People's history

Howard Zinn, the People’s Historian

They have a healthy disrespect for respectability; they are not ashamed of being agitators and trouble-makers; they see it as the essence of democracy

wrote Howard Zinn about the young black activists fighting segregation[1] – “whose sacrifice [was] tossed, anonymously, into the common pool”, and who understood that

Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.[2]

It was they who were of primary interest to Howard Zinn, the historian, the people’s historian – whose A People’s History of the United States “literally changed the consciousness and the conscience of an entire generation,” according to Noam Chomsky.

Zinn (1922–2010) served as a bombardier in the United States Army Air Corps during the Second World War. This war – as the “just war” against fascism – has served as a justification to other wars ever since. His experience has, however, turned Zinn into a life-long anti-war activist. In his recollections, he identifies as a defining moment the April 1945 US bombing of the French town of Royan, where several thousand German soldiers had taken shelter: [3]

When US president George W. Bush declared the “war on terrorism” in 2001, Zinn asked, “How can you have a war on terrorism when war itself is terrorism?” War on terrorism, he emphasized, “gives the government a perpetual war and a perpetual atmosphere of repression. And it generates perpetual profits for corporations. But it’s going to make the world a far more unstable and dangerous place.”[4]

“We shall make no distinction,” the president proclaimed, “between terrorists and countries that harbor terrorists.” So now we are bombing Afghanistan and inevitably killing innocent people because it is in the nature of bombing (and I say this as a former Air Force bombardier) to be indiscriminate, to “make no distinction.”[…]

They have learned nothing, absolutely nothing, from the history of the twentieth century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counterterrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity. […]

We are committing terrorism in order to “send a message” to terrorists.[5]

After the end of the Second World War, Zinn went to study history at New York University:

I started studying history with one view in mind: to look for answers to the issues and problems I saw in the world about me… Sure, there’s a certain interest in inspecting the past, and it can be fun, sort of like a detective story. I can make an argument for knowledge for its own sake as something that can add to your life. But while that’s good, it is small in relation to the very large objective of trying to understand and do something about the issues that face us in the world today.[6]

In traditional curricula,

[t]he people it was considered important to study were presidents, industrialists, military heroes – not labor leaders, radicals, socialists, anarchists.[7]

And Zinn was much more interested in the latter than in mainstream historical figures. As he stresses in his book on democratic education:

So often the history of war is dominated by the story of battles, and this is a way of diverting attention from the political factors behind a war. It’s possible to concentrate upon the battles of the Mexican War and to talk just about the triumphant march into Mexico City and not about the relationship of the Mexican War to slavery and to the acquisition of territories that might possibly be slave territories.

Another thing that is neglected in the history of the Mexican War is the viewpoint of the ordinary soldiers. […] I think it’s a good idea also to do something that isn’t done anywhere so far as I know in histories in any country, and that is: tell the story of the war from the standpoint of the other side, of “the enemy.”[8]

It was also clear to Zinn that the neutrality of historiography and historians, proclaimed by many be an unquestionable ideal, was an illusion that would fail at the very choice of subject.

…there is no point even trying to be neutral, because you can’t. When I say you can’t be neutral on a moving train, it means the world is already moving in certain directions. Children are going hungry, wars are taking place. In a situation like that, to be neutral or to try to be neutral, to stand aside, not to take a stand, not to participate, is to collaborate with whatever is going on, to allow that to happen. I never wanted to be a collaborator, I wanted always to intercede into this moving world and see if I could deflect it by even the slightest of degrees.

