Late August, 2015 - The overland trip began in Germany and reached its peak in Athens. A considerable amount of refugees has started to reach Germany via the Western Balkan route. The direction to which I was heading was nearly the same route that the refugees took after crossing the ocean, except that it was the opposite direction. My first encounter with the refugees was in Belgrade. This time, however, I would meet them in a much more tenseful atmosphere. Apart from a few Afghans at the bus station in Thessaloniki, on my way from Macedonia to Athens I did not see any refugees, because I reached Thessaloniki via Bitola, whereas the refugee crisis in this region is taking place in and around the border town Gevgelija. After my stay in Athens, the initial plan was to take a flight to Belgrade, or maybe to Cyprus. However, only one day before I left Macedonia, I received the confirmation that I can volunteer in a hostel in Skopje, making me conclude that I should take the more affordable buses back to Macedonia. Of course I am aware of what is going on in Gevgelija, but I am probably not the only regular traveller who takes a bus from Greece to Macedonia these days. What can happen?
The Road to Macedonia
The bus trip from Athens back to Thessaloniki was uncomplicated. I do not waste any time and ask a kiosk owner where I can buy a bus ticket to Skopje. He gives me the direction and five minutes later I arrive at the ticket office. To my surprise the ticket is very cheap. Since I am still in Greece, I was expecting that it is at least twice as expensive. After a longer delay we can finally enter the bus. As the bus departs, I take a look around and notice that there are many refugees in here. Only later I would realize that actually everybody in the bus is a refugee, except for the bus driver and me.
At sunset we arrive near the border. As I look out of the window, I see many refugees standing in line on an abandoned railway track. Some police officers are giving them orders. Once we get off the bus, everything happens fast. "Stand in line!", one of the border officials shouts at us. There must be some regular travellers like me somewhere, but curiously I cannot spot anyone. "I said stand in line!", the border official shouts again, while other officials make sure that nobody distances themselves from their groups. "Why don't you listen?", another official strictly asks one of the refugees when he moved a little bit further away. Probably he did not even understand the official. It would be a good idea to tell the border police that I am just a regular traveller. "Sit down, sit!", the official shouts at our group in an intimidating way. His warning signal is clear: If we do not listen, they will use force. Okay, maybe it is not a good idea to walk over to the officials just now, so I sit down like all the rest.
Stuck at the Border
Now here I am, amongst the refugees, getting just a little glimpse of what it is like to be them. Not even the refugees notice that I am a legal traveller, and how should they? There you have this darker skinned guy with messed up hair and dirty clothes who looks like he has been on a journey for a while, a guy who from his looks not significantly differs from the Afghans, and who has now arrived at the Greek-Macedonian border in times where most people in this region, including the refugees, have recently only seen those Afghans that have just fled from their country, and they come in large amounts. Since experiencing those wild nights in Athens, I have been less receptive, but now I finally begin to understand. The man whom I asked for directions to buy the ticket in Thessaloniki thought that I was a refugee, which is why I ended up at the office, where apparently most of the refugees buy their tickets, and where the refugees are being separated from the regular bus passengers. The woman at the ticket office also thought that I am a refugee and sent me to the "refugee bus" after printing a ticket for a "refugee price".
Come to think about it, even before arriving in Thessaloniki, there were some strange situations. For a moment I remember how I sat down in a restaurant on my way to Thessaloniki, vaping my electronic cigarette and checking some emails on my laptop while buying ridiculously expensive food because I was too tired to check the prices. Some passengers - refugees and locals alike - looked at me suspiciously. "That's a strange refugee", they must have thought.
While I am waiting for the right moment to explain my situation to the border police, I take the opportunity to observe the situation. The emotions are mixed. Some of the refugees seem happy to have left behind their troubled homelands and to have survived the boat trip. Then there are those, whose trauma can be read from their faces. Maybe they have had a near death experience or lost their dear ones, maybe back in Syria or maybe while crossing the ocean. Emotionally, they stand in stark contrast with the group of relieved male refugees, who are laughing and joking. Some of them are even taking some selfies. Another group of young men is flirting with a beautiful black haired and green-eyed Greek woman, who is selling sim cards. She tries not to be distracted from her work by the refugees too much, but apparently enjoys the attention and agrees on taking some pictures with some of them. Meanwhile, a Syrian man is entertaining three children on the other side of the railway track. These moments make me temporarily forget about the potential for escalation.
