GREECE/TURKEY BORDER—Under late winter’s overcast skies in the Balkan borderlands where Greece and Turkey meet, a crisis has erupted as a result of the latest horrors in Syria’s war, Europe’s growing anti-immigration sentiments, and the cynicism of politicians on all sides.
Tear gas grenades explode, the water cannon truck blasts into the trees, and the cries of migrants and refugees stranded in no-man’s-land between Turkey and Greece ring out.
The Daily Beast was taken behind the lines of Greek soldiers and riot police guarding the border to see what is supposed to exemplify firm control on the frontier of Fortress Europe.
The invitation was extended by Argyris Papastathis, the deputy head of the press office for Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Accompanied by a soldier, he’d gone looking for journalists fanning out along the tracks that once carried the Orient Express, peering into woods across minefields where we could hear desperate screams and gunfire.
For over an hour, the sound of people trying to direct each other in multiple languages through farms, woodlands, and across riverbanks was punctuated by shots. First it sounded like single rifle blasts, then came bursts of three, and then longer, heavier automatic fire.
However, when Papastathis appeared on Wednesday afternoon to direct us to the new location, he denied absolutely that we had heard what we heard.
“Only tear gas is being fired,” he insisted to a group of a dozen journalists on the tracks.
Turkey accused Greece of killing a Syrian man and wounding five other people. The next day footage of Greek soldiers apparently firing in the direction of migrants on the border surfaced online. And more signs of the Greeks using live fire on migrants and asylum seekers could be found at a makeshift camp for people waiting to cross the Evros River near the Turkish city of Edirne.
Fires Abdullah, a 21-year-old Tunisian man was there plotting his next attempt to start his life again in Europe. He said he was at the riverbank on the edge of the Turkish town of Ipsala when a Syrian man was fatally shot in the neck by Greek soldiers that opened fire on them as they tried to cross. Abdullah had something he wanted to show me. His friends helped him lift up his shirt to reveal bandages on the front and back of his shoulder. He winced as they carefully peeled back the taped cotton to expose stitched-up entry and exit wounds.
Turkish authorities have encouraged and aided thousands to gather in and around Edirne in hopes of crossing to Europe, thus ending a 2016 deal with the European Union to help control the borders. The year before, in 2015, almost a million refugees from the Syrian war crossed into Europe, helping to inspire a largely racist backlash that has shaken the formerly complacent politics of the European Union to its core.
But at the same time, some 3.6 million Syrians have stayed on Turkish territory. Added to those are Afghans, Iraqis, North Africans and others hopeful they can find their way into European territory that is, if not a promised land, at least more promising than the lands from which they came.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hoped that he could establish a holding area for the Syrian refugees that would actually be in northern Syria along the Turkish frontier, and that Europe would support that effort. But he claims the EU has not delivered even such assistance as was promised in 2016, and over the last few months the Russian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been pushing to take control of the not-so-safe haven controlled by Turkey and its proxies. Fighting has been ferocious, and a new mass influx of refugees into Turkey appears imminent.
So Turkey is now pushing refugees to the border with Europe, and Europe is pushing back, with increasingly ugly results.
SEE NO EVIL
Around the Edirne bus station is a makeshift encampment of tents thrown up by people waiting to attempt their crossing. Busses take those who have given up back to Istanbul, but they bring others willing to risk it all.
While Turkey has opened its border with Greece in the hope that European panic over a renewed refugee crisis will bolster support for its campaign in Syria, Greece is just as eager to show it can lock the gates to the European Union. For over a week, the misery of people who have fled wars that both Turkey and EU have had a hand in has been built up in this no-mans-land where chaos is choreographed for geopolitical ends.
But for those who came to this border, the reasons they can finally leave Turkey or are being barred from Greece mean little, and their desperate journey goes beyond what’s on view to the press with officially granted access on the Greek and Turkish sides of the border.
People wander for hours in the cold through increasingly restricted areas and closed military zones, fanning out in groups along the Turkish side of the 75-mile stretch of frontier between the Greek Kipi crossing in the south and Kastanies in the north.
Greek army jeeps with mounted machine guns and police in vans patrol the roads that wind around these muddy Balkan hillsides, turning into farmer’s fields to give chase at the first sight of migrants. These are the scenes the Greek police would rather keep out of sight and journalists have been detained while trying to cover them.
From dusk to early morning people who managed to cross into Greece keep off the roads, jumping into the bushes to hide from passing cars. Others openly walk along the side of main thoroughfares, often dehydrated and with only the belongings that are on their backs. Either way, their fate is often sealed not long after crossings, when they are picked up by a patrol or spotted by a local resident who calls the police. After which they are taken to detention on a military base.
Outside the small Greek border village of Pythion on Wednesday evening, two teenage Afghan asylum seekers walked up a hill on the shoulder of the road. The communal president of the village, 51-year-old Antonis Palisohis, had just been telling The Daily Beast about his constituents’ feeling that Athens and Brussels were neglecting them, and their frustration with people passing through their community in search of help.
There have been problems with the border since the 1980s, he said, with numbers spiking in recent years and especially over the last week, which he says is why he’s called for local civilian groups to patrol alongside the army and police.
On Feb. 28, Palisohis said, 200 people were rounded up and held at the local church, then the police came and took them away in busses. He believes that as long as people continue to try to cross, local residents also need to help control the border. “Do we know where these migrants are going to stay? They may start a camp next to us,” he says, citing the overcrowded and increasingly restive camps on the Greek island of Lesbos where confrontations have been growing. (A refugee center there burned down on Saturday night, the cause of the fire thus far is unknown.)
As the two Afghan boys reached the intersection outside town, they passed a resident who then notified a nearby police car. Minutes later, they were blocked by an army jeep and police cruiser while a cop ordered them face down in the grass with their hands behind their heads.
The Mitsotakis government that took power in Greece in 2019 came to office after a nationalist law-and-order campaign that focus on anti-immigrant policies and tough border controls. In the process, Mitsotakis captured much of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party’s voter base. Since then his government has evicted refugee squats, promised to build a system of closed detention for holding and processing migrants, moved to speed up deportations, and even called for floating “walls” to be erected in the Aegean Sea.
But efforts by Mitsotakis’ New Democracy Party to build new detention centers in the Greek islands have sparked violent clashes and angry protests, whipped up by anti-immigrant local politicians who want to deport the thousands of people already seeking asylum there. Playing on local fatigue with a system that left asylum seekers to languish in the islands rather being redistributed across the EU, Golden Dawn and members of far right factions from around Europe have joined in to bolster these riots. Since Turkey opened its borders last week, mobs have targeted refugees, migrants, aid workers and journalists alike.
Here, along the land border, some local residents with far right sympathies are armed and say they are patrolling the frontier, while some journalists were beaten by a far right group after filming an attack on migrants.
Sitting in a bar called Café Hawaii near the Greek side of the frontier the Haharinis brothers Xrusafis, 35, and Tolis, 39, say they want the border closed and admit to taking action to ensure it is. They own farms nearby, say they have guns and are part of civilian patrols to catch people crossing.
“The farmers go help,” says Tolis, describing the local patrols as aiding the army and police. “They catch the people and call the police.”
Back on the Turkish side of the border, in Edirne’s makeshift camp for those in limbo, the threat of mob vengeance, detention, deportation or even being shot is not stopping those who remain.
Abdullah is sitting near a Syrian family of four from Idlib who describe a speedy, four-day trip across Turkey after escaping Russian bombardment during the recent escalation. The mother holds a child wrapped in blankets while the father paces around the fire trying to figure out a way across the Evros River. They have already tried and failed.