The boy didn’t sleep in the tent last night. He has someplace he goes. In the city maybe. It’s better, there’s more space when he’s gone. But TZEZHS4XS01082016 can’t help but feel jealous. TZEZHS4XS01082016 hasn’t been able to leave the camp for months. He could leave if he wanted, but what if they called his name while he was out? He lifts his wrist up, clicks on the light on his watch. 07:31. Why even check the time? It annoys him every time he does it. It’s best to forget the time. What do you need to know the time for? He checks under his pillow for the plastic, the paper within. He worries that he’ll unfold and fold it so many times that it will tear, that some crucial letter will become illegible. But he still needs to check it.
The January snows fell hard. A rivulet of muddy water runs past his tent.
His nylon tent sags heavy under the snow.
He presses his feet into his sodden shoes. Feels his jacket to see if it has dried. It hasn’t. Nothing has. But he has to go outside. He has to listen for his name.
The camp spreads high up the hillside, tents, barbed wire, containers, rubble, trash, people, waiting. Moria. Every day people come and people go, but he stays. Moria. The camp of listening. Every day they read names out and hand papers back through the metal fence at the center of the camp. But whose names? Whose papers? TZEZHS4XS01082016 has been here so long. Sometimes people pass through within a week. And some, it is true, have been here even longer. If they would just give him a sign, an appointment, a look at a list, anything. If he knew they weren’t going to call his name he would walk into the city, he could maybe buy some shoes, he’d spend the day keeping warm inside his tent. But there is no list, no sign, no answers, there is only waiting.
There is movement inside the fence. The Greeks have arrived. The young men with neat beards and soft chins stand behind the razor wire with new papers in their hands. They mangle names with their accents. People from the camp gravitate quickly toward them, listening for a familiar sound. “Abdooola!” the call rises. “Abdoooola!” TZEZHS4XS01082016, his paper tight in his hand, presses forward to the fence. Maybe today.
“My friend,” he says through the metal wiring. “My name. I haven’t heard it.”
TZEZHS4XS01082016 presses his precious document up against the wiring. “Look. My friend, please look.”
The man, half his age, does not look at him. He flicks to his next paper, calls another name out toward the camp.
Maybe they called TZEZHS4XS01082016 months ago and he didn’t hear it.
TZEZHS4XS01082016’s eyes follow the younger man’s movements, the slow swagger. He watches the sheaves of papers in his hands, imagines himself wearing his dry coat, his thick shoes. The rain is pouring harder and the snow is melting into dirty lakes running through the camp.
TZEZHS4XS01082016’s finger curls through the wiring.
I watch him from under the hood of my rain slicker.
A drop of water hangs in terrified suspension on the tip of his nose.
“What’s in there?” I ask him, gesturing at the men in dry clothes.
“You’re new?” he asks, turning to examine me.
“They’re the government. Did you register?”
“No. But why are you waiting here?”
“For my interview.”
TZEZHS4XS01082016 unfolds the piece of paper in the plastic envelope and shows me. His hand shivers. It is in Greek, a language neither of us understands. But I can read two things: a date and a box that says vulnerable?. And underneath it, in blue ballpoint pen, in capital letters, the word NO.
“You can’t go anywhere without an interview,” he says.
The rain falls hard on the islands. We stand outside the razor wire in the mud for hours, listening to every name, every word we can gather from the men in the dry clothes.
“My friend,” TZEZHS4XS01082016 says when a new man—young, well-fed, bored—appears on the other side of the wiring. “Please. My name. I haven’t heard it.”
In order to break the business model of the smugglers and to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk, the EU and Turkey today decided to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU.
“It was a journey of three smugglers,” TZUMHS5YF21022016 tells me as she pours the tea. $400 per person for papers and plane tickets from the capital to the border.
TZUMHS5YF21022016 set out in February 2016 with her son, her daughter, her daughter-in-law and three infants to get to Stuttgart to join the men of the family who had left a year earlier. $400 per head just to get out of the capital. Her family is from HB originally, and the government had placed travel restrictions on all HBs.
In the airport she sent her children through security one by one, each teenager with one of the infants. One by one they each passed through and she stepped up last, handed over her passport. The border agent looked at her papers then got up out of his booth and disappeared into an office. A minute later a ranking officer was in front of her.
“Come with me please.”
She tried not to glance past him at the children, kept her eyes on him, kept her back straight as she was led into a small office. She did not risk a final look at her family, she wondered if she would ever see them again.
The officer sat down behind a battered desk and lit a cigarette.
“Where are you going?”
“To visit family,” TZUMHS5YF21022016 said.
“No, you’re not.”
“No I’m just visiting my—”
“Those are your grandchildren out there?”
TZUMHS5YF21022016 didn’t say anything.
“I know what you’re doing,” the officer said, and carefully opened a drawer in the desk. “The question is: what’s it worth to you?”
The drawer stood open, waiting.
She opened her handbag carefully, tried to keep her movements to a minimum as she flicked through her cash. Everything she had was in that bag and it had to get them all the way to Germany. She put in the equivalent of $50: a month’s salary.
“Make it double,” he said. And she did.
TZUMHS5YF21022016’s husband and two sons had gone ahead two years earlier. They are now in Stuttgart. The men took the Egyptian route. Their smuggler dumped them in the middle of the Sahara, robbed them at gunpoint and left them for dead. But they survived. They are in Stuttgart. They are waiting.
The second smuggler was to cross a heavily guarded border. The cost: $300 each. As night fell they waited in a run-down little house, waiting for the signal to move. TZUMHS5YF21022016 held her youngest grandson on her lap, pressed herself against him to keep him warm.
“We’ll move at 2 AM,” one of the smugglers said. “So give these to the children an hour before.”
He dropped three sleeping pills into TZUMHS5YF21022016’s hand. She examined them, then said “No. They’re not taking anything.”
“Children cry, lady.”
“They won’t cry.”
“It’s a long way. You don’t know.”
“They won’t cry,” she said.
“You don’t know what’s next. The children always cry.”
TZUMHS5YF21022016 held the pills closed in her first.
“They take the pills,” the smuggler said, “or you go home.”
At 2 AM they started running for the border, each adult with a sleeping child in their arms. They ran for an hour, hid when the border came in sight but were spotted: gunfire cracked through the air and they hit the ground. She lay in the mud, totally still, as they waited to hear footsteps approaching. The smuggler appeared above her, pulled her up, told her to run back to the house. They tried again the next night. And the next one. On the fourth night TZUMHS5YF21022016 declared that this was her final attempt.
At 2 AM they headed out. They ran for an hour through the brush’s dry branches cutting at their ankles. They paused at the wall. And they went. No gunfire, no soldiers. They didn’t stop running.
They spent the night hiding in an outhouse, all pressed against each other, for three hours. The smell was terrible. She hoped the sleeping pills wouldn’t wear off for the children.
In the morning they were taken to a farm, hosed off (they had no other clothes) and pointed toward the bus stop.
They found a bus to Izmir—the coastal Turkish town at the heart of the maritime smuggling trade. They checked their clothes carefully for tell-tale signs of mud. As the bus pulled out into the countryside the driver switched the radio on—
Istanbul has suffered a terrible terrorist attack today and all the early indicators point to the TZs illegally in this country.
Within minutes they came to a police checkpoint, but the children were already asleep and she closed her eyes and kept them closed and the police waved them through.
In a café in Izmir the deal was made with the third smuggler. $800 would buy one seat on a boat of thirty-five people and a top-quality life vest. The crossing would be cold, but he assured her it would be safe. Pay today and you’ll leave tomorrow. She paid.
