A humanitarian corridor ?
March 2016. After half a year being buried in mud at the borders of the Balkan I decide to travel the “humanitarian corridor”.
Blinded by the mud, I need an eagle perspective on what is really happening, while official media seem demented.
Working along the refugee crisis wherever we felt most needed, our group has always focused on the bigger picture. Our goal is to end the war. Aid delivery is just a necessary human reaction we could not avoid while walking towards that goal.
A respectable fund of the International Peace Movement offered us the opportunity to boost our efforts. I made a scouting journey along different so called “hot spots” along the Balkan, avoiding Turkey, Bulgaria and whatever more East due to time and financial constraints.
Here is a short photo journal of this travel, because what I have seen is important and should be known, at least for the sake of history.
So many people asked me to share their story, and so many others asked me how they can help.
I can only tell so much of what I have seen and experienced around the borders. Many stories I should save for by the camp fire. These are just some flashes during two months travelling.
You can read a more general report of our work here:
If you wish to support us, contact us here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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We have been based at the Serbia-Macedonia border since late summer 2015, with a changing team of International Independent volunteers. While spending many days and nights suffering with these people seeking refuge in the transit camps, we also travelled a lot the Balkan route and made strong networking efforts, while trying to understand what is happening.
There were days we seen over 15.000 people passing by, a river of people. The number is big, but when taken into account the “bottleneck” effect, the relative number is rather small. This whole crisis can be solved in 1 day, with little cooperation and goodwill. But we have not seen much cooperation and even les goodwill. Instead a parallel economy is developing in the shadows, supported by greed, blind Chicago mafia politics, Institutional war integrated first aid logo packages and aimless charity.
Everyone passes at exactly this point, “the bottleneck”, and only few pass the other border crossings across the Turkey-Bulgaria-Greek-Albanian-Italian fenced up borderline. Looking at the percentages, the number of guests visiting Europe is not high at all, and the events are being pictured more dramatic than they are. There are not so many people visiting and everybody is overreacting. There are much more Western tourists and expats frequenting foreign places each year.
But few political manipulations happen without a reason and if they did happen without a reason few political manipulations remain un-manipulated a-posteriori. This refugee crisis had presented a huge shock to the Western world and it is good to know a little about “Shock Doctrine” related to International Politics. Still it will take lifetimes to really understand what happened in 2015. We continue scouting this crisis.
During half a year intensive crisis work in a humanitarian disaster– day and night – at the borders, meeting over hundred thousand of people seeking refuge, I have not encountered one case of aggression or violence from those people who have lost absolutely everything.
I left the volunteer house in the small village at the Serbian border and took a night bus for Slovenia, late winter 2016. Seeing snowstorms halfway Serbia and finding the East Slovenia hills covered in a meter snow, I think about all those people travelling illegally now that borders closed. How many are freezing while locked in trucks and train containers? How many are walking through wild mountain trails, overcome by a snowstorm with no decent shoes? It seems unreal, but I witnessed this again and again during the last year and it is real and it is happening here.
On the way North through the Balkan I visit friends and initiatives around Zagreb, Croatia. In that city the independent media group “Are You Syrious” (AYS) was born.
They started off with regular updates about a handful of so called “hot spots” along the “Balkan Route”, named after the trail that people seeking refuge used to travel. From there they grew to a reliable independent news service. The Intelligence Agency of this current EU centred refugee crisis.
At Zagreb train station one of their activists picks me up and drives me along their many warehouses. They are busy, while moving one warehouse rain came and they had to find big amounts of plastic to cover thousands of boxes of clothes, blankets, shoes, …
Thanks to the dedicated work of a few true humans, AYS is now based in different International fields, providing information and humanitarian support. The Zagreb warehouses are huge.
Leaving them our contacts and exchanging plans and idea’s, I continue my travel North. I witness the newly erected razor wire fences along the Slovenia borders. The metal hurts the eye. I think about the animals. They don’t know what is a border and where they used to run wild, they now find death by running into razor blades. It’s madness, absolute madness. I meet with activists from Slovenia who are planning protests. They have huge support from simple villagers at the borders who are just as worried as we are about these surreal metal interventions.
I walk on Slovenian mountains, in need for some rest and nature around me. Visiting a training centre. We need a place to start training volunteers in the work in this crisis. Such training courses also serve as an opportunity to exchange practice and learn from each other. Volunteers encounter many traumatic events. It already helps a lot to be able to speak about those with others who experienced similar events in other places. Such course should take place far away from it all, in nature, so volunteers can recharge batteries to go back out there with new hope.
