Macedonian border town returns to normal, except for refugee reception camp

The sleepy railway station of Gevgelija has returned to normality. In the station cafe a smattering of smartly dressed Syrians smoke cigarettes in summer hats, a smiling Macedonian army officer drinks coffee, while a newly constructed train station cum reception camp 2 kilometers south of town processes 3-8,000 refugees a day.

Syrian men sit awaiting train in the camp

"Thanks God," the Syrians in the cafe tell me, everything has been okay on their journey.

Where once dirt lines cut alongside the railway line south a path of river stone now connects Greece and Macedonia. An improbable amount of coordination seems to be taking place between these two sometimes antagonistic states. Army engineers still busy themselves ferrying stone from a tributary of the Vadar river - a geographical river running counter to the human river streaming north. Natural metaphors are dangerous, politicians use them to scare, but words are scarce when describing the scale of such an on-going human migratory flight. As we read, their migration flow continues, unabated.

Only one country comes to their lips when I ask people where they are going: "Allemange!"
Today Germany is the beacon of a restored heart returning to Europe but it is down these very same railway lines that 42,000 Jews from Thessaloniki were transported to Nazi death camps. Add other WWII deportations, the Balkans wars and Kosovo Albanian migrations to Turkey and these steel rails have seen more than their fair share of war's consequences. 

Doll left behind in the detritus surrounding the camp

Among the scrubby grape vines outside the camp all the detritus of human life can be found. Security is tight around the camp. Media are kept on a tight rein – no photos, and access is restricted. Inside the Red Cross, IOM, UNHCR and four local NGOs provide shelter, distribute food parcels and hand out water bottles. There is, I am told, no running water. Groups of refugees are admitted in groups of fifty – as is mirrored in their bit-by-bit release from across the Greek border. A short kilometer walk down the river-stone path they await controlled access to the camp to coincide with timed train departures.

Around five trains leave per day, some of them 10 coaches long. Any over spill is directed to fleets of coaches, mini-buses, and taxis as required – a further kilometer walk from the camp to the edge of town. I counted twenty five coaches and too many taxis waiting. One taxi driver attempted a sale by saying he can avoid the reception camp in Serbia. The Syrians did not believe him. "Okay you go to camp" he retorted, his face reddening angrily. Refugees pay 10 Euros for the train, 20 for the bus, and 25 per head for taxis. Oversupply would seem to have leveled the playing field as every form of spare transport in the country is seemingly soaked up in the movement to Serbia.

Ali and Mohamed awaiting train departure

Hanging outside a train window readying for departure Ali and Mohamed from Herat, Afghanistan, tell me they are heading to Germany. Smoking and smiling they refuse the 3 Euro (normally one Euro) packet of cigarettes a local trader attempts to sell them. "Go Greece for 2 Euro cigarettes," the trader jeers back in indignation. Like 258,000 thousand others this year Ali and Mohamed crossed from Turkey to Greece via boat, having themselves first navigated Iran. But will they be accepted as refugees? Can Europe acknowledge 30-year disaster that is war in Afghanistan as readily as it does the tragedy that is Syria ? Time will tell, but many like them may be sent back.


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