Tabanovce, part 2: Tracks and nothing else

People were on the move, like thousands of others before them, walking along the tracks or riding on trains coming from the south. When they arrived at Tabanovce, they were stopped. That’s where the camp is. Right beside the train station, just short of Macedonia’s border with Serbia On the other side of this border is Presevo, 20 mins on the slow-moving train, where just to the north of the railway station, there is another camp.

The camp at Tabanovce is run by the Government of Macedonia, according to the sign posted at it’s gate. There is a gate, and the area is fenced, and the fence topped with barbed wire. Macedonian and EU flags dance in the wind high above the fence. The camp is set up on gravel, rows of un-numbered tents. The aid worker who got me in who goes to the other camp at the southern border of Macedonia says they would be numbered if the camp was run by the army as in the south.

The tents are not made of fabric, but of metal. The camp residents say they are hot in the daytime and cold at night. When I was there yesterday, it was 25 degrees outside. The kids in the “daycare” and the women I visited in their tent were all dressed in winter clothes, sweaters and all. Summer clothes haven’t been distributed. The Afghani women wanted me to tell the volunteers that they need lighter clothing.

The volunteer said there is clothing available but is not being distributed because they have not found a way to distribute in an orderly way, so the camp management has locked up the supplies. Later the aid worker told me there is struggle between the aid organizations and the government workers over the management of the camp, and the issue is that nobody really wants to manage the camp. Meanwhile, the kids play on gravel and along the tracks in winter track suits. Very fitting.

I can’t see any signs in Farsi in the camp. There is a shortage of Farsi translators. I’ve offered my service while I’m here. Nobody has used me yet, except for the residents who grab me at any chance to tell me their stories. F’s husband is in Germany. She is here with her 3 young children. She is from Syria. I met her three days ago while I was on the train stopped at Tabanovce before coming into Skopje. She was wearing a heavy winter coat. She’s been inside the camp for two months.

There are many Iraqi and Syrian women here with their children whose husbands made the journey earlier and are already in “destination countries.” Family reunification? Nope. Again, the aid worker tells me nobody cares. I can’t get solid information to know whether any legal counsel has been provided to the residents. Nobody answers. Will push to get the answer when I go in today again with another aid worker.

I spoke to an Afghani woman whose husband was killed in Iran. She is here with her five children. They had gone from Afghanistan to Iran to be safe. She said after her husband was killed they did not feel safe any more. She has no phone, no money to buy a phone, and is illiterate. I asked her if anybody knows she was here in the camp. She’s been here for two and a half months and only been able to talk to her sister who is in Austria once. Her son has a heart condition. She is very worried for him. Trapped with her younger kids, she is unable to stand in the queue to bring food to them. The older kids don’t manage to get enough for the whole family.

She asked me what was going to happen to them. I told her I didn’t know. I gave some money to another woman who shares the tent with this family who has a phone but no money to top up the credit. She too does not know how to read and write. She is here with her three kids. Her husband got on the road a few months earlier. They have not heard from him yet.

A young Afghani woman insisted that I visit their tent. She lives there with her 6 siblings and her parents. They too have been there for over two months. That’s long before the official border closure. I don’t understand why they got stopped here. She told me they were just stopped by the Macedonian police and kept here. She and her older sister, both still in their teens, told me they couldn’t and wouldn’t go back to Afghanistan. Neither of them has been to school because it is still not safe for girls to go to school. They told me they would kill themselves, throw themselves on under a train, if they were to be deported. They want to go to school, make something of themselves. They only have two younger brothers. These older girls are the ones that have to work to help the family.

Afghani people are very concerned about deportations. They keep insisting that Afghanistan is not a safe country. Safe for whom? What does safety mean? Who is asking these questions?

The kids at the daycare gather and hang from me as soon as they hear me speak Farsi to them. Even a couple of Syrian kids who remembered me from the day before when I was on the train. We just sit and talk. They tell me their names and tell me they want to go to school but there is no school here. Afghani kids tell me they don’t get enough of anything because the Iraqi and Syrian kids are always put ahead. And they fight in the camp. Who is responsible for this now?

Yesterday I left the camp with a heavy heart and utter sense of powerlessness. It was my first day there. On the way back to Skopje – an hour drive away – the aid worker told me that the Macedonian government is just waiting for green light from EU to deport all these people. Nobody in Macedonia wants them. Nobody cares. It’s not even an issue worthy to be a campaign issue in the upcoming elections.

Today I’m going there to record statements by the people, following the guidelines given to deportation watch volunteers in Greece. Wish me luck to get in the camp. Yesterday I sort of sneaked in. The guard was surprised when he saw me leaving and annoyed that I had gotten in.

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