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Aaron Labaree: Warehouse of Souls: Inside the last days of the Idomeni refugee camp

For months, refugees caught in a 'humanitarian logjam' near the Greek/Macedonian border lived in a makeshift tent city—until Greek officials cleared the area, replacing the fact of the camp with yet another layer of uncertainty.

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Fotomovimiento.

By Aaron Labaree

The first time someone at Idomeni told me he was going to set himself on fire was two or three days after I arrived. The man was burned already: he pulled up his shirtsleeve to reveal scar tissue that covered most of his left arm and kept going beneath his shirt, palpating it to show that there was little left of the flesh underneath. His apartment building in Aleppo had been hit by a rocket fired from a Russian helicopter. He said that if the authorities refused to open the border, he would go to the border crossing and set himself on fire. Or hang himself. Or cut his wrists. His name was Abdu, and we had been talking, next to the abandoned boxcar where he and his friends lived, about the situation at camp and his journey from Syria to Greece. He didn’t speak English and his friend was translating for him, although at the moment this was unnecessary because it was not hard to understand the gestures for hanging and cutting. Here, he motioned to me, I’ll show you something. Let me show you. I thought he was taking me somewhere private where he could remove his shirt and show me the rest of his burns, but as I started to go with him, his friend grabbed me. “He says he is going to burn himself now at the border crossing!” I didn’t go with him, and he stayed by the boxcar and didn’t burn himself. Soon enough, I heard other young men say this same thing and was relieved to think that it was just a rhetorical flourish. But before long, a couple of guys actually did it, at one of the protests near the border, in front of dozens of people and several TV cameras. One, I was told, had a family at the camp. He lit himself on fire and ran down the main road until he collapsed and his friends rushed him back to camp in a wheelbarrow.

At the end of May, Greek authorities finally cleared out Idomeni, the improvised refugee camp at the Macedonian border that at one point contained more than 14,000 people. It was high time: conditions there were always bad, and the summer heat could have made them much worse. Idomeni was never an official camp and was never supposed to be there; as one aid worker told me, “It’s not a camp—it’s a fact.” The fact was that in this mountainous area, the railroad tracks next to this village were the natural place to cross the border, and that when Macedonia started closing it—first to everyone but Afghanis, Iraqis, and Syrians, last November, and eventually, in March, to everyone—people kept coming anyway. By last fall, Doctors Without Borders had set up several large tents equipped with heat and electricity, along with some showers and porta-potties and a few small corrugated-metal shacks called isoboxes for food distribution and medical aid. But the thousands of travelers who arrived in the next months totally overwhelmed this modest infrastructure, and pretty soon small camping tents sprawled along and over both sides of the railroad tracks without any plan or organization.

It had been this way for about two weeks when I arrived in March, and while some people had left—for smugglers in Athens or for one of Northern Greece’s official camps—others were still arriving, not wanting to miss their chance if the border opened and hoping that the fact of their presence, in such large numbers, might cause it to open. To a Westerner familiar with the backlash against refugees, with the months of political pressure on European governments, with right-wing parties and worried Germans and Donald Trump, it seemed inevitable that the borders in Southern and Eastern Europe would close sooner or later; but to the people who had sold everything they owned and risked their lives to get here, it seemed a trivial, stupid mistake, easily reversible. Germany had taken over a million people—now it couldn’t take a few thousand more? “Just open the border!” people would say, exasperated. It was unnecessary, idiotic, and cruel that the borders could just close like this, and asylum-seekers’ unwillingness to accept this fact was visible in the way some of them had pitched their tents as close as possible to the border, almost touching the coils of razor wire, their clothes hanging up to dry on the chain-link fence.

The worst misery was the disappointment of having staked everything on this journey only to just miss a chance for a life in Western Europe.

