My Refugee Journey – The Journey to Macedonia and First Day In Country 28th & 29th April 2016
Belgrade to Tabanovce Refugee Transit Camp in Macedonia on the Serbian border…
I arrived at the Belgrade Bus Station in plenty of time to board the coach that was due to leave at 11:20am – I waited in line to put my baggage on the coach and found I had to tip the driver for putting the bag on the coach for me, a tip of 60dinars – this really is just pennies but I for a moment thought I was in the US where its normal for everyone to almost demand a tip. Now I’m a bit of an anti tipper and will only tip good service if I want to and not because I’ve been told to because they expect it. But i paid the tip and got on the coach.
About 50miles in, I saw on the other side of the motorway that the police had pulled over 6 refugees, it looked like they had been walking rather than getting a ride from a smuggler Taxi driver) – I’ve met several refugees in Belgrade that have said they walked rather than pay a smuggler for the simple reason, they couldn’t afford the 500euros. The walk from the Tabanovce Refugee Transit Camp is approximately 350km to Belgrade, a long distance on foot for people that are not dressed for this kind of challenge, but they still do it taking an average of 20-30days to make it to Belgrade.
I’m now about two hours into the coach journey, it’s actually better than I thought it would be, I’ve not done a coach ride like this for years! I’m basically on a coach that before the borders closed is the same coach that the refugees would have used, they would have just done the journey in reverse.
It’s now three hours into the coach journey and I’ve got everyone’s worse nightmare sat right next to me now, an obese person, now I’m squashed and uncomfortable, I hope he isn’t going to be on the coach much longer! I’ve now got half a seat as the very large guy is taking up his seat and half of mine!
Its now 3;30pm and I’m feeling rather knackard right now but we’ve just stopped at the coach station in the city of Nis and I’ve now got the whole of my seat back and an empty seat next to me for at least till the next stop.
There is a cool mountain range just outside the city, and as we drive closer to it, I’m thinking I’d love to climb it.
About three hours to go before I reach the end of the coach ride… So far I’ve been lucky to have both seats to myself to spread out and relax. The further south we get, the more rural and hilly the surrounding countryside becomes. Beautiful countryside, great area for those avid hikers amongst you.
It’s now 6:30pm and the driver doesn’t speak any English – I’m guessing I’ve another 40mins of travel. I’ve not seen any formal looking border crossing so guessing I’m still in Serbia, so just keeping my eyes peeled for Kymahobo (Kumanovo) which is the town I’m getting off at which is 10km south of the refugee camp.
Just crossed over the border into Macedonia at 7pm, we’ve had to get off the coach and hand over our passports, the whole passport control thing takes over half an hour. Back on the coach and off we go again.
About 8pm we arrive at a bus station, no name or sign visible, I try asking the driver if we’ve arrived at Kumanovo yet but he just grunts, we leave for the next station and 5mins in and I see a sign for Kumanovo! Shit! The bus station we just left was Kumanovo, the one I should have got off at!
Now I have to sit on the coach all the way to Skopje, the capitol of Macedonia, another 40min journey! Once at Skopje I find another coach to travel back to Kumanovo and arrive there at around 10pm.
Where I’m stood at the bus station in Kumanovo, looks like the arse end of the Balkans, a real shit hole, very rough looking too! My plan was to get to Tabanovce and camp for the whole time I am here but things are really not turning out the way I planned… I need a cash point machine to get some local currency and I’ve no idea if this place even has one! Its total darkness, very little light, no street lights… I really don’t know where I am or how big Kumanovo actually is.
Across the road from the bus station there is load music coming from some bar, I walk across and see a blonde singer, a guitarist and a keyboard player, performing to a handful of people, I say a handful as the bar is actually smaller than my kitchen! I poke my head in to see if there is anyone I can get some info from and the owner comes out to speak to me, he speaks a little English and I explain I need a cash point machine and wifi… He says he has wifi and he knows where to go to a cash point… Instead of telling me where the cash point machine is, he wonders of and comes back with a friend who does not speak a word of English and looks like a creepy guy from a slasher movie.
I’m now being ushered into a car with this creepy looking guy and driving away from the bar, I’m being taken to a cash point machine, or so I’ve been told… I’m in a strange country, no one I know knows where I am and I’m laughing to myself in my head that this seems like a scene from the movie Hostel, now I’m laughing at myself playing out the scene where all my body parts are going to be carved up for the black market lol…
But no, I actually arrive at a cash point machine, I get some money and we go back to the bar… I go into the bar and get a drink to my new friend who speaks no English but we sit at a table listen to the band and nod to each other every now and then… Then two girls walk in that seem to know this guy and they look at me and ask for a drink each, I just say yes so not to rock any boat in a bar full of people I don’t know… Sure enough they go for the most expensive drink each in the bar.
I finish my drink and say goodbye and go off to find a taxi, which I find around the corner. I ask for the closest hotel – I arrive at Hotel Harmonija. A very nice, but still rather cheap hotel, 25euros per night including breakfast.
All my Macedonia plans have really gone out the window… The police that I found near the taxis told me don’t sleep in a tent due to Albanian Mafia and other criminal gangs operating on the border here. I’ve not been able to get to the camp to meet Safwat my Syrian refugee friend and its now nearly 11:30pm.
I finally get to relax at 11:30pm sat in my hotel room…
The Next Morning… I arrange on facebook to meet Safwat and his sister outside the camp as I’ve not yet received permission to get in the camp. I call a taxi and explain I want to go to the camp, collect two refugees and bring them back to my hotel, this I’m told by the person on the phone is OK… So off I go to the camp… I meet Safwat and his sister, an emotional reunion as I’ve not seen Safwat since February when we first met at Kara Tepe Refugee Camp in Lesvos when I was volunteering on the camp.
We attempt to get in the taxi and the driver then says he can’t let my refugee friends in his taxi, saying if he did he would be arrested… I explained that this had already been arranged over the phone, but he did not budge… I was left with no choice but to leave without Safwat and his sister and headed to a government building in Kumanovo where the department dealing with the refugee crisis has an office, after arriving I have to deal with a guy who firstly doesn’t speak a word of interested but is a jobsworth of epic proportions! He couldn’t give a shit about the refugees and was more interested with his coffee! Even when someone from another office walked in who could speak English I got nowhere and if anything totally confirmed what I thought of him, a total jobsworth who has no interest in the refugees, a great person to have in charge of refugee interests!
So far I’ve been in Macedonia for just under 12hrs, I’ve had a total run around by government officials, I’ve had my plans go to total shit and seen two Macedonian Police Officers beat the shit out of three young refugees that were doing nothing but sitting outside the camp near the rail tracks.
I came to Macedonia with an open mind, just like I have to every country I’ve visited in this refugee crisis, In Serbia I saw total support for the refugees and a good level of respect from the police to the refugees in a very difficult situation, but here in Macedonia I’m not seeing anything positive and this is very sad!
I go back to my hotel to try and salvage this visit to Macedonia; I contact my network of volunteers and NGO members in Macedonia… After another 12hrs I finally sort a way onto the camp at Tabanovce with one of the NGO contacts of mine, if you can’t go through the gate go round it, find a backdoor.
Things are starting to look a little more positive now… My contacts in Canada and Portugal and England who are helping me with Safwat’s situation is starting to take shape and more information is coming my way that is looking much more positive even if things with Macedonian officials is going more south!
I end the day feeling quite positive, I will be seeing Safwat and his family tomorrow…