Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan writes on the Syrian refugee crisis: ‘Epic in scale, inconceivable until you witness it’


“Yesterday was the funeral,” Ramadan says. “It was very cold. We make sure Yasmin always has family around her.”

Yasmin wears a red scarf, maroon jumper and blue jeans. She is small and slight. Her face seems unable to assemble itself into any form of meaning. Nothing shapes it. Her eyes are terrible to behold. Blank and pitiless. Yet, in the bare backstreet apartment in Mytilini on the Greek island of Lesbos in which we meet on a sub-zero winter’s night, she is the centre of the room, physically, emotionally, spiritually. The large extended family gathered around Yasmin – a dozen or more brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, her mother and her father, Ramadan, an aged carpenter – seem to spin around her.

And in this strange vortex nothing holds.

Yasmin’s family has come from Bassouta, an ancient Kurdish town in Afrin, near Aleppo, and joined the great exodus of our age, that of 5 million Syrians fleeing their country to anywhere they can find sanctuary. Old Testament in its stories, epic in scale, inconceivable until you witness it, that great river of refugees spills into neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and the overflow – to date more than a million people – washes into Europe across the fatal waters of the Aegean Sea.

“We were three hours in a black rubber boat,” Ramadan says. “There were 50 people. We were all on top of each other.”

The family show me. They entwine limbs and contort torsos in strange and terrible poses. Yasmin’s nine months pregnant sister, Hanna, says that people were lying on top of her.

I am told how Yasmin was on her knees holding her four-year-old son, Ramo, above her. The air temperature just above freezing, the boat was soon half sunk, and Yasmin wet through. But if she didn’t continue holding Ramo up he might have been crushed to death or drowned beneath the compressed mass of desperate people.

Then something happened.

Ramadan looks up. He seems 70 but is 54.

“We lost track of where the children were,” Ramadan say

“What was Syria like?” I ask Ibrahim.

We sit in a transit centre in north Serbia through which thousands pass every day, the 12-year-old Ibrahim drawing a picture of home.


Like the other children drawing their memories of Syria, he reaches only for black and blue pencils, the darkest colours.

“Because of Daesh everything is black,” Ibrahim explains.

His picture is a mini-Guernica of body parts. He finds a red pencil and draws blood.

“Do you think that there will be light now?” I ask.

“It was smoky, black, because of the bombing,” Ibrahim says.

I ask him what other colours were in Deir ez-Zor.

There were no other colours.

He’s preoccupied with his drawing, and he says to the table, to the drawing, to the paper: “In Europe I see every colour.”

“Name one colour for Europe,” I say.

Ibrahim looks up. He wears a blue fleece cap with earflaps pulled hard down over his face that accentuates a gaze too intense, too piercing for someone so young. He has the look of a medieval child beggar. There is a scab on his upper lip; his chipped and scattered teeth roam the room while he talks.


Raghda speaks gently, softly smiling, as she tells of how she has a degree in “woman’s art” – fashion design, sewing, drawing – and hoped for a career in fashion. Then, Daesh arrived – as incomprehensible to Raghda as it is to so many Syrian refugees, as inexplicable as a tsunami or an earthquake – and turned her home town of Raqqa into its capital.


“Daesh came suddenly upon us,” Raghda says. “We don’t know from where they came. They wore scarves around their faces, they only knew a few words of Arabic – they were Chechen, Chinese, Afghans, Americans, Somali, Pakistani – they wore masks.”

Her husband, Mohamed, saw Daesh kill a man in front of him.

“Mohamed didn’t look,” Raghda says. “But the blood follows him.”

We are a few kilometres from the Syrian border, high up in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. In mid-winter the Bekaa is a bleak world of muddy, littered flatlands bounded by vast snowy ranges. The dreary soot of snow clouds briefly part for a hard red sun that rolls like a severed head over Syria. The ploughed winter earth is fallow save for one crop that sprouts like weeds: the plastic-clad hovels that run in colourful ribbons everywhere.

The plastic takes various forms: white polytarp, bags, the bright buntings of discarded billboards promoting perfumes and smartphones, honed images of corporate beauty: Kate Moss, Christian Dior and the iPhone 6s. Only when you come close are you able to see this bitter harvest for what it is: endless shantytowns – camps seem too orderly a word for their broken disorder – in which survive perhaps half a million Syrian refugees.

Perhaps more.

Depending on the wealth they bring with them or their lack of it, another million Syrian refugees can be found living in culverts, ruins, slums and better quality apartments throughout Lebanon – a nation itself of only 4.5 million. No one knows the exact number any more as the authorities stopped registering refugees a year ago and closed the borders a few months later.

But still they come.

Continue reading here. Original posted in The Guardian