An Island of Hope – a rock n roll party on the edge of the European refugee crisis



I decided to write this piece after having discussions with different people, including my girlfriend, regarding the location of the second We’re Loud Fest, to take place in Istanbul, Ayvalik, Lesbos and Athens at the end of September.

There was some controversy surrounding last year’s fest too – it was held in Athens in the midst of severe austerity measures and a mounting financial crisis. The organizers put a stop to ticket sales at one point to make sure as many of the locals as possible could sort their money issues out and still get a ticket. In the end the festival went ahead and was amazing, check out my review if you haven’t already.

This year’s concerns are to do with the safety issues in Istanbul, and especially the refugee situation in Lesbos. The organizers addressed both issues eloquently and intelligently on the Facebook page of the festival. Here’s my two cents.

I grew up in Serbia, former Yugoslavia, and spent my formative years in the early 90s surrounded by an economic crisis and confronted with the backlash of the civil war raging in the neighboring former republics of Bosnia and Croatia. Some of my own family left Bosnia to get away from the violence. At the same time, I was a teenager who was getting into punk and hardcore. I was going to shows to let off steam and explore the city’s nightlife.

Every weekend there would be a bunch of local bands playing anywhere from an established rock club to a community center, or there would be a DJ night where kids could go wild and slam dance the night away. It was an amazing time for me. Everything was new.

I hung out with kids that were a few years older. I would go back to school on Monday and tell crazy stories that kept the other guys from my class on the edge of their seats. Alternately, other kids showed up to school with stories of gunfights and hold ups that were arguably even more exciting, but luckily less appealing to the crowd I hung out with.

The thing that really sucked about that period wasn’t that we had zero money, it was just as much fun hanging in front of clubs hustling for a few dinars asit waswhen we finally made it inside. The worst thing was that no foreign bands ever came to play, bar a few Bulgarian metal bands I once saw at a headbangers festival.

Although it was never a prime destination for touring bands, the generation that came before me got to see, Gang of Four, UK Subs, Youth Brigade, Negazione, Motorhead, Slapshot, and list goes on.

Not us though. Aside from the economic sanctions that limited the amount of fuel and all kinds of basic goods, we had to deal with cultural sanctions that included an exclusion from all international sporting events and an effective boycott on all things involving music, film and the arts. The welcome exceptions was Harvey Keitel who came to Belgrade to shoot scenes for ‘Ulysses’ Gaze’ back in 1994 at the height of his indie popularity, and the French 80s cult star Jean-Marc Barr who came to the premiere of ‘The Plague’ in 1992. As far as I know, the first underground band to play Belgrade during the sanctions was the Splatterheads from Australia in 1995, but I had already fucked off to Amsterdam at that point.

Before I left another thing happened that left a huge impression on me. My dad got radicalized back as a student in France in the 60s, and well, he had stayed true to his ideals ever since. I grew up opposing war and nationalism and surrounded by political dissidents from South America, mainly Chile. Somewhere in the early 90s my dad got asked if he could house a Kurdish guerilla fighter. He ofcourse said yes. So out of nowhere there was a guy at our place who just escaped an armed conflict in the Middle East. He had walked all the way to Belgrade with hopes of later joining his friends and comrades somewhere in Western Europe. He spoke zero English, and after walking all that way while illegally crossing borders and hiding, he smelled funny. To top it off, there were stories of Mujahedeen fighters going to Bosnia to fight. With his dark complexion, prominent nose and an impressive moustashe, people could mistake him for a religious volunteer fighting for the ‘other side.’  So we told him not to leave the house without us and to keep a low profile.

Anyway, despite the language barrier, we bonded. A love of cowboy movies, of all things, and food were things we first connected on.  Fun loving and bright, he picked up a little bit of English in a matter of weeks and the rest of the time we communicated by sharing words that we inherited from the centuries of Turkish rule. Soon enough he was part of the family and wewould invite friends over to hang out and laugh ourasses off to him and my dad communicating in a non-existent mutant language.

To make the story short, he felt so at home in Belgrade he started to go out on his own and was eventually picked up on a bus without a ticket and sent to a proper asylum seekers center. What an irony, after having crossed all those borders. We visited as much as we could and after a while he managed to get out of the country.  Months later, he called us from Denmark to ask if we needed anything. What a guy!

As I mentioned before I was able to leave Belgrade and go live with my mom in Holland. Although I was only 16 at a time and having a time of my life going to shows and exploring the city, I figured I had more of a future in Amsterdam. After I started playing and touring with bands I made it a priority to play the most avoided places in Europe, especially all across the Balkans. I played in almost all of ex-Yugoslavian countries, including the disputed Serbian region of Kosovo. Bulgaria, Romania… The works. I had the most moronic adventures, hassles with cops and customs, but I also made friends for life who deeply appreciated the effort we made to play there.

So, I get that some of you would feel uncomfortable going to a party while people are running for their lives from war and destruction, but does that mean you should totally avoid those places and not share a bad ass experience of an international rock n roll festival with the likeminded folks from Greece and Turkey? I know they would be digging the party.

We ofcourse can’t close our eyes to the horrors of war and the massive refugee crises, and thankfully there are a lot of people helping in any way they can. All I’m trying to say is that we should approach the situation with an open mind and a compassionate heart. Lesbos is an Island of hope for people fleeing from Syria and let’s hope they find to a safe place and get on their feet again, the same waya lot of people I knew did back in the 90s.  Meanwhile, let the kebabs and the beers roll.

– Marko Petrovic