I visited in March and April, when the camp was fullest and most in the news, shortly after Greek interior minister Panagiotis Kouroumblis had been widely quoted as calling it a “modern-day Dachau.” This was inaccurate. The Greek government didn’t beat or torture refugees. What they did at Idomeni, as best they could, was nothing. NGOs supplied almost all food, clothing and medical care. There were rarely more than a dozen Greek police officers in the camp—a couple of them at the road leading to the entrance and between six and ten riot police standing in a line across the railroad tracks. This was also where the reporters gathered to photograph that day’s protesters along with any dusty-faced child who came within range. Every story I read was the same: Misery at Idomeni. It was indeed miserable, but when visitors first drove up to the camp, what struck them first often wasn’t the misery but the strangeness of it. It was a small city, a busy, crowded city that had materialized in some fields next to a clean and pleasant village, and the inhabitants of this city did not belong to this village or this country: they were Middle Eastern and Central Asian, they spoke Arabic and Kurdish and Dari, the women wore headscarves, young guys walked with an arm slung over one another’s shoulders, little kids yelled Hello! Hello! until they got a response. The residents of this city were not happy. The men were unhappily idle and the women were unhappy at domestic chores made incredibly inconvenient by the lack of any services. There were long, bad-tempered lines to receive bad food; lines to get clothes; lines for showers. Some of the children—and there were lots of children—had skin diseases from not being able to wash properly. There was ever-present smoke from cook fires, woodsmoke mixed with mingled toxics, since despite a daily wood distribution logs were not plentiful and refugees burned clothes, cardboard, and plastic along with them. Volunteers left at the end of the day complaining of burning lungs, and some of the Greek police wore face masks.

But the worst misery was the disappointment of having staked everything on this journey only to just miss a chance for a life in Western Europe. For some who had experienced the worst of the wars, the disappointment was unendurable. On the night after the self-immolations, I sat at the railroad tracks with some of the men who were continuing the protest. They had set up shelters there, and twenty or thirty men sat around several fires beneath makeshift tents. They were all Syrians, many of them from Aleppo, which had been under heavy bombardment from Russian forces since the previous fall.

“You don’t know what we’ve seen in Syria,” one man in his early forties named Mohammed told me. “Families dead. Russian rockets that kill a thousand at a time…” Mohammed was from Aleppo. On February 10th, Russian bombs leveled his apartment building. His family, along with ten or fifteen others, escaped at night on foot through the mountains to Turkey. Another man’s best friend had been killed by a sniper in Damascus.
“They say it’s a safe city,” he told me, referring to its designation by European authorities, which prevented some former residents from being allowed to cross the border into Macedonia. “Does that sound safe?”
“In Syria, it’s a fast death,” said Mohammed. “Here, it’s a slow death.”
There was general agreement.
“Syria’s better than this. Better to die quickly.”

The Syrian war was not the only one people in Idomeni were fleeing. There were also Iraqis fleeing ISIS, which in 2014 took over much of the Northwest region of the country, including the cities of Fallujah and Mosul. They were Kurds, Arabs, and, most surprisingly, more than 1,000 Yazidis, a remote, isolated people whose pre-Christian religion includes Jesus as one of its saints. For this reason, they are sometimes thought of in this country as Christian, and partly for this reason, politicians and news media paid some attention when, in August of 2014, ISIS began to exterminate them in their homeland of Northern Iraq; there were stories in Time, Newsweek, CNN. So it was a little shocking to find so many of them totally forgotten in Idomeni. Almost all of them were from the city of Sinjar, near the Syrian border, survivors of the same massacre. Did I know about Sinjar? They asked me. Vaguely. They told me—or more often, showed me, pulling out cell phones to show pictures of corpses, body parts, video stills of rows of black-clad ISIS goons standing over kneeling prisoners. Many of these were the same pictures you’d see on a Google image search, but one man showed me a photo of his own house, reduced to rubble.

Another man named Fares showed me a BBC video of ISIS fighters with their captives. In some kind of courtyard, amid shouts of Allahu Akbar! the fighters roughly separated men from women, the footage poor and far away and the cowering figures of the two sexes hardly distinguishable. Fares explained: “They make fickey-fick. With the madams.”

The women on the video, rounded up and huddled together, began to sob and scream as they waited to be led off to be raped, and at this point Fares held the phone up to my ear, looking at me with a neutral expression, no hostility on his face, as if this were simply a polite gesture that allowed his guest to hear better.

