Macedonia's uniformed border thugs wait for war-weary Arab refugees arriving at Europe's doorstep

Those fleeing death and war face assaults and beatings from thuggish guards, says Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk
Friday 10 July 2015 12:12 BST
Migrants arrive at the Macedonian-Greek border
Migrants arrive at the Macedonian-Greek border (AFP/Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


I came to Greece to cover Europe’s shame – the possible departure of an EU member from the great post-war unification of the continent. But I found Europe’s shame on the border between Greece and the old Yugoslav republic of Macedonia when a group of young men from Aleppo showed me the weals and cuts and bruises they had sustained at the hands of Macedonia’s border thugs.

Let’s not call them guards, even though they had “Militia” painted on their trucks. Some were half-naked, sunbathing between bouts of seemingly beating the Arab world’s flotsam. Some carried clubs. Others chatted into mobile phones. And in front of them – camped on the railway lines, on the sideroads, slumped in the maize fields – were the Arabs.

The men and women of Médecins Sans Frontières moved among them, showing the humanity which Europe will not give them. There was food and fresh water and bandages and, I suppose, reassurance that not all Europeans would turn their back on them in their misery. But it was a place of tears.

Men and women from Syria, mostly, from Aleppo of course, but also from Deir ez-Zour and Deraa and the Damascus suburb of Douma. Many had travelled together – they complained of robbers on all the roads – and they had leaders who appeared to be Syrian but were also people-smugglers, several apparently from other Arab countries and Pakistan.

There were young women with terrible burns on their legs where cooking fires had scalded them and men and women who had been walking for hours in more than 30 degrees of heat and who had just marched the last 20 miles on the roads of northern Greece because they were not permitted to use the buses.

Many said they had been walking for hundreds of miles. This was an equivalent of the Mediterranean boat people. They did not sink but they were drowning in sorrow – and desperation to reach one European country: Germany. It was an Iranian refugee rather than an Arab who put their anguish so well. “Look at me,” he said to one of the NGOs. “I know you are trying to help us here with water. I know you are kind. But can something not be done for all these people? They are innocent. They have done nothing wrong. They are fleeing war and death.” They were.

Several men showed me bullet scars. But their new wounds were now the cause of anger. The Macedonians cannot stop these thousands of refugees who are plodding through Greece – a country none of them wish to stay in. Nor do they want to go to Macedonia. Nor Serbia, which is on their route. Not even Hungary – before it builds its infamous wall – but to the one country which would quite like Greece to leave Europe.

The irony was lost on these people. They were desperate to live in Europe while passing through a country, many of whose people seem willing to abandon Europe. But the refugees will not forget this trek of Biblical proportions of which they are a part. Most will – for now – reach Germany.

The Greeks know they are transit passengers in their countryside. One man flourished a Greek government document demanding that he present himself at a police station. It was two days out of date, a futile attempt by the local constabulary to stop the flood.

Many knew that the Macedonians also had transit papers for them – if they could reach the first railway station down the line on the other side of the border. A group of perhaps 200 were planning to make a run for it – which is why the Macedonian cops were standing in the hedgerows and beside the railway track.

What should we do as human beings, I asked one of the MSF women? She did not know. “All we can do is try to take care of them where we find them – we have people in Macedonia, too.” Which is true. We can feed them, help them wash. But the EU does not want them. It depends, of course, how much we blame ourselves for all this.

If there was justice in the Middle East, if we refrained from supporting wars and invading other countries, surely these people would not be here. Almost all were Muslims – one Syrian man had traipsed all the way overland with 33 members of his family. There were babies only a few months old.

And yet we are shocked at the cruelty of Isis and its killers. No, we can’t rerun the old canard that Isis are the poor coming to avenge themselves on us. Aren’t some of the Isis men and women from Europe themselves? But a connection there surely is, and standing by the maize fields I wondered how many of these people would remember – all their lives – how we treated them.

I recall, not far away from here, in Bosnia, in 1994, standing in a burnt-out mosque. I was helping to make a television documentary and my voice is still there on the soundtrack as I stare at the blackened walls. When I see things like this, I said then, I think: “Watch out!” That was seven years before 9/11.

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