On October 25, 2023, at 19:00, HARABEL inaugurated “When the Wind Cries War”, an exhibition by artist Enri Canaj at NAAN Gallery.

Patterns in the Air, Shadows on the Land

Each year, millions of birds migrate 2,800 kilometres from Europe to Africa. After making a pitstop on the islands of Greece to replenish their fat reserves and reboot their immune systems, they continue south, enduring severe weather, physical and mental stress, predators and man-made obstacles in pursuit of a promised land where the weather is mild and insects are plentiful. They are, quite literally, flying for their lives. In spring, they embark on the return trip, crossing the vast Sahara Desert before once again making landfall in Greece. In both directions, the birds arrive in the Mediterranean so exhausted that they require several days to recuperate.

For millennia, the presence of these migratory birds overhead has heralded the arrival of spring and better times ahead. It was, and remains, a phenomenon to be celebrated.

Migration, or the permanent change of residence by an individual or group, is part of human history. For some, it is voluntary. For many others it is not. Forced out of homes, jobs and places of residence, they move. By road, rail, sea and foot. Alone, with others, as families. Carrying only what is most precious to them. This was the reality for an 11-year-old Enri Canaj, who found himself fleeing Albania for the safety of Greece due to the 1998-1999 Kosovo War. It was also the catalyst for a life spent documenting the plight of refugees through photography—his own “lifeboat”, as he calls it.

The global figure for persons on the move is now in the hundreds of millions—and is only set to increase in the coming years.

Many find their way to Europe, via land and sea corridors established through geographical fortuity and monetised by smugglers. The Eastern Mediterranean migration route is one such path, an invisible thread that links Turkey with Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria. The journey is invariably a desperate, expensive and terror-filled one. Poor weather, physical and mental stress, predators, man-made obstacles: all burdens have to be shouldered to ensure survival. Then there are the anti-migrant border strategies that are increasingly being employed by the countries who would receive these people. In Greece, collective expulsions—the act of forcibly pushing people back across national borders—have been so successful that the flow of migrants has dropped massively. So far in 2023, just 32,000 have arrived on Greece’s shores.

In recent years, some migratory birds, particularly the swallow, have adapted to the new conditions ushered in by global heating and are no longer heading south. The flying insects on which the swallow feeds are now able to survive in the mild winter temperatures, giving them all the sustenance they need. Meanwhile, the journey for those birds which still migrate is gradually becoming longer year on year due to changing topographies (e.g. desertification) and a scarcity of food.

Once a migrant arrives on Greece’s shores, they have a choice: they can remain where they are or they can keep moving. Towards Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France, Scandinavia, the UK. It is here, in the purgatory that comes from being a stateless migrant, where Enri Canaj’s powerful images that comprise When the Wind Cries War take centre stage. They show both sides of the tale: those migrants who remain are guaranteed to endure years of Kafkaesque browbeating by the state—withheld papers, endless appointments, delaying tactics, criminalisation, in-country travel permits that are an unsubtle invitation to head for the border and leave the country—as well as a very real threat of homelessness and destitution, or else unlawful confinement in prison-style camps (like the infamous closed control access centres on Lesvos and Samos). Meanwhile, those who leave face their own gauntlet of hazards in the form of the police, far-right groups and opportunists. But, as a photo of a tender kiss on a Berlin underground platform shows, there is light at the end of this bleakest of tunnels.

A concerted, Europe-wide effort is now being made to protect and bolster the habitats in the Mediterranean for migratory birds in the wake of the climate crisis. Their epic journey is, as experts point out, one of nature’s great wonders. Not only that, but migratory birds help maintain the delicate balance of the world’s ecosystems. Their survival is essential to ours.

As stated in the 2022 Global Hunger Index, food shortages, water scarcity, war and economic displacement are all being greatly exacerbated due to global heating, resulting in an increase in the forcible migration of peoples. What we have seen so far in Greece is only the beginning. Migration will not go away simply by building bigger walls and pushing boats back. Europe is not, and never will be, a fortress. What we need are sustainable structures and safety nets that peaceably evolve with the ebb and flow of migrants. Because migration, as When the Wind Cries War demonstrates, is ultimately an intersectional issue: it incorporates ethnicity, geography, economics, gender, religion and politics. Addressing such matters through substantial positive action in the long term is of fundamental importance to the survival and well-being not just of the have-nots, but of all of us.

If we can protect habitats for migratory birds, we can create safe spaces for migrating people. We may be collectively facing a winter of human existence, but spring is waiting to bloom.

The next time we look to the sky and observe the black V of a bird against a cerulean field, it is worth stopping to consider that this may be the flight of their lives. The next time we look to the land and are witness to a scene of exceptional inequality between human beings, perhaps we will take a moment to understand that this is the fight of all our lives.

Curatorial text by Sylvia Sachini