The Road Not Taken

Dimitris Michalakis

2015 - Ongoing


Refugees have been arriving in Greece since the beginning of 2000 mainly due to warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. But what happened this year is unprecedented .

According to the UN about 800.000 refugees have made the crossing from Turkey to Greece.Another 3700 never made it; they have tragically died in the attempt.

The psychological tension due to the mounting influx became an unparalleled experience one which stigmatized my memory.

In May I found myself in Idomeni , the last Greek village before the borders with FYROM. There, I was to meet a group of refugees. They would attempt to cross over to FYROM overnight and head to Northern Europe from there. They hold pieces of wood for protection. Three days earlier traffickers had stabbed some other refugees who refused to pay them. They explain that they can see the passages from the GPS and they have no need for traffickers.

In September I arrived on Lesvos. There is chaos at the port as thousands of people are piled up one upon another, waiting to be registered. It is often that someone passes out from the heat and congestion. In Skala Sykamias, a small village in the north of the island, there were days when 80 boats carrying 50-60 people each would come. The first days of October the weather report speaks of extreme weather nevertheless,the boats keep coming.

At the beginning of 2016 I am in Idomeni once again .A fence has been erected along the border line thus preventing the crossing from Greece to FYROM .Refugees by the thousands are entrapped there and live under wretched conditions .One morning a large group moves parallel to the border line. They will attempt to circumvent the barrier .An elderly man approaches me and thanks me for the hospitality in Greece. That very afternoon the army of FYROM will capture and return them to Idomeni.I will run into him again at the settlement in Idomeni within the next few days.

In April of 2016,they started gradually moving to Athens and other Greek cities, trying to find alternative choices of escape to Europe.

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  • 12/05/2015,22:03. The night has fallen, five people move ahead as scouts and the rest follow. They head for the borders. Some tell me farewell and all of them walk in tandem as they are enveloped in the darkness. I had met this small group of Syrian refugees a few hours earlier along the provincial road from Polykastro to Idomeni.

  • 03/09/2015,18:38. At the port of Mytilini the refugees are piled up one upon another, waiting to be registered. The temperature rises as high as 35 degrees Celsius in the afternoon hours, there is a diffused odour of urine while shouts, crying and screams can be heard. The coast guard and police supervise the proceedings; they often give priority to the Syrians hence creating a social automaticity that causes tensions between the different nationalities which coexist at the place.

  • 11/09/2015,19:38. Over 40 boats have arrived in Skala Sykamias today. A young man soaked to the bone, walks up to me and asks for a cigarette. I will never forget the words he spoke: “I want to go to Germany, what am I supposed to do here? It’s like Syria without the bombs.”

  • 28/09/2015,19:08. At the provisional dumping ground in Molyvos where refugee life jackets end up. They are their sole protection during this dangerous passage.

  • 02/10/2015,08:33. The beach in Skala Sykamias is full of volunteers and journalists today. The overloaded boats ineptly reach the shore. The engines are of poor quality and most people have no previous experience at sea. Accidents often happen. Those who come ashore are exhausted and terrified.

  • 07/10/2015,16:26. Today afternoon in the cemetery of Mytilini I come across an open grave. A young Iraqi who had drowned in August, has been found by his own folks and will be taken back home, he left alive and will return dead. A girl from Syria who drowned a few days earlier near the shores of Lesvos is to be buried in his place.

  • 24/10/2015,16:08.The weather report by the Hellenic National Meteorological Service speaks of extreme weather conditions on the island. Although the waves in the open sea are large, the boats keep coming.

  • 26/10/2015,14:03. In the afternoon yet another overloaded boat reaches Skala Sykamias. I realize that nothing can stop them. They are desperate and up for anything.

  • 26/10/2015,18:34. The traffickers send boats during the night as well thus making things for people on board even harder and riskier. Arrivals on the Greek islands have exceeded 100.000 individuals this month.

  • 10/03/2016,14:25. Idomeni is gradually turned into the largest refugee camp in Europe. Every day, thousands of people are crowding the queues of the soup kitchens. “The food is so little, hardly enough, we are hungry”, are the only words that resonate with me after having talked to a young Syrian woman in the afternoon.

  • 10/03/2016,21:09. Two youngsters from Syria on their mobiles’ GPS, seeking to find alternative routes to get into Europe, given that the closure of the Greek - FYROM borders has now been officially announced.

  • 12/03/2016,19:17. Saiwa, Rajaa, Siba and Hima, travelled from Syria and are found in Idomeni. They have been stranded for the past 10 days in improvised lodgings, set in an old warehouse next to the train station. They keep asking me anxiously if they will ever manage to leave from Greece and I don’t know what to reply.

  • 14/03/2016,14:42. This morning a large group of refugees is moving along the borderline. I follow them, leaving Idomeni behind. They will attempt to circumvent the barrier that is the fence the FYROM authorities have erected. After several kilometres they reach Malareka, a small but raging river where three refugees had drowned the night before. They attempt to cross this last natural barrier, holding hands, in order to get on with their journey.

  • 16/03/2016,12:21. The Balkan route is irrevocably shut to refugees. More than 10,000 people remain in Idomeni under appalling conditions facing the cold and mud on the one hand, desperation and deadlock on the other.

  • 28/04/2016,16:43.Jessy, a18 year-old girl from Aleppo, explains to me freely why she abandoned her country .She shows me a photo in her mobile, where we can see a dead young man killed by a bomb explosion. He was killed in a district near to Jessy ’ s house .She had been trying to leave Syria since 2013, but only some months ago did she escape from Aleppo with their mother and sister. Their bad economic situation prevented them from leaving Syria earlier. Finally they did so at 15/11/2015.The arrived in Lebanon. Then they traveled by plane to Turkey, where they met their father .He had been working there for a year. They went to the coast of Izmir and then they traveled by boat during the night to Chios. They paid to the traffickers 700 Euro a person. They continued their trip to Piraeus. Then they arrived at Idomeni. The border had been closed, so they decided to return to Piraeus. Since one month, they have been leaving in an apartment offered by the Armenian Church in Athens.