Category Archives: Greece

Let's play a game | The Freelance Explorer

Let’s play a game

Let’s play a game, use your imagination and follow along.

You’re cosy in that recliner you love, you know the one. You picked it out together right after you brought your first home. It was after the wedding, of course. But before you started painting the nursery pink and stocking up on tiny socks.

It’s a late summers night, the coolness of autumn is just beginning to set in and that warm cup of tea feels just right in your hands. You switched from red wine that day the bump started showing through her favorite merino sweater, that super soft one you’ve always liked. You squeeze her hand just a little tighter. Despite the political problems flashing past on the television, the world couldn’t seem any more perfect in this moment.

You’ve always been pretty proud of coming from Britain, such a solid country with a great history. It’s been a great place to grow up, and your life has had its challenges, but overall been great. Your friends are here, your parents are here, and when you gaze out the window past the falling leaves your eyes keep coming back to the tree that you will one-day build a tree house in for your daughter, once she’s born and grows a little of course.

The BBC reports are coming more and more frequently these days. Walking down the roads conversations overheard mostly focus around the future of your country. As each day passes, things seem less certain than they did before. Just yesterday you bumped into an old school friend down at the supermarket who told you he was pulling his superannuation out. ‘That’s crazy’ you exclaimed under your breath. ‘Surely you’ll have to loose..’, ‘yeah, at least fifty percent’ he finished your sentence. ‘But, you know, it’s better than loosing it all – and if we have to leave suddenly, I want some cash behind me, y’know what I mean?’. You nodded along, but couldn’t quite grasp this concept. Why was everyone so concerned? This is a safe country, this is home.

The leaves are beginning to fade into orange outside the nursery window, the room that remains half that awful eggshell color you hate. I’ll finish painting in a few months, you think. Once things settle down a little and we know we will stay. Surely this war wont go on forever, besides, they are fighting up the other end of the country. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, of course you never expected to be living in a country under siege, but, you do believe it’ll get better. There’s hope.

You wake suddenly, with a jolt. As the weeks have passed and the leaves are more red now than orange, the bombs are becoming more frequent. This one was the closest yet. You start to think about what is best for your family. You don’t have a lot of money, you’ve invested so much into the house recently getting it ready for your new family. It’s ok, you think to yourself, we will just leave the country for a while. We will come back to our beautiful home soon.

All but a few of the leaves have fallen now, and you are saying one last goodbye to your home, to the half-painted nursery and to the tree-house that hasn’t been built yet. You and  your wife are heading downtown to meet a group of people, you’ve managed to strike a good deal to get out of here and you’ve managed to sell off a few things to pay for it. You’ll be taking a boat across the channel to France, a nice one they say, that’s why you sold the car in the end – to get the upgrade. Only the best for your family, plus it left you with a little extra cash in your pockets for the trip.

Fast forward a few days and you’re still holed up in an old, abandoned hotel. You want to go home. You’re hungry and frightened, but you’d loose all your money if you left now. You’d be taking your pregnant wife back into an active warzone, broke and defeated. What else is there to do but wait? They keep promising you’ll go soon, but the weather is too bad. Autumn is coming to an end and the winds make the sea rough. So you wait, squeezing her hand a little tighter each day that goes by, feeling her growing belly through that soft merino sweater. You tell her stories of pink-painted rooms and promises for the future to take both your minds away from here.

Finally the time comes where the world seems to be shifting in your favor. You’re woken abruptly in the middle of the night. Hurry, hurry, it’s time to go, the voices rasp from the darkness. Normally this scene would read more like a horror movie, but after days of being shut away from the world to a landscape of bomb blasts in the distance, you are just relieved to be getting the hell out of here. You’re all driven for what feels like a lifetime round windy roads and backstreets. Eventually the van pulls in to a stop and your group tumbles out onto the cold soil.

