Oliver Balch

The immigrant’s experience of Europe

Meet Ibrahim, from Syria. He fled Aleppo just before the bombs began to fall. A clean $4,000 in cash to a smuggler got him a fake passport and, voilà, a ticket to Europe – briefly in Greece, then in Germany (‘the people, they looked different’), now in Spain. Immigrant life was tough at first: the

Cold-blooded murder in Amazonia

Around dinner time on 21 November 2000, a nervous 19-year-old man knocked on the door of Maria Joel Dias da Costa’s house, located in the backcountry Amazonian town of Vila Rondon. The unknown man asked to see her husband Dezinho, a union leader, but he was out. She invited the visitor to wait, which he

Has Cuba’s revolution finally fizzled out?

In 1968, the US anthropologist Oscar Lewis arrived in Cuba with a tape recorder and a mission to capture the revolutionary zeal of everyday Cubans. Eighteen months later, he was sent packing. ‘We have nothing to hide,’ Fidel Castro, the leader of the country’s 1959 revolution, had supposedly told him. That wasn’t quite true: production

How I narrowly escaped joining Argentina’s ‘disappeared’

A bully-boy leader. A corrupt, out-of-touch regime. A twisted reading of history. An unprovoked, military-led landgrab. A domestic disinformation blitz. And an enemy that, contrary to all the aggressor’s expectations, fought back. We’ve been here before. Not on the scale of Russia’s attack on Ukraine perhaps, nor with the tragic cost to civilian lives. But

A Canadian’s experience of the migrant’s ordeal

No one boards an overladen dinghy and sets out across a choppy sea without very good reason. Laden into migrant boats go backstories as well as bodies: tales of war-hit homes and bloodied police cells, of empty larders and decrepit schools. But illegal migration is as much about what lies ahead as what’s left behind:

It takes a former drug dealer to explain the global narcotics scene

In the early 2000s, Yekaterinburg was in the grip of a major heroin problem. For Yevgeny Roizman, ‘Russia’s vigilante king’, the solution was simple: first, send in goons to beat up the smack dealers; second, round up the city’s addicts, chain them to radiators, and force them to go cold turkey. The policy, unsurprisingly, failed.

One of mankind’s great mysteries

Later this month, a boat builder from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia will fly to the Russian city of Sochi to begin work on a 40-foot craft made from papyrus reeds. A German-led expedition hopes Fermín Limachi’s construction skills will see them safely across the Black Sea and eventually on to Athens. It is a mad

Romancing the stone wall

We all tell stories about ourselves, every one of us. ‘I’m a useless cook.’ ‘Spiders don’t scare me.’ Not all these stories are true, but then self-perception has never held much truck with truth. Our stories are our own,to hold, repeat and believe in. But what if your story isn’t your own? What if you

The incredible journey

Sweet lovers, Shakespeare reminds us, love the spring. How can they not? All that wonderfully wanton colour, all that sensual fragrancy, all those budding promises of new life. And, lest we forget, all those yummy insects. For birds adore spring as well. Every year, regular as clockwork, hundreds of millions of our feathered friends take

The Little Matchstick that ignited civil war

Spanish restaurants in Germany are relatively rare, but not nearly as rare as biographies of General Franco. So when the Spanish-born waiter in Bonn’s Casa Pepe approached my table, it struck me as an opportune moment to solicit his opinion about the former dictator. ‘No sé mucho,’ he shrugged. ‘I don’t know a whole lot.’

Neither green nor pleasant

The old coaching inn on the green. The Sunday morning toll of church bells. The ducklings paddling on the pond. The soft sound of leather against willow. Nothing, absolutely nothing, defines England’s idea of itself more than the sleepy rural village. World events can shake our island nation. Population growth can swell our cities. Who

Writing on the fly

Bogotá airport, immigration form in hand. Tourist, migrant, businessman? Andrés Neuman ponders the descriptors, unsure which to tick. He opts for the second. ‘I’d like to be a migrant.’ The decision is telling, and frames much of what follows in this curious, delightful, if disjointed book. Neuman is hot property in contemporary Latin American literary