The Ghost Mountains
It was December 9, 2019, when I phoned Pavlos Pavlidis, the forensic doctor at Alexandroupolis University Hospital, to ask him about two refugees found in the Soufli area, dead from the cold. “Six were Antonis, not two. Two Somali women found themselves hugging together in the bushes in Feres near the river, two men elsewhere in the area of Soufli and two more again elsewhere in the area, ”he replied.
About a month later, I was in his office in order to start my research from there and follow the route these people choose, after crossing the Evros River, heading to Thessaloniki. A route that, at every step, is hiding a danger. “The two girls were sisters. They wore three leggings each and three T-shirts and jackets designed to protect them from the cold. But they were all wet after passing through the river. They were embraced in order to warm themselves. That is how they found them dead” tells me as he shows me the pictures on his computer”. Their brother who lives in England, came to the morgue and identify them” the doctor continued. One of the two girls, was younger and had made her hair in Rasta style. She had henna tattoos on her legs. One of the shirts that she was wearing was from Chelsea football team. Maybe a gift her brother sent her from England. Perhaps he was the one that pay the money to the traffickers who crossed them by the river. “Those who are slow, their traffickers are leaving them behind. They don’t wait for them. They don’t risk the whole team getting caught and losing money on the transfer” Sakis Kamilaris told me. One of the fishermen in the huts in the Evros Delta. He had saved two sisters from Africa a year ago, in a similar case, from a certain death due to hypothermia. They were lucky. He had found them just before the sun was setting, on the edge of the river, and the temperature in the delta in those days was well below zero. He took them in his boat and rescued them. “One of them could not walk. The rest of the team had left them behind. When I pulled out the frozen socks of her feet into the hut, her nails also came out of her feet. That was an indication that she had frost bites” he had described to me at one of our meetings.
The traffickers sometimes drive teams through the river, from points where the level is relatively low so that they can walk. “The water reached our throats. We had been soaked, but we had our backpack in plastic bags and we were keeping them high upon our heads, so that all our clothes would not get wet” Waqas from Afghanistan told me. He and his team had been prepared to walk up to Komotini from the mountain above Soufli. Their traffickers had organized them properly. They managed to reach Komotini in the evening, but they were arrested and sent back to Turkey the next day. He finally managed to reach Thessaloniki with the second attempt. Paying more money to the traffickers to transport him and some 80 other refugees into a container.
Many of the refugees crossing the river have agreed to wait for the trafficker’s car on the other side. But they do not know where they are going or what the other side means. That they might have to walk for hours bent under the dense vegetation in order to get to where the smugglers car is parked. Sometimes, this car never comes. Either because the trafficker has been arrested before, or because the plans change according to the police blockade, so refugees have to walk for hours, perhaps days, until they meet their car that goes to Thessaloniki or Komotini. Or Xanthi.
The gangs of the mountains
A few days before I left for Evros, at a refugee friend’s house, I met a girl from Iran. “They are from areas near Turkmenistan. They speak Persian and Turkish” one of my friends explained during the introduction with her. “This saved me on the mountain» Seidha told me. She had arrived in Thessaloniki just the day before, without being arrested and wanted to continue her journey further north without giving her fingerprints in Greece. “We were a bigger team but we were split in three. I was with two of my friends when we started walking on the mountain. In total we walked for a week. From the river to Komotini. We had our backpacks in plastic bags and one of the team kept mine out of the water. From where we went, the water reached my chest. When we passed we wore dry clothes and started walking. We were covering twenty kilometers per day. Then we were stopping on purpose to get rest. We were hiding from the police. At some point, high up in our mountain, we met three men wearing camouflage clothes. The two of them were speaking Greek and the third was speaking Turkish. They looked huge to me. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen bigger man in my life. It might have been my fear of seeing them that way. I’ve heard many stories of gangs in these mountains. We were asked how much money we had with us. I had 200 euros in one pocket and 400 euros in the other. I spoke to them in Turkish and gave them 200 euros. That saved us. Without searching us, they took the money we told them we had and let us go. “We are not searching you and we are not taking your mobile phones because you speak Turkish” I was told. As soon as we got on the bus to Komotini, we met the team that was in front of us. They had been stopped on the mountain also and they have been stolen from the same guys. They had taken from them both their mobile phones and their money. We had saved them. On the mountain, a cellphone is essential to follow the gps signal and to know where you are and where to go. Where are the places you can hide in the night. These three guys who stopped us, after stealing from us, they gave us also instructions on where to go to avoid the police block in front of us” the 26-year-old Iranian told me with a cheerful tone. She had every reason to be happy. She had managed to reach Thessaloniki with a single loss of 200 euros. “Do you know that Evros is a very dangerous passage and that many refugees are losing their lives there?” I asked her. “Not me. I’m strong” she replied. I wondered how many of those who lost their lives in Evros believed the same thing with Seidha.
