We, statistics from Bahnhof Gevgelia
A story from a train station where human lives are turned into statistics.
A stone with the number three sprayed on it in red color lies on a parched field of grass, marking the unofficial borderline between Macedonia and Greece. From there to reach the train station in Gevgelia, a town in Southern Macedonia, an adult would need to take about 2.650 steps. A pathway, clearly well-trodden, leads from the railway tracks through a shade under a long vineyard and a bush which cannot hide the proofs of the exodus. Ripped mattresses, children’s diapers, crumpled cigarette boxes next to emptied plastic water bottles, soles which fell off of over worn shoes and just a few meters from the railway where bush is a bit denser, lies used toilette paper.
About 1.500 refugees walk this footpath daily as they cross the border from Greece to Macedonia with the intention to continue their pilgrimage and finally cross the Serbian – Hungarian border where they try to enter the European Union before a fence will be built. A fence which would, in any other reality, serve as a very definition of irony – the materials used to construct the fence in order to protect the Hungarian border from incoming waves of refugees is built by prisoners locked in Hungarian jails. In this reality, the construction of the fence announced the beginning of the race against time, which refugees mostly from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and African countries must win in order to reach European Union via Hungary and once there, request a status of asylum seekers.
There are no flowers on Gevgelia train station anymore. Now, the remaining flower troughs serve only as garbage bins. A 21-year-old sits on one of them. He introduces himself by the nickname his two friends with whom he fled from Syria call him – Memo. With gratitude in his eyes, Memo tells the story of his journey as he fled Syria with high hopes of reaching Germany.
“A lot of refugees claim to be coming from Syria, just because we Syrians are educated and most of the time we are welcomed with understanding by people we meet on the road. Ten months ago I fled the city of Damascus where I was about to be conscripted into the regime army. At that time I was still studying in a high school. I illegally crossed Syria into Turkey to the city of Izmir, where I could afford to live in a small and overcrowded room, sharing it with 22 other people. For that I had to pay 300 Turkish liras (approx. 97€) per month. Nevertheless, it was my desire to live in Germany along with the hope of a better future that gave me the strength I needed to proceed. Some time later, I found myself a job. It was a simple but tiring work, 12 hours daily. By helping in some restaurant I earned 800 Turkish liras per month. Most of the money I earned I kept on saving and five days ago I contacted a person who promised to smuggle me from Izmir to Greece. The trafficker gave me instructions and later that night I have joined a group of 42 refugees, amongst whom some were children. All of us were headed to the Greek island of Samos. We crammed up in a green inflatable rubber motor boat and set sails towards Greece. It was a very dark night, therefore I cannot say exactly when but I think we have made half of the journey when we heard another motor boat coming towards us. The noise of the boat was coming closer and closer until we heard yelling from that boat; “We are here to rescue and save you. You are heading to Greece.” First I thought it could be a rescue boat of international agencies or Greek police.
Then the boat stopped next to ours, close enough for me to see it was unmarked, and just seconds after, I got blinded by a bright white light for a few moments. When my vision cleared, I could see people wearing black with masks over their faces. You know, like the ones commandos in movies wear. Those people were armed with rifles and one of them ordered us to hand him over our gasoline canisters. As he got our gasoline supplies he started to spill it into the water, meanwhile another person ripped a part of the front right side of our boat with a knife. Immediately after that, they sailed away. There was a complete chaos on our boat as water was slowly pouring in. Some of us were trying with bare hands to get water out while others tried to fix and start our motor again.”
A loud horn of the train in a distance, the penultimate one, has interrupted Memo’s story. A crowd of about a hundred of scuffling refugees was waiting at the tracks for the train to arrive. Knowing that he will not be able to board on this very train as the chaos at the station was too immense, Memo calmly continues his story.
“It was dawn already when we managed to reach the island of Samos after being at the mercy of waves for four hours in the Mediterranean Sea. As we reached Samos we received some documents, which served us as an identification as refugees and as a permission to move across Greece. After that we embarked on the boat again, this time heading towards the mainland part of Greece-towards Athens. We arrived in Athens and from there we took a train to Thessaloníki (Solun), only 70 kilometers away from the Macedonian border. In a single day we managed to walk that distance and reach the Macedonian border. I’m here now and hopefully I can manage to board on the last train coming at 22:00. Otherwise, I’ll have to spend the night here on the train station. “I assume you know that metal music is very popular in Germany?” Memo changed the topic as if he were chatting somewhere in Berlin already.
As the last train of the day departs at 22:00 from Gevgelia train station towards Serbia, the noise gets quieter. Refugees arriving to the station afterwards or those who failed to board the train begin to spread carton boxes, blankets, some of them have sleeping bags. Slowly, just as summer fireflies, tiny lights emerge in the darkness next to the railroad tracks. It’s the glowing screens of mobile phones. There are crackling recordings of Kurdish music coming from some of the phones while from other speakers one could hear conversations with family members who stayed far behind in homelands torn by war, waiting to receive news of a successful journey from their relatives. Mobile phone with an option to connect to wireless network is a vital tool for refugees if they want to message their families. To inform his relatives about his safe arrival at the station, one of refugees decided to climb the pole with hopes of reaching a stronger signal. While doing so, he was killed by 25.000 volts running through wires over the tracks. But life on Gevgelia station doesn’t stop-it just slows down. Phone lights glitter in the distance, weakly illuminating the footpath next to the rails. With the arrival of the first morning train at 4:40, locals begin to prepare tables on the station, ignite simple gas stoves and putting cigarettes up for sale. They sell coffee or tea for 1 € or for the same amount they offer a liter and a half of bottled water. A box of cigarettes is sold for 5 €, a pack of bananas for 2 €, a woman carries a box of fresh socks from Italia which are to be sold to refugees who have recently arrived.
