It was another day of the usual craziness in Idomeni.
On Wednesday morning, the refugee camp on the border between Greece and Macedonia woke up drenched by an overnight rain. “The coldest in recent days,” two twentysomethings from Aleppo agreed. They were on their knees, rags in hand, trying to dry the inside of the tent they’d be living in for 15 days. It had been raining for a week, and the tent city was a muddy expanse inhabited by 14,000 migrants clinging alongside the razor-wire border in the hope of continuing onward. After what they survived in their countries, they believe they deserve at least that much: the right to continue onward.
Many wore slippers, walking ankle deep in the mud. Shoes would not dry, and their clothes were not enough, not even the blankets, to keep out the cold. Everything is flooded. Sanitary conditions are collapsing. There is a real risk of epidemic, and everywhere people are coughing and hacking.
“The situation here is tragic,” the European Commissioner for Immigration Dimitris Avramopoulos said Tuesday when he visited the camp. “The goal is to be able to transfer 6,000 refugees per month.” His comments only fueled the frustration of the migrants, exasperated by the long wait and ready to do anything to cross the border.
Out of Idomeni
With thousands of people anxious to leave, it was clear it would not be easy to stop them for long. On Monday, an Arabic-language flyer circulated the camp describing a new route to the north, through a hole in Macedonia’s barrier. About 1,000 people walked toward the village of Hamilo, where they waded a stream swollen by rain, in the same spot where the night before three people drowned. The water passage was facilitated by dozens of volunteers. “They were going to pass anyway, so it is better to help them, thus avoiding more tragedies,” explained a German volunteer who held on to one end of the rope, which was too short but was used as a support line.
But for most of them, their stay in Macedonia didn’t last even one night. “We were caught by the Macedonian police, loaded onto a truck and brought back to Greece,” said Holam Haider, a 35-year-old Afghan from Parwan province, back to his routine in the Idomeni mud.
The left side of his face shows an evident bruise, and his right shoulder is stained by a patch of dried blood, spilled from a skull wound hidden by his thick hair. “The Macedonian police hit me in the face with a baton … and on the head with the butt of a rifle,” he said, showing his wounds. He said he is exasperated. He had been living at the camp for the past two weeks and his patience was over.
Similar story for an elderly, disabled Syrian man, who was brought back after the sortie in Macedonia. He points his finger to the sky while his body shudders on the leather seat of an old wheelchair. “It is absurd to stay here,” he said. “We paid thousands of euro to escape, and now we find ourselves in these conditions, having to wait for the food distributed around the camp.” He added, “We tried to pass four times already, but we’ll try again.” Behind him is the railway line linking Greece and Macedonia, blocked 200 meters to the north by a heavy galvanized gate wrapped in barbed wire.
On the other side stood a group of police stand between the stones. An officer who gave his name as Zanko approached us, the only Macedonian willing to talk. “We are not the only ones beating — the migrants also use force when they try to pass through,” he said, trying to justify what happened to Haider and the others. He didn’t mention the refugees carry in their shaking hands only blankets, sleeping bags and small children. He speaks broken Italian: “My brother works in a vineyard in Alba, Piedmont.” But he cannot find the words to express his personal opinion on the tragedy unfolding in the mud over the fence. “I cannot let myself think. I must obey. … But the orders come from Germany.”
’Forced to flee’
A passage to the right of the gate leads to the heart of the tent camp. The refugees spend their time in small talk, trying to light a fire or smoking another cigarette. Sometimes, the typical Syrian courtesies are abandoned: Before a greeting comes the ritual question, in English, “When will they open the border?” Some who say it have never heard English, not even on television.
One who doesn’t struggle with English is Abdoul, 65, who used to work in a factory producing high-quality leather shoes in Homs. “I lost everything in the war,” he said. He joined the others crossing the creek in Hamilo, but he surrendered after a night in the open, huddled with soaked women and children in a forest thicket.
“I am slow, so I got lost in the dark,” he said. In 2012, he was wounded in the leg in one of the many battles that have wreaked havoc over five years in the city he loves, the city where he fears he will not be able to return. “Twenty years ago, I read in a book that the Arabs would become refugees in their own land, like the American Indians. It is really happening, but we are forced to flee.”
There was some good news: That same night, new tents donated by UNHCR would be set up. But the rumor isn’t repeated too often, for fear that too many people would line up for a dry place to sleep. The muddy Idomeni camp keeps growing, along with the frustration of the migrants.
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