We all face that problem. We all go into professions where you’re supposed to be professional. And to be professional means that you don’t step outside of your profession. If you’re an artist, you don’t take a stand on political issues. If you’re a professor, you don’t give your opinions in the classroom. If you’re a newspaperman, you pretend to be objective in presenting the news. But, of course, it’s all false. You cannot be neutral. If you’re a historian and you’ve been brought up to believe that you’re objective as a historian, you’re not taking a stand, you’re just presenting the facts as they are, you’re deceiving yourself, because all the history that’s presented in books or in lectures and so on is a history that’s selected out of an enormous mass of data. When you make that selection, you’ve decided what you think is important. That comes out of your point of view. So, one, it’s impossible to be so-called objective and neutral. Two, it’s not desirable, because we need everybody’s energy, we need everybody’s intervention in whatever’s going on.[9]

As a history teacher, he did not separate his teaching and activist roles – and encouraged his students to become involved in activism, too. From 1954 to 1963 (when he was fired for insubordination), he was a professor of history at Spelman College, a “black college” for women in Atlanta, Georgia.

I was open to anything my students wanted to do, refusing to accept the idea that a teacher should confine his teaching to the classroom when so much was at stake outside it.[10]

His students – with Zinn’s support – challenged the segregation rules of the city’s public libraries, and through persistent action, had them abolished.

With his teaching methods, Zinn sought to counter what he described in his book on democratic education:

[W]hile schools are charged with promoting a discourse of democracy, they often put structures in place that undermine the substantive democratic principles they claim to teach. As a result, schools are necessarily engaged in a pedagogy of lies.[11]

Both in the action of the Spelman students and in general, he considered civil disobedience, the deliberate violation of unjust laws to be key elements of democracy. As he put it in his book Disobedience and Democracy – Nine Fallacies on Law and Order,

There is no social value to a general obedience to the law, any more than there is value to a general disobedience to the law. Obedience to bad laws as a way of inculcating some abstract subservience to “the rule of law” can only encourage the already strong tendencies of citizens to bow to the power of authority, to desist from challenging the status quo. To exalt the rule of law as an absolute is the mark of totalitarianism, and it is possible to have an atmosphere of totalitarianism in a society which has many of the attributes of democracy. To urge the right of citizens to disobey unjust laws, and the duty of citizens to disobey dangerous laws, is of the very essence of democracy, which assumes that government and its laws are not sacred, but are instruments, serving certain ends: life, liberty, happiness. The instruments are dispensable. The ends are not.[12]

He repeatedly emphasized the importance of challenging the state:

Perhaps the most important thing I learned was about democracy, that democracy is not our government, our constitution, our legal structure. Too often, they are enemies of democracy.[13]

When a government betrays those democratic principles, it is being unpatriotic. A love of democracy would then require opposing your government. It would require being “out of order.”[14]

When the great journalist I.F. Stonewas asked by journalism students for advice, he had two words: “Governments lie.”[15]

And he did not only speak about the necessity of challenging the authority of state, but he also acted.

Working at RAND Corporation, his friend Daniel Ellsberg had access to confidential military documents about the Vietnam War – which provided a clear proof of I.F. Stone’s comment. With some colleagues, Ellsberg decided to copy the documents and publish them in the press. Ellsberg left a copy with Zinn, who stashed it in his office.

For once, the mainstream press – which is usually aligned with the US government’s war narrative – took up the conflict with the government, and The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers in June 1971.[16] Ellsberg went into hiding for a few days and then, accompanied by friends, supporters and journalists, turned himself in to the police. He risked 115 years in prison under the Espionage Act – today Julian Assange could face 175 years in prison on similar charges. The charges against Ellsberg were soon dropped. The scandal of the Pentagon Papers hastened the end of the war.

Zinn’s deep opposition to war and strong reservations about state power – as well as his activism rooted in direct action – logically turned him to anarchism.

What also connected the movements of the 1960s to the historic philosophy of anarchism was the idea of direct action. This meant that social change would not be sought by political parties striving to take over government, but by citizens banding together and acting directly against the source of their oppression…

It was in the late 1960s that I began using anarchist writings in my course in political theory at Boston University. My students were reading Emma [Goldman]’s autobiography, Living My Life, as well as a collection of her lectures, Anarchism and Other Essays. Sometimes I used a short book by Alexander Berkman, which was a concise and simple explanation of anarchist ideas, called The ABC of Anarchism. I began teaching a seminar, “Marxism and Anarchism.”[17]

