasters. Helfand raises the question – why isn’t poverty termed as a disaster? As Tierney highlights, “the patterns of differential vulnerability and differential impacts in the Katrina disaster mirrored those documented by social scientists in other hazard and disaster contexts, particularly those who conduct research within the vulnerability science paradigm” (p. 208).[7]

In response to the Chicago heatwave, Helfand shows different interventions being taken in under privileged neighborhoods. However, these interventions are fragmented and do not address issues of risk, vulnerability, and discrimination which are the underlying causes of disasters that need to be solved to reduce devastating impacts. The film challenges the need to spend big money on disaster simulations and trainings. Here, the critique against the system should be that disaster risk management is primarily response oriented. In a changing world, we need to be prepared for disasters while we continue to address root causes. The film also shows some of the mitigation related efforts taken by the city (for example, green roofs) in the aftermath of the heatwave. While mitigation activities are important, they are not sufficient. We need to continue investing in planning and preparing to ensure that hazards do not turn into disasters and societies need to be prepared at all times to respond. The core message must be – leave no one behind!

Overall, the film highlights many important questions that need to be addressed both at higher policy levels and at an operational level. Indeed, political decisions have a huge impact on how risks and vulnerabilities are transferred over  different generations. This aspect could have been better discussed in the film so to build a narrative on why some communities are historically disproportionately affected. Disasters are political and are related “to an amalgam of household and neighborhood level activities and networks for disaster response that happen outside of the gaze of the formalized governance arrangements but underlie and affect such arrangements and practices nonetheless” (p.215).[8] These invisible forms of governance very much shape the everyday life of people, i.e. the construction of risk and vulnerability. Further, given the context of climate change and extreme weather events, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must be kept in mind. Disasters often set back years of development and complicate efforts to achieve the SDGs. A strong concerted effort to address the SDGs is needed with a strong focus on dynamics of risk and how to enhance societal resilience. The film does a good job in highlighting the real causes of disasters and the need for policy makers to pay attention to risk reduction and development.

[1] Klinenberg, E. (2015). Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

[2] O’Keefe, P., Westgate, K., and Wisner, B. (1976). Taking the Naturalness out of Natural Disasters. Nature 260(5552):566–567.

[3] Raju, E., and van Niekerk, D. (2020). Why Do the Impacts of Coronavirus Disease 2019 and the Response Surprise the World? Jàmbá – Journal of Disaster Risk Studies, 12(1).

[4] Raju, E., and Ayeb-Karlsson, S. (2020). COVID-19: How Do You Self-isolate in a Refugee Camp? International Journal of Public Health.

[5] Bolin B., and Kurtz L.C. (2018). Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Disaster Vulnerability. In: Rodríguez H., Donner W., Trainor J. (eds) Handbook of Disaster Research. Springer, pp 181-203.

[6] Wisner, B. et al. (2004) At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability and Disasters. Routledge.

[7] Tierney K. (2006). Foreshadowing Katrina: Recent Sociological Contributions to Vulnerability Science. Contemporary Sociology, 35(3):207-212.

[8] Hilhorst, D., Boersma, K., and Raju, E. (2020). Research on Politics of Disaster Risk Governance: Where Are We Headed? Politics and Governance, 8(4):214–219.

Winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2021

We are pleased to announce that the winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2021 is Ather Zia for her book Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir, University of Washington Press (2019) and Zubaan Publishing (2020).

Ather Zia is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Gender Studies Program at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. She holds a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines the Indian military occupation, settler colonialism, and women’s collective political and social challenges in the disputed Indian-administered Kashmir.
Resisting Disappearance is a powerful narration of the effects of oppression and political disputes on people’s everyday life. The book is engaging and shrewdly written. It effectively summarizes the broad and committed scholarship behind it. An excellent example of anthropology’s capacity to both inform and inspire.

Read below to learn more about Ather Zia’s work.

Antonio: What’s Resisting Disappearance about?

Ather: The political resistance in Kashmir predates the formation of India and Pakistan. In the last 40 years or so, from an international dispute involving Kashmiri people, the Kashmir issue has been relegated to being a bilateral dispute or a “border issue.” An issue that India from time to time even undermines as an internal problem or labels it as “terrorism,” negating the genuine political demands of the Kashmiri which are on the UN agenda and mandated by its resolutions. This book focuses on tracing the neo-imperial project that India has had in Kashmir effectively starting in 1947. My analysis deploys enforced disappearances that have been effected by the Indian army and other government militia and vigilantes as a way of tracing the project and policies of the Indian occupation. The ethnography centralizes the voices of Kashmiri activist women from the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) who have been searching for the 10,000 + Kashmiri men subjected to enforced disappearance by the Indian forces. As a Kashmiri myself it becomes supremely important to center and amplify Kashmiri voices. Even though Kashmiris have been vocal and active in every decade since 1947, they have been increasingly invisibilized and their resistance criminalized by India. The power of ethnography lies in storytelling and this book tells the story of Kashmir through the voices of Kashmiri women, activists offering a critical feminist and political analysis of Indian occupation in Kashmir.

