Kos refugee crisis

“Are you a journalist or a spy?” asked the policeman.

“Who would I be spying for?” I replied, laughing.

“That I don’t know,” the policeman answered. He brought the night vision binoculars to his eyes again and scanned the dark horizon, ignoring me from now on. He talked over his radio with a coast guard boat a couple of miles offshore. It was easy to see, trolling back and forth. Sometimes it would switch on its orange flashlights and speed towards a rubber boat in distress. You could see the people be taken on board and then brought to the port, and then the patrol boat would leave again. It went like this all night, every night.

Apparently they had decided that this rubber boat was doing fine and its voyage not to be interrupted. I heard the yelling and screaming and chanting even before I could see them. Then the boat ran up the beach, about fifty people jumped out and started to dance around, pray, sing, yell “Allah akhbar” and “save us” – the latter being the phrase taught to them by the smugglers for when confronted by authorities. The police told them all to sit down and not use their phones. Nobody paid any attention. Eventually they had to walk in caravan behind the police car to town. On their way they went, but then another boat appeared from the distance and the police returned to the beach to – I still have no idea what it is they tried to do there. The police themselves most likely felt pretty useless too, because three or four more boats arrived that morning but I haven’t seen them any more.

By that time it was starting to get light. Joggers ran past, and kite surfers were readying their gear. An early swimmer from one of the nearby resorts emerged. Other tourists were watching the daily refugee spectacle from the comfort of the balconies of their rooms, enjoying a morning espresso.

I was running around with a microphone and my Nikon. The radio documentary I produced was aired the 30st of August, and can be listened to online here (link) or below.

Some of my photos were featured on the photography publication LensCulture, here.

In the meantime, the situation in Europe has taken a turn for the bizarre and the sinister. Countries like Hungary and Macedonia are panicking and have no clue how to handle the caravans of refugees passing through – the consensus seems to be to just treat them as horribly as possible: Hungary planned to deport refugees in trains to camps. Yes, it is sometimes hard to remember that it’s 2015 over here. In the seas between Turkey and Greece, people just drown.

European policy, as far as there is any, seems to be to push as much business as possible towards the smugglers, who are making millions circumventing borders that may one day be open and then closed on the other.

It annoys me personally. The brother from one of the main characters in my documentary is at the moment of writing stuck in Budapest where the authorities have decided to close, then open, then close the railway station again. If I had a car, I would just go over there to pick him up.

And maybe that’s what needs to happen. Organize buses and drive refugees from Greece to the West, step in where our hapless leaders are dropping the ball. Anyway, here’s the radio documentary I produced. Enjoy!

Vlucht naar Syrië full documentary

Here’s the radio documentary I did about the Dutch humanitarian effort called “Help Syria Through the Winter” for NTR radio. For the non-Dutch speaker: In December 2013 I boarded a cargo plane full of supplies and flew from Rotterdam to Damascus, the capital of war-torn Syria. There, I covered the distribution of the supplies to internally displaced persons.

Prix Europa 2013

I planned to write more regularly about the Prix Europa festival in Berlin, but had to shelve that optimistic idea as we – the jury members – were listening to 33 radio documentaries in just five days and discussing all of them. For those who don’t know: If your piece runs on this festival you are automatically a jury member, just like that, and have to listen and vote. You can’t vote for your own piece. At the end the numbers go through some kind of algorithm and out come the winners, who are announced during a special event and then crowned during yet another special event which involves politicians and other hotshots.

So who were those winners? Well, not me. In the category investigative radio the best production was from Sweden, “The Girl Who Got Tied Down”. If that sounds like a Stieg Larsson title you’re right; the late author once said that everything that happened in his “Millennium trilogy” had also happened for real in Sweden in one way or the other, and this radio documentary by Swedish reporter Daniel Velasco illustrated that point rather eloquently. Here’s the synopsis:

Nora was forcibly institutionalized for her self-destructive behaviour. At the age of 17, while placed in residential care, she took to prostitution without the staff intervening. One day she was tied up and brutally raped by a sex-client. When Daniel Velasco begins interviewing Nora the rapist is still a free man. It is a shock for both him and Nora when, three years on, her assailant is suddenly arrested and they are informed that he is former police inspector Göran Lindberg, a well-known feminist known as “Captain Dress”. Nora steels herself for her meeting with him in court but breaks down afterwards. She ends up in psychiatric care. She tries to be assigned to a female psychiatrist, but her senior consultant has other plans.