Some of the locals in Gevgelia try their chances to earn some money while others express honest solidarity with refugees and their struggle. “I work in Germany where I don’t follow the news. I just came back home yesterday and I cannot believe my eyes. I’m shocked. What I see here, under my balcony is a totally inhuman scenery. See, there in my room, I left my luggage unpacked as I didn’t have time, but now I’m not even sure I want to stay here or I’ll better return to my job back to Germany immediately.” Mihajlo lives in the third floor of a block few meters from the station. “It looks as somebody would throw a weird welcome party for me,” he joked.
During the conversation, shouts under his balcony are getting louder, mixing with the occasional crying of children, rumbling of steel and the calling out of names. Again, a train heading to Serbia is coming to the station. Welcomed by a corridor of policemen who are equipped with batons and always on guard to catch anyone who would get too close to the passenger cars, the train slowly stops. This one serves only regular travellers-eight confused tourists enter the carriage. After that, an engineer yells out of the locomotive to tell the police officer in charge that the train can accept refugees on board on those two two carriages which have remained unoccupied. A stampede of refugees towards the two carriages begins. A stampede which resembles to a fight for life-as they who will fail to get on the train, will be doomed to spend the rest of eternity on the doormat of Europe, here at the Gevgelia train station. Those with more patience just scuffle with others and close their space with their elbows, others pass backpacks, strollers and bags over heated heads to their friends standing a step closer to the stable future- a step closer to the doors of the carriages. Refugees with the least luggage, in this case meaning only a small bag strapped on their belt, decide to climb in the carriage through it’s windows only to get place on board. If a policeman catches them while climbing, they wish them “bon voyage” in a form of a few hits with a baton accompanied by some swearing. In the carriages, refugees themselves sometimes share a punch or two between each other, as they fight for a place, while the carriage is filling up, on the verge to explode. The crowd gets bigger and bigger until it is physically impossible to get in. Sometimes only legs are left hanging out of carriages and it is literally impossible for anyone to still get in- those unlucky, deprived of any strength, slowly turn around and return some dozen of meters back to the station where their places have already been occupied by refugees who came to the train station in the meantime.
Dressed in an ironed bright gray shirt and wearing a red hat, a railway man whistles a loud sign of departure from Gevgelia. “Well, tell me, how would you look upon all that in Ljubljana, Zagreb or anywhere else? This is a train station but it looks like anything else except a train station, you see, it’s been turned into a rubbish dump! Although we clean trash regularly, all those refugees leave behind too much garbage. Look, there!” he points out in the direction of the smell of coffee, “ what would you in Slovenia say, if I come to the station with my table and start to illegally sell coffee and cigarettes?” A rhetorical question, which he probably asked himself each time he blew that loud whistle to a departing train.
All but this, asks himself a man in his middle ages, Syrian from Aleppo, who takes slow and unsure steps to approach the young activist Gabriela. “Why don’t you do something? Can’t you see? We are not animals.” His eyes seemed irreversibly filled with disappointment with the world. A small young child was standing next to him, firmly holding his hands and with marks of dried tears running from her eyes which saw things no child should ever see. “I am not her father, but I take care of her. She was separated from her family here at the station once the train came. After all the hell she has been through on the sea, she asks of me to take her back to her home in Syria. She says she doesn’t care if she dies. You can’t do anything to help her get on the train right? How can a child small like this make his way through the crowds and in such a chaos! Nothing you can do, right, I know. I apologize. Thank you anyways, and God bless you.” Maybe this man once believed in God, but through his brief begging it was obvious he had no more reasons left for that. He walked away towards the only pipe with tap water on the station in order to refresh those worn out feet and sunburned face.
Waiting in a shadows leaning on a yellow wall of the small house where tickets are sold, refugees are approached by a team of Macedonian Red Cross and Red Crescent. The medics share bottles of water, vitamins and antibiotics for those in need. Each administration of pills is noted on a piece of paper which serves as a refugee’s identification document. Mustafa is a medic of Macedonian and Iraqi roots and has served in humanitarian missions in a number of refugee camps throughout Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan and now he translates the needs of refugees to other three medics who are patrolling the station. Most of refugees suffer of severe dehydration, some have skin infections, headache and sore muscles. A boy got an inflammation of ears as he was sleeping a few nights on the cold floor of the train station. Medics advised his mother to put at least some carton box below his head as a pillow.
Those who don’t succeed to board on the train and can afford to pay 50 euros for a taxi ride to Skopje, try to arrange the ride with taxi drivers parked in the vicinity of the train station, but most of them have to turn back since refugees need to gain a special permission issued by Macedonian police if they want to move freely across the country. A group of Kurdish refugees from Erfin failed to get the permission. Eventually, they took a crowded bus and paid 7 euros for a ride to Skopje.
Gevgelia train station became a home to Shabak Mahmoud, who fled his home in Mosul, Iraq, as he was running from fighters of the so-called Islamic State. He was smuggled across Syria into Turkey, and as many others, paid 1100 dollars to cross into Greece. Human traffickers have promised him a safe journey, saying there will be maximum 35 people on the boat but later, they filled it with 60 souls. Their dangerous voyage lasted for 5 hours until they were saved by the Greek police boat, which managed to get them to shore. 31-years-old Mahmoud has fled Iraq alone, carrying a sleeping bag and a backpack. He opens it and displays items vital for him; weather proof poncho with integrated compass, flashlight, a pack of sugar, two tea bags, some papers and a comb. With significant care, he puts back his inventory in a backpack and walks away from the scorching sun, to sit in the shade of the aluminum roof, where he has lived for the past three days-on Gevgelia train station, where human lives are turned into statistics. On the train station, 1.023.622 steps away from European Union.