Toon Lambrechts is freelance journalist tegen beter weten in. Behalve in MO* Magazine en op MO.be is hij ook te lezen in onder andere Knack, EOS en Vice.
‘Human traffickers never keep their word’
It took the Surian refugee Omar not less than even months and almost 7000 euros to travel from Turkey to Austria. In a coffee shop in the Austrian city of Linz, MO* listened to his shocking testimony.
Like so many before him, Omar crossed the Greek-Turkish border in the north over the river Evros. ‘That was frightening. The water seems calm, but once we got into the dinghy, we were carried away by the strong current.’
It ended well, and Omar and the rest of their group walked on to the first village on Greek territory, Orestias.
‘We changed clothes in an abandoned house and walked to the centre of the village. There, another smuggler was waiting for us with a car. He took us to Alexandroupolis, where he told us to wait at the train station. But police noticed us and arrested my friends. I could escape but was nevertheless arrested some moments later while I was sitting in a cafe. The smuggler had given us fake Bulgarian passports, but these turned out to be utterly useless. However, I paid 2000 euro for the whole trip from Turkey to Greece.’
Tricks with visa
‘The smuggler had given us fake Bulgarian passports, but these turned out to be utterly useless.’
‘Fifteen days we spent in prison. The conditions were quite okay. Even the most rotten Greek policeman is still better than the best one in Syria. Then, we were taken to a camp where we stayed for another two weeks.’
‘There we got a paper with the order to leave the country within six months, and we were free to go where ever we wanted.’
Omar went to Athens where he had a contact. For two months he stayed at the home of a smuggler. The guy proposed him to take the plane with a counterfeit Schengen visas-. But the trick with the visa, supposedly valid for France and delivered in Saudi Arabia, didn’t work out.
‘The inspector at the airport looked at me, thorn the visa out of my passport and told me to go back home. It could have worked, but the visa was not made properly. I resent to wait another two months, so I decided to go overland to Europe.’
The hiking option
The people with whom Omar had crossed the border with Turkey were already in Germany. They had begun immediately the journey through the Balkans. Through them Omar got the number one of a smuggler in Thessaloniki.
‘In Thessaloniki, there are a few coffee houses opposite to a cheap hotel. You know where I mean. There you can meet smugglers. The guy was a cousin of one of the people in Germany. He asked 1 000 euro in order to to help me pass the border. We would walk on foot to Lojane (place in the north of Macedonia on the border with Serbia). In seven days we should be there.’
‘It was late September, the weather started to get colder, but I took the chance. He drove us by car to Idomeni and we started walking. But after eight hours of hiking, the Macedonian police arrested us up. They handed us over to the army which sent us back to the border with Greece. I went back to the smuggler, who came up with the proposal to go by car. I would have to walk across the border, there someone would pick me up.’
Breathing through a hole
‘The problem was, he asked 2000 euro, to be paid in advance. I did not trust this manner of working, it is not the usual procedure. Normally you dispose your money at one of the small money transfer offices. There are several in Athens and Thessaloniki. You receive a code that you give the smuggler if you’ve made the trip successful. With that code, he can go to get his money.’
‘The smugglers pushed everyone into the truck, then we left. The ride took about an hour and a half, but was one of the worst moments of my life.’
Omar made a second attempt, but with another smuggler. In vain. He walked for hours to the parking of the casino at the Macedonian side of the border, waiting for a car that didn’t came, and then spend hours walking back to Greece.
‘After this failed attempt, I spent the night in the rain and the cold. I was at the end of my wits.’ A third attempt with the help of the first smuggler failed again. ‘The fourth time the smuggler came up with the story that he was working with a new driver and another meeting point. I didn’t believed too much of it, but what could I do? That evening we were about 30 people in the group. It was very cold. We walked for three hours, the men who accompanied us were Albanians.’
‘Once at the meeting point a van showed up after a quarter of an hour. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The smugglers pushed everyone into the truck, then we left. The ride took about an hour and a half, but was one of the worst moments of my life. We were crammed inside, there was no air to breath. Some people were about to faint, others began to shout at each other. I was pushed into a corner, but managed to breathe through a hole in the van.’
The car stopped, but not in Lojane at the Serbian border as agreed. Instead Omar and the rest were dropped somewhere near Kumanovo, a town north of the Macedonian capital Skopje.
‘There was no choice but to continue on foot. After three hours we arrived in Vaksintse, a village for Lojane. There, the smuggling business is controlled by an Afghan, Abu Nasr. We went to his house, he said he would take us in the morning for 350 euro. He promised us it would take only six hours of walking, and that we would not be sleeping outside.’
The villages Vaksintse and Lojane in northern Macedonia are real smugglers nests. Police are not to be seen, the smuggling is done quite openly. The Serbian border is nearby, the traffic passes through the mountains. It’s a tricky point in the Balkan route, because physically very heavy.
‘I grabbed some water and food, and pulled plastic bags over my stockings. It was mid-November, so very cold. We had been told that the trip would take six hours, it turned out to be a fourteen-hours hike. Over the mountains in the snow. There was not even a road. We ended up sleeping somewhere in a forest.’
A bad shepherd
‘On the way I got into a conversation with six Palestinians. While we were waiting suddenly a shepherd turned up. He asked us who we were and if we wanted to Belgrade. He could help us, he said. If we gave him 100 euro each he would take us by car to Belgrade. It seemed like a good idea, especially since our group which started from Lojane counted 50 men and I was scared to death to be crammed in a car again.’
‘For 1000 euro, he would put us on the bus, but once at the bus station, he disappeared with our money.’
