First I went to Budapest and to the Serbian border. At that time, when emotions in the media were at the peak, I was looking for peace within this drama. These are two points on the long way of refugees and migrants through Europe. I decided to go back and see more.
I don’t know why I thought I could understand anything.
There are many migration routes leading to Europe. They include both land and sea fragments. Depending on who makes a division – they are called differently. According to National Geographic, there are two main routes: the one from East Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean route. The former goes through Libya and Egypt to Italy and Greece – of course, across the sea. The latter – from Syria, Iraq and Iran via Turkey to Greece and further into Europe.
Frontex, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union, has distinguished 8 such routes. Some of them are covered by the two mentioned above. The Mediterranean Sea embraces the Eastern, Western and Central route. Additionally, it reaches Italian regions of Apulia and Calabria. The route to the Canary Islands, the route from Albania and through the Eastern borders of the European Union.
The last route is the Western Balkan or simply the Balkan route. This route has continuously evolved and its shape has completely altered from the one it had one year ago. However, it was the time when people were streaming through Europe uncontrollably. It was faster to illegally get from Greece to Austria or Germany than do it legally. According to official sources (with emphasis on the word “official”), 220,000 people reached Europe in October 2015. The majority of them used the above mentioned route. It was the most popular month for travellers. To compare: in October 2016 “only” 30,000 followed this route.
In October 2015, I went along the entire route. Until now, I can hear the words of a 17-year-old Syrian girl: “You see all that and you will write about it. But it will also remain within you forever.” The last part is particularly true, although I didn’t expect it to be when I was getting off the train in Thessaloniki.
We don’t stop in Idomeni – the driver announced aggressively. But… – I didn’t even have a chance to start an argument when we already passed the sign with the name of the village. Suddenly, however, he stopped giving me a quick choice to make. I noticed with the corner of my eye flashing lights of a police car. A minute later I was standing by the police patrol trying to hitchhike to the camp. I was only 5 kilometres away from my destination. The first car we stopped was full. Cluttered with packages. 5 seats and 7 people. Volunteers heading to Idomeni. Without being asked, they stop their second car. Swift repacking and we move on together.
Each camp may be described in a similar way – a lot of people in need. Too few helping hands. I can ask questions and talk to people but I also help. I sometimes unpack boxes, arrange them in a tent, then I distribute water to others. Before I got off the car, I learned that apart from one Australian guy, all the rest live in Thessaloniki. Activists. They are self-organized. Earlier, I talked to some English people who also try to help.
A shift manager – grey hair, in her early 50s. She squints her eyes and keeps silent for a while. I feel that I chose the wrong answer. I break the silence and joke about changing my response, if it fits her better. In other camps, I tried to check the attitude and altered my answers. A freelancer always won. But without a press ID there’s not much to gain – only Greeks let me in without asking any questions.
The refugee crisis exposed weaknesses of not only states but also their media. I remember a situation from a month ago – from Hungary. I was taking a photo of an inscription on a wall saying “I want to go to Germany”. A girl was playing right next to it. Having noticed my camera, she moved away with a smile and clearly signalled that she didn’t want to be in the picture. I took a photo. Then a journalist from Australia came near. She forced the girl to go back and pose in front of her camera. The child obeyed but the smile disappeared from her face. Her parents were not there; there was nobody with the right to interfere. As we know, one photo can change the entire narration.
The photo of the dead refugee boy on the beach worked this way in 2015. This is the problem that has tormented me. I’m a blogger. An independent one. I also identify myself as a reporter. I operate in the world of existing narratives. For example, photos of male refugees serve people who claim that ISIS fighters are heading towards Europe. They served this purpose when they are used out of context. I truly believe that it’s sometimes better to say less than to regret having said too much. Photos of children – they touch our hearts the most. This is why we need to have our conscience on. For the entire trip, I keep thinking: what am I searching for in this place? What do I want to say? What effect will this story have? Is it meant to touch people’s hearts? To change someone’s attitude or strengthen someone else’s views? I keep trying to understand this day by day. But I also observe journalists who attempt to do the same thing in 60, 90 or 120 seconds of their live transmission. Is it at all possible? I have doubts. I’m not sure if it’s wrong. The subject is so complex.