Zinn’s anti-war activities as a lecturer led to confrontations with the university president, John Silber. One of Silber’s first acts after his appointment in 1972 was to invite the Marines to the university to recruit among students. A protest against this was broken up by police force. The next day, the official newspaper of the university administration carried the headline “Disruptive Students Must Be Taught Respect for Law, Says Dr. Silber”. Zinn published his response in a Boston newspaper:

“It is true,” I wrote, “that one crucial function of the school is training people to take the jobs that society has to offer… But the much more important function of organized education is to teach the new generation that rule without which the leaders could not possibly carry on wars, ravage the country’s wealth, keep down rebels and dissenters – the rule of obedience to legal authority. And no one can do that more skillfully, more convincingly than the professional intellectual. A philosopher turned university president is best of all. If his arguments don’t work on the students – who sometimes prefer to look at the world around them than to read Kant – then he can call in the police, and after that momentary interruption (the billy club serving as exclamation point to the rational argument) the discussion can continue, in a more subdued atmosphere.”[18]

He was equally critical of the penitentiary and judicial systems:

I am convinced that imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture. It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions – poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed – which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished…

The courtroom is one instance of the fact that while our society may be liberal and democratic in some large and vague sense, its moving parts, its smaller chambers – its classrooms, its workplaces, its corporate boardrooms, its jails, its military barracks – are flagrantly undemocratic, dominated by one commanding person or a tiny elite of power. In courtrooms judges have absolute power over the proceedings. They decide what evidence will be allowed, what witnesses will be permitted to testify, what questions can be asked.[19]

He backed up his claims convincingly in Justice in Everyday Life – The Way It Really Works (1974), in which he examined the police, courts, prisons, housing, workplaces, health care and schools, identifying systemic problems and proposing solutions on the basis of diverse testimonies.

Zinn’s views and books have long been seen by the conservative right as a serious ideological threat. Several states have attempted to ban his books from school districts, and in 2020, ten years after Zinn’s death, President Donald Trump also took aim: “Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.”[20]

Zinn is understandably disturbing to those who, like Trump’s 1776 Commission, seek to turn history into a mythical past under the banner of “patriotic education,” who seek to make the dominant group’s narrative exclusive in order to consolidate the power of those at the top. When the 2020 Hungarian National Curriculum sets similar targets for teaching history and literature, Howard Zinn’s point of view is much needed in Hungary.

Published in Hungarian by Tett on August 14, 2022

[1] Howard Zinn, The New Abolitionists, 1964, reprint: Haymarket Books, 2017, p. 8.

[2] Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Beacon Press, 1994, 2002, p 208.

[3] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of American Empire, ‎Metropolitan Books, 2009, p. 131.

[4] Howard Zinn, Terrorism and War, Seven Stories Press, 2002, p 28.

[5] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of American Empire, pp. 3-4.

[6] Howard Zinn, Donaldo Macedo, Howard Zinn on Democratic Education, Paradigm Publishers, 2005, p. 187.

[7] Howard Zinn, Three Plays – The Political Theater of Howard Zinn, Beacon Press, 2010, p 3.

[8] Howard Zinn, Donaldo Macedo, Howard Zinn on Democratic Education, Paradigm Publishers, 2005, p. 191.

[9] Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Howard Zinn Speaks: Collected Speeches, 1963–2009, p 208.

[10] Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, p 21.

[11] Howard Zinn, Donaldo Macedo, Howard Zinn on Democratic Education, Paradigm Publishers, 2005, p. 1.

[12] Howard Zinn, Disobedience and Democracy, 1968, Haymarket Books, 2013, pp 119–120.

[13] Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, p x.

[14] Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, p 3–4.

[15] Howard Zinn, „Governments Lie”, in A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, City Lights Books, 2007, p 199.


[17] Howard Zinn, Three Plays – The Political Theater of Howard Zinn, Beacon Press, 2010, p 14–15.

[18] Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, p 186.

[19] Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, p 150–151.



