The Balkan Route
For several months in 2017, I volunteered with a small, grass-roots organisation in Obrenovac ‘transit centre’—a refugee camp near Belgrade, Serbia. I cooked lunch every day with a small team of other volunteers and served it to the 1000 or so single men who were staying in the camp. They had arrived from all over the world: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Kurdistan, Libya, Somalia, to mention a few of the more common places, but some were from as far as Myanmar. Every one of these men had a unique story to what brought them there and where they planned to go. In the years that have passed, some have found their plans worked, some have found their plans did not, some are still there, and some have died. They were all individuals, but the main thing they had in common was the life threatening journey they’d made. Circumstances beyond their control had caused them to leave their home, their travel had been arduous (such as being smuggled out in the back of a refrigerator truck or an overcrowded dinghy) and they’d all suffered tremendously along the way—enduring brutal violence from border police, the horrid conditions of the refugee camps and the mostly hostile treatment from people in the countries and towns they had passed along ‘The Balkan Route’. A common ambition amongst all of us is a peaceful and comfortable life, and yet, it is something many of us may take for granted.
Obrenovac ‘transit centre’ is a depressing place, to say the least. There are over one thousand single men living there, and many are desperate, traumatised and helpless. Angst, testosterone, racial tensions, alcohol and drug abuse don’t help. Sometimes there are riots at night. There are always casualties from the riots, including a corpse or two. The living conditions are below anyone’s expectations. There are about twenty portaloos for a thousand people. The buildings are literally crumbling away and the dorms squeeze about 50 men in a room made for 20. There are many unaccompanied minors and no exclusive or safe space for them. It is an ex-military camp and the leader of the guards is rumoured to be an ex-army general. His disciplinary measures would be considered criminal anywhere else—locking residents who have misbehaved in an unlit room with no sanitary resources for hours (or even days), beating them, throwing cold water on them, shouting abuse, and probably a hundred other atrocities that we will never know. His main ambition—to wring any remaining dignity from the residents like a cleaner wrings dry a damp cloth.
But after lunch, we would hang out with the guys for the rest of the afternoon, playing sports and games, making kites, doing arts and crafts and just being there to hang out.
I began bringing my accordion and guitar, seeking out someone to jam with. I discovered some very talented musicians. Some were even famous in their home country. At times, our jams would raise a wild dance party, where people would jump around, singing and dancing like crazy. It was these moments, where the music and dancing that grew from the incredible passion and intense emotions of those involved, provided something that no food, water, blankets or basic provisions can ever provide. The plunge into nostalgia, human connection, good vibrations—whatever it is that music does to allow someone to forget, if just for a moment, the traumatic circumstances that brought them to that utterly depressing camp—music is a truly powerful force.
These moments are the inspiration for No Borders Music. After a stint working back in Australia, I earned money to return to the Balkans with some microphones, recording gear and the aim to get back into volunteering and meet some more musicians. I had no clear method for how it would work but, with a bit of chance, this time we would record our jams.
I went to Sarajevo, Bosnia, where some friends had started an NGO. My friend Michael Huffman was there. He had just acquired a little red Yugo (an iconic, Yugoslav-era car) and was keen on the idea to record music. Our role in that NGO was to source cheap and warm blankets and distribute them to those who were sleeping in squats, parks and the train station. This included little adventures, like being led down windy mountain roads to an ex-army guy who had stashed thousands of military blankets in a container in the forest during the Yugoslav wars 25 years ago.
‘Mmyes, I give you good price, 5 marks each!’ he said, setting the bargaining threshold.
Providing blankets, socks and warm showers to those sleeping at the train station and in surrounding squats led us to meet some interesting musicians. The first who we recorded were an Algerian rapper and Iranian singer/songwriter with his young son. We used our apartment for a studio at times and a squat inhabited by one of the guys at others. It was super exciting to be collaborating with musicians who have such amazing stories to share and to capture some of those indescribable moments in music which had inspired this project in the first place.
It soon dawned on me that my knowledge of recording and producing music was at a very basic level and the musicians we were recording were of an expert musical calibre. I reached out to a friend and music producer I had previously played in a band with in Melbourne, Oscar Poncell, who has great knowledge and experience in music production. I would explain scenarios to him and ask for tips on how to capture the music at its best. These communications later led to our collaboration in further producing this music in his home studio in Melbourne.
The recording journey continued down the Balkans, through Serbia and back to Obrenovac. Then on down to Athens, Greece. We drove our little red Yugo all the way, stopping at times to repair holes in the fuel tank with beeswax or replace the fuel filter with one from a lawn mower. Parts were sometimes hard to come by so we had to be inventive. It helped that Michael used to work as a mechanic.
Morton Eisby, a filmmaker from Denmark joined us in Athens. He was attracted by our movements through social media and thought the concept of this project was good content for a film. Now, with a visual element, it brought a whole new level to the music and stories being recorded.
In Athens we stayed in City Plaza. It had been a hotel that was empty when Europe closed its borders during the Syrian war and the people making their way north became stranded in Greece. Refugees, migrants and people in solidarity with them called it home. At its peak it housed up to 700 people living communally. Its ethos of ‘Solidarity over charity’ is one of the main reasons for its success as dignified housing. It was so great to experience living conditions for refugees and migrants in an un-institutionalised, warm and friendly environment. There we met and recorded with many amazing musicians from all over the world.
A short walk from City Plaza is a suburb called Exarchia. It is notorious for its anti-establishment and anarchist presence. There are ongoing violent conflicts with the police which often result in tear gas and molotov cocktail exchanges. Many refugees and migrants live in squats in Exarchia as they are safer from being caught by police and potentially deported. However, as I’m writing this there is news that those squats are currently being violently evicted in an effort by the government to ‘cleanse’ Exarchia.
Exarchia square is a meeting place for many refugees, migrants, anarchists, activists, drug dealers and all kinds of people from different walks of life. There’s often a fire going in the middle, with people sitting around chatting, smoking, drinking and playing music. We met a bunch of rappers who hung out there and sold weed in the area. Like many other refugees and migrants who don’t have legal status, finding work is not easy. Money has to be earned in other ways. Mafia and other criminal organisations often benefit the most from this situation.
This led to us recording some seriously gangsta rap in a squat nearby. There were five or six rappers passing the mic around, freestyling and chain-smoking massive joints. Such tight and punchy rhymes and with so much intent, and in so many different languages: Farsee, Arabic, Kurdish. I had never heard hip hop like that before. As Amine, one of the rappers featured on this album says: ‘Rap has no limits.’
Our journey continued from Athens to Lebanon, to camps in Beirut and near the Syrian border, where for many, the Balkan Route begins. This album contains a compilation of songs by musicians who travelled this journey the hard way. Without visas, without money, without the automatic privileges one is gifted being born in more fortunate circumstances— such as a white man with an Australian passport. These musicians travelled this journey with nothing but an incredible amount of hope, willpower and strength to live through the brutal obstacles and harsh realities of the Balkan Route, searching for a peaceful and comfortable life.
- Elijah Gentle