Photo: Omar Shammout
Afanwi Neba is a gifted artist who had to flee a brutal civil war in his home country Cameroon. Less than a year ago, he arrived at the refugee camp Vial on the Greek island of Chios. At nights in his dreams the war still attacks him. He gets up and chase away all the bad memories of torture and the dead bodies by painting his happy images.
-She picked me up from nothing, the African artist Afanwi Neba says about Kayra from US. In the Greek refugee camp Vial she gave him colors and canvas, so he could paint again. From that day on he spend most of the time in the tent creating one artwork after the other. Sixty pictures in just three months. Made in acrylic, filled with small details and made out of the memories and colors he remember so well from his home country Cameroon.
The paintings he made in the tent are spread all over the world. Sold by the small NGO Love Without Borders – For Refugees In Need. At exhibitions and shows in the United States, Canada and Europe arranged by Kayra Martinez. The money is paid to the artists so that they can sustain their lives.
-I put all my emotions into my canvas. I’m trying to create beautiful things that makes my worries disappear. I take all my sorrows and put them on the canvas. I don’t want to make negative pictures. I want to make something that makes me feel that I am as happy as my pictures, Afanwi says.
Before Chios and before he met Kayra he escaped a brutal civil war in Cameroon. A war and a journey to Europe which still afflict him in his nightmares. First the jungle until they came to Nigeria – three weeks of walking without food eating bananas and mangos and forced to drink polluted water. A flight to Turkey, where he was left all alone with human smugglers. A dangerous trip in a robber boat with seventy other refugees and migrants across the Aegean Sea to Greece believing he would never survive and at last the arrival on the Greek island of Chios. Then came a hard life in an overcrowded refugee camp. The cold, wet and windy winter in a tent with six other Africans. And a last suddenly the evacuation to the Greek mainland and a tourist hotel close to a small Greek coastal town.
Afanwi loves to talk about is the day he began painting again, in the refugee center run by volunteers.
-I told one of the volunteers about my passion for painting. He looked at it and saw that I can do something and I started volunteering teaching kids to draw and paint. Then I met Kayra. She gave me materials and that’s the way I started drawing in Europe, Afanwi tells.
BROTHERS AND SISTERS
We are in a room in a big apartment in the inner Athens. The curtains are drawn and the room is dark. There are two beds and a few suitcases and a table. On one bed a slender black woman with a big curly hair occupied with her iPad eating a bowl of rice. On the other bed two men. All of them are Cameroonian’s and they all escaped the civil war. Now they are Afanwis family:
-They are my brothers and sisters now. We have been together since we stayed on Chios, he point out.
The woman with the big hair is the one, who lives in the room. UNHCR has relocated the two men in a budget hotel in one of Athens’ more shady neighborhoods. Afanwi is in Athen on a short trip. The last three months he stayed at the tourist hotel – a three hours bus ride and half an hours walk from Athen.
-According to UNHCR we have to move from the hotel very soon because the tourist season starts. I do not know to where. I really wish to go and live here in Athen. I love this city. All the different nationalities. It is so exciting meeting people from other countries, like you from Denmark and Kayra from the US.
The unknown and the fact that somebody else is deciding his future is scaring. He is seeking asylum in Greece, but a very very slow Greek asylum system means that it can take months if not years before he knows anything.
-I do not look like, but at the moment I have great difficulties controlling my emotions, he continues. I cry a lot and then I have all these nightmares. They keep coming. About what happened in Cameroon. Even here in peaceful Greece the war returns to me. I see all the dead bodies in the streets and I experience the torture and the beating in the prison I went through again and again.
To avoid the nightmares Afanwi paints and he keeps on painting not daring to go to sleep.
-Then I work like crazy.
-It is so confusing and frustrating not knowing my future. Not being able to decide anything myself. All I want is my freedom. That is why my art helps me. When I work, I forget everything around me.
-Life as a refugee is really stressful. I am confused. If it was not for the war in my country, I wouldn’t be here. I was three months in Vial and they moved us. I don’t know why. They do not say why. UNHCR just decide: You get on a bus not knowing where it takes you. The bus brings you to the port where you board a ship that takes you to Athen. In Athen you get on another bus that takes you to the hotel. And here I live now. I do not know my next destination. If we have to go back to the camp on Chios or what will happen? All I know is that if I go back to Cameroon, they will shoot me.
Afanwi comes from a small English speaking part of Cameroon. In the rest of the country they speak French and Cameroonian. Those living in the English speaking part has always been suppressed and one day the people had enough and they began demonstrating in the streets. Since then the demonstrations has turned into a bloody civil war.
-Right now in Cameroon, the military burns our houses down. They rape the women, and people are shot in the streets. I was in the streets and my older brother was involved in political activities. He took pictures of the police: What they did to the young people in the streets and all the corruption and spread it on social media. He was arrested and tortured several times and the last time he was released he had to flee the country. It was too dangerous for him to stay. For several years we did not know where he was, until he suddenly appeared in the UK.