We need more support in this. We need officers who can fundraise and organize, because we are occupied in the field and lack sleep and the needed mental rest to write reports.
Covered in snow, alone and 20 km from the nearest village I plan my coming travels by the fire.
In Maribor I meet with local volunteers, activists and artists. There is a central collection point in Maribor. They collect aid materials in a warehouse and container. The coordinator carries over 6 old nokia phones, who are ringing constantly. In between answering those she tells me she is remembering the stories her grandparents used to tell her, they were partisans engaged in a street fight with troupes coming from the North.
In an old bakery factory that is turned into an autonomous space I meet with artists who are busy creating stencils for awareness raising.
One good friend there designed a fire oven that creates a lot of heat, very useful for people stuck in the fields. It is made from old truck wheels and you can cook on it.
I continue for the Slovenian capital and meet with the local groups there who have been driving up and down the Balkan route countless times with full trucks of clothes, diapers and blankets since the beginning of this crisis. They are one of the few groups in Slovenia who are doing a strong effort to welcome refugees from the bottom up. Their social centre’s meeting room is turned into a warehouse and activists have become veterans in transport and social revolution. These kind of places give me a lot of hope and courage to continue in this often hopeless political climate.
Meanwhile the city accelerates efforts to shut them down, a strategy I see in so many places where the weeds are growing too strong for the establishments’ taste.
Since the closing of the borders people seeking refuge end up in all kind of camps; military, governmental, … We hear many horrible stories from our contacts inside and it has become one of our main goals to get access for volunteers inside those camps (at least those volunteers who are willing to cooperate with such camps). In Ljubljana I meet with few people who are doing work inside the Slovenian camps and refugee houses, and we exchange ideas and practice.
Scouting the borders with Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Hungary I travel to Novi Sad. There I meet the people in the office who are supporting me on this travel. They have been doing great work during winter with a simple initiative. Volunteers gathered every few days to knit winter gloves and hats, that volunteers of our group drove South to the borders. While knitting, the volunteers connected and discussed the crisis, learning more and becoming active in a good way. It is a nice example of a local solidarity group in action, making it sustainable by it’s human nature. These kind of projects contrast with huge charity projects buying “made in China” materials.
Now the office is helping us to set up a meeting to bring together volunteers working around the refugee crisis, connecting them to the International Peace Movement. I use the days in office to plan my trip, finding out where to be and when, looking for useful contacts for networking and exchange in this humanitarian jungle overcrowding the South Balkan.
Novi Sad is beautiful in these first spring days and walking through the centre, that is alive with music and cheerful people, I forget there is a war going on.
Saying “good bye” and “see you soon” to these dearest friends from Vojvodina, who have supported me so much during the past long winter months, I take a bus to Sid. From there I will continue North to Macedonia.
I know this road so good now, having travelled it countless times during the last half year. I know all the bus stops where refugees, who are being in- or deported, can get a few breaths of air and a toilet. I know where the locked train wagons that hang behind the regular passenger train, packed with families, gets unloaded. I know most of the bus drivers and petrol station employees. I know which gas stations have Wi-Fi and which not.
Upon receiving more news during the last weeks about huge masses of people camping in Idomeni, around the Greek side of the Macedonia border, I decide to postpone some meetings in Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia and travel directly to Skopje. From Skopje I take the train to Thessaloniki.
This transnational line that connects Belgrade with the Aegean Sea has been derailed ever since people stranded at the Greek-Macedonia border blocked the railway. One needs to get off at the legendary Gevgelia train station and from there take a bus.
I convince the bus driver to put me off at the second petrol station after the border. This is a petrol station named EKO, and has become famous because hundreds of people stranded by the closing borders have made it their homes.
I wake up in the petrol restaurant, checking maps to orient myself. The most volunteer groups are based in a hotel few kilometres up North, in a village named Polycastro. That is where I want to go. I need to settle somewhere because I have been travelling long and not thinking straight by lack of sleep.
After meeting some of the inhabitants of EKO camp I start walking across fields to Polycastro, trusting on intuition.
I arrive in Polycastro. Most volunteer groups and organizations have occupied the hotel named “Park”, together with a few neighbouring warehouses. The place looks like an ant nest. Every corner of the village, every hotel, warehouse and apartment is fully booked. I manage to get a room. Although very tired, I have a shower and return to EKO-camp. I want to integrate in that community fast, after observing the camp that morning.
I spend the next few days and nights in the camp, missing all volunteer meetings at the hotel, but learning everything there is to learn about EKO-camp by the camp fires and family visits in tents.
