Questing for hope

One would think that the refugees’ predicament ends when they finally manage to reach the Greek shores safe and sound. Wrong. As Vassilis Tsartsanis explains – one of the locals helping and witnessing the situation in northern Greece – the refugees often experience the cruel behaviour of other countries’ authorities or even become victims of criminal gangs. Moreover, despite the crisis still tormenting his country, “the Greek people stand in solidarity with the drama of the displaced”.

The journey of thousands of migrants and refugees, mostly Syrians, has been turning into a horrible ordeal ever since the summer of 2014, when the inflow from Turkey increased. Vassilis Tsartsanis – a cinematographer, resident of the town Polykastro in northern Greece and one of many who offered valuable support and assistance to the refugees trying to cross the country’s borders to the North- gives an astounding testimonial. Without prejudice nor exaggeration, his words unfold the daily reality of refugees who find themselves between the town Evzonoi and the Greek-border town Idomene.

Vassilis Tsartsanis
Vassilis Tsartsanis near the Greek-FYROM border.
Vassilis Tsartsanis at the European Parliament.
Vassilis Tsartsanis at the European Parliament.

• How and when did your commitment to the refugee’s issues begin?

Everything started in September 2014, when we were filming beside the iron bridge on the Axios river, near the railway. We noticed several people heading to Idomene on foot. Women with their children, carrying only a few belongings, water and some food. I went to Idomene with some friends and saw images of chaos and human indignity. Those people lived in the woods, within the neutral zone, with their babies, their kids; old people, pregnant women, some at the left of the rails, others near the river. Many would just stay there for weeks.

I came back at the village from which I originate from, Polykastro, and we swiftly decided to gather everything we could. We soon realised that no matter what we did that day, we wouldn’t be able to feed all those hundreds of people. So we returned more organised and used the internet to spread the word about what was going on in Idomene. When we sent out the first call there was great response from the towns and villages around. Tons of clothes and food were collected. The supplies sent to us were so many we had no room to store them.

We would drive to Idomene every two days or even daily, especially when the winter came and things were really difficult. We had to transport blankets, edibles and medicine all the time. We urged our friends and familiar doctors to come and help.

• What is your impression about the refugees?

We have lived with the refugees here for more than 12 months. Not only the Syrians; all of them. I tell you, not only have they not caused any trouble, but the local society has embraced them. I really mean what I say and that’s why solidarity has not ceased at all during those months. Since January 2015, many have reached out to us. The municipality of Paionia and all its villages, many residents from Kilkis, community and civil society groups. Despite the crisis in the country, the locals here stand in solidarity with the Syrians. During the winter, they evened opened their homes for the Syrian families to sleep. Many defied the law. Because we simply can’t just watch fellow humans walking 75 kilometers, holding their babies and become victims of rogues or mafia members.

Of course, we need to constantly coordinate, so that the management and distribution of humanitarian assistance can continue in the long-term. However, that would not be enough. We’d watch the mafia’s activity, while the state was absent and the government simply let the situation be.

• What was the role of the mafia?

Every day, about 100 to 150 people would fall victims of the mafia. Stabbings, broken hands, broken legs, even children covered in blood. The mafia would send its message, that is “if you don’t pay, you can’t pass”. 200-300 meters from the border, in FYROM, at large country houses, it would assemble small armies ready to attack the refugees. Moreover, the attitude of some officers of the FYROM authorities was questionable, with regard to several thefts of mobile phones, money and passports belonging to Syrian refugees.

What I have to say, based on what I witnessed during the winter, makes me feel ashamed. These Syrians came face to face with one of the most criminal organisations in Europe, perhaps the largest. FYROM is the only country in which refugees pay both to enter it and exit it, so that the mafia lets them pass. In Kumanovo, for example, moments of disgrace took place. Syrian refugees were held hostages. The mafia did not just beat them to make them pay up, but its latest practice was to search their anuses for hidden cash.

May 2015. The train of shame.

“Approximately 800 refugees got on board a train at Gevgelija, its destination being Germany. After 8-10 hours of waiting in the wagons, they started fainting. Children and pregnant women were in danger. At first, they tried to call the police, at Skopje, but the officers told them they couldn’t speak English and hung up. Then realising their lives are in actual danger, they called the international emergency number. The Greek police tracked them using their GPS signal. When the authorities in FYROM determined from which wagon the phone call was made, they sent it back to Greece; once it crossed the Greek border, the driving trailer left, while the rest of the refugees headed on north. We picked up 94 people, exhausted, in decrepit condition. The local society was prepared though; what I saw… huge humanitarian assistance. It was really moving.„

 Is not the EU aware of those things?

