Fleeing war and hardship in Middle East and Africa, thousands head for perceived promised land
by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Edirne, Turkey
It was, or so they believed, the start of their journey to the promised land, a place of safety they had longed for. Hours after the Turkish government announced that it would not stop refugees from attempting to reach Europe, a stream of people from the Middle East and Africa, seeking refuge from wars and economic hardship, left a bleak bus station in the Turkish town of Edirne and begun their journey to the border.
After leaving the buses they broke into smaller groups based on the countries they had left. Ethiopians stood in an orderly queue, as one of the crowd went to negotiate with taxi drivers. Algerians looked at their phones and argued loudly, while two Palestinian couples from Gaza stood by a concrete pilar and debated in hushed voices whether they could afford the taxi ride to the border 15km away.
The Algerians decided to walk, resigning themselves to the fact there were no cars to take them further. They marched in a long column down the well-lit and empty main road in the provincial Turkish town, their entire life’s belongings packed into a couple of school backpacks or small plastic shopping bags.
As if on cue, a drizzle of rain started falling, further testing men, women and children who had already endured unimaginable hardship.
The men leading pointed at a small road and the group followed, crossing the highway and walking down a smaller road that cut through an industrial area of warehouses and workshops. A tall young man from the Comoros, in east Africa, asked the Algerians in French if they were now in Greece. “No,” they answered, “we are still in Turkey.”
The rain was pelting down now, and the small gravel road filled with puddles of water. A few attempted to shield themselves with plastic bags over their heads. One of the Palestinian men wrapped his arm around his young female companion to shield her. Dogs in the vicinity began barking as the group moved passed them and the Algerians urged the stragglers to move faster.
“If we cross the border in a large group they won’t be able to stop us; move quick,” urged a young man.
The Meriç river forms the border between Turkey and Greece. Close to the town of Pazarkule, the group crossed the two bridges across the river, which flickered under the pouring rain.
As the sodden wet caravan marched in silence, a small white van drove slowly pass them. From the back seat a man swore at the group and spat out racist slurs. The group smiled and asked for water.
An Ethiopian man who was travelling with his wife despaired when he heard it was another half an hour to actually reach the border. He told the Guardian how he had fled Ethiopia and arrived in Turkey four months ago. Upon hearing of Erdoğan’s announcement, the couple decided to take their chances and try to leave.
After the bridge, the group left the narrow road and plodded through muddy fields until they came across yet another obstacle, this time in the form of a ditch. Young men crossed first, attempting to help the elderly and the women.
Just a few metres on and there was another, deeper ditch. Again, the young Comoran man asked: “Is this Greece?”
A small grove of poplar trees on the banks of the river provided a welcome rest stop. Those who had maps checked them. Some sat exhausted in the mud while the Algerians who were leading shouted at anyone who used a mobile phone, urging them to switch it off lest border guards spotted the light.
The group started walking again along the sandy banks of the river, this time more slowly and stopping every few minutes to listen. The lights of the Greek border post were now visible. Beyond it lay Europe, and, with it, their notions of freedom.
Now crouching, the group formed lines, as the young Algerians explained they were planning to run through the fence, one line after the other. The advice to the others was stark: If one of the party fell or was struck down, don’t wait for them, just run, they said.
Some collected dry branches and twigs and held them over their heads in a bid to disguise themselves. Slowly, they crawled towards the fence and disappeared, their fate uncertain.
By the next morning, the trickle of refugees had turned into a crowd of many thousands, gathering at the official crossing in Pazarkule. Thousands huddled around smouldering pine wood fires, covering their faces from white smoke blowing from the Greek side and buoyed by a chilly wind.
They had torn down the the metal fence on the Turkish side of the border and stood facing a line of Greek police in riot gear. They represented countries torn apart by civil war or unrest: Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, but also from as far as Eritrea and Bangladesh.
Many have been in Turkey for years waiting to cross to Europe, while others were newer arrivals.
Three young Syrian men were in the crowd. “I can’t go back to Syria because I will be drafted to the army,” said one of the men, from Aleppo.
By noon much of the crowd had broken through the Turkish side of the fence on the border and pushed into the no-man’s land between the two nations, where they set up camp, while others stood facing the Greek police. Young men began hurling stones, leading the police to respond by firing stun grenades and tear gas canisters that spiralled into the air before falling among families and children.
By the evening, it was all too overwhelming for some, who decided to abandon this attempt and to head back to Istanbul. Yet many more continued arriving.