I take the official and ordered crossing from FYROM into Serbia at Miratovac and reach the processing centre at Presevo. This camp is the most chaotic that I’ve witnessed. There are people everywhere yelling, and a heavier police and military presence than I’ve seen before. As this is an entry point, people here are registered and fingerprinted and this takes time. On an average day- 8 hours, on a bad day- 24. After arriving from the border groups are barricaded and held back behind metal rails in numbers of 50 or so. It really looks like something out of a war film. From here they move up the line group by group until they enter the UNHCR tents where they are processed, finger printed, and then board a train or bus to Sid at the Croatian border.
Adis from the United Presevo Volunteers comes out to meet me at the entrance where I’ve had another encounter with a displeased policeman. I’m not going to be allowed into the official tents. I hopefully and helpfully tell the cop that I’m Australian, but this one doesn’t seem to care.
Adis has been in Presevo for a month now. There are about 25 volunteers living in a house, literally crammed into the rafters sleeping on top of each other. These people are phenomenal. Unlike on Lesbos, there is no glamour and prestige in Presevo, there are no pretty beaches and waterside restaurants, and these guys are doing it tough. They work 18 hours days, and from what I can tell, they’re the only reason the situation hasn’t completely spiraled out of control. Before entering the camp it is this group who are handing out water and food and clothes and basic medical care to the refugees who may be here for hours and hours before they are processed. MSF also have a tent to deal with the most serious cases, but policemen often refuse to let people out of the line, even to use the toilet. As a result children defecate in their pants. When groups move forward to be registered people are anxious, and there’s a high risk of babies and children being trampled. I see for myself Adis throw himself into one such movement and act as a human shield to stop a little girl being flattened. The Presevo volunteers work entirely off donations and are desperately in need, with funding left for only a few more days, so if you can spare it- $50 goes a very long way in Serbia.
Volunteers also provide essential information to people who often have no idea what’s going on. Some refugees think that they are in Slovenia and not far from ‘Mama Merkel’. Others arrive having no idea which country they’re in. Something that makes a huge difference is basic communication, so the volunteers have made info sheets explaining where they are and what happens next. It seems incredulous that this hasn’t been done by the state or large NGOs. It’s such a basic and obvious thing to keep people informed, and the times I’ve seen refugees stress is when they don’t understand what’s going on. It would be a simple gesture, as well as an act of basic decency and a sign of respect to acknowledge these people as humans who deserve the courtesy of knowing what’s going to happen to them. It’s also pragmatic and would make everyone’s lives a lot easier.
The volunteers are all young, I don’t see anyone who looks over 40, many are in-between studies or jobs, some have left work to come here. All of them look exhausted and stressed. I ask them about their biggest problems, which seems a stupid question when the whole place is chaos. They tell me how the medic tent is only able to handle priorities, and there are so many problems that priority has come to mean being 8.5 months pregnant and having contractions. If you don’t fit that description, you’re waiting a while. Young men show up with injuries sustained from the boat trip from Turkey, having walked through Greece with serious wounds, but single males are never the priority.
Another huge issue is psychological care. Children often have panic attacks, particularly when they are separated from their parents. I hear one story of a 16 year old diabetic who was refusing to take insulin and effectively killing herself slowly. Another of two teenage girls who fled Syria and had all their belongings stolen in Hungary, one had started cutting herself. A woman died in a hotel room because they switched off the water and she couldn’t take her heart medication. They found her reaching for the pills. A bottle of water is all that would have made the difference. When stocks are low, water is only distributed to ‘special cases’- drinking water– a decision actually has to be made for who stays dehydrated.
The volunteer house is set less than 50m back from the street where the refugees are barricaded. The background noise of people in distress is loud and constant, and I don’t understand how they are getting any sleep at all. One tells me that she sleeps with a walkie talkie next to her ear in case of an emergency, meaning she never sleeps at all. Everyone has nightmares about the screams that sometimes come from the street and mean that something is really very wrong. I am so humbled by these people and their dedication. I could not live how they are living and the difference that they are making is enormous. Recently, Adis started cooking for everyone, but some days there is only enough money for them to have one hot meal. Because they want to be clear that general donations go to the refugees, you can donate specifically to their kitchen.
Something I’ve heard consistently since leaving Greece is stories of the authority’s brutality. While the military generally have a better understanding, policemen are not trained to deal with these kinds of situations. There is no understanding of cross-cultural communication, and it shows. People are shouted at like animals and pointed at like criminals. I see one man pushed to the ground and others dealt with very roughly for daring to take a step forward. But I’m also told stories of compassion, that the cops here are protective of the volunteers, and very, very concerned about the babies. But still there is no order in Presevo. Attempts to separate women and children from men to protect them in the crowds don’t work because wives obviously want to stay with their husbands. And when the crowd surges it’s the most vulnerable who are at risk of being trampled. The power of a group of people of this size heaving with exasperation and aggravation is quite frightening.
As with everything I’ve seen in the last week, there are many stories of humanity at its best. Some of the refugees have helped with crowd control, a Syrian social worker intervened in one tense situation and told Adis, ‘I got your back’. At one particularly busy point a group of kids aged 7-10 helped with running the food distribution tent, excited to be given a role and responsibility, and just something to do other than wait. A Spanish NGO called Clowns Without Borders showed up one day and started entertaining the children, but it ended up having just as positive an effect on the state of mind of the police. One story that gives me chills is of a day where supplies ran out and there was nothing left to give. People were getting anxious when Adis, feeling powerless, started playing music on a whim, and almost immediately the situation calmed. Everyone, including the police, started singing. A moment of normalcy in an otherwise appalling situation prevented disaster. On another occasion when they were linking arms to try and hold a crowd back, a group of Moroccan guys started singing ‘We are the world’. Sometimes all it takes is a song, an act that reminds everyone we are all the same, and a part of something bigger than ourselves.