Will Allah open the border if the politicians don’t?

“Alhudud mughlaq” (The border is closed), we keep repeating. I do not know whether I am pronouncing the two words correctly or if the expression we have quickly found in an English-Arabic dictionary application is the correct one, but some of the people I am facing seem to understand. Unfortunately those two words are exactly the opposite of what they want to hear at the very moment. It’s the end of March and we are in Idomeni, at the border crossing between Greece and Macedonia, which had been shut down two weeks prior. I happen to be one of the volunteers in a bright orange vest. They happen to be refugees.

Photo: Fotomovimiento/CC


Share on LinkedIn0Share on Google+0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0

“But we are them!“ a Spanish volunteer at the previous night’s plenum at the Polykastro’s Parkhotel, kept repeating. Polykastro is a small town some 20 kilometers from Idomeni; the dozens of international volunteers that are present here at the moment meet at the Parkhotel for regular updates, coordination and shift division. The mood at tonight’s plenum is particularly tense; we hear that protests will be taking place in the Idomeni camp the following day. This has been the case ever since the Greek-Macedonian border was shut, first to all groups who were not holding a Syrian, Iraqi or Afghani passport – the so-called “non-SIA groups,” later for all non-Syrian nationals, and lastly for all refugees heading to Europe via the Balkan route, leaving them with no clue what to do or where to turn. And since protests began taking place, the volunteers’ crucial questions were: Should we be a part of it? And, if yes, in what ways?

Typically, volunteers do not arrive in Idomeni hoping to change the politics. Rather, they are hoping to provide direct humanitarian assistance to the people in need. At the same, it is obvious that what we, as volunteers, can deliver are only short-term fixes, and not a more durable lasting relief. Long-term solutions will need to come from those politicians currently in power. And what we have learned from past social movements is that the politics are unlikely to change unless there is significant pressure from the bottom.

At the same time, by standing up for their rights and showing the European governments that they will not accept being moved from one place to another like figures on a chessboard or being suddenly stopped at one point of their journey just because there is a border, the refugees are taking back their autonomy over their lives. An autonomy that is quickly lost in a refugee camp, where you become dependent on external assistance in almost every regard.

Yet as much as I support the refugees, and hope that they get organized politically, I also see the particular risks in protesting in the middle of a refugee camp. The situation is extremely volatile and unpredictable and even peaceful protests can turn into violent clashes with the Greek and Macedonian police units, who are supported among other also by the Czech police. 1 The units, especially the Macedonian police, are likely to employ tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons and maybe even rubber bullets, especially when individuals approach the border fence and try to break through it.

And once the police employ their machinery, the consequences can become particularly dire, not only for those actively protesting, who are likely to suffer severe beatings, but for everyone in the camp, especially the most vulnerable – children, the disabled and the elderly – who are unable to move themselves or their teargas-soaked tents quickly enough to safety.

On this night in Polykastro, we do not yet know if the protests will escalate or remain peaceful. However, volunteers who have been on the scene for a while tell us that, because verifiable information about what is to happen with the camp and the “campers,” has been lacking, there is a serious potential for escalation. This is also because in the absence of information, rumors in the camp spread quickly: The border will open tomorrow at 10am; The Red Cross or the journalists will open the border; If there are enough refugees protesting, they will let us pass; They will at least let a few of us pass.

Refugees not only believe these rumors because they are their only hope, but because some have frustratingly arrived at the border only a day or two after it closed. So in case the rumors are true, they simply do not want to find themselves late again. At the same time, our mere presence at the protest, the volunteer coordinators say, is likely to give the refugees hope that the rumors are true, and encourage them to break through the barricades. 2

That night in Polykastro, we sit outside the hotel with our volunteer group and continue discussing our options until well into the night; after a while, I get tired and highly emotional. The truth is, I am extremely scared. The idea of putting the people we came to assist in any sort of danger is upsetting, as are my feelings that some of my friends are negligent about the potential risks our actions might create for the refugees. At the same time, I do not wish to entirely discourage my friends from taking part in the protest, or the refugees either, because who am I to decide for them?

In the end, everyone in our group makes their own individual decision. Myself and a few other girls decide to build a “kid corner,” enabling families to stay close to the protest, but distant enough to run to safety if the situation escalates. This will also enable us to inform families about the situation and what awaits them if they try to break through the border fence,  to observe the protest and, and if needs be, pull the kids away from the teargas.

In the early morning we head to Idomeni. At first glance, the situation seems fairly calm. We see a few heavily-equipped Greek policemen on the trails leading to Macedonia, but so far they look pretty calm. Nearby we see several groups of mostly young men standing around and talking. After 10am some of the first families start gathering at the trails for the protest, their bags packed. “Hey, how are you?” We try to be casual. “What are you up to?” Macedonia,” they say. “The border is closed,” we shake our heads, “we are sorry.” Allah, is a common response, accompanied with indefinite gestures, and a questioning look into the sky.

So we tell them they can stay with us longer on the sidelines, and wait to see what happens next so  that they can decide whether they want to take part or not. The strategy works fairly well at first. In about 20 minutes, we manage to gather a few blankets and invite families to sit with us; we make balloons for the kids out of our rubber gloves, and try to talk with their parents.