Antonio: Enforced disappearances disrupt families and society. What is the current state of the military occupation in Kashmir? 

Ather: Kashmir is one of the most densely militarized zones in the world. There are more than 700,000 Indian soldiers on Kashmir soil at the moment. As the world fights the Covid-19 pandemic, Kashmir, without a break, continues to reel under the brutal Indian occupation. In early 2020, Kashmiris were hobbling back to life from a long military siege and communication lockdown that had been imposed by India on August 5, 2019 when it unilaterally and militarily removed Kashmir’s autonomy. During the pandemic, India has not stopped any of its counterinsurgency operations. The cordon and search operations (CASO) are going on. During CASO the Indian forces enter neighborhoods and communities under the pretext of searching for militants. It is an operation filled with soldiers creating mayhem in people homes; arresting, beating, humiliating, physically and sexually harassing civilians. Armed encounters with militants are also continuing during the lockdown. Routine surveillance, patrolling, frisking at checkpoints and convoy movement have not ceased and they are even growing. All this despite the United Nations calling for cessation of violence in conflict zones across the globe. The India government followed the removal of Kashmir’s territorial sovereignty and autonomy with a brazen amendment in Kashmir’s own domicile act, which marks the manifest beginning of Indian settler colonialism. Thousands of Kashmiris are illegally arrested, raided and detained and media is fully gagged by imposition of new statutes. The Indian necropolitical policies are growing; never the ones to sit silent, India has enforced silence in Kashmir and the fear of state terrorism, dispossession, incarceration, and ecocide is growing.

Antonio: How does mourning become not simply a coping strategy but an active form of engagement with political violence? 

Ather: In the brutal political repression that exists in Kashmir, the simple act of remembrance is a marker of resistance and can invoke the wrath of the Indian nation state. Thus, to embark on public mourning is to invite danger and death. Yet, the APDP activists have been doing it since the late 1980s and formally since 1994. Mourning in the context of military occupation ceases to just be only a mode of coping, it becomes a revolutionary act of resistance. In the book, I propose the analytic lens of “affective law,” which is in contrast to the sovereign’s law that prevails over Kashmir and that has caused the enforced disappearances in the first place. I urge readers to see affective law as a paradigm, which manifests the quest for justice by the activists, as not just accidental but a deliberate effort to reclaim some power to get justice, despite the dangers to life and scarce legal options. This law is born of mourning, which is effectively a mode of politics and not just routine commemoration. APDP’s mission manifests creation of counter-memory, practices of remembering and forgetting that become crucial for resisting oppression and oppressive dominant ideologies. These counter memories as subjugated knowledges which are produced by a deeply brutalized people will often remain hidden behind dominant statist versions. So they need to be scrupulously traced and told. My analysis makes manifest in how they appear both in archival and performative modes, in documentation and in public mourning. APDP’s activism becomes a resistant memory against amnesia forced by a repressive occupation. By highlighting these subjugated knowledges, my ethnography illustrates how the APDP activists expose the Indian governments’ policies to control Kashmiri dissent and its genuine demand for self-determination as mandated by the UN.

Antonio: Poetry is a key component of your work. Can you tell us more about how you see your work at the intersection of ethnography and poetry?

Ather: Anthropology has a generous heart in allowing creative genres to become part of our analysis. For me, the poems written while doing ethnographic work acted as a moment of surfeit, where reason sought the logic of surplus and escaped measured words. As a poet who could not stop writing poetry while doing fieldwork, the poetic process to be part of research journey enabled greater empathy, an experiencing, and a witnessing which otherwise was not possible as part of my methodological toolkit. As a mode of contemporary ethnopoetics, the poetic aspect becomes part of the movement for strengthening the turn towards what Renato Rosaldo describes as “antropoesia,” bridging the cultural and social scientific fields of poetry and anthropology.

Antonio: What are your future plans?

Ather: I am working on a collection of ethnographic poetry based on my work in Kashmir. It is tentatively titled, Field-in-Verse: Writing under Occupation; and also a set of short stories; a novella if time permits. I am also co-editing a volume titled Dreams Under Occupation. My current research interest is the increasing Indian settler colonial project and that is where I am ethnographically parked at the moment.

