After hearing about the refugee crisis in Europe, Benjamin Dix rides to the Hungarian border to witness it first-hand
I guess I have an unusual job. I make comic books about international human rights issues. The idea came to me while I was working for the United Nations in the Tamil Tiger held areas of Sri Lanka through the conflict in 2008.
While I was in Sri Lanka, my Tamil Project Officer, Antoni, taught me how to ride a motorbike. As a child I had been an enthusiastic mountain biker but had never really had the opportunity to embrace motorcycling as an adult. Professionally I was driving along sandy, jungle tracks in my UN Land Cruiser, visiting refugee camps and land minefields to conduct my work, but at the weekends I took to the bike and went out exploring on two wheels.
Motorbike trips became my choice of holiday from the stressful job in Sri Lanka and I made two trips around northern Laos and a trip over the Himalayas from Kathmandu to the Tibetan border. There’s something about motorcycle touring. If you’re really into exploring and engaging with people you come across, there is no other form of transport that comes close.
In September 2008 the UN evacuated from northern Sri Lanka and I was one of the last internationals to leave. It was a tragic and emotional time and I returned to London with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Remembering the feelings I had on the bike I bought myself a BMW 800GS, strapped a tent and a small bag on the back and rode to Dover. I didn’t have a destination in mind, but for two months I rode all day, stopping only for petrol and some food. I ended up following the Danube River to the Black Sea and then up the coast to Romania and back to London.
The ride, the mental space on the bike and the scenery inspired me to return and start my company, PositiveNegatives that tells stories of conflict survivors in the comic book format.
Over the past year, I’ve been interviewing Syrian refugees across Turkey and Scandinavia about their experiences of the war in Syria and their migration to Europe. Watching the increasing flow of refugees travelling through the Balkans to Europe this summer, I felt like this was the right time and project to get back on the bike. I had a bag of Touratech bits for my old 800GS that I’d sold so I thought I’d get another one.
I went to the BMW dealership to look at another 800GS but when I sat on the 1200GS Adventure I fell in love immediately! I collected the bike the next day and headed off to Ireland to get used to it. I rode 1,500 miles around the Ring of Kerry, Ring of Bera and rode to every peninsular and over every pass along the southwest coast.
Getting back to London a week later I felt comfortable back in the saddle and headed to Newhaven the following evening and got the ferry to Dieppe. Like my trip a few years before, I didn’t really have a plan apart from to get to the Balkans – basically head east and then hang south at some point!
I rode down to an old colleague’s house in Geneva on the first long and wet day across France and rested there for a BBQ and some much-needed beers. The next morning I headed up into the Alps. I rode over the stunning Furka Pass and across into the Dolomites. Then came the awesome Stelvio Pass and boy, what an amazing road that is! I looked down at the twisting tarmac from the top, ate a hot dog, plugged in some loud Jimi Hendrix and launched myself down the road.
I’m not particularly sociable when riding. As my job is all about talking and listening to people, the bike affords me the space to just think and process the stories I record and to just enjoy the time alone with the bike, the scenery and the road in front. I’m happy to ride for days and not talk to anyone. There is something comforting however with the way bikers nod at each other when we pass, you feel part of a family.
I quickly named my bike ‘Further’, as she just wanted to push on up and over the next mountain. I would ride for around 10 hours a day and often missed lunch and coffee stops. I would be in the saddle at 07:30, and I’d ride until I felt exhausted, usually around 18:00 in the evening, and then just pull over in the nearest cheap motel on the side of the road.
I ended up buying an atlas in Italy so I could record the day’s ride and make sure I was heading in the right direction while riding the most scenic and beautiful roads.
After the Dolomites, Further took me down the Croatian coast which was beautiful for the first 100 miles, but a little monotonous after that so I headed inland and into Bosnia’s Dinaric Alps. As I hadn’t really planned the trip or given it much thought, I arrived at the Bosnian border and was asked for my bike papers.
All I had on me was my plastic driving licence. The border guard looked bemused that I didn’t have insurance or ownership papers and asked, “How can you proceed with no paperwork?” After a cup of tea, a few cheeky anecdotes and €20 later I was on my way into Bosnia.
I rode up and over the mountains to the border of Montenegro where I faced a similar conversation with the border guards there but managed to pass with just €15!
I headed to the coast of Montenegro to look for Syrian refugees but didn’t find any. So I continued north to Serbia where I knew there was a huge migration of them pushing through to Hungary.
Riding up the amazing road from the Bay of Kotor to Niksic I was enjoying the thrill of the ride, with the turquoise sea to my right and the mountains to my left, when suddenly a black BMW 5 Series came racing up behind me. I immediately slipped into a fantasy that I was James Bond and the BMW was a Russian baddy.
We began to race along the road, the 007 theme tune playing in my head whilst I flicked the heated grips button to fire rockets out the back of the bike. We came to a beautiful cambered right-hand corner, I had my knee down and accelerated hard out the other side and up the hill directly into a traffic cop with a speed gun! It was such a dramatic and disappointing end to a wonderful fantasy, one that would never happen to Bond!
