Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Water cannons. Stun grenades. Helicopters. Army tanks. What should have set the scene for a war film was used against men, women and children gathered on the edge of Europe, desperate for a life without violence.
When I arrived at Idomeni on Sunday, I could not believe the scene before me. The sound of stun grenades and tear gas being shot pierced the air, accompanied by cries and screams of the people gathered in the densely-populated informal refugee camp. The FYROM police relentlessly and indiscriminately fired an arsenal of ‘nonlethal’ weapons upon the people in Idomeni for at least 7 hours.
What started off as a peaceful protest, with refugees holding placards pleading for FYROM to open the borders, turned into something resembling a warzone. It is of course unsure who threw the first stone – literally – it is dependent on who you ask. Nevertheless, the violence went on unabated for most of the day.
At first, the weapons were concentrated on the first two hundred meters of Idomeni camp, an area devoid of inhabitants and occupied by the protestors, many of whom were on the offensive. As time passed, however, the tear gas canisters were shot further afield, affecting heavily inhabited areas where people had been living for weeks.
Tear gas is a horrific thing. Even if you are a good distance from it, it invades your entire respiratory system, making you cough violently and rendering you unable to breathe. Your exposed skin and eyes burn uncontrollably, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. As a grown person I was stunned by the effect it had it on me. It is difficult to comprehend how devastating it must be for the dozens of children and babies who had to be treated because they were choking on the poisonous gas.
As the gas spread, people here desperately grabbed what they could carry and once again fled the sounds of war they thought they had left behind. Later still, rubber bullets were shot at people in the camp. Three children under the age of 10 had to be treated due to the fact that they were shot in the head. This firing of weapons extended further and further away from the border, some landing meters from the MSF clinic where people were being treated, and crossing the road to affect those in the vulnerable family tents also set up by MSF. These areas were hundreds of meters from the border, and the people here were in no way involved in the protest. The attack by the Macedonian police was not defensive: it was violently offensive.
In the end, over 300 people had to be treated due to tear gas inhalation, rubber bullet wounds and a plethora of other injuries. Many of these were children and babies. Aside for the injuries, any vague sense of safety in this horrible camp has been shattered.
The majority of the 12,000 refugees living here have endured five years of violence and conflict in Syria. Half of the county’s population, which numbers over 12 million people, have been killed or forced to flee. The reality and implications of that are hard to wrap one’s head around. Essentially one in every two people has been directly devastated by the conflict in the worst way. Half of these refugees are children, according to the UN. Besides losing the right to life and safety, most children have been unable to attend school for years. Most people who have left Syria are living in poverty in neighbouring countries, or have made the dangerous journey on rubber dinghies across tumultuous seas to Greece, leaving behind everything. This refugee ‘crisis’ often manifests itself as a crisis of understanding and of compassion. This is a humanitarian catastrophe, and not keeping this at the forefront of any discussion regarding refugees should be unthinkable.
Lack of information, and therefore rumours, is a colossal problem here. Incessant rumours of the borders opening have spread around the camp over the past weeks. Whole families have packed up their few belongings, ready for this possibility countless times. People staying at other informal camps in the area have walked as far as 40km in a day to ensure that the border isn’t in fact open.
The asylum process in Greece is, quite frankly, ridiculous. The application has to be made through a Skype call to the asylum service over a restricted number of hours. In the context of a refugee camp where there is hugely unreliable wifi, lack of adequate access to charging stations and where not everyone has phones, this seems ludicrous. In addition to these technical issues, there are very few allocated time slots where people are able to call in. The Arabic time slot, for example, is only answered for two selected hours a week. There are 53,000 refugees in Greece at the moment and with the vast majority being Arabic speakers, the chances of getting through are miniscule. I have not met a single refugee who has managed to get through to speak to someone.
Essentially then, the people here are in the exact same position they were in when they first arrived. They have endured the inhumane living conditions in Idomeni through the biting cold, relentless rain, wind and heat and are no closer to finding the freedom, safety and stability they so crave.
I was so struck by the fact that pieces of metal and a matter of meters stood between freedom and entrapment. This thought must run their heads constantly, with the borders representing a hope that is just out of reach. Desperation, lack and trust and constant insecurity cannot help but manifest in the form of irrationality. There have been protests daily since Sunday, with police firing tear gas every day since- it is a grave concern that Idomeni will become even more of black spot on the history books of Europe.