Convivial comme un camp de réfugiés

« Ce n’est sans doute pas une coïncidence si dans aucune langue parlée sur la terre on ne trouve l’expression “beau comme un aéroport”. Les aéroports sont laids. Quelques-uns sont hideux. Certains atteignent même à un degré de laideur qui ne peut être que le résultat d’un effort délibéré. »

–  écrit Douglas Adams dans Beau comme un aéroport.

Et est-ce que M. Adams a déjà entendu parler de camps de réfugiés conviviaux ?

Et vous ?

Entourés de fils barbelés et gardés par les forces armées, les camps de réfugiés – comme les zones de transit hongroises – peuvent être qualifiés de tout sauf conviviaux. Avant son incendie en septembre 2020, le plus grand camp de réfugiés d’Europe, Moria, sur l’île grecque de Lesbos, n’était pas décrit comme convivial par ses habitants. Plutôt infernal. Et celui de Samos, qui lui aussi accueillait plusieurs milliers de demandeurs d’asile, était simplement appelé Jungle par tout le monde, tout comme celui de Calais en France.

Nous nous sommes habitués à cela. Quant aux conditions dans les camps… nous, spectateurs extérieurs, nous nous y sommes habitués aussi. Après tout, il n’y a pas grand chose que l’on puisse faire, nous avons tendance à dire, en haussant les épaules. Puis, nous secouons la tête lorsque le journal allemand Die Zeit décrit les conditions dans l’enfer de la Moria sous le titre « Die Leute hier leben wie die Tiere » (Où les gens vivent comme des animaux). Nous secouons la tête parce que le titre est dérangeant. Parce qu’il n’est pas hypocrite. L’interviewé de Die Zeit, Jean Ziegler, met cela en perspective. Dans son livre Lesbos, la honte de l’Europe, qui paraîtra bientôt en hongrois, il écrit :

« Alors que j’exerçais comme rapporteur spécial des Nations unies pour le droit à l’alimentation, j’ai parcouru la Rocinha, la plus grande favela de Rio de Janeiro, les slums des Smokey Mountains de Manille et les puantes shantytowns de Dacca, au Bangladesh. Mais jamais je n’ai été confronté à des habitations aussi sordides, à des familles aussi désespérées que dans les Oliveraies de Moria. »

Mais que faire ? Les camps de réfugiés seront toujours des camps de réfugiés, n’est-ce pas ? Il est certainement plus simple de secouer la tête et de hausser les épaules que d’interroger pourquoi et comment des gens forcent d’autres gens à vivre comme des animaux.

La phrase « Nous ne pouvons pas accueillir toute la misère du monde » est attribuée à plusieurs personnes mais a été formulée à l’origine un peu différemment par le Premier ministre français Michel Rocard à l’Assemblée Nationale le 6 juin 1989 : « Il y a, en effet, dans le monde trop de drames, de pauvreté, de famine pour que l’Europe et la France puissent accueillir tous ceux que la misère pousse vers elles. »

Difficile de contradire ce propos, n’est-ce pas ?

Eh bien, à quelques kilomètres de la tristement célèbre Moria, quelques dizaines de bénévoles de Mytilène disent mais aussi prouvent depuis des années, jour après jour, qu’il existe une alternative à Moria. Que l’anthropologue culturelle Margaret Mead avait raison quand elle a dit :

« Ne doutez jamais qu’un petit groupe de citoyens engagés et réfléchis puisse changer le monde. En réalité, cela se passe toujours de cette manière. »

En novembre 2012, le maire de Lesbos a approuvé l’utilisation du camp de Pikpa, un ancien centre de vacances pour enfants, pour accueillir les demandeurs d’asile sans abri. Des citoyens et des collectifs ont ainsi créé le « Village de Tous Ensemble ». Depuis 2012, il a accueilli et soutenu plus de 30 000 personnes dans le besoin. La vidéo résumant ces 8 années se termine ainsi :

« Le camp Pikpa est un modèle exemplaire pour l’accueil des demandeurs d’asile. Avec aide et soutien du monde entier, il offre abri, nourriture, formation, ainsi que de soutien médical, psychologique et juridique sans rien coûter à l’état. »

Sans rien coûter à l’état. Monsieur Rocard doit se retourner dans sa tombe.