The bus drove for three hours from Izmir before it stopped and a man with a flashlight led them through a forest, the sound of the sea still distant through the darkness. They picked their way through the copse until they emerged onto a narrow beach. She thought there must be several boats because there were so many people already waiting by the water. But before long she understood that there were no other boats.
“Hey,” she said to the man from the café, “this is not what we agreed.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“This is seventy people. It’s too many people.”
“It’s no problem.”
“And where are our life vests?”
“You won’t need them.”
The smugglers wore their guns so everyone could see them.
“What? The deal was thirty-five people. This is more than double.”
“You do what you like, lady. You don’t want the boat, no problem. Take your money back. You can walk back to Izmir.”
At that moment her husband rang.
“My darling,” he said. “Have you crossed?”
“Is there a problem?”
“There’s a lot of people here.”
“Fifty . . .” he repeated, slowly. “If you’re nervous, don’t do it. We’ll find another way.”
“No,” she said. “I think we have to do it now.”
There was a silence between them.
“Are the life vests good?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Very.”
The motor failed them, there was no navigator, the raft sprung a leak, the bags were all cast off.
The boat landed on Lesbos in February 2016. A month later the EU-Turkey deal was signed and the borders closed. But they were lucky, they landed early enough, they were processed quickly, given papers and travel documents and within twenty-four hours were on a passenger ferry to the northern port of Kavala. From Kavala they took a bus to the Macedonian border but found the border closed. They waited near the northern border for ten days but there was no way through. So TZUMHS5YF21022016 bought seven train tickets to Athens.
Her son, that night, wrote on Facebook asking who was in Athens that could meet his family. A young man, a friend of a friend, said he would be there and was true to his word. He introduced himself to TZUMHS5YF21022016 and said that he had a room for them in a little hotel nearby.
“I’m sorry it’s small,” he said, opening the door. “We can arrange for something bigger tomorrow.”
“It’s fine,” TZUMHS5YF21022016 said. “Thank you.”
But when she talked to her son she was tired and irritable. “The room your friend got us is absurdly small,” she said. “Did he not know we’re supposed to sleep seven people in here?”
“Mama,” her son said. “You’re in his room. He’s asleep downstairs in reception.”
Within a few weeks she was living in the City Plaza squat—an abandoned six-story hotel taken over by a trio of activists and turned into a well-functioning home for 400 people all chipping in with kitchen duties, cleaning, and security. She applied to Germany for family reunification visas. But as the realization dawned that they would not be granted quickly she threw herself into life in City Plaza. TZUMHS5YF21022016 is quietly proud of how she taught a generation of young people to cook for the whole hotel.
Months passed. Her son drifted into his second year without school. And then, almost a year later, the visa arrived. For everyone except her daughter. Her daughter, aged 20 and therefore a single adult, did not qualify for family reunification.
So TZUMHS5YF21022016 sought out a fourth smuggler. €3,000 was placed with an “insurance agent” and five days later a man arrived with a fake Portuguese ID. He traveled with her daughter from Athens to an island in the Ionian sea and from there they took a ferry to Italy. In Italy a car drove her to a small airport an hour inland and there she boarded a plane to Cologne with her new ID. Her father was waiting for her at the airport.
“So—” TZUMHS5YF21022016 says, “it was actually a story of four smugglers.”
By the time TZUMHS5YF21022016’s family was reunited in Stuttgart she had accumulated $25,000 worth of debt. The equivalent of forty years’ worth of earnings back home.
The European Union has begun disbursing the 3 billion euro of the Facility for Refugees in Turkey for concrete projects and work has advanced on visa liberalization and in the accession talks. The fulfillment of the visa liberalization roadmap will be accelerated vis-à-vis all participating Member States with a view to lifting the visa requirements for Turkish citizens at the latest by the end of June 2016, provided that all benchmarks have been met.
Maybe it would be better if the paper were ruined. If TZEZHS4XS01082016 got a new one then he’d be sure he was in the system at least. So many people that arrived after him have gone on. Maybe today they’ll call his name. He listens for the static hum from the megaphones tied to the lampposts in the heart of the camp. He can’t hear the words, but can feel the current from his small tent on the periphery.
We stand together at the razor wire, watching the men, the papers, the doors to interview rooms opening and closing. His name is not called. We queue for food, hundreds of men standing in the mud. Soldiers in uniform watch the line. We shuffle forward in single file through a narrow runnel of wiring and dirty puddles. At the front we are handed bread, rice, soup, a plastic spoon. We eat standing up by a small fire. The rain has gotten through my clothes. I am shivering so much I spill soup on myself.
“How long have you been here?” I ask TZEZHS4XS01082016.
“183 days,” he says.
“And they never called your name for an interview?”
“I never heard it.”
Nobody understands the order in which names are called out. It is not by date of arrival. Aid workers, lawyers, volunteers, camp residents, journalists—nobody has any concrete information about the list. The Greek Asylum Service and the EASO—the two bodies responsible for assessing people’s requests for asylum—process an average of twenty cases a week on Lesbos. Even if there were no new arrivals on the island, it would take them over four years to clear Moria alone.
An hour south of Moria by foot is Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos and the island’s ferry port. Perhaps it is time to follow his friend back the way they came, to walk out of the camp to the town and find a smuggler that will take him back to Turkey.
On the Eastern Mediterranean route, while pressures remain, arrivals in the last four months of 2016 were down 98 percent year-on-year. We remain committed to the EU-Turkey Statement and the full and non-discriminatory implementation of all its aspects.
The Greek government says there are 62,000 refugees in Greece, but many aid workers privately put the number much closer to 40,000. If 20,000 people have paid smugglers an average of €3,000 each to leave Greece since the borders closed, then overnight a new €60,000,000 industry has been created inside the country.
The shops in Athens with signs in Arabic script are barbers, restaurants, and Western Union.
Vodafone has mobile sales teams in the camps.
I pay five euros to go into the Athens Archaeological Museum. Here are the maps again, the same small islands, the same disinterested waters. There’s Lesbos, a day and a half’s ride south from Troy. An earthenware Egyptian monkey stares at me from across a sea of three millennia.
There is a large amphora, and I know before I read the label it will be from Gaza. It’s the size of it, the clean lines. I remember a hotel, in Gaza City, with a garden looking out at the sea and a room full of archaeological finds. I wanted to touch it, to run my hand over it but I knew of course I couldn’t. It is too precious. But how long until the Israelis come for it?
And here is that same curvature again, in the Athens Archaeological Museum. Along with an Egyptian ostrich egg and a Syrian war god and a Mesopotamian figurine made of glass.
What will the archaeology of tomorrow tell us of today? Will they find the grave sites at the bottom of the Mediterranean, the funerary rites of backpacks and shoes and jewelry tossed into the sea in a final desperate offering to life? When they find the graves of our unnamed thousands will they call us post-, or proto-, civilized?
We are none of us—in the museum—Homeric.
I stand in Syntagma Square in the heart of the city, its wide steps leading up to the low terracotta of the parliament building and there, just across the road, the Egyptian flag, the Egyptian embassy, pride of place for an old partner once bound together by salt, water, and words. Alexandria, Gaza, Jaffa, Beirut, Istanbul, Athens. Shining above the city stands the Acropolis. I dutifully buy my ticket to the museum and its triumphant narrative of Democracy and the glorious years of Athenian hegemony. I move on to the heroic battles against the evil Persians at Marathon and Salamis that unleashed a wave of refugees as the Athenians “sent their wives and children to Troezen whose people offered them some money to get by, allowed the children to eat freely the fruit of their trees and took measures to ensure that teachers were available to educate them.” I think of HSAPHSYF01011970 and her father, who named his beachside hotel after his daughter when he finally came home to Lesbos after years of working in America, and I see the chair at their breakfast table pulled out for me. “You are not eating,” she said. “Sit. Sit. Eat.” I had been awake for two days straight. I was a volunteer in an information booth in an improvised transit camp on a mountain near the north shore. Every day thousands of people would arrive on the north shore and thousands would leave on ferries from the south coast to the mainland. Not a minute would pass without a question, a problem, an attempt at a quick solution: is there a doctor in the camp, how do I sterilize my baby’s bottle, how do I get to Athens, do you have a blanket, are there no hotels, where should I sleep, where is my brother, how can I help, there’s no space in the tent, there are strange men in my tent, my baby stopped moving. Every day a thousand lives would pass in front of the information booth.
