A journey to the unknown on the Balkan migrant route (1)
Since the beginning of 2015, more than 350,000 people fleeing war and misery have reached Europe in risky, sometimes deadly journeys on inflatable boats. They set sail from Turkey's shores for Greece and from chaos-ridden Libya for Italy. Most are Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, desperate to restart their lives in safety.
But they face a journey plagued with obstacles, smugglers and hustlers, long waits in the sun and short nights in the cold before they get there. They also face many fears and exorbitant costs, which they cover with money borrowed from family or from having sold their homes.
After covering the refugees' ordeal on the Greek islands, AFP has sent a team of three journalists on the Balkan migrant route to follow the continuation of their journey to an all too uncertain future.
This is a diary with notes from the trip from Greece through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. Our plan is to reach Germany with the migrants.
Day 1 - From the Greek border into Macedonia
IDOMENI, Greece, Sept. 2, 2015 - From the break of dawn, we see large groups of people walking along the highway and then the railroad, leading to a makeshift crossing point manned by Greek police.
The scenery is stunning: a little stream flows under the highway, there are fields of sunflowers as far as the eye can see, and the morning light caresses the skin.
But there will be no more mercy.
Within an hour, the sun beats down cruelly as hundreds wait at the border to enter Macedonia.
Everyone is impatient to cross, yet they must wait to go through the newest phase of an administrative labyrinth that began the minute they set foot in Greece.
No one carries much with them, knowing they must walk a long way and need to save their energy.
I start speaking to people as they rush across the border. One Syrian woman, Falak al-Khaled, tells me she is a journalist. I am sure I have heard her name before. She reminds me: she recently wrote an article about the difficulties faced by Syrian refugee girls in Turkey, where schools for refugees are financed mainly by Islamists. Now, she has become a refugee too.
"My husband had a heart problem and in Turkey treatment was too expensive. So we must make this journey, just so we can live somewhere in dignity," al-Khaled says.
Another man who waits to cross, who identifies himself only as Danny, says he wants to live in Europe because he doesn't believe in war.
"It's not just about the dangers of living in Syria," says the man, who comes from the coastal city of Tartous near Lebanon.
"The country now belongs to the warlords and criminals. We have no place there any more. We need a new home."
And now, even though the road ahead will be long and tough, he says he doesn't regret his decision to leave.
"It's enough for me to say that I am making this journey of my own accord, and that I have my freedom to choose my path."
Mark, a 33-year-old from Cameroon, is angrier. He has been living in Greece since 2009 and married a Greek national in 2010. But the authorities refused to give him a residency permit.
"My wife cried for a week but I knew I had to leave," he says. "I want to live like a human being. I speak English and French, but the only work I can get in Athens is as an illegal construction worker. I need to leave."
Three vans are parked on the side of the railroad where the migrants wait, one of them selling ice cream for the children.
"It's all business," says the owner.
A few hours later, we are on the Macedonian side of the border. Everything is different here. The military is deployed instead of the police and we walk along dirt tracks that are especially difficult for women with children and people with wheelchairs or crutches -- and there are several of them, all from Syria.
"God have mercy on us," pants Umm Mohammad, a woman in her 50s, who is travelling with her elderly husband. He is confined to a wheelchair because of a spinal injury. Were it not for four young Syrians who have accompanied the family since they first climbed into an inflatable dinghy from Turkey to Greece, they might not have made it this far.
There are long queues of people seated on the ground in a grim camp, which has barely any services on offer for the travellers.
They wait for the next train up to the border with Serbia, their next destination.
Many spend the night in the cold -- there is simply no room tonight.
The full moon glares down at us, a rare reminder that there is still beauty in this world.
Day 2 - Ghost train through Macedonia
ON A TRAIN BOUND TO SERBIA, Sept. 3, 2015 - It's around 7:30 am and we hear the next train from Macedonia's border camp with Greece to the Serbian frontier is leaving at eight. In the camp people sit on the dusty ground in rows, a Macedonian officer watching over them and ordering anyone who dares stand up to sit back down until it's time to board. That includes pregnant women, war amputees and the elderly.
I recognise several of the Syrians there from the border crossing with Greece a day earlier, among them the wife of a 74-year-old man travelling the torturous route for clandestines in a wheelchair.
People begin to board the rusty, heavily graffitied train and there simply isn't enough room for everyone. There are six people to each cabin, and the corridor connecting some 10 cabins in each creaky wagon is packed with people sitting or sleeping on the floor. Clearly we are well above capacity.
But who would know? The people on board are Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans from new-borns to the elderly, all in search of a life their war-devastated countries cannot offer. But for now, many rights that people with legal documents take for granted are simply not afforded to the refugees and migrants.
When I saw last week people first arriving in Greece's Kos resort island on inflatable dinghies they were in shock but they were hopeful. But on this train, people feel invisible in their ordeal -- perhaps the only feeling that can be worse than misery itself.
As the train chugs along for some four hours up towards the Serbian border, we see trees, villages, the sunshine and people with what appear to be normal lives outside. But the contrast between the sleepy world outside and the dark side of reality inside the wagon is overwhelming, and what we can see through the window seems to me like random nature scenes from a film.
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As more and more passengers fall asleep in the corridor, there is less and less room for the rest.
I spend much of the train ride talking to Alia and Ahmad, a young Iraqi couple who have risked it all to reach Europe with their four-month-old baby.
My brilliant colleagues photographer Aris Messinis and video journalist Celine Jankowiak and I have been travelling with them ever since.
It was Aris who saw them first and suggested we speak with them. Ahmad, 27, has big brown eyes full of hope and sparkle. He carries his boy Adam in a baby carrier. Alia, 26, has somehow managed to stay extremely pretty despite the journey she has faced this far. She wears Levis jeans and her caramel-coloured hair in a bun.
