All news media these days have been dominated by the migrant crisis in Europe. Within a week or so a number of events have taken place on the international scene: Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was desperately trying to convince Turkey to help stem the seemingly unstoppable flow of migrants from Turkey to Greece (a member of the European Union and of NATO). A summit meeting in Brussels with all EU countries was held to agree on a common policy toward the crisis. John Kerry announced that the State Department had concluded that the persecution by ISIS of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria meets the legal definition of genocide. Vladimir Putin announced that he is withdrawing most Russian forces from Syria. These various news announcements are interspersed with increasingly harrowing pictures of the migrants (by now well over 40,000) stranded under inhuman conditions on Greek islands, on the land borders of Greece, and in parks in Athens and Thessaloniki.In The Three-Penny Opera, composed by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht, there is a poignant song about the difference between the people who walk in darkness and those who walk in the light. Images switch between the diplomats strutting through luxurious hotels and government palaces, and the weeping women holding wide-eyed children, often huddling in the rain in flimsy shelters. There is no doubt who is in darkness and who in the light.One focus of the misery is the Greek village of Idomeni, on the border with Macedonia, which had built a fence stopping all movement from Greece. Only a small door in the fence allowed a few people to go through from time to time. The crowds held up signs and chanted in English, “Open the Border”. A woman with a toddler in her arms held up a sign, “We are left to die here”. After many hours of waiting in the open, without food, water or medical care, a group of migrants found another opening in the fence and surged through. They attempted to go further by wading through a fast moving stream. They were intercepted by Macedonian troops, manhandled and beaten, then pushed back into Greek territory.Perhaps to avoid these scenes on television, I asked myself what I knew about Macedonia. Very little indeed. Later I found out some basic facts from the Internet, none very relevant to these reflections. The very small country (that much I knew) had been a republic within the old federal Yugoslavia, speaks a Slavic language close to Serbian and Bulgarian, and is mostly Orthodox in religion. One rather absurd fact had stuck in my memory: Macedonia cannot officially operate internationally under its chosen name, because Greece objects that the name properly belongs to its own northern region. Both claimants identify with the most famous Macedonian of all time, Alexander the Great. The country of the present story was admitted to the United Nations as FYROM – “ Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. More relevant: Every other republic of the old Yugoslavia has closed its borders, thus blocking the road to the promised land of Germany.Then a memory popped up in my mind: I was once in Idomeni myself! In 1955, while I was working for the Protestant Academy in Bad Boll, a think tank in West Germany, I decided (for reasons irrelevant here) to pay a visit to Athens. I traveled by train through Yugoslavia and entered Greece at Idomeni. The crossing into Greece took place there. Both literally and symbolically it was a journey from darkness to light. It took about forty hours by train from Munich (where I picked up a visa at the Yugoslav consulate, a heavily guarded and unfriendly place), in order to get to Athens.It was an uncomfortable trip in third class (I had very little money). There were two disturbing sights on the way during the Yugoslav segment of the journey. At one point the train slowed down in a bend of the tracks, passing by a large building surrounded by wire-topped walls, evidently a prison. In the middle of an open space stood a gallows, with a thick rope hanging from it. There was nobody in it and no activity at the moment, but the contraption looked as if it was in use. A little later the train stopped at a decrepit-looking station. A mass of people in colorful clothing carrying sparse belongings—men, women and crying children—stormed the train looking for seats. A soldier sitting across from me spat on the floor, made a slashing motion across his throat, and said in a tone of contempt: “Turtsi!” I took it that they were some sort of minority Muslims (Albanians? Bosnians?) leaving (or being expelled) from Yugoslavia. At the border the train stopped for a long time, as border police from both sides inspected all documents and some luggage. Both the Yugoslav and the Greek officers saluted as they returned my recently acquired American passport; I felt vaguely guilty as now being in a group which, at least in that moment, would not be spat upon or have their throat cut.The area was, still, relatively peaceful. Tito had broken with Stalin, but Yugoslavia was still a grimly socialist police state. Greece had put its civil war behind it and, thanks to American help under the Truman Doctrine, had defeated the Communist insurgency that had initially been strongly supported by Tito’s Yugoslavia. The United States was at peace between the Korean and the Vietnam wars. (I was drafted into the US Army during this period, with nobody shooting at me.) Our train crossed the border and, as I said, we literally moved from darkness to light. It was close to one in the morning. The Yugoslav border station was very dark, only a few naked light bulbs giving poor illumination, no one about except heavily armed soldiers and police. The station in Idomeni was brightly lit. Restaurants and tavernas were full of people. Loud Greek folk music was blaring from loudspeakers. We were back in the West! Both physically and morally it was reasonably clear where the border ran between darkness and light, at least in Europe. It felt good.Things are less clear today. Yugoslavia no longer exists, but its successor states differ greatly in the extent to which they have recovered from the genocidal wars that followed its dissolution. Greece is still reeling from the euro crisis and the austerity measures imposed on it by the EU and the international financial