The BMW sped off as I pulled over and approached the cop with an excited smile that told him his roads were amazing, the views stunning and my bike loved the ride. He shook his head as he showed me the speed gun that was flashing 83mph in a 40 and said, “Big problem!” In a twist of fate it turned out that his son was a big fan of comic books and I managed to talk my way out of a trip to court and he accepted the £5 note I was offering. He even went as far to tell me that six miles further up the road was another speed trap, which I went past at a steady 35mph!
The Durmitor National Park in Montenegro was the highlight of the trip. I hadn’t imagined what a wild and dramatic landscape the country held. The road followed this stunning turquoise lake through Pluzine and snaked up through into lush mountains.
Unlike the tunnels in Europe with the smooth concrete finish, lights and speed limits, the tunnels of Montenegro were rough, jagged holes blasted through the mountain where I’d put the spotlights on and ride into the pitch black, water dripping through the rock and the odd bat skimming my head. It was cold, damp and spooky in the tunnels and you really got the sense of being in the heart of the mountain, with the exit being a dramatic reveal of the towering peaks and lakes that flanked the roads.
I rode across Serbia and stayed for a night with another old colleague in Belgrade. I rested, sank some beers and relived the adventure I’d had. But the news of the increasing Syrian refugee crisis was unfolding. I left in the morning and headed to the Hungarian border. I followed a disused railway line across the fields and began to see the remains of people moving; plastic water bottles, items of clothing and then as I came to a clearing, I was confronted with hundreds of people sitting under the trees and walking along the railway line.
Although I’ve been interviewing Syrians for the past year in many different locations, there was something so haunting about seeing families walking along the disused railway line, it was like a scene from a WWII movie, not 2015 Europe.
I parked my bike under a tree and people were a little suspicious of me, I guess I looked quite bizarre on this big bike and with all the bike clothing looking like RoboCop. But greeting people with “Salaam Alaikum” (peace be unto you) I quickly made friends. I shared water and food with people there. They were disorientated from their experiences of travelling so far from home and were confused as to why Hungary was putting up barbed wire and not letting them pass through to northern Europe.
A 12-year-old Syrian lad couldn’t stop looking at my bike so I asked him to look after it as I walked with another group to the Hungarian border. He was delighted with the role of protector, and as I walked away I watched him take a rag from the floor and begin dusting the bike down.
I approached the barbed wire fence across the field that separated Serbia and Hungary. The men were laughing at the fence as they’d come from places in Syria where a few rolls of barbed wire were no deterrent to move forward but the children were getting caught up in it. The Hungarian police were running up and down the fence getting increasingly agitated with the situation. I stayed there for a few hours, observed and interviewed people moving across the fence and across the border.
I rode to the nearest shop and bought water and food for some who clearly needed it and handed my phone around so they could use it to send messages to their families in Turkey and Syria. I met lawyers, doctors, artists and poets – some really good people who were disorientated, exhausted and confused in the world.
I rode off to Zagreb along the endless fields of Serbia and eastern Croatia feeling that I’d just witnessed a poignant moment in history. En route I received a message from an old friend who was holidaying with his family in Tuscany. I’d already done so many miles that a little detour through Italy wasn’t a big deal, so I turned south after Trieste and headed through Italy.
The first thing I noticed on the Italian highways was the aggressive driving! I would be riding at 80mph and then notice the bonnet of a car pushing up behind me, so close I could almost touch it! That took a bit of getting used to. I arrived in Bolgheri in the evening after a long and exhausting ride and found my friends in a stunning hotel surrounded by vineyards. I stayed for the weekend, ate great food and drank delicious wine, washed my bike gear and relaxed.
I set off north, over the mountains in the Alpi Apuane Park to Turin. The ride up through the Italian forests and mountains was breathtaking. Long sweeping roads through vineyards with ancient towns perched upon hilltops made for a stunning ride. I arrived in Turin in appalling weather and realised that the following two days were forecasted for rain and wind so I took the Frejus tunnel through the Alps to Geneva, back to my friend’s home from the beginning of the trip and dried off there for a night before pushing on to Calais the following morning.
I arrived in London three and a half weeks and 6,832 miles later. When I took the bike for a service, the bewildered staff were shocked that I’d clocked up so many miles in such a short space of time!
Ben’s current project
I rode to Serbia to interview Syrian refugees who were trying to make their way to Europe to seek asylum. Currently, I’m producing a trilogy of comics, funded by the Norwegian People’s Aid.
The comics tell the true stories of Khalid, who was arrested in the 2011 revolution, Hasko, who travelled across the Mediterranean with traffickers, and Mohammed, who was arrested and fingerprinted in Hungary and is being processed under the Dublin Agreement in Norway.
The comics were launched at the Nobel Peace Centre, Oslo and were serialised in The Guardian in November 2015.