Tabanovce, part 2: Beyond the tracks and the fences

Two days ago I went to the camp again, this time with people from Legis. We met in Skopje, where Driton Maliqi had an interview on national tv about the situation of refugees. With his colleague Avni Salii, we ate doner and got acquainted before driving in their van to Tabanovce. Avni and Driton live in Kumanova, a city close to Tabanovce. Actually, they live in the van, as Avni put it, because they drive back and forth between Kumanova, the refugee camp and Skopje, often several times each day.

Both Albanian refugees from Kosovo, Driton and Avni have known each other for twenty years and are like brothers. And they have both been involved in aiding refugees for many years, because, as they attest, refugees have been taking the Balkan route for many years. Driton insists that the disaster that we are witnessing could have been foretold. It would have been possible to be ready for the flow of people had the political will been there. Unlike some other aid workers I’ve met along the way, these men do not divorce themselves from the macro- and geo-politics.

Tabanovce camp is not an open camp. Well, in theory it is supposed to be but, in practice, it is like an open air prison. The camp area is fenced, and on the village side the fence is topped with barbed wire. The residents – most of them refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, and many of them women and children – must get police permit to leave the camp. And to enter the camp too one needs a permit. Driton and Avni got me into the camp after some negotiation with the police. There simply hadn’t been enough time to get a permit for me. But they warned me not to flash my camera, not to be overly visible. And they told me to be quick.

I ran to find the women I had met the day before. This time I wanted to simply record their statement about when they entered the camp, from where and what they had been told. I am seriously concerned that these women in particular are not fully aware of their rights and options. Well, there really are no options but, in principle, they have some rights. Knowing that they are illiterate, and that the camp is seriously understaffed in terms of Farsi translators, I doubt that these women fully know the situation they are in. I wanted to record their statements so I could pass it on to volunteer lawyers. I found one of the women, and explained to her why I had returned.

She is one of the most vulnerable people in the camp. Her family escaped from Afghanistan to Iran, where her husband was killed because he had worked for a time with Afghan police. She was left with five very young children. She decided to leave Iran after her husband’s brothers threatened to harm or take her children if she didn’t agree to let her young daughter be married to her older cousin. Her son has a heart condition. With her youngest being only two, she is in great distress. And the children are all traumatized. They don’t eat. I’ve seen this before in other camps too.

I record her statement and promise her not to use it for any reason other than if it becomes possible or necessary to involve a lawyer in her case. She really doesn’t have a case because she hasn’t yet applied for asylum in Macedonia or anywhere else. Like most people in this camp, she was stopped from going north when the borders closed. Nobody here wants to apply for asylum in Macedonia. It’s not even clear to me yet if Macedonia even accepts refugees, if there is a practice and a precedence, aside from the refugees of the Kosovo war.

Even if they were to be given asylum here, there is really not much they can do to improve their lives in a country that itself produces large numbers of “economic migrants.” Of the Kosovo war refugees, many are still living in refugee camps, including a large number of Kosovar Roma refugees who came here some 15 years ago, and are yet to experience “integration.” One of the buildings in the Visbegovo block houses these Roma refugees. Their young children travel the streets of the city centre, some begging, some singing, some spraying unawares passersby with cheap perfume and asking for money. Like in other Balkan countries, the Roma people in Macedonia live in a perpetual state of marginalization, and the Roma have been living here for over a millennium, and they are native speakers of the languages of the places they live in. What hope would there be for a population of newcomers who do not know Balkan languages?

Before my recording with the Afghani woman was finished, I got a call from Driton that I had to finish and get out because one of the policemen who was annoyed from the beginning that I had entered was looking for me. I begged for a bit more time and ran around in search of the young Afghani girls who spoke to me the day before. One of them grabbed me the day before, took me to their tent and introduced me to her older sister who was tending their youngest brother, barely over a month old. The parents and four other siblings were in the food queue. The sisters told me how unsafe they felt in Afghanistan.They were kept from going to school because in their area the Taliban and Daesh kidnapped young girls. They sisters are the oldest children in the family. They want to go to Germany to study and help their family. They both said, time and again, with striking intensity, that they would throw themselves under a train if they were to be deported back to Afghanistan.

Sadly, I couldn’t find them. Their tent was empty. My search took me deeper into the campground, where, in addition to chaotic queues for food, for medicine, for clothes, for milk or baby formula, there was the loud noise of a garbage collection truck haphazardly making its way through the camps “main drag.” To stay out of the view, I walked near the fence that runs parallel to the tracks towards the back of the camp and, to my surprise, discovered that in addition to the small tents I had seen there were several large tents over stuffed with several rows of beds. These tents house the single men. I said hello in Farsi to groups of them standing at the entrances of their tents, chewing gum, eating seeds, smoking, some doing nothing, staring blankly at the tracks. Most of them replied with surprise and good humor. But I had no time to stop and talk to them. And although my camera was on, I didn’t aim it at anything or anybody. I always feel uncomfortable intruding into people’s private spaces, even if they are non existent in the overcrowded conditions of the camp.