It’s quite late at night, and after your eyes adjust to the darkness you see other small groups of English people around, groups just like you waiting nervously with their families and meager possessions. The air is cold and you can smell the pine forest around you. The sound of crashing waves is enough to give you hope that you’ll be out on the water in no time, sailing away to your new safe place.  As your shoes tread prints in the dark, damp sand you spy a small rubber boat on the shore. This isn’t the luxury sailboat you paid so much for, you ponder. You turn to the man leading the group to ask, but before you get a word out he pulls out a gun. ‘Get in the boat’ he commands.

Every piece of you wants to run. What are you doing here? What did you bring your family to? Your mind races in circles and panic sets in, but it’s all too late to turn back now. A young child starts to cry. Shut up, shut up! The man exclaims, clearly agitated. People are shuffling from foot to foot, slowly edging toward the boat. The women, children, the sick and the elderly are instructed to clamber in first. Your wife’s cool, clammy hand loosens its grip on yours as she is ushered away. You feel a knot in your stomach and a sense of dread, not the first one you’ve had this week.

By the time it’s your turn to pile into the boat, it is already very clearly over capacity. There are way too many people here, but nobody has a choice anymore. You’ve been duped by a people smuggler. As the frail and weak are kept safe down in the bottom of the boat, the men are piled around the outsides and on the top. It’s cramped and uncomfortable, but you keep bringing yourself back to the reminder that this is only for an hour or two, soon you will be in France. Soon everything will be safe again.

A spaghetti sea of tangled limbs is bobbing in the unforgiving ocean. Your leg has gone dead and you can hear wails from inside the pile of pile of bodies, they’ve been howling for two hours now and you’re imagination is serving you unlimited reasons why. Another two boats left not long after you, and you can see them not far behind. Like yours, their engines have broken down halfway too.  In some moments you wish those wails were coming from your wife, any familiar sound to let you know she is still alive and breathing, buried down there. A hand reaches for yours. An old woman, head peeping out at you with tears streaming down her face. I don’t know how to swim she confesses.

You spot a ship in the distance moving toward you. Momentarily you forget about your vomit-drenched clothed and frostbitten toes. About how you’ve been sitting out on the relentless waves, in the cold for many hours. Your mind distracts you from how the old ladies grip is loosening from your wrist and her lips are staining blue. You’re being rescued. It’s ok. The people are waving and shouting to the big boat, but it is a little too far in the distance behind you, you can see it getting close to one of the rubber boats that is trailing behind. We’ll be next, you sigh in relief. It’s been the most difficult night of your life, but the end is in sight. Safety is near.

You watch, incredulously, as the boat comes to a halt, dwarfing the tiny rubber boat beside it. That lump in your throat feels harder now as you can but only watch in horror as instead of pulling the occupants up to safety, the people on the boat are stabbing it with knives, filling it with water. The final screams of your drowning fellow safety-seekers will haunt your nightmares for the rest of your life.

Nobody speaks for the rest of the journey.

After 11 long hours you make it to shore. You see unfamiliar faces pulling your boat in toward the rugged coast, but by now you’ve lost all sense of who you can trust. What language are they speaking? You try to listen closer to work out if you’ve landed in the right country but their voices are drowned out by screaming babies. Your mind swirls with questions. Most importantly, where is your wife?

Winter has set in now and she barely speaks anymore. Since the early hours of that morning, when you finally found her, hypothermic and curled up on the beach surrounded by doctors. The first thing you noticed was how she was soaked in your un-born daughters blood. Things have not been the same since that day. Your eyes haven’t met since the night when her hand slid out of yours, when she crawled into the bottom of the boat, never to return the same person. Partly, she blames you for taking her on this journey, even though most of her knows knows she would’ve died back at home. Hell, what used to be called home is now just an expansive stretch of shrapnel and rubble that flashes on television screens across the world when the evening news comes on.

You find yourself with much time to think. Your mind wanders to that half-pink room, you’ve even come to miss that eggshell colour. Maybe you could go back, perhaps you could fight in this war. You’ve already lost your home, your money, your daughter and your wife is as good as gone now, she wont even come near you anymore.  What more have you got to loose?

