'Miles to go before I sleep' - On the front lines of the migration crises in Europe

The images being shown ranged from horrific stories of dead refugees suffocating in a truck while being smuggled, to Germans clapping and welcoming arrivals.

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September 16, 2015 03:00
THE WRITER poses next to the fence along the Hungarian border

THE WRITER poses next to the fence along the Hungarian border. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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By the third day I’d given away all my clean socks. It wasn’t the plan, but sitting with five young men from Afghanistan in the stately long-unused train station of Backi Vinogradi, watching them dry out their crumbled wet socks after sleeping outside in the pouring rain, it was the least one could do.

Doing something, rather than just documenting suffering, helped diminish the fact that there is a parasitical feeling to being a journalist.

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The day before at the border of Macedonia and Greece, as police prevented hundreds gathered on a bridge from crossing, the journalists swarmed around snapping photos of the raindrenched, desperate faces of the refugees and migrants from Syria and beyond.

It’s difficult to cover these kind of crises, when suffering people become like animals in a zoo and you’re expected to be part of the spectating audience. Initially, at Idomeni, a sleepy Greek border village, the thousands of Syrians and Afghans crossing were smiling to the lone photographer present, a journalist from Bosnia.

But by the time they reached Hungary a day and a half later, after traveling some eight hours and 700 kilometers on buses across the Serbian border, they had gotten tired of the press presence. Women covered their faces and men looked more despondent.

They were proud of themselves for arriving in Hungary, which they saw as the EU gateway to their destination of Germany and Scandinavia, but they were less happy to be starring in their own kind of reality show.

“I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for my information,” the erudite and sometimes cantankerous writer Christopher Hitchens once quipped.



For similar reasons I set off to cover the migration crises in Europe.

The images being shown ranged from horrific stories of dead refugees suffocating in a truck while being smuggled, to Germans clapping and welcoming arrivals. But storm clouds were gathering, literally and figuratively.

The weather is dampening and soon winter will approach along the refugee trail that leads from Greece to Hungary.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s statements against migrants grow more strident by the day: Europe is in a grip of “madness,” he says, Hungary faces a “rebellion” by the immigrants. Since all of the migrants seem to want to go to Germany, not settle in Hungary, he claimed the Germans should take responsibility and not burden his state as a transition point. “The moral, human thing is to make clear, please don’t come,” he said.

There is also fear that the refugees from Syria are mostly Muslim and that they are a threat to Europe’s “Christian roots.” Other stories regaled the public with images of immigrants spitefully tossing aside non-Halal food, or tossing trash everywhere.

And the most shocking reports were those claiming that ISIS is using the refugees to infiltrate Europe.

To begin the journey I seriously considered flying to Lesbos to join those arriving from Turkey by rubber dinghy. With 25,000 stranded on the island, this is one of the main entrée points, because the island lies so close to Turkey and smugglers can easily provide rubber inflatable boats to would-be immigrants.

On just one day last week, the Greeks rescued 1,200 migrants arriving from Turkey and put 4,000 on ferries to Athens. It is also a perilous journey. On September 15, 22 people drowned when their boat capsized off Datca, Turkey.

I contacted a Syrian family in Istanbul who were planning to leave last Wednesday night. It was a whole family, some of whom had suffered injuries on their way from Syria to Turkey.

The father wrote in his last message before boarding a dinghy for Greece, “I’m afraid because my little brother’s babies are with me.”

I asked my Syrian friends in Turkey: If I just show up on a beach in Greece, will the police put me on a ferry or train north? That seemed to be the process – Greece is facilitating the move north.

The most difficult part of covering this crisis was getting a Greek rental company to allow their car to cross through Macedonia, because Macedonian border control requires the car have insurance and documents called a “green card” that most EU border controls don’t bother to ask for.

Driving north from Thessaloniki there were no signs of the immigrant crisis depicted in the media, the way some had made it seem like they were inundating these countries. When I got to Gevgelija on the Macedonian side of the border, the reason became apparent: some 1,000 people were crammed onto a bridge connecting the two countries.

They weren’t stuck there because of strict border checks, but because the Macedonian police wanted to ensure enough buses were present to take them north to Serbia, 150 kilometers north on the E75, the main highway that goes north from Thessaloniki to Serbia. All of Macedonia’s tour buses and taxis seemed to have been called to the scene, waiting in a long queue in the rain, to take the people.

Here it strikes one immediately that this event is unique in human history.

Perhaps never before have so many crossed borders with hundreds of police present and been encouraged to cross, not only without registering or without proper documents or baggage checks, but encouraged to simply keep moving.

There is no pretense of “illegality.”

This is an organized mass migration, all of which is illegally done with the collaboration of the authorities, in the sense that legal border controls on the nearby highway require one to have a passport. With some 4,000 crossing a day, some estimates even say 7,000, the numbers in a month would reach more than 120,000, with Germany estimating it will take in some 800,000 this year.

Speaking with the mostly Syrian refugees, who almost all seemed to be from Aleppo, one is struck by how misguided some media commentators have been. “Why don’t Gulf states take them”; “Israel should remember its history and let in Syrian refugees”; “Saudi Arabia has room for three million refugees in air-conditioned tents but has taken none” – op-eds have asked.

None of the Syrians want to go to Saudi Arabia to live in an air-conditioned tent; they don’t want to go to Israel, they don’t want to be refugees in a tent city in Abu Dhabi. They want a normal life in a wealthy European country, where hard work could provide them a house or apartment for their family.

