Preševo 09.11.15

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11.11.15 / 8 a.m.

The terms of ‘today’, ‘yesterday’ and ‘the day before yesterday’, ‘back then’ and ‘a minute ago’ are blurring. They are not being applied coherently in this text.

On our way southbound from Šid we call the self-organised office ‘No Border Serbia’ and other groups of volunteers to get a picture of the situation in the camps on the flight course.

Map of Europe that is beeing handed out by Volunteers
Map of Europe that is beeing handed out by Volunteers

We tell everybody we are bringing cooking equipment and donated clothes. A bunch of activists who have been at the Serbian/Macedonian border in Preševo for some days are happy that we come. Another person working directly in the camp tells us not come around because there already were too many volunteers. We rely on the information from the ones asking for support and continue our way to Preševo.

Along the way we grab mobile internet by a Serbian provider so we will be able to set up a WiFi hotspot for us and others. Blog and twitter, here we come!

In the evening we arrive at Preševo. We can park our cars near the border camp. In front of the exit of the registration camp two coaches are waiting. They are swarmed by people with baggage and white papers in their hands. On the edges of the tarmaced square persons are lying, some covered with blankets or sleeping bags, some without anything. A couple of folks made fire to keep them warm during the cold nights. Some meters further up the road the queues begin. The right side of the road is blocked into multiple compartments. Between the fences hundreds of people are standing and waiting for admission to the camp and for registration, in order to get going again. The line is stretching for about one kilometre. We are estimating an average of 10.000 persons passing the camp each day.

The families, groups of friends and individuals stand tightly crammed behind the fences. We simply walk by, not knowing where to look.

We speak to volunteers who have been on location for a while and let them show us what structures there are: a house for volunteers to cook and sleep in. In the garden, tents are set up in which food for distribution is stored, as well as pavillons where donated clothes and blankets are collected. On the street right next to the line of waiting refugees, an infopoint and a small kitchen have been erected.

independent volunteer tent giving out information about the route
independent volunteer tent giving out information about the route, Foto: David Kaupp

We decide to help outside the camp. To get inside, we would have to register, which we wish to avoid to obtain autonomy and be less prone to repression.

As part of our care concept we introduced ‘how-am-I’-rounds. Most of us are happy to have finally arrived and feel sufficiently energetic to work the night. Everyone calls the tasks they would like to take over. Thus, the working groups ‘Tea’, ‘Infrastructure/Donations’, ‘Documentation’ and ‘Medical Emergencies’ are installed.

We take over the night shift in the small kitchen and make warm tea, in which we put sugar by the kilo. We hand that out to the people together with juice, chocolate bars, bananas and (obviously non-vegan) boiled eggs. Food without shells or peels cannot be distributed, so we are restrained to snacks like these.

After the refugees are past the small kitchen, no food or beverages will be available to them until the camp. The people are waiting for six to ten hours on the street. We grab some empty crates and fill them with water bottles, sweets and snacks to bring those to the ones waiting further down the line. The supplies are handed down to children and pregnant women. However, there are overwhelming moments, too, in which we are swamped by the demand for what we bring and the supplies are almost ripped from our hands. The situation gets threatening and we are retreating from the masses. We are happy not to be alone and can assist one another. The people do not need sweets – they need an end to this unbearable situation.

Some smile at us or ask, what all the waiting is about, what we would think about it. Some are approaching us for a warm jacket, a pair of good shoes or blankets and hats for their baby. We try to retreive the tings in the storages and find the people again who demanded them.

We are wearing reflective vests, like most of the volunteers. That way, we try to make ourselves easily distinguishable from the locals and the police personnel with their uniforms, batons and firearms. We hope to look more approachable for the refugees. On the backs of our vests we wrote slogans: ‘Freedom of movement for everybody! No Border! No Nation!’ To dissociate ourselves from al gouvernments and authorities, many of the vests are decorated with a bold A in circle.

A friend has arrived at Potsdam a week before we left. He came to Germany overland from Syria and told us, what helped him most during his jouney. He stressed we have to smile all the time. ‘When I saw a friendly face, I felt safe. I thought I could relax for a moment. And you need to care about the kids: Play with them! In one Camp in Macedonia we had to wait for three days in the cold, without any supplies, and ten children died there, they froze to death.’ When we walk past the cooped in persons smiling, we feel increasingly silly.

Refugees waiting in line
Refugees waiting in line behind police lattices, Foto: David Kaupp

Most of the time we spend walking about and providing information. The people travelling want to know where they are, how long the procedure is going to take, whether they really need the papers to continue ther journey, where their families are, how we are and where we are from. A lot of refugees are alienated by the offers of the taxi drivers to take them directly to Croatia – without waiting time and without papers. Roumors are very present, according to which the taxi drivers drop off their passengers in a small village 30 km ahead. Crossing the border without papers seems to be a very unlikely undertaking. We advise the people to take the busses that are still expensive to make sure they arrive. Giving information regularly throws us into dilemmata: We can never be sure, whether they are perfectly accurate and when we’re supposed to give advise all we can do is point to the smaller evil.

A person hands a printed out map of Europe to the front, we show the people where Preševo is situated and where the route is going. The ones understanding our English translate into their respective languages.

Here and there, individuals are fooling around with us, we often make fun of the mostly ill-tempered policemen and slag off the bad situation together. Many of them just made 10 km on foot with children and bags to come here – only to stand in a queue for at least six hours being pushed forward painstakingly slowly.