Life continues to roll on forward at a steady pace, taking you with it whether you like it or not. Suicide slips into your mind more frequently with each passing day. No matter how much you resisted at first to push the thoughts out, they just keep creeping in with more and more intensity. You’ve not nothing and nobody to lean on. You’d never felt truly alone until you heard the news of your parents passing in the latest blast. An orphan with no home, a despondent wife that would have left you by now, if she had anywhere to leave to. You have no money, and you’re loosing hope of seeing any kind of future. What is the point anymore? When you try and reach out to the world, you’re treated as a criminal, an animal, somebody less than worthy. And as day after day passes, you begin to believe it too.

This home doesn’t want you. Your old home no longer exists. What do you do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day we marched to Macedonia | The Freelance Explorer image 2

The day we marched to Macedonia

I like the way his whole face smiles, beginning in his shining eyes and bursting out across his tiny cheeks as he dangles his mothers handbag from a nearby stick. His bigger brother pulls it off to the ground, they collapse into giggles and he tries again. I shuffle around in my sodden trousers, finding a comfortable spot in the dirt and exchanging smiles with the cheeky little boys. “Are you scared?” my friend asks me “Yeah, a little..” I pause for a moment, catching my breath on the cooling air “hey, do you think those are rubber bullets or real ones?”A redundant question, I already knew the answer.

Poorly translated maps and instructions had been distributed the day before, sharing a new way to cross the border. A hole in the fence just five kilometres away, was what I heard, although I didn’t know for sure.

Rumour was quickly spreading of an exodus of Idomeni camp the following morning, the more people who walk together the less the police will do about it.. right? I tossed and turned through the night. We often receive information about upcoming plans, movements and demonstrations that never eventuate, this somehow felt more real. Nobody was entirely sure what to prepare for, something was going to happen. I wanted to position our medical volunteers strategically, to prepare for anything that might come up, but it was hard to figure out with so much conflicting information.

I still don’t completely understand how I got involved. “Don’t go with children” we pleaded, “They will beat you, they will use tear gas, this is too dangerous.. please go back”. Our cries fell on deaf ears, just as most were convinced to stop, one would start walking again and the rest would follow. People didn’t believe in a hell worse than they already lived, even death wouldn’t deter them.

“If I die on the way, so be it. It is better than what we have here” his eyes told me he meant every word.

We walked up through the muddy trails leaving the tiny Idomeni village back in the distance. The fledgling bazaar and campfire smoke grew smaller behind us.
Snaking up through the hills and the forest, muddy sneakers and blankets were discarded in the mud. We were barely a short way into this journey and the signs of the peoples weariness lay entrenched on the side of the trails. We trudged on through the mud, urging and sharing the little information we already had. Eventually we clambered into a four wheel drive as our trail intercepted the road and went in search of the river. Driving through swarms of exhausted people, begging for shoes, for water, is heart wrenching. The helplessness of never having enough to give, of being on an information gathering mission rather than a distribution one, left us feeling impotent. Once we find the river, we decided, then we can alert others to the location to set up food and water distribution. We can try to stop them before they cross from Greece. We had a goal in mind, and a large number of people in need of supplies.

We approached the river through the crowds. It ran turbulently, bisecting the large group into the wet and the dry. Volunteers stood in the icy water up to their thighs, a human chain to help the people across. Three had already died in these waters this morning, two adults and a 10 month old baby. Nobody could bare the thought of any more drownings, so here they all stood in their hi-vis vests, shivering and wet taking hand by hand by hand. I jumped out of the car for a better look. I had heard about this river already, but I didn’t understand the lay of the land. Where was the border? The hole we had been told about?

Everything made less and less sense, I thought, as I began to unlace my shoes and roll up my trousers.

