Foreign Relations & International Law

Dispatch #11: The Mood at Idomeni Darkens

Laura Dean
Friday, March 18, 2016, 11:14 AM

IDOMENI, Greece—“If we stay here like this we’re going to start eating each other’s flesh” says Um Sabry, a Syrian woman from Afrin.

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IDOMENI, Greece—“If we stay here like this we’re going to start eating each other’s flesh” says Um Sabry, a Syrian woman from Afrin.

“The violence is increasing by the hour,” says Bassem, a university student from Damascus. Moments before, a man was roughly escorted down the train tracks by two older Syrian men. The younger man they held between them, squirming and trying to twist out of their grasp, is Pakistani, onlookers whisper. They say he was just found trying to sexually assault a five-year-old girl in one of the many makeshift toilet areas in a camp that was never meant to be a camp and that now holds around 14,000 people. The two men are taking him to the police, who patrol the border with plastic riot shields but rarely enter the settlement itself.

Half an hour later, a different young Pakistani man streaks down the track, visibly terrified, pursued by another young man, a Syrian, grabbing at his jacket. A crush of about 50 Syrians run after them, half of them egging on the attack, the other half trying to call off the mob.

Ten minutes after that, another group, moving more slowly this time, carries someone back up the track toward the medical tent. Someone nearby says it is the Pakistani boy. “Fifty people against one. It’s haram,”—it’s wrong—says a Syrian woman looking on. “Dirty Pakistani,” says a Syrian teenager. “No, you can’t say that,” his friend counters, “imagine if one Syrian did something bad and then people started saying that all Syrians were dirty.” Syrians have some recent experience with such things.

The demographics of the camp have been shifting in recent days. Until last week, the camp was about 64 percent families, according to UNHCR, but there is now a marked increase in the presence of young single men. For the last two days, camp residents say, fights have broken out between groups of Afghans, that Macedonia on February 23 determined, somewhat inexplicably, to be economic migrants and refused to allow through. Syrian and Iraqis, though not yet legally barred from entry, have also been stuck at the border for days.

Um Ibrahim, 40, has spent the last three weeks living in half of an abandoned train car. The night before last, she found herself trying to reason with a group of young Syrian men in the cafe in the defunct train station that has become a center of social life in the camp, as they tried to round up other Syrians to fight with Afghan young men. “I told them, ‘they’re human and you’re human,’” she says.

For more than three weeks, with the exception of occasional demonstrations, the refugees in the camp have borne the frustration peacefully. But as conditions worsen—parts of the camp are six-inches deep in mud after days of rain, toilets are increasingly foul despite efforts at cleaning, and with little cause for optimism—particularly young men are growing restless.

In earlier days at the camp, the friction was more subtle. With hours to fill and little to do, some of the political fault lines of the war would periodically come into relief.

“Under the Kurds it’s the same thing [as under the regime], there’s no difference. There is hunger and prices have gone up; there’s no water, no electricity. There’s no life, no economy, no movement,” says Leila, 32, from Hasakeh, a largely Kurdish area.

A Kurdish man standing nearby disagrees.

“I’m Kurdish too but right is right,” Leila tells him, “As for the YPG, you have to give them one of your children if you want them to protect you, otherwise nothing.”

Kurdish refugees face particular difficulties when they come through Turkey. One young Syrian Kurd sitting next to a fire in Idomeni recounts being picked up by the Turkish police as he crossed the border. They detained him for two days, during which time he was beaten repeatedly, he says, and asked again and again if he had ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish militant organization currently engaged in an armed struggle against the Turkish state.

With little to do during the day, all sorts of political differences emerge.

“She is defending the regime” says Mohamed, the airplane engineer.

“I’m not,” said Iman, “I said he’s handling more than he’s capable of [referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad]. What’s important is that people are starving. It’s like in Somalia. I went to the so-called freed areas and it’s all destroyed there too.”

“Bashar is crazy, the ruins are gone, the souqs and bazaars are gone, the economy is destroyed,” says Mohamed bitterly.

“He’s a president of stones,” intones his brother Mahmoud, a 22-year-old law student.

“We are crying for our country but our country no longer exists,” says Leila, taking a long drag of her cigarette. Everyone falls silent.

For weeks, the list of nationalities the Macedonians have allowed through has grown shorter and shorter. And now it looks as though they may have shut their borders for good. Graffiti from earlier protests adorn the outside of the large white NGO tents: Somalis, Pakistanis, Afghans each in turn called on the Balkan state to open its borders.

