Winchester explorer returns from war-torn Balkans

Basingstoke Gazette: Winchester explorer returns from war-torn Balkans Winchester explorer returns from war-torn Balkans

WINCHESTER explorer John Pilkington is back home after an epic 2,500 mile journey across the war-torn Balkans.

The 63-year-old’s four-month odyssey took him through Bosnia, Serbia and other rugged mountainous regions where he skirted the last of Europe’s minefields.

A patron of Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group, which helps asylum seekers living locally, he wanted to see the River Evros on the border between Greece and Turkey where many refugees have drowned trying to cross.

The Greek Government built a razor wire fence along the six-mile land border to stop thousands of illegal immigrants from Asia and Africa going to EU countries and claiming asylum. They include Syrians seeking a safe haven.

It had been the only entry point where they did not have to swim across the wide river and refugees organisations condemned the move as likely to lead to more deaths.

John applied to the Greek Army for permission to photograph the controversial wall but was refused and police warned him against going.

However undeterred he still went. “Seeing the razor wire fence brought home to me how we in Europe must appear to those on the other side, It did not have a big notice saying ‘keep out’ but it may just as well have.

He added: “Having travelled in many of the home countries of the EU asylum seekers, I feel passionately that razor-wire fences are not the solution. Asylum seekers deserve respect and compassion and should be given a fair hearing.”

John has written books and made radio programmes about some of the most remote places on earth.

During his latest trip, he saw blown-up mosques and amputees in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as “an alarming number” of abandoned houses on both sides of the religious divide.

In Bosnia and Kosovo he found people still traumatised, but many were working hard to create a peaceful future, he says.

The Hampshire explorer was among the first foreign visitors to hike “every inch” of a new 120-mile trail around the Balkans Peace Park which spans Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo.

The three countries have worked together to reopen roads and hiking trails in a bid to boost tourism.

“For me it was a great discovery because I love walking,” said the former county council planner. “It was the first summer season the trail has been completed and they published a map.

“I didn’t meet any other walkers apart from locals. It was quite simply the best mountain walking I have come across anywhere in Europe in terms of fabulous landscape, well-marked trails and welcoming guest houses,” said John.

His solo trip from the seaport of Trieste in north-east Italy to Istanbul in Turkey took him through 12 countries. He travelled mostly by foot and hitch-hiking.

John has written a number of books about his travels including retracing the Old Silk Road after the opening of the border between Pakistan and China as well as “An Englishman in Patagonia.”

He has now organised a series of fund-raising talks. Early next year John will be taking his slide show “Balkan Adventure” around the country, including appearances at Winchester Discovery Centre on February 7, February 20 and March 7.

Tickets can be bought from Winchester Discovery Centre 01962 873603 or Oxfam Bookshop in Parchment Street, Winchester 01962 841627.

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