By Giorgos Kosmopoulos, Director of Amnesty International Greece
The view was staggering upon my arrival in the village of Idomeni, near Greece’s border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Macedonia).
Up to 4,000 refugees, many of them from Syria including many families with children, were trapped after Macedonia’s government designated the southern border just outside the town of Gevgelija a “crisis area”, closing the border crossing and bringing in military backup. The refugees were all trying to pass through Macedonia on their way to northern European countries.
It looked like nothing I had come across before. About 1km from the border, Idomeni’s tiny train station was overcrowded with refugees who had already slept there for several nights. Many others were also sleeping rough in the surrounding area, out in the open and exposed to the heat and rain. Families including children as young as a few months old were crammed into small tents dotting the landscape that was filling with mud. Soaked and exhausted, they wanted to know if the police would let them cross the border that day.
Walking along the railway line from Idomeni’s train station towards Macedonia, the border was unmistakable as it came into sight. On the Greek side, a crowd of refugees, including many children, were waiting behind a line of hastily installed barbed wire. On the Macedonian side, groups of anti-terror police stood wearing body armour and were supported by military and riot control vehicles.
A short distance from the barbed wire I met Zaha* from Damascus, Syria, who is around 30 years old and had fled with her four children and other relatives. Zaha stared towards the border as she sat in front of a very small tent that was sinking into the mud. She told me how she and her family had crossed to Greece via Turkey and were rescued by the Greek coastguard when their boat sank in the Aegean Sea. Unable to cross the border to Macedonia, they had already been stuck in squalor in Idomeni for four days.
As Zaha introduced me to her children and an elderly female relative behind her, explosions sounded along the border. Zaha reached out and wrapped her arms firmly around her young son.
“This reminds me of Syria. It scares the children; I never expected to find that in Europe. Never; never,” she said. She jumped with each new explosion – stun grenades fired by the Macedonian police to push the refugees back from the border. I counted more than a dozen over the course of the day.
She continued: “Before the war, life in Syria was paradise… If it wasn’t for the war we wouldn’t have had to come all the way here… We were trying to get on with our lives but then both sides started taking our children to fight and bombs started falling on our heads.”
The elderly lady behind her showed me the wounds she had sustained on her feet during the journey from Syria to Idomeni.
“With the war we lost everything, our houses, our children all gone. All we’ve got left is them,” she told me, pointing at Zaha and the children.
A few metres away, another family of Syrian refugees were rushing towards the border – two young men, their father and their mother, who was seven months pregnant and visibly exhausted. She had already been hospitalized for a few days on the Greek island of Lesvos and now she was here trying to make it to Macedonia and beyond.
They told me that it had been almost two years since they fled Damascus.
“I lost a parent to the war and when famine kicked in we had to flee,” the woman said.
“We hope our children can live in peace and go to school,’’ said the father who had worked as a building decorator back in Damascus. “We have family in Germany and we want to go there.”
They hurriedly continued towards the border, in hopes of making it through the barricades.
A few minutes later I was walking back towards the train station when I heard the boom of more stun grenades. I froze, instantly thinking about the heavily pregnant woman heading towards the explosion. I cannot fathom why anyone would want to throw a stun grenade at people like her and her family.
Activists had sounded the alarm early on that the dire conditions around the border crossing near Idomeni would turn to a large-scale crisis, but their warnings fell on deaf ears. Months ago, Amnesty International already documented how refugees and migrants were routinely subjected to unlawful push-backs and ill-treatment by the Macedonian border police.
Aid workers from the medical NGO, Médecins Sans Frontières, and other NGOs and volunteers were doing their best to provide assistance to the thousands of people staying there in squalid and unhygienic conditions. What touched me deeply was the strong solidarity of many people from the local community, which has alleviated some of the suffering and might even have saved lives. Several locals transferred injured or ill refugees to the local hospital. This solidarity is in stark contrast with the conspicuous absence of official state support.
The following day (23 August) the Macedonian authorities did an about-turn and opened the border, allowing all the refugees to cross. Most of them boarded buses and trains to continue their odyssey towards the Macedonian-Serbian border and beyond.
I left Idomeni with the deep belief that we should be extending a helping hand to these war-weary people in their hour of need. Now is the time for solidarity, not barbed wire and explosions – they have had enough of those.
*Name has been changed for security reasons