We were able to watch BBC world news yesterday evening. One of the features was about the continued flow of Syrian and Afghani refugees through northern Greece and the Balkans. Many more than we supposed, according to this broadcast. We’ve seen none….or have we? It seems people who need to be, can be quite invisible. We listened more to the news and realized we have probably witnessed a disturbing aspect of this refugee crises. The news report told how human smuggling is a booming industry (business) in northern Greece. It discussed various methods used to spirit the refugees from Greece into Macedonia and on to Serbia.
A whole bunch of light bulbs flashed on!
Some refugees stow away (are stowed away by smugglers) under trains. Same train we rode on. Mind you we were going the other way but we noticed a considerable police presence at the small train station in Florina – walking distance from the Macedonian border. That may explain that. Imagine the hideous journey clinging under a train. And then what? Is this perhaps why the people in that horrid little border town Nea Kaukasos were so unfriendly to Pat and I? True we were going in the opposite direction – but was that clear to the inhabitants of that place? How many refugees have come creeping, exhausted yet hopeful. Frightened and desperate into that miserable inhospitable town?
More interesting though is that an illegal betting activity we thought we’d interrupted in Arnissa was most likely not that at all. Betting is open, legal and widely accepted here. There are betting places all other the place. Why would a bunch of guys laying bets get pretty freaked out by a couple of old ladies looking for yoghurt? We are very sure that poorly supplied, dingy dirty little grocery store in Arnissa is a front, if you will, for human smuggling. We walked into the middle of arrangements being made.
As we entered that store, we noticed a large number of skinny, rough, brown skinned men skulking around. They had a hard, wary look about them and we thought “fruit pickers.” We realize, looking back, that there were no fruit pickers around there. We had even commented on the fruit rotting on the ground beneath the trees. While we were in the store there was a sudden very tense silence and we were clearly interrupting something “seriously shady” and they wanted us out of there. We left without any yoghurt. We put the weird atmosphere down to gambling but realize now that that wasn’t a hospitable gaming atmosphere. We are quite certain those rough haggard men were buying their passage over the nearby border. That town is perfectly located for such an endeavour.
One day when we were walking in a fairly remote area in Macedonia – up in the mountains, several 4×4 Land Rover type vehicles roared by us. They were going at speed, it was very dusty but we saw the interiors were quite packed with people. We never really gave this another thought until now. Some kind of odd Macedonia picnic club? Hunters? Who were those people? Now we wonder – Where were they going, all jammed into those vehicles bouncing furiously on barely discernible tracks over the mountains?
We now realize more fully that the trails we’ve walked, over mountains and skirting villages, are likely some of the same trails followed by the refugees who have chosen this Macedonian route to safety. Does this account in part for the long stretches of “recent” plastic garbage found in unlikely places? Where ever they were, when or if we passed them by – they hid well. We may have witnessed products of their passage, but as humans – they were silent and invisible.
We wish them well on their journey.