Why I walked with the refugees to Macedonia (and got arrested in the process)
I like the way his whole face smiles, beginning in his shining eyes and bursting out across his tiny cheeks as he dangles his mothers handbag from a nearby stick. His bigger brother pulls it off to the ground, they collapse into giggles and he tries again. I shuffle around in my sodden trousers, finding a comfortable spot in the dirt and exchanging smiles with the cheeky little boys. “Are you scared?” my friend asks me “Yeah, a little..” I pause for a moment, catching my breath on the cooling air “hey, do you think those are rubber bullets or real ones?” A redundant question, I already knew the answer.
Poorly translated maps and instructions had been distributed the day before, sharing a new way to cross the border. A hole in the fence just five kilometers away, was what I heard, although I didn’t know for sure.
Rumour was quickly spreading of an exodus of the Greek Idomeni camp the following morning, the more people who walk together the less the police will do about it.. right? I tossed and turned through the night. We often receive information about upcoming plans, movements and demonstrations that never eventuate, this somehow felt more real. Nobody was entirely sure what to prepare for, something was going to happen. I wanted to position our medical volunteers strategically, to prepare for anything that might come up, but it was hard to figure out with so much conflicting information.
I still don’t completely understand how I got involved.
“Don’t go with children” we pleaded, “They will beat you, they will use tear gas, this is too dangerous.. please go back”. Our cries fell on deaf ears, just as most were convinced to stop, one would start walking again and the rest would follow. People didn’t believe in a hell worse than they already lived, even death wouldn’t deter them.
“If I die on the way, so be it. It is better than what we have here” his eyes told me he meant every word.
We walked up through the muddy trails leaving the tiny Idomeni village back in the distance. The fledgling bazaar and campfire smoke grew smaller behind us.
Snaking up through the hills and the forest, muddy sneakers and blankets were discarded in the mud. We were barely a short way into this journey and the signs of the peoples weariness lay entrenched on the side of the trails. We trudged on through the mud, urging and sharing the little information we already had. Eventually we clambered into a four wheel drive as our trail intercepted the road and went in search of the river.
Driving through swarms of exhausted people, begging for shoes, for water, is heart wrenching. The helplessness of never having enough to give, of being on an information gathering mission rather than a distribution one, left us feeling impotent. Once we find the river, we decided, then we can alert others to the location to set up food and water distribution. We can try to stop them before they cross from Greece. We had a goal in mind, and a large number of people in need of supplies.
We approached the river through the crowds. It ran turbulently, bisecting the large group into the wet and the dry. Volunteers stood in the icy water up to their thighs, a human chain to help the people across. Three had already died in these waters this morning, two adults and a 10 month old baby. Nobody could bare the thought of any more drownings, so here they all stood in their hi-vis vests, shivering and wet taking hand by hand by hand.
I jumped out of the car for a better look. I had heard about this river already, but I didn’t understand the lay of the land. Where was the border? The hole we had been told about?
Everything made less and less sense, I thought, as I began to unlace my shoes and roll up my trousers.
I felt the cold rush up my legs and soak right through me as I scrambled up the muddy banks on the other side. The currents were strong and I immediately understood how people had died and drowned here earlier. I could picture many more deaths if there hadn’t been anyone to help. It became more and more apparent that these people were going to keep walking, no matter what got in their way.
This is where I hit that moment, the one where my heart took over my rational thought and led me up those banks and off into the next field. Ankle deep in mud and surrounded by lush green crops and rolling hills, I carried on.
As we walked on through, I felt secure in the knowledge we were still in Greece, and for a change felt comforted by the razor wired border fences sat to my right. Perhaps they are just walking with no idea, maybe they don’t know. Maybe they will walk indefinitely to the markings of a fake map. We need to find out where they are gathering, we should get a location so we can get help to them.
“Those shoes, they are just like the ones my mother wears”, my friend commented. I stifled my tears as I watched her paper-thin skin slip out the back of her worn leather loafers. Her tiny, elderly frame visibly struggling from a six kilometer trek. How does she keep going, I wonder.
“Hey, where did the fence go?”
