War Child review – following an unbearable, unthinkable refugee journey

Children escaping wars in Afghanistan and Syria travel to Germany. Plus, a trip Down the Mighty River with Steve Backshall; and a little zig-a-zig-ah in Geri’s 1990s

Three journeys today. Starting with the most important, most relevant, the saddest and the most 21st-century one: War Child (Channel 4, Sunday).

Emran from Afghanistan and Rawan from Syria are refugees, on their way, hopefully, to Germany. But borders have closed, their passage is blocked by fences and barbed wire, armed men, dogs, hatred, danger. It’s an unbearable situation for anyone; for a child it’s unthinkable.

“In Syria, I was young,” says Rawan. She still is, just 12 years old. But everything has been taken away: her home (a nice one, in Aleppo) and everything in it, plus friends, education, stability. And her childhood.

“Daddy, I am cold, my clothes are all wet,” she says, after her family has managed to pass through from Greece to Macedonia in the middle of the night and they’re waiting in the rain for the people smuggler on that side to bother picking up his phone.

At least Rawan is with her family. For Emran, there is no Daddy or Mummy; they couldn’t afford to come, and stayed in Afghanistan. “I so much miss my parents,” he says, wiping away a tear.

Emran, who enjoys learning languages and speaks decent English, is usually remarkably upbeat. There are moments of normality, happiness even – the preparation of a salad, friendship, a game.

But the game they play, the boys at the camp in Greece near the Macedonian border, is the Refugee Game. One plays a policeman or a border guard, who chases the others who are the refugees, and when he catches them, he makes them sit down in the road before expelling them. Because, for Emran and thousands of other children, this is now normality.

Jamie Roberts’s film must have been a tricky one to make, sneaking across borders at night too, or hopping ahead to meet his subjects further along the road, because he’s welcome in places they’re not. And it’s not the first time the story has been told, of course. But it’s a story that needs to be told again and again because it is the story of now.

For Emran and Rawan, it ends after six months on the road, relatively well, in Germany. But they are only a tiny part of a huge, sad, important story that for many doesn’t end well, and as a whole shows no sign of ending at all.

Steve Backshall with the Asmat tribe and a crocodile they killed.
Steve Backshall with the Asmat tribe and a crocodile they killed. Photograph: Ingrid Kvale/BBC

After which, Down the Mighty River with Steve Backshall (BBC2, Sunday), is a stroll in the park. Well, a paddle down a stream, as the title suggests. Merrily merrily merrily merrily …

Actually, there is nothing gentle about the raging Baliem River in New Guinea, down which Steve and a bunch of young Australian canoeists are attempting to navigate, for the very first time.

Trying, and failing – the Baliem proves too much for them and they have to skip a big chunk of it; Steve is devastated. And again, when they’re prevented by locals from lowering themselves into a big hole. At least it gives him a chance to show off his language skills (very impressive).

Things pick up, though. They find another cave to explore. And on the river they meet some Dani people, some of whose menfolk wear only a penis gourd and woolly beanie. A good combination and look I think, though sadly Steve and his mates don’t give it a go.

They do spend the night in a village, though, and find out that it is the women who are proper hard. Not only do they do all the work while the men sit around smoking or chewing betel, but when a woman is bereaved, she gets someone to give her a dead arm and then cuts off one of her own fingers. Respect.

Steve is offered a rare honour – he gets to sleep with a local. But no need for Steve’s wife Helen (Glover, the rower) to lose sleep over it – he’s a he, and he’s been dead for about 200 years. A not-so-yummy mummy, in a sitting position, watching over him. Sleep tight, life is but a dream …

Finally, in Geri’s 1990s: My Drive to Freedom (BBC2, Saturday), the Spice Girl formerly known as Ginger charts her own journey, from Watford to UN goodwill ambassador, via girl power.

John Harris and Miranda Sawyer help out with the significance of the decade, the politics and the culture, New Labour, Diana etc. Geri talks about her career and her success, her friendship with George Michael, and her little red sports car. And she does a lovely impression of her Spanish mum.

She adds herself, basically. And the zig-a-zig-ah.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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