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From Chaos to Calm: 24 Hours With Migrants and Refugees in Macedonia

The situation on Macedonia’s southern border briefly resembled a low-level war zone as police tried to stop thousands of people from entering.

by Andrew Connelly
Aug 23 2015, 8:55pm

Photo par Andrew Connelly

After being drenched by rain overnight, thousands of migrants and refugees stranded in the no man's land between Greece and Macedonia on Saturday received a momentary taste of freedom after police lost control of the crowd and allowed them to cross the border. Earlier in the day, however, the situation resembled a low-level war zone.

It was around midday on Saturday that the crowd's patience broke. On Thursday, the Macedonian government closed its southern border in a panic at the increase in migrants — up to 3,000 per day — transiting through the small nation. The army was sent in to reinforce the frontier, allowing only a trickle of families through. People began to amass behind barbed wire cordons in scenes not witnessed in Europe since the Balkan conflicts of the '90s. Exasperated and exhausted onlookers, many of them carrying children, decided to breach the cordon and run into the fields.

The train tracks leading from the blockaded Macedonian border to Gevgelija station became a ground for the walking wounded, either from beatings in the fields by Macedonian police, sore muscles and from their epic journeys, or injuries sustained in conflicts in their home countries.

Khalid and Ali sat on the rails out of breath and eating some grapes Khalid picked from a nearby farm. Ali is from Deir-Ez-Zor, a Syrian city that has seen fierce bombardment by government forces in the last four years and is currently overrun by Islamic State militants. Smoke from stun grenades floated above the trees in the distance. He mutters, "War in Syria and war here!"

Related: A Record 4,400 Migrants Were Rescued on the Mediterranean in a Single Day

Refugees crossing into Macedonia from Greece. (Photo by Andrew Connelly)

Farther down the tracks, Ola from Damascus stood with some fellow travelers, worrying about her family still barricaded on the Greek side of the border.

"We've been stuck here for one or two days and now we're on this side and our family is still there," she told VICE News. "Nobody knows what to do, it's a big mess. The police are beating people — I never thought I would see grenades in Europe."

At the frontline, surrounded by armored personnel carriers and soldiers, 15-year-old Mohamed and his two younger brothers looked on anxiously trying to spot his parents. Their clothes were still damp from rain the previous night. Fearing for his kids' safety, father Fawaz lifted them one by one over the barbed wire onto the Macedonian side with the help of a Bosnian journalist before getting lost in the crowds with his wife. Mothers held up their sick and exhausted children crying "doctor."

'The police are beating people — I never thought I would see grenades in Europe.'

After two hours, the Fawaz was finally reunited with his children. "From the main gate, they started to allow some families through, but people started pushing and I was worried my son would be crushed, look how small he is," he told VICE News, patting his son on the head. "When I saw the solders running the other way I picked up my sons one by one and threw them on the other side."

Days ago, Fawaz paid a smuggler in the Turkish port of Izmir around $6,000 to squeeze him and his family, Palestinians from Syria, into an inflatable boat with dozens of others and cross the sea to Greece. As stun grenades exploded in the background, Fawaz smiled and dismissed the small arms being used by the police. In Syria, he said, they have seen much worse.

The Bosnian journalist who helped Fawaz embraced him and recalled the conflict in his own country in the '90s. "I lived through the war and I saw scenes exactly like this with the refugees behind barbed wire," he said. "But in that time they killed them, at least here they don't do that. So I understand you, my friend, when I saw your children there, I just couldn't see it…"

The journalist then pinched the bridge of his nose and started to weep.

Related: Ten Migrants Injured During Border Clashes With Macedonian Police

Hundreds of migrants and refugees gathered at the Gevgeija train station in Macedonia. (Photo by Andrew Connelly)

Later in the day, driven by desperation and days stranded in Greece, migrants and refugees began to amass in huge numbers along the tree-lined border away from the barbed wire. VICE News witnessed furious, wild-eyed Macedonian riot police reaching over the border, raining blows down on elderly women and fathers holding children on their shoulders. Both sides exchanged shouts of "shame on you."

And then, as the sun began to set, the police suddenly stood down. They even started waving the crowds through. Word spread to the rest of the border, and hundreds of people began appearing from over the hill, many of them ecstatic with joy, shouting "thank you" to their former gatekeepers as they streamed across the fields.

By Sunday morning, the situation had changed dramatically. Gevgeija train station, a scene of crowded pandemonium the previous day, stood almost deserted as a few trains and a fleet of buses had been arranged to transport people to Tabanovtse, the northernmost village on Macedonia's border with Serbia. From there, the migrants and refugees will continue their quest to reach northern Europe.

Related: Fortress Europe: The Billion Dollar Machine to Keep Migrants at Bay

Macedonian security forces watch as refugees cross the border. (Photo by Andrew Connelly)

Annette Groth, a German Left Party parliamentarian, was visiting Gevgelija, and remarked to VICE News that the situation is "a human catastrophe and a shame for Europe."

"It was known that this would happen," she said. "Now we should provide legal access to refugees from Syria without risking their life on the boats, or issue humanitarian visas. Prima facie refugees need our protection."

'We are leaving behind death. I just hope that all of Europe does not close the door.'

Ahmad craned his neck over a small crowd of people at the bus station, trying to buy a ticket. His hometown is Palmyra, the Syrian oasis city whose ancient ruins have been occupied by Islamic State militants since May. Ahmad fled just before finishing his final exam in college, where he was studying economics. Last week, the militant group executed the head of antiquities in the main square.

"The whole world visited us in the past, it was a perfect place," Ahmad told VICE News. "We lived in a bomb shelter in our house for two months and then my mother sold her gold and told me to go. This is why we are looking to live, because we are leaving behind death. I just hope that all of Europe does not close the door."

Related: 31 Police Officers Injured as Anti-Immigrant Protesters Riot in Germany

Follow Andrew Connelly on Twitter: @connellyandrew

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