I keep returning to one family from where I base my journeys around the camp. They are Kurdish. Somehow I always end up with the Kurdish groups. They have located their thin summer tents around their camp fire. The grandfather always invites me for coffee, and each day I learn more about their life, their journey, and about the situation in EKO-camp, where they have been stranded for few weeks now.
I make a lot of friends, and learn to shoot with the catapults the children make playing their games in the beautiful nature around the highway. The two petrol restaurants are making a very good business day and night. The Kurdish family explains me about the conflicts that have been clouding the camp community for some weeks. Now I have a mission and it is not long before I find myself in between two warring groups, with sticks and stones ready to beat up each other. I speak with everybody, day and night and try to understand this conflict, aiming to find and support every local that is mediating.
It relates to something I noticed already in Tabanovce, at the Macedonian transit camp,
after the closing of borders and following the bad government strategies leading up to the EU-Turkey deal (a deal that hurt us all). Authorities and government workers started dividing the refugees per nationality, in every sense. There would be tents for Afghans, for Syrians and for Iraqi’s. Waiting lines for Syrians, separated from waiting lines for Iraqi’s while Afghans where not allowed even to wait in line. All separate, in different areas. This happened simultaneously, at one moment, in all the transit centres and camps.
The result – knowing that these people are tired, frustrated and manipulated – is a strong increase in conflicts between national groups. This was something we did not see so often before.
In the village Polycastro I meet a group of volunteers I know, that are doing amazing work. Now they are heading to EKO camp to document stories. They use the camera as a tool to give the people a voice, and their filming in the camp doesn’t look at all like journalism, more like a Sunday party with the whole family.
They also have been for some time frequenting EKO and they fill in the gaps of people, camp fires and tents that I had not visited yet. It is amazing to see how they already know all the social structures inside the communities there. They often hide their camera’s because people want to tell their story and they might end up in a forty-eight-hour nonstop shooting party.
The way they conduct the interviews is beautiful to see. Very respectful, before each interview are days and nights of talks with the friends and family of the one that speaks. While filming interviews the camera gets shut off regularly for a moment of crying and hugging together, because the topics are sensitive.
While joining them on their tour I stay in-between the audience, joking, playing and fighting with new friends. One boy from Iraq starts speaking perfect Oxford English to me. He becomes my translator around. When we join him to his camp fire, it seems that his family was scheduled some days before for an interview that didn’t go through because of some cultural misunderstandings. After a lot of talking, the boy receives permission from his father – who is a respectable professor at an important University, and a very intelligent and gentle man. After the interview a young girl appears from the crowd, shy she asks for an interview. She wishes to speak about her confusion, and feelings of loneliness in this situation she is in. The crew is in for another night.
You can see some of their documentary’s here:
I spend many long nights by camp fires, there are always some people awake. One night I meet some teenagers from different nationalities and backgrounds. We are talking around a fire in the humid night. After exchanging music and small talk we start a party. When a grandfather comes to shut our noise down because they cannot sleep in the neighbouring tents, we continue our conversation whispering. At one point there is an upheaval. A group of volunteers from France, America and Canada comes to our fire shouting. One of them had his telephone stolen. No one notices I am not a refugee and we all feel this shameful guilt you feel when someone blames you for something you have no business with. The volunteer, freaking out, decides to go to the police car that is stationed next to the camp and we observe regular patrols during our further talks by the fire.
One boy comes to me and shows me tablets. He has an infection in his mouth and the medical post gave him this, but did not explain him what are those tablets for or even how to use them.
Just then a medical team drives by in a yellow Swedish ambulance, so I stop them. It takes a while before they realize I am not a refugee and agree to speak to us. They clarify what the tablets are for and continue their way, without saying good bye, treating us rather harsh. We join at the fire again, translating what they told us and joking about the harsh treatment we receive, us poor downtrodden of the earth.
The “Park Hotel” is busy. The lobby is full day and night and it takes a miracle to secure a room. Outside are few warehouses where volunteers bring and collect materials all the time. The garden behind has an open kitchen tent with huge pots and camping tents around. There are introduction meetings for new volunteers every day and everywhere hang schedules searching for volunteers to help with shifts in the camps.
I meet up with some friends from Macedonia and Europe and find my way into a packed hotel room where all the coordinators are meeting. I am amazed by the work they do in the area, and the presence of so many initiatives from around the world, all finding ways to cooperate in this disaster. I meet many people and connect to organizations.
After months of experience many volunteers have become veterans and they are well organized.
