GEVGELIJA — "When does the next train leave?" The trip begins like any other might, from some train station in a city you know. But it is not, in fact, a trip like any other.
The Balkan route is more aptly compared to a marathon, full of hidden dangers, inconveniences and police checks seemingly designed to keep Europe at bay just a little longer.
The border between Greece and Macedonia is only a few hundred meters away, and a faded sign indicates Gevgelija, a town in the deep south of Macedonia. Eshan looks down impatiently, pointing to his watch, with its black wristband and silver hands. Then he looks up and asks again, in English, "When does the next train leave?"
No one, it turns out, knows the answer: neither the volunteers, nor the international staff. And yet, like Eshan, who is 29 and fleeing from Afghanistan and the Taliban, everyone keeps asking everyone else.
There is Wafaa, a Syrian woman who found herself separated from her husband, but not from her three small children, one of whom is disabled. Tucked into his stroller, he is lost in his own world, and asks no questions. And there is Anas, who at 17 has only one hand because ISIS cut off the other one, he explains.
Overall, more than 1,000 people wait in this piece of land that has become a transit center for refugees. There are blankets stretched out under the sun, and large tents and chemical toilets. People are charging smartphones, eating, resting. All are waiting: the long journey must go on.
The tragic marathon
Zoran Drangovski, a Macedonian lawyer who helps provide legal support to asylum seekers, notes that his country of 2.1 million, expects some one million migrants to pass through in transit. "It's as though half of our country were emigrating," he says.
Drangovski spends his time guiding asylum seekers through the various bureaucratic procedures necessary. "Your whole life is hanging by a piece of paper," he says.
This is how it works. Once people arrive in Gevgelija, they have two options. Either they ask for asylum in Macedonia (virtually no one does), or they continue the journey toward Serbia. Only those who declare themselves to be Syrian, Afghan or Iraqi are authorized to continue their journeys, but they must hurry, as they only have 72 hours to leave the country.
All others — whether Pakistani, Palestinian, Tunisian, Algerian or Iranian — are supposed to be immediately sent back from whence they came via Greece. More often, however, they end up in illegal set-ups or in the hands of human traffickers. Those with the wrong papers have to go back to square one, where this all began: a place of hunger, persecution or war.
"It's been a month since the Macedonian government decided to rely exclusively on special trains to transport refugees. Why don't they let us work?" This, too, is a frequent refrain in Gevgelija. A few hundred meters from the migrants' tents a cluster of taxi drivers blocks the railroad tracks where the next train to Tabanovce, on the Serbian border, is expected.
Refugees on a bus near Presevo, Serbia — Photo: Oxfam Italia Facebook page
A 50-something man is the perfect embodiment of the protest. His name is Pietro Pall. "We have 300 cars that have been parked since December because they can't take these people," he says, puffing on a cigarette. "The government took everything for itself."
From a cab driver's perspective, the refugees represent a business opportunity: It costs 25 euros per person to cross 170 kilometers of Macedonia. "It's the same price the Skopje government charges to go by train," Pietro notes as justification. Never mind that for the same train ride, a Macedonian would pay just five euros.
All smiles, in spite of it all
The protest goes on, and the special train stays put. The migrants wait, and ask again: "When will the train leave?" Then, a compromise is reached: 825 people will board the train (there isn't any room for more), and another 282 will travel by taxi. The destination for all is Tabanovce, at the border between Serbia and Macedonia. This happens everyday. Since January, an average of 1,500-2,000 people have come through this area every 24 hours.
"Serbia? Serbia?" People lean toward the windows even as the train continues to creak along the tracks. The refugees are eager to know if they've crossed the border yet. But then the engine shuts off: It turns out that the Serbo-Macedonian border must be crossed on foot.
It's an unusually warm early February day in Tabanovce, worsening the odors of these 800-some people who have spent four hours crammed into 10 train cars: sweat, bags, canned food. Used clothing, backpacks and bags — assorted objects that might be useful during the journey — have been laid out on the platform. A line immediately forms under the metal structures where volunteers are distributing water, hot meals, fruit and juice for children.
The most tired among the travelers lie on the ground a few meters away from the train, trying to rest up and eat something. Large families, young and old, the disabled in wheelchairs. They all smile when you approach them, in spite of it all.
"They need to leave this center with a smile on their lips," says Yasmine, a member of the La Strada association, a local Oxfam partner focused on assisting mothers, unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable travelers. "We provide psychological assistance. We try to understand if they have experienced any violence during the course of their journey. And then we distribute little hygiene kits and tell them where to go next."
In Tabanovce, the migrants only stop briefly: an hour, maybe two, tops. In one hand they hold the maps volunteers have just given them, in the other they hold the backpacks or plastic bags that contain what's left of their lives. They continue to ask translators for information on where to go next and how. There is a single route for all: The refugees will need to walk about two kilometers to reach Miratovac, the first Serbian village on the other side of the border.
The dirt road runs parallel to the train tracks and is about 3-4 meters wide, with metal fencing on either side. Rolling Macedonian hills slope gently all around. After 500 meters, the migrants reach the Serbian border, marked by a blue tent in the middle of a field. One of the military officers there holds a rifle: He and his companions will decide who goes through.
In Presevo, Serbia — Photo: Oxfam Italia Facebook page
"It's really true. They're starting to stop men traveling alone. It's terrible," says Anna Sambo, manager of Oxfam's humanitarian project in Serbia. Her voice is quiet. She's seeing for herself what others had recounted: A man, about 30 years old, is walking alone in the opposite direction. Tightly clutching his bag, he manages to relay to us through gestures that he was not allowed to cross the border.
Along the Balkan route, more and more young men are facing the same situation. It doesn't matter that they are the "right" nationality (Afghan, Syrian or Iraqi.) All it takes is a single guard who says No, who disputes a man's country of origin, and that's it. A migrant has no choice but to go back where he came from.
No, this definitely isn't just any trip. The wrong encounter can alter the course of your life.
A frigid wind is blowing across Presevo, home to the first migrant registration center in Serbia. Abdil, who is 22 and came here from Afghanistan, is shaking. He's in line to register and pass through the metal detector, and he doesn't even have a jacket to protect himself from the cold. He continues to shake as he tells his story.
"The boat we were traveling on starting filling with water," he says. "In the sea, we saw two people drown. Then they came to save us."
He speaks in the plural because there are two people traveling with him: Fiaz and Faizani, two children with fear in their eyes. Abdil is their guide.
"We left Kabul in early January," he recalls. "We took the boat from Greece seven days ago. That cost us 800 euros each. If we had had 2,000 each, they would have put us in a safer boat."
Along the migrant route, those who can afford to pay more travel under better conditions. This much is obvious even in Presevo. From here, to reach the border with Croatia, refugees have the choice between a 15-euro ramshackle special train that's always packed and takes up to 13 hours; or a bus, which at 35 euros per person offers a bit more comfort and reduces travel time to 9 hours.
But that's not the end: They still need to cross Croatia and Slovenia.
"When does the next train leave?" asks a father in line at the ticket counter. In his arms is his daughter, and she can't be more than a year old. The father knows he will not receive an answer.
No, this isn't just any trip.