Thousands of weather-worn camping tents shine in the spring sun, after months of wind and rain. Washing lines stretch out between one tent and another, where clothes have been hung out to dry after the latest storm. “Hello, my friend” is the greeting used by the youngsters you meet along the muddy paths. Children grab you by the hand, dragging you to play with them.
Idomeni is not what you would expect. Seeing it from above, on a nice day, it looks like confetti sprinkled over a green lawn.
Until a few months ago, these were plowed fields like any others, just a few meters away from the railway and the barbed wire that marks the border with Macedonia (FYROM). But since last February, these fields have been transformed by the closing of the border - into a makeshift refugee camp the Greek interior minister has called “a modern Dachau.”
12,000 people, 40% of whom are children, have been stranded here for two months. They are forced to sleep in the rain, wind, and sun that is already scorching now, in April.
Thousands more families have stopped at the two service stations close to Polycastro, a town of 12,000 inhabitants just 20 minutes from Idomeni. For fear of checks, many private buses leave migrants at the town’s entrance, saying the border is just around the corner. In truth, it’s over 25km away. In addition to the camp in Idomeni, there are over 3,500 more people camped out on the tarmac close to the petrol distributors - most are families with small children and the infirm.
“This was only a transit point through which roughly 1,000 people used to pass through daily, headed towards Northern Europe,” says Emmanuel Massart, the coordinator of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which has been present here in Idomeni since last November. “With the closure of the border, the number has risen to 12,000 in a few days - until a few weeks ago it reached a peak at 15,000.” 80% of the people stuck here come from Syria and Iraq.
And yet, there are no official statistics on Idomeni. According to the UNHCR, there are now 10,000 people living in the camp, but some volunteers say it’s less. MSF stands behind its own figure. With a staff of over 200 and an additional 90 responsible for cleaning the camp, MSF is the largest and most important humanitarian presence here. “We have 20 doctors and 20 nurses, as well as two first aid stations that are open 24 hours a day. One of the two is entirely for women, many of whom require postnatal assistance, as well as support for the violence inflicted on them during their journeys here. It’s often the case that their rapists are also their traffickers,” continues Massart. “We have to count numbers precisely in order to know what resources we need. It's for this reason that we are so sure of our number.” 12,000 people.
The camp is a veritable inundation of bodies, with just 250 toilets and 70 showers between them. “We have made negotiations with the local administration and landowners to lease the fields and install these services,” says Massart. “Not all the farmers have agreed to lease out their fields however. This is why we cannot install more toilets. Although many people have camped their tents on those lands anyway, we don't have the necessary permits to install more infrastructure.”
Nothing to do but wait
It's been just two weeks since a group of refugees tried to cross the border, only to be pushed back with rubber bullets and tear gas by the Macedonian police. A hell within hell. The situation is still considered critical from a security perspective: “Tensions are running high, and people are getting tired of having cameras constantly pointed at them,” says a spokesperson from Save the Children.
Notwithstanding my own camera, everyone replies to my greetings with a smile, and many stop to talk. Anyone coming from the outside might have news.
“They're not telling us anything here. What are they saying outside?” asks Ibrahim, a Syrian man in his 50s sitting on a camp bed, under the shade of a dark sheet hung across a cluster of five tents. His encampment is the closest to the barbed wire that separates this last piece of Greek land from the Macedonian border. He invites me to enter his small camp and take a seat, after having scolded Ahmed - the smallest of his five children - for wanting to play with my camera. “We've been here for two months and two weeks.” He emphasizes the tone on two weeks with a gravitas in his voice that indicates how heavy the weight of every passing day has become. One of his sons, who is just 17, was able to leave Syria a few months before they left. He is now in Germany, where they are all headed. Abdul, his eldest, was shot in the head by a Macedonian policeman's rubber bullet. Luckily, the wound is healing. “We can do nothing but wait,” continues Ibrahim. Like many others here, he arrived with his family from Deir el-Zor, the city that’s been under siege by IS militants since last summer, and where the latest civilian massacre took place just last January. “IS have taken everything. Our house is not there anymore. We have nothing left.” While we speak, Mohammed pulls on his father's jumper and shouts something. “He wants a dog! He's asking if you have one?” I reply that I would also like a dog, but live in a small apartment and wouldn't know where to put it. Ibrahim translates my reply, and Mohammed replies in the most natural of ways, with something that must be funny because his father bursts out laughing. “He is saying that we would know where to put a dog! Outside the tent....there's loads of space!” He stays silent for a minute, before shaking his head. “If I had not invested everything in the journey to Europe, I would return to Syria. It would be better than staying here knowing nothing.”