Que pourrait mettre en œuvre ce collectif s’il recevait un financement public de l’Union européenne – disons, le montant par habitant que l’UE dépense, au moins sur papier, pour ceux qui souffrent dans l’enfer de Moria ? Ou si l’expérience du Pikpa était mise en œuvre dans des hot spots, formellement connus comme des institutions de premier accueil ? En fin de compte, les demandeurs d’asile se sentiraient vraiment accueillis.

C’est évidemment impensable. Car, comme l’écrit Jean Ziegler, les hot spots ne sont pas faits pour cela.

« Aujourd’hui, les hot spots sont au service d’une stratégie précise : de la dissuasion et de la terreur. Il s’agit d’inspirer un effroi tel que les persécutés renonceraient à quitter leur pays. »

Et Pikpa ne fait pas l’affaire.

Quelques jours avant la publication de la vidéo en novembre 2020 – c’est-à-dire un mois et demi après l’incendie du camp Moria – Pikpa a reçu un coup dur. Peu importe qu’il ait donné, depuis des années, un refuge sûr et convivial aux plus vulnérables, y compris les mineurs non accompagnés et les mères célibataires. Peu importe qu’il ait épargné à ses habitants les horreurs endurées par leurs pairs à Moria, tant pendant l’incendie que dans les jours qui ont suivi, n’ayant d’autre choix que de dormir sur des routes goudronnées pendant plusieurs nuits, avec des enfants, sans rien à manger ni à boire, et d’attendre sans rien faire parce que la police a bloqué les routes. Tout cela n’avait pas d’importance. Une fois que la construction de Moria 2.0 a été terminée – sur un ancien champ de tir militaire, exposé aux vents maritimes et aux inondations, entouré d’une clôture de six mètres de hauteur avec une triple rangée de barbelés OTAN, et gardé par 350 soldats des forces spéciales – Pikpa est devenu inutile.

Pas pour ceux qui y vivaient ou qui le géraient, mais pour ceux qui avaient le pouvoir de décider. Et non seulement il est devenu inutile, mais aussi indésirable. Comme il aurait pu servir de miroir à Moria 2.0.

Le 30 octobre 2020, à 6h30 du matin, une soixantaine de policiers armés ont encerclé l’ancien centre de vacances pour enfants. Ils ont réveillé les habitants – 74 demandeurs d’asile, dont 32 enfants – et leur ont ordonné de quitter leur maison. Ils ont obéi. Les volontaires de Lesvos Solidarity ont reçu l’ordre de ne pas intervenir. Tout comme la presse.

Que ressentaient ceux qui, pendant des années, avaient assumé la responsabilité de l’État et soutenu les demandeurs d’asile les plus vulnérables ? On ne leur a pas posé la question. On leur a simplement donné des ordres.

Et qu’ont ressenti ceux qu’on a forcé de quitter leurs foyers conviviaux en offrant une place dans Moria 2.0, qui non seulement n’a pas passé les premiers tests de fortes pluies mais qui est manifestement incapable de répondre aux normes internationales de base applicable aux camps de réfugiés ? On ne leur a pas posé la question. On leur a simplement donné des ordres.

Construit pour 8 000 personnes en urgence après l’incendie de septembre 2020, le camp Moria 2.0 a été conçu sans tenir compte des exigences essentielles en matière d’évacuation des eaux de pluie et de sécurité incendie. Des centaines de personnes sont restées sans toit une seconde fois lorsqu’une forte pluie a inondé 80 tentes le 13 octobre.  (Photo : The Hope Project.)