And of course not all volunteers and groups are centred around this hotel. The whole area swarms with independent groups and individuals, renting warehouses, apartments, farms and cottages on both sides of the border. Many Greek people are also helping, being hospitable by nature. On the other hand, there are some local villagers who do not like these strangers around, sometimes for empty nationalist motivations, other times for the reasonable conclusion that they lost their rural peace. Many farmers find their fields occupied by tents and soon the ploughing must start, their livelihood depends on it. Some NGO’s react by buying those fields from the farmers, securing the space for refugees.
In this warehouse used to sleep over fifty volunteers, but don’t tell anyone… it’s a secret:
On the road between the village and EKO camp I meet many refugees walking to and from the village shops. It is about an hour walking so the perfect moment to meet new friends and speak about the other camps around. One group invites me to their camp. When we pass by the Park hotel we stop to help some volunteers sort out clothes boxes. Then we sit, rest and share some peanuts. I ask a lot about their camp. They complain about the food and unfriendly treatment, but they wish to stay near the borders, hoping they will open.
When we near the camp, I see a line of white tents in the distance, with military vehicles driving around, quite a surrealistic image.
My friends who bring me there are Kurds from Syria. One, a school teacher who speaks perfect English, explains me that for few days many people spent their last money on taxi’s bringing them to the illegal camp Idomeni at the border.
The news had spread that borders will open.
I know about these false rumours. Individuals have been spreading notes in all camps, in all languages, stating that borders will open. We are not sure who spread those rumours, but the impact it has on these people is devastating. For one it is not truth. They get false hopes. And those that march on the border get disappointed and often beaten seriously by border police.
This time I do not accompany them to this military camp, my intuition tells me it is not a good day. I cross the fields and walk my way through swamps with birds flying up from behind bushes. I see the camp fires of EKO camp in the distance.
Behind me the strange image of this white line of military ordered tents with a rainbow over them.
I receive a message from an Afghan friend who I interviewed in one of the camps. He made his way north and sends me his location and pictures of his current house, somewhere near a border:
I move to Thessaloniki where I meet up with some students of the Thessaloniki Erasmus Network, to listen about their volunteer work in the camps.
In North Greece I visit a place where many refugees are living. The place is occupied by some good kids, and they organized it into an independent community house. They have a big kitchen, many sleeping rooms and outside is always a fire and something going on. They provide information and help the inhabitants to find their way.
I discover there is living a few weeks old baby that was born in an illegal camp. Other people try to find a house for the family.
I go and join the cooking, it is a beautiful old-style kitchen with all the right tools. The atmosphere is good and the chef, a refugee himself, knows what he is doing.
A boy from North Africa talks to me while I am cutting tomatoes. He arrived in Greece on a small boat. On Greece mainland he was arrested, with no reason. Police treated him very harsh, and threw away all his identity documents. Then they imprisoned him and he remained there for 2 months, with no contact to the outside and without ever knowing why he was there.
After 2 months they released him, with no explanation and no formalities. I am very sad, especially because this young boy has never done anything to deserve this. He is very gentle nature and is in total shock now, without paper-identity, in a big city. He remembers one girl, a volunteer he met on the islands. He asks me if I can find her. He only has her first name, nothing else. It seems impossible. There are hundreds of volunteers out there and tens of thousands of refugees passing by every week. But we faced greater challenges in this war. After 2 days I locate the girl and put them in contact. Thanks to the growing networks in-between volunteers everything becomes possible.
This is the picture that helped me find the volunteer:
Around the same time a similar event occurred. Actually these are just small examples of so many miracles we witness in this work.
A volunteer wanted to find a woman she met on the islands. The woman travelled with children alone. When she send out the call, all we had was a photo and the knowledge that she travels within a river of thousands and thousands of similar people. Location: somewhere between the Greek islands and the European continent (assuming not many refugees travel to other continents after arriving in Greece mainland).
It took us less than a month to locate the woman and her children. When I received the coordinates of her location, we were a little worried, since in this location we know there operate a lot of traffickers. After making some noise a friend sent this message: “we are outside of her tent, she is safe, sleeping with the children. We connect with volunteer tomorrow.”
These stories can at least confirm the importance of building networks with volunteers and other organizations, an effort we are focusing on a lot and for what we need all the support we can get.
I pay rent of the Thessaloniki hostel ahead for 3 nights, pack my emergency bag and leave for the Idomeni camp at the border with Macedonia. Some sources say there are more than 16 thousand people camping there, I have never seen so many people.
I take a bus to Polycastro and plan to walk from there, the bus is packed with military. I try some small talk with them but it is still early and they are not in the mood. In the bus station I meet some volunteers who have a large kitchen in the area. I get a seat in the back of a pickup van, between the boxes of vegetables, and we go see their place.