Building a school in the ‘dark hell’ of the Moria camp: A conversation about hope, politics and humanity with refugee entrepreneur Zekria Farzad

The interview was conducted in January 2021, but this text also incorporates some extracts from previous and later conversations. The text has been edited and amended for clarity by Heidi Mogstad and Zekria Farzad.


Introduction: In humanitarian (and some scholarly) discourses, refugees are often portrayed as passive and powerless victims stripped of political agency and opinions. However, those of us who have worked in refugee camps, or with refugee communities, know that this is very seldom the case. On Lesvos, where I conducted fieldwork intermittently between August 2018 and December 2019, there was a plethora of state- and non-state actors seeking to assist the asylum seekers stuck in limbo on the Greek island. Yet, the refugees they sought to help were not passive and helpless recipients. Nor were they reduced to the conditions Agamben famously described as ‘bare life’: life confined to mere bodily existence or a physical struggle for survival (Agamben, 1998). To the contrary, many of the refugees on Lesvos protested or spoke out against European asylum policies, the EU-Turkey deal and the unsafe and undignified conditions in the former Moria camp. They demanded that their rights as refugees and asylum seekers should be respected, attention and responsibility from European leaders and publics and, more than anything, to be recognised and treated as human beings. While living in a place notorious for its extreme overcrowding, violence and abjection, residents of the Moria camp also acted ingeniously and collectively, creating pockets of community and normalcy inside and outside of the fences of the former military base. Some built makeshift businesses including mini-markets, barbershops, religious spaces, food stalls and bakeries selling tasty falafels or bread made in home-made clay ovens (reputedly the best on the island!). Others volunteered for NGOs or formed their own teams and organisations to fill crucial gaps in service provision including cleaning, security, education and recreational activities. These refugee-led initiatives have been particularly important during the last year, after new government regulations, threats from local fascist groups and Covid-19 pushed many foreign NGOs to leave Lesvos. What follows is an interview with the Afghan-born journalist, father-of-five and humanitarian entrepreneur Zekria Farzad. After arriving with his family in what he describes as the ‘dark hell’ of Moria, Zekria decided to start a school for the children living in the camp. He later founded Wave of Hope for the Future (hereafter Wave of Hope), a refugee-led humanitarian organisation with a mission to support education for refugee children on Lesvos and elsewhere. In this interview, Zekria describes his family’s hazardous journey to Europe and the birth and trajectory of his school and humanitarian organisation. Zekria also shares views on European asylum policies and reflects on the dehumanisation and devaluation of non-white bodies on the move. The interview ends with Zekria reinstating his belief in a radical humanism.

Heidi: Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your background?

Zekria: I was born in Kabul in 1979 in a family of nine children. My father worked for several international organisations, while my mother was a housewife. I grew up mostly in Kabul, but my family lived some years in exile in Rawalpindi in Pakistan during the Taliban regime. After I graduated from Ansari High School in Kabul, I started to study journalism at a private university while working as a contractor of the US army. I loved my studies and dreamed about becoming a professional journalist or diplomat for my country, but the threat of the Taliban made this impossible. But I used my education and experience to start my own magazine: ‘Farda eZeba’ (‘Beautiful tomorrow’ in Farsi). The magazine writes about cultural, historical and political issues and is distributed in rural Afghanistan to inform and awaken the younger generation, and encourage them to be part of the resistance against the Taliban and other terrorist groups. I also established an educational project for children in Pakistan and was part of several civil society and activist groups mobilising for social justice in Kabul. In 2005, I met my beloved wife at a wedding party. She was a midwife, and I went to see her several times in her clinic before we decided to get married. We now have five children between the age of 4 and 12. My oldest boy and girl are very eager and talented students but regrettably, we had to flee from Afghanistan before they were able to graduate.

Heidi: When did you arrive on Lesvos? If you like, could you tell us a bit about your family’s journey to Europe?

