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IMG_2291Last night under the cloak of my Medecine du Monde contingent I visited the Idomeni camp on the Greek-FYROM border. It’s purely a transit camp, and on any given day 10 000 people pass through. The camp is confronting in its sadness and its normalcy. The doctors tent has a waiting room that short of a few copies of Women’s Weekly could be the same as any other medical centre. People sit in line to see the medic, parents try to calm their crying kids and control the naughty ones, and everyone looks bored and restless. Outside there is a group of teenage boys seeing who can clear a railing the most easily by leap frogging. One doesn’t make it and is teased mercilessly. People are trying to connect to the wifi and find somewhere to charge their phones. Other than the overarching sense of waiting and expectation, other than the dirt and the tents and the smell, this could be anywhere. Every now and then a volunteer yells out ‘Farsi and English!’ or ‘Urdu!’ and without fail someone puts up their hand and comes forward to translate.

IMG_2294The only thing that really makes this scene different is the sense of anxiety and nervousness about when it will be their turn to cross. Groups arrive in large buses and are given a ticket, and when their number is called they are allowed to walk into FYROM. The timing depends on the authorities at the other side letting them through. Every 5 mins someone asks me what number they are up to, people are frantic they will miss their turn and be stuck. The really bizarre thing is that there’s no check or control on the numbers, and yet nobody pushes in. Everyone is waiting their turn. The refugees are anxious and frustrated, but incredibly polite; every time I tell them that I don’t know and they just have to wait they thank me profusely.

IMG_2301UNHCR is trying desperately to make sure groups stick together. A problem has been families becoming separated and it is easy to see why. The camp is dark and there are hundreds of people everywhere. People are curled up in corners and fall asleep in the dirt. I chat to a logistics officer from MSF, Antonis, who is very proud with how much his English has improved in the past month since he started working at the camp. Like all of Greece he has family in Melbourne and is excited that I’m Australian. He tells me how his grandparents were refugees and we have to help these people. The kindness in his voice when he responds to the same questions over and over again shows much more patience then I could muster. I think of the video footage of Australian staff at detention centres that was leaked and I cringe. Maybe part of our problem is that we’ve always just had it so good people really believe hardship is not being able to afford a second car. Australians can say things like send them back and ‘stop the boats’ while Antonis can say ‘we know what they have seen’.

Fatima and Ahmoud are a young Kurdish couple who left Syria a month ago. When I ask if they were afraid of the government or ISIS or the rebels Ahmoud waves his hand dismissively and says ‘that kill that and that kill that and they kill me’. So many threats exist that discussing who is responsible has become irrelevant. They have a two month old baby, and for this reason Ahmoud paid 2300 pp to travel to Greece in a new boat. He responds to many of my questions with ‘because I have a baby’, and tells me he saved money for two years and sold his house and all their jewellery to afford the ticket. They spent 20 days in Turkey where they were harassed by the police and the army. Ahmoud tells me that he didn’t sleep for almost three weeks because he had to stay awake and guard their family to make sure his wife and daughter were safe. Eventually a smuggler picked them up from Istanbul and they drove for 9 hours in the dark to Izmir. Crying, terrified, they were put on the boat for Greece. They are heading to Sweden where Ahmoud’s older brother is. His hopes for the future are simple, he wants his daughter to be able to go to school, and he wants to have a life.

I ask them about their wedding and Ahmoud tells me that they couldn’t have a real party because of the war. He seems incredibly protective of Fatima and doesn’t let go of her the whole time we talk. He grows bashful as he explains he wanted to marry her when they first met, but it took him two years to work up the courage. Fatima doesn’t speak any English, but seems to understand this as she looks at me and rolls her eyes. Ahmoud was a chef in a French restaurant in Syria, but he is nervous about finding a job in Europe because he cannot work with pork and is worried this will stop someone from hiring him. I ask if they want to have more kids and he says yes, but only one, he is firm that two is enough. I ask if they would ever go back to Syria and his face contorts into a pained expression. He says that he wants his daughter to see his home, ‘but right now it is too empty’.

Being white the refugees think I am working there and assume that I know what is going on. One man comes up and asks for my help connecting to the wifi. He is trying to reach his family in Afghanistan to tell them that he has arrived safely with his son. This is like the blind leading the blind and all I manage to do is run his battery down while trying to find the setting on his phone. A little girl has no socks or shoes and here I am slightly more helpful in finding something for her feet. People are consistently asking for blankets and tonight for some reason there aren’t any, but they are offered extra warm clothing before they cross over. One woman from Nigeria asks me for a carton, she has three babies with her and doesn’t want to put them on the cold floor.

The scene is incredibly multicultural. I meet people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Eritrea. My new friend Antonis tells me that yesterday they had a group from the Dominican Republic pass through. I walk with one group to the border and it is the strangest feeling. I’ve crossed many borders on foot, but this crossing, in the dark and with authorities herding everyone through like cattle, feels like something out of an apocalypse film.

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Crossing on the FYROM side of the border

Despite suggestions that I disguise myself as a refugee and sneak across the border illegally I choose not to do that, although an interesting idea I’m not quite keen on spending a night in a Macedonian jail. So this morning I went to the official crossing and then travelled back to the unofficial one on the FYROM side. My Greek taxi driver and the hotel owner were quite concerned that I did not have a visa. I assured them that I am Australian and this is no problem. They asked me if I checked and I lie and tell them of course I have, only a stupid idiot who has never travelled before wouldn’t check if they needed a visa to go into a new country. Luckily I turned out to be right, but for a few seconds I had a slight fear of being turned back to where I came from. It’s not a nice feeling even if in my situation it only would have been a minor inconvenience.

The border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

The border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

At the train station in Gevgelja there are buses and taxis everywhere. The refugees cross and those without lots of children take a taxi while large families wait for a train. Drivers don’t charge for young children, but this means they are reluctant to take more than one in a car load. And the police will fine them if they are caught with too many people. I manage to walk past the first line of security without being noticed and cross the tracks trying to look as not-blonde and fair as possible, but have to turn around. My choice to do things officially turned out to be a wise one because almost immediately I was racially profiled by the police and had my passport checked. Macedonia has been doing everything to stop people accessing the camps and they are not impressed with my presence. Without official accreditation, which I don’t have, or official permission from the police, which I couldn’t get, you are not supposed to be there. I explain that I am just trying to get a taxi and want to go to Serbia and they calm down once they see my passport is stamped. But my place is clear, ‘these buses are not for you, here is Syrian people, normal peoples bus is over there’.

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