The kitchen is incredible. They got a farm in the countryside. From street view it looks like a normal house, when you enter the back yard there are maybe 50 people cooking over massive huge cooking pots, with happy music playing from a caravan. I get acquainted with one of the dogs and sit with him, observing the activity.
After exchanging contacts with some of the kids there, I continue my journey over peaceful sunny Greek country roads.
A taxi driver picks me up for free. He speaks about his work, driving refugees up and down. He drops me off at the last petrol station before the border, HARA station. There are many tents and the refugees and volunteers have a delicate deal with the owner, who makes good business, …and good coffee. Volunteers are warned not to drop of aid without agreement with the owner who is sensitive about his “private” refugee camp.
I speak with some of the refugees waiting in line for a van that just arrived full with soup from the kitchen I visited earlier. They explain me how to walk to Idomeni, avoiding road blocks.
I follow one of the refugee trails, a familiar sight; earth moulded by thousands and thousands of feet. Left and right in the grass you see everything that those tired hands could not carry anymore; clothes, plastic bags, one-day croissant packages, teddy bears, …
In the distance the snowy mountain peaks grow higher, a natural border that only the younger and the brave dare cross. I met many of them, they all told stories of wilderness, wolfs, attacks by mafia and of friends who didn’t make it.
I come near Idomeni, in the distance I hear a strange buzzing noise, a noise I never heard before, and I realize this must be the sound of thousands of people. The sound of the exodus.
I arrive at the edge of the camp, where I see some tents and camp fires. A child greets me and invites me in. The mother tells me a bit about their situation there and takes me to the camp fire. The family there welcomes me and prepares a coffee on the fire and offers me some fruits. One of them, an artist, shows me his paintings. Those he saved in a big plastic map during the journey. Left everything but his arts. This is one painting he made in the camps:
He is on his way to paint on some tents for a journalist and takes me with. While painting on the big white UN tents, I meet Ahmed and Abdala. Abdala speaks good English and wants to take me on a tour around the camp. Ahmed follows us with a camera. You can see here:
The village of Idomeni is a very small country-side settlement. Only the trucks of military show there is something going on.
This is the municipality house:
Everywhere in the camp are people waiting in lines, for food, for clothes, toys, diapers…. Often NGO jeeps are pushing their way through the crowd to find a good spot to deliver their donations.
One jeep pushes trough slowly, we are walking next to them, Abdala points at the stressed out charity lady who drives. She has a teargas sprayer sticking out of her pocket. We conclude they must be dangerous, here everybody wants peace… Abdala jokes to take the sprayer. I convince him it may just complicate matters, … not everybody is in for playing. I imagine how many simple situations turn into complicated conflict scenes, and think how we can prevent a lot of mess, with good training of everybody that wants to be involved in this crisis.
Idomeni camp is full of children. They are out of control, and the whole space is their playground. Also there are many new-born babies, born right there, in a small summer tent that somebody from the West donated.
Some refugee friends show me a family where a baby was born only few days ago. I visit and we exchange compliments. Later I meet one volunteer that I know had helped families with babies before. He just finished his shift guarding the food lines, and joins us to see the family.
We propose the family to get them a healthy environment for the baby. They refuse. Their tent is next to the border and they are not going anywhere. Many people here are waiting for the borders to open. They really believe this will happen.
While walking I come across a children’s protest. They are shouting slogans from the Syrian revolution; “we are one hand” and something else they caught up here;” open the borders” … their first English lesson.
After about 16 hours of interviews, visits and walking around Idomeni, I join a group of Swedish volunteers who drive back to Polycastro. From there I walk back to EKO camp to say good bye to some friends, and spend another night visiting camp fires. In the petrol station I meet some London based aid workers who are also doing night shifts. We spend a great deal of the early hours talking about our work and experiences.
Back in Thessaloniki that same morning I pick up my luggage and make my way to the port. I take a ferry to Lesvos island. On the ferry I join a journalist from Netherlands and we meet up with the London based aid workers who I met during last night. We spend the whole night talking. One of the London aid workers, who is Muslim, was making services for the graveyards of people that did not make the sea crossing from Turkey to the islands.
Arriving in Lesvos port early morning, I see a sign on a tree reading “no border kitchen”. It’s a colourful sign so I follow it. I arrive to a makeshift camp next to the port. An independent group of ear-ringed activists is running a kitchen and there are staying a few hundreds, mostly Pakistani and Algerians. It is based in the park, next to a tourist beach, and the Mytilene government is threatening them with evictions.
