Jorsala: A 3,600km walk to end war


A group of walkers have set off from Ypres to Istanbul in a First World War centenary event aimed at promoting intercultural dialogue

Historical march

One hundred years after the First World War, 2014 has already seen a variety of memorial events. Yet on a cold, rainy Thursday in Ypres, West Flanders, a small group of walkers found themselves huddled around a banner bearing the name Jorsala, preparing to embark on the most original of commemorations: a 3,600-kilometre walk along the historic fracture lines of the Old Continent to promote intercultural dialogue.

The Jorsala concept came to founder Sébastien de Fooz in 2005 when he walked for 184 days from Ghent, where he grew up, to Jerusalem (“Jorsala” is an Old Norse term meaning Jerusalem). “During my walk, I was warned at each approaching border about the next country and its people. Yet each time I was well received,” says de Fooz, who runs his Jorsala project from Brussels, where he now lives.

So he began the Jorsala Walk as a citizens’ movement promoting dialogue and understanding between people of differing cultures, backgrounds and ways of life. The first walk was organised in 2012, when 60 participants walked 200km from Brussels to Aachen in Germany. This year, the second Jorsala Walk extends from Ypres to Istanbul, a walk beyond Belgium and “into the unknown”.

Fear of the unknown

“The unknown is perceived as dangerous and creates fear,” says de Fooz. “Jorsala’s walk along Europe’s former geopolitical fault lines will allow us to meet people from all walks of life, with whom we would perhaps never cross paths otherwise. These dialogues are exactly what we need to stop conflicts like the First World War in the future; after all, war is a result of failed dialogue.” 

The walkers began their historic march with ceremonies at Ypres’ city hall and Menin Gate. De Fooz: “We chose Ypres as a starting point for our journey given its First World War significance and the undeniable fact that it’s a real city of peace.”

We chose Ypres as a starting point as it’s a real city of peace

- Sébastien de Fooz

Ypres alderman Jef Verschoore also gave the group an authentic lantern used in the trenches 100 years ago. This powerful symbol will travel with them until they reach Sarajevo on 18 or 19 August, the city where the Great War broke out following the death of Franz Ferdinand.

From Ypres, the walkers headed to Brussels, via former battlegrounds and a visit to Bedford House Cemetery. Rotary Club Europe, public authorities and citizens offered them food and lodging. On 15 May they reached Brussels, where they were welcomed by Peter Van Kemseke, representing Jorsala sponsor Herman Van Rompuy.

Great adventure

“Once past Brussels, the participants choose their own routes,” explains de Fooz. They will convene every 400km “for a moment of reflection” in cities that mark cultural crossroads or an important moment in European history. These 17 intersections are points where people can join in or step out, and include Strasbourg, Trieste, Mostar, Sarajevo, Pristina, Skopje, Plovdiv and Istanbul, which they hope to reach by 17 October.

“It’s up to each individual to decide how they want to participate,” explains De Fooz. “They can join us for one day, one week, one month, five months.”

One of Jorsala’s walkers is Willem Vermeersch, a Brussels visual artist born in Poperinge, near Ypres. “This is going to be one of the greatest adventures of my life,” he says. “I can’t wait. I didn’t bring a tent, so I’ll be forced to come out of my comfort zone and meet lots of people.”

De Fooz adds: “We hope to come into contact with many individuals and show that the differences between people on two sides of a conflict are not as big as one thinks.”

Photo: Walkers on the 2012 Jorsala walk from Brussels to Aachen in Germany

Walkers have set off from Ypres to Istanbul in a First World War centenary event aimed at promoting intercultural dialogue

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First World War

Claiming the lives of more than nine million people and destroying entire cities and villages in Europe, the Great War was one of the most dramatic armed conflicts in human history. It lasted from 1914 to 1918.
Flanders Field - For four years, a tiny corner of Flanders known as the Westhoek became one of the war’s major battlefields.
Untouched - Poperinge, near Ypres, was one of the few towns in Flanders that remained unoccupied for most of the war.
Cemetery - The Tyne Cot graveyard in Passchendaele is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
550 000

lives lost in West Flanders

368 000

annual visitors to the Westhoek

1 914

First Battle of Ypres