Fear of Escalation
As the situation begins to calm down, I finally walk up to the official, but he barely pays attention to what I am saying, focusing on us not as individuals, but as a whole group. I seem to be 'just another refugee' to him. Not much later I try to speak to another official and show him my passport. He asks me to wait till later and moves away. None of the officials seems to be able to tell me what to do. Or maybe they do not want to. Perhaps I just have to wait until the bus with the legal passengers arrives. Meanwhile I try to understand what the refugees are talking about. If I am lucky, I may find a refugee who can speak English. Listening more closely to the Afghan refugees may turn out to be useful as well, because some of them speak Urdu, the official language of my original country. .
Another tenseful phase begins. On several occasions the refugees do not listen to what the officials are saying, either because they do not understand them or because they are too tired, and sometimes they just do not like the way they are being treated. One officer asks us to sit down like we are a bunch of dogs. Yes, making the refugee groups sit down is of course necessary, not only to ensure that they do not get too tired while waiting, but also to prevent any refugee from unexpectedly moving away. But the way this border official repeatedly orders us to stand up only to sit down again minutes later, not surprisingly makes a part of the refugees feel provoked and humiliated. In different time intervals the situation calms down and nearly begins to escalate again. There is fear in the air, not only among the refugees. Some of the police officers themselves seem at least nervous, but determined, probably remembering the clashes that erupted here last week, after which the deployment of the Macedonian army troops followed, that are now standing only a couple of meters away from us. Other officials just do not seem to be the most sympathetique people.
At some point of time I almost begin to believe that we can finally cross the border. Shortly thereafter we are being told to wait again. That's it. I sit down on the railway tracks, this time expecting to sit for a long long time and considering myself lucky if I make it to Skopje today at all. When least expected, a Syrian man in his early twenties walks over to me. "Where is your group?", he asks me in English, to my surprise. "I have no group", I reply to his surprise. "I am a single traveller from Germany". His eyes express disbelief. The Syrian, who introduces himself as Ibrahim, immediately asks me to join him and his friends, who are amazed at meeting a traveller who was born and lives in the country that they seek to reach. "What are you doing here?", they want to know, and I explain to them what happened.
Ibrahim asks me if I need some water, while his friends offer me something to eat. "I'm fine, don't worry. I think your journey was 'a little bit' tougher", I reply, and the Syrian smiles. The refugees care for me like I am the refugee. What a sad irony it is for me right now when I think about those individuals in Europe who have forgotten how priviliged they are, criticizing the outcome now after ignoring the causes for years, talking about the injustice that happened to them as if they were the refugees who fled from a war zone, people who would apparently take it into account to let so many men, women and children die as long as it does not affect their standard of living. Of course we cannot wave everybody through and there need to be health and security checks, but whoever condemns the refugees who fled from their country, has never understood the real problem, because the refugees fled from bombs and tanks that were financed with the help of our taxes years ago. Who can be surprised now?
The rumor is apparently spreading that a 'guy from Germany' is among the refugees, and accordingly I get to meet more refugees. They are only fully convinced that I am German after I show them my passport. My obviously oriental origin, which first made it difficult for them to see that I am not a refugee, now makes them only more curious, assuming that I have a similar religious background like they do. "Are you muslim?" - "Not a really good one", I reply, indicating my strongly secularized lifestyle, after which they stress that God is the most merciful. I guess it has a reason that almost every Sura of the Quran begins with the words "Bismillah, Ar-Rahman, Ar-Raheem" (In the name of God, the Almighty, the most Merciful). "But we should not take God's mercy as an excuse", I point out. They agree and ask me if I can recite some Suras of the Quran, which I do to their delight.
Surviving the Death Boat
Usually I find it insensitive and inappropriate to ask the refugees too many personal questions, but among some individuals I feel free to get some insights on what they have experienced. Ibrahim is one of them, so I ask him about what the refugees have been through. He begins to talk about the death boats: "When you cannot swim, imagine how you have a child and it falls off the boat. You will not let it drown. Even if you know you will die, you will die with your child.", he says, referring to the most tragic examples of victims who tried to cross the ocean. Ibrahim considers himself lucky not to have been in such a situation, but he goes on to tell me how he and his group were close to drown in the ocean as well.