Zekria: I left my beloved homeland in March 2018 with my wife and five children. The journey was extremely tough, especially for my children. The smugglers made us change vehicles many times, from small pick-up cars to motorbikes. We also had to cross some of the borders by foot. I was constantly afraid that we would be ambushed by the Taliban or thieves hiding in the desert. However, we did not face any problems before we reached the border between Turkey and Iran. There, we were kidnapped and held us hostage under a bridge for two nights. It was snowing, and my children were sick, so I ended up paying the kidnappers 5000 US dollars to let us go. After walking for ten straight days, we finally arrived in Turkey. However, our asylum applications were denied, so we had no choice but to continue our journey towards Europe. During the next eight months, we participated in ‘the smuggler’s game’ about ten times. We first tried to get on a large ship to Italy, but we were exploited and deceived by the smugglers on multiple occasions. During one of our attempts, we were kidnapped again and held hostage in a remote house in a forest along with several other refugee families. The kidnappers were armed and tied the hands of all of the men. They told us that each family had to pay 40 000 euro, otherwise they would keep us here until we died. Of course, neither of us had that kind of money. However, in the middle of the night, I was able to help one of the other men in the group –a young single refugee from Afghanistan– to escape. I told him that he must run to the police and get help. I was so afraid that he would not keep his promise, or that the kidnappers would find out what we had done and hurt my wife or children or the other beautiful women and children that were held hostage with us. But thanks to the brave young man, the police showed up and arrested the kidnappers. After 12 days in police custody, they transferred us to refugee camps. I was placed in a closed camp for only men, while my family was sent to another camp far away. The authorities tried to convince me to sign a paper agreeing to be deported back to Afghanistan, but I refused. After 25 days of continuous refusals and negotiations, I was finally released and reunited with my family. The young man who saved us was deported back to Afghanistan, but has fled again, I wish him the best. We were all exhausted and scared, and my children had started to develop mental health problems, but we could not stay in Turkey. After three more failed ‘games’, we were finally able to get on a dinghy to Lesvos in February 2019. The hours we spent in that flimsy boat on the cold Aegean Sea was the worst night of my life. There were perhaps 50 people in the dinghy, and very few of us knew how to swim. My brave wife and I held our five terrified children as close as we could and prayed that we would arrive safely. Not long before we reached the North coast of Lesvos, the boat crashed into some rocks and started to sink. At that time, I was sure that we were all going to die and started to visualise our dead bodies floating in the sea. However, thank God, we were able to get out of the boat before it sank and got onshore. It was a very distressing moment: I remember I frantically counted all of my children –1-2-3-4-5 – before I could finally breathe again. All of us had survived, and we were standing on European soil. But not everyone was as lucky as we were; a ten-year-old girl from another family drowned. We also lost all our documents and belongings including our passports, money, mobile phone and diplomas.

Heidi: You arrived on Lesvos in February 2019, nearly three years after EU’s deal with Turkey in March 2016 which intended to curb so-called irregular migration to Europe. The deal, combined with Greece’s overburdened asylum system and policy of geographical containment, made thousands of asylum seekers trapped on the Aegean islands under appalling conditions while awaiting decisions on their applications. Zekria and his family had to live in the notorious Moria camp: Lesvos’s official Registration and Identification Centre (RIC) and the far biggest camp on the island. Before it burned to the ground in September 2020, the Moria camp was described as the worst refugee camp in Europe due to its severe overcrowding, lack of police protection and sanitation facilities, and high rates of untreated mental health problems (for a more detailed discussion of the history and structure of Moria, see Rozakou, 2019). The mayor of Lesvos and Pope Francis both likened the Moria camp to a concentration camp, while residents typically described it as a prison or living hell. In response to the permanence of the Moria camp, its worsening conditions and spillover-effects on the local community, both refugees and Greek islanders organised demonstrations and strikes, calling for immediate evacuations or ‘decongestion’ of the island. Yet despite this, and despite repeated warnings and appeals by UNCHR, MSF and other humanitarian organisations, the situation for asylum seekers on Lesvos only further deteriorated after you arrived in February 2019. In fact, the subsequent summer, Lesvos saw the biggest increase in boat arrivals since 2016, putting additional pressure on the scarce and inadequate facilities.
What was your experience of arriving and living in the former Moria camp with your family, and what made you decide to build a school for the children in the camp?

Zekria: When we first arrived in Moria, I was still in shock and just grateful that my family had survived. But I soon realised that, while we were still alive, this was not a proper life. The conditions were far worse than I had ever imagined. The official camp was full, so we were first allocated a flimsy tent in the ‘jungle’ [the informal spillover tent camp in the olive grove outside of the official structure of the Moria camp]. Apart from the obvious lack of proper shelter, food and sanitation, I also discovered another fundamental problem: there were children everywhere, but they had no access to education! When I asked the camp authorities about this, they said children must wait for at least 3 to 6 months to be enrolled in a school. I was shocked and dismayed. But I am not the kind of person who just sits back and watch when something is missing in my community –even if the community is only a temporary refugee camp– so I decided to do something about it. The next morning, I went to the city and bought a whiteboard and some markers. When I returned to the camp, I found a space outside under an olive tree and started providing basic lessons for my children and other children in the camp. This was the beginning of Wave of Hope.

