Book review: Crossing The Sea: With Syrians On The Exodus To Europe

EVERY now and then a photograph appears that brings the world to a standstill and makes us all pause for breath. 

Wolfgang Bauer

And Other Stories

So it was last September when the poignant image emerged of toddler Aylan Kurdi, tossed onto a beach in Bodrum in Turkey after a failed sea crossing, yet another victim of the humanitarian disaster to befall Syria. 

His little body, captured in death yet seemingly asleep, amplified feelings of anger and shame that this could happen in 2015.

Into 2016, and it’s sadly apparent that the picture has not changed all that much. 

Still people attempt the hazardous sea crossings, still people die and others are rescued, although the tone among European leaders has altered. 

Europe’s welcoming hand is being slowly withdrawn.

And so to Crossing the Sea, in which Wolfgang Bauer, an award-winning reporter with German daily Die Zeit, and photographer Stanislav Krupar, pose as refugees seeking to cross the Mediterranean from Egypt on the people trail. 

The pair join a larger group, all men, mostly Syrian, who then merge with others from elsewhere, all bobbing on the waters of the Mediterranean. 

Things do not quite go to plan for the undercover duo, but the story is a gripping one.

Where Bauer excels is filling in the back stories, and providing detail on the nefarious, cut-throat business of people smuggling. 

The level of exploitation experienced by those seeking access to Europe in these pages is mind-boggling. 

“In Egypt, people-smuggling has a structure not dissimilar to the tourism industry,” Bauer writes. 

Agents compete for business, the sales patter drawing thousands of dollars out of clients, with commissions being paid in every direction. 

The waiting around seems endless — “time loses all meaning.”

Everyone wants a slice of the business. 

Kidnap and violence is an ever-present danger and humanity on the part of those supposedly facilitating the travel is in short supply. 

There are no guarantees. “Cheaper and more expensive services are available, but ultimately all travel classes end up on the same boat,”he tells.

The passengers on these boats are all-too-often terrified, duped as to their destination, the duration of travel, even their location. 

Bauer’s contacts tell of the head-to-toe cramped conditions on board, the divisions and suspicions, and the vomit, induced by sea sickness. You might well feel queasy reading the details.

The men Bauer comes to know include a pair of squabbling brothers from Damascus and a happy family man, Amar, who wants to make it to Europe with a view to his family following him. 

The destinations are Germany or Sweden, but Bauer invokes a profound sense of Fortress Europe. 

It also sheds light on different facets of the crisis: the loss of place felt by those fleeing Syria; the phenomenon of people from other countries — including Egypt — aiming for entry to Europe while pretending to be Syrian; and the idea that while Europe is the goal, the dream is often to return to their real homes back in the land they fled. 

It’s an unholy mess.

There is the sense that this is really an extended magazine feature, although Bauer’s spare writing style does help propel the story forward. 

Krupar’s photographs — some of them blurry, taken on the run — show the contrast between the lives lived before the sea crossings, and the perils of the journey. 

For many of those travelling, the destination hovers on the horizon, seemingly always just out of reach.

On at least one occasion Bauer abandons all journalistic objectivity — a troubling development in many ways, but evidence of a human reaction to what is unfolding and somewhat understandable given the bond formed with those he has come to know.

“Our laws are there to protect us, the people, and to make society better,” he writes. 

“But sometimes our laws endanger people’s lives and make society worse. Should we then comply with these laws?”

By the epilogue, the book has become a cri de coeur. 

A regular visitor to Syria as it disintegrated during the continuing war, Bauer rails against the ineffective responses and missed opportunities on the part of the West. 

They are the words of a man who feels shame and anger at what has unraveled. 

The final words have a simple power, particularly given that while the refugee crisis is the story of our time, it’s one that’s going nowhere fast. “Have mercy,” he writes.


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