Well, as far as my part is concerned, I presented information at the European Parliament assembly, twice. But things won’t change, as long as the mafia is allowed by the authorities of all nations to act as a state within a state and bring only disaster. It’s not enough to think about supplies or humanitarian assistance or what a local community can do. The European Union must intervene to protect those people. What happened during the last 12 months must fall under a thorough investigation.

• How much does the mafia profit from the refugees’ passing?

For the so-called “trains of shame”, carrying 700-800 individuals from Gevgelija to Europe, it would charge 3,000 euro per capita. Only the passing into FYROM would cost 1,500 euro. And another 1,500 for minors. The daily turnover for the passing from here would reach over a half million euro. And if the mafia got to them at Kumanovo, they’d have to pay 200 euro a night to stay somewhere. If they had no money to pay, the would even be asked for extra fees.

• Did not the government of Skopje do anything?

Well you know, the Gruevski administration is not exactly reputable… The management… governance of his tenure, all these years, has been inadequate. Look, we have to raise our voice here, even if the real problem begins beyond our borders. Ever since March, we have contacted the international Press. All the big networks were here; BBC, Al Jazeera, Le Monde, the Washington Post, Reuters, there was no media outlet that did not cover, more or less, this informal collaboration and “lightweight” control between the authorities of our neighbouring country and the mafia. Which means, nothing was obscure. Everyone knew and nobody did anything.

The Serbians , on the other hand, for a long time now, have made efforts to tackle the mafia problem and they did contain it. They also were the first to give papers to the refugees, so that they can remain there for seven days, until they complete their transit through the country without being harassed by the mafia.

The fellowship of Abdu Rahman

“I’d tell you about Abdu Rahman. He’s a handicapped young man, shot by a sniper in Syria. He was brought to us here, by the street, being carried by his companions on a wooden ladder. We took him to the border. At night, around 3am, about 34 people crossed the borders, with their kids. After 4 kilometers the FYROM police stopped them. A patrol car turned its lights to them in a distance of 10 meters. The refugees sat down and that moment about 120 to 150 individuals came out of nowhere and started beating them. They mauled them and robbed them in front of the police. At about half past three they called us and we called the journalists. Le Monde, the Greek police too. We left to collect them at the neutral zone. What I saw with my own eyes still haunts me… They were bleeding, staggering. We took 11 of them directly to hospitals at Kilkis, along with their children. We gave first aid to the rest and offered them shelter in our homes –  risking getting arrested – until they’d recover.„

• How are things now in Idomene?

It’s always a place with unrest. The Skopjans close the border for several hours and incidents may be caused. Every day, 2,000 to 2,500 people pass through, but Skopje plays games when it sees fit, when it wants to create trouble. They closed the border for three days when the [January 25, 2015] elections here were announced and now we wait for the next provocation till the election day.

• What do you think about the fact that, while these things have been taking place here for longer than a year, most Greek media picked them up only at the end of the Summer?

Most Greek media paid attention to the frenzy about the “Eleftherios Venizelos” ship that hosted 2,500 refugees. Here we deal with 2,500 people coming every day and I can’t understand the fuss and obsessed reproduction of images showing chaos. This contributes to the tragedy and the games neighbouring countries play with the state of affairs here. It’s really an ignominy.

• There have been arguments that the increase of refugees inflow could be associated with specific regulations applying in Greece. Would you agree?

The rise in the number of desperate people who drown in the Mediterranean, who leave their homeland, their homes, their old mothers, has nothing to do with Greece. They are people who seek refuge. And a refuge seeker, before they decide to put their family in such danger, they must have a good reason. Let’s not act like having the memory of a goldfish. Syria opened its borders to the Greeks in 1923 and offered asylum to Greeks of Asia Minor, Cappadocia and Pontus. We should behave humanely and requite.

• How would you comment on propositions such as the implementation of a quota system in EU wide refugee reception, or the “smart visa” suggestion by the United Nations?

It’s hypocrisy. How would that help, if another country falls, say Egypt, due to a civil war? Egypt has a population of 90 million.

If this imperialist-like policy continues in the Middle East, we will only be receiving millions of refugees. Wars are the problem, that’s it. Nobody just simply abandons their home, their safety, to go somewhere elseThe “smart” visa is something we have called for ages ago. The embassies in Turkey must open up, so that people – at least those who are eligible for asylum – can travel legally and safely, without paying millions to the mafia and smugglers.

About the quotas? Let’s get serious now. What was the number announced by each country? 250 for Lithuania, 200 for Slovakia? Please. This is nonsense.

• Your message to fellow compatriots.

We owe much to the Syrians. We have been refugees ourselves several times for 2,500 years. We became emigrants in 2015. We may ask for solidarity but we have to be ready to give it as well.

Published originally in Greek (The Funnel), 20 Sep 2015

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