I felt the cold rush up my legs and soak right through me as I scrambled up the muddy banks on the other side. The currents were strong and I immediately understood how people had died and drowned here earlier. I could picture many more deaths if there hadn’t been anyone to help. It became more and more apparent that these people were going to keep walking, no matter what got in their way. This is where I hit that moment, the one where my heart took over my rational thought and led me up those banks and off into the next field. Ankle deep in mud and surrounded by lush green crops and rolling hills, I carried on.

As we walked on through, I felt secure in the knowledge we were still in Greece, and for a change felt comforted by the razor wired border fences sat to my right. Perhaps they are just walking with no idea, maybe they don’t know. Maybe they will walk indefinitely to the markings of a fake map. We need to find out where they are gathering, we should get a location so we can get help to them.

“Those shoes, they are just like the ones my mother wears”, my friend commented. I stifled my tears as I watched her paper-thin skin slip out the back of her worn leather loafers. Her tiny, elderly frame visibly struggling from a six kilometer trek. How does she keep going, I wonder.

“Hey, where did the fence go?”

My thoughts were interrupted. There was definitely a border over there last time I looked. We had been walking for a long time now and somewhere along the way the fence had slipped off into the distance.

The ominous sound of many people shouting emanated through the hills like a chant. What are they yelling? Surely this must be the border we were looking for. Refugees vs Military. It felt like a scene from a film, with so many unreal sounds and sights. Down and around we stepped for a better look, then there they were.

I never took the time to see or understand the piece of paper that sent so many marching, the one refugees were told to destroy after reading. If I had, I would’ve realised that we weren’t looking for a hole in the border at all. We were seeking a different beast all together – the place where the border fence ceases to exist. It quickly became apparent we had found this place, and the welcoming committee were adorned with a selection of weapons and camouflage print. No time was wasted as the segregation process began.

Most of my small group were herded off to the side of the trail by a small number of agitated officers. Macedonian military, as it turns out. We had crossed the border, that invisible line in the sand had slipped under our feet unnoticed. We had suddenly become illegal border-crossing criminals.

My journey was to take a different twist now, as my attempts to join the crowd of volunteers were thwarted by shouting ‘keep walking, keep walking that way, now!’.  Two of us had been mistaken for refugees, a fair call when making snap judgments, especially since I was walking with a Kurdish friend and helping carry a legless Syrian refugee. When faced with this many guns and hostility, all there is left to do is just keep walking.

So here I sit. The small boy jostles his brother and gets back to work precariously balancing the purple leather bag once again. They stumble over each other to smile and wave at me. I wave back, forcing myself to ignore the man vomiting into the ditch behind me. Out the corner of my eye I spot flecks of blood as he grasps on to the slippery edges of the trench and his friend holds him steady. Despite my instincts, moving to help him isn’t an option. In fact, moving anywhere is out of the question right now. We’ve been gathered into small groups in a field, the sun is sinking behind the hills and the cold is starting to bite at my face. More and more military guards move in alongside riot police and armed vehicles. Anybody trying to move is greeting with shouts of ‘SIT DOWN’.

Guards stand all around, arms sternly folded but occasionally loosening to fidget with their guns. They look concerned, now that they have everybody in manageable sizes, what will they do with them?

It takes around an hour but we convince the new guard that despite my lack of passport or papers to prove it, I am not actually a refugee. He is new around here, been on the job less than a week. “I don’t know why I am here, what am I doing, this is a terrible situation” he tells me, shoulders dropping as he places his emphasis on the don’t knows, and quietens for the final few words. His heartfelt naivety provides a needed dose of humanity to this situation.

The more senior officer leads my friend, while I trail behind with the young guard. He must be only about 19 and nods compassionately as I explain that we crossed into his country accidentally. We are soon introduced to a police chief who reminds us that this will be a ‘big problem’, common terminology around here. He searches our pockets and tells us to remove our shoes, soon bringing us towels for our wet feet and offering us his bread to eat.

Before I get a chance to put my shoes back on, an old Macedonian woman rushes hurriedly out of her nearby house with an armful of shoes for us. ‘No, no – the refugees need these more than us!’ we remind her, not entirely sure she hasn’t also mistaken us. After many hugs and assurances that we will be fine with the shoes we have, she scurries away again and we are taken by police car to the station.

