At closed border, thousands stand their ground in hope
The gate in the fence has been sealed for nearly a month to the thousands of refugees and other migrants whose desperate dash across the continent
Through the coils of razor wire and a fence that stretches across green fields, the gathered people can see what has become a forbidden land — Macedonia and its still-snow-capped mountains, the route they had hoped to take on their journey northward through the Balkans to the more prosperous heartland of Europe.
The gate in the fence has been sealed for nearly a month to the thousands of refugees and other migrants whose desperate dash across the continent left Europe scrambling for a coherent response to its largest refugee crisis since World War II. The decision that eventually came was to close the western Balkan route, stranding more than 51,000 people in Greece, the vast majority of them war refugees.
Despite the closure, more than 11,000 remain in what was once a transit camp near the village of Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border. The camp has long since overflowed, with men, women and children enduring deplorable conditions in howling winds and pouring rain for days and weeks.
While hundreds have boarded buses heading to other, more organized camps that Greek authorities have been frantically setting up across the country, many insist they will not leave. They still hope against hope — and against all indications — that Europe will relent and reopen the borders.
More than anything, they fear the unknown: of being sent to camps where their movements are restricted, where they might not be able to leave, where the conditions might be even worse.
“I don’t know what will happen. I am confused a little, like everyone here,” said Ahmad, a 30-year-old mechanical engineer from Daraa in Syria who would not give his surname to protect his family. Having fled Syria about two months ago, he has been in Idomeni for roughly 40 days and says he doesn’t want to move to another camp.
“I am comfortable here in a big tent. The other camps will be the same. So I just wait here.”
His dream is the same as those of countless others who have passed through these fields. “To have a safe life, in a safe country without any troubles.”
He hopes to find a job, preferably in engineering, in whichever country he ends up in. “My town was destroyed. There is nothing left in Syria. There is no safe place for us left right now.”
But for the foreseeable future, the border will not open. And as winter turns into spring, signs of brewing tension have appeared with some of the local farmers who want to plow their fields — the fields the refugees are camping in.
On Thursday, one farmer turned up with his tractor and started plowing by the tents as small children played in the field.
“I need to plow my field. Not somebody else’s field, mine! I have a business with 70-80 calves, I want to produce (food for them), feed them, because, financially, I can’t take this anymore,” said Lazaros Oulis after the police stopped him.
“I told some NGOs here that I would give them a couple of acres so they could build two large sheds and I could save the rest of my field, nobody paid attention to me,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with the (refugee) families, no problem at all. I could have been in their place. But I, also, have obligations.”
Some of the refugees pointed out that Oulis had set up a canteen in the camp but that his business had now dropped off as other canteens had appeared with better prices. Still, they showed understanding for his complaint.
“He is right, I say that he is right because it’s his land.” said 32-year-old Syrian Reshal Hamdo.
“We don’t know what we will do, this is not our country, it’s not our land.”
With time, the Idomeni camp has become a small community, gradually assuming the trappings of semi-permanence.
Although the nights and dawn are still frigid, the rain has, at least for now, given way to warm spring days that are baking the mud dry.
Several new, large tents have been set up to house people and shelter them from the elements. Mobile canteens do a roaring trade in coffee, tea and snacks while men and children set up boxes along the side of the road, selling everything from cigarettes, tomatoes, potatoes and canned food to saucepans, kitchen knives, hair brushes and coloring pens.
Many of the camp’s residents live in small tents pitched in the fields and along the railway tracks. Some have fashioned small courtyards outside their tent entrances, making benches and low tables from logs and planks of wood. At the far end of one of the fields, there’s a tent for children’s activities, with mini soccer goalposts and little trampolines set up outside.
“The situation here ... it’s reasonable. It’s safe, and the general atmosphere is great,” said Saleh Abdi, a 23-year-old from the Syrian capital, Damascus, hoping to reach his 15-year-old brother who made it to the Netherlands. “So I don’t want them to move me to another place. ... Here I am free. Nobody can tell me to do this or that.”
Abdi has been in the camp for 15 days, and says he’ll wait for another 15 or possibly more before seeking out other options.
“Another plan, to try from another country,” he said. “Possibly one of the smugglers. There is no other choice.”
His little brother has told him of a wonderful life in the Netherlands, and he prays the borders will open so he can rejoin him.
“We hope. ... I always depend on my God and my God won’t let me down. ... I put all my power in my God. So I think, I hope, the border will be open.”
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