Valentines day was spent on a road trip across northern Greece, transporting our team of 4 volunteers, a donated Swedish ambulance and a stockpile of medical supplies almost 1000km northwest of Lesvos. At the other end of the world from this escalating assault on Syria, my hometown was once again rocked by a large earthquake. In the quiet moments, in the middle of the night when everything is still, I can’t help but wonder how much more this world can take.
Polykastro lies in a region of northern Greece known as Macedonia. This is different from the country that begins 15km away, known now as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short. Vistas of an unusual landscape littered with UNHCR tents and supplies, occupying the backyard of a petrol station greet you as you turn off from the highway. This makeshift transit camp is a grey zone any way you look at it.
Johnny Cash emanates from our portable speaker, another round of cards are dealt as we macerate in campfire smoke. Under our small gazebo we can comfortably fit 3 park benches placarded with UNHCR badges, a large plastic bin filled with donated jackets moonlights as a coffee table. Throughout the night the number of volunteers sitting on night dwindles from eight, closely packed in and sharing war stories, down to one solo lookout taking shifts – huddled in a sleeping bag by the fire whilst everyone else naps.
Pikpa, the upcyled summer camp. Moria, a post apocolyptic music festival. Eko is a surreal take on camping.
The situation at Eko gas station changes daily and dramatically. In one moment it might be a desolate wasteland. Later as many as 5000 refugees materialise, although only 2500 will squeeze into the tents. Whether they stay for 30 minutes or 5 days depends on the situation at the border, the refugees don’t know any more than the volunteers. Everyone is at mercy of the bus drivers, who turn on their engines and rally their passengers once they get the call that it’s time to go.
Such is life in a transit camp. These tents popped up into the world as a direct response to bus drivers leaving refugees here, instructing them to walk the final 15km up to Idomeni camp and the FYROM border. After up to 20 hours spent in a bus trying to leave Athens amidst farmers’ taxi strikes and tractor road blocks, days of sleep deprivation and long ferry rides, arriving refugees began sleeping here in the dirt next to the Eko petrol station. Sick, cold and hungry, there was a need. And so sprung up this small camp, almost overnight. That was 7 months ago. Now the busses stick around and take them the full way, eventually. The wait time between arriving at Eko and getting the signal that the border is open can take almost a week sometimes. So this is where they will live for a short part of the long journey. 24 hours a day a small team of independent volunteers, supported by the occasional NGO, camp out and wait with food, water, shelter and medical care to greet them.
This valentines I will happily take a rain check on the flowers and candy. I will settle in to my gasoline wasteland, playing cards with my comrades until the busses inevitably roll in. There is more love here than any valentines date anyhow.
I want to leave you with a video, a beautiful valentines message made by activists in Syria two valentines days ago to go and check out: