Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, and Austria—As nightfall descends just outside Gevgelija, Macedonia, more than a thousand people begin lining up in rows for the evening train headed north for the border with Serbia. Just two months ago, this town and the area around it, on the main border with Greece, was a scene of chaos, as riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at refugees fleeing persecution and conflict in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia to prevent them from entering Macedonia, one leg of their long, perilous journey to the promised land of the European Union.
A lot has happened since those scenes of bedlam. This small Balkan country—which has a history of hostility toward its own Muslim-Albanian minority and toward refugees from the Kosovo war of the late 1990s—has become one of the least obstructive places for refugees to pass through. Instead of enforcing a wall of resistance, police now direct people to a newly created camp outside Gevgelija administered by the government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Tall white tents, much like those in the huge refugee camps in countries bordering Syria, operate as a registration and temporary rest center. Often within hours of receiving food and water and registering (though many don’t), people board overcrowded trains and buses and head for the next border.
A long, rickety series of 1980s-era Yugoslav cars, recently spray-painted with graffiti, pulls into the makeshift stop and people clamor toward the walkway. Members of Macedonia’s paramilitary special-forces unit attempt to control those desperate to secure a seat, barking orders in broken English at old and young alike to sit on the ground and wait.
“Honestly, many of us wish we could go with them to Germany,” says one cop in khakis, equipped with gun and baton. Declining to give his name, he complains about being unable to support himself on his yearly $5,000 salary. At 27, he, like many in his unit, says he has no prospects in Macedonia. He sounds almost envious of the refugees he’s guarding, showing little sympathy for them or understanding of the devastation they are fleeing.
Groups of 30 hurriedly shuffle up the gravel bank under floodlights, as rail conductors bellow out the demand for ten euros per person. The refugees scramble to find seating after the daylong journey from Athens on bus, rail, and foot, with many ending up crammed into carriage corridors. The train is stiflingly hot as it jolts out of the camp. Mothers hold their kids up to open windows in a bid to keep them cool.
At the end of one corridor, four men from Baghdad attempt to stretch out on the floor and smoke next to the car’s open door. Both Sunni and Shia, most were students before they fled Iraq’s growing sectarian violence. Ahmed (they all decline to give their full names out of fear for their family’s security) is the oldest in the group. A balding man in his late 40s with a trim white mustache, he was a high-school teacher in Iraq. The rest of the guys treat him like a father figure, passing him cigarettes and cups of soda.