She and her team got a ticket from the Komotini Bus Station and arrived in Thessaloniki easily and safely. “Many refugees are coming and asking to buy tickets for Thessaloniki. If they don’t have papers we don’t give them. If they do have, we can’t figure out if they are fake or not. We give them a ticket and later on some of the tolls below, the police can check their papers”. This is what the girl who had given me coffee at the Komotini Bus Station told me when I asked her about refugees and if she were seeing many passing from there.
Seidha probably had some papers (these are arranged by the traffickers beforehand, or have already got their tickets) and was able to get a ticket and was lucky on the road to Thessaloniki. After that night I never saw her again. Either she managed to reach her destination or she was stuck somewhere in the Balkan corridor. I have met several refugees whose journey is reminiscent of Sisifou’s martyrdom. They reach a point, they were pushed back to Greece again, until they reach Bosnia and stuck there for good.
The road to the mountain
Leaving the morgue, I drove up to Soufli. At the Mandra junction, I saw the first refugees. It was a group of four who had been arrested by the police check point on the Ardaniou-Orestiada highway. They were well hooded and were sitting by the canopy of the block, waiting for the police van to escort them to the police station and the following day at the Reception and Identification Center in Fylakio village. From Mandra, the road follows the villages of Agriani, Protoklissi, Kyriaki and little Derio. Outside Little Derio, on the Red River Bridge, there is a crossroad. Some follow the riverbed to the Great Derio and some follow the road. All along this route, to the right and left of the road, if you enter a side street, you will clearly see the traces of refugees who passed by. Cans, shoes, clothes, and disposable covers. At some point on the street, on the sidewalks to the right, you see beer cans, twigs, or black bags tied to tree trunks. All these are signs that point the way to those who walk in order to reach Komotini. Now and then, you could see small groups walking along the road. The inhabitants of the villages around are accustomed to this phenomenon. However, they express their fears of passing refugees who slip into the shadows of their villages at night, or take to the streets as they go or leave their homes. The road from Mandra is not the only one. Other refugees choose the road from Dadia, the road from Metaxades, or just over Soufli, from Sidirou. The choice of route has to do with the smuggler that each one chooses, since each smuggler got his own route to follow. The traffickers, train some refugees who use them as guides. They take the team to some point and then are returning to Turkey in order to get a new team and lead it through the passages they know to some extent either up the mountain or down to the Evros riverbed.
The mayor of Soufli, Panagiotis Kakalikos, knows these routes very well. He also served as Alexandroupolis’ Police director”. There is a great fear in the massif villages above Soufli,” he said and continued: “People are scared to go out at night on the local road network because of the presence of immigrants. Thefts have been made, and we have almost daily disasters in the water supply network, because immigrants break the pipes in order to find water. At the same time, they cause damages, because they want to charge their mobile phones, so they cut cables to find power and they cause problems. The flows are uncontrollable. The situation is out of control. And now, because of the winter, the situation is not so dramatic, but once the weather gets better, again, we will have the same phenomena”. He urged us to go to the Soufli police station to see the dozens of trafficked cars seized. Most have Bulgarian and Romanian plates. They range from trucks to van and luxury jeeps. “Some are traffickers’ cars caught with immigrants inside and some are cars found deserted by police in the mountains. The traffickers leave them there, in order to be used from those who cross the river and continue on their way to Komotini, Xanthi, or Thessaloniki. Many of these drivers are minors. Without a driving experience, they often create accidents that endanger the lives of both immigrants and the citizens of the road network” he said.
