From Syria to the Balkans: The Odyssey of a Refugee

In third installment of the series, Thaer Nashef, a Syrian journalist and activist, tells of walking in the hot sun from one country to another, of endless waiting and of nights spent under the stars in Balkan forests.

Thaer al-Nashef
Syrian refugees arrive on a dinghy at the Greek island of Kos after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkey to Greece, August 15, 2015.
Syrian refugees arrive on a dinghy at the Greek island of Kos after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkey to Greece, August 15, 2015. Credit: AFP
Thaer al-Nashef

KANJIZA, Serbia – Upon arriving at the train station in Thessaloniki, I decided to continue with a group of Syrian refugees toward the town of Polikastro, which lies 18 kilometers from the Greek-Macedonian border. We approached the ticket sales office, but when the clerk identified us as refugees he refused to sell us tickets. We looked for alternative way of reaching our destination and someone suggested we try getting a taxi. However, the price demanded by the driver for traveling the 50 kilometers to Polikastro was highly exorbitant. Then a Greek man suggested we go to the bus depot and travel by bus. We went there and purchased tickets, but when we wanted to get on the bus the driver refused to let us on, arguing that the deportation orders we received at the refugee camp in Chios did not allow us to travel across Greece, certainly not close to border areas. I went up to the driver and begged him to show some compassion for the refugees’ plight. He was silent for a while, mulling it over, and finally let us on board.

After traveling for an hour and a half we reached Polikastro and went to a local café to load up on water and some juice. There were already some taxis waiting there to transport the refugees to a village near the Macedonian border. The refugees boarded the taxis one by one, four to a taxi. Each refugee showed the driver his deportation order and paid five euros for the trip. When my turn came around I showed my papers but the driver looked at it and shook his head, saying that he couldn’t take me since the document in my possession did not permit me to approach the border. He wasn’t willing to risk breaking the law, he said, even though all other refugees go there the same way, and the authorities know in advance that the refugees don’t intend to remain in Greece for long, wishing to depart for countries in Western Europe.

For lack of choice, I started walking from Polikastro toward the border under a blazing mid-day sun. With me were three other Syrians who were in a similar situation. It took us five hours non-stop to reach the village. There I saw a large group of Syrians gathered near the Hera hotel, from where people depart for Macedonia. When I joined them I was surprised to learn that most of them were Christians, Druze and Kurds. Just as I was surprised, they were surprised to see me. They didn’t imagine that someone well-known like me might one day need to make such an arduous journey.

We walked together to the border, holding hands and clinging to each other out of fear of being attacked by highwaymen. Along the way I talked with many of the other refugees about Syria’s future, and the Assad regime’s responsibility for the flight of religious and ethnic minorities whom he pretends to protect from acts of terror.

Syrian migrants walk on railway tracks towards the Macedonian town of Gevgelija. August 13, 2015.Credit: AFP

When darkness fell we reached Macedonian railway tracks, where we were stopped by military men. The officers asked us to sit on the ground, counting us and splitting us into three groups. They then told us to rest in the forest beside the tracks and wait until morning for approval to cross and proceed to the Macedonian city of Gevgelija. The refugees stretched out on the ground after a long and tiring day, and I too was overcome with exhaustion and fell asleep.

The Macedonian military permit to cross, which we waited for the next morning, only arrived around noon. We entered Macedonia and walked along the railway tracks for about two kilometers until we reached that station at Gevgelija. From there we planned to continue on to Serbia. According to Macedonian regulations, Syrian refugees must obtain a legal deportation decree from police at the Gevgelija train station. I waited for a whole day to get that document, even though many refugees skip that stage since Macedonia is only a waystation for them.

The next morning at dawn I found myself on a Macedonian train full of Syrian refugees, along with a handful of refugees from other countries. The overcrowding reminded me of a beehive. We traveled to Kumanovo, a distance of 200 kilometers. From there we proceeded to the town of Loiane on the Serbian border. Ahead of crossing the border the refugees split into small groups, each one choosing a different walking route.

My group included three women, five children and three men. We took a wrong turn on leaving Loiane. We walked toward a mountain and suddenly realized that we were about to cross into Kosovo. The GPS showed our mistake so we returned to a path that separates the three borders. We tried to hide from the police until we entered the Serbian town of Miratovats, a town with Albanian roots. The residents welcomed us and gave us some food and water. They directed us to a refugee camp located in the town of Presevo where we could obtain legal documents. After a short rest we left for that town, on foot, and waited a whole day at that camp in order to obtain deportation orders.

Syrian refugees in Presevo, close to the Serbian border with Macedonia. June 22, 2015Credit: AP

The camp at Presevo was very crowded and since there was not enough room for everyone we spent the night on the street, on sidewalks, next to some houses and shops. Even though it was midsummer, while we were trying to fall asleep it started raining and we were forced to carry the mattresses we had received from place to place.

The next day we went to Belgrade by train, continuing from there by bus to the town of Kanjiza, near the Hungarian border. The journey across the Balkans had ended successfully, but the Hungarian border, considered a “first line of defense” of Western countries against the waves of refugees, still lay ahead.

Migrants from Syria sing while waiting to board a train towards Serbia at Macedonia's Gevgelija. Aug. 12, 2015

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