IMPRISONED AND TORTURED
In the beginning of the revolt Afanwi was living on a boarding school, but when the problems increased he left to join his family in his hometown.
-One day when I was in my fathers house I heard a shooting outside, and the soldiers smashed our door. They believed my brother was in the house. They always came to fetch him. But my brother had left and they thought I was my brother because we look similar. They hit me really badly with their guns and why I was unconscious they brought me to a military camp, where I was locked up in a room with many other prisoners.
-In this room I met people who had been shot and got no treatment whatsoever. Two men passed away while I was there. It was constantly dark and every day they will torture you so badly that you do not think you will survive.
-I told them they got the wrong guy. I was not my brother. One day they let me go. Some weeks later I was taken a second time and again they beat and tortured me. We were forced to speak French, even if we did not understand it and they forced me to admit things about the uprise that I knew nothing about. I still have scars on my body because of the way they treated me.
Afanwi lights a cigarette.
-Usually I do not usually smoke, he claims.
Caught by the police a second time he realizes he is forced to flee to a safer place, but before he was able to leave the soldiers turned up again. This time they shot his father in the leg, but before his father cried out a warning to his son that he should disappear as quickly as possible.
-I ran out of the back door without knowing what happened to my father. All what was in my head was to get to the village where I grew up. On the road I saw so many dead bodies. It was so scary. All the time I was thinking that next time it was my turn to lie there on the street shot and dead. The next day there were riots in the my village too. People were shot. Women raped. The rebels left for the city to fight and at night they returned to the villages that was why the military came to look for them there. We were a lot of young people like myself who decided to flee to Nigeria. We walked through the jungle for three weeks eating mangos and bananas and drinking polluted water.
In Nigeria Afanwi stayed for three days in the street before a friend of his father invited him to stay in his house.
-He protected me and told me not to go outside because our soldiers were there. They came and they arrested Cameroonian’s, brought them back to Cameroon and locked them up. This man promised he would come up with something for me.
After three weeks he came with a Nigerian passport with the name and photo of Afanwi – and a visa for Turkey.
-I do not know how he got hold of it, but he did not leave me until I was on the plane. It was in June or July 2018. I do not remember exactly.
IN THE HANDS OF
Afanwi and I meet again. I have to hear the rest of his story. Spring has come to Athen and we sit outside on a café enjoying the sun in Athens ancient area Monastraki. Acropolis is rising just in front of us. A place Afanwi loves. He has posted a video on Facebook where he overawed climbs the hill to the famous place.
Afanwi is not only a gifted painter. He is also an excellent storyteller:
-Before I left Nigeria the friend of my father gave me money for food and accommodation and he told me I was going to meet someone in Istanbul who would take care of me. In Istanbul I would be told what would happen next in my life. So I met this Nigerian man in the airport. He told me I could not stay in Istanbul. There was no work and there were no black people. And he said that he would send me to the Western Turkey to Izmir. There were other black people and I would meet some friends.
-When I arrived to the hotel in Izmir there were some blacks and some Arabs too. After a week one of the Arab men came and asked me, what I were doing? What I wanted to do with my life? I do not know I answered. I have only come to Izmir because I have heard that I have black brothers here. The Arab man said, he believed Turkey was no good for me and he offered to help me.
The smuggler asked Afanwi if he had money. He had almost 700 euros.
-He told me he would send me to Greece, but he never said anything about how I was going to get to Greece. Whether I would be flying, driving by car or go on a ferry. I knew nothing about Greece only that it was close to Turkey which I learned in school. I had just no idea where it was. I was told to wait at a bus stop the next day and a white car would turn up and I should get into it. This person would take me to Greece.
At the bus stop a white car with tinted windows came along and Afanwi got into it.
-There were other people in the car and soon we were on a highway. We arrived at a beach. It was dark. Yes. The man just said get out of the car and we got all out. At the beach there was a lot of other people, Arabs, Syrians, Congolese’s and people from my own country Cameroon.
-I thought what I was doing there? What if they killed me? Were we all to be arrested? I was just confused. And then I was scared. Really scared. What if I had been sold? Maybe I was going to become a slave? I was so scared. Everybody else were scared too. Later the smugglers came with a rubber boat and they pumped it with air. People asked if this was how we were going to end our lives. None of us knew what was going to happen. It was a little different for me because I spoke English, and one of the smugglers came to me when he asked if someone spoke English, and I replied yes.
The man told Afanwi that when they arrived in Greece, they should say they did not know anything. He then asked him, if he had a passport.
-If I wanted to sell my passport this man promised to look after me, Afanwi explains.
-I was just so scared. It was all dark, and I knew nothing. We got into the boat. It was really dark and we could see just nothing. There was the water and the water seemed to want to swallow us. We were about seventy people in the boat, pregnant women, newborn babies, lots of children. It was in August. I do not remember the exact date.