Heidi: That’s such an inspirational story and I know it does not end there. Could you please tell us about the development of the school and your organisation?  I am also curious: why did you choose that particular name?

Zekria: The name has an important philosophy. Those of us who crossed the sea in one of those small dinghies knew with 100 per cent certainty that it was not a good choice. But we had to try. The waves were dangerous and frightening, but they also symbolised hope, because they could bring us forward, to safety. Personally, I believe it was God’s hand that saved us, but the point is that we survived and are now in a position to help others. Now we can bring others hope like the waves that nearly swallowed us.  

The school expanded very quickly. In the beginning, people walking around the camp saw me teaching under the olive tree, got interested, and started to bring their children. The parents were very supportive. Some of them let me use their private tents so we could have a quiet space and protect the children from the sun. After only a few weeks, I had seven classes and decided that I needed more help and structure. At the beginning of May, I thus gathered a team of refugee volunteers and together we started the Wave of Hope. We used our own money to buy materials in town and built three classrooms with wood frames, tarpaulin roofs and rugs on the floor. The rumours about our work spread quickly. We received more and more students and many refugees volunteered to be teachers. Before the old Moria camp burned down in September 2020, we had more than 2700 students and 44 teachers!

We worked really hard to fill the gaps in education, although we knew that it was not a substitute for formal schooling. While focusing primarily on providing education to children, we also offered various language classes, including Greek, Arabic, Farsi and English. We also opened a library and a community centre providing recreational activities like arts and music. As you know, many children and adults in the camp have mental health problems, so we tried to create a safe and positive space where they could learn, be stimulated and think about something else. I am very proud of our accomplishments. During the course of only a few months, the simple school I started under the olive tree had become a humanitarian institution by refugees for refugees!

Heidi: What has been the best and most challenging part of running Wave of Hope? As far as I know, the school is run entirely by refugees on Lesvos, but can you also say something about your relationship to Greek authorities and other organisations?

Zekria: As a human being, I consider it to be my obligation to do something good in this world. But helping people also makes me feel joyful and relaxed. Being a teacher is a luxury and a gift in my life. When I stand in front of the class, I feel very happy. But starting a school and organisation as a refugee in a foreign land has also been challenging. In the beginning, we received many warnings from the Greek police and camp authorities; they told us we do not have the right to start a school in their country and asked us to stop our work before they did it. However, after several months of discussions and negotiations, where I explained the purpose and importance of the school for our children and community, they finally accepted it. While the majority of the people in Moria was very supportive, there were also bad people and bullies in the camp who threatened and attacked me, interrupted our classes and broke our whiteboards.

From the very beginning until this day, Wave of Hope has been an independent and refugee-led organisation. Eventually, we also started to receive some international volunteers, however about 80 per cent of my colleagues are still from our own refugee communities. I have never asked anyone outside of our community for help, but words about our organisation travelled fast. Many people have come to visit our school and subsequently offered to help or collaborate with us. We also have individual donors across the world. I am very proud of our independence, but I also happy that Wave of Hope has become a global family. And our organisation continues to grow. After some of our teachers were moved from Lesvos to camps on the Greek mainland, we started new schools there. With help from some of my dear friends and family in Afghanistan, I am also building a school for 800 children in one of the country’s rural area.

Regarding other organisations, I have mixed opinions. Some organisations, like Doctors Without Borders, are doing good work, but I do not like the UNCHR’s policies on Lesvos. I think most of the volunteer organisations act better than the UNHCR and provide good services for refugees, but some exploit the situation to make money.

Heidi: During the last few years, people from Afghanistan have made up the largest portion of asylum seekers on Lesvos. This is partly a result of the fact that Syrians have been prioritized: both by the Greek registration system and by the asylum policies of other European states – and in some cases, also by humanitarian actors and activists. The lack of attention and priority to non-Syrian refugees demonstrates how hierarchies of worth and deservingness in European refugee politics are not only based on factors such as gender and age but also nationality –which, in the case of Syrian refugees, is also linked with racial- and class-based biases and assumptions (Cabot, 2015; Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2016; Rozakou, 2017). What do you think is the biggest misconception people in Europe have about Afghanistan or Afghan refugees?

