James Nachtwey for TIME An estimated 1,000 migrants made their way from
the camp in Idomeni, Greece and crossed a river near the border in the
hopes of crossing into Macedonia (Getty Images).
Desperate to leave refugee camps in Greece and make it to Western Europe, refugees launched a march across the border. Ahlen Foundation was with them
Around midnight on March 13, a young Syrian man named
Abdo stepped into Tent No. 1 of the refugee camp of Idomeni, in
northern Greece, and asked the men inside to gather around. About
200 asylum seekers live in that tent, mostly packed into tight rows
of bunk beds, with some sleeping on the wooden floor. The air inside
was musty with the smell of wet blankets and bodies as Abdo made his
According to several of the migrants who listened to him in the
darkness, his words were painful to hear. Their chances of being
allowed to cross the borders to Western Europe, Abdo said, were
practically zero. The so-called Balkan route - which more than a
million asylum seekers used to reach Germany last year, going from
Turkey to Greece and into Eastern Europe - had been shut to
transiting migrants. What was worse, all of them now face the
prospect of being deported to back Turkey - part of a deal that
European and Turkish leaders are expected to finalize later this
week. As Abdo rightly noted, no one had been permitted to cross from
Greece into Macedonia over the previous two weeks, and no one would
be allowed to go through any time soon.
Unfolding a piece of paper, he told the other refugees that they
only had one choice: to form a massive column and make a long and
treacherous hike through Europe. They would have strength in
numbers. "We will need to make one group of thousands of people, and
police wonít be able to stop us and send us back," read the paper he
showed to the other migrants, an official-looking flyer typed out in
Arabic. It included a detailed map, depicting a path through rough
and mountainous terrain to a patch of the border where there is no
Among its numerous deceptions, the flyer claimed that the walk to
this point was only about 5 km long, and that a river which the
migrants would need to cross had run dry. The leaflet also suggested
that once the migrants had made it illegally across the border into
Macedonia, Germany would somehow welcome them with open arms.
All of these claims were false, yet they seemed to spark one of the
most desperate and reckless episodes of Europe's refugee crisis, one
that provides a warning of what's to come as migrants seek new ways
to break through the Balkan blockade. For tens of thousands of
asylum-seekers, Greece has become a kind of purgatory. They were
able to reach the Greek islands on rubber rafts from Turkey earlier
this year, just as hundreds of thousands of other migrants had last
year. But by the time they got to the northern border, Macedonia and
several other countries to the north of Greece had shut the gates,
leaving them marooned in muddy squalor at the rain-soaked camp of Idomeni, which is now home to around 12,000 migrants. Conditions
there have grown increasingly nasty, with shortages of food, toilets
and health care, not to mention beds. Spread out on a field where
corn once grew, thousands of the campís inhabitants have been
sleeping for weeks in flimsy tents on top of the mud, often burning
plastic and other garbage to stay warm.
Their first attempt to break through the border, during a violent
protest on Feb. 29, ended in failure when Macedonian troops shot
tear gas into the crowds. Their second attempt began at noon on
March 14, the day after Abdo circulated through the camp with his
appeal. Roughly a thousand asylum seekers agreed to follow him. They
packed up their possessions and, driven by the promise of salvation
on those flyers, set out on foot to the northwest. Abdo, carrying a
can of Monster energy drink in his hand and a loaded rucksack on his
back, led the march into the hills along with a few of the other
organizers, all Arabic-speaking refugees. The organizers were mostly
Syrian, but there were many Afghans, Iraqis and other nationalities
among the marchers.
"Our group is walking all the way to Germany," Abdo told me early in
the march, declining to give his surname. "We are tired of waiting
for these stupid decisions from Europe. Each time we protest in the
camp, nobody listens to us. So we will move the borders ourselves."
Behind him, along a dirt track leading through the hills, a haggard
but lively tribe had taken shape. Several men in wheelchairs - one
of them missing both legs below the knee, another too old and infirm
to walk - were being pulled and carried through ankle-deep puddles.
Young women held swaddled infants in their arms, and older ones
balanced huge pieces of luggage on their heads. Sporadically,
clusters of people broke into Arabic songs or chanted in unison the
word Germany - their intended destination.
They had no plans of breaking through the borders violently. During
one of the first stops they took to rest along the road, one of the
leaders, a Syrian with sunken cheeks, shouted for attention. "Keep
the Afghans in the back," he cried in Arabic, a language most
Afghans canít understand. "They are the troublemakers who provoke
the police. If I see one Afghan with a rock in his hand at the front
of the column, Iíll kill him myself and leave his body on the road!"
Soon after, the march encountered the first police barricade. Greek
border guards, following along in trucks, had kept watch on the
migrantsí progress through the hills, and when the column reached a
paved road, troops in riot gear lined up in front of the marchers.
At the front, Abdo yelled for the throng to come close and push
against the policemen, one of whom held a submachine gun in his
A chaotic shouting match ensued. Chloe Kousoula, the Greek-American
co-founder of a volunteer group that has been helping refugees at
Idomeni since August, tried to convince the refugees to desist.
"They are here to protect you," she told one of the leaders of the
march, standing between him and the line of Greek policemen. "If you
pass, the Macedonian police will use [tear] gas, [they will] shoot
at you," she pleaded. "You have children here." Undeterred, the
dense crowd of asylum seekers began chanting - "Greece! Greece!" - and within a minute or so the police stood aside.
"Our orders are no violence," said their commander, the head of the
riot squad in the Greek municipality of Kilkis, who declined to give
his name. "Thatís what Athens says. So what can we do?" And so the
march was allowed to continue.
At the first Greek village the migrants passed, a bucolic hamlet
called Chamilo, groups of locals lined up along the street to watch
the stream of foreigners, many of the Greeks filming the march on
their smartphones. One elderly couple went out into their yard and
handed out boxes of juice to the passing migrants. "We love this,"
said one of the locals, a 21-year-old named George Thoidis. "They
are taking their freedom. They need a home, health and a home. So
this is a good thing they're doing."
Soon the terrain again grew rugged, winding through muddy fields and
forests until the migrants reached their primary obstacle - a swift
and murky river. On the flyers that many of them had seen before
setting out, this river was marked on the map, but a note in Arabic
declared that it "has no water."
That was another deception, but the migrants felt they had gone too
far to turn back. So they gathered along the right bank of the
river, took off their shoes and rolled up their pants. The water,
thankfully, was not very deep, but the current was strong enough, in
some cases, to knock even the healthy young men off their feet. The
women among them looked petrified, and arguments began as husbands
tried to convince their wives to carry their children across.
Amal Mesaid, a refugee from the city of Dara'a, where the Syrian
civil war began, handed her three young children, ages 4, 6 and 7,
down to the human chain that the marchers had formed through the
river. Then she watched as they were carefully carried along to the
other side. "I'm sorry for this," Mesaid told me after walking
across, her eyes wet. "We just want to get through and leave all of
this behind. We have no other choice."
Among the migrants, rumors then began to circulate of another river
further down the road, much bigger and deeper than the first one.
But they continued marching anyway, their feet sinking to the ankles
in the lush green fields. About four hours into their journey, they
came to a high fence topped with razor wire, marking the border with
Macedonia. It stretched into the hills, and the migrants stopped to
rest alongside it - changing diapers and breastfeeding children - before their march turned slightly southward, away from the border,
into a narrow and winding path through rocky slopes and bushes.
Without warning, a few soldiers soon appeared at the bottom of a
hill, carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles. They beckoned to the line
of refugees to keep coming toward them. This was the Macedonian
military, which had already deployed to await the arrival of the
refugees. The border between Greece and Macedonia in this rural area
is not marked - that, at least, the flyers had predicted correctly -
so the migrants had no idea they had entered Macedonia until they
saw the sunburst flag of the country on the soldiers' uniforms.
At a fork in the road, the troops then began separating people in
the crowd who appeared European - mostly journalists, activists and
volunteers - from those who looked like refugees. It was an inexact
process, one that seemed mostly based on skin color. Several
reporters were herded to the left and made to sit in the mud for
hours, along with hundreds of refugees. At least one refugee from
Syria was told to turn right, into a field where the military
detained the people with lighter skin, including me.
I have no way of knowing exactly what happened to the migrants after
that. About 70 of the journalists and charity workers who had been
following the march, including myself, were crammed into vans and
driven to a police station in Gevgelija, a bleak border town in
Macedonia that was swarming with military trucks and armored
vehicles sent to stop the influx of migrants. But it wasn't just
Macedonians. Uniformed police officers from several other countries
along the Balkan route that have restricted entry for refugees -
among them Czechs, Slovenians, Croatians and Austrians ó paced
around the police station as well, dressed in padded riot gear. The
Czech officers seemed by far the most aggressive, repeatedly shoving
and hitting the reporters and volunteers. "You're a criminal. Go
away!" one shouted when I asked why Czech officers were working in
Their presence was, in many ways, remarkable. Against the objectios
of the U.N. and the European Union in February, several E.U. member
states, led by Austria, independently called a summit of the
countries that sit along the migration route through the Balkans,
including non-E.U. members like Macedonia and Serbia. Their national
chiefs of police then decided to cooperate in restricting the inflow
of migrants who try to pass through Greece into mainland Europe. But
they did not give their Greek counterparts a say in that decision,
which has been frustrating for Athens, left to deal with tens of
thousands of migrants.
"We're all alone," said the Greek police official in charge of
liaising with his colleagues in Macedonia, who asked TIME not to
print his name, as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
"Greece now needs to understand this and deal with it. There is no
more Europe like it was before," he said at the police station in Gevgelija, where he had gone to negotiate the release of Greek
citizens. "Now itís every country making decisions on its own.".
Ahlen Foundation supports refugees in Idomeni and across Greece.