I put down my luggage by the side of the sea and fall asleep on the rocks, feeling very safe with hundreds of fellow travellers around.
I wake up getting splashed by water. Rain? Cannot be, the sun is very strong overhead. I open my eyes and see a huge shepherd dog. He came from a swim in the ocean and shook it all off on me. In the distance a group of Pakistani is laughing.
I curse the dog, take a cat shower in the ocean and join the Pakistani group, who are still rolling over the rocks laughing and pointing at me and the dog.
They tell me about the camp and their situation. Having arrived on Lesvos, often having spent all their money on dangerous little overcrowded boats, they are now stuck here. There is talk about deportations and there are no more boats for them to the Greek mainland. They are refused for registration and prefer to stay here, pointing out the harsh conditions in the registration camp.
One man invites me to his tent. He stays in a small summer tent with 4 of his friends and his brother. They offer me food; all they have, baby food powder mixed with water. When we talked enough and I want to go on, one of them offers me a Greek phone card as present.
I find a cheap and beautiful house by the beach. From the balcony I look out over the stretch of sea between Turkey and Lesvos. I am close to the airport, and to a legendary camp fire on the beach. Volunteers and life guards from all over the world have been meeting by this fire during the last year or so. Each night at midnight there is a coordination meeting of all volunteers from the area.
There is always someone there, looking through binoculars out over the sea, and the fire never extinguishes. These days not many boats arrive. After the EU- Turkey deal (that hurt us all) many boats are being picked up by coast guards, or pushed back. I can see the boat- and helicopter patrols from my room.
By the fire I hear many stories. One I will never forget. A boat with life guards was in sight of a sinking raft. They were on Greek territorial waters, while the rubber boat who was sinking found itself in Turkish waters. The police patrol boat who was also at the scene did nothing to help but warned the life guards they will be arrested if they cross the sea border to come to the rescue.
These are events that we volunteers are being faced with more often.
The beaches are full of signs of the dramatic events taking place here. It is a strange contrast with the beauty of this island.
Volunteers learn a lot in these dark days, we learn to cry. We learn to love, forgive and to transform rage and sadness into dignity and action.
My sources warn me that the first deportations will take place any moment in Mytilene port. After EU declared Turkey into a “safe country” people will be deported back there. I stay up most of the night listening in, and start walking very early to the city to observe.
The port is overcrowded with journalists. I meet up with the journalist I met on the ferry who introduces me to Al Jazeera and some others. The atmosphere is tense. These news bringers are all over and one insults me when I walk in-between a camera and a live interview. I walk back the same way; the guy almost beats me. I smile, point at the sun and tell him “sun is shining, the weather is great”. He smiles and apologizes.
Volunteers are staging a protest at the gates of the port. The mode of action is to inform refugees that they have the option of asking for asylum in Greece, so they will not be fit for deportation.
The first deportation took place and only few fortunate journalists were able to take some shots. The pictures circulate immediately. The mode of operation is shocking. Each refugee is handcuffed to a fr on tex officer, during all the time, on busses, on boats,… I get to see a bus full of these EU officers, arriving at the port. The bus has a promo sticker of “angry birds” on it. A coincidence, but very appropriate one. I would not like to be handcuffed to any of those young men. Especially not when I left everything I had and fear the dangers of human trafficking and lost all my rights and am forgotten by the world…
After few days monitoring the situation I receive news that all deportations are postponed for now. I walk back to my beach house. I pass by the elegant horse I always meet on the way there and try to explain him about this strange shift that happened so fast in the EU. I wonder if I am dreaming all this, it seems so unreal.
One morning I start walking to Moria, the famous registration centre on the island. On my way there I pass by Pikpa, a volunteer run camp for vulnerable refugees, located behind the airport. Passing this peace graffiti, I turn left in country roads going uphill.
This colourful van is waiting me at the entrance of the camp, not the usual army vehicles and checkpoints. Usually when I arrive at the camps I find my way in as fast as possible, knowing I have work there. Finding wheelchairs, giving information, connecting to volunteers and refugees, running for medical support, …
But at the entrance of Pikpa I am shy to enter. I get this feeling of walking into a private house without being invited. The place is colourful, people seem relaxed.
I enter the info office, connect to the people, invite them to our meeting in Serbia to share their good practice and I leave. I have no business here, this place is wonderful, and an example for all the other camps. Of course they want to evict it, the government, too much colours, makes them dizzy.
I continue walking across the mountains to Moria, getting lost by the Greek signs and meeting friends along the way.
