A way station on the refugee road

What started as a trickle is still a ceaseless torrent.

When refugees first arrived in Macedonia they walked or cycled illegally across the country. In the north a local mosque helped safeguard them from traffickers and kidnappers, giving them rest, food and a place to sleep.

Driton, a big-hearted volunteer with a ready smile, has been with them almost from day one. He describes some of the people who have passed recently – an old woman masking her anxiety from her niece by telling her that, “Tomorrow they will have their own room where they will play together and gun shots will not disturb them.” And, “Children with Down’s syndrome, others who have lost their limbs, parents that as soon as they see trees around them they remember their yards…and then they can’t hold their tears”. And how, he asks, can he be worried? ”When from all these people that are in trouble I hear the words May God Bless you and all your friends who help us on our difficult days.”

Flat pack shelters provide the tableau of a camp at the border railway station of Tabanovce, northern Macedonia. Toilets and distribution shelters have been roofed, white gravel scattered, space set out to receive refugees.

Since setting up apparently little has been seen of UNHCR officials, but when one does show up he is super calm and kindly. Officials from other organisations arrive when there is a meeting with ambassadors, the major, or others higher up the food chain. Notes are busily made, then they disappear. Journalists do the same. Red cross volunteers hang out in a first-aid shelter. They treat minor ailments, distribute aid boxes, and in down time brew welcome cups of tea.

What is more remarkable than officials are the hundreds of volunteers swooping down from neighbouring villages and towns, their cars and vans stuffed with food, clothes and water. Their generosity and compassion exemplary: young men feed babies, walk people to the border, push wheelchairs and shower children with warmth. Local women, brim full of character and strength, do the same, resting little, day after day, night after night. International volunteers from Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK and elsewhere arrive with money raised via Facebook. For a couple of months they contribute time and resources – until the Macedonian authorities make it a bureaucratic impossibility to do so.

Petty politics is best avoided, but creeps into all human ecosystems.

Volunteers without red-cross uniforms grumble about those with them. The source of their contention being that the uniformed desert their post at night, leaving the untrained to pick up the pieces. Trains come day and night, disregarding staff timetables. A Syrian child running a high temperature is left with her exhausted parents just after midnight. The family huddle together, falling fast asleep on cardboard and blankets quickly gathered by volunteers. An Iranian man collapses into camp with his young wife and kids ­– his hip joint causing him agony, incapacitating movement. He refuses to go to hospital until he’s in the Schengen zone so volunteers improvise a wheelbarrow to transport him across the border. Joseph from Sweda in Southern Syria hobbles in, his feet shuffling sideways, his body crunched into a bend. He has a learning disability and possibly polio; his clothes are wet and he has soiled himself. Volunteers clean him up, buy him new clothes and shoes and drive him to the border where some Syrians offer to make the slow walk with him to Serbia.

Refugees are not the only wandering visitors. One day a kitten makes a visit, the next a puppy. They bring smiles and consternation – as if there wasn’t enough needs to be met.

Trains, taxis and buses keep coming, carrying thousands more people. Whatever the official numbers passing this border, there must be tens of thousands more. Not everyone is officially registered, and mini-mafia travel options are available to those who are not: one taxi driver advertises himself as, ”Mafia taxi.” A group of Afghans, who get scared and want to return to Greece turn out to be paperless. As tempers flare our kindly UNHCR man quietly negotiates with police until papers are secured. The Afghans leave smiling after hours of frustration and accusations of racism.

The degrees of desperation seem to depend on the culture and historical stability of the country the refugees are fleeing. Curiously people from countries which have had strong long-term dictators are often the most educated and well mannered. Some share many thank-yous and make up for more strained encounters. Syrians stand out in their politeness. Most often our brief encounters distributing aid or directions are met with gratitude but at other times, stress and tension leads to panicky pushing. Some grab for things they don’t necessarily need, just because it’s free; others hide what they already have and come back for more. Anna, a volunteer from Sweden, describes the scene as chaos descends on camp when a train arrives:

“Hundreds and hundreds of people are storming out on the ground, towards us…We try to control the mass, give out one fruit to every hand that reaches toward us, but the amount of people is to big. We get pushed backwards, hands are grabbing whatever they can reach; children are stuck in between the legs of the grown ups...We scream, we yell, we curse, we push away hands. Nothing helps. We slam down the boxes on the ground behind us, tell them to calm down, to make space, to wait. Heads are moved in agreement, they slow down… for approximately 10 seconds until it starts again. After 5 minutes, the tables are empty.”

When the crowds disperse to continue their walk north the camp cleaners painstakingly set to work. While sweeping Branco gives volunteers the thumbs up and a “Dobra” for helping out. Everyday he faces soul-destroying heaps strewn across the station grounds – dumped clothing, half full bottles of water, nappies – you name it, all the waste of human exodus. When the refugees first arrived they walked through his garden, trashing it, but he didn’t react. Now his kindness has inadvertently earned him a job. His friends among the other villagers make extra money too – by flooding down to the rail-side when a train approaches to sell cigarettes, pop and blankets at non-local prices.

And still they come, man after man, child after child, women after women; all ages, down the very same tracks that once took the Jews of Greece to their deaths, to the beacon of life that is today’s Germany.

During night shift a fire flickers human shadows across southbound freight trains. 

Mohammed, an English literature teacher from Aleppo, wanders into the camp alone. Wearing shorts he bought from Greece and a large overcoat he first appears very tired, but with some sugary tea down him he started telling stories. He was a Muslim, then an atheist then a Christian; but the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict has destroyed the religious pluralism he once knew. 

Walking to the border a chemistry graduate from Raqqah, travellling with fifty others, speaks of the "Broken Soul" of Syria. His companion says the lack of electricity, water, prospects and "boob,boom" broke him into leaving.

For the refuges the next stop is Serbia where small town players are on the make. In Preshevo Ali, an Alawite from Syria, talks of a new world order. He’s a broad man with a big skull ring, someone who can handle himself. When I ask him what he did before leaving he laughs, “Do you want the legal or illegal answer?” Formerly an IT man who left the Syrian army to join the rebels he tells us: “When you live in a toilet you want people to stop shitting on you.” He’s been making a buck forging passports – a Syrian passport office had been over-run by rebels making the copying process that much easier. All the commanders of the Free Syrian Army are dead he tells us, now the war is, “all about economics.” Some days later Ali and his family reached thier destination – Sweden.

Hassan from Ghazni Afghanistan was best student in twelfth grade until the Taliban destroyed his school. He explains how his family took out loans and saved for him to travel. He now carries a burden of responsibility to return his family's efforts. After navigating Iran, Turkey, Greece and Macedonia he only has $150 left, having spent $4,200. Sweden is his goal, and he'll walk all the way if necessary. His heart, he says, is "damaged" and his eyes don't lie.

On leaving some NGO/journalists relate a story with a happy ending.

A Syrian women was found wandering the fields by a Macedonian farmer. He looked after her, they fell in love, and she is now investing her wealth in his farm…it’s one of handfuls of happy stories that get relayed back down the line – making the grueling schedule of a volunteers day a deeply rewarding one.


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