Some are incredibly helpful. Ali (name changed) positions himself at a front corner of a compartment and cheerfully passes on all the information. He speaks four languages fluently. We are impressed as he takes a loss of an hour additional waiting time to help other people better assess their own situation. He tells everyone, laughing: ‘We’re all in the same boat together, whether we board the busses half an hour sooner or later… Where’s the difference? Chill and don’t abuse the volunteers and care for each other. At some point all of us will head on!’

Refugees entering the registration camp
Refugees entering the registration camp, Foto: David Kaupp

Again and again during the night cars are speeding dangerously close past the line. Hastily parents are dragging the smaller children behind themselves. We yell at the drivers to be more careful.

There are only few policemen on location. They try to bring order into the masses. With the exception of individual calm officials they show very dominant, rough and escalating demeanor. Whenever a policeman is abusing a person outside the queue, grabs or beats them or pushes them back, outrage is expressed among the waiting people. Often it proves effective to intervene as a volunteer and continuosly ask the policemen whether there was any problem. Mostly, they turn away or at least stop yelling. This offers opportunities to start conversations with the refugees. The policemen do not speak English and therefore do not understand the questions of the refugees, replying with shouting and violence. Some translating can help a lot. At some point, the policemen begin to react with relief to our presence, introducing us to refugees with ‘Talk to my friend!’ I am not your friend, idiot…

We continue walking up and down the street and not be useless. We’ve got germicide, emergency blankets and info cards in our pockets. Continously we walk along the queue with a mobile tea dispenser – improvised out of a barrow, a thermos canister and a beer crate – handing out warm tea. Luckily, its not as cold as in the weeks prior, but the people are freezing anyway since all they can do is standing around in the line. Some kids have laid down on the bitumen to sleep. We give them blankets we brought.

Every few minutes people are attacked on the street by policemen, when they move outside the line. We never have such issues: The colour of our skin protects us. We are ashamed of ourselves and of our world.

At dawn, situations of tense scrap. In the night, people are arriving on foot, from 6 a.m. the busses from Macedonia are going again.

Half of the fences is set aside and the policemen are standing in front of fivehundred persons that want to enter the camp. They shout at the people to sit down. Some enter the masses and beat individuals up with batons. When people want to move forward, they hit their legs. In the first row, children are sitting. Some are crying, others are running around playing with balloons. We stand aside and watch the situation, to pull out persons that lose consciousness and to let the police know that we are having an eye on what they are doing. We are afraid the mood could flip and everybody just starts running.

People are being forced to sit on the ground at night in the line while police forces struggle to manage the crowd
People are being forced to sit on the ground at night in the line while police forces struggle to manage the crowd

A police officer in riot gear points to our cellphones and makes a pounding motion on the ground. Also other volunteers tell us not to document anything for the police knew we were journalists and acted more aggressively because of it. When policemen open the fences, many start running. A woman trips and is nearly stampeded over, so many people are not considering small children, injured or pregnant people, we fear somebody is going to be seriously wounded. A policeman is pointing at us commanding us to stand next to him in front of the masses to keep them at bay. We refuse, so he shouts at us to go away and gestures threateningly towards us. We leave the scene. At another point of the qeuethe people are being forced into a line by the police. Everybody is so tightly crammed together, one woman and child is swattet and begins screaming. Others are trying to calm her, but police does not let her exit the line.

At the small kitchen, too, the situation is getting more and more tense. Thousands of people are pushing past the walls of the tent and the wobbling tables nearly fall over for a couple of times. We stick our heads out asking everyone to step back a little, though they are helpless in regard to the whole situation. Many try to give room nonetheless, requesting others in their respective languages to do the same. For a few minutes, the tent stands secure again. We have so few bananas left, we decide to only give them to smaller children. The others we have to tell they will have to get through this without food. The situation is fucked up. The verbal and even physical violence of some volunteers towards the refugees is getting bigger. At some point, to volunteers simply close the small kitchen. Through the plastic sheets we see two kids returning our tired smiles. We make faces, they laugh.

A memory comes to our minds: A friend of ours from Potsdam rooted for his best pal. At every text message from him he is delighted, telling us: ‘He’s in Macedonia! He’s in Serbia! He’s in Austria! Oh my God, he’s in Germany now! I so hope he will come to Potsdam!’ Its a miracle, that so many people survived this catastrophe that long. We don’t know how many died on the way. The way to Germany, Sweden or Belgium remains far. And even upon their arrival the refugees are not safe under the German immigration legislation. The federal gouvernment is still doing a lot to deprive them of a self-determined life: Just in the last days the situation worsened again due to the aggravation of German immigration law. For instance, social benefits are reduced to material goods and coupons rather than money. Sudden deportations are becoming easier, abruptly ripping persons from their normal life.

The roumor is heard, the EU wanted to hold people in each border camp for two weeks to ‘decelerate the migrant inflow’. Every single hour here is harsh.

Trash and police
Trash at the side of the queue and police, Foto: David Kaupp

The hygienic circumstances are getting worse and worse. There are ten latrines for thousands of persons. Everywhere it smells like urine and faeces. Around 9 a.m. we go to bed. On the parking space for coaches the waste disposal is wiping up plastic cups. At this sight, we are suddenly moved. The waiting street remains dirty.