The two take turns to feed the baby.
Around us, whoever has managed to stay awake discusses how they came to be in Macedonia. They talk about the wars in Syria and Iraq, and the loss of hope in their homeland. They share horror stories of the journey by boat to Greece. They try to make sense of the labyrinth of administrative procedures that they enter the second they reach Europe.
The train arrives at its destination but the travellers have to walk another two kilometres in difficult terrain before they reach the border crossing.
To them, it is as though they never set foot in Macedonia at all.
Serbia: the end of the Balkans
Syrians arrive at the Macedonia-Serbia border on August 30, 2015 (AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)
We cross the border and head towards Presevo camp where new arrivals register with the Serbian authorities.
An elderly man with a plaster cast on his leg hobbles excruciatingly slowly from the border area towards the camp, for a new round of registration.
Around him there is only a large expanse of red-coloured sand, the clear blue sky and an olive tree.
"Tell everybody: we took to the streets to protest against (President) Bashar (al-Assad) and called on him to go, but now we have all left and he stayed," he said as he paused for rest in the shade of the tree.
"This journey is very hard," said the elderly Damascene who refused to reveal his name.
"But let me tell you this, I would have preferred to drown in the sea than to spend my life in Assad's jails."
Day 3 - Belgrade, refugees' respite ahead of looming Hungary
A mother feeds her child at a registration camp in Presevo, Serbia, on August 30, 2015
(AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)
BELGRADE, Sept. 4, 2015 - After an 11-hour bus journey from Presevo camp in southern Serbia that includes a five-hour stop at a police checkpoint over a case of faked documents, we reach the Serbian capital. It is the third country in as many days for the refugees whose path along the Balkan migrant route we are following.
It's nearly 5:00 am and the sun hasn't risen yet. We see the Belgrade park where arrivals in the city without money or legal documents must sleep and at this lonely hour it looks especially grim. "Borders kill," reads a poster pinned on one of the trees as dozens, including women and children, rest in tents or the open air before continuing on their paths to Germany and other European countries where they believe they can live in dignity.
The group that we are accompanying are lucky in that they have a 72-hour permit for free movement within Serbia. Tonight at least, they don't have to sleep under the stars.
But they must now find a hotel that will welcome them at this hour and aside from the exhaustion and indignity of the journey this far, there is also a sense of utter alienation.
"What language do they speak here? What day is it today?" asks one young Syrian, 25-year-old Bilal from the devastated city of Homs. "What is the name of their currency? How are we going to find a hotel?"
Since landing in Greece, each of the thousands of migrants and refugees on the Balkan route has gone through similar procedures every step of the way. But the next phase of their journey -- into Hungary -- is more frightening.
There may not have been much aid along the way up until now, but at least everyone knew they had to wait in the same queues to obtain the same documents in order to reach the next country.
But after Belgrade, there will be no more "processing" -- a term that feels ugly and dehumanising and yet is still used by officers and even some NGO workers along the route. Now people must plot their own ways into the European Union, and there are many.
"Taxi! Taxi!" A group of drivers descend on the refugees, promising they will take them to a hotel that is relatively inexpensive and clean, with plenty of rooms and halal meals on offer.
The reception area of the Hotel Sribja is buzzing with new clients who will pay the full cost of the room despite the fact that check-out time is just six hours away. But everyone is too tired to fight, and they black out in bed. Four or five hours rush past. Everyone wakes up, re-energised. Another day within a day begins.
Just outside the hotel a Syrian doctor who has been living in Serbia for 32 years is close to tears as he talks to the Iraqis and Syrians we have met along the way.
"What happened to Syria? All this because the president (Bashar al-Assad) refuses to abandon his throne? There's nothing left for him to rule except a pile of rubble," says the man, clutching a Serbian newspaper.
"I lived here throughout the Balkan wars and I am sure of this: what is happening in Syria now is even worse than what happened in this region," he adds, as he offers complete strangers any assistance they need to cover their accommodation costs.
"It's really heartbreaking, I never thought my people would live to see such a day," he sighs.
Smuggler routes and new clothes
The hotel showers and pizzas from the restaurant help the exhausted refugees regain some energy as they start thinking about the next stage -- Hungary.
In their bid to keep the migrant influx out of their territory, Hungarian authorities have built a wall and a fence around the country's borders with Serbia. For the refugees, Hungary feels like the biggest obstacle since their Aegean Sea crossing because Budapest is not allowing anyone in unless he or she is willing to register for asylum there. "I need to reach Holland no matter what because I hear that family reunification procedures are straightforward there. I didn't come all this way to be stuck in Hungary where I cannot bring my family over," says Ahmad, a 23-year-old Syrian with a goatee.
While Germany seems to be welcoming Syrian refugees even if they have initiated asylum procedures earlier in their odyssey, the situation is not so clear for Iraqis, Afghans or even Syrians who are trying to reach any other country but Germany.
In the open-air cafe on the ground floor of the hotel, refugees discuss among each other what they plan to do once they reach the border. Some want a "taxi" to take them all the way to Germany and share smuggler's phone numbers with country codes from Turkey, France, Syria and Serbia, while the young men share notes on routes through fields around the frontier that some claim can be crossed without paying anyone.
All they want is to cross Hungary "without fingerprints" -- in other words, without registering.
At other tables nearby, locals share drinks and jokes, seemingly unaware of what the refugees are talking about.
Belgrade is where the refugees stop off at local shopping malls and stores to buy new clothes. After a long journey with nothing to change into, it's time to buy a new T-shirt -- or in Bilal's case, a watch and pink and yellow sunglasses.
Serene Assir is an AFP reporter based in Paris. Follow her on Twitter.