institutions. It is now being inundated by the huge wave of desperate humanity fleeing the zone of darkness that covers most of the Middle East. The United States, under the weak and indecisive foreign policy of the Obama Administration, has tried to keep out as much as possible from the disasters of the Middle East (to which Obama’s erratic actions have greatly contributed), but both the U.S. and its European allies are being pushed by events to jump back into the disasters that stretch from West Africa to the Indian subcontinent. Thus it is much more difficult to make moral judgments.It is not difficult to identify the worst villains—the moral monsters of ISIS and its affiliates elsewhere—or the most pitiful victims, whose pictures appear on our media every day. I still think that Angela Merkel comes out best if one is to make positive moral assessments: Here is a savvy politician whose entire public career was characterized by caution and compromise, suddenly putting her political fate in jeopardy by the reckless compassion of opening the borders of Germany to hundreds of thousands of desparate people. Of course she had to draw back from her original position of setting no limits to the numbers of admitted asylum-seekers. She was forced into questionable compromises within the European Union and with Turkey (which is being bribed to stop the huddles masses heading for Europe)—clearly some limits had to be negotiated after over one million migrants had entered Germany in 2015, and there was mounting opposition in the EU and in domestic German politics. [It turns out that Markel’s childhood in a Lutheran parsonage in East Germany continues to affect her actions. She is no saint. Lutherans have no saints; they cultivate an “ethic of responsibility”—trying to do one’s best while relying on God’s mercy.]The United States has certainly not been a bastion of morality in the deepening quagmire of the Middle East. The Bush Administration started two wars in the region (probably justly in Afghanistan, based on false information in Iraq), then failed to plan intelligently for the aftermath. The Obama Administration signaled clearly that it wanted to get out of the Middle East as quickly as possible, then did so out in both Afghanistan and Iraq after announcing the schedule of withdrawal for all to see. It then drew a red line to deter the Damascus regime and, when the line was crossed, did nothing except handing the problem over to Vladimir Putin. The latter promised to unleash his air force against ISIS, but instead unleashed it mainly in support of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, who has killed hundreds of thousands of his own citizens and displaced millions.Putin then abruptly pulled out most of his troops and joined the U.S. in convoking a peace conference of, supposedly, all parties to the Syrian conflict. This is to include Iran, which has become a major influence with the Baghdad government and Shi’a militias in Iraq. A key actor now is Turkey. Its volatile president, Recep Erdogan, has also claimed to support the alliance against ISIS, but has directed his air force mainly to bomb the Kurdish forces supported by the U.S. Apart from being very confusing, every one of the governments involved is brutally pursuing its own national interest with no regard for the immense suffering of the civilian population. Only hope that the major air forces engaged over the region—American, Russian, Turkish, Syrian, even possibly Iranian—have some understanding whom they are supposed to bomb and which other aircraft to avoid. The only one on this list whom one may trust to make an effort to avoid “collateral damage” is (thank God) our own!Albert Camus ends his famous novel The Plague with the statement that, in a time of plague, one finds more people to admire that to despise. I’m not sure that this statement could be confirmed empirically. But it is correct that in a crisis quite a few people suddenly and surprisingly perform admirable acts of compassion, often at considerable cost and risk to themselves. Often this happens early on in a crisis. It did in Germany when the first huge wave of migrants hit the country. This is when large numbers of Germans proclaimed their faith in the “welcome culture” of Germany, many holding up signs saying“welcome refugees”, setting up programs to help the newcomers through centers to provide food and medicines upon arrival, having volunteers to help with the bureaucracy of the welfare state, to organize German language courses, to help children get into schools and youth programs. These activities were supported by government, but also by churches and other institutions of civil society. Of course the original welcome lost intensity, as the numbers of incoming migrants became so huge that the machinery of the welfare state became creaky, as anti-migrant demonstration and even violence increased (especially in the east), and as anti-migrant political parties entered a number of state legislatures and were poised to enter the federal parliament, the Bundestag. Nevertheless, substantial numbers of voters across party lines continue to support Merkel’s stance on immigration. Similar divisions in public opinion can be seen in other European democracies. And there continue to be volunteers for the various programs helping migrants. I have been particularly moved by reports and pictures from Greece, a country still reeling from the austerity policies imposed on it from the EU and the international monetary institutions (policies most vocally pushed by Angela Merkel!). I recall a recent picture of members of the Greek coast guard helping migrants to come ashore from an overcrowded rubber dinghy arriving at a beach on the island of Lesbos. Some crew members were very gently holding young children, soothing them, trying to make them laugh while waiting for their parents to disembark. These are the people that Camus wants us to admire. Some are occasionally found on the higher levels of government. Probably they are more strongly represented among ordinary, more humble people.
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Published on: March 30, 2016
the migrant crisisDarkness and Light at Idomeni
In a time of crisis, quite a few people suddenly and surprisingly perform admirable acts of compassion, often at considerable cost and risk to themselves.