The Idomeni volunteer group had implemented a new system, to better manage the volunteer shifts. ‘If you could sign up online that would be fantastic’ they had told us. ‘That way we will know which shifts are covered and which are still unmanned.’ Great we thought, that suits us, and so we did.
Maybe I should have been suspicious when the online sign up form didn’t appear to have any volunteers at the petrol station clothing tent all week. But hey, I was only following instructions.
So we turned up for our shift around 8 am to discover that 60 buses containing refugees had arrived overnight, and that the petrol station was absolutely mobbed. MSF were arranging a food delivery and handing out blankets to the children – but apart from that there was very little in the way of organisation. It didn’t take us long to realize that the clothing tent had gone, it had been handed over to accommodate refugees. Furthermore, there were no other volunteers around, so we put on our high vis jackets and looked for things to do.
If you haven’t read my earlier post, the petrol station is just what it says on the tin. A service on the highway that sells petrol. But in this case it also doubles as a refugee camp. Yes it is a little crazy but then the whole situation here is. When the camp at the border (Idomeni) is full – due to the slow processing of refugees by the Macedonian border police – the buses stop at the petrol station about 20 km away. There, UNHCR provide tents to accommodate the refugees until space is freed up at Idomeni.
Now a high vis jacket can be a double edged garment. On the one hand it identifies the wearer as someone who is in a position of authority, someone who is responsible, a professional. Which of course if you work for a building company or an architectural firm is entirely appropriate.
But when you’ve bought yours from Lidl for £2, and they don’t even fit properly (or at least mine doesn’t), and you are wearing it just to identify yourself as a volunteer – because that’s what you read on the internet before you came – it can be a bit of a liability.
Wearing our beacons of officialdom, refugees began to ask us questions. Many of them had no idea where they were, let alone why they were being held at the petrol station. They needed to know where the toilets were, was there any food available, how long they would be waiting here and how far the border was. Some needed medical treatment, like the man who was suffering from cancer and needed medication, to keep him alive.
Of course some of those inquiries were quite straightforward, but others much more complex. So we answered the best that we could, using part English part sign language -which worked better for some questions than others.
But we had just heard that the rules had changed for Afghans, and that they were no longer able to cross the border. And we didn’t know how to explain that.
As the day progressed, more and more buses arrived. The large white UNHCR tents were all full and so they started handing out domestic ones, until they ran out of those, along with any space to put them.
The high vis jackets did come in handy later on though, when MSF asked us to help with food distribution. Sounds like just the kind of job that volunteers can help with right? Well, volunteers like us that is, with no really useful skills such as medical or languages. Yes, we could do food distribution in our high vis jackets.
Except that what MSF should have actually asked was, ‘would we mind helping with crowd control?’
MSF had clearly spent a long time hammering posts into the ground. This net maze was constructed to better manage the flow of hungry refugees. Men were to form one queue, women another, and then women with babies made a third. Marvellous! – In theory.
But what I hadn’t anticipated
was the sport!
It’s impossible to photograph 2000 people in a line – there isn’t a lens wide enough. Or at least if there is, I haven’t got one. So multiply this picture by about 200 and you’ll get the idea.
So this is how it all works. MSF have about 6 staff members (that I can see). Three of those are responsible for regulating the number of refugees entering the maze from the three entry points, two more hand out a bun, banana and a bottle of water to each refugee when they reach the distribution table, and the last one is responsible for stopping people jumping the queue.
MSF, in their wisdom, decided that Paul and I would be best employed helping with the latter.
So Paul was placed at the exit – a four feet wide gap at the end of the maze – where his task was to prevent anyone from gaining entry that way.
And I was given a 30 foot stretch of net fence to guard!
Well, if I told you that I didn’t have a hope in hell, it would be an understatement.
In fairness, it all started off quite well, the numbers of refugees passing through the maze was manageable, and I just had to ward off the few ‘chancers’ that wanted to jump the fence. But as the numbers grew, so did the challenge.
No-one wanted to join the line that stretched from here to eternity and you couldn’t really blame them. They pleaded, they feigned ignorance, they tried anything to get past me. One or two chancers quickly became five or six, then ten, fifteen, twenty at a time, all attempting to get over the fence by any means possible. I made myself a large as I could – which at the best of times is no more than 5’ 1 – and defended my patch as best I could. I felt like a goal keeper, arms outstretched, bobbing up and down, left a bit, right a bit, trying to guess where the next refugee was coming from. Getting past me had become an international refugee sport! While warding off one, another would sneak in behind me. Whilst remonstrating with him, 3 would run at the fence and dive over, whilst dragging them out, half a dozen would throw their kids up into the air in the hope that they would land upright on the other side. It was bedlam!