As of December 23rd 2016 all GAS and EASO interviewers are advised to prioritize assessment of Turkey as a safe third country when interviewing applicants from TZ, BG, FS and JS before hearing the applicant’s asylum claim to ensure swift return to camps in Turkey and the application of the EU-Turkey Deal. Repeat: interviewers are instructed to ascertain safety in Turkey before hearing applicant’s asylum claim. If applicant is deemed safe to return to Turkey DO NOT hear applicant’s asylum claim.
Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos are the Aegean islands, where the boats from Turkey land. They are each heavily dependent on tourism. They each have the capacity to host short-term guests in large numbers. And yet it is illegal for asylum seekers to stay in hotels or take taxis.
Rather than keeping the islands’ economies afloat and allowing for dignified conditions for new arrivals, “the most expensive humanitarian response in history” was launched, and hundreds of millions of dollars were lost to government corruption, leaking caravans, cold tents, bureaucratic inefficiency, knock-off solar heaters, upgrades to army facilities, rancid toilets, abrasive blankets, danger-zone salaries for foreign workers and diahorreic pre-packaged military-contracted meals.
Deportations have yet to reach appropriate numbers. Due to uncooperative nature of the appellate board the government is currently engaged in steps to accelerate the deportation process. Current deportation figures remain lower than arrival figures, despite EU-Turkey deal.
There are places and times when corruption, inefficiency, and malicious design converge perfectly and Moria, when I am there in January, feels like one of those places.
The Greek government has a schizophrenic relationship to the crisis. It both downplays it and exaggerates its scale; the conditions in the camp are a national embarrassment, but they attract much-needed funds; solutions to the crisis are proposed and tested, but they are never permanent; everything is under control but everything is in chaos. Greece wants to appear sovereign and self-determining, but everyone knows the key decisions are made in Germany. They are absentee managers of a crisis of opportunity.
In the 1990s a wave of refugees arrived in Germany as Yugoslavia collapsed. HFMOHFYS01011950—who has worked in refugee assistance programs since the 1980s—sees the same governmental responses today:
They have tried this in the past: to make people self-deport. They did the same after the Yugoslav war, and they were not successful. What happens is people go insane if they are not allowed to work and are kept from working for several years. And once they’ve gone insane you can’t deport them anymore.
HFMOHFYS01011950 shakes her head. “It’s very sad to experience the same stupid things twice.”
€90,000,000 has been assigned to the Greek government by the European Union for the purpose of emergency camp improvements.
Australia maintains two island prisons in Naura and Manus in which all refugees who arrive by boat to the continent are held. Conditions are “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.” The Australian National Audit office reported in 2016 that “the annual cost per annum of holding a person in the offshore processing centers in Naura and Manus Island was estimated at $573,111.”
Overall the European Union is on course to spend over €1bn to assist Greece in tackling current migration challenges.
The Persians were defeated at Thermopylae. The refugees returned home. Attica was saved and the Acropolis stood firm for two thousand years until, in 1687, the Venetian commander Francisco Morosini destroyed it in his campaign to capture the city from the Ottomans. The 3D model explodes, a woman in the row behind me tuts in disappointment, the narrator moves on, the video ends, the crowd stands and leaves.
I walk to the window of the museum and there it is, brickwork and mountain building together in solid foundation, rising up into timeless ratio. When Sultan Mehmed II rode into Athens—229 years before Morosini—he was quick to issue an imperial edict forbidding the looting or destruction of its monuments. But when the city fell to the Venetians the looting began. Three months later, with winter arriving, in an attempt to prevent the Ottoman army from retaking the city Morosini declared he would empty Athens of all its inhabitants and destroy the Acropolis.
In his diary, he later wrote:
The [Athenians] listened mournfully to the announcement of the decided-upon measures. I tried to comfort them, promising that I would give them every support and every assistance in their new residences.
I leave the museum and walk away from the Acropolis, but everywhere in the city it is there, on the mountain above, the great symbol of European democracy destroyed by a Holy League of superpowers determined to drive Muslims eastward. Luckily, Morosoni had neither the manpower not the explosives to execute his plan.
I walk toward the subway. I hear constant conversations around me in Arabic, families shopping for their food, young men hanging out, shouted conversations outside mobile phone shops— everywhere are the new arrivals. All around the district of Exarchia, up the broad shopping street of Acharnon, outside the free Wi-Fi of the cafés on Victoria Square are new lives trying to begin themselves, hundreds of thousands of futures converging here for a moment in this crucible of possibility and stasis. Thousands of lives killing time until they can start living again. If only there was work here, in Athens, many people would be happy to stay. The Athenians, I hear again and again, are welcoming, civilized, familiar—this could be a home for a few years, a few lives. But there is no work. The ruins of the Acropolis are photographed by 4.5 million tourists a year while the rest of the city crumbles. The dead, here, command more respect than the living.
The failure of Turkey to meet the 72 requirements to introduce visa-free travel for Turkish citizens should not compromise the successes of the EU-Turkey Statement.
Two hundred years after the earthenware monkey in the Athens Archaeological Museum is traded toward Greece a whole world of civilizations collapses. The Mycenean, Hittite, and Egyptian empires all implode one after the other. Within fifty years every major city in the Eastern Mediterranean is destroyed. And nobody, today, knows why.
While arrivals were down 98 percent on the Eastern Mediterranean route, 181,000 arrivals were detected on the Central Mediterranean route 2016, while the number of persons dead or missing at sea has reached a new record every year since 2013. With hundreds having already lost their lives in 2017 and spring approaching, we are determined to take additional action to significantly reduce migratory flows along the Central Mediterranean route and break the business model of smugglers.
Next to us there is a group of Greeks, those admirable and terrible Jews of Salonica, tenacious, thriving wise, ferocious and united, so determined to live, such pitiless opponents in the struggle for life; those Greeks who have conquered in the kitchens and in the yards and whom even the Germans respect.
I am on a plane to Thessaloniki when I read these words of Primo Levi’s and I wonder to myself where Salonica is. Such a beautiful word but I cannot place it. When the plane lands I soon realize that Salonica is Thessaloniki. I am flooded with that terrible and exhilarating feeling that everything is already written.
I take a bus into the city. The night is even colder here, the roads are ice. The pension room is frigid, and I do not take off my gloves as I read through the night. Every line cuts straight into our present:
Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all easily loses himself. He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate cases, on the basis of a pure judgment of utility.
How could I not think of TZEZHS4XS01082016? I have left him behind on Lesbos. I have flown away with my passport and I will take the road that he cannot. I will go north, to Serbia, to Hungary, to Germany.
The snow is still hard on the ground outside. The land stretching out to the mountains beyond is all white and silence on the road out to the camp.
Lagadikia is little more than a collection of container units in the snow, surrounded by a metal fence. An avenue cuts through the middle of the camp, to the right an empty field where once there were tents, to the left rows of container housing units.
It is cold and everyone is inside their units. In the distance a woman is approaching, slowly pushing an old baby carriage through the snow. As she gets closer I see that the carriage is loaded with gallon bottles of water. She approaches slowly.
“Can I help?” I ask.
“No, no. Bless you, my boy.”