LOST IN THE SEA
Opposite the café where we are there is a gallery. Afanwi asks if I want to go and have a look. The gallery is filled with paintings. They are all over. On the wall. On the floor. The owner is a big disk and Afanwi tells him that he is painting too. He asks if the owner of the gallery will sell his pictures too? The man handle him his card saying that he is welcome to send him some pictures of his paintings. Outside in the sunshine Afanwi seems encouraged.
-It is my dream to be the owner of such a gallery, he says. And we talk about the possibilities of opening a store. He continue his story. About the sea. The camp and the cold.
-That was how we got lost in the sea. We had no idea whatsoever where we were going. Which direction. Everybody were quiet. Scared. Some started crying, others calling their families on their phones. I cried. There was no land in sight. Just the sea. All I was thinking about was that this boat can not take us all the way across the Mediterranean. I had no idea whatsoever how far it was. All I knew was all the stories I had heard about people drowning in the Mediterranean. We had no marks where to go. We had nothing. Just this overcrowded rubber boat. We just had to go on and on. Continue. Continue.
Then suddenly there is light far away. It turns out to be the Greek coastguard.
-That ‘s how we were saved. This is how we were taken to Greece and to the refugee camp on Chios, Afanwi says.
-I am a Christian and when we got to Greece, I praised God he saved me. I thought I was going to die in the sea. I thought that this boat can not take us all the way across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece.
THE COLD COLD CAMP
It was tough times in the refugee camp:
-It was really hard staying in the tent in the camp of Vial. I was there for three or four months. I do not remember. Many stay for a year or more. I spend my time in the tent just painting. I was so scared of UNHCR. Scared if they discovered my pictures. What would they say if they saw them? I just wanted to protect my pictures. As a refugee UNHCR decides everything and I was afraid of everything. I am still scared because I have not yet got my papers. I have no documents. I have no idea what they are going to do with me. I try to be calm and do my things, but it is as if you have no future. I have no idea what will happen next in my life. And nobody tells you what will happen. If they deport me back to Cameroon and I will be shot. If I get asylum here in Greece, I will be very happy and relieved.
QAfanwi just wish to stay on in Greece, get asyleum, have an apartment, do his painting, have exhibitions and then maybe a gallery. And then he loves teaching children drawing and painting.
Back home in Cameroon Afanwi painted too. Each time he had a little money he bought colors and canvas. His mother was very ill and being closely attached to her he stayed at home caring for her. Time passed with painting and all his pictures were hanging on the walls in his family’s house.
-When someone came to visit my mother they received a painting as a gift. I have never attended an art school and learned it probably. It was just not an option in Cameroon. I did not sell anything either. I went to high school and I met an American woman. She urged me to continue painting. And when other Cameroonian artists saw my pictures, they told me: Just continue painting. It is good, and one day you will become an artist. I always got very happy, but I was not able to go out visiting galleries asking if they would set up an exhibition because I had to take care of my mother. So I just continued painting at home.
When Afanwi suddenly had to flee he left all his paintings with his father, but he took the talent with him to Europe:
-The most important thing about my art is that I love it. I do not paint for other people. I do it for myself. Because it makes me happy. I love every picture because I created it. So when someone buys my art, I appreciate very much that this person helps me. In Cameroon my art did not help me in that way, but now people buy it and they help me survive.
Staying in the tourist hotel Afanwi was still scared of UNHCR. But he continued painting – now hiding in the hotel room.
-But the cleaning staff who came to my room saw it and they told everybody.
-Come and see. Look what he has done, even though he is a refugee they said. Despite all his problems, he can do this. And I was so happy that someone came to see my work and that was how I got the first exhibition in my life – at a coffee gallery in this town.
SAFE IN GREECE
A month has passed and Afanwi has got a place to stay in Athens. We are sitting on a bench at Victoria Square in Athens anarchist area Exarchia. The square is filled with Afghan refugees. Every day new refugees and migrants arrive in Greece. Either to the islands or they enter Greece in the north from Turkey and end up in Athen.
In March 2016 Macedonia suddenly closed its border in the North and thousands of refugees and migrants got stuck in Greece. The Afghan people settled at Victoria Square. The square was filled up with women, men, children, newborn babies and luggage. They slept here, they ate here and they lived here until the police moved them to a newly created refugee camp.
Since then the Afghan refugees have gathered at Victoria Square. And now we sit here. An artist from Africa and a journalist from Denmark.
Afanwi is happy. He succeeded in renting a room in a shared flat.
-Now I just hope I get asylum here in Greece. I have never felt so safe in a country like Greece, he says.
We sit saying nothing, watching people. The Afghan, the Greek pensioners with their coffees and newspapers at the cafes, the homeless people dressed in rags. The Greeks have great hearts and welcome the many people from distant countries as long as they support themselves.