‘The shepherd took us to his house. But that evening his friends came along and told us the deal has changed. Instead of taking the car, they would put us on the train. I didn’t trust it at all, but my friends would not listen to my objections. What could I do? I borrowed money from them, so I had to take my chance. The friends of the shepherd took us to a house, and in the distance there was something that looked like a train station. They took our money, 200 for the tickets and 200 to bribe the agents. They left and stayed away, as I feared.’
‘The only thing we could do was to go back our group. But we only found the smouldering remains of a fire. Apparently, the rest left two hours ago, heading to Belgrade. I could have kicked myself.’
‘Suddenly, one of the smugglers who had walked with us Lojane appeared. He was angry and asked what we had done. We made up a lie, of course. He wanted to help us. For 1000 euro, he would put us on the bus, but once at the bus station, he disappeared with our money. One of my friends tried to bribe the bus driver. He also took our money, but only a few moments later the Serbian police came on the bus. We were arrested and send back across the border to Macedonia.’
Cheated on. Again.
Omar and the rest returned to the house of Abu Nasr and made up a story that they had lost the rest of the group at some point. Abu Nasr simply told them that there was a group leaving the next evening. That time the journey took only six hours, the pace was higher. But once in Serbia was the promised transport didn’t turn up.
‘With the paper of the police you can rent a hotel room legally. A paradise. A hot shower, good food …’
After four days of waiting, there was still car in sight. A friend of Omar suggested to contact the guy who brought them last time to the bus station. ‘I asked my friend if he had gone mad. How could we trust that guy again? But there was not much choice. We called him, he gave a plausible explanation why the last time failed and said he would take us for 500 euro to Nis. It all sounds incredibly stupid if I tell it to you now, but at that point I was willing to believe anything and I cling to every dash of hope.’
‘In the evening we left for Nis, and by the road signs I could see we went in the right direction. I told my friend that whatever would happen, going back to Lojane was not an option. But before Nis the guy threw out of the car. There we were standing again, without knowing where and with no money in our pocket.’
‘In the end, we manage to find to the train station. My friend had a visa card in his pocket, fortunately the thing still worked. We left our backpacks behind to look as normal as possible. I bought two tickets to Belgrade, but while we were waiting for the train an police man came to us. He asked our papers. With a straight face, I told him that we had been at the police office in Nis to seek asylum, but that they had ordered us to go to Belgrade. The man nodded and left.’
‘Once on the train, we still couldn’t believe that we have succeeded after all these months. In Belgrade, we went to the police and got a document with the order to leave the Serbian territory within three days. With this paper you can rent a hotel room legally. A paradise. A hot shower, good food …’
Enough is enough
With the help of his friends in Germany Omar found a smuggler to take him to Austria. After seven days of waiting, fresh money came in from his parents in Syria to pay the guy.
‘The scenario to pass is usually the same. The smuggler takes you up to the border, you cross by foot and some one picks you up on the other side.’
‘The scenario to pass is usually the same. The smuggler takes you up to the border, you cross by foot and some one picks you up on the other side. On the way to the border, Serbian police stopped us, but we gave them 100 euro each, and they looked away. That evening we passed with a group of 15 across the border. Not in Subotica, where most people makes the journey to Hungary, but some more remote place.’
The smuggler took Omar to Austria, but not to Vienna. ‘That was the deal, but never smugglers keep their word. Up to that point it was still my intention to go to Sweden, but it was enough. I went to the police and signed up as a refugee. After a while being housed in Salzburg, I got transferred to Linz, three-months ago. My fingerprints are not registered anywhere, so the chance that I can stay is high.’
Avoid the winter
‘On the way back I called my parents. My mother cried, my father talked with to give me courage. All the way, for three hours, we talked. They pulled me through it.’
The entire trip from Turkey to Austria Omar took seven months and almost 7000 euro. How does he look back to the journey? ‘There were plenty of times when I really thought I wasn’t going to make it. Especially in Greece. The border with Macedonia was a difficult point, it seemed like I was stuck. The smugglers put much pressure on you. Their prices go up quickly, so you need to hurry. When I left I thought that the border between Turkey and Greece would be the hardest point, but in hindsight it was the easiest crossing.’
‘Before, countries such as Serbia and Macedonia only vaguely rang a bell. I wanted to avoid the route through the Balkans, but it could not be done otherwise. It was an important experience and I learned a lot from it.’
Also in this dossier:
‘Europe, still one country ahead’
Greece: The starting line
MO*reporter undercover in human trafficking in Macedonia
Bulgaria: Exquisite back door to the Balkan
‘I saw on TV how everyone was leaving Kosovo, so I went myself’
‘Do you know the way to Hungary?’
‘Welcome to Hungary (But not wholeheartedly)’
Why some refugees do return to the hell of their homeland
‘At some point, after a failed attempt in Macedonia, I broke down. It was cold and dark, I could not go on anymore. On the way back I called my parents. My mother cried, my father talked with to give me courage. All the way, for three hours, we talked. They pulled me through it.’
‘I often get questions from people in Syria who want to leave too. I give them the advice to be prepared for anything, and certainly not to travel in the winter. But everyone’s experiences are different, and you can be sure that always something will happen you do not expect.’
‘Many Syrians don’t do this, exchange tips. They prefer not to talk about their experiences. That makes me angry. I’d rather not go into detail about what I have experienced, such as we are doing now. I can feel the cold and the rain again. But if you know the life in Syria, and the harshness of the journey, have a bit of humanity in you and help someone who is in the same situation. Right?’
This report was produced with the support of Fonds Pascal Decroos.