Who We Are and Where Have We Come? - Interview with Žarir Simrin

 Talking with Žarir is always inspiring and it is difficult to stay on one topic with him. He simply has so much to say, and has the ability to connect seemingly unrelated topics in the discussion. When I met him, in the far 1999, Žarir gave an impression of a versatile and open-minded person, a conclusion that has been confirmed again and again throughout the years. He is among the few people in Macedonia with the courage and virtue to publicly advocate for the rights of people who use drugs. At the beginning of the 21st century, he was among the founders of the Macedonian Association of Drug Users, and later a founder and president of Passage, an organization advocating for the rights of people who use drugs, and he has also been active in other informal groups with identical or similar goals. His experience and knowledge of an activist among people who use drugs inspired the interview. Žarir is a harm reduction outreach worker, and describes himself as a polydrug user, activist and a free artist.

It takes courage to openly speak about drugs in Macedonia. What inspired you?

Well, I came in the picture in `96, `97, when I first heard of MASKA, and syringes and needles being delivered. In `98 I got introduced to the whole harm reduction concept. I hadn’t heard about it before and had no idea what harm reduction was, that it wasn’t something based on moral and ethic values but on facts, it was evidence based.

Fact is, people need sterile syringes and needles, fact is if you don’t give it to them, they won’t stop using [drugs]. They will, but they’ll get sick.

It is a solid idea, really. And it is feasible. You just have to want to do it. At the time it seemed like a great idea to me, `coz we had the freedom to sit around and talk, discuss, without being bothered. I am talking about MASKA’s drop-in. This for us was, man, something new and a place where no one picks on you. No on condemned you. No one bothered you. They told it like it is, the reality.

Later, in 2000/2001, HOPS started a project, for young people, Cane was in charge and I was helping him. It was something like a drop-in centre, only we had gigs there as well. There were instruments and things. I can’t remember exactly, but we had some gigs and it was fun. I mean, the best time in my life.

Did this make you speak out publicly and become engaged about the rights of people who use drugs?

Yes, after the project some people came up with the idea for the Macedonian Association of People who Use Drugs, which was later renamed in Passage, we wanted to form a non-governmental [organization] of some kind. That team of people functioned for a while. Because of some reasons, I don’t know why, we had a disagreement and the first fraction separated entirely, so we stopped. Afterwards, I took the reins in Passage. We got a grant from New York and we did a lot with the money, we made three projects. We published a newspaper, pamphlets. We organized lectures on injecting, on managing an organization and projects. We planted trees to honour deceased drug users. We held events for drug days, AIDS, hepatitis.

And it turned out, that’s not how you did things. So Jean-Paul Grund came to check how we managed to make three projects with the money. They thought we were lying. They couldn’t believe it. You see, what we did was, we returned the money we were paid back to the organization, because the idea was to show that we can do the job and that we want to. The people from New York showed understanding, but they couldn’t grasp that so they warned us not to do that. But after that project the activities dropped.   

Why did they decrease?

I am not sure why they decreased. Maybe because of my health. Maybe it was simply a burnout. I had no desire, or maybe there weren’t enough people. There still aren’t, obviously. You see, we can’t always act for our own interest. We need to do things for the good of everyone.

As I understand, you lacked motivation because of the internal relations?

I personally, yes. Experience has taught me that.

Can you explain what the current mood about drug activism in Macedonia is?

It still functions, kind of underground. We are afraid. I don’t understand. We are very selfish. People are careless. It is drugs and we can easily get in trouble with the police. We can’t afford a simple mistake because the state doesn’t treat us right.

The success so far was to get a perspective on where we are – who we are and have we come? I don’t know what the problem is. Maybe it’s the region. For instance activism in Serbia also doesn’t quite function. Bulgaria also. In 2000 it did, but now none of the Balkan drug user organizations operate as far as I know. We are failing in drug user activism, it’s not enough. We have nothing. Realistically speaking. There are more activities for cannabis, but there are also a lot of commercial interests. I don’t like that. It shouldn’t be like that.     

Can we say that we have at least matured a little and that there are people who can advocate for the community?

You know what? At the chance of sounding pessimistic, because I also am part of the community, I want things to get better, but there’s no one to do it with. At least we haven’t found the right people, or there is still a division. I guess our egos are up to the ceiling and we can’t join together. We have to contact each other and stick together. We can’t wait for someone outside the community to reunite us. I don’t know why are our approach is individualistic. Individualism is great, but it doesn’t function in activism and we need to reunite. Uniting together is a public good. It’s not only about me and my interests. Activism is an act – the first three letters tell you precisely what you have to do. Act! Salary, awards, that will come later when you turn back and see what you have left behind. At least that’s how I see it. I don’t know how to explain. Here, people don’t see it that way. The first thing you hear is: How much money am I going to get? That’s when I started arguing with everyone. I thought money weren’t important? And all of a sudden – salary? I am not going to do that. I am not going to build anything. Finding people isn’t a problem. I can find an army of people who’ll do what I say for 12,000 denars salary. But that’s not the point. I am yet to meet the person ready to do this. 

Those who actively use drugs, who aren’t on therapy, deny having a problem and think they are above all. They don’t understand that we are all in the same category – drugs are drugs. Everything is a drug. Ecstasy is drug, acid and cannabis is also treated as a drug. And that’s it. Generally, everybody has been in (in prison…) for a “joint,” but when one goes to prison, no one protests, we need to gather 50 people, 200 people. We need to go [in front of the police station] for support. You won’t find that here. I can’t go alone! I mean, it’s ridiculous, if all ideas came from me.     

It’s difficult to fathom that material benefit is the biggest obstacle for active engagement?

Mostly yes, but, you know, people are completely broken, psychologically and physically, as far as I can see. Things weren’t done right, with them and with me. Now, some might be lucky, and others not so much. Someone’s parents… You know what? We say we are responsible for where we’ve been in life. But where I’ve been in life is not the same as some kid from the street. My stepping stone was more stable. So you can’t expect the same from those who lived in poor conditions. What can they do? You get tired when you can’t reach your stepping stone. They made this mess of a things on purpose. Someone benefits from the chaos. People don’t have the basic living conditions. They beg for bread on the streets, 70% of the people on methadone therapy. You can’t expect them to think about anything else. Who can think long-term in such conditions?

Is there any hope for the development of activism, in the future?

I don’t know. I never succeeded and I gave up at the end. I see that it’s not working so I pull out. I can’t waste too much energy. That’s my problem. Honestly, I think quitting is the problem.

The problem is we have to function formally and this is where we get stuck. People don’t understand paper work. They don’t have managing experience.

Things can function if you find the right team and the right place. We haven’t found the team yet. Things aren’t working for us now, but maybe they will.

Interview by: Vanja Dimitrievski

Тhe rest from the seventh edition of „Drugs - Policies and Practices" you can read HERE.

And the old numbers of the magzaine Drugs - Policies and Practices.