Zekria: It’s a good question, actually. I cannot generalise about all Europeans, but I think many European politicians believe that Afghan people are terrorists, or that we are not eligible for asylum because Afghanistan is a safe country. Neither of this is true. The majority of Afghan people do not support the Taliban, but are innocent people stuck in a war zone. And Afghanistan is a very dangerous country. Every day we are just waiting for news that our loved ones have died. But most governments in Europe do not realise how dangerous Afghanistan is, and therefore place Afghan refugees at the bottom of their lists.

Heidi: That’s very true. And this includes my own country Norway, which officially prioritizes Syrian families, while frequently deporting Afghan refugees, including families with children who have been raised and schooled in Norway and speak fluent Norwegian. And which does this, I must add, without addressing the country’s own role or complicity as an active member of the NATO-led invasion in Afghanistan (Bangstad, 2019). Regarding misconceptions, I also think many Europeans are largely unaware of the rich Afghan and Persian culture. For instance, the poet Rumi has become very popular in the US and Europe, but I am not sure if most people know that he came from Afghanistan, or about the great tradition of Persian poetry.

Zekria: There are so many good poets from our region. I love Rumi, but also Sadhi, Hafez, Khaiam, Rodaki, Jami, Sanee, Bedil Dehlevi, Eqbbal, Ghaleb, Aasi, Parvern, Etesami, Shamlo and Khalili. We also have many talented singers and musicians like the famous Ahmad Zaher. Most refugees bring with them lots of talent and value from their countries, including music, food and entrepreneurship, however, for some reason this is hardly ever talked about.  

Heidi: You are right. Refugees are very often described as either burdens and problems or pure and abstract victims without personal histories and resources. I want to return briefly to your personal story. Contrary to popular perception, about 3/4 of Afghan refugees in Greece is in fact granted refugee status and some form of asylum protection. Nevertheless, your family’s application was rejected. Why do you think it got rejected, and what did you do when you learned about this? 

Zekria: I do not know why, but I sometimes think the rejection had to do with my work in Greece. We appealed once, but when our lawyer informed us that we would receive a second rejection, we were advised to leave Lesvos to avoid being deported back to Turkey and Afghanistan. We managed to get to Athens, where we had to live illegally without any identity documents. This was not a safe and good life for my family, so I decided to once again ‘play with my life’ to reach Northern-Europe. The journey was too dangerous for my children, so I left alone, hiding under a truck to Italy. From Italy, I managed to get to Switzerland, where I was granted a temporary asylum visa. I have now been alone in Switzerland for over a year.  Life here is better, but I really miss my family. I have been told I have to wait three years before I can bring them here. When my dear father died in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I could not even go to his funeral. It was hard to accept, but it is part of life when you are a refugee in this world. On the bright side, I am able to do some work from here and I have friends who help to support my family in Athens so my children can go to school.

Heidi: I want to ask you about the current situation on Lesvos, and how it has impacted the work of your school and organisation. For the asylum seekers stuck in limbo on Lesvos, the last year has been characterized by a several overlapping crises that have exacerbated existing vulnerabilities and rights violations. Crudely summarised, we might start with the Greek government’s announcement to establish closed camps on Lesvos and four other Greek islands in November 2019. The announcement exacerbated local tensions on Lesvos and led to a series of strikes and protests by refugees as well as Greek islanders. During February and early March, law and order collapsed on the island: locals fought riot police sent by the central government, police teargassed protesting locals and refugees (including young children) and local fascist groups threatened and violently attacked refugees, NGO-workers, volunteers and journalists, prompting neo-Nazis from other European countries to come to Lesvos (Fallon, 2020). Shortly after, Covid-2019 started to spread across Europe, leading Greek authorities to restrict the freedom of movement for the island’s refugee population (on the biopolitics of Covid-19 on Lesvos, see Jauhiainen, 2020) and issue further barriers and regulations for foreign NGOs operating in the country. As a result of these developments, most international NGOs either left Lesvos or scaled down their operations significantly during the spring of 2020. In my understanding, this made Wave of Hope’s work even more important. It also led to the establishment of other refugee-led organisations seeking to protect the refugee population from the virus including Moria Corona Awareness Team and Moria White Helmet. Despite these loadable efforts, managing social distancing in the overcrowded camp was impossible and the first cases of Covid-19 in the camp were detected in early September 2020. And then came the fire. During the night of 8th of September, the Moria camp –at that time filled over four times capacity– burst into flames, causing residents to flee in panic. It should be said that several smaller fires had broken out in Moria previously, causing deaths of both adults and children. Yet, this time, the entire camp burned to the ground. The Greek prime minister announced a four-month state of emergency on the island, while a new tent camp was built to re-house the residents of Moria. The new camp, which came to be known as Moria 2.0, is located at a former military shooting range and commonly said to have even worse conditions than the previous site. Not only is the new camp located right by the sea and thus more exposed to wind and flooding. There is also no drainage and sewing system, no showers, electricity and heating, and even less access to medical and legal assistance. Many humanitarian actors have complained that they have greater difficulties accessing Moria 2.0, and that a new ‘confidentiality law’ prevents them from publicly sharing information about the camp’s conditions and potential abuse. Can you say something about how Covid-19 and the fire that burned down Moria camp in September 2020 has affected the work of Wave of Hope?