At one point MSF provided some back up in the shape of one very large guy – and for a while this worked – but even with both of us we were fighting a losing battle. On more than one occasion the sheer force of numbers brought down sections of the fence, and it was all we could do to hold back the crowd.
And it’s no co-incidence that I have no pictures. If I had taken the time to so much as pick up my camera – please forgive my mixing my sporting metaphors here – but it would have been ‘game set and match’.
And then an amazing thing happened. Two refugees that had been watching the game stepped in to help. The first was a boy of roughly 12 years of age; he spoke a little English and we worked together to cover the gaps. After about two hours of bouncing refugees in the blazing heat, I realised that he hadn’t been able to queue for food (because he was helping me), and so I grabbed him a sandwich and water bottle from the distribution table. He looked at me, and in part English part sign language tried to explain something that I couldn’t quite grasp. But as he ran off I realised what he had said – it was ‘mother’. He had taken his only food allocation, and gone to give it to his mother.
It was no more than 2 mins before he bounded back to my side to fend off the chancers again.
I had a second helper that day, who also stayed with me for a couple of hours, and was an absolute godsend. I’m ashamed to say that in the mayhem I forgot to get him any food, until his brother arrived later and asked for some on his behalf. But by this time there were only sandwiches left and no bottles of water or fruit, but that didn’t stop him expressing his sincere gratitude.
I wanted to remember their names, and be able to write them here – to tell you all who these wonderful human beings were, who stepped up to the mark in the blazing heat, for no reward. But as there was no time to write them down, I asked them to speak their names into the voice app on my phone. I figured I could worry about the spelling later.
But the next day there was trouble at the Idomeni camp, and in the chaos I lost my phone. And with it, the names of these two heros.
After about three hours and 2000 sandwiches, the food ran out. Hats off to MSF they did a damn good job – given the circumstances.
With most people fed, things quieted down a little, and so we decided to head off to the warehouse to do a bit of sorting. But as we approached the exit to the petrol station a crowd had gathered, so we pulled over and jumped out to see what was happening.
A large group of refugees were standing by the exit debating whether or not they should walk to the border. The petrol station camp was seriously overcrowded and if the buses weren’t going to take them, maybe they should walk.
And this is where a high vis vest can really put you on the spot.
‘What do you think we should do?’ – they collectively asked.
Now bear in mind that we are two foreign volunteers who have no authority whatsoever to advise anyone about anything – other than possibly how to take a half decent photograph – we don’t even speak the language of our host country, let alone Arabic or Farsi, and here we are at the head of a large group of refugees offering our opinions – how very British.
‘The border is at another camp about 20 km away at Idomeni,’ we explain. ‘The reason that you are held here is because the camp at Idomeni is full.’ ‘No, we don’t know how long it will take to get through the border because we are relying on the good will of the Macedonians to open it. And right now they are only opening it as and when they feel like it.’ ‘We completely understand your frustration, but if you have families we definitely would advise you to wait for the buses.’ ‘No we don’t know how long that might be, but to walk would mean a 20 km walk in the heat, with no guarantee of even a tent when you get there.’ ‘It’s your decision’, we told them, ‘and we know it’s a difficult one.’
I look up, and to my horror see that a Greek television crew are filming us, the two officials handing out information and advice to over a thousand refugees. How on earth did this happen? We only came to hand out shoes and blankets!! Goddamn those vests!
But there was no-one else there to help, no NGOs, government officials or human rights organisations. Not even the people with the bright coloured clothing and unusual hair. What else could we do? The refugees listened attentively, translating the information we gave them into their various languages and sharing with each other. But they were frustrated, they just wanted to move on. Many had been travelling for months and were not in the least bit happy about sitting around at some god forsaken petrol station on the E75.
So they looked at each other, had a bit of a discussion, and then the young, the old, the injured and everything in between, gathered up all that they had, and walked out of the petrol station and onto the highway.
If the average person walks between three and four miles per hour, it would take approximately four hours to walk to Idomeni. Add in heavy bags, blankets, a lot of small children, some buggies, the injured, pregnant and elderly – and you can more or less double it, and then some.
Refugees were still arriving at the Idomeni camp 9 hours later.
It is illegal in Greece to pick up refugees on the road, but that didn’t stop some volunteers doing it anyway.
On arrival at Idomeni the Syrians and Iraqis were registered, and some of the families even made it across the border the same day.
And Save the Children got all the kids playing limbo under a rope – and it made them laugh, allowed them be children again.
But the Afghan refugees were placed in a separate area – camp B. They were not allowed to register. When I asked one of the police about this he said ‘What’s the point? There is a new rule, Afghans can’t cross the border any more, just Syrians and Iraqis.’
Another new system I thought– that’s so clearly not working.