Last week it was the Gazans’ turn. About 40 of them organized a protest of about a hundred people—they recruited some Syrians as well—calling on the Macedonians to let them through. All day, a train was been unable to leave, as protesters blocked the tracks. One man remarked on the fact that few journalists are covering the sit-in. In Gaza, during the war, journalist swarmed the small territory. But here, Palestinians are not the main event. “I have met journalists. There was a French journalist. She asked me where I was from. I told her Gaza, thinking she wanted to do an interview. When she found out I was from Gaza she walked away,” says a man from Shejaiya, a neighborhood leveled by Israeli shells during the 2014 war. She was probably looking for Syrians, or possibly Iraqis or Afghans, he concludes.

Fissures emerge along class lines too.

“In Syria I lived as a lady,” says Iman, 45 from Damascus, standing outside her family’s small recreational tent on the gravel median between two train tracks in front of the razor wire fence between Greece and Macedonia.

“I’m an airplane engineer from Aleppo. I came here to complete my studies, my Masters’ degree, shouldn’t I be coming by plane?” Says Mohamed, 23, from Aleppo, “if they gave me an old plane and some tools, I’d fly away right now.”

Iman says that many families are far worse off than she is. “Maybe they expected to stop on the border for two or three days, we came through the “journey of death,” the name given to the boat journey across the Aegean for this,” says Iman. “In there is a family of seven with ten Euros in their pocket, what are they going to eat?” She gestures to the neighboring tent, “Syrian families are not beggars.”

“There are people here who have never used a foreign toilet before. They are standing on the seats in the bathrooms,” Mohamed adds. Refugees report long lines and filthy conditions at the bathrooms in the camp. Until recently there were no bathing facilities at all for women and only a single freezing tap for men. A young woman describes waiting for the cover of nightfall to wash her hair for the first time in 20 days. Her brother kept watch nearby to make sure no one would see her uncovered hair.

The migrant route brings together refugees of all social classes—some are able to buy additional food to supplement the camp ration of two bready sandwiches a day and a small cup of soup generally agreed to be foul. Many are not.

But as days at the Idomeni camp stretch into weeks and hopes for onward passage into Macedonia gutter and die, even those who came with money are running out. And the mud and chill of the rainy spring weather spare no one. Some families have dug moats in the mud around their tents so that the rain water collects in the trenches around the edges and not inside.

A very few can afford the occasional night in a hotel to bathe themselves and their children, though that number is dwindling all the time.

But there are some barriers money and education cannot breach.

“We don’t speak English. People who are English speakers get everything,” says a Syrian teenager.

“When I think of my parents making this trip I don’t know what they would do,” says Berivan Azadi, 26, a Syrian Kurd. Her mother doesn’t speak Arabic let alone English.

Those who speak English can advocate for themselves far better than those who cannot and unlike in the camps on the Greek island of Lesbos, here there are very few translators for the 14,000 people encamped at the border. But while English may ease the process of the day to day and help with procedures, it cannot assist people with the ultimate problem: safe passage to a stable life in Europe.

Berivan has worked for an American development contractor for over a year. In 2014 she applied for asylum in the United States. Two years later she is still waiting to hear back about her application. If Berivan, a Syrian Kurdish woman under political threat in Turkey because she is in a mixed marriage (her husband is a Syrian Arab), who speaks fluent English and works for an American government contractor, is unable to get resettled through legal channels within two years, what hope is there for others?

I have met Iraqis in the camps who risked their lives and those of their families for years to work as translators for the US military, only to have their visas denied when they applied for asylum after they were persecuted for working with the Americans. Their service may not have helped them with their visa applications, but their English comes in handy when they work as volunteer translators with the freelance medical tent at Moria camp in Lesbos.

The train station cafe has become a hub of social and economic activity. People come here to use the wifi and charge their phones. Two young women sit by the window, deep in conversation as though they’d known each other a long time.

“We met here,” says one, when I sit down next to them.

“We actually just met,” says the other. A child sits on her lap. “Is he your son?” I ask. “Oh no, he’s the son of someone in our group.” Many refugees refer to their “group”—they may have come over on the same rubber boat, or met in a camp on an island, or even have come all the way from Syria together. They look out for each other, watching each others’ children and belongings, lending money, sharing food and other supplies. “I’m going to see my fiancée. I’ve been with him for five years, but I haven’t seen him in four. He’s in Austria.” She starts to cry.

Yet, despite these strong bonds, these groups are loosely formed, fracturing and reconstituting as people go in different directions, toward different European countries, as some make it across borders, while others are turned back. Often their companions cannot afford to wait for them to catch up.

“We Syrians are like prayer beads. You pull one off and they all scatter,” sighs Iman.

Laura Dean is a journalist reporting from the Middle East and Europe. Previously, she was the Senior Middle East Correspondent for GlobalPost, writing from Egypt and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Dean formerly worked as an election observer with with the Carter Center in Tunisia and Libya and served on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in The New Republic,, Foreign Policy, The London Review of Books blog and The Globe and Mail, among other publications. Dean grew up in Bahrain and graduated from the University of Chicago. She speaks French and Arabic.

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