Have you got a marker please? I checked my pockets, I knew I had been using one in the clothing warehouse but I must have left it there. ‘Paul, have you a marker?’ Yes of course he does, he’s the kind of guy who has a marker pen in one pocket, some string in another and a Swiss Army knife somewhere else. Thanks, the refugee says, we need to make some signs.
Yesterday there had been a mass exodus from the petrol station, a thousand refugees or more, frustrated by a lack of information and major delays, had set off and walked to Idomeni camp, situated at the border checkpoint for refugees between Greece and Macedonia.
This morning, when driving to Idomeni to assess the situation, we passed many more refugees making the same journey. En route, we saw a young man with a serious gait problem. I don’t know the technical term for it, but one of his legs rotated out to about 90 degrees, and so instead of being able to walk easily he was ‘dragging’ his leg behind him. So we stopped the car to give him a lift.
But when we found out that he was Afghani, my heart sank. Only the day before a new rule had been passed, stating that only Syrians and Iraqis were to pass through the border. Afghans, even though they had been granted travel documents in Athens, were refused entry to Macedonia. We asked the refugee in the back of the car, if in light of this, did he still want us to take him to the camp? He said that he did, thank you, his friends were there, and he was hoping to catch up with them.
On arrival the police directed us to camp B, where all the Afghan refugees were being held. And I use the word ‘held’ intentionally, because it turns out that they weren’t allowed out of the camp, not even to buy cigarettes or snacks from the growing number of vendors on the edges of the site.
As we approached the camp the young man spotted his friends, and they all hugged, and laughed, joyful in their reunion. Paul and I slipped away quietly.
As we walked back along the path I felt as if I had swallowed a sack full of gravel, and I had to fight hard not to vomit it all up.
We had to do something. But what?
We decided that our afternoon shift in the clothing tent had to be cancelled. Getting some publicity was the way to go. We had no idea what or how, but we would go back to the hotel and think about it.
But just as we were about to get into the car, Paul overheard a snippet of a conversation, the Afghans were going to start a protest.
Oh my god! The marker pen – it was for the SIGNS!
I think it’s true to say, that this particular group of individuals, had not the faintest idea about organizing a protest. And why would they? If you and I were put in the same situation tomorrow – our entire family sleeping in a tent, carrying everything we own in a rucksack, confined in a camp with no way to move forward, no way to go back, having spent everything that we had on the chance of a new life – then really, would we have the faintest idea about where to start?
And so they tore up some cardboard and looked around for a marker pen.
The children were placed at the front of the protest, and the big plan was to push through the opposition –the riot police – until they got to the border.
Together, the refugees began to chant and edge forward. They waved their cardboard banners and shouted ‘Open the border.’ The police held their ground and nothing much happened.
They chanted louder and pushed a little more, but realistically there was no real energy in the fight, no dynamism, and anyway with children in the front line, there is only so much pushing that one can afford.
This stand-off continued for a couple of hours.
If the Afghans were inexperienced protestors then the Greek police were out of their depth too. It was clear from the onset that they had little or no idea about managing a protest. So they doubled up on numbers, planted their riot shields firmly between themselves and the refugees, shouted at the photographers, and hoped for the best. At one point there was a bit of a scuffle and a small child was hit with a gas canister. But mostly the police just looked uncomfortable. Later on they brought in some high ranking officers – they were wearing peaked hats – but they just stood at the back out of the sun, scratched their heads and eventually wandered off.
The protest was going nowhere, so the Afghans pulled out the children and regrouped.
And while the men discussed strategy, the children played on the adjacent field.
And some of the less politically active refugees discovered that if they moved really slowly across the field, they could slip away unnoticed. Occasionally the police would blow a whistle and wave frantically at them, indicating that they should return, but then they would get distracted by the protestors again and the escape committee would slip out a few more.
One of the more active refugees was a Syrian interpreter who spoke excellent English. As well as keeping us up to date about what was happening, he would also ask us for advice.
All that the refugees wanted to do was cross the border. They had been issued the appropriate travel permits in Athens, or at another hot spot, and believed that it was their right to cross into Macedonia. But even though the checkpoint was situated no more than 500 metres away, they didn’t know where it actually was.
So they asked us, the people in high vis vests, how they could get to the border. And Paul suggested that if that was what they wished to do, then pushing through the police line probably wasn’t going to work. However, there was a railway line to the left and a field to the right. And both were unprotected.