I insist, and help push the carriage, heavy with five gallons of water, through the thick, hard snow, the freezing water spilling over my sleeve as the back-right wheel slips off its axle every step.
“Leave it, my boy. Leave it. I’m used to it.”
At the four corners of the camp stand old guard towers cast in cement and in the center is a crumbling brick structure decorated with a large mural of a father and child. A fire once burned here, the mural is blackened, the dead flames reaching up into the paternal scene.
This camp was not built for TZs or BGs or FSs. Or, indeed, for those twice-displaced, those whose homes fell in 1948 or 1967 and find themselves lost, now, in the snows.
For thousands of years a Hellenic civilization existed on the shores of the Black Sea. The Greeks of Pontus navigated the changing rulers of the region with skill and temerity, retaining their land and language from the days of Xenophon through the centuries of Byzantium to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. But when Pontus was absorbed into the Soviet Union it was not long before Stalinist policies of ethnic division forcibly scattered its inhabitants across Central Asia and the Caucasus. The Pontic Greeks were thrown into diaspora, but such was their identification with a semi-mythical Hellenic homeland that when the USSR began to fragment into nationalist republics and civil wars they began the long journey “home.”
By 1990 a thousand Pontics were arriving in Greece every month. Speaking an almost Homeric Greek, dressed in the fashions of the Asiatic steppe and with worthless certificates of Soviet education they presented a significant integration challenge to the government. That year, the Managing Director of the National Foundation for the Reception and Resettlement of Repatriated Greeks wrote:
This mass influx of immigrants was something unknown to Greece for two generations. Greece has no institutions to handle such a crisis. Various thoughts and proposals were presented, considered, tried, tested and failed. In the beginning, it was left to relatives and to Pontian associations. Subsequently, charitable institutions and local authorities were involved. Then Ministries started doing their share . . . The fact that Greece was going through a major political crisis at that time did not help.
Today, an older man sits on the children’s swings at the end of the frozen avenue that runs through the center of the camp. A wire fence stands meekly between him and miles of snow.
I stand next to the swing, we don’t speak, the silence of the landscape overwhelming us.
What happened to the lessons learned with the Pontics?
Why are thousands of people sleeping in tents in the snow? Why has Moria only gotten worse in the fourteen months between my visits?
Although it is January the word, in NGO speak, is “winterization.” Three days earlier I sat at the back of the weekly coordination meeting on Lesbos in which all the NGOs operating on the island meet and are briefed by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
The Greek government does not attend these meetings. And winter, once again, has taken the authorities by surprise. The camps must be quickly “winterized.”
“Everyone received a pair of winter shoes,” a UNHCR worker said proudly. “Some choose not to wear them around the camp.”
Nobody said anything. I could only think of TZEZHS4XS01082016’s wet socks.
The day before I had bought some boots in the town and taken them up to Moria. I found TZEZHS4XS01082016 by the razor wire and asked if he would like them.
“Oh,” he said. “Thank you. I haven’t had a chance to go down to town . . .”
“Well, I just saw some down there.” I say. “So I grabbed them.”
The UNHCR worker flicks to the next slide.
“And we’ve been handing out scarves. You might have seen them wandering around town with them. They look like smurfs.” The aid worker chuckles, and is joined by half the room.
He lists a few more valiant successes regarding the distribution of socks.
“Seven thousand blankets provided in two days,” another aid worker says, her finger on the mouse, the powerpoint slides clipping along. “It’s very important to make visible our efforts. We need to be visible for all we did this year. It’s really in your interest.”
Three weeks later, three people will die in Moria. They will move a small coal burner inside their tent in a final attempt to get warm and its fumes will choke them to death in their sleep.
What of the lessons of the Pontics?
In Attica there was a camp called Lavrio. Thrown together to accommodate an early wave of Pontic returnees in the 1960s, it was little more than a series of shacks on the side of a road. People lived in those shacks for twenty-five years.
What of the lessons of 2015? Of the last winter?
“The other good news,” the aid worker said, three days earlier, “is lightbulbs. We’re getting a lot of lightbulbs in tents and those bulbs, they’re really heating you up.”
Winterization. The yearly failure.
The snow is not melting here.
“I want to go back,” the old man on the swing set says, puncturing the silence of the frozen valley.
“Where?” I ask.
“Home,” he says.
“How will you go?”
“Another smuggler I guess.”
I don’t say anything more.
“If I’m going to die,” he says, “then let me die at home.”
Lagadikia. The camp of long waiting in the snow, the Pontics gone, their lessons forgotten.
Alexil. The camp of bored children, an empty warehouse filled with tents. “Dead! Dead!” a boy shouts at me, the branch in his hand now an automatic weapon.
Elliniko. The camp of grounded futures, an airport now abandoned and overgrown with vegetation. Families hang their washing to dry under rusted signs for International Departures.
Skaramagas. The camp of the cold sea, an old dockland ringed by a Maersk sierra of corrugated shipping containers, an asphalt plane cut by the wind, the iron cranes sentinel on its edges.
Moria. The camp of listening and razor wire and choking cold.
“What time is it?” another cold, old man asked me, outside a squat in Athens.
“Eight in the morning.”
“It’s cold,” he says.
He wraps his blanket around his shoulders and with shuffling footsteps leaves the squat and walks out into the cold. But before long, he’s back.
“What time is it?”
“It’s cold,” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
He walks past me and steps back into the squat. He has a mattress on the ground floor, in a room with thirty other people. Rows of camp-beds and mattresses fill the vast rooms of this abandoned building, where we see our breath.
“It’s cold,” he says, a few minutes later, shuffling away. He’ll be back again in a minute. He arrived in Greece fifteen years ago, a deserter from Saddam Hussein’s personal guard. “It’s cold,” he says.
All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands as from 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey. This will take place in full accordance with EU and international law, thus excluding any kind of collective expulsion. It will be a temporary and extraordinary measure which is necessary to end the human suffering and restore public order.
I return to the pension and to Primo:
In every part of the world, wherever you begin by denying the fundamental liberties of mankind, and equality among people, you move toward the concentration camp system, and it is a road on which it is difficult to halt.
Unemployment in Greece sits at 23 percent nationally but rather than a pan-European discussion of a massive public works project to help an impoverished neighbor shoulder the burden of the new arrivals, there is the dogma of austerity, squalor in the camps, and billions funneled to Erdogan’s Turkey to keep people off European shores.
In Greece there are clear areas in which mass employment for Greeks could be put toward the erection of a welcoming and productive context for new arrivals. Construction of new housing and urban renewal, language and education, healthcare, services, transportation and farming. Put the 2,500,000 unemployed Greeks to work with a New Deal-type stimulus package, allow new arrivals the right to work—they will open shops, restaurants, take service jobs, enroll in education, work in transportation and agriculture—and within a few years you will have a thriving, integrated solution to the problem.
Greece, as the world knows, is unable to pay its debts, let alone launch a New Deal. But, still, the money is there. The Greek army, Frontex, UNHCR, ECHO, DFID, UNICEF, Medecins Du Monde, Medecins Sans Frontiers, the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, the Red Cross, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Danish Refugee Council, Mercy Corps, Action Aid, Caritas, Oxfam, Samaritans’ Purse, Euro Relief, Disaster Medics, Boat Refugee Foundation, and the Women and Health Alliance are all at work across the country along with innumerable smaller organizations who between them employ a veritable army of emergency program managers, heads of mission, media officers, supply chain coordinators, site managers, team leaders, truck drivers, field officers, senior planners, trauma specialists, volunteer coordinators, researchers, cultural mediators, bodyguards, child protection agents, education consultants, psychosocial auditors, helicopter pilots, development strategists, filmmakers, nutrition advisers and outreach officers all at work in the maintenance of an archipelago of inefficient, unsanitary, humiliating, trauma-perpetuating refugee camps.
