As part of FYEG's crew I took part in the #overthefortress mobilisation to campaign for open borders and ending Europe's inhuman border regime, that forces tens of thousands of people into the mud, dirt and despair of Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border. Our task was awareness raising and documenting the horrible situation.
We travelled across the Balkans and visited not only Idomeni, but also Tabanovce refugee camp in Northern Macedonia. During our time we produced a series of video logs and pictures, which you can find here.
VLOG #I - Expectations
Right after we arrived in Polykastro, the activist hub close to Idomeni, we witnessed the first protest organised by refugees themselves demanding human treatment and open borders. It was shocking to see this immediately after our arrival. Children playing in front of the police who watched closely what the refugees where doing and saying, signs and placates asking Europe where it's humanity is, desperate and angry humans demanding safe passage to their destinations. A first glimpse of what to expect in the main refugee camp that we were to visit soon after. But first, we seized the opportunity to interview a woman from Syria.
VLOG #II - Arriving in Polykastro
Producing this vlog series was not an easy task for me. How to depict refugees as the wholesome human beings they are? How to avoid showing them as one-dimensional, agenda-less parts of a mass movement? How to not get them wrong and how to engage the pubic at home, how to convince the people in Europe that there's a true need for change? To address those questions I decided to let the refugees themselves speak whenever possible. Here's a first account of the situation in Idomeni, by a refugee woman from Syria:
VLOG #III - Learning about Idomeni
We knew exactly that it would be easy or nice to visit the refugee camp for the first time, but we were excited to go and see it with our own eyes - after all, this is what we came for. What we found was unbelievable. Personally, I am used to seeing misery. Numerous experiences in Africa, Latin America and South Asia, turned pity into anger and passion for changing our world for the better, constant exposure to hardship made me erect an emotional wall to protect myself from what I saw. But Idomeni was different. This is not Africa, this is not an Latin American slum, this is Europe, and my guards were down. I never expected to see anything like this on my wealthy continent and when I did it hit me. Just as it did everyone else. I found countless members of our group sitting and walking alone to remote places to have some time for themselves. But then again, our sadness won't help anybody, so I shook it off, though it was hard to avoid creeping it into my thoughts. Here's hat we experienced on our first visit to Idomeni:
VLOG #IV - Idomeni
Our comrade Jakob, 18 years old, from Austria and involved in the Youth Red Cross at home, found himself in the situation where he had to help giving birth to a child in a sub-standard tent. No hygiene, no medicins, not even sterile gloves, a newborn laying on the bare ground in a dirty tent. Is this the Europe we want?!
At home in Austria, the press picked up on his story:
The next day, we tried to return to Idomeni. Unfortunately, this time we found the road blocked by Greek riot police. A crew of more than 250 people from all over Europe wanted to deliver humanitarian supplies, which were forced to stand in the rain because the police denied access to the camp with no explanation.
Special Report - Idomeni Bridge Road Block
A striking feature of Idomeni is the border facilities behind it. The Greek-Macedonian border is constructed in a way, which I - as a central European - only know from pictures - mainly old pictures. Two rows of fences, in between a space to patrol. No grass, no nothing in this no-man's land. Not even cats dared to sneak through the tightly arranged barbed-wire. Plenty of it draped around the fences to ensure seriously damaging everyone trying to cross this border. How many people try anyways can only be guessed from the many clothes caught in the barbed wire and the pillows that are draped over the fence in a desperate attempt to not get sliced while crossing it. I know these kinds of fences. I'm German, and I have seen them on pictures. They are not defensive structures. They are weapons, just as the same design of fences used to be in concentration camps and along the inner-German border. How shameful, to now erect those kind of borders against people fleeing war and destitution? How shameful to keep talking about them taking anything away from us, about them destroying our culture, our moral and our values? What can be left of any of these, if we treat refugees in the way we do? In my opinion: nothing!
Humanitarian aid blocked, borders designed to hurt, this is not our Europe. So we decided to demand open borders and an end to this political - not humanitarian - crisis, which is a shame for each and every one of us as Europeans. We started our protest against borders, against fences and against the dirty deal the EU struck with Erdogan's ever more repressive regime, at the regional government of Macedonia (the Greek region, not the country). While marching through the city of Thessaloniki we were soon joined by locals, by refugees and tourists and had a great pretest. Check out our video log:
VLOG #V - Thessaloniki Protest
We would have liked to go and see another one of the many camps scattered around Idomeni. But again - we found borders. Journalists and activists are funneled into one single site with around 5000 refugees. The other 12000 are completely sealed off in camps that cannot be visited unless one has a special permit. A ridiculous situation and clearly an infringement of free press. We were sneaky and climbed up a hill to get some footage of the camp we were not allowed to enter. Check it out:
Special Report - Restricted Camp
With this report our time in Idomeni came to an end. Our friend Milan from Macedonia made the impossible possible and got us access badges to a forgotten refugee camp in his home country on the border with Serbia. Tabanovce hardly makes it to the news, save the reports on outbreaks of measles and scabies, no-one every looks at this forgotten hotspot of Europe's crisis. We left Idomeni immediately and visited Tabanovce, where we got a very personal insight into the life of the amazing, 17-years ol Fatima from Syria. In perfect English, she explained to us how her journey was, about her hopes, her fears, and about the anger of being trapped in this restricted camp. Before we left, the security personell realised we were shooting video. Though, the didn't forbid it at first, now they seemed uncomfortable with our footage and told us they'd delete our SD cards. I managed to sneak out the SD card unnoticed, safeguarded it in my pocket and we left the camp quickly. Luckily, you can now listen to Fatima's story in her own words:
VLOG #VI - Meet the amazing Fatima
Fatima's story is not the only one we got from Tabanovce. Amid a group of Syrian Kurds we met Aasem - a refugee, who got trapped between Macedonia and Serbia with neither side letting him pass. He was pushed back into Tabanovce after spending days in limbo, without food, water, sanitation. "This story needs to be published, you need to show it to the world and the people in Germany", he told me, before giving me the SD-card of his phone, including his own footage from the time when he was stuck in the middle of nowhere with his two adorable children. Don't miss history personal account of the life as a refugee, recounted by himself, with his own footage:
VLOG #VII - Trapped in limbo
Something struck all of us. When we went to Idomeni and Tabanovce, we expected to see misery, desolation and despair - and yes, we saw a lot of that! But there is more, there is a human side to refugees, which is hardly ever shown. But we think it is extremely important to show refugees as humans. This includes the entire range of human emotions. Hope and joy are clearly some of those. We want to show you the joy and hope we have witnessed in the refugee camps we visited. Also because there is a lesson to learn from them: If refugees in Idomeni and Tabanovce can keep up their spirits, so can we. The fortress Europe is far from unchallengeable and everyone has the right, possibility and moral obligation to speak up against this inhuman, shameful project. Together, we can bring down the fortress Europe.
VLOG #VIII - Hope
Let's end this with HOPE.