Pilgrims in the landscape of lament

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View of mountains from the balcony of the monastery of St Jovan BigorskiThe tiny village of Lojane is perched in the foothills, 500m from the Macedonian-Serbian border. Mud-walled houses surround a dirt yard, and the thin minarets of a diminutive mosque rise above the rooftops. As we drove into the village, dogs, chickens and children scampered out of the way and men looked curiously from doorways.

We had come from Skopje, a city of dubious character, surounded by mountains, whose isolation belies the evidence of its historical experience as a meeting point: amidst a crumbling cityscape there are ancient Orthodox churches and Ottoman mosques; a Byzantine fortress perches on the hill above the city.

I was in Macedonia for research, interviewing irregular migrants and asylum seekers for a report on the Western Balkans as a transit route for mixed migration flows to the European Union. Hence this journey from Skopje, through the mountains to meet the mufti of Lojane, a stone's throw from border.

Greeting the mufti I couldn't help thinking of Hadji Murat, Tolstoy's Caucasian warrior, with his fierce eyebrows and intimidating beard. The mufti was a tad too portly to ride the slopes on horseback but, surrounded by henchmen of various shapes and sizes, he looked very much in charge.

The village was hosting several hundred irregular migrants from every country imaginable, from Pakistan to Nigeria. They were camping out in abandoned houses and sheds, paying the locals rent, scavenging in bins for food. Every night, large groups of them departed across the mountainous border, to be replaced by new arrivals.

This tiny village is now at the centre of the irregular migration route to the European Union and is struggling to cope with increasing numbers of migrants. In that sense it's a microcosm of the wider Macedonian situation.

The immigration detention facilities in Skopje are always full of new arrivals; undocumented migrants from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. In the prison and reception centre, men slept on the floor amidst the cooking pots, the air was thick and overpowering; rubbish filled the corridors, young children were thrown in with everyone else, living in shit-smeared rooms. The diet consisted of thin soup on weekdays, nothing on weekends.

One interviewee was the same age as me and had the same name — Benedict. But he looked old. He had left Nigeria and walked to Macedonia; four years of walking. His feet were covered in callouses, dried and thickened. In the course of these wanderings he had been kidnapped, ransomed, beaten and starved.

Another, Ghulam Abbas, had been kidnapped, shot three times (the bullets were still lodged in his arm), escaped and lost all contact with his family. And so the stories continued — evil, suffering and loss.

One evening we drove through the mountains on the Albanian border and, as the sun was going down, stopped at the Orthodox monastery of St Jovan Bigorski (pictured). It was founded in the 11th century by the monk John of Debar, who, while hiking in the mountains, witnessed an icon of St Jovan Bigorski hovering above a mountain spring. After slaking his thirst and recovering his equilibrium, he decided to establish himself on the spot.

The great fortress-monastery is perched on the slopes of a deep ravine, and facing it across the river is a dark mountain range with snow on the peaks. A monk in a black cassock led us up to the high tower where the 'old father' greeted us and we sat down to tea and spoonfuls of jam. The sun went down behind the mountains and the bells of the monastery church started ringing.

Bowing and kissing the hand of the old father, we took our leave and passed under the great gate, pausing to drink from the spring where the wandering John had his vision; the water was cold and fresh, the lights had come on in the monastery windows, and I could hear the sound of the monks chanting the evening prayer, singing before the tomb of the pilgrim monk John. And Benedict the Nigerian migrant came to mind.

The 'way of the pilgrim' is a 19th century Russian Orthodox spiritual text — the original copy lies in a monastery on Mt Athos. It features a pilgrim journeying across Russia on a spiritual quest, enduring the cold of a Siberian winter, beatings from bandits and an appalling diet — and all the while he prays ceaselessly. It's a contemplation of the spiritual life, of whether it's possible for life to become a constant prayer.

But it's also a contemplation of suffering: as the pilgrim travels he suffers — he walks barefoot through the snow, gets beaten and robbed, lives on thin crusts of bread. At the end of the text, after all his wanderings, he decides to walk to Jerusalem, to die there — life has been stripped of everything except the vision of Jerusalem.

The irregular migrants in Macedonia have come to the end of the road — they can't go back, and to go forward is to risk frostbite, kidnapping, deportation and in the end perhaps death.

Here there's a kind of immovable sadness — it's ingrained in the landscape of a life. I thought of Rilke's tenth Duino Elegy, which wanders through 'the wide landscape of Lamentation'. All of the stories of my interviewees unfolded within a vivid physical landscape, among the mountains, rivers and ravines, border checkpoints and prisons. But after listening for long enough a human landscape took shape, a landscape of lamentation.

Above all, the stories of the interviewees added a human face to Hannah Arendt's argument: that the greatest deprivation is to be deprived of citizenship, of belonging, of the right to have rights. Think of Benedict — a person condemned to walking endlessly from country to country, through mountains in the cold.

Politicians and political philosophers alike make arguments about the vital importance of strong border controls — that they safeguard the liberal-democratic community, that they're necessary for the stability of the polis. Border controls may be important, but while making these arguments it's also important to keep in sight the tumultuous human scene that borders shape and delineate — the landscape of lament. 


Benedict Coleridge headshotBenedict Coleridge is a policy researcher with Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, based in Brussels. 


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Exile. The atart of Scripture, pre-Genesis. Most people aren't even interested, a bit. Home taken away, home being the place where one belongs. Don't start to ask these people to play their music in order to entertain you. The landscape of lament.
DOWN UNDER | 18 April 2013


Benedict, you speak eloquently for those seeking home and sanctuary everywhere.
Delia | 19 April 2013


Well written Benedict. Great article. Belonging is where humanity starts.
Tony Kerin | 19 April 2013


Thanks Benedict for another fine article read from the warm comfort of home. You depict the plight of refugees graphically and with feeling. I appreciate the way you situate your experience historically and spiritually - a call to lamentation and to prayer. I pray for your research and the work of JRS.
Denis Quinn | 19 April 2013


A wonderful piece - very moving. Is there something else that can be done? 'The earth is the Lord's and everything that is in it.' Why can't we share - the rich world with the poor?
Pearl Luxon | 19 April 2013


Very enlightening and so movingly written.
HelenH | 21 April 2013


Very moving and stirring article Ben. Thanks, keep them coming.
Micky Allen | 17 May 2013