The Guardian recently estimated the total amount of money that has poured into Greece at $803,000,000 per year. But if we add to that the cost of the EU-Turkey deal, the smuggling industry, transferred remittances, and the armies of volunteers, the total amount of money being swallowed annually in the Aegean theater could be comfortably estimated at over $2,000,000,000.
Two billion dollars. For how many refugees? 40,000? 62,000 if the Greek government is to be believed.
Two billion dollars is not easily spent, nor has it been lost entirely to corruption and inefficiency.
Perhaps there is a design to this state of perpetual crisis.
Refugees are being used to distract from the failures of globalized neoliberalism. Recent electoral results leave us in little doubt that people—stripped of the previous century’s gains in working conditions, healthcare, leisure time and prospects for their children—are angry. The impresarios of modern politics work hard to divert that anger toward the most easily scapegoated. The wider European public is subjected to irreconcilable political messaging daily: refugees are both helpless victims and violent sexual predators; they are flooding the borders but the borders are strong; they are children and they are adults posing as children; they are overwhelming our culture, but our culture is indomitable—but it must also be protected.
British tabloids will run articles in parallel exalting a British princess’s compassion for instagramming the words #refugeeswelcome while simultaneously demanding that unaccompanied minors’ teeth be checked to establish their age.
European heads of state line up to lambast Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border while the EU-Turkey deal enacts precisely the same policy and thousands of people are left to drown in the Mediterranean every year.
The camp is the end of the liberal order, the end of the post–World War II world, the end of human rights. What are the inalienable rights of a man in a refugee camp today? Or the rights of a woman and child boarding a boat in Libya, bound for Italy? We hold which truths to be self-evident?
28 EU heads of state adopted the Malta Declaration which maintained a key element of a sustainable migration policy is to ensure effective control of our external border and stem illegal flows into the EU. The EU-Malta Summit of February 3rd 2017 will mobilize €200 million for projects in 2017 to support actions such as training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard, improving the conditions for migrants and stepping up assisted voluntary returns.
I hate the word refugee.
“Who forgot to lock this door!?” a well-meaning Finnish volunteer shouted, pointing at the entrance to a supply cupboard. “Because if you don’t lock it the refugees get in there and mess everything up.”
“I’m here to help the refugees.”
“Hey there’s a refugee outside. Can you come and translate?”
“Is this the refugee food?”
When words fail to create the reality that’s asked of them, they can cement their own failures.
Key objectives of the EU-Malta summit include: Reducing the number of crossings and saving lives, protecting migrants, increasing resettlement and promoting assisted voluntary return and expanding assisted voluntary returns program from Libya to countries of origin
It is not known exactly when the first synagogue was founded in Thessaloniki. Jews from the Romaniote region were thought to have founded the Ets Ahayim synagogue in the 1st century BC. In 1376 immigrants from either Germany or France founded the Ashkenaz synagogue, followed by new arrivals from Provence (1394), Italy, and Sicily (both 1423). But the defining year, as it is for so much of the world, is 1492. In 1492, forced from Spain after the fall of Muslim Andalusia, around 17,000 people arrived to Ottoman Salonica and five new synagogues, named after five fallen homes, were founded: Geroush, Castille, Aragon, Catalonia and Mallorca.
The maps in the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki mirror those released weekly by UNHCR: an epicenter, an old world and simple lines flowing out from it into arrows; simple, terrible arrows. Arrows pouring eastwards out of Spain to Cairo, Beirut, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Smyrna, Tunis, Rome, Algiers, and Fez. And to Salonica.
“The century that followed the expulsion from Spain,” the museum panel reads, “was to be a cultural golden era. Thessaloniki evolved into a major center for theological studies, attracting students from around the world, and producing excellent rabbis, poets, and doctors, renowned throughout Europe.”
Salonica, like so many other Ottoman cities, had overlapping Jewish, Muslim and Christian quarters; there is a district of Thessaloniki that is identical in architecture to the Korba neighborhood of Cairo; Costa Gavras, exiled from Greece, shot the film Z in Algiers, the city’s arcaded walkways an easy substitute for his homeland’s with only a Fix beer sticker needed on an occasional wall.
When did these barriers go up between us all?
There is another map in the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. More arrows. Here within the lines are those same UNHCR patterns: a red line from Lesbos to Salonica. A thin line from Kos meets another from Rhodes and together they push north west to Athens and at Athens the line swells as it presses up through the country, up to Salonica—all the lines are coming here. 30 beginnings all converging, holding, departing for one destination in the north. Above them: a number. 57,653.
Downstairs in the museum, another number: 109565. A number and a plaque:
Heinz D S Kounio
KL Auschwitz-Birkenau 109565
Researched, Discovered and Recorded the Names of the
50,000 victims of the Holocaust from Thessaloniki
And there they are, the names that poured into those terrible lines: Blanka Albahari, Isaak Jakino Albahari, Matika Albahari, Yakov Albahari, Yosef Albahari, Domna Albala, Donna Albala, Isaak Albala, Kleri Albala, Lazar Albala, Rashel Albala, Aaron Alceh, Aaron Alceh, Aaron Alceh, Alberto Alceh, Alberto Alceh, Alegre Alceh, Avraam Alceh, Alceh, Alceh, Alceh
There are other lines on the map. Blue lines, heading south. From Alexandropolis south to Lesbos and across the sea to Turkey. From Salonica to Athens and from Athens east to Çeşme and on, inland, in to Turkey—the blue lines are escape routes, routes to safety away from Europe in Turkey and in Palestine.
There is a face looking at me through a photograph. He looks like me. More handsome, more tidy in the way that people in the past always were. I step closer to read the caption and, again, Primo is with me and a passage I read last night about the Sonderkommando revolt at Birkenau. Primo is with me and this is Henri Nehama Capon, one of the rebels. And here is Yoseph Baruch. The “brave and terrible” Jews of Salonica whose bravery Primo wrote of, one of whose death Primo watched:
He is to die today before our very eyes: and perhaps the Germans do not understand that this solitary death, this man’s death which has been reserved for him, will bring him glory, not infamy.
The Jews of Salonica were corralled at the train station and from there, deported, forced onto trains, onto the iron road to the north.
Migrants using Serbia as a transit country are advised to travel to the northern border and register on a list with the Hungarian authorities at Kelebija (TZ, JS, BM, FH, NP) or Horgos (QB, BG, JO).
BMALTSXS01122016 took the iron road. He stole into the rail yard of Thessaloniki station late at night and hid under a cargo train. When the engine vibrated into life in the cold hour before dawn he climbed into the undercarriage and, facing down toward the track a few short inches beneath him, held on. Eight hours later he was in Belgrade.
A toxic fog hangs over downtown Belgrade. It emanates from the train station, from plastic and wood and garbage burning in desperation against the howling cold. I am skirting the outside of the station, trying to find a back way onto the tracks, looking for the abandoned warehouse that occasionally makes the news, home now to 2,000 people sleeping rough. To my right is the river and to my left a highway and a pavement—I choose the highway. There is an opening within a few meters but a police car is stationed there. In Greece I would have simply put my hood up and walked past without looking at them, invisible, but I do not yet know the score here. There will be another entrance. I walk for a long time, the lonely pavement getting narrower, trucks thundering closer by.
Then there is a small road leading into to a car park and I take it and, yes, there is a break in the fence, and I climb through onto the railway tracks. Why have I not yet seen anybody? Why are there no young men hanging around with little to do? The tracks are empty save for a line of abandoned train cars, each tread is a deafening crunch in the ice as I wander through the silent darkness. I see an old man in the distance with a pair of shopping bags, his gait a nervous a shuffle. I walk toward him and when he turns to look at me I nod and he stops, and when I’m closer I ask if he speaks Arabic but he shakes his head. He doesn’t move. So I carry on crunching back toward the train station—but I can hear he is keeping step with me. I speed up, and so does he. I slow down, and he does, too. I turn around.