In March, John Kerry declared that ISIS’s killing of the Yazidis and other minority groups was genocide. But this statement was followed by no US aid. “Who helps you here?” I would ask. “No one. God,” was the reply. There was the official declaration, and there was the fact, and the fact was that they were living in tents, sheds, and disused cow pens for the foreseeable future. By April, some were already leaving to go back to rejoin their families in the camps they’d come from in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In a haze of smoke, young people from all over Europe sat at long tables drinking cheap beer and talking excitedly, high on helping.

The refugees and migrants at Idomeni were in Europe but not in Europe, visible yet ignored, in contact with and yet entirely cut off from the outside world. Everyone had phones, and educated people, of whom there were many, kept up with the latest developments in the Syrian war and with the EU meetings that would determine their fate. But they were powerless to do anything about the war, and news reports about the EU’s prevaricating never contained any useful information. Likewise, they could communicate with friends and family in Syria, Greece, or Western Europe over WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook, but their friends in Germany couldn’t help them, and they couldn’t help their families in Syria. They couldn’t go to Berlin or London or Paris, but millions of Europeans saw them in the news. Scores of journalists passed through, mostly photographers, who roamed the camp at all hours. The refugees, with their dirty jeans and cook fires, seemed almost surreally outgunned by the zoom lenses and movie cameras, and there was an obnoxious, almost safari-like quality to the constant pointing and snapping. But most people there were glad for the attention: their only power was being seen. It was also hard to blame the photojournalists since the camp was highly photogenic: there were people living in abandoned rail cars, women washing clothes at the base of a huge pile of concrete blocks, families and groups of men gathered around fires every night. More than one photographer admitted to me that he found the place romantic. The scores of volunteers from around Europe were not immune to this weird charm either. No one wanted to stay in town and sort clothing; everyone wanted to go into camp. One day an enormous group of Italian volunteers—at least fifty of them, all wearing matching orange vests—gathered in a parking lot in the nearby town of Polykastro before boarding a bus to camp in order to “show solidarity” with the refugees: a politico-humanitarian package tour. I passed them that night as they were strolling out of camp in little groups, looking cheerful and ready for dinner. The café at the Park Hotel in Polykastro, where many of the volunteers and organizers stayed, was busy from early morning until late at night. In a haze of smoke, young people from all over Europe sat at long tables drinking cheap beer and talking excitedly, high on helping.

They did help. Many of them did essential work, including preparing and distributing food, and without them the refugees at Idomeni would all have had to go to the official camps—or starve. But they could only help so much. People had not travelled all that way to get free food and clothes. They wanted to cross the borders. And everyone who could was trying, one way or another. At the café in the train terminal, I spoke to Abderrahman, a 23-year-old student from Aleppo who had attempted three times to go through Macedonia and been caught each time. The last time, the Macedonian police beat him and seriously injured his friend. His WhatsApp status—where other people put “In a meeting” or “At work”—was “Fuck Macedonia.” His photo shows him posing in a jean jacket with his hair slicked back, greaser-style. Even in his picture he looks stressed. His family is still in Aleppo; in text messages they told him that everything was OK, but they had to say that because they were afraid Assad’s people monitored communications. Every time I spoke with Abderrahman, he had a different plan to get to Germany, with a specific date attached to it. First he was going to go through Bulgaria. Then he was going to go through Albania. I spoke to him and his friends in a café at the train terminal as they were preparing this journey. The idea was inspired by a guy he knew who had gone to Kosovo with, and then been robbed by, a smuggler. He had escaped with his life and was now waiting in Belgrade to cross the Hungarian border. Abderrahman’s plan was to wait and see if the friend could cross to Hungary (where more soldiers than ever guarded the border) and then follow his friend’s route, guided by a couple of Algerians who had tried it twice already and been caught and sent back. Once they got to Hungary, Abderrahman’s group would turn themselves in—it being better to surrender yourself in Hungary than to risk being caught and beaten—go to the refugee camp there, then escape from camp and cross to Austria.