A sentence I hear often in the camp, because, despite the inhumane conditions, the “not knowing” is the most upsetting thing of all. Everyone agrees on this.
“The UNHCR should go from tent to tent and explain to these people what their rights are, what the alternatives are, and create the conditions necessary to have access to start the proceedings for asylum requests,” says Rose Lee, an independent volunteer who arrived in Idomeni a month ago. “Seeing people's lives suspended like this... They often ask me when they will re-open the border, and the most difficult thing is not having a reply. Hope is the only thing that remains to those who are here. How can I say that it won't open again?” UNHCR has confirmed that it does have plans to implement a program for mass registration, but there are still no specific dates set, and dates and times are everything here. The mud and rain will soon give way to unbearable heat.
On paper, for those in Idomeni there are 3 options: everyone can request asylum in Greece, for those with relatives abroad they can request family reunification, and the Syrians and Iraqis can request "relocation", which means moving to another EU Member State. However, in order to begin these procedures, it's necessary first to book an appointment with the office in Salonicco for a Skype interview. "It's an online procedure. Anyone can do it from any place," states Marco Bono, UNHCR chief of the region. Easy to say, but practically impossible to put into practice: "In Idomeni most do not have the possibility to access the internet. There are only two wifi networks in the camp, for 12,000 people!" explains Massart. One of the two wifi networks, by the way, is provided for and managed by a group of volunteers. To render the situation even more difficult, nobody in the office in Salonicco is replying to the Skype calls. Yamine, 24 years old, is an Italo-Algerian volunteer, arriving in Idomeni from Padova with the Over the Fortress campaign. Together with a group of young people from all over Europe, he manages the influx of people that give each other turns in front of 2 computers in an overcrowded tent, to try and place a Skype call and obtain an appointment.
Due to the emergency, with MSF we have done many things that are not usually within our realm of operations. In the beginning we were also distributing meals. We cannot also cover this information problem, and it's not our responsibility!
One of the two wifi networks is provided for and managed exclusively by a group of volunteers. To make the situation even more difficult, nobody in the Thessaloniki office is replying to the Skype calls. Yamine, 24, is an Italo-Algerian volunteer who came to Idomeni from Padova with the Over the Fortress campaign. Together with a group of young people from all over Europe, he manages the influx of people that take turns in front of two computers in an overcrowded tent, trying to place a Skype call and book an appointment. “There are a few set days and times when calls can be placed,” says Yamine. “The problem is that very often no one replies on the other end of the line. We have been here since this morning for example, and no one has replied to a single call. The lives of these people are literally hanging on this call.”
Last week, Rania Ali, a 20-year-old economics student from Syria who is stranded in Idomeni, launched a petition on Change.org. She’s asking to replace Skype with an alternative system, after having tried to book an appointment without success for 20 days straight. The petition has received over 80,000 signatures, but they need another 68,000 to reach the goal of 150,000 and try to change systems. But Skype is not the only obstacle for asylum seekers. The processing of asylum requests is extremely long. It takes two months for an appointment in Thessaloniki, and people must organize their own transport to the city. Most have already spent everything they had, and cannot even afford the trip. Finally, it can take between six and nine months to get a response. This is an impossibly long time to survive here in Idomeni.