“You can talk to me normally,” one young woman says as I begin explaining the situation in easy English. “I don’t mind if the police beat me – I really don’t mind,” she says after a while. And I see in her eyes that this is not the kind of angry and determined, “I don’t give shit” activist statement, the kind I witness at the neo-Nazi blockades back home. Rather, it is an expression of total resignation. The expression of someone, who knows that getting beaten by the police won’t add much to their overall level of suffering; someone who views being tear-gassed as just another little stone in the overall mosaic of everyday injustices they must endure before they can live with dignity. And she’s not the only one. When I warn a father of two kids about the Macedonian police and their practices, he looks at me and simply shakes his shoulders, his blue eyes empty. What do I have to tell them? I feel ashamed.

The kid corner is gone as quickly as it emerged. At one point some of the families decide to join others, who are sitting on the trails a bit behind the protestors. We accept their decision and move with them. Since the situation at the back seems pretty stable, we move to the very front of the protest with a group of young medical staffers, to see what’s happening.

People are gathering with signs in English and Arabic. “Patience + hope = Europe,” and “Don’t beat us,” the paper cards say. At some point, the protestors, mainly refugees and very few internationals, gather closer together. They start singing and swinging small pieces of white paper over their heads – it appears the protest will be peaceful. The global news media are here, and a young man with a loudspeaker is hoisted onto the other protestors’ shoulders. Although I cannot hear him, I see him passionately speaking to the cameras, while showing the world a newborn baby and a few children.“What kind of life can they have in a camp?” I imagine him saying. I am a bit worried for the children because as the speech ends the atmosphere grows tenser, but they are quickly brought to safety.

“Open the border!” the protestors start then shouting. There is pushing back and forth in front of the Greek police who refrain from touching anyone. “One group was pushing towards, and the other back from the police. Sometimes the people pushing would switched sides as the crowd either moved too close or too far away from the police. They probably were trying to make sure the situation did not escalate,” explains my friend, a skilled Czech activist, who joined in the protest. In the end, the actions remained symbolic, with no real attempts to actually break through the border barricades.

In the evening, we go to the camp again. It seems rather calm, and we make use of the night for more distribution; night distributions are less crowded, easier to manage, and allow you to really approach people that are in need. We distribute socks and small lamps. Light is not only practical but increases the overall security in the camp, and security is an issue in Idomeni, particularly if you are a Kurd, a Yazidi or a woman.

And yet quite often we meet kids running between the tents late into the night; we usually speak to them in Czech. Us both speaking our own languages enables us, in a funny way, to connect and overcome the language barrier. “Pocem, ukaž, máš ponožky?” (Come here and show me, do you have socks?) we ask. They answer something in Arabic and laugh as we pull their trousers up to see if they need socks.

We often don’t need to, because the refugees are well able to identify their needs and ask for concrete goods. As my friend opens her bag in search for more socks, a little boy comes running up, snaps a pair of baby socks and then runs away. He quickly realizes they are too small, and returns proudly wearing them on his hands. Realizing that he is running around barefoot, we give him a pair of new ones. The lights, however, are only for the adults. “Mama? Papa?” we ask three ten-year-old boys sitting around a fire in an attempt to find their parents. “Papa Alemannia,” (Papa Germany) they repeat, pointing indistinctly in the direction of the border.

Once back home in the Czech Republic, we continue reflecting on our volunteer involvement. Was it useful to go? What did we get out of it? And most importantly, what did the refugees get out of it?

Back in Idomeni the protests continue, eventually escalating, prompting the intervention of the Macedonian police. The police employ teargas and large rubber bullets, with women and children present; MSF reports treating some 300 people on one day alone. 3 I’m convinced we were extremely lucky not have witnessed such a situation. And yet my activist friend, the one I was so mad at the night before the protest, tells me that he believes he could have better mediated and deescalated the situation by actually being a part of the protest’s than by standing outside.

To a certain extent his explanation shifts my view on the possible and meaningful volunteer involvement in what we call today the “refugee crisis”. Although I still think that a refugee camp is not the best place for protesting, it is obvious that all the socks and tea we distribute will not save the people from being refugees. Given the current political context in Europe, the question remains:  who will?

Notes:

  1. Šárka Kabátová, „Česká policie na makedonské hranici ‚proslula‘ násilím a vulgaritami, říká dobrovolník,“ Lidovky.cz, March 19, 2016, accessed May 2, 2016, http://www.lidovky.cz/ceska-policie-na-makedonske-hranici-proslula-nasilim-a-vulgaritami-rika-dobrovolnik-g3i-/zpravy-svet.aspx?c=A160317_160113_ln_zahranici_sk.
  2. Statement from Volunteer Coordinators at Idomeni, March 26, 2016, accessed May 2, 2016: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1rrMGoWiObVjfWQkn8dSDmb530GkPkd7qBIw-ghd9i8U/edit
  3. Médecins Sans Frontières, “MSF treats hundreds after Greek-FYROM border violence, “ MSF.org, April 10, 2016, accessed May 2, 2016, http://www.msf.org/article/msf-treats-hundreds-after-greek-fyrom-border-violence.
Zuzana Pavelková

Zuzana Pavelková

is an activist and founder of the initiative "Česko vítá uprchlíky" (Czech Republic welcomes refugees). She worked with different civil society organizations and initiatives advocating for refugee and migrant rights in Germany,​ ​France​ and Czech Republic.