“You speak Arabic?” I ask, thinking perhaps something wasn’t clear the first time.
He shakes his head but flicks a pointed glance downwards—at my hands, my feet?
“You want a cigarette?” I hold the pack open toward him.
He shakes his head again, looks down again, then quickly licks his finger.
Another quick lick of the finger and now he’s pointing at my crotch. “Sex,” he says.
I walk quickly away from him. “Sex,” he mutters again, under his breath.
I carry on toward the station, sure, now, that there must be a refugee camp somewhere here.
I smell it first, the acrid haze of burning plastic in the biting cold. I thought the warehouse with thousands of people sleeping rough in it would be obscured from public view but, no, here it is—part of the primary complex of Belgrade’s central train station. Two long, dark, abandoned barracks shrouded in smoke, the asphalt around all mud and ice. I walk toward one, climb up the cement stairs leading into it, it is so dark I can hardly see two steps ahead of myself, there is a turn—the warehouse is split in two—and I am inside now and then, stop, the floor falls away suddenly and there is a ravine of garbage on old train tracks. I hold to the side, walk carefully around the edge of the ravine and toward the smoke. With each step now the air grows thicker, seeps into your eyes, and as I step through the door I see the embers of a dozen small fires and the silhouettes of hundreds of men and boys huddled around them. I walk into the cavernous room, pick my way between the groups of men and their fires, the echo of coughs repeating in this unbreathable air. The temperature tonight is well below freezing. There is no choice but to light these choking fires.
In the morning there are men in small groups around the tracks outside burning fires and heating water to wash with. They strip down to their underwear and wash quickly in the snow, drying themselves with their standard-issue UNHCR blankets. It is so cold I can’t believe that it is worth it—but as I think it Primo speaks to me again:
After only one week of prison, the instinct for cleanliness disappeared completely in me. I wander aimlessly around the washroom when I suddenly see Steinlauf, my friend aged almost fifty, with nude torso, scrub his neck and shoulders with little success (he has no soap) but great energy. Steinlauf sees me and greets me, and without preamble asks why I do not wash. Why should I wash? Would I be better than I am? Would I please someone more? Would I live a day, an hour longer? . . . We will all die, we are all about to die . . . Steinlauf interrupts me. He has finished washing and is now drying himself with his cloth jacket . . . and without interrupting the operation he administers me a complete lesson . . . That precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization . . . We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.
The water in the metal barrel steams, wood burning underneath it. Four men are maintaining the fire and the water while three others quickly wash. Photographers snap away without asking for permission.
A man, a comfortable-looking man with shampooed hair in a UNHCR vest is giving an interview in front of one of the huddles of men. “As you can see, the conditions are very bad here. We are trying to make people transfer to the government camps but the problem is the smugglers are spreading misinformation. They are telling them, for example, that the camps are not open. But we assure them that they are.”
Come, come, come and see.
Illegal migrants are advised that they should no longer travel to the northern border but rather should register within the Serbian camp system. Camps are located away from urban centers. Buses may be provided.
“Why don’t you go to the camp?” I ask BGASTFXS01122016. We are standing in the long queue for the food handout of the day. There is one meal a day here, provided by a group of British volunteers at 1 PM. In November the Serbian government published an open letter advising all NGOs to stop assisting asylum seekers in any way, declaring that it was their assistance that was attracting people to Belgrade.
“I didn’t come here for camp,” BGASTFXS01122016 says, simply. “I’m just passing through.”
To pass through means the border with Hungary, three hours to the north and notoriously difficult to cross.
Photographers stalk up and down the line and click. BGASTFXS01122016 tells me about his journey, about nights in the mountains of Bulgaria trying to cross into Serbia, the cold, the highwaymen, the dark of the forest. He can’t be older than 16. He tells me that friends who took the government bus to the camps and were deported to Macedonia, that anyone who believes the government is a fool.
Click—our invisible faces are photographed again. To the side of the queue an interview is being given and I hear one sentence: “there is now an epidemic of body lice and also of scabies.” We shuffle forward, a dark mass of blankets and muddy coats until I am at the front of the line and a woman is holding out a polystyrene plate filled to the brim with lentils and three slices of bread balancing on the corner. I can hear them talking with each other in familiar London accents and for a moment I want to talk to them too but I keep silent and she is holding the plate out and she is smiling and I can see that she is determined not to look pitiful and this is good and I, too, want now to stand up straight, to give a good image of myself and try to set my face into a smile that is thankful but also charming, a smile accompanied by a strong moment of eye contact and camaraderie, but as I take the plate I grip it too hard and the plastic bends and a splash of lentils spills on my hands and my sleeve and by the time I’ve looked back up the woman is holding out the next plate for the next man and my moment has passed and as I walk away Primo is with me again:
How long is it since I have seen a woman? . . . Faced with the girls of the Laboratory, [we] feel ourselves sink into the ground from shame and embarrassment. We know what we look like; we see each other and sometimes we happen to see our reflection in a clean window. We are ridiculous and repugnant. . . Our clothes are incredibly dirty, stained by mud, grease and blood . . . We are full of fleas, and we often scratch ourselves shamelessly.
I try not to spill any more. I look around for guidance as to how to eat. Some are standing, balancing the bread on the corner of the tray, some squat down, some dip the bread carefully in the liquid lentils, some eat quickly with a spoon and save the bread for afterwards. This is the only food anyone will eat today. I tell myself I will not eat again until tomorrow at 1 PM. One man has placed his plate on the ground, thrown his gray blanket over his shoulder and is tearing the bread into croutons and dropping it in. A photographer crouches down on the other side of a puddle and photographs quickly. Come, come, come and see. Reduced to base survival, what rights has this animal to demand of us?
When I have finished I do not throw my plate on the ground but instead walk up to the garbage bags the volunteers have tied to the side of their truck and as I place it in I realize that I am hoping they see me—see? we are a clean people, a hygienic people, we know how to wash our hands. How easily one becomes a slave.
I cross back toward the train tracks, wiping my hands on my trousers, cross back to the men milling about and light a cigarette. I stand with BGASTFXS01122016 in the shadow of a skyscraper’s slowly forming skeleton, a tower of scaffolding with the words Eagle Hills glowing on it. Luxury living, coming soon. Thousands of glass and steel condominiums to sit empty and stare over the river Sava built with transnational capital from Abu Dhabi. In the architectural models, the rail yard—the thousands of people, the food truck, the washing barrels—are no more.
Funding for the European Union’s Internal Security Fund to cover financial support for external borders has increased from €252m in 2014 to €741m in 2017 to provide support to the common visa policy, tackle illegal migration and support the cross-border exchange of information and harmonization of border management measures.
There are only two signs in Arabic in Belgrade.
1. Keep off the grass
2. Tickets to Subotica
Subotica is a cathedral town that, finding itself at a key intersection of peoples and histories, has been variously part of the empires of the Ottomans, Habsburgs, and the Austro-Hungarians; the kingdoms of both medieval and 20th-century Hungary, Serbia, and Yugoslavia; the republics of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro and, as of 2006, contemporary Serbia.
Subotica town center is resplendent with a beautiful fin de siècle synagogue and town hall, the final constructions before World War I brought the city’s golden age to a halt and the Treaty of Trianon severed it from its Austro-Hungarian capital, Budapest. In 1920 Subotica became a northern border town in the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes: Yugoslavia.