Esraa, a 25-year-old architecture student from Damascus, came to Idomeni with her parents and her cat. “I hid him in a baby sling! He's lost 5kg since we've arrived. We're all ill here. My mother has a hernia, and sleeping on the floor is terrible for her.” She goes on to say, “Our tent was hit by strong winds last night. I've asked for a new one at the UNHCR container, but they told me I would have to move into one of the government camps.
A majority of these new camps do not respect even basic hygiene standards.
A collective shock
In the north of Greece, the government has opened 10 new institutional camps, managed in collaboration with the UNHCR. Amongst these is Neakavala, just a few kilometers from Idomeni, which we tried to visit but were stopped. “You can't go in. You need permission from Athens,” says the soldier at the entrance. Videos and photography are also prohibited.
“A majority of these new camps do not respect even basic hygiene standards,” explains Emanuel Massart. “A number of people have returned here, because they did not even have guaranteed access to water there.” Among the returnees was Marek, a 37-year-old teacher in Homs. She's here with her husband, two children, sister-in-law, and three nephews. I meet her whilst I'm walking through the small village of Idomeni - a group of houses that until a few months ago had only a few hundred inhabitants. “In our bad luck, we have been lucky,” she explains. “An old woman has given us the use of her garage. She doesn't speak English, and I understand nothing of what she is saying, but she is helping us a lot. The Greeks are good people,” she says. “It is the governments that are treating us like animals. Back home my family and I were amongst those who helped the poor, and now...I can't even feed my son...I don't sleep at night, he can't eat the camp food anymore. Fruits and vegetables cost too much for us, and I cannot cook anything. We have lived through five years of war, lost all of our possessions in the sea and on our journey, and now we are here. I don't know how we will manage for Ramadan. I can't even pray, and praying makes me feel better. But we need to be cleaned properly to do so, and we don't have water.”
My instinct, as a lay non-Muslim, would be to say to her, “Pray anyway, if it makes you feel better. Allah will understand.” But then I remember a conversation between the writer Jonathan Safran Foer and his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. After being freed, despite the risk of dying of hunger, she refused a piece of pork because it wasn't kosher. Explaining that impossible decision, she said, “If nothing matters, then there is nothing to save.”
It is a collective shock that is being experienced by the thousands facing the closure of the border: “Look, three months ago I was here!” says Mohammed, a 25-year-old Syrian nurse, showing me a photo of himself smiling in a restaurant with his family. “Look how handsome, clean, and classy I was. Now I'm here, in this filth…” Together with nine other camp volunteers, he manages Solidaritea: an initiative launched by a German youth group to distribute approximately 3,000 litres of tea to the camp each day. “Helping out is saving me from going mad. By serving tea, I have made friends with people from all across Europe. The only sad thing is that sooner or later they will leave, whereas I will remain stuck here.”
In the last few days, the number of people in the camp has diminished. About 2,000 refugees have been transferred to government camps - but according to a few volunteers, many are still trying a last desperate attempt to cross the border. “Knowing nothing makes people even more vulnerable to the promises of traffickers,” says Imad Aoun, regional manager of Save the Children. “It makes me think that if there is no information, maybe there is no precise plan. After all, these are forgotten refugees, those who have found themselves stuck in the countries on the Balkan route just before the EU-Turkey deal.”
Rania, 22, is here with her parents. She speaks English well, and invites me into her tent. She tells me that she studied architecture in Damascus, and was headed to Sweden to be reunited with her younger brother. Idomeni interrupted her journey and her life. “We were really not expecting the borders to be closed.” We stop and talk for a long time, and before our goodbye, I tell her that I would pass by to see her the following day. She shakes her head, and tells me that she wouldn't be there anymore. “We're leaving.” Rania and her family are amongst those who still have something left to invest, and have no intention of stopping and waiting. Asking her to stop and think about the dangers of the traffickers and the violence of the Macedonian police is useless, perhaps almost cruel, because the alternative is to remain in an infernal limbo of mud, scorching heat, and inhumane conditions. She confirms my thoughts with her parting words: “Better to die on the other side, than to die slowly here.”
Photo Credits: Ottavia Spaggiari