I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t a relief to see so many familiar faces at the police station, it felt like a reunion of comrades. At least 50 volunteers, journalists and reporters were already at the station by the time I arrived. It was a difficult night and we were held for the better part of 10 hours before release – a small price to pay compared to the three days they had originally intended.

There were tears shed and many people pacing around the cold, concrete floors in frustration. I had to have my passport brought over from Greece and we were all slapped with a large fine. There were some sweet moments, of course. Cuddling up in a pile under a big blanket, or being allowed to order pizza in late into the night. But, overall we felt a potent cocktail of exhausted, bewildered and overwhelmed. We didn’t expect this, and the news of all the refugees being returned to Idomeni after walking so far broke our hearts. The processing was time consuming and inconsistent, and various groups, embassies and media came in causing a stir. But, eventually we were released with a 6 month ban.

As our taxi lumbered in across the border and through the hoards of exhausted people stumbling back in the darkness, my heart aches. I keep my eye out for the two little boys, or perhaps just for that purple handbag, dropped along the way.

I didn't cry | The Freelance Explorer image 1

I didn’t cry

I’ve run out of tears for the everyday. For the child tugging on my trousers in need of more things than money can buy, for the desperation in that parents eyes, for the putrid toxicity of people so desperate they are burning their plastic raincoats for firewood. I didn’t even cry in the Macedonian field, helplessly watching that man vomiting blood into the muddy ditch.

No, instead I cried in the train station. Immersed in repulsive normality. A young Grecian god with curly locks plays his shiny trumpet whilst waiting for a train, and I break down to the bewildered security guards, who are not entirely sure what to do with me. “Don’t cry, you will just be five hours later. We will help you get on the next train to Athens, it is ok, we will help”. Kind eyes, nervous pats on the shoulder. I want to express my whole world right now, but I hold it together. This isn’t about misleading directions and wrong platforms, not about missed trains and requests for more Euro that I couldn’t afford in the first place. Whether I’m in Thessaloniki or Athens or the side of the road these tears were still overdue. Instead I thank them for helping, and hold the rest inside.

I had become tired of writing. The stories of these people stick stubbornly in my mind, more accumulating each day. No amount of vocabulary can do these tales justice, so most days I fall asleep in a sea of draft copies and hand written notes that will most probably never make it to these pages. Is my enthusiasm fading as I pour all of my energy into holding hope for these people instead of putting pen to paper? No, it is still very much there, it has just been directed to other places. My passion for this cause and these people grows with every minute I spend in the muddy hell. Yes, hell. I cannot think of a better word to describe these fields, bisected by train tracks and cut off by a barbed and ruthless border.

42 days of mud, of sadness and despair and tragedy later, after much resistance I  agree to take three days off in Athens, get some space, come back refreshed.

One hour away in this large city, my accidentally extended transit stop to Athens, life goes on. I want to scale the walls and shout from the rooftops.. “People! Look to your North, look in the mud. People are sick, people are dying all around you”. But, I suppose they know. How could you not, it’s all over the news, all of the time. Of course they know, but still I’m itching in my skin just knowing how rampant consumerism and luxury exists so close to the hell I call home. Two relaxed Greek men talk business beside me, the springtime sun shining across day planners and mobile phones. This is far too normal.

Back in camp human rights have become no longer just a concept we should fight, but a reality that I see violated over and over again. People are soaked into their bones. They have been for days, and they will continue to be for many more. If they say the wrong thing, or unknowingly present the wrong papers, they are beaten. Simple as that, sometimes even less – sometimes there is no reason. The borders are closed, they say. Forever. But where do we go? The question resonates with us all, I wish I had all of the answers. Even some of them would do.

The business man orders a frappe, pleasantly oblivious. I am going to wait here with my lack of answers for another five hours and hope to get let onto the next train.