When you enter a refugee camp for the first time, there is an impression of terrible chaos: the hum of people’s voices in the air, children run around, cars deliver parcels and food. Though, it’s enough to stand aside and observe for a while to notice a certain rhythm. A bus full of people comes – volunteers hand one person a number and inform all of them that they form a group. From now on, they have to look after each other. They will be crossing the border together. Before they go, they receive water and food in two tents located by the camp entrance. They may ask for a blanket or something special for children. They are quickly fed and given water. Satisfying basic needs and giving simple information releases tension. And helps in organizing things. The group has its place in the tent – thanks to that, they don’t have to be nervous about checking the time of their departure for border crossing. They are waiting.
There are four large tents available. People can hide from the wind and the rain. They can take a nap. Stress management is the key element necessary to control the situation in border zones. Idomeni is the best organized camp I have ever been to. We move on. There are two medical points. Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. Toilets, a barrack for volunteers and a small UNHCR office (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They try to estimate the flow of people. One of the groups is getting ready to cross the border. First, they line up between the tents, then they walk along the tracks towards the Greek patrolmen. After a moment of waiting, they go to the other side to reach a small transit camp located on the Macedonian side. A few barbed wire nets are placed around – to make sure that nobody drifts away from the track.
I spend the night talking to people. And I’m not the only one to ask questions. I ask them who they are and why they run away. How much did they pay? What did they do before? What plans do they have? A doctor says that he heard about jobs in Germany. There is an architect too. And two IT specialists. A builder. Men and children talk to me most willingly. Not everyone speaks English. Several questions are also directed to me. Mainly about further stages of the route. And whether the borders are now open. I have a long conversation about Poland with the architect – my country is interesting to him, he is keen to get a job here.
I also meet two sisters: 16 and 13 years old. We talk a lot about their journey. They lived in Turkey with their little brother and their parents for half a year. They all come from Syria. Two days ago, they came here by boat from Turkey. Someone joins the conversation – he says that his boat capsized but luckily, it happened close to the shore and everybody safely got back to the land. The second time they tried – they succeeded. Talks about boat crossing evoke the strongest emotions. It’s the most dangerous part of the journey. And the most expensive one too. Eventually, the sisters ask me if they can stand by me for a while. They are afraid that something may happen to them at night. I look around surprised cause I can’t see any danger. Then I ask myself: who would protect them? Family and friends? Nobody else. They are not even registered so no one takes responsibility. Their documents means almost nothing. They only prove where they come from in their destination (they go to Germany). If they have documents at all. Nobody wants to register them either because then there would be formal responsibility. Otherwise – the problem is lesser.
After reaching the Macedonian side, groups get on a train. Only once it’s full, the train sets off. The first stop is on the Gevgelija station, a few kilometres from the border. Local merchants run towards the train immediately. In Idomeni – right by the camp – a few points already sell more than can be obtained in camps. Coke, hot-dogs. Prices are twice as high as in shops. Sellers here offer SIM cards (no. 1 goods), drinks and snacks for the road. When the train leaves, they hide in the shadow and wait for another transport to come.
The trip is paid, too. At the beginning, it was free, then it cost EUR 5. Now, the Macedonian government charges EUR 20 for this service. Per person. The cross-country journey takes around 5 hours. The train arrives at the station in Tabanovce.
I stop in Skopje for a while. I go to a storage where I meet with Sandra. She supervises collecting goods for refugees which are sorted and packed there. I can hear only one number: 6,000. This is how many people cross the border every day. The number coincides with the Greek calculations. How many people should I talk to in order to draw conclusions which would turn into facts? And not only observations and clues. When thousands of people march and I only manage to talk with 10 – can this be reliable? It’s helpful as it leads me to various story threads. Some of these accounts prove to be true – for example, boats are often steered by refugees who try to earn money for the crossing itself. Their lack of experience is frequently the reason boats get capsized. Other accounts are unverifiable which makes them also unpublishable.