Zekria: Part of what happened during this period was that our schools became important support platforms for community organisation and emergency aid. For instance, when Covid-19 started to spread across Europe, we established an awareness team to inform refugees about the virus and distribute life-saving protection equipment like face masks, disinfection gel, gloves and hand soap to the refugee community. After the old Moria camp burned down in September 2020, we also organised emergency food distributions. However, gaining access to the new camp has been very difficult. We have tried to negotiate with the camp authorities to get a space inside the new camp, and attended many joint meetings with UNHCR and other organisations, but we are still waiting for a positive response. While waiting, we built a new school outside the camp, at the premises of another organisation (One Happy Family), but because of the lockdown, the school had to close. At the moment, we are running some children activities and classes inside the private tents of people in Moria 2.0 and at the premises of the old Kara Tepe refugee camp. When the lockdown was lifted, we also managed to open an art exhibition and run some classes and an office in town with support from other organisations. It has been very frustrating to lose, not only our physical structures but also our access and independence. It seems to me as the Greek authorities are using the Coronavirus as an excuse to further restrict the work of NGOs like ours as well as the rights and movements of refugees on the island. Another problem we face on Lesvos is the local fascist groups which remain active on the ground and very intimidating.  

Heidi: The people of Lesvos was celebrated for their hospitality during the beginning of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, but many local residents are growing increasingly frustrated and angry with the situation. Regardless of their politics and attitudes towards refugees, many locals say they want ‘their island back’. Have you had many interactions with Greek people on Lesvos and do you understand their grievances? 

Zekria: Yes, I have lots of good Greek friends, and I understand why the local people are angry about the presence of refugee camps on their beautiful island. The problem is not the refugees or the locals, but the authorities and politicians who make life hard for both sides. It should be a piece of cake to relocate all refugees from Lesvos but for the politicians, our lives are just a political game. 

Heidi: Whose authorities and politicians are you referring to? Or, to put it differently: who do you blame for the current predicaments of refugees in Greece?

Zekria: EU and European politicians carry the heaviest responsibility; it is they who have closed their borders and criminalised refugees seeking asylum. After them, I think the Greek government is responsible for the lack of security in the camps. I believe Greek authorities are deliberately trying to make Moria a bad and dangerous place to attract financial support from other European countries. As a result, refugees are living worse than animals in Western countries. There are no human rights for us; refugees are treated as pieces in a game played by Turkey and European countries.

Heidi: That brings me to the next question: What ideas and hopes did you have about Europe before you came to Lesvos, and what are your thoughts and opinions about the EU and European countries today?

Zekria: Before coming to Europe, I always read about the continent’s development, stable economic growth, democratic system and human rights. Therefore, seeing what I saw in Moria was a big shock to me. I still cannot believe that from 2015 until this day, the big and powerful EU has not been able to improve Moria or assist the refugees in Greece. But I have come to realise that Europe is unable to bring change around the world and that all of their human rights slogans are nothing but commercial advertisement.

Heidi: When you spoke earlier about the symbolism of the name of your organisation, it reminded me about the poem Home by the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. In this poem, she writes: ‘No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than land.’

Zekria: I agree with her 100 per cent. We were all trying to find safe land, and if we had a better option, we would never have risked our lives and the lives of our children getting in that boat.

Heidi: It is a brilliant poem. But what it does not address is why refugees like yourself and your family are forced to take this enormous risk in the first place. And the reason is, as you know, that European countries do not offer safe and legal routes for refugees to reach EU and apply for asylum (apart from family reunification which is an extremely slow and demanding process). As Mbembe (2015) puts it, this illustrates a central contradiction in liberal thought and politics: that some people’s movements are configured as freedom, while others are deemed improper and conceived as a threat. Rather than a contradiction, we can of course also call it European falsehood or hypocrisy as indeed you did earlier. Staying on this topic, I thought I should end the interview by asking you about some of the posts I have read on your Facebook page. In one of the posts, you wrote: ‘globalisation is a dream, not a reality’. In another post, you reflected on the hundreds of refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean earlier that week when attempting to reach Europe. You suggested that, if the people in the boats had been white, they would have been immediately rescued. You also asked why people –including those on the Left and those who have rightfully protested against the murder of George Floyd– were so quiet when hundreds of black refugees were let drowned while seeking refuge in Europe. You asked, very appropriately in my opinion: ‘do these black lives not matter?’ and said that you hoped your criticism would hurt.