Le pouvoir ne pose pas de questions. Il donne des ordres, il envoie des forces armées, il interdit. Et il ne s’interroge pas sur les conditions de vie, sur les conditions de santé mentale effrayantes dans les camps de réfugiés des hot spots de la mer Égée. « Durant toutes mes années de pratique médicale, je n’ai jamais été témoin d’un nombre aussi important de personnes souffrant de problèmes de santé mentale aussi graves, comme je le constate actuellement chez les réfugiés de l’île de Lesbos » – a déclaré Alessandro Barberio, un psychiatre de Médecins Sans Frontières. Selon le Guardian, un réfugié sur trois a déjà envisagé le suicide et un sur cinq en a déjà fait une tentative.

Mais tout cela n’a pas d’importance. Ce qui importe, c’est que l’ordre de type militaire a enfin été établi. Que les garde-côtes réussissent leur mission au point que le Premier ministre Mitsotakis a exprimé sa satisfaction d’avoir réduit par 80 % le nombre d’arrivées par rapport à l’année précédente. Évidemment, le Premier ministre Mitsotakis n’a pas perdu de temps pour parler des moyens qui ont permis cette réussite : les garde-côtes, avec la complicité active de Frontex, ont systématiquement violé la Convention des Nations unies sur les réfugiés. Ce qui compte, c’est le résultat : moins de personnes ont débarqué sur les îles de la mer Égée qu’il n’y en a eu de repoussées illégalement. Telle est la réalité aujourd’hui aux frontières extérieures de l’Union européenne, lauréate du prix Nobel de la paix. Et ce n’est pas à cause d’un grain de sable dans la machine. C’est la machine elle-même, par conception. Une machine qui ne tolère pas les camps de réfugiés conviviaux.

Le livre de Jean Ziegler sera publié en hongrois en mars 2021. Vous pouvez soutenir sa publication ici :


As friendly as a refugee camp

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression ‘as pretty as an airport’. Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special effort.

– writes Douglas Adams in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.

What about a friendly refugee camp? Has Mr. Adams ever heard of one?

Have you?

Surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed forces, refugee camps – like Hungarian transit zones – are anything but friendly. Before burning to the ground in September 2020, Camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesbos, Europe’s largest refugee camp, was not called friendly by its inhabitants. Quite the opposite: they called it hell. And the one on Samos, putting up several thousand asylum seekers, was called Jungle by everyone – just like its counterpart in Calais, France.

We have gotten used to that. As for the conditions in the camps… we, outsiders, have gotten used to those as well. After all, there’s not much one could do, we tend to say, shrugging. And we tend to shake our head when the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit describes the conditions in the hell of Moria under the title “Die Leute hier leben wie die Tiere” (Where people live like animals). We shake our head because the title is disturbing. Because it is not hypocritical or euphemistic.

Die Zeit’s interviewee, Jean Ziegler, puts this into perspective. In his book Lesbos, la honte de l’Europe (Lesbos, the shame of Europe), soon to appear in Hungarian, he writes:

“While working as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, I traveled through Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, the slums of the Smokey Mountain in Manila and the stinking shantytowns of Dhaka, Bangladesh. But never before have I been confronted with such squalid dwellings, with such desperate families, as in the ‘Olive Groves’ of Moria.”

But what to do? Refugee camps will be refugee camps, right? It’s certainly simpler to shake our head and shrug than to explore why and how people force other people to live like animals.

The line “We cannot accommodate all the misery in the world” is attributed to several people but was originally phrased slightly differently by French prime minister Michel Rocard in the National Assembly on June 6, 1989: “There is, in fact, too much drama, poverty and famine in the world for Europe and France to be able to welcome all those whom misery pushes towards them.”

Who could deny that?

Well, just a few miles from the infamous Moria, a few dozen volunteers from Mytilene have not only been saying but also proving for years, day in and day out, that there is an alternative to Moria. That the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was right when she said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

In November 2012, the mayor of Lesbos approved the use of Pikpa camp, a former children’s resort, to host homeless asylum seekers. Citizens and collectives then created the “Village of Altogether”. Since 2012, it has welcomed and supported more than 30,000 people in need. The video summarizing these 8 years concludes:

“Pikpa camp is an exemplary model for the hosting of asylum seekers. With help and support from all over the world, it offers shelter, food, training, medical, psychological and legal support, at zero cost to the state.”

