KUMANOVO — On Macedonia's roads, in the parallel world of migrants, a good pair of shoes is as valuable as hard cash. Last month, in Athens, Najib Mahmoudi bought a great pair, top-notch basketball shoes to match his standing as a celebrity, at least among his fellow Afghans.

Najib became a national idol in Afghanistan after winning the 2007 season of Afghan Star, the country's most popular TV singing competition. Compatriots who see him here in this forgotten corner of Europe regard Najib with a mixture of respect and amusement.

The singing sensation was forced into exile after a video of him kissing a young girl after one of his concerts appeared on the Internet. When the Taliban in his local region of Mazar-i-Sharif threatened to kill him, he fled to Iran.

The rest of his journey to Macedonia recalls that of hundreds of refugees before him: he paid 1,200 euros ($1,306) to get into Turkey, then another 1,500 ($1,632) to board a plastic raft to reach the Greek island of Kos, where his first taste of the Europe he long dreamed of was a country facing a deep economic crisis.

Najib's new basketball shoes were supposed to help him finish his long trek through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, and on to his eventual destination of Germany or Sweden. “Maybe France too,” he says. “It seems that Afghans are welcomed and accepted there.”

But just after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border, he and his fellow refugees were attacked by men dressed in police uniforms and armed with Kalashnikovs and knives. In one fell swoop, gone were his new shoes, phone and remaining cash. Najib was forced to continue his arduous journey in his old pair of awful canvas shoes, worn down by the many kilometers he had already traveled.

Blisters and beatings

“They weren't policemen,” says Zaccharia, 27, one of Najib's fellow travelers. “Their uniforms didn't match. And some wore track pants.” Zaccharia has a trained eye thanks to his years of work as a translator for the U.S. military. Despite their promises, the soldiers didn't take him along to the United States when they left Afghanistan, and so he ventured off along, to join his wife and son in Norway.

The two friends take a rest in the cool air of the Tatar Sin Beg mosque of Kumanovo, a town in northern Macedonia, before walking the last few kilometers to the Serbian border. The 30 other migrants, hailing from Afghanistan, Syria and Africa, treat their blisters and are elated as they feel the softness of the mosque's carpet. Satara, a mischievous nine-year-old Afghan girl, has been traveling for seven months with her parents and her two-year-old brother. She would like to stop in Kumanovo for a while because she is tired of walking and hiding.

At the Macedonia/Serbia border — Photo: Juanlu y Jessica engerundi

The Balkan route is taken by ever more migrants. Between 2,000 and 3,000 follow its path every day. On the treacherous journey, Macedonia, with only 2 million inhabitants, should be just a formality. Instead it is the worst stop on the long route, scene to assaults and long walks under the blistering sun.

On June 18, the Macedonian parliament approved a law allowing migrants to use public transport and taxis, but these options remain almost inaccessible to them. Using cars of private citizens is even riskier since the authorities, under pressure from the EU, adopted an anti-trafficking law that defines any citizen who carries three migrants in their car as a people smuggler. The law includes a punishment of six months to four years in jail and confiscation of the accused's vehicle.

Gazi Baba, hell on Earth

For the migrants themselves, traveling in someone's car also carries the risk of being detained at the terrible Gazi Baba transit center in the suburbs of Skopje, the capital. Oussam, a 19-year-old Algerian who has been wandering for three years, spent time in Greek and Turkish jails but says Gazi Baba is worse. He cites the overcrowding, lack of fresh air, absence of medicine and inedible food. The center hosts over 300 people, more than triple its capacity of 100.

Migrants arrested for their illegal presence in Macedonia are rarely sent back to the Greek border. According to a source in a European police force, “the work of the [Macedonian] police rests on only one factor, the capacity to host migrants.” In Macedonia this capacity is limited, with only a few hundred places in two centers near Skopje, one of which is Gazi Baba.

The priority of the Macedonian authorities seems to be to limit the influx of migrants to one route, the Thessaloniki-Belgrade railway, which crosses the country from south to north. The 230 km railway is a narrow thread crossing the country, the sole refuge from the police. It's a difficult walk, forcing migrants to take small steps on rocks, where they often twist their ankles and tear their shoes.

Gazi Baba cityscape — Photo: markovskavesnicka

In some of the steeper valleys, there's barely any space to sidestep the trains that roar past. In late April, 14 migrants were killed when they were struck by a train on the Thessaloniki-Belgrade route. This is the added danger of the railway route, where such accidents have taken place before.

On the rails, refugees also become much easier targets for gangs. Nearly all the 50 migrants we met over three days were assaulted on the route, many of them twice: once in the mainly Slav south of the country, and again in the mainly Albanian north. “It's the mafia,” says Ali, a former wealthy businessman from Yemen. Before making his way to Macedonia he tried crossing through Albania, where he and his two children, aged 13 and 14, were met with gunshots in the air from the Albanian police.

Where local gangs rule

A European source disagrees, saying "smaller local groups," rathern than the mafia, are to blame for the attacks on the migrants. The mafia has other interests to attend to — "more profitable enterprises, like prostitution and arms and drugs trafficking,” the source explains.

Earlier this year one of those groups captured several hundred migrants, taking them to a house where they were locked away and beaten until their families paid a ransom to the kidnappers. In June Macedonian police dismantled a criminal network, but failed to arrest the group's leader, an Afghan nicknamed “Ali Baba.”

The assaults and long marches erase the differences between the poor and rich refugees. Along the railway in northern Macedonia, members of Tehran's middle class share the shade under a majestic tree with a group of destitute Afghans.

At the end of the route lies Lojane, an Albanian-majority village and the last stop before the Serbian border. Some of the locals make a few euros on the side by turning their houses into dormitories for the migrants, but the town's mayor denies the practice exists. Oussam, the Algerian we met in Kumanovo, arrived at Lojane at the end of the day after losing 20 euros to a group of knife-wielding young men.

Here in Lojane, the police and border guards seem to follow a mysterious logic of their own. Most of the time crossing the border is a formality, but on certain days both the Serbian and Macedonian border police heighten their vigilance.

Ibrahim and his family will try to leave this forlorn country tonight. He, his wife Fatima and his six-year-old daughter Mobina have been unlucky on their travels. The Macedonian police stopped them five times in different places around the country, deporting them back to Greece without any documents. After every deportation, it was time to try the crossing again. By Ibrahim's own count, he has walked 1,000 km in this tiny country.