It is in the shadow of the town hall that I first meet QBUWTSXS15102016. He is shivering underneath his UNHCR blanket. The town hall is illuminated by a McDonald’s inside it. QBUWTSXS15102016 and his two friends have not eaten for days.
I hold the door open for them and all three men stop, nervous before the fluorescent brightness. “Please.” I say. “It’ll be alright.”
None of them has ever been in a McDonald’s before, so I tell them to take a seat, pointing to an empty table in the middle of the restaurant. QBUWTSXS15102016 shakes his head.
“Better there,” he says, nodding at a table in a far corner.
One of the men was bitten badly. He is in bad shape, his shivers are violent. I can see a deep gash in his right hand, ripped trousers and scabbing flesh underneath. He is shaking constantly. There are no doctors here.
I order three large meals and a small fries and place them down on the table between us. After a quick assessment QBUWTSXS15102016 places his large fries in front of me and takes my small packet away.
“No way,” I say, and swap them back. QBUWTSXS15102016 eats slowly, and as he warms up, his story begins.
QBUWTSXS15102016 knew the numbers didn’t look good. He worked the numbers for every step, always has. It’s a habit he can’t break. He has a head for it. And the numbers here are never good. But what choice does he have? There is only forward, only the fence, only the dogs, only the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth try. They have taken everything, all that’s left is to carry on, to try again.
The forest was dark and each step through the snow was so loud he was sure they would be heard. He’d done it so many times already but it never gets any shorter, the long hour between the town and the border, trying to catch a glimpse of the North Star through the winter copse. Would the numbers be better if they were fewer? If he was alone? No—he would never have made it alone.
They set out together—four friends, four months ago—and they will arrive together.
It doesn’t matter what the chances have become, how the probabilities slide every day—all he has to remember is why they left, that the numbers were no good at home either.
Seventy-five dead. Dozens of their classmates. And every day there were more, more bombs, more death, more schools in ruins. After the university there was a school. 125 children dead. The numbers were no good at home either.
When they came to the border fence they stepped quickly back into the dark forest to watch. They’ve tried here before, he recognized the bend of the dirt track on the other side. Beyond the fence it’s not far to the tree line, the first obstacle. But they are watching all the way in. One mile, ten miles—doesn’t matter. If they catch you, it’s all the same.
“Hold still,” he said, to his three friends “Keep your breath low,”
He wanted to wait as long as possible this time, wanted to watch the patrol cars cruising the dirt road, wanted to see enough to work out the patterns. We are always in too much of a hurry, he thought. That’s how they caught us in Bulgaria. If we’d waited, watched, picked the perfect moment . . . instead we were caught crossing a road. Two months in a Bulgarian jail for crossing a road.
They say the University of Bonn has the best mathematics department in Germany. It’ll all be worth it when he first sits down in that lecture hall, when he’s laughing with his new German friends about the crazy days he spent in the jungle, when the only numbers that matter are the ones at the end of his pencil.
Fifteen clips is enough to pull the fence back and squeeze through and start running for the treeline, each step a compromising calculation between the need for silence and for speed.
The sound of the dogs. Their bark echoed through the forest, forcing them one way and then another but always only getting louder. QBUWTSXS15102016’s shoulders froze rigid with tension, each running step ready for the hot weight of the wolf on his back and then in a step the trees disappeared and they were in an open field and a bright and terrible light was on them and they were caught.
Silhouettes of men with rifles.
QBUWTSXS15102016 put his hands up
He got down onto his knees.
“DOWN!” A boot landed in his back and his face crashed into the snow.
Hands were on his body, in his pockets, pulling at his shoes. Phones thrown out onto the snow. The hot breath of dog on his face. The snow burning his bared feet.
“English?” a silhouette said. “English?”
QBUWTSXS15102016 lifted a finger.
“Good. You can translate.”
QBUWTSXS15102016 strained to see but all he could see was headlights.
“Listen to me, you four.” His voice was deep, deliberate. “Listen to me. You must learn to be men. Where are you going? Where are you hiding? You are cowards all of you.”
He spat on the ground.
“Cowards. Why you are running from fight? Go home to your war. Look at me. Look at me.”
They each strained to look up at him.
“I will help you.”
In his hand was a sheaf of Serbian dinars. Their last money.
“I will help you.”
He sparked his lighter, held it to the bank notes, the fire did not hesitate. He dropped the money and its dying ashes. QBUWTSXS15102016 saw the morning again, the wreckage, the charred hands reaching out of the ashes.
“Go home to your war.”
The EU will mobilise additional funding for the Facility for Refugees in Turkey of an additional €3bn up to the end of 2018 to stem the flow of migrants toward Northern Europe. The costs of the return operations of irregular migrants will be covered by the EU.
“How many times have you tried the border?” I ask QBUWTSXS15102016.
“Game? We’ve gone to Game eleven times now.”
They’ve been in Subotica two months now.
“Where do you sleep?”
“In the jungle.”
“Sometimes a man brings us sandwiches.”
The European Commission is currently calling for research proposals of up to €8m to improve border surveillance in forested regions that can demonstrate through-foliage detection technologies to reduce risk of irregular immigration flows from Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
At night BMALTSXS01122016 wanders alone along the border fence.
“I keep to myself,” he says. “I don’t mess with the others. I just walk by myself.”
If he did not walk he would freeze to death. There is nothing here but a small shop for cigarettes and snow. The trucks line up down the road, waiting to be inspected on their way into the EU. There are no tents, but there are at least thirty men hanging out. Two volunteers used to run a small tent that gave out cups of tea, but the Serbian police shut them down. Central to Serbian policy today is the idea of the “pull factor”—that people are crossing the seas and the mountains and hiding underneath trains to come to Kelebija to get free cups of tea.
“Where do you sleep?” I ask BMALTSXS01122016.
He shrugs. “Nowhere,” he says, then smiles. “Anywhere. In the jungle, I guess.” He nods at the snowy forest gathering thick around us.
There is a beatific serenity to BMALTSXS01122016, a subtle smile that suggests he can see beyond the mud of now. But his lips are painfully cracked and he has a cold sore blistering in the corner of his bottom lip. His gentle handsomeness is being broken down.
“How long have you been here?”
“How many times did you try the border?”
“This one? Once only. I tried Croatia first but they caught me. They beat me. They took my phone.”
I shake my head. There is nothing I can say.
“It was an Experia X1” he says.
“Did you get another phone?”
“I have no money left. My family hasn’t heard from me for a month. They don’t know if I’m dead or alive.”
“Do you know the number?”
“Yes of course.”
“Write it for me.”
There is a dilapidated building in the near distance, toward the border. Once it was a Duty Free shop. Now it is the home of the List-Keeper, a rolling, informal liaison position between the Serbian and the Hungarian governments. A TZ or JS is selected from within the Serbian camp system, one with language skills and a psychological profile that displays deference to authority and, one would imagine, a track record of subtle collaboration. He is dispatched to Kelebija, the northern border crossing, where he takes up residence in the Duty Free Shop and manages the List of those that will be allowed in to Hungary on any given day. The List-Keeper has bodyguards, the List-Keeper is a position of power.
Standing in the snow fifty meters from the border is a man, small, a gentle mustache, glasses. He is standing completely still, looking through the wire fence at the country beyond.
“Are you going through today?” I ask.
He is alone here, he is waiting for something.
“I was supposed to cross today,” he says, almost to the air.
“What happened?” I ask.
“My name was on the List.”
I wait for him to continue.
“My name was on the List, but when I went they said I had already gone.”
“What do you mean ‘already gone’?”
“It means someone else took my place.”
“My name. They sold my name.”
In 2011 Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared that anyone with Hungarian ancestry living in the countries that used to make up Hungary (Serbia, Romania, Slovakia) could apply for a Hungarian EU passport. Tens of thousands of young Serbs took him up on his offer.