It was a bad plan. They were all nervous. Their group totaled more than ten people, big enough to attract attention from anyone. Abderrahman studied marketing. His friends were biology students, engineers, economics majors. College boys, without military experience or knowledge of outdoor survival, preparing to cross five borders and evade police, soldiers, and various mafias and to hike the rugged territory at the Albanian border.
“You’re really going?” I asked. “Yes!” said Abderrahman, flashing the first and possibly the only smile I ever saw him
give.
“Are you nervous?” I asked the group.
Yes, said Rami, an electrical engineer. The trip would be difficult; they’d have to go through the forest; there were dangerous animals there. And they didn’t know what would happen in Hungary.
“Was it hard to decide to go?” “No. We have to go.”
They all nodded. They were leaving, they said, because they had been reading about the most recent EU meeting to discuss the refugee crisis. No one even mentioned Idomeni. No one was paying any attention to them. I brought up the official relocation plan, which, theoretically, provided a process by which refugees could be resettled in the EU. Abderrahman nodded.
“I think if we wait, we will be able to go to Europe. But I don’t want to wait. I want to complete my studies. Here I’m just wasting time.”

At Idomeni I talked mostly with young men, because they spoke English, and women were more difficult to approach and less visible in public places. I would often witness the suicidal rage of young guys with nothing to lose, but far more common was the anxiety of young men with a lot to lose—the pain of thwarted ambition. “I just want to complete my studies!” they would say. Naively, perhaps, I had expected people who had escaped Aleppo or Deir Ezzor or Homs without injury to be not necessarily grateful but at least relieved that they were no longer, for the moment, in the way of bombs, rockets or bullets, and to accept the burdens and indignities of refugee life as relatively minor inconveniences. But that was not how it worked. The devastation of their homeland only made these young men more obsessed with their future.

“I’ve lost years from the war. I don’t want to lose any more,” one former chemistry student told me. Many others said the same.

Still, Abderrahman and his friends, sensibly scared, eventually cancelled their Albania plan. In early May, he went to Athens and from there by ship to Italy with a fake passport. But they caught him and sent him back to Greece, and he returned to Idomeni. After the camp closed, he went to stay with volunteers nearby so that he could go through Macedonia again. He posted to Facebook: “If you want to be what you want to be, you have to facing every risks in your way. I WILL NOT FUCKING SURRENDER.”

All the friends of Abderrahman I met at the café that day are still in new camps in Greece—but Abderrahman made it. In late June, he sent me a message from Belgrade. He and a friend had crossed the mountains through Macedonia, following GPS and powering their phones with solar chargers. It took them two weeks. The only people they saw were the occasional farmers, who gave them water. When they got to Serbia, they paid a smuggler to take them across the Hungarian border and then found another one to drive them from Budapest to Munich. Last week, he started German classes.

Anyone with money tried to avoid an odyssey like this one and get a smuggler instead. One town over from Idomeni, the Hotel Hara, in Evzoni, was the place for smuggling. “100,000 Syrians must have stayed there!” said one Syrian NGO worker who had successfully made the journey to Germany a year before. It was a very well-known GPS pin for refugees going north. The hotel is a nondescript building next to a café and a restaurant, the parking lot of which had become a makeshift camp. At least a hundred people were living here, in small green Quecha tents spread out around the buildings and the disused gas pumps. I spoke to a group of young guys sitting around on plastic lawn chairs in the café. Obliquely, tentatively, I brought up the question of smuggling, but my discretion was pointless. Oh yes, they all said, this was the place for smugglers! There’s no security at all. One smuggler had the GPS coordinates here as his WhatsApp status. “You aren’t afraid of the Greek police?” I asked. This got a big laugh. “We lost our whole country!” said Wassim, a chemistry student from Damascus. “Why would we be afraid of the Greek police?”

A good smuggler, he told me, would get you to Europe; a bad one would get you caught, rob you, possibly kill you and steal your organs to sell on the black market.