The small boats that the refugees use are supposed to carry a maximum of 30 passengers, but usually more than 60 passengers are on board. Ibrahim explains to me the difficulty of keeping the balance in the boat. It reminds me of my boat trip at the Churun river in Venezuela. Everybody can fall off the boat, if only one passenger makes a wrong move. But this was not the only problem that Ibrahim and the rest of the people had to deal with. He describes the moment when they were in the midst of the ocean and the captain let Ibrahim know that there is a hole in the boat, asking him to inform all the other passengers. Ibrahim made a wise choice and did not tell anyone except for his close friends, warning them to keep it for themselves in order to avoid that panic will break out and all of them drown. While the boat kept on being filled with water, Ibrahim and his friends were pondering over a solution. In what can be described as an act of despair, they took off their clothes, pressed them against the hole and squeezed out the water back into the ocean. They repeated this procedure over and over again, until they reached the coast.
"It sounds like your toughest time is over", I say to cheer them up. "Not really", Ibrahim replies and then mentions a friend of his who had just recently arrived at the Hungarian border. The border police would not let him enter Hungary. Only after witnessing that man for two days without eating or drinking anything, the border police showed mercy on him and let him pass, realizing that he was serious about rather starving to death than going back. But how many exceptions will they make? There will be much more refugees who are ready to die, if they are forced to go back. In the border town Gevgelija I would later meet 5 Italian women who decided to have a closer look on the refugee crisis in Gevgelija. Sara, one of the Italians, would give me one more example of what kind of ideas the refugees come up with: Some refugees destroyed their own boats shortly before reaching the coast, swimming the rest of the way in order not to get caught by the police, and risking to drown so close to their goal.
Our goal to cross the border today now seems in reach, as we approach the barbed wired fences, behind which the Macedonian soldiers are standing, ready for action in case of escalation. This time I almost have hope again that we will enter Macedonia at last, until we hear noises from a distance. Ibrahim and I turn around. A new group of refugees has arrived. A much larger group. And a much more impatient one. We can see by the reactions of the officials that the potential for escalation is very big now. The new group approaches us in a threateningly fast pace. "It looks like we have to move", I say to Ibrahim calmly but urgently, while taking a look around and trying to come up with an escape plan. If the newly arrived refugees continue to approach us in this pace, it will not be possible for our entire group to move aside, all the more because of the lack of space. Luckily, and to my surprise, the officials temporarily manage to stop the newly arrived group.
The police officers ask us to step aside for the newly arrived refugees and wait. It is unfair, we have been waiting for hours in this heat, but one of the officials does have a point: "They will pit you", he said, with which he meant that they will trample us. Ibrahim and some other Arabs conclude that it is reasonable to listen to the police official. So they shout to their group that everybody should move aside, while I am wondering if everybody will listen. Or will a part of our group refuse to allow the new group to take our spot, fearing not to be able to cross the border today? Luckily, our entire group does move aside, because not much later the border police can no longer hold the new group back. They storm in our direction and take our spot away. Understandably the Syrians and Iraqis complain about how they will need to wait much longer now, yet they hope that the officials will consider their patience and cooperation.
As Ibrahim and I sit on a rock, an object falls from the hands of a refugee right in front of us. For a moment Ibrahim looks at this object with great suspicion. His eyes seem to tell a story that he fears to relive, as if he believes that a very harmful object just hit the ground and is about to explode, like he was back in Aleppo. Then he realizes that it is just a teapot, and we continue our conversation: "You should go and talk to the police and tell them that you are from Germany", he says. "I have done that several times now, and they do not seem to care", I reply. Ibrahim is still sceptical that I can just cross the border, and so am I. So I decide to walk over to a police officer one more time. At least this time the officer checks my passport properly. Once I explain my situation to him, he simply tells me that I should wait. "It doesn't matter if you get a stamp or not", he says and walks away. Is he serious? Of course a Macedonian entry stamp will matter when I try to leave Macedonia at some point.
Some UNHCR workers begin to collect the trash to our right. Ibrahim and his friends begin to help them, but the UN volunteers ask them to sit down and relax, because the refugees do not wear gloves like the UNHCR volunteers. The Syrian group puts much effort in leaving the best possible impression and break some of those typically Arab clichées. A couple of Syrians complain about the 'impatient Afghans' and argue that they make the situation of all refugees worse by not listening to the officials. The Afghan refugees indeed seem to be a bigger challenge to the volunteers and the border officials than the Syrians, which is arguably connected to the even bigger lack of understanding for the Western culture of conduct among many Afghans. Such an understanding can be conveyed to foreigners via media very efficiently, but the Afghans have never had as much access to Western media as the Syrians. Moreover, unlike many Syrians, a large part of the Afghan refugees never had the chance to enjoy the educational privileges that the Syrians had before the war broke out.
The Official Border
We are now almost at the barbed wired fences, but it feels like we have to wait for another eternity. Right in front of us, things are getting louder again. It was only a matter of time until a conflict among the refugees would break out, and some refugees begin to confront the police officials in a much more aggressive tone as well. A journalist is taking pictures, trying to document what is happening here, but it is hard to keep up with this chaos. Children start crying, while police officers and refugees scream at each other. I wonder how much the children can physically take after having had such a tough journey? For how many hours can they endure the blazing sun on their heads in a place so crowded and so hot that sometimes it can be hard to breathe?
Another hour passes. And I am still not sure if I should cross the border without receiving any stamp. There are still no regular bus passengers in sight. Maybe the locals and travellers really do not cross the Gevgelija border these days. Maybe all of them have been redirected to the part of the border near Bitola, from where I entered Greece a week ago. While I try to figure out what I have to do, a photographer is taking some pictures not too far away from me. The only legal foreigners here are the UN volunteers and a few journalists like him. It is quite obvious that the photographer is a native English speaker. Assuming that he must also be well informed about this place, I walk over to him and we have a chat. As I explain my situation to him, he looks at me in disbelief and says: "You are not supposed to be here". He goes on and explains to me in one sentence what no border official was able to tell me: "This is the illegal border. You have to get to the official border."
The fact that no police officer gave me this piece of information made me believe that this is the only place, from where I can reach Gevgelija. Probably one of the officers would have asked me for a bribe before taking me to the official border. After I finish talking to the photographer, I start to look for Ibrahim. He has disappeared. A little bit later I see one of his friends and ask him to convey a message to him. Who knows, maybe we will meet again in Germany, if he makes it. The UN photographer kindly drives me to the official border, where I receive a stamp and enter Macedonia without any complications.
Looking Back and Looking Forward
Days later, I sit in a hostel in Skopje, looking at some pictures of my most recent trips, remembering the more adventurous moments abroad, including the experience at the Greek-Macedonian border. I have travelled quite a bit now, but never have I had a journey like the refugees had. While we travellers sometimes flee from our everyday routine that can feel so horrendous to us, the routine of the refugees has been war and terror. While we can have a comfortable bus or train ride that takes us to our next sightseeing destination, the refugees try to cross the ocean in overfilled death boats, often appreciating the most basic needs. The more days pass, the less these needs are being fulfilled at some of the European border areas in particular.
Before I get ready for the next night shift at the Lounge Hostel in Skopje, I read in the news how the Hungarian government has taken new measures to prevent the refugees from entering their country. Have Ibrahim and his friends managed to cross the border? Once I contact him, he lets me know that he is stuck in Hungary, where his friend was recently starving for two days. In the following days I keep myself up to date on what is going on in Hungary. Before a humanitarian catastrophe breaks out, Prime Minister Orban has decided to temporarily allow the refugees to cross the border. Another two weeks later Ibrahim lets me know that he has made it to Germany. On the same day Hungary would completely close its borders with Serbia.
Ibrahim's escape plan worked, but what about the refugees that are still on their way? Is the worst yet to come? There are many people in Europe who cannot really imagine what it means to be a refugee. But who would dare to say that the refugee crisis is a greater crisis for us than it is a crisis for the refugees? Have all the tragic news revolving around the refugees not served as a clear and constant reminder of how privileged we are and of how many of us have failed to realize how serious the situation was even years ago?
A large amount of people in Europe has become so used to complain about everything. But while many of us drown in our own self-pity caused by the smallest problems, many of the refugees drown in an ocean for real. Many of us are fast at realizing that a train arrives two minutes late while waiting in the metro station, but how late are many of us ourselves in understanding that we are not doing too bad, late in understanding the real issues in the world, and very late in understanding how urgent it is that we must act one way or another, if not out of moral duty, then at least for the selfish reason to avoid any repercussions that will logically come about when our governments and its partners support those from whom the refugees fled in the first place. Oh how we like to look at the past, criticizing the ignorance of people in times when the most tragic chapters were written and they did not realize it. But we all need to look in the mirror and seriously ask ourselves if we have learnt from history or not. And to those who believe that the refugees are the problem. Who knows, maybe they will only understand, if one day they themselves become the refugees. And it would suffice if they became refugees for just one day.