In the morning, I return to Tabanovce. At first, a policeman watching the camp entrance is terrified when he sees me. It looks like I spoiled his calm day because it’s the fourth time he calls his bosses to confirm who I am. Unluckily, I’m not on the list. With a lot of self-confidence, I take out my Warsaw Transportation Card, trying to recall if there is a picture of a tram on it. I don’t look at it, I just hand it to him. I explain that it’s my press ID. It works. Even though he’s still on the phone, he lets me pass. I get in together with the arriving train. This station is its last stop. The transit camp here is managed by Red Cross. Travellers don’t spend too much time in it. They stretch their legs, have a meal, drink some water. They can have a nap. After a short break, they move on. They head towards the Serbian border. To reach it, they still have to go by foot a few kilometres.
I try to find someone to talk to but everyone is in a hurry to move on. The tents are empty. Next to one of them, I come across an ill Syrian man. Age: around 30. He has a problem with his leg. He tries to get some rest before leaving the camp. He has been given medical aid here. I manage to join a group walking towards the border. They are reluctant to talk – they come from Syria. They tell me what they had to sell: a car, a house. And how many thousand dollars they have left in Turkey. There’s not much money left. Thinking about home, the children start talking about their garden. The group turns out to be a family. I approach the border with them, then go back to another crossing place I can use. Before I cross the border, they are surely much more advanced in their journey.
A taxi can take 4 people. This makes EUR 40. Local drivers are keen to take people exhausted with the journey and the long walk through the border to the point from which buses set off to the Croatian border or to Belgrade. A family pack costs nearly PLN 200. Many people go for this option. Perhaps they negotiate, though drivers don’t behave nicely. Cars move around aggressively, honking. A lot of tension in the air. The road is narrow. Good, fast and easy profit. Soldiers seem most relaxed. Rifle barrels idly touch the ground. They look around if everyone goes in the right direction and don’t change the route. Taxis can pick people up at the control point; behind the soldiers we can see the border zone where only cars with permissions can enter. They are not smugglers. They just use an opportunity. One of the drivers asks me if I’d like to go straight to Belgrade. I can hear him offer this destination to others, too.
Buses wait between Miratovce and Preševo. Drivers wait for their turn. Nearby shops are besieged. People swarm and buy hastily before they move on. Most of them go directly to the Croatian border.
The Belgrade Main railway station. I change trains here to reach another border – with Croatia. When I walk out of the building, my attention is caught by two tents. I enter a park and see more of them.
The park is called Bristol. The centre of the Serbian capital. Within the park – a small village. There is an information point, multi-language signs, two tents with food and drinks. The tents are shared by everyone. A board is resting against the point. The first information: “Croatia open”. It’s a response to the main question: which way to go now? Only a couple of weeks earlier, refugees would go north, to Horgoš, to the Hungarian border. Today, they go east – to Šid.
In August 2015, images from the Keleti station got around the world. It was the culmination of the refugee crisis in the media. The Hungarian government has been conducting the anti-migrant campaign for a long time, threatening Hungarians with refugees taking their jobs. A few posters are still hanging in the capital.
It’s much easier to intimidate people with something that is invisible. Nobody predicted the solidarity generated along the chaos at the station. Activists organize illegal shelters. People spontaneously bring clothes and shoes. Trains leave on time from the Keleti station. The police arrange travellers in lines. It’s relatively peaceful there now.
The Röszke camp, on the other hand, was very chaotic. Help was only provided by NGOs. Scared people pushing into buses. Screaming and cramming everywhere. Children being handed from one person to another. There is a lot of talking about the police being aggressive. It’s just more nervousness and stress than real violence.
This time, I do not reach Hungary. In September, the route still led via Budapest and further – to Austria. In the meantime, the “wall” – i.e. the barbed wire fence – has been finished and the Hungarian government did everything it could to block the influx of refugees. Border crossings exist but the main stream changed its route – now it goes through Croatia. One month ago, it looked like this.
It rains heavily in Bapska. Afar, we can see the row of tents resembling a huge snake. The EU flag is waving next to the Croatian flag. For the second time on the Balkan route – but now there are only EU countries left on the way to the goal. When I ask about it, I hear two names: Austria and Germany. Most people opt for the latter. They heard good things about Germany – first of all, they believe to be well-received there. They ask about Poland – how people live, what kind of country it is, what currency we have. I ask about their emotions. Are they happy to be so close to their destination? Yes, they reply, but they are also anxious – what’s next? They are scared to be sent back. I try to diversify my questions. Asking someone who has been marching for so many kilometres, having left everything behind, about how he or she feels – seems infantile. However, it helps break the barriers and open up. Out of exhaustion and sometimes reluctance to talk, stories emerge.
