“Is this the real Hunger Games?” asks Hussam. His English is broken, but his message is clear. Every day, the 25-year-old from Damascus has a new statement “addressed to the governments, to humanity, and to whom it may concern.” Every day he holds a poster in front of the Greek-Macedonian border that closed in February and has not reopened since.
I met Hussam when I went to Idomeni in March, with some other journalists, to report on the camp’s squalid conditions. Whenever he saw me, he asked: “Will the borders open again? Does the world understand our pictures?” But although Hussam’s messages have been shared more than a thousand times on various social networks, no one has a clear answer to his question.
Hussam was a political activist well before Idomeni, spraying protest messages on the walls of his home city Damascus when the Syrian revolution began. He spent time in prison, and was freed, I found out, only after a forced confession. Hussam began to understand the power of images in war time; he would continue to channel this power after fleeing his country.
His artwork was simple; he used only cardboard pieces and a pen. When he didn’t know the exact English word, he used Google Translate.
His posters appealed to the sun: “Dear sun, please shine on us.” They blamed the Europeans: “We survived war in Syria, but you make me wish I didn’t.” His artwork was simple; he used only cardboard pieces and a pen. When he didn’t know the exact English word, he used Google Translate. Every day his hope that things would change diminished, but all he could do was hold up posters, pleading with land and sky alike.
Of the countless refugees holding up signs in Idomeni, Hussam was the only one I saw who did it every day, ten hours a day. He became the face of the protest in Idomeni, which has itself come to represent the end of hope, the last stop on a tragic journey.
The refugee camp was originally established as a Greek transit camp designed to hold a few thousand people. But at the end of February, Austria imposed a daily limit of eighty asylum claims on its southern border, and Macedonia closed its borders. Now Idomeni is bursting with more than ten thousand refugees. And tragedy has manifested in as many ways.
Most arresting are the images, snapshots of humanity I hadn’t seen anywhere else: mothers scooping water for the baby bottles from mud holes, newborns being washed in a puddle, old people in wheelchairs stuck in the mud, two migrants setting themselves on fire in protest. In the middle of the civilized continent of Europe, Idomeni is a slum for all the world to see.
War photographer James Nachtwey spent a few days there. His credo, “the events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated,” resonates throughout the camp. But every day in Idomeni is a repeat of the previous day.
Ai Wei Wei was speaking about Idomeni in the past tense—as if the images had turned into “art” while the tragedy was still visible and alive.
Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese dissident and artist, also visited for a few weeks to shoot a documentary. “This moment and this place will be remembered by history as Europe’s biggest shame,” he told me as he was trying “to capture that moment.” It was remarkable that he was already speaking about Idomeni in the past tense—as if the images of Idomeni had already turned into “art” while the tragedy was still visible and alive.
And then there is the indifference. Images from Idomeni are captured by artists and photographers, but they no longer affect European politicians. There are only a few months between pictures of migrants marching through Hungary to reach Germany; Germany welcoming them warmly; and these pictures of migrants suffering in Idomeni while Europe keeps its borders tightly shut.
Last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had advocated for a European-wide project of solidarity, but too many countries refused. European policy now is to limit refugees entering in Greece. The focus is on the EU’s deals with Turkey, while the 48,000 refugees stuck in Greece wait for change. “When I look at the political situation right now,” said Ai Wei Wei, “I think that only a miracle could help the refugees in Idomeni.”
Images of despair combined with political inactivity have resulted in a cry for action. In the past few weeks, Idomeni has turned into an ideological battlefield.
According to leftist activists I corresponded with after my visit, the refugee camp is the symbol of a new “Iron Curtain.” They call the police “counter-insurgency troupes” and describe the refugees in Idomeni fighting “a battle” against borders and governments. Some activists in Idomeni even wear masks and refuse to be filmed or photographed by the ever-present media. Several young refugees—all men—have joined that “battle,” throwing stones at policeman and shouting left-wing slogans about borders being illegal. Whatever they believe, they will do anything to attract the attention of the media and the world.
A month ago, at Easter, three hundred Italian activists organized a march to Idomeni. They named it “#overthefortress” which was covered by several social networks. The activists called themselves “the red army,” referring to their red reflective vests. Apart from shoes, clothing and food, they brought buttons to Idomeni, which were originally from the antifascist movement “Padova Antifacista.” Refugee children wore the buttons, and Twitter was filled with selfies captioned: “selfie with the new antifascist recruits.”
Marianna Karoulaki, a Greek journalist, has been covering the situation in Idomeni for over a year. She told me that “the situation in Idomeni has made those who were leaning to the extreme right even more right wing, those who were leaning to the left even more leftist, and has unfortunately awoken racist, fascist or nationalist sentiments in the whole country.”
As the refugee crisis worsens, so does racism against them. At the end of March, right wing activists just outside Idomeni assaulted a bus-load of refugees, throwing pig heads at them. “Why are these evil bastards trying to destroy my country with mass migration?” störsender23 had posted on Twitter on April 10. Similar 140-character hate speeches appear every day. And as the racism continues, more anti-racist and leftist groups are getting involved in Idomeni by way of rebuttal.
Refugees, both desperate and hopeful, assembled in front of the tent until UNHCR employees tore the fallacious flyer down.
Perhaps the near-complete absence of the Greek government in Idomeni has led to a kind of anarchy, thus opening the door to political instrumentalization. Babar Baloch, spokesman from the UN refugee agency UNHCR, told me that “the refugees are tired and exhausted. There is a lack of information from the authorities, and they become very vulnerable to every kind of rumor.”
The climate in Idomeni has been poisoned by mistrust against the official humanitarians like UNHCR and Doctors without Borders. Posters, flyers and messages are spreading around camp and undermining these organizations’ work. One anonymous poster claimed that “UNCHR lies and tries to divide us and to play with us.” Another flyer in front of the UNHCR tent argued that there was a new route to cross the borders, through Albania. Refugees, both desperate and hopeful, assembled in front of the tent until UNHCR employees tore the fallacious flyer down. The depression among the refugees was noticeable “We really thought that this might be the solution,” one man said, “We really thought it for ten minutes, but then UNHCR took the flyer off. We really don’t know who to believe anymore.”
Information about illegal border crossings have dramatic consequences for the refugees, especially when they include threats of even worse futures. March 14th was a particularly horrifying day in Idomeni, when more than a thousand refugees left the camp to walk towards the Macedonian border. They followed an activist flyer that had spread through the camp; it described how to slip into Macedonia by crossing the Suva Reka river. According to the flyer, which was signed by “Kommando Norbert Blüm,” refugees who stayed behind in Idomeni were to be deported to Turkey.
I walked with them, not knowing what was happening at first. But it very quickly became clear that they were on their way to the border. I saw families, children, and people in wheelchairs moving towards the river. When I asked a young man with a child in his arms why he was choosing this dangerous route, he answered: “People said that we have to be [in the] thousands to cross the border. It’s our last chance. Maybe they beat us, maybe thy shoot us, but perhaps they [will] let us pass.”
By the river, the scene was dramatic. It was a freezing cold day and the current was strong. Volunteers were building chains to lead the people through the water. Everybody crossed—the wheel-chair people and the children were carried by others. It was sheer luck that nobody fell into the river. I tried to convince a heavily pregnant woman not to risk it, but nobody could stop her. She made it across the ice cold water.
Later that evening, I heard that more than one thousand people had made it to Macedonia, but they were arrested there by the police. On March 15th, back in Idomeni, I met a lot of refugees who had been pushed back by Macedonian police overnight. They told me that everybody had been beaten up—children, women and the elderly. All of them had had to walk back from the border to Idomeni, in their wet clothes, as it rained and stormed around them. Over the next few days, I found every refugee I had met during the march, except for the pregnant woman. I looked for her all over Idomeni, but I never saw her again.
Nobody knows for sure who distributed the flyer. But both the Macedonian and Greek authorities have pointed the finger at volunteer groups working in Idomeni. “Kommando” is reminiscent of the command structure of German leftist movements in 1968—the so-called “Kommandos” in the underground. Norbert Blüm, the former German minister for employment, had visited Idomeni a few days before March 14th. He condemned Idomeni as “an attack to humanity.” When asked if he was connected to the flyer, he denied it. He understood, he said, “the despair of those people, but would never have encouraged them to do this.” No one else has stepped forward.
Some refugees told me that they found the flyer near their tents; others said someone gave it to them but asked them to talk neither to the police nor to journalists. I assumed that flyers would not surface in Idomeni again, given the chaos it had caused before. But I was wrong.
Just three weeks later, on April 10th, new flyers appeared: anonymous leaflets written in Arabic calling on Idomeni inhabitants to rise up together. A rumor had also been circulating that the border was to be opened by Macedonian authorities. Shouting, “today we either break the border fence or die,” hundreds of migrants gathered at the camp fence. This time the Macedonian Police used teargas and blend grenades to force the refugees back. More than 300 refugees were wound-ed.
By now, independent volunteers in Idomeni were beyond frustrated. They published a note claiming that “false accusations” about the flyers and their creators had “resulted in the detention of at least twenty-five volunteers in recent days.” This did not help anything, they wrote. “The attention should not be on volunteers, but on the horrendous living situation in Idomeni and the ongoing breach of international human rights and refugee law.”
A few weeks after the closure of the border, Idomeni has collapsed into a pit of accusations and denials. Refugees are constantly torn between the government and the volunteers, not sure what is accurate information and what are rumors. After the escape attempts in the past two months, refugees have stopped trying to flee camp. At times, they hope that borders will reopen, and they can return to their lives. But they also fear being arrested by border authorities and ending up at some lesser refugee camp where the press has no access. Then they will be doubly disappeared, from their homes, and from the minds of newspaper readers.
Just two months ago, Hussam stood all day, every day, in the same spot in Idomeni, holding his messages in his hands for the world to see—neither disappeared nor defeated. For those few weeks, he was the face of the protest. But Hussam seems to be tired now. He wrote to me that he is still there, but he isn’t posting on Twitter as often as he used to. Perhaps his worst fear has been realized. Not just that “the world is getting used to the images,” as he told me last month. But that a face like his is no longer as important as it used to be.