THE WORLDPOST

This Moving Comic Takes You Inside An Unseen Humanitarian Catastrophe

Benjamin Dix talks about the intensive process of creating his comic books.

17/02/2016 9:55 AM AEDT | Updated 20/02/2016 3:18 AM AEDT
PositiveNegatives
An excerpt from Dix's comic book shows the choppy Mediterranean crossing that Eritrean refugees faced.

Benjamin Dix makes a unique form of comic book. He and his U.K.-based organization PositiveNegatives take the harrowing stories told by ordinary people caught in humanitarian crises around the world and transform them into visually immersive narratives.

For his latest comic, Dix partnered with the Overseas Development Institute to tell the story of a young Eritrean woman who escaped to Europe after she was imprisoned and ordered into military service. The comic follows "Merha" as she makes the dangerous and costly journey to the United Kingdom.

Read the graphic novel Fleeing Into The Unknown: A Journey From Eritrea To England

The stories told by PositiveNegatives are based on interviews with and testimonies of real people, though names and other identifying characteristics are changed. In the case of Merha, the character is adapted from the testimonies of two Eritrean women.

The WorldPost spoke with Dix about how he came to tell this particular story, what comic books can add to our understanding of the refugee crisis and what it means to tell tragic stories through art. 

Were there any aspects of the research for Merha's story that stood out to you and helped create that narrative?

It was her personal struggle, the fact that there was no life for her in Eritrea. She was going to be conscripted into the army, and as we've seen in Eritrea, that can be decades that you're just lost in military service.

There were also the endless barriers that she had to cross to get to the U.K. -- from smugglers and traffickers to crossing crocodile-infested rivers. There was all the sexual violence that happened in Libya, and then the Mediterranean.

What the media isn't really talking about too much is the fact that she's crossed so many hurdles before she's even got to the Mediterranean.

Here in Europe we're constantly seeing images of people arriving on the shores of Greece or Italy. What the media isn't really talking about too much is the fact that she's crossed so many hurdles before she’s even got to the Mediterranean.

PositiveNegatives
A scene from Merha's journey to Europe.

I think it's also interesting that you're highlighting the Eritrean refugee crisis, which is immense but receives a lesser degree of coverage.

Exactly, and we did our Syrian project last year with The Guardian. The Overseas Development Institute and myself talked at the inception of the project about whether we were going to do another Syria story, and we were all in agreement that the media is awash with Syrian stories and it's like there's no other people migrating.

There's hundreds of thousands of other people migrating, and lots of people don't know anything about Eritrea. It's been a locked-off country for so many years, so I think it was really important to highlight the fact that there are people fleeing from Eritrea trying to get to Europe. [Hundreds of thousands of people have fled that East African nation in recent years, escaping indefinite forced conscription into the army and an authoritarian government that the U.N. accuses of grave human rights violations.]

You suddenly find yourself ... in a spiraling world of smugglers where there's no way out, no way back and no way forward unless you can drum up another thousand pounds.

The other point that we wanted to get across was the amount that it costs. At every hurdle she's asked by smugglers for new amounts of money and that can be in the hundreds or the thousands of pounds. You suddenly find yourself, as I hope we've pointed out, in a spiraling world of smugglers where there's no way out, no way back and no way forward unless you can drum up another thousand pounds.

What do you think the format of graphic novels or comic books lends to these stories that other media reports may not?  

I find that comic books are the only medium that I can really think of where we can follow her from Eritrea to the U.K. A documentary maker can't really make that journey -- the Libyan and Sudanese smugglers aren't going to be happy with a Western documentary maker standing there filming -- but in a comic book, you can go on the raft across that crocodile-infested river.

You get to see the whole story in a graphic novel or comic book that you just can't see in other mediums.

You get to see the whole story in a graphic novel or comic book that you just can't see in other mediums.

Also, the form of the comic book -- it’s an individual story, so it cuts away the narrative of statistics and it breaks it right down. You can hopefully see that this could be me or this could be my sister or my daughter, and I find it personalizes it in that sense. 

What are your thoughts on the responsibilities or ethical issues that come with turning real-life testimonies into a kind of art form?

I'm actually just about to submit my Ph.D. thesis in anthropology, which is about the methodology and ethics of creating testimonial comics. I served with the U.N. for about four years in Sri Lanka through the civil war and left in 2008, professionally and emotionally broken after the U.N. evacuation.

It's my job to tell their story, but it's their story.

I decided I wanted to tell stories of survivors of that conflict starting in 2010. My Ph.D. is 50 percent a comic on Sri Lanka and 50 percent the ethics and methodology of creating it.

What I really looked into was that responsibility -- as a white privileged male sitting here in London, how does one tell the stories of trauma and the psychology of suddenly being a refugee? I use a lot of methodologies about reception, of going back to the respondents and clearing with them that this is their story. It's my job to tell their story, but it's their story.

PositiveNegatives
Another scene from Merha's difficult journey.

What do you hope people take away from this project after they read it?

I hope they really see the human side behind this. Europe at the moment is suffering from a frenzy of paranoia of the "others" coming in and upsetting the balance, and our perceived safety and security here in Europe.

I've never interviewed anyone in Europe who doesn't want to be back home. No one leaves their home unless they really have to, and no one wants to be a refugee.

Hopefully when you read Merha's story, you see that due to where she was born, due to the political or the economic nature of the country, she didn't really have a choice. She doesn't want to be conscripted into the army for 30 years. She's not a threat; she's someone who can be a benefit to Europe. Let's have some compassion for people and welcome them rather than be scared of them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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