The problem wasn’t the police, it was that prices had gone up since the borders closed. Where it used to cost 3,000 euros from Turkey all the way to Germany, now it was 3,500 just from Greece to Austria. It could be as much as 1,200 euros to get to Belgrade by foot. Their families back in Syria wanted to help, but it was hard, especially with the plummeting value of the Syrian pound. (“Syrian money—you can make a fire with it,” one refugee from Damascus observed.) But still there were people leaving every night. “Come here any night, around sunset, and you’ll see the people getting ready to go,” said Wassim. I came back over the next few nights and saw the people waiting to cross. They stood in groups of between three and fifteen, in jackets and backpacks, looking edgy and withdrawn, just a few feet away but distinctly apart from the rest of the people around them. “No one wants to talk about it when they leave,” Wassim told me. “They just say ‘I have to go…’ When you ask where, they say ‘Somewhere…’”

People generally go with a smuggler of their own nationality: the Syrians met their guys in the parking lot at Hara, while the Afghanis and Pakistanis left from the gas station 200 meters or so away, and the North Africans gathered at the mini-mart parking lot across the highway. The major smugglers, the ones in charge of the operation, Wassim and his friends told me, didn’t usually hang out around Hara. The big smugglers you never met, just communicated with on WhatsApp or Viber. Everyone spoke about them with a certain fear. They might be Pakistani, Turkish—from anywhere. The guys who took people over the border were the little smugglers. Many people got connected to one of the little smugglers through an agent, someone with a wide network of contacts who knew which smugglers were reliable and, for a fee, would recommend one to a traveler based on his budget and destination. One of the agents at Hara was an older guy named Aloush. He was in his fifties, from Aleppo, a businessman, he said, who’d been ruined in the war. He’d been living at Hara for a month and a half and working as an agent the whole time. A good smuggler, he told me, would get you to Europe; a bad one would get you caught, rob you, possibly kill you and steal your organs to sell on the black market. He knew the good ones. It was about trust: people tried and were caught three, five, eight times, but they kept trying because they trusted him to get them through eventually. He described his work as a mission.

“People have a right to enter. Look at drugs in the US. Could police stop it? No. So can they stop it here? No. People will cross anyway.”
He boasted that he would stay behind until everyone at this camp got to Europe. While we were talking, a tall young guy in a leather jacket and backpack came over and said a few quiet words to Aloush, then sat down in a corner. The next night I saw him standing in the parking lot at sunset, talking to nobody, waiting to travel.

A few days later, I met one of the “little smugglers”—a former smuggler, now retired. A teenager named Subhi introduced me to him with such caution that at first I wasn’t sure if the person sitting in front of me was the smuggler himself or only the person who was going to take me to him. But he was the guy. I’d actually seen him before at the gas station café, looking, in that context, worldly and relaxed as he nursed a beer and chatted with the Greek managers. His name was Hasan. He was tired and unwashed like the other Hara residents, but he had a trendy haircut, short on the sides and long and brushed back on top, and he wore an expensive-looking, multi-zippered army jacket and Nike Airmax sneakers.

In Syria he had studied law at university in Homs, he said, but after two years of war decided he had to go to Germany. He told me he came to Greece in 2014 and tried seventeen times to get to Western Europe, but never got far. The Macedonian police caught him in Gevgelia, caught him in Como Novo, caught him and sent him back again and again, until he was penniless and sleeping on the street and at last decided to use his knowledge of the border area to make money. He worked out of the Hotel Hara, guiding groups of ten to fifteen people across the border to waiting taxis in Gevgelia two or three times a week, and before long he was making so much money that he’d forgotten about Germany. After a while, he moved to Belgrade, where he made even more money taking big groups to the town of Subotice and then over the Hungarian border.

“I had four iPhone 6s,” he said a little sheepishly. He described a life straight from a gangster movie: coke, hookers, piles of cash, followed before long by arrests, beatings by various mobs, betrayal by friends. His money ran out and work dried up. He came back to Hara to earn more, but he claimed that when he saw how people were living, with the border closed and no money left, he vowed not to smuggle again. He waited in line for hummus sandwiches with everyone else. Very soon he was going home, he said, back to his parents’ village near Idlib.
“Fucking Europe! I miss my mother.”

He was as lost as anyone I met in Idomeni or its satellite camps, more alone than others because it wasn’t just the war that had hurt him—he’d burned himself out as well. Now he gave the impression of someone at the edge of his ability to cope.

“I’m twenty-two years old!” he exclaimed after he had finished telling me his story, as if he had just remembered this fact and could hardly believe it himself. Two days after I met Hasan, he left Greece, but he hasn’t made it back to Syria yet. The last I heard from him, he told me he was working in Turkey, sending money to his family, and sent a picture of himself on a construction site on a rooftop in Mersin.

