Phoebe Ramsay is a Canadian woman volunteering to help with the Syrian refugee crisis in Greece. I read her harrowing first-hand report this morning and felt I had to blog this. I apologise to Phoebe for wholeheartedly stealing her words and pictures but I feel certain that she will be happy with this small effort to circulate what the media show little or no interest in reporting on.
I ask you to read and, if you feel able, to share this on.
Idomeni March 14th 2016.
The day before yesterday, someone-we do not know the source-distributed flyers in Idomeni. The flyer had a map, and instructions in Arabic-there is a hole in the fence at this location, cross the river, if you all go together, once you get to Macedonia you will be allowed to go to Germany. The rumours spread around the camp instantly.
In the early hours yesterday, the first group tried to cross over the river, swollen with the last week of non-stop rain. Three bodies were reportedly recovered by the Macedonian police-a pregnant Afghani woman, her sister, and their cousin.
Then, mid-morning, more people starting walking. And more people followed. Hundreds-thousands-streaming out of Idomeni. They walked first through the village, down the road which turned into a muddy track through the woods and then through to the next village. Families, fathers carrying toddlers on their shoulders, kids dragging their smaller siblings in pushchairs, several people pushing family members in wheelchairs resolutely through the mud uphill. There was an electric feeling of desperate determination and hope.
We were unprepared and overwhelmed, in disbelief about what was happening. At first, we tried to stop them-we tried for over an hour, getting translators, trying to convince them it was a bad idea, that it was dangerous for their children, to turn back. We were all seriously concerned that when (or if) they did eventually reach the border that there would be considerable violence, a repeat of the riot at the border in late February when the Macedonian border police shot tear gas and stun grenades into a crowd with children, but on a larger scale. Or, as the line of people appeared to wind their way away from the border towards the mountains and the day drew on, we feared that the families would end up stranded somewhere in the foothills as it got dark. We asked them if they knew where they were going. They didn’t, really-they were just following each other. They said that whatever was ahead of them could not be worse than what was behind them. That they had to try. That anything was better than staying in the hell we call a camp. That they were going.
So, we followed too.
We all walked for hours, along muddy tracks, through farmers fields and down dirt roads, following the line of people. I saw a boy slowly leading his blind father along with a scarf. A young man with a club foot limping along over the rocks, an arm slung around each of the shoulders of his two friends. Women in sandals; people without any shoes at all. As they went, many dropped the few belongings they had been carrying-blankets, tents, extra bags-unable to carry them.
Then we reached the river. When I arrived, people had already been crossing for several hours. The river was only knee deep, but freezing and the current extremely strong, swollen with the past week of nonstop rain. Volunteers and refugees, as well as a few journalists who put their cameras down to help, had formed a human chain to get people safely across, passing children and babies along the line. An elderly woman started to faint halfway across and it took several people to grab hold of her and catch her to prevent her from being swept downstream. Small, terrified children were crying.
And on the other side, we continued, following the silver razor wire border fence always on our right. Some started celebrating and smiling once they crossed the river, thinking that was the border and that they had made it safely. We walked on. A heavily pregnant woman was struggling through a field, breathing heavily and stumbling, holding on to her husband who was carrying both a huge backpack, several blankets, and their three year old crying child. I spread a blanket down on the grass and tried to convince them to sit and rest. They wouldn’t. They couldn’t. Their fear of missing whatever unknown chance for freedom might be awaiting them at the end of this trek outweighed anything else.
What happened next to me, personally, I am describing here because it is important to be honest, but it is not an important part of this story-this is not about me. We rounded a corner, and suddenly encountered soldiers. This is when we learned that we were in fact in Macedonia, which came as a surprise to most of us-at some point in the woods without us noticing, the razor wire fence had ended, and we had all unsuspectingly crossed the border illegally. They allowed the refugees to continue, but herded all the volunteers and journalists off to the side and confiscated all the cameras. As we stood, surrounded by soldiers with guns in a Macedonian field, we heard the roar of the crowd up ahead in the distance. As for us, we were marched single file into the adjacent Macedonian village, and past the hundreds of refugees who were sitting on the ground in a farmyard, encircled by soldiers as several tanks rolled incongruously by down the dirt track, amongst the chickens, decrepit farm buildings and rubble. We-about 25 volunteers and perhaps 40 international journalists-then spent the next 11 hours in the police station in Gevgelija getting processed, fined 15, 638 Macedonian dinars each, (about 260 Euros, which should fund at least several hundred metres of new razor wire) and given our deportation papers.
The Macedonian army allowed about 1500 refugees to pass, and then prevented the remainder from crossing, leaving several hundred stranded on the hillside just before the border. MSF, as well as the remainder of our volunteer team, (those who had the foresight not to get arrested), spent all night going back and forth dropping tents and blankets, and delivering hot soup and bread shuttled in a LandRover across the river.
Although spending 11 hours in a Macedonian police station allows for a lot of self reflection, I am still struggling to process my conflicting feelings about what happened on this day. I do want to be clear that what we did-getting arrested-was stupid and by no means heroic. We let our emotions take over and it meant that 25 of our most experienced volunteers were out of commission and unable to provide aid at a critical moment, while the remainder of our diminished team worked until 6 in the morning, scrambling to help the hundreds of stranded refugees while also being deeply concerned about us (unfounded concerns, but huge thanks for the cross border dry socks delivery.) Some of my fellow volunteers have also forcefully pointed out that all of the media footage of volunteers physically assisting refugees across the river towards an illegal border crossing, puts the entire volunteer effort here and the relationship we have worked hard to build with the authorities here in jeopardy. They’re right. At the time, what I can say is that although it was perhaps reckless and very poorly thought out, what we were doing did feel deeply important-it felt important to walk with the refugees in solidarity, to witness what we ourselves could hardly believe was happening. And moreover, there were five year olds and old women trying to cross waist deep, freezing rushing water, and there was no stopping them. I don’t know what else we were meant to do but help. As my friend and volunteer Chloe wrote about her actions yesterday: “We’re not activists, we’re not smugglers, we’re human.”
The 1500 refugees who did make it into FYROM apparently were sat in the farmyard for several hours, and then loaded on trucks, sent back to the Greek border and released. As we finally drove back across the border in a taxi at 5 in the morning, we passed hundreds of people walking slowly along the highway back to Idomeni, still wet from the river crossing. There were children sitting, exhausted, in the middle of the road. They were walking, defeatedly, right back to where they had started, almost 24 hours earlier, except now missing many of their belongings, their tents and blankets, and their hope completely gone.
I’m a bit lost for words now, at three in the morning. Yesterday, I saw the most desperate scenes I’ve ever witnessed. At points, I had to shut my eyes because everywhere I looked I was surrounded by horrific vignettes of human suffering and indignity, and even thinking about it now makes my stomach clench-a mother wearing a towel for a headscarf (the only thing she had left) changing her baby on the roadside, a man trudging barefoot and wearing only boxer shorts through the fields, small children crying, exhausted and thirsty, their scared and worn out parents pleading with them to continue.
I cannot believe it happened in Europe, in 2016. I cannot believe that three thousand people fleeing war felt like they had no other option but to make this horrific, humiliating, and futile trek. I cannot believe they are now back exactly where they started, and are still without any real options. I’m not sure what else I can say, anymore.