I walk across the border to Hungary. I queue behind cars driving through the car terminal, my passport in my pocket, my name subjected to secondary investigations, my fate my own, my footsteps crossing a line drawn as a punishment in 1920.
This is not a refugee crisis. It is a public demonstration of an ideology. There can be no free movement of people in a perfectly globalized world; only capital can cross international borders in a heartbeat and only the elite can have rights; labor must be kept within controllable geographic spaces, spaces where there are no rights, no minimum wages, no unions, no health and safety regulations—and this must be understood by the whole world. The refugee camp is not a “crisis of mismanagement” or an “uncontrollable flood of human misery.” It is a spectacle of stasis, a demonstration of modern anti-movement.
Come, come and come and see.
The European Commission is currently calling for research proposals for the development of over-the-horizon radar systems capable of detecting small vessels (4m–8m) and the development of airborne mobile assets is used to detect, identify and track targets (5m–12m). The use of “green” technologies is encouraged.
There is a strange atmosphere in Munich, that of an incomplete victory, an achievement slipping away.
HFTIHFYS01011980 asks me if I would like to see the train station and although I had arrived there only hours earlier I say yes. We walk together through the arching atrium and before us, the tracks, the trains, the platform numbers all arrivals and departures, beginnings and endings. We turn to the right and the numbers drop, and as we walk past the platforms she is reliving and retelling the summer days of 2015. She is telling me how hundreds of people were gathered every day applauding and welcoming the new arrivals as they got off the train, how a revolutionary civilian organism pulled together to shepherd these people into their country and provide them with their immediate needs—first aid, translation, food, water, information—and, most importantly, to make them feel safe. As HFTIHFYS01011980 speaks there is something deeply familiar in her tone, and as we walk through her memories I realize that it is I, usually, who gives this tour, that I am the one who points out the great sites of the revolution in Cairo, I, for years now—and probably for the rest of my life—walk through downtown Cairo with each new arrival and try to reanimate the streets for them. HFTIHFYS01011980 stops. This is the platform the trains would arrive at, and here, here is where everyone would stand—you saw the videos?—clapping and waving and holding up signs and people would wave back and that was when we were our best selves.
That’s all over now. The atrium is empty. Exceptional optimism always comes with the same price: it makes the return to normality bitter. People grow tired, integration takes time, PTSD is debilitating, summers end. Tomorrow it will be January 25.
“If the other countries had done their part,” HFTIHFYS01011980 says, “maybe it could have been the birth of the real European Union.”
Germany has done far more than any other country. TZALHFXS10102015 lives in a new housing unit that was purpose-built to house new arrivals in just over a year. It is clean, colorful, and warm, and is now home to over 300 people. The oldest resident is in his nineties and the youngest was born two days ago. Families with children live on the lower floors, single men on the upper, and the staff is friendly, approachable and multi-lingual. TZALHFXS10102015 lives in a shared room on the top floor and we sit on two mattresses, each in a corner, each with our own ashtray in front of us.
“The main problem with the Germans is—and, don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful, I’m really really grateful—but the main problem is they expect us all to live together. How can we all live together? How can you put farmers next to university graduates in a tent and expect them to get along? How can you put TZs with FSs or OJs and just leave them in a tent for a year?”
The first thing I think is that he should be grateful not to be in the Serbian forest or on a Greek island. But I am learning to reserve my judgment. And when, as I feared he would, TZALHFXS10102015 turns to his pain, it is brief. Everyone is dead. The woman he loved is dead. She died in front of him. His family is all dead. His bones were all broken, he was tortured for ten months in prison. He says all this once, quickly, and then never mentions it again.
We sit together for a few hours. He is learning German fast, he says, faster than usual. He will pass the tests without any problem. He is already cruising the tests for residencies. He is building a new life from scratch and he will be exemplary at it. He is painfully thin. He smokes cigarette after cigarette.
“The Germans have been perfect.” He says. “The only issue is this mixing. I have a law degree. I am a lawyer. Why am I living with a farmer? What can we talk about?”
TZALHFXS10102015 has lost everything. His whole world was destroyed. So of course he is proud—he has only himself to fill his new life with. All he has is this empty room on the snowy outskirts of Munich and his own future stretching out blank before him.
I am awoken in the night by a message from QBUWTSXS15102016 at the Hungarian border.
There was fight last night.
3 people injured.
I sit up in the darkness.
Are you OK?
I wait for a signal, a word, a ruminating icon.
I wait with the phone in my hand for more, for a hint or a guide, but there is nothing. I wait and wait.
When I wake up it is morning and the phone is still in my hand. I dress and walk out into Schillerstrasse’s expressive multi-ethnicityb where the signs in Arabic are more than just for desperate money transfers, where there are restaurants and mobile phone shops and taxi companies and people of so many colors it looks more like South Brooklyn than Northern Europe. #refugeeswelcome. And now? And now Germany has built its new wall far away, in the sea between nations.
I walk past a man who I recognize from last year in Lesbos, the thick mustache, the baritone voice on the phone. Soon there will be the new EU summit in Malta. I look at my own phone to see if there is any news from QBUWTSXS15102016.
I met another QB last night. QBJUHFXF11102015 lives in the same complex as TZALHFXS10102015. QBJUHFXF11102015 is obsessed with videos of honor killings.
“Did you see this one?” he said, handing his phone to me. “Press play,” he insisted, as a booted foot pressed down into the neck of a woman.
“Did you see it? She is on the bathroom floor. They’re killing her on the bathroom floor.”
The boot ground harder and harder into her neck. Her expression was as if she had already died. I pressed pause and handed his phone back to him.
“Did you see?” he pressed play again, we must watch it to the end. “This is from four days ago. A mile from where we lived.”
It takes a very long time for the woman to die.
“There was another one last week. Did you see it?”
He is obsessed with these videos. He is running from these videos. QBJUHFXF11102015 eloped with his cousin after her brothers tried to murder her for refusing an arranged marriage. They beat her for months and one day her eldest tied a rope to a tree and tried to hang her. Their mother intervened with seconds to spare. So QBJUHFXF11102015 and his cousin found a clergyman, married, and ran away to the city. But their SIM cards were tracked by family connections in the military and an open price was declared on their heads and bounty hunters sent after them. They had no choice but to leave the country. Within a week they were at the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, where they were separated in the border forests. She was deported. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to prison in Sofia. Neither knew what had happened to the other. For months QBUNHFYF11102015’s messages to her husband sat unanswered, each new day lived between two terrible possibilities: he is either alive and has continued on without her—or died coming back to fetch her. After ninety days QBJUHFXF11102015 was released into general population and was able to send his first message to her on Facebook. She had given up hope and moved to Ankara and taken a job in a sweatshop. He was released seven months later and she crossed the border alone and joined him in Sofia. From Sofia they journeyed into the Bulgarian mountains, walked across the border into Serbia and from Serbia took a train to Budapest and from Budapest another train took them to Munich. They arrived in October 2015. #refugeeswelcome was still strong. They could begin a new life.
It is cold outside. The snow is thick. It is colder today than it has been for ninety years. The rumor is that today Trump will sign his executive order banning millions of Muslims from entering the United States. I keep walking, walking back to the central train station.
The iron road, today, will take me to Dachau.
There is still a town called Dachau. I walk through it in the snow and all around me I can hear words drifting from seventy years ago: So sad what’s happening over in the camp. Such a shame. So sad.
I had not intended to come here. Dachau. The end of the line. Is it iron-cast or can we choose? Alone in the snows of the concentration camp I think again of Primo:
In every part of the world, wherever you begin by denying the fundamental liberties of mankind, and equality among people, you move toward the concentration camp system, and it is a road on which it is difficult to halt.
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