What will happen now to all the people trapped in Greece? The refugees I spoke to all asked me for information, in particular if I thought the borders would open. The answer was no, I didn’t, but sometimes I didn’t have the heart to say this and by way of copping out told them I got my information from the internet just like they did, which in fact was true. No one I asked seemed to know anything. Everything having to do with the fate of refugees and migrants in Greece was obscure. Refugees expressed warmth and respect for Greece, sometimes even for the Greek cops, who seemed to me remarkably patient at Idomeni—I watched them get hit with good-sized rocks off their riot helmets without losing their cool. But at the same time the treatment of these new long-term refugees, more than 50,000 of them, has been ad-hoc and neglectful. Refugees can apply for asylum in Greece or other EU countries, which they can do by scheduling a Skype interview with a UNHCR official. The UNHCR’s presence at Idomeni was minimal: at times its sole activity seemed to be to give out Xeroxed pages with a complicated chart showing when you could call the Skype number to get your interview. For Syrians, there were three one-hour slots per week. No one I met had ever gotten through. It just rang and rang. “Asylum service does not answer/Skype call again in next life?” read one sign at the railroad crossing. EU officials said that there were not enough asylum agents to handle the huge number of cases and that the EU would soon be sending over hundreds more to help. But the weeks passed and this bureaucratic cavalry never arrived. The EU didn’t want the refugees and was dragging its feet.

From the time Idomeni first mushroomed in size, there were rumors that the camp would soon be cleared out. One day in late March, lines of coaches hired by the Greek government showed up and took about 500 refugees away, voluntarily, to some new camps near Thessaloniki. The UNHCR spokesman for the area, Babar Baloch, said he had been told that this was all they could take because the new camps were full. But you can build one of those camps very quickly if you want to, as often happens after earthquakes and other natural disasters. Greece was dragging its feet, too. Neither the Greek government, nor the Western humanitarians, nor, of course, the refugees wanted the country to become what Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras described as a “warehouse of souls.” But this was what the rest of the EU wanted, and this is what has happened, Greece’s stalling over Idomeni not having made the slightest difference.

While I was talking to Hasan at Hotel Hara, a young man in glasses sat down roughly at the table. His name was Wael, and he had just come from a protest outside the hotel, where refugees were blocking the highway in an effort to get Macedonia to open the border.
“In a few hours,” he said, “when it’s dark and the journalists go home, I swear the police will kill us.” He spoke good English, with an American accent. I said I didn’t think they’d kill him.
“No—believe me—they’ll kill us.”
He said it with such force that I had to ask: “Do you want them to kill you?”
He thought for a moment.
“Yes.”

It was not surprising to hear, although I rarely heard anyone say it so directly. Usually, expressions of rage and despair were oddly flat: stock phrases, always the same.

“We have nothing.” “There is no humanity here.” “We live like animals.” “This is not life.” “Better to go back to Syria and die there.”
It was hard to know what to think when you heard statements like this, hard to know whether the people saying these words found them adequate or not. What was clear was that this couldn’t go on. But it will. When Greek authorities dismantled Idomeni, they transferred refugees and migrants there to a network of official camps. According to reports from NGO observers and refugees staying in them, some of these camps—like the already-established ones at Nea Kavala or Diavata—are supposed to be OK. Others, like the industrial warehouses outside Thessaloniki, are even worse than Idomeni, lacking medical care, food and sometimes even water, and with no access allowed to media or volunteers. But even at the decent camps, nothing much has changed: there are no schools, no way to earn a living, no answer from the asylum agents on Skype. For many refugees, there is simply no good or even legal option other than to stay in Greece and suffer. There is no way of knowing what will happen to the disappointment, the forced idleness, and the war trauma that were on display at Idomeni, but the experiment is being performed. The refugees will most likely stay in Greece for years: not an official decision, not a choice that politicians will admit to having made—but a fact.

Aaron Labaree lives in Brooklyn. His work has also appeared on PRI, theatlantic.com, and elsewhere.

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