I ran into the Farsi translator, a young Iranian woman who was born in Skopje to Iranian refugees of my generation. She was raised in Iran and had recently come to Macedonia to learn the language and re-discover the places of her early years. She said she might know where the young Afghani woman was and I followed her but we gave up soon. In the camp’s maze, finding someone is a miracle. I asked the translator if I could interview her. She works with several organizations and has a global perspective of the camp. She had to get the permission of her boss who was standing nearby. A long negotiation followed.

I told them that all I wanted to know was what services they provided and I wanted to talk to her specifically because she could speak in Farsi. There was a lot of discomfort. But I pushed. Not because I thought I was going to get a revelation, but because I wanted to make a point that as an NGO they should be open and transparent. The level of discomfort pointed more toward a general policy rather than individual ad hoc decisions. Finally they agreed, and I interviewed her under the watchful eyes of three people from the organization. IOM, I learned, assists in voluntary repatriation, and just recently they had helped a few Iranians and Iraqis to return to their countries. I asked if they had heard back from any of these people. The answer was not yet.

I got yet another call and started walking back towards the main gate where Legis and other NGOs have their offices. On the way I saw some excitement and some women and girls running in the direction of the Red Cross tent. So I detoured and saw that they were distributing clothes. Finally. I felt a certain relief and joy knowing that Driton and Avni had something to do with this. We had talked about the issue in the van, as they were delivering some clothes and I had told them about women complaining about having to keep wearing winter clothes in spite of the heat. It was 27 degrees that day, and most women were dressed in sweaters and winter coats because the camp management had not figured out how to distribute clothes equitably amongst the residents.

As soon as I got back to the offices near the gate, Driton told me to go wait inside one of them. The angry police man was eyeing me most disapprovingly. Frankly, I welcomed the air-conditioned office even though it was filled with smoke. Here, as in Serbia and Croatia, indoor smoking is norm. I chatted for a while with a couple of aid workers from Dutch Refugee Council and even recorded a short voice interview with one of them. Their mandate is to support the “extremely vulnerable individuals,” which, as she explained would include the women I had met. I felt a bit more reassured about them. Then the DRC workers left, and, feeling bored and smoked out, I went outside again and stood at the door of the office, watching the frenzied traffic of women and girls running to the clothes distribution location or walking back with their bundles. I set the camera on time lapse for a long shot and kept my finger on the shutter, somewhat mesmerized by the appearance and disappearance of small patches of colour – women’s clothes – against the white background of the tents and the gravel covered ground.

Suddenly hell broke loose. A woman with big hair descended on me and demanded not only that I stop but go to the police container. I tried to show her the pictures so she wouldn’t feel so threatened, but she insisted that I go to the police. I travel light. No big cameras and zoom lenses here. I have a Canon G16 with an ordinary lens. It is only slightly bigger than a point-and-shoot, and fits along with all the peripherals (a mini monopod, a mina tripod, two extra batteries, a charger, a few sd cards, lens tissue and brush plus some tissues, my wallet, passport and lip balm) inside a 5 x 7 inch belt pouch. I put the camera in my bag but she kept insisting that I go to the police, so I did, along with Driton. Thankfully the angry cop wasn’t there. The one who was in the office looked at me and my puny equipment and chuckled and just told me to put the camera away and go wait outside the camp. I did. That’s when the fun started.

I stayed in their view for a while and took some pictures of trees, mountains, clouds and all the other non-threatening stuff. I even did a sound recording of the loud frogs in the marshland just outside the camp. Then an army truck pulled in the gate and blocked their view, so I started my discovery walk outside the camp. First thing I saw was a couple of kids under an improvised tent on a grassy patch set back from the road that runs parallel to the fence. I want and talked to them. Both young boys, 11 and 9, both Syrian and they both knew a few words of English. I asked them why they were there. The older one pointed to the sun and fanned himself with his hand. Inside the camp is very hot. The white metal containers and the white gravel bounce the light and heat endlessly. I marveled at the ingenuity of these two kids and their amazing independence in creating a haven for themselves away from the camp oven. I offered them some apples and cucumbers that I had with me and they accepted with smiles. We parted with friendly handshakes.

I kept the camera running on time lapse taking pictures of the peripheral fence, decorated on the inside with lines of laundry. Soon the area with white containers ended and I saw a large field filled with small dome tents, many, many of them. Some were covered with sheets of heavy plastic. Further down was an open field. Some people had set up a make-shift sun umbrella there. Without the fence and the barbed wire and the containers and the tents, one could almost imagine that they were out in the country for a picnic.

The rest of what I saw I will not write about here because I know these reports are being read and I worry that mentioning my discovery would work against the interest of the camp residents. The panopticon is not operational just inside the camp, but outside too. I will suffice it to say that where there is power there is resistance, and we should not forget that fences and walls, borders and barbed wire, cannot contain people who feel compelled to move toward freedom. From a refugee of 32 years to those who are on the move now:

Your movement has stirred the pot of shit they’ve been passing as golden Europe, so now everybody has to live with its stink or work together to get rid of its festering, narcissistic, self-importance. Welcome to the struggle. Solidarity in movement.

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