Zekria: Yes, and I stand by what I said. As long as some people do not have access to human rights, and are not treated as human beings, we cannot speak about the world as a global village. The problem is not at the level of discourse or ideas, but rather that some people and countries do not practice what they preach: it is a discrepancy between people’s ideals and actions. Black lives, Afghan lives, Syrian lives, Yemenis lives, all lives matter –but politics, racism and discrimination divide us, and deny some people full equality and humanity. The result is what we see are seeing today, in Moria and the Mediterranean and many other places.

Heidi: In the introduction to his book, The Displaced (2018), writer and former refugee Viet Thanh Nguyen writes that for refugees, ‘the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss – the loss of loved ones, or countries, of identities, of selves.’ On the one hand, your story challenges this narrative of loss, as you have overcome multiple hurdles and reconstituted yourself as a teacher, political critic, and leader of a humanitarian organisation. In Arendt’s words, you have demonstrated that ‘refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples’ (Arendt, 2007:274[1943]; see also Horst and Lysaker, 2019). However, when we spoke earlier, you partly contested this reading, emphasising that your story is not simply ‘incredible’, but also ‘very tough’. It is not only that traumas endure, but also the fact your life is still on hold: so far you have only received temporary asylum in Switzerland and you have been told you have to wait three years before you can reunite with your family. What are your thoughts and dreams about the future, for yourself and your family? Do you think you will be able to return to Afghanistan, and do you want to or do you prefer to build a new life in Europe? And how do you imagine the future of Wave of Hope?

Zekria: I’m very worried about Afghanistan and our people; the current situation is more critical and dangerous than ever before. About a year ago, the American government signed a peace agreement with the Taliban, but this was not a peace agreement with the Afghan government or people. If real peace comes, and the world wants Afghanistan to be a peaceful place, we will return to our beloved homeland Afghanistan/Khorasan. But until that day, I will work hard to create a future for my children in Europe. But my dreams are not only about my own family. In fact, I consider all of humanity to be my family, and contributing to the happiness of people as the true meaning of life. Regarding Wave of Hope, I, therefore, hope that the organisation will continue to grow and that my colleagues from different countries can be waves spreading hope across the word. As an organisation, we also hope that the politicians in this world will see our work as a symbol of unity and peace and learn from it.

Heidi: Despite all of the inhumane practices you have witnessed and experienced, you seem to not have not lost your faith in humanity? At the very least, you still say you work in the service of humanity, which you refer to as your larger family. This language resonates with that of many humanitarian workers and volunteers in Europe, including those I have worked with and researched. Yet I think there is a crucial difference. Contra the European citizens who seek to assist their ‘fellow human beings’, you and other refugees seeking asylum in today’s Europe cannot take your status as human beings for granted. As you and other refugee organisations on Lesvos have made clear, your demands for change and recognition arise –not simply ‘in the name of humanity’– but in response to theviolent denial or withdrawal of humanity. As such, you expose both the limits and hypocrisy of European liberalism and human rights talk and the violent exclusions of political communities organised based on xenophobic nationalism (see also Gilroy, 2005; 2019). Perhaps a parallel can be drawn to the anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon, whose humanism was radical and insurgent, yet still profoundly optimistic? 

Zekria: Yes. We know that political games, racism and discrimination divide humanity, treating some people, like refugees, like animals. But by taking matters in our own hands, we reclaim our humanity, while also fighting for others. I wish for a peaceful world for all: not just for the west, the east, the north or the south.

Heidi: As far as I know, the Quran also emphasises the unity or oneness of humanity, and the idea that it is human societies who have violated that principle by created divisions amongst ourselves. To what extent are your thoughts and values of humanity shaped by your religious beliefs?

Zekria: I am a Muslim, and Islam is the foundation of my thoughts and beliefs. However, the prophet Muhammad is not my only role model. I am also inspired by other people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, Ahmad Shah Masoud, Napoleon Hill and Charlie Chaplin. What Islam has taught me is to work for humanity and see no borders between people. I say, with Rumi, that I am ‘Not a Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen’, ‘not from the East or the West’, but first and foremost a ‘breath breathing human being’. 

Heidi: Thank you so much Zekria for sharing your time and insight.


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