Tales From the Macedonian Border: ‘They will shoot me if I come back’

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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.

To support my work with refugees like this man please click here!

Tales from the Macedonian Border

Recently I read ‘The New Odyssey’ by Philip Kingsley, New York Times journalist and at the time of writing, migration correspondent for the Guardian.  For anyone who has not read this, it is an in-depth account of the migration routes across Europe in 2015 and follows the story of one particular man, Hashem al-Souki as he and his family leave Damascus, in the hope of a new life in Sweden.

Although I could never do justice to the depth at which Kingsley immerses himself in the Middle East and Europe, I was struck by how different the situation is now, just three years on.  As a result, I have decided to capture some of the refugees stories I have met and paint a picture of how the current situation is for migrants traversing Europe.

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Train tracks to the Macedonian Border

The situation across Europe is ever changing.  Borders are harder to cross; refugees are having to wait, in some cases years, for asylum but the one constant, is people are still coming.  Although we are not seeing the scale of 2015, over 80 000 have crossed the border into Europe so far in 2018 (UNHCR) and working on the streets in Greece, I cannot see this changing in the imminent future.

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Refugees gather for food distribution in Thessaloniki, Greece – August 2018

I have therefore decided to explore, in a series of 5 articles, individual stories from some of the people I meet.  I am currently based in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece, working alongside a medical organisation as a physiotherapist and the most common route onward from here is Macedonia.

At the time of Kingsley’s writing in 2015, Macedonia was still relatively easy to cross.  The situation he describes was a ‘legal illegal’ border crossing, which refugees (predominantly Syrians) queued at and passed through.  During the crossing he undertook, the refugees tried to cross a few miles further down and were caught and redirected by police to cross at the illegal checkpoint.

Reading this, I was surprised at how easy it had been.  Working for two months in Northern Greece I was regularly seeing people return to Thessaloniki who had failed to cross the Macedonian border and had been turned away by police, often sustaining beatings.  The other stark difference is, in 2015 many refugees travelled independently, following friends instructions on whatsapp or facebook, who had previously had successful crossings.  Now, as the borders have become increasingly difficult, the majority of people I meet, are resorting to smugglers to reach Skopje.

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At the Macedonia Border

Predominantly the stories I tell will be from Afghan and Pakistani men.  The men I meet on the street are more frequently from these countries as they do not have priority for the camps and often want to reach other countries before seeking asylum.  Within the refugee world it appears to me, that single male migrants face a huge amount of discrimination, both inside and outside of camps.  I want to share their journeys and challenges, as they endeavour to reach Western Europe.

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Some of the local refugee population in Thessaloniki

Although these series of articles will explore individual stories, primarily my work is medical.  One of the boys featured in this series recently returned after another failed border crossing with severe knee pain and swelling having been caught by police.  When captured, they are taken back over the border and made to walk back in the direction they came; the majority return to Thessaloniki.  Those that return to Thessaloniki, return to see us the next day, so we can attend to their medical needs.  After walking a 250 km round trip in just two days, as well as sleeping rough and the anxieties that come with using smugglers, our services (and friendships) are in high demand.  I am writing to inform people not only of the current situation in Northern Greece but also to share individual stories from some of the incredible people that make my working day so special.  However, neither this, nor my work would be possible without donations, so if any of the stories make you feel empathy for the boys and their struggles and make you realise how essential the medical work we do here is, please donate below.

Donate Here!