The documentary did exactly what an investigative story should do: Cause mayhem and scandal. Heads rolled. Things changed. And one of the things that made it really stand out among the other investigative pieces was that you really got to know the main character, or victim if you like, the girl Nora.

In the “documentary” category, the winner was “Message in a Bottle”, an amazing and beautifully told story from Ireland by Peter Mulryan and Liam O’Brien:

On Christmas Day 1945 American Serviceman Frank Hayostek stuffed a note into a bottle and tossed it from his troop carrier, eight months later it was found on a beach near Dingle in County Kerry by Breda O’Sullivan.

He was 21, she was 18. Breda wrote back to Frank, and in turn Frank wrote to Breda – and so a trans-Atlantic friendship started. Frank put aside $30 a month to come a visit Breda, it took him 6 years to save enough to fly to Ireland.

And so on August 5th 1952 Frank arrived in Shannon airport.

Would there be a romance? The world’s press clearly hoped so, for they picked up on this impossibly romantic story and descended on Dingle en masse.

What happened next was part circus, part tragedy…

You can listen to it, here.

These festival competitions are a bit like horse races – I was told that the winning Irish piece was entered as well at an Irish radio festival and didn’t even make it through the pre-selection – and there were other documentaries that were really great as well even if they didn’t win. Like, for example, the intriguing “Dearest Ulrike“, by fellow Dutchman Joost Wilgenhof, about people who are still inspired today by Ulrike Meinhof. Or the sweet and elegant “Camp Sisterhood“, by Charlotte Rouault and Benoit Bories, about three women who managed to survive a Nazi camp through their friendship. Leave it to the Brits to turn a simple crossing of the Channel – to the continent, after all – into a mythical journey in “Nights of Passage” and to the Czech to serve up some of the most surreal dialog I’ve heard on radio in “I am Your Son Too, Adolf“. I also very much enjoyed the solid journalism in “Tanks For The Caliphate” and “The Echo Chamber: The Story of Jihad Jane“.

Anyway, the trip here was certainly worth it. It is a nice festival, I met great people, listened to great stories, and we made a serious attempt to drink the BBC into bankruptcy. All good.

That all said, it was a rather curious sight to see a group of people, in the year 2013, wrestling with heaps of paper while listening to the various pieces, trying to keep up with the printed English translations of the stories which were obviously produced in a plethora of European languages. The sound of 60 people turning pages simultaneously while trying to listen to radio is something to behold, as is the massive amount of paper this festival wastes.

In other words, we need an app. I want to be able to select a documentary from any European station on my smartphone, select my language, and get subtitles displayed in sync with the radio story. Ideally, this can then also be projected in festival settings, like, on a screen or something. It would all need some kind of standard format to avoid having to install tens of different applications. It would vastly improve the reach of documentaries that are not produced in English. How hard can this be?

For those of you who are wondering if I will now go back to Panama, the answer is, “not yet”. I’m off to the Middle East in a couple of weeks for a well deserved holiday to report on and around the ongoing war in Syria. And yes, radio work will be involved.

Barro Blanco documentary nominated for Prix Europa

The radio documentary about the Barro Blanco hydroelectric dam in Panama that I produced for NTR radio in Holland has been nominated for the Prix Europa, at the European broadcast festival that will be held in Berlin in October.

In the piece I investigated, together with colleague Gilles Frenken, the greenwashing of this environmentally and socially disastrous project in which Dutch semi-government bank FMO is heavily invested. We discovered that local indigenous people had never been consulted and face forced displacement, there are serious environmental consequences left out of a doctored impact study and the Dutch bankers didn’t seem to fully understand what they were investing in.

The documentary led to questions in the Dutch parliament soon after it was aired.

“Barro Blanco” has been nominated in the category, “Best European Radio Investigation of the Year 2013”.

Haven’t heard it yet? You can listen to the documentary here.

Barro Blanco

Tabasara river

A Dutch semi-government institution, the Dutch Development Bank FMO, invests in a hydroelectric dam in Panama, called Barro Blanco. Green energy, and Holland can offset some CO2 emissions. Everybody happy, then?

Well, not quite. The dam is being built just outside the indigenous reservation of the Ngobe people, and part of their land, with several villages, will be flooded. Protests have already caused several deaths and many wounded. Environmentalists claim that the energy isn’t green at all.

Together with colleague Gilles Frenken, I set off to investigate. We found angry indigenous people, an energy corporation that constantly lies, and a Dutch bank that insists on looking the other way when human rights are violated.

Listen to the radio documentary on the HollandDoc website, here.

The documentary led to questions in parliament in the Netherlands as well.