Tales from the Macedonian border is a series of posts I have written for people to understand the current situation at European borders and to put context to some of the refugees I have worked with and their struggles.
This first story is from a man my age.
He is 27 years old, from Afghanistan. He has tried to cross the border 6 times and 6 times he has been unsuccessful and found himself back in Thessaloniki. I have known this man over two months and after multiple failed attempts, he has decided to stay in Greece.
“They told me they will shoot me if I come back”
Back home, in Afghanistan, this man was a soldier in the Afghan army. He made is way to Greece, as many do, using smugglers. They made the long journey from Turkey to Greece by foot, which although difficult (he describes long days walking and times with no food or water), he says it is generally successful. Crossing by boat is much riskier; he is right. Between January and July 2018, 1 in 18 people died attempting the journey by sea. Due to the high cost incurred travelling from Afghanistan to Greece, he has decided to make each of his journeys to the Macedonian border independent of smugglers.
He describes clearly the route taken, very similar to the ones used in Kingsley’s The New Odyssey, in 2015. From Thessaloniki there is a bus that allows people to travel for 45 minutes costing only 1 Euro. When they leave the bus, it is then a 7 hour walk to Polykastro. For those that walk slower, the journey can take 10 hours.
Polykastro is a city in Northern Greece. In 2015 it was frequented by refugees crossings to Europe and due to its proximity to the border of Macedonia, remains a common destination for refugees today.
On arriving in Polykastro there is a trainline which people follow and for him, from Polykastro, it only takes three hours to reach the border. Two hours to the Hara Hotel, an infamous stop off for people trying to cross to Macedonia and then 1 hour onwards, to the border itself. Most border crossings are completed under the cover of nightfall to reduce chances of detection.
We discuss methods of crossing the border. Usually people try to climb under lorries to pass undetected and up to 2 or 3 people can fit underneath, however it is very dangerous. Others break into lorries and try to hide under the tarpaulin. The wealthier use smugglers to make the crossings and once into Serbia another smuggler meets them to take them to a camp until they can arrange passage on into Croatia. For those with more money that cross successfully on their own, they can take a taxi from near the border direct to the Serbian border which he reports is only a 3 hour drive, as oppose to a nine day walk from Greece. Once in Serbia he believes it is only an 8 day walk to reach Italy.
He himself makes the journey with around 7 or 8 friends and they cross the border by cutting the wire fences. On his previous border crossings he has successfully reached Macedonia every time, however either he or his friends have been caught in nearby Macedonian villages and forced to return to Greece. Consistently the border police are reported as being more tolerant than at other borders, they will ‘only beat you if you run’. German police are often reported patrolling the Macedonian borders and he confirms he has encountered this himself. He reports that often at other borders, the police are not so understanding. He has experienced first-hand violence from the Turkish-Greek border police and touches on rumours I have heard before, about the Bulgarian police being particularly brutish and barbaric.
Once back in Greece they have no choice but to make the return journey back to Thessaloniki on foot and try again another time.
He admits that even though he has failed to cross several times there is only once when he himself was caught, the other times it was because his friends were captured by police. When they see the police, they run but he is ‘too fast for them’ and laughingly states that they will not be able to catch him, for he is from the Afghan army.
I question him on his new plans to remain in Greece. He reports that because his life is in danger in Afghanistan and he has the correct papers from the army, he will now try to seek asylum. His initial plans were to try and reach France or mainland Europe but admits it is harder than he expected. Why France? He had heard they accept Afghans.
Now with the difficulties crossing and the high costs incurred using smugglers from Afghanistan to Greece he has run out of money and cannot afford to go further. He wishes to make his interview and then ‘hopefully they will accept’ him.
He elaborates on why he cannot return home to Afghanistan. Before he left, his village was mostly run by the Taliban. As a member of the Afghan army, they threatened him to join them or else they would kill him. He explained to me a promise he made to the Afghan army, with his ‘hand on the holy book’, that he would never do anything ‘against his country’. He knew he could never work for the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic group. As he resisted they threatened his family, stating they would kill his father and eventually he had no choice but to leave. He reports speaking with the commander of his army and they released him from service to leave the country.
I enquired if his family were safe now he was here in Greece, he says so. After he arrived in Turkey, he phoned saying that he had left both the army and Afghanistan, ‘please don’t hurt my family’. They said if he ever returns to Afghan soil, they will shoot him.
This is a man who loves his country and is a proud Afghan. Like many of the people I have met in Thessaloniki, he has his own story and his own reasons for attempting the journey to mainland Europe but for now, he will try to seek asylum in Greece, until it is safe to return home.