At zero cost to the state. Monsieur Rocard must be turning in his grave.

What could this collective possibly achieve if they received public funding from the European Union – say, the per-capita amount that the EU spends, at least nominally, on those suffering in the hell of Moria? Or if the Pikpa experience were put to use in hotspots, AKA first reception facilities? In the end, asylum seekers would feel that they are received with dignity – or even welcomed.

That’s obviously unthinkable. Because, as Jean Ziegler writes, hotspots are not meant for that purpose.

“Today, hotspots serve as part of a precisely targeted strategy of deterrence and terror. The aim is to inspire such fear that the persecuted would abandon any plans of leaving their country.”

And Pikpa is unsuitable for this purpose.

A few days before the above video was published in November 2020 – that is, seven weeks after the fire at Moria camp – Pikpa received a heavy blow. Never mind its long history of providing secure and friendly shelter to the most vulnerable, including unaccompanied minors and single mothers. Never mind that it spared its inhabitants the horrors endured by their peers in Moria, both during the fire and in the days that ensued, when they had no choice but to sleep on asphalt roads for several nights, even the children, without anything to eat or drink, and to wait in limbo because police blocked the roads. All that did not matter. Once Moria 2.0 – built on a former military shooting range, exposed to maritime winds and vulnerable to flooding, encircled by a 20-foot-high fence topped with three rows of NATO wire and guarded by 350 soldiers of the Special Forces – was up and running, Pikpa became unnecessary.

Not for those who lived in it or who were running it. But those who had the power to decide. And since it was deemed unnecessary, it also became undesirable – since its very existence could have held a mirror to Moria 2.0.

At 6:30 AM on October 30, 2020, some 60 armed policemen encircled the ancient children’s resort. They woke up the inhabitants – 74 asylum seekers, including 32 children – and ordered them to leave their home. The people of Pikpa complied. Volunteers of Lesvos Solidarity were ordered not to interfere. As was the press.

How did they feel, those people who, for years, had assumed the responsibility of the state and supported the most vulnerable asylum seekers? They were not asked. They were just instructed to follow orders.

How did they feel, those people who were forced to leave their friendly homes, with the intention of moving them to Moria 2.0, which had not only failed the first tests of heavy rain but was clearly unable to meet basic international standards for refugee camps? They were not asked. They were just instructed to follow orders.

Built in haste for 8,000 people after the September 2020 fire, Camp Moria 2.0 was designed without taking into account the essential requirements for rainwater drainage and fire safety. Hundreds of people were left homeless a second time when heavy rain flooded 80 tents on October 13. (Photo: The Hope Project.)

For power does not ask questions. It issues instructions to follow orders, it sends armed forces, it bans. And there’s no way power would question its own decisions, question the conditions in the refugee camps of the Aegean hotspots, not least the abysmal state of mental health in those dire circumstances. “In all my years of medical practice, I have never witnessed such a large number of people suffering from such serious mental health problems as I am currently seeing among the refugees on the island of Lesbos,”  said Alessandro Barberio, a psychiatrist working with Médecins Sans Frontières. According to The Guardian, one refugee in three has already contemplated suicide, and one in five has already attempted to end their lives.

But none of that seems to matter. What matters is that military-style order has finally been established. That the Coast Guard has been successful in its mission to the point that Prime Minister Mitsotakis expressed his appreciation for reducing the number of arrivals by 80% compared to the previous year. Obviously, Prime Minister Mitsotakis did not waste any words on the means used to ensure this achievement: that the Coast Guard, with the active complicity of Frontex, has systematically violated the UN Refugee Convention. What counts is the result: fewer people disembarked on the Aegean islands than were pushed back illegally.

This is the reality on the external borders of the European Union, a much-lauded laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize. And it is not a bug. It is a feature, by design. It has become painfully apparent that its design cannot tolerate friendly refugee camps.

(Edited by Joy Phillips)

Jean Ziegler’s book will be published in Hungarian in March 2021. You can support its publication here: