Macedonia & Serbia border from 5th to 25th of October
Europeans are now dealing knees deep in the refugee crisis. It may for many be an extreme concern how the size of this migration will affect the state of their countries. The validity of this concern is of course understandable, but even more urgent concern rises in the mix of the crisis.
Which is safety.
It is hard to get a grasp of the real situation what is happening. Living in the middle of Europe people rely on what the mass media chooses to show. It can have a very narrow view on the situation and some are driven by pure sensational motivation which can cut audiences off from the situation at any time when interest to the subject dies.
My description is a brief insight into the experiences of the refugees which they have to endure during their journey across the borders in Balkan before they can finally enter the desired country and seek asylum. This is but a little glimpse of the situation at the
border between Macedonia and Serbia where we were able to visit and help. It is by all means not perfect. The situation can rapidly change at any time and the problems go along these changes. These experiences are from the period of two weeks and by the time you read this things have changed for sure. With the approaching winter the weather for no doubt is getting more and more brutal.
It is not the question of putting governmental burden, political agendas or cultural differences before humanitarian empathy, but how we can place our empathy for others before these problems.
For several months now refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries have been traveling to Europe from the east. For them the road goes directly through Turkey they have to cross the ocean to Greece by boats and ferries. This travel is highly dangerous and if they don’t drown many still lose all their belongings.
There are people literally standing in the rain with only soccer shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. After guiding one young man to a pile of clothes were he could find some warmth for himself, his friend turned to me and explained that all of their friends in the group had only t-shirts under the thin jackets. He continued to explain me that they had to throw all of their bags off the boat when they were crossing from Turkey. He told with all his courage how the boatman held his knife on their throat, but started weeping only when describing how the boatman slapped him in front of his wife.
Upon entering Greece they arrive in Europe and from here they start their long inland journey through the Balkan towards the deeper countries of EU. The initial reaction of these countries was to close the borders and so try and stop the mass migration. Large groups of people got stranded at borders where they to this day have to wait for days for some kind of possibility to continue their travel. The increasing pressures at these borders escalated into EU agreeing upon a “humanitarian corridor” which would give the refugees a narrow route to cross these borders. Despite opening these border alleyways the travelers continue to face harsh conditions and extreme difficulties with minimal help from governments.
To aid them against the hardship of their journey, several stations and camps have been installed along this corridor. In some places this help existed already before governmental influence. Certain locals saw these masses walking through their towns and started to find ways to help them by offering rest, food, comfort and most importantly feel them welcome.
Traveling through Macedonia there are different transportation possibilities. If they are able to avoid walking they can take taxis, buses or train towards the north of Macedonia. Thousands of them arrive specifically to the corner of a small village called Tabanovce. Here an unauthorized train platform near the border of Serbia was transformed into a refugee camp where daily thousands of refugees arrive just by trains, not to include the random groups who come by buses and taxis.
After pouring out from the fully stuffed train wagons, or from where the bus or taxi dropped them off, the travelers glance at the camp in total confusion. With little of any information about where they are and what to do next crowds settle to just follow where the large masses go. For many, if not to all, the simple goal next is just to go to Serbia.
With information available from few specific internet sources and mainly from volunteers themselves, they should know that after arriving to Tabanovce they have to start walking towards the border, which from the camp is out in nowhere in the middle of the field. After two and a half kilometer they arrive at another checkpoint in Serbia from where they have to walk another two kilometer to a village from where they can finally take a bus to Presevo where they have to go through Serbian registration. Only after this they are allowed to continue their travel towards Croatia. If they do not go through this registration they might be sent back after trying to cross Croatian border. Next to the paranoid fear of the Dublin Regulation, all this is highly confusing information to remember while trying to keep moving.
The camp, which sits still in the middle of continuous late autumn rain season, has now about ten closed tents standing from the UNHCR and two with Red Cross doctors. One open tent stands for distributing clothes and food. There is a toilet facility and locals are helping out by volunteering directly, making food, or handing out clothes and helpful materials for the travel. Other NGO organizations are supporting with volunteers, clothing donations and their own tents where kids, mothers and disabled can relax. Some locals are standing by selling cigarettes and umbrellas for those who want or are able to buy. For everyone all around the camp there is free internet wifi.
But the internet is blocked from accessing any websites and the only things anyone can access with it is wiper, whatsapp and certain navigational connections. The real information that could give them safety and security on the road is inaccessible.
No fires are allowed at the camp and throughout the rainy days the station remains freezing and the blankets remain wet which cannot solve the danger of hypothermia. When raining the only thing anyone is looking for is cover from it and it is needless to say there just simply isn’t enough of it for everyone. After occasional donations and desperate solutions with trash bags, large number of groups and families remain exposed to continue their travel in the rain and cold.
Facing real and serious confronting situations the Red Cross, despite being present, is unable to fully help because the doctors are inexperienced field workers lacking apparent senior support which could present itself in the event of life threatening circumstances. For many months they operated only in the day time going off duty in the night when the weather reached the lowest degrees while travelers still kept coming. They could only rely on the night shift volunteers trying to find creative solutions for them to survive through the night. This fortunately changed just recently when the Red Cross too began adapting 24 hour shifts.
There is no road across the border. After getting some small energy, group of friends and families set on to their journey to reach Serbia and beyond. Only the previous group of people to guide their way they have to walk through knee deep mud and pools of water. For everyone the condition is the same. Elderly are being held by family members and disabled who are not able to walk are being pushed with wheelbarrows across the deformed ground. The absence of a clear road and extremely difficult terrain create a hysteria in which groups are trying to find a more accessible ways by crossing through a two meter muddy ditch and getting on to the railways. This creates dangerously chaotic situations in which passing by trains separate children from their families and remaining groups get in trouble with the police by provoking the illegal act of walking on the railways.
Many groups and families separate themselves for the journey and connections are lost because of the constant movement of the masses that have no real reason to stay at any camp or station. To the fears and worries of their loved ones and of people they are responsible of one can only give the number of family reunification organization and hope for the best.
When they do somehow get to Presevo the same people of thousands have to stand literally in line to be registered. More than a month ago there was only a handful of computers registering refugees. That number went couple of weeks up to 20. Despite this people have to still wait for days outside in the rain and weather which is getting colder every week. Whole families have to stand on their spot in the line, or else they have to get back to the beginning. Hypothermia is a real issue that is being fought against every day.
Refugees are advised not to buy any documents from the streets in the hopes that they can skip the line and continue traveling. A desperate act which would put them in dangerous position of traveling with unofficial documents that can result them being transported back, and in even worse case locked up in prison before that.
Refugee family got an advice from a taxi not to take buses describing it being illegal and scaring them with images of police raids. Similarly there are stories about how some taxis take in refugees only to drive around the block or to the nearest bigger town and leave the foreign groups with the image that they are at the other end of the country. Not knowing which stories are true and which not they create a paranoid fear towards the public transportation making the possibility to travel faster and more safer a deranged ordeal.
In cases like Macedonia locals won’t allow refugees to enter cafes or restaurants with the fear that they scare off their usual customers. Laws are set to forbid locals residents to accept any refugees to their homes, and it is illegal for these same refugees to find shelter on the streets.
Every face passing by has its own story. You look at each one of them and you see a glimpse of the journey they have been taking. They have not slept in days. They are confused and paranoid. The abuse they have faced is painted on their expression. To these eyes you smile. And they smile back. And you see the hope that burns strong in them.
Every step brings them closer and every obstacle over the happiness of being alive. Despite all the conditions the parents do a continuing effort to keep their children happy. They play with them and make them laugh. On the rare clear day walking through the field the little kids follow their families with games and joy, traveling inside their own adventure. They laugh just out of absurdity with their grandparents after trying desperately to transport one of them with the wheelbarrow over the muddy field. It is a happiness that comes from within the heart of these people. Something that we can only support to nourish.
And support is something we could give. To just walk or sit down with them and give them clear information what they have to do would lift the burden from the father. To make them feel welcome would help them integrate emotionally from the beginning. To have the greatest effect we don’t always need much.
But every single day is too few and we need to remember what these travelers are going through. Every single day. I say this to myself. Whenever I see a sunny day, I can not stop thinking about how lucky they are. And when I see the rain from the comfort of the dry inside, I feel their pain. It is that simple. Empathy does not require our cultural differences or diplomatic relations. Everybody has the possibility to contribute with what their abilities allow them.
We can all start by taking the safety of their travel a little bit more in concern.