Groups travel by bus from the border towards Opatovac. The camp looks more like a military one rather than a refugee camp. Numerous guards. If it wasn’t for the humanitarian help tents outside, it would be hardly noticeable.
Policemen invite me to their tent. After 10 minutes of cheerful attempts to establish how the Polish language is close to Croatian, they pass and go back to their interrupted conversation. It’s only possible to enter the camp in the company of a manager – through two tents. Except for me, two more TV station crews are waiting there. It’s 8 o’clock – the manager should come at 10. I enquire about further part of the route: from here, by bus, to the nearest train station and then by train to the Slovenian border.
While waiting, I attempt to count how much it would cost to get from Turkey to Germany. The data I have are totally contradictory but I’m trying to establish the cheapest charge per person:
This includes transport only. The worst situation is in Turkey. I tried to confirm one particular cost but everyone says something different. Everyone has their own story as well but I haven’t met anyone who crossed the border legally. In this aspect, everybody’s reports are very coherent. On the Turkish side, they arrange everything with smugglers. This is also the most difficult part of the journey. I talk to a father of two. Only two days ago, they stayed on the Turkish side. It lasted forever, he says, I was holding them close to me, afraid that the boat would keel over. I assure him that I fully understand – I have a daughter myself.
Making this list, I’ve realized that most questions I have should not be addressed to these people. They have been post too late. First, they got disillusioned with their own country. Then – with the world elites. It has also come to my mind that what I’m doing here doesn’t make any sense. With whom should I confront all this? UNHCR employees are doing good job but when I ask them about the accuracy of their data, they say: we do our best. Only that and as much as that.
Two hours later I’m at the station looking at the train leaving for Harmica. I’m still overwhelmed with the feeling of helplessness. Policemen edgily forbid me to take photos. But looking is not forbidden so they let go – surprised with this gap in the law.
The last group I see is at the station in Vienna. They travelled through Slovenia – the border in Dobova and Šentilj. They are at the end of their road. They take last trains to Germany. Smiles on their faces and extreme fatigue. I ask: what now?
Nobody is able to answer clearly.
A year later, my friend asks me what to think about refugees. I have no idea what to tell her. I have more questions than answers myself. But you’ve been there, she pushes.
So what? This question is not post right. Of course – I saw the route. Camp after camp. I could predict with my eyes closed what the fifth camp would look like. I caught myself thinking that the drama keeps repeating. Conversations, people, camps. Conversations, people… And there, a question is hanging: should we accept refugees or not? I feel that we’re mixed up in the media discourse. Respect to your fellow being and willingness to give help became identified with the consent to accept refugees. While fear, anxiety or a clear declaration to be reluctant about receiving them – make people look as the bad ones.
Besides, it’s not my role to answer such questions. I may help. But how to expect a straightforward answer if the Balkan route is all grey? White and black continually mix with each other.
The only thing I was able to document fully are my emotions and questions. Questions to myself. All the rest is an attempt to find something that could be presented as a fact. I felt I was being lied to. I was sensitive about hearing learnt phrases. When I asked questions, I heard answers prepared for a conversation with an immigration officer. Answers meant to make it easier to stay in the desired place. They sounded artificially. Perhaps I was wrong but I needed to trust my intuition. Not once was I probably taken in thinking – yes, she’s telling the truth.
Another issue is that while refugees disappeared from the media, they still exist. In 2016, every third person going to Europe came from Syria. It’s almost 95,000 out of 350,000 people who officially reached the Old Continent. The second largest group are Albanians – they also asked for asylum in Germany.
There is one thing I could do. Speak about the problem. Because the problems haven’t been solved. The fact that the number of refugees going to Europe is smaller – is it “normal”? Is it normal enough not to engage the masses? So, did we work out difficult questions in our “free” time? What to do when another wave comes? Were these questions ignored because – phew! – it’s all finished?
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