The fear of the inhabitants
We continued to the village of Roussa. Residents in the village cafe described their situation and their fears. Entering the village there was an old stone house. Some time ago it was burned by fires that had been set by refugees in order to warm up. In the Muslim cemetery of the village, there were still clothes and coverings left by those who passed by and found shelter for one night inside the small cemetery house. Between the little Derio and Roussa, there are some hunter huts that the municipality of Soufli had built to rent. Abandoned now, host some evenings to passing refugees. The remnants of their visits are visible. Food remains, chocolate papers, charcoal fires lit to warm up. “They always leave at least two windows open so they can escape if the police comes” Soufli Mayor told us. “We are Alevi’s. We have become accustomed to our women and children moving freely around the village without fear. And now they are free, but they are afraid. Especially in the evening when they go from house to house. Many times, those who pass by, stop and pick fruit, or whatever we have in our gardens because they are hungry. This is not a problem. The problem is that there is fear because we do not know who these people are. They can be good, but they can also be bad” they told me in the village cafe. Continuing up the Big Derio, the road was relatively easy. From then on, however, the mountain that followed until the descent to the villages of Komotini was particularly dangerous. Next to the Big Derio supermarket, there is a small café. The son of the owner, when we told him we were going up the mountain heading to Komotini, asked me if we had chains or snowshoes. “I don’t know if you will find much snow, but you will definitely find ice,” he told us. Until the Big Derio, we had not encountered snow or ice beyond the wind and the low temperatures. But the hardships started from there. “You can see people walking down the street. We’re constantly watching” he said as we were leaving. Just outside Big Derio, the signs of people passing by were evident. He saw clothes thrown around the edges of the road while in some places where the mountain was creating hollow corners, there were thrown covers, sleeping bags, cans and biscuit wrappers. In every hut we met on the road, whether it was forest or military, the doors were broken and there was evidence that enough people were staying there overnight. The road slowly froze and you could see clearly on the frozen asphalt, footprints of people. They were frozen footprints from the night before. We tried to find where these footprints were leading, but we failed. For kilometers they were in front of us and then disappeared. Either because they met a smuggler’s car or because they were hiding somewhere in the woods waiting for the light to fall to continue their course in the evening. They hid in this forest, which the refugees themselves call Jungle.
Mahmud comes from Afghanistan. “I walked for twenty days, from Evros to Thessaloniki,” he told us. We met him at Mama Rosa. The German nurse who, she with her team are providing medical help to refugees and immigrants living on the streets of Thessaloniki, without having even managed to register and get a place in one of the camps. “We were walking from seven in the afternoon until two in the morning,” Mahmud said, and continued: “Most of the time we tried not to be on the main road, but at some points it was impossible. We had no one to help us. We were following the road and the spots on the gps of our cellphone. We had biscuits, canned fish, bread and ketchup with us. In some villages, someone from the group was going to a minimarket to bought food. We were founding water on the mountain. The cold was terrible. We were scared to light a fire. We all have injured legs. They were bleeding but we had to move on. If someone was delaying, the others would leave him. You couldn’t stay behind. These mountains are dangerous. At some points we saw people sleeping on their own. We didn’t approach them. I don’t know if they were dead or alive. They were covered with dirty covers and did not move. We were afraid that it was a trap because there was a lot going on on the mountain so we didn’t get close. We were passing by them slowly on purpose not to make any noise and wake them up. “
Among the refugees, the mountains from Evros to Thessaloniki have taken on a mythical dimension. Among them, is called “the jungle” and they say that on these mountains are wolves and dangerous animals that can attack them. Till one point they are not unjust. Alexandroupolis forensic doctor Pavlos Pavlidis has told me that they often find dead people who have been bitten by wild animals after death. In 2016 I was at Evros by night. The howls of wild animals were clearly heard. “There are Jackals don’t be afraid. They are not approaching man. They are afraid of us” The fishermen who had accompanied us to the riverbed told me. But what about those who fall and lose consciousness from the cold on the side of the river?
| The game |
Refugees call “the game” every border crossing they attempt. The “game” of Evros, however, is not a game. Since 2000, 434 dead refugees have been found in the river Evros and the surrounding area. The forensic scientist in Alexandroupolis estimates that a total of 1,500 people have died, but their corpses are either trapped at the bottom of the river or have been found by the Turkish side and is not giving any numbers. From Evros to Europe in 2019, crossed 14,891 refugees (this is the number of registered refugees. The actual number of refugees that crossed cannot be estimated). In Greece, totaled 74,482 while in Europe 125,472. This shows that Greece is the largest gateway to Europe, with over 50% of refugees entering Europe from here. The rest of the countries are: 32,513 Spain, 11,471 Italy, 3,309 Malta, 2,033 Bulgaria, and 1,664 Cyprus. Their total: 50,990
Flows from Turkey to Greece continue normally. In some periods they increase in others they decrease controlled by the weather and moods of Turkey, which clearly controls the networks of traffickers, directly or indirectly. Despite the increases and decreases of the flows, the degree of danger of these roads remains high. A refugee, in every step of his route, has to face some danger, while Europe continues to treat refugee flows only with wishes and hypocrisy.
One French philosopher has said that hypocrisy is the ransom that evil must pay to virtue. As for the refugee issue, the ransom that have been payed can be counted only in tones.