My thoughts were interrupted. There was definitely a border over there last time I looked. We had been walking for a long time now and somewhere along the way the fence had slipped off into the distance.
The ominous sound of many people shouting emanated through the hills like a chant. What are they yelling? Surely this must be the border we were looking for. Refugees vs Military. It felt like a scene from a film, with so many unreal sounds and sights. Down and around we stepped for a better look, then there they were.
I never took the time to see or understand the piece of paper that sent so many marching, the one refugees were told to destroy after reading. If I had, I would’ve realised that we weren’t looking for a hole in the border at all. We were seeking a different beast all together — the place where the border fence ceases to exist. It quickly became apparent we had found this place, and the welcoming committee were adorned with a selection of weapons and camouflage print. No time was wasted as the segregation process began.
Most of my small group were herded off to the side of the trail by a small number of agitated officers. Macedonian military, as it turns out. We had crossed the border. That invisible line in the sand had slipped under our feet unnoticed. We had suddenly become illegal border-crossing criminals.
My journey was to take a different twist now, as my attempts to join the crowd of volunteers were thwarted by shouting ‘keep walking, keep walking that way, now!’. Two of us had been mistaken for refugees, a fair call when making snap judgments, especially since I was walking with a Kurdish friend and helping carry a legless Syrian refugee. When faced with this many guns and hostility, all there is left to do is just keep walking.
So here I sit. The small boy jostles his brother and gets back to work precariously balancing the purple leather bag once again. They stumble over each other to smile and wave at me. I wave back, forcing myself to ignore the man vomiting into the ditch behind me. Out the corner of my eye I spot flecks of blood as he grasps on to the slippery edges of the trench and his friend holds him steady.
Despite my instincts, moving to help him isn’t an option. In fact, moving anywhere is out of the question right now. We’ve been gathered into small groups in a field together. The sun is sinking behind the hills and the cold is starting to bite at my face. More and more military guards move in alongside riot police and armed vehicles. Anybody trying to move is met with shouts of ‘SIT DOWN’.
Guards stand all around, arms sternly folded but occasionally loosening to fidget with their guns. They look concerned, now that they have everybody in manageable sizes, what will they do with them?
It takes around an hour but we convince the new guard that despite my lack of passport or papers to prove it, I am not actually a refugee. He is new around here, been on the job less than a week. “I don’t know why I am here, what am I doing, this is a terrible situation” he tells me, shoulders dropping as he places his emphasis on the don’t knows, and quietens for the final few words. His heartfelt naivety provides a needed dose of humanity to this situation.
The more senior officer leads my friend, while I trail behind with the young guard. He must be only about 19 and nods compassionately as I explain that we crossed into his country accidentally. We are soon introduced to a police chief who reminds us that this will be a ‘big problem’, common terminology around here. He searches our pockets and tells us to remove our shoes, soon bringing us towels for our wet feet and offering us his bread to eat.
Before I get a chance to put my shoes back on, an old Macedonian woman rushes hurriedly out of her nearby house with an armful of shoes for us. ‘No, no — the refugees need these more than us!’ we remind her, not entirely sure she hasn’t also mistaken us. After many hugs and assurances that we will be fine with the shoes we have, she scurries away again and we are taken by police car to the station.
I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t a relief to see so many familiar faces at the police station, it felt like a reunion of comrades. At least 50 volunteers, journalists and reporters were already at the station by the time I arrived. It was a difficult night and we were held for the better part of 10 hours before release — a small price to pay compared to the three days they had originally intended.
There were tears shed and many people pacing around the cold, concrete floors in frustration. I had to have my passport brought over from Greece and we were all slapped with a large fine. There were some sweet moments, of course. But, overall we felt a potent cocktail of exhausted, bewildered and overwhelmed. We didn’t expect this, and the news of all the refugees being returned to Idomeni after walking so far broke our hearts. The processing was time consuming and inconsistent, and various groups, embassies and media came in causing a stir. But, eventually we were released with a 6 month ban.
As our taxi lumbered in across the border and through the hoards of exhausted people stumbling back in the darkness, my heart aches. I keep my eye out for the two little boys, or perhaps just for that purple handbag, dropped along the way.