I ignored the policeman’s advice about buses for normal people and tried to find a car full of refugees who spoke perfect English. When that failed I settled on one where between two of the four we could manage a pretty decent conversation. When refugees cross into Macedonia they are given the option of a taxi or a train to the Serbian border, for the same price per person. Problems arise because children under seven ride for free so no taxi driver wants to take more than one kid per car. A very large Afghan family will have to wait until the next train which is 10 hours away. In my car are four guys in their twenties who insist that I sit in the front despite the fact that I’m smaller than any of them. They are curious about what I’m doing, but find it less strange than most of the non-refugees I’ve spoken to. We each pay 25 euro, no one asks me to put in more. Before we leave I ask the driver if I have time to buy some water, and three of the four thrust unopened bottles at me.
Mahmoud, 27 and his brother Annas, 25 are from Palestine, Nasa, 29 and Nabin, 20 are from Morocco. For the next two hours we skirt across Macedonia to Tabanovtse. Nasa speaks French perfectly and English well enough so between the two we get by. I point out to him that Morocco is not at war, and he openly agrees and says he had no fear there, but no life. He left three years ago and has been floating around the Middle East ever since. Finally he decided to try his luck and wants to get to Norway because he likes the cold. ‘I could not stay just sitting any longer, I want to change my life. No war, but no future.’ A qualified mechanic, he could not get a job anywhere and wants to start a family. For a year and a half he’s had a Russian girlfriend he met in Egypt, ‘I was not like this when we met’ he assures me, ‘I was clean and had fresh dressing and nice face’. His girlfriend, who he has just left in Dubai, wants to live in Russia. He tells me they’ve just had an argument, ‘I love her, but she drive me so crazy- I had to delete what’s ap.’ The idea from what I can gather is that once he’s established himself as a millionaire mechanic in Oslo the girlfriend will forget about St Petersburg and follow. She paid for his flight to Istanbul and this is a source of great shame for him. He averts my eyes as he says it, and you can tell this man is crippled by how powerless he feels to control his own future. ‘I don’t have anything, sometimes this country, sometimes that country. All I do is food, sleep, smoke.’ He is also very upset by having to accept charity in general. He had two large packs but they were stolen in Turkey and his belongings have been reduced to a plastic bag. ‘For 9 days now I have no shower, no wash. These clothes, they are not mine. I had to take them’
His friend Nabin is sporting an injury he sustained days ago on the boat journey to Greece. But they have not stopped to see a doctor. The 20 year old is incredibly pale and I tell them that once we get to the camp they should speak to a medic. But they are determined not to waste time and want to keep moving. ‘We cannot sleep, we need to move, we don’t like sitting’. The taxi driver later tells me that 10 000 people crossed over yesterday and in reality they will have to sit for a while on the Serbian side to be processed.
Mahmoud is 27 but easily looks ten years older than me. He speaks Hebrew, Swedish, Arabic and some English. He shows me the scars on his head and arms from where the Israeli soldiers shot at him in Hebron. He intervened to help a relative they were trying to take after an argument, and they turned on him. He tells me the situation has become so bad you cannot leave your home without being harassed. ‘We go to sleep, and the next morning there are new houses on our land.’ He feels that there is no hope for him in Palestine and things are getting worse, he acts out how soldiers in Gaza point guns at children. Mahmoud left the occupied West Bank a month ago and travelled to Turkey before crossing the Med. He made the decision to leave his wife and child behind and bring them over later rather than risk putting them on a boat. He shows me photos of his little girl who is 2 and has a huge bow on her head. The next photo is of him clutching someone else’s baby on a boat, less than 6 months old. He tells me the Turkish smugglers were even rough with the children. ‘The babies were very scared on the trip, we all had to help.’
I ask them if they would ever go back to their countries. Nasa says maybe in ten years, to show his children. Mahmoud shakes his head, thinks about it, and then says ‘maybe in twenty’. He then shows me photos of the Al-Aqsa mosque and starts raving about its beauty. When I tell him I’ve been there he grows very excited. I tell Nasa I have also been to Casablanca and travelled in Morocco. Mahmoud’s face clouds over and he says, ‘international travel, that is so nice for you’ and I wish I had kept my mouth shut. While Moroccans can visit 56 countries visa free, it’s harder for Palestinians, and Mahmoud snuck out on a false passport. None of them have any papers, the Palestinians to start with and the Moroccans since Turkey where the smugglers put a gun to their head and took their documentation, claiming they would be turned back otherwise. They are all amazed by how nice people in Europe are, and I am too much of a coward to tell them this will not always be the case.
I mention ISIS. The Palestinians don’t know much about it, but rage visibly flashes through Nasa. ‘These people have no religion’ he tells me, ‘they are not Muslim, they are not human’. He goes on to explain how what they do is harem, and Islam forbids it. As a way of making me understand, he talks about how to be a Muslim it is very important to be clean, inside and out, and no one from ISIS can be clean. When I ask why he thinks people are going to fight with them, his explanation is surprisingly economic. ‘C’est fou, but they think it’s the only way to get a house and money… People like me, who want a better life, but they are crazy.’ He is not worried about any of them coming to Europe this way and laughs when I ask, ‘they take the planes… It is the people running from them who take the boats’.
They ask me about my plans once we get to the camp, and I explain I can’t cross with them but will return to visit that night with a contact in Skopje. Mahmoud immediately grows concerned and tells me this is not a good idea and I need to be careful. ‘I am afraid for you’. After a couple of hours in the car this man is sincerely concerned for my well being and starts quizzing me on how I know this person. His almost brotherly worry is so genuine I’m taken aback.
When we get to the crossing I’m suddenly overcome with I don’t know what. I’ve heard many people describe the situation here as a form of apartheid, and every time I’ve dismissed such a label as excessive and exaggerated. But now that I’m here and I’m living it, now that I go one way and they go another, that’s exactly what it feels like. While I will walk across a border and flash my passport, these kind, generous, funny and smart men who I’ve spent the last two hours talking and joking with, who have shared with me, have to spend hours in a dirty camp being pushed from here to there not knowing what’s going on. These are my friends now and it just doesn’t seem fair. Before I even realise what’s happening I’m blubbering, and the poor, hungry refugees who haven’t slept in days and have been walking for hours try to comfort the privileged, well fed Australian girl who will sleep in a hotel room tonight and can’t keep her shit together. It would have been hilarious in its ludicrousness, but I am so ashamed by my own good fortune that I can’t see the humour in it at all.