Few of the commentators bother to ask them what they want, paternalistically deciding that a tent in Saudi Arabia, where they would be second-class citizens, is good enough for them. Most have already lived for two years as refugees in Turkey. This is their chance not to be refugees, but to be people again.

The Syrians in particular had thought the journey through carefully, saving thousands of dollars and putting it in the hands of friends to be transferred via Western Union when they arrived. They had brought money to pay for taxis and bus tickets and food; and they had brought smartphones, if only they could find Wi-Fi to tell people they are okay.

Thinking of that, I sent my Syrian contacts a message on WhatsApp: Had they arrived safely in Greece? No answer.

Driving north, one crosses old frontlines from the First World War, the city of Nis which is the birthplace of Constantine the Great, and one comes to nearby Shtip in Macedonia, a pretty town where once there were 500 Jews before they were almost all murdered in the Holocaust. This is an area rich in historical suffering and old nationalist feuds; the mass migration of people from the Middle East and Asia is thus just one more group to cross these borders.

When I finally reached Horgos on the Serbian border with Hungary, it was past midnight and after 10 hours of stupor-inducing driving in the rain.

The plan was to sleep at the railroad station, where I assumed migrants would be gathered. But after an hour of driving in circles in a town otherwise known for being on the Serbian “wine route,” I found nothing.

No migrant camps, no open-pit fires.

Where were the 4,000 people who would cross tomorrow? Police estimates in Hungary put the rising numbers at 2,533 on August 26, 3,601 on September 9 and a record 5,800 on September 13. At the train tracks leading to Hungary a lone police care was stationed and vans were coming at all hours of the night to drop off people who had paid a fare from southern Serbia to get here. The people disembarked and then vanished into the night.

It’s one thing to join 200 people in a train station – one can’t “sneak” among a family of 10 and ask to sleep next to them – so I reclined the car seat, listened to the rain, and went to sleep.

The next morning I finally found the local abandoned train station at Backi Vinogradi. The Afghans had thrown away cans of tomato paste as “not halal.” It’s true the migrants have left behind tons of trash, the detritus of some 200,000 people, but this is to be expected. The local Serb authorities had sent out municipal workers to clean it up; and since it was all concentrated along abandoned train tracks, it didn’t seem to affect the local community.

It is jarring how thousands can be walking down train tracks, but in the local community you don’t see many stragglers. Every once in a while I caught site of some who must have gotten lost and ended up in a field or highway. As long as they followed the correct route they would be fine.

I joined the Afghan group for the last few kilometers’ walk into Hungary.

Now the sheer constant volume of people moving down these tracks was apparent. It reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or the Great Depression. The train tracks had become the way to get cross country.

Some have remarked on the Holocaust imagery of these tracks. “We Jews were deported along them,” my wife asked when I got back. But this isn’t the Holocaust.

Germany is taking in more refugees this year than there were Jews in Germany in 1933. For all the misery of Hungary’s migrant camps, where people are being tossed food over fences and where lumbering police wear masks as if the immigrants are infected with the plague, no one is being killed. People are suffering momentary humiliation for a new life.

In general, this stage of their journey has been relatively easy, from ferry to train to bus, to taxi, to train to bus; with a few dozen kilometers of walking in between. It’s incredibly sad to see people changing diapers on the side of the train tracks, to see women collapse from exhaustion, or men cry because police won’t let their wives and children through a cordon and all they want to do is move north.

These images will remain with me forever. To cover this story, really the only way is to be with the people.

When press reports that “ISIS members are sneaking into Europe,” perhaps there are a few, but the vast majority is not ISIS members. The vast majority of these people don’t even seem to be very religious.

We didn’t see them pray. At a mosque in Albania, they didn’t crowd around to listen to a preacher fill them with stories from the Koran.

Many of them, except the Afghans, were middle class back home in Syria; their lives shattered by the never ending war.

For those claiming the barbarians are at the gates of Europe: The refugees are not barbarians, and Europe has no gates. This is an unprecedented migration of global scale, part of a larger two-decade migration into Europe from the Middle East and Africa.

As Austria suspends train service, Germany says it will institute border controls and Denmark speaks of closing a highway. This crisis is at the heart of the European Union and its bureaucratic muddling and inability to coordinate. Now the gates seem to be going up all over the EU.

At midnight on September 14, Hungary rolled an old train carriage bedecked with barbed wire down to the border and closed the last chink in its border fence. By Tuesday morning, the thousands who had expected to cross were stuck in limbo. This historic migration route, that had seen 172,000 people cross in the last months, was closed.

Back in the Macedonian town of Shtip on Saturday night, an old fraternity brother of mine was in town for his friend’s wedding. A hot shower was in order and it was at that moment that I realized that, for a sense of dignity, probably the one thing someone could give these immigrants in a camp is a nice place to shower.

But when I arrived in Idomeni the next morning, to see Greek police moving groups of migrants across to Macedonia, there were signs for showers.

No one was using them, just like no one wanted to use the temporary shelters the UN provided. These people were racing to beat the EU policies of border controls.

For all the well-wishers who wanted to provide aid, the refugees themselves didn’t seem to need much more than a sandwich and a free bus ticket. I looked at my WhatsApp. The Syrians still were out of contact. Had they made it? My friend in Istanbul said half of them had got to Greece, the other half were still waiting.

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