I realize I underestimated the distances, Lesvos is a huge island. But beautiful. When I arrive to Moria village crossing sand roads, trusting road maps I can download thanks to the Pakistani’s who offered me a Greek sim card as present. Moria village is amazing, crossing under an ancient viaduct, I come into a medieval village. I can’t find Moria registration camp but in the distance I hear a strange noise. Like thousands of voices singing. There is an African rhythm, with drums, very tribal. And other sounds, Indian chanting. And screams. It is dark already, I have spent the whole day walking, getting an idea what refugees challenge after they arrive with those little rafts. When I come nearer I see huge lights, like a hundred football fields lit up. I arrive to Moria and I am shocked deeply. This is what Guantanamo prison must look like.
Inside are protests going on but I cannot come near. I find my way to some fence where no military is around. People are there like animals in a zoo, asking me all at the same time for things. I speak with some of them. Then they warn me for the security and I wander away from there. I go sit by a fire in the field next to Moria prison, where some volunteers are huddling. They explain me the situation.
I promise to visit them the next day and start walking downhill to the sea, hoping to catch a ride back home. I get a lift by 2 Canadian aid workers of “save the Children” and later by an Iraqi translator working on the island for MSF. I pass by my horse to complain about the authorities, arrive home, wash off the trauma in the sea and go to sleep.
Early morning, I packed my bags and ready to go. I am running out of time and money to visit the South of the islands and the volunteer groups there, I have a ferry to Athens in the evening.
Walking back up the mountain for Moria, a biker takes me with. When I arrive there is a protest by a Pakistani group inside, one of them threatens to hang himself from the electricity mast on the photo. Outside are riot police and military.
I talk with people behind the fence. Outside is a snack shop, the owners are walking to and from the fence, selling chips, cigarettes and sweets through the metal wires. I notice again, all that newly fabricated metal, shining in the sun, it hurts the eye.
Just behind the bend another story happened. Volunteers created a camp outside the registration centre. No fences there, but coloured benches, flowers and gardens contrasting the metal wires. The group who started this place, “Better Days for Moria” has put up info stand, kitchen and volunteers did their best to make the place look good.
I meet with one of the organization there. The place is empty and they are breaking up. The kids who started the initiative, following the latest events and behaviour of Moria registration camp, decided to break up the camp and search for places they can be starting something now. Maybe Idomeni, …
Walking down to the port a car with 2 journalists from Holland take me with. They are searching for the graveyards where all the people who didn’t make the sea crossing are buried. I didn’t plan to go there, especially not with journalists, but I guess nothing happens for no reason so I give directions. There I sit, pray and cry while they try to get information from the graveyard personnel. I think they find it strange I cry, I find it strange they don’t.
The graves are facing Mecca.
I say goodbye to this island and aboard the ferry. On board are refugees in a separate compartment, all handcuffed.
I spend most of the time on deck dreaming out over the sea. We enter the port of Chios. There is a lot of commotion, I see many people fenced in by wires and the sea, and more people surrounding them in the streets. There is screaming and ambulances drive up and down. Inside the fence people are making a line holding elbows.
Later I read an update that it was a fascist attack on the refugees staying there.
We arrive in the busy port of Piraeus. I walk out of the ferry and there it is full of summer tents.
Thousands of refugees are stranded here, waiting. The conditions are very bad, in the heat, living in tents on the asphalt, with all the noise, cars, smoke from ferries. I meet an older man. He speaks little English and explains me he used to be a lawyer back home, ran away after treats to his life. He invites me to his family tent. Inside I find his granddaughters, one girl of few years old and the other a new-born baby. He wants me to take an interview. He shows me a scar all over his stomach. He suffered food poisoning while in Idomeni camp. In the hospital they cut open his stomach, but no one explained him why. The scar is a mystery he will carry for life. You can see the interview here; translation is in the comments under the clip:
A bit further journalists are putting a protest in stage. Ready with camera’s they order the people how to stand. Some people start the protest. The journalists shout them to wait, the camera is not rolling yet.
The claims the people are communicating are theirs and we want those to be heard, but the setting up of the stage makes it look a bit awkward.
I end up in Exarchia square, Athens.
One day I meet some refugees who just arrived to Athens, and are looking for a place to sleep. With them I walk past all the houses opened for refugees, all are full. People are sleeping everywhere in Athens. I cannot offer them my room because all hotels have a policy of not accepting refugees. Often they are not even allowed in coffee shops or stores. Children, elderly, the most vulnerable people sleeping on the streets.
In the port I visit a big warehouse squatted by anarchists. Inside is a kitchen and hundreds of tents. Somehow the atmosphere is better here. Volunteers are free thinking and organizing.