Then everything was put on hold for a while because the workman digging a trench had reached an impasse – and everyone moved out of the way while he quickly dug his ditch.
The Afghans were getting more and more restless, they had been here for more than two hours now and something had to give. They wanted to make a move but they were hesitant – they needed ….something. And then I heard Paul’s voice in the crowd.
‘If you want to go to the border I will take you to the border. Come on we’ll go together’
There was a silence, and his words hung in the air, just for a moment. And then the refugees started to push, moving into the field and around the police, they set off for the border, with Paul leading the way.
And for a few moments the tables were turned and the refugees were in charge. They were marching to the border – and it was a glorious sight.
The checkpoint at the border was closed, as it so often is. But the gate crossing the railway line, right next to the checkpoint was wide open. There was the small matter, however, of a chain link fence standing between the refugees and the gate. But fuelled by adrenaline and new-found confidence, they ripped the fence out of the ground and started to crawl underneath.
And they were so close to the gate, so incredibly close, but right at the last moment, just when the first refugees were about to run across the border, it swung shut. The Macedonian border guards had seen them.
Frustrated and angry, the refugees pushed against the border fence, kicking and shaking it violently. On the Macedonian side, reinforcements arrived in the form of soldiers.
A refugee climbed the fence and prized his body through the razor wire, dropping victoriously onto Macedonian soil. And the crowd roared and cheered their approval. But the victory was short lived and somewhat bitter sweet. Macedonian soldiers are a completely different breed to the Greek police, and wasted no time in dragging him into a nearby container. None of us are in any doubt about what happened in there, and the presence of a UNHCR official didn’t make one jot of difference. Five more men followed in his path, and each one was met with the same brutal treatment. When the men were deported later that day, their arms had been severely beaten to prevent them climbing the fence again.
And while the refugees were storming the border, a small boy spied a plastic horse tangled in the razor wire, and reached in to liberate it.
His father and I looked at each other and exchanged a knowing smile. History may be being written here today, but that means nothing to the children, all they want to do is play.
There was a brief surge later in the day when a small group of refugees cut a hole in the fence, and about 15 of them scrambled through. But again the Macedonian soldiers rounded them up, and a volunteer reported that the men were beaten, and after they were returned, one of them was taken away in a wheelchair.
And so began a siege on the railway line, that lasted for more than 24 hours.
Sensing that the battle was lost, people were trying to reason with the police. They couldn’t understand why the border had been closed to Afghans. They wanted to know why the rules had been changed, even after they had obtained official travel documents. They couldn’t and wouldn’t accept – the sheer injustice of it all.
At dawn the following morning, all of the media were expelled from the camp. In fact not just the media, but everyone in possession of a camera. Then the Greek police started bussing the Afghan refugees back to Athens.
We managed to gain access by putting on our volunteer high res vests – a godsend in the circumstances. But we couldn’t risk taking in a camera, as the police were searching bags. But Paul did have his phone.
Photo – Paul Hill
The refugees remaining were held captive on the railway line. They had been given water, but denied any food. At about 4 pm we were able to speak to two guys through the fence. The first one told us that in Afghanistan he had been a famous singer, and that he had arranged a concert to promote womens rights. But the Taliban had found out and threatened to kill him, so he had had to flee from the country. His name is Musawir Roshan, and if you look him up on YouTube, you will see that he is wearing the same pendant there, as he is in this quick picture taken when the police weren’t looking.
Photo – Paul Hill
And I’ll never forget what the other guy said. He asked me what the Afghan refugees had done to receive such inhumane treatment. He explained that they were fleeing from war and persecution, and that the Taliban and Deash would certainly kill them if they were returned. He pointed at the children and said: ‘What have they done to deserve this? We don’t want much, just a small place to live, to bring up our families. But no-one wants us. We are treated as if we weren’t human. Why don’t they just shoot us here now? We can’t go back, it’s certain death, please help us, please help us.’
And I didn’t know how to answer him. I couldn’t offer any explanation about any of this madness. I felt ashamed to be part of the problem, and powerless to help. I looked at the remaining refugees on the railway line, on the other side of the fence. I looked at the faces of the men and the women and the children.
Then an empty bus arrived, to transport another 70 refugees back to Athens.
And I swallowed another sack full of gravel.