One man greets me, we speak a little, he touches my heart. He tells me to wait, and goes to find me an apple, one of the best I ever tasted. I have to run for my last bus, and promise I will visit him again, remembering I should not promise no one anything in this chaos. I feel bad later, when I don’t find him again.
In the port people are nervous, rumours go around of a fascist group that has a demonstration around Piraeus.
I prepare to travel to Albania. From Tirana I take a bus to Pristina, Kosovo, where I visit our volunteer house. Back in Macedonia, visiting the transit centre in Tabanovce, I find that meanwhile a lot of money was spent in fences. Where there used to be a meter-high wire are now 3 meters high fences with barbed wires on top.
I left my entrance pass with a friend. We try, but no way to enter. The front check point has changed into a military post. So I walk around. The fences have everywhere holes cut inside, and people walk in and out.
I meet a child from the neighbouring houses. Everybody knows me here. She tells me how difficult it is now for them to live there next to the transit camp. “Now”, she says, “people are living like animals in a zoo, we are very sad, this is no way to treat people.”
I meet an Afghan man from inside. He tells me about the life inside. They don’t have enough food. There are many diseases and everybody gets sick.
He asks me to take a picture of his family and show it to the world…
And then something happens that I did not experience before with these brave and proud people who have lost absolutely everything. In the 6 months I spend at the border, meeting thousands of people, he is the first one that begs me… It is a sign, how they broke these people, who only need a safe place. Instead they find wires, starvation and more violence.
In Tabanovce the volunteers complain that they cannot even bring mattresses inside for these families who are there for over months.
I travel to Skopje and then back to Idomeni with a good friend, a hero who has done amazing things in this crisis, and does not stop at nothing. The illegal camp has just suffered a severe teargas attack. Grenades have been fired into the camp, some who are forbidden by International standards because of their severe poisoning effect. This toxic gasses affected all, new-born babies, elderly,…
When I arrive I sense a tension, and the smell of gas is still infesting the camp. I meet with friends, but others I don’t find. Some I manage to locate; others seem lost forever.
I walk around the camp, always searching someone. I arrive to a nice looking area, with old empty houses, now inhabited. The trees in front are decorated and it looks like a village, very peaceful. I meet the inhabitants, and accept a coffee by the fireplace. I make again new friends. They ask to see my passport. It is a very valuable paper around here and everybody takes a long look at it.
I feel very bad, not breathing good and nervous, after a day in the camp. . I am sure this is the gas. I have to get out of there
I look at the children playing and find it hard to realize they are shooting at them. Army helicopters keep flying low overhead, so low I could hit them with a stone. Humanity lost.
The road out of there is closed by road blocks and volunteers have been arrested. Luck is with me and I make it out.
I walk to the border, still dizzy. Across, in Macedonia I walk to the next village, Gevgelia. I find a room, a shower and sleep.
The criminalization of volunteers fits in a plan the authorities drew. The plan is logic in its design, and evil. They wish to remove first all journalists and volunteers, then remove those refugees who wish to go voluntarily, and then by force clean up the area.
Those volunteers are the ones who keep these people alive. They work day and night, not for pay but for humanity. They cook food, build tents, dig canals to keep the water out, make cultural activities, info stands and more.
The time I was traveling some volunteers build a cultural centre. Few weeks later all this will be bulldozed, without allowing us to take out all the equipment and material.
I wake up in the Macedonian casino town, Gevgelia. Walking past the legendary train station that has seen such an enormous influx of refugees during last winter, I see military vehicles from all over the world. It is a lot of attention for a small train station at the end of the world.
I take a picture and the train station master comes out and makes a hell of a noise. I am not allowed to photograph the train station. I start a discussion, but decide to wander off when the heat gets on, behind the corner is a Swedish Humvee with bored and armed security personnel.
I travel back North, stopping here and there to meet friends. In Belgrade I pass by Miksaliste, a place near the train station that has been organizing food and clothes throughout the crisis.
They receive a lot of kids who passed through Bulgaria. At the border with Serbia and Bulgaria used to be group of volunteers. First they worked inside the camp. After conflict with authorities they had posted themselves outside of it. Whoever passed that route had stories to tell. A lot of beatings, many people disappeared, long walks through forests and starvation.
Back in Novi Sad, I am just in time to prepare the space for an international meeting we are organizing. The idea is to bring together volunteers to exchange practice. It is one meeting, but we know we need more of those. The crisis is not over. And we will need all the support we can find to continue our efforts.
From here we go on…
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