More than 400 refugees have been left in a no-man's land on the Macedonian-Serbian border for nearly a week. They cannot continue their trip north and refuse to go back. Vladimir Mircevski reports from Tabanovce.
In deep mud and with no running water, hundreds of refugees are stranded between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia. More than 400 people have been waiting for permission to continue their journey to northern Europe. They cannot move forward because Serbian authorities have closed the border, and they said they don't want to go back to the transit center on Macedonian side where living conditions are not ideal, though much better than in their makeshift camp.
"Most of us are from Syria, while small portion are coming from Iraq," said Amir, trying to avoid the camera. He has been here for six days and added that he's tired but won't give up. "I want a life without fear, war or pain."
His companion is equally resolute.
"We are not going back," said the man who requested anonymity.
The weather conditions are not on their side either. Freezing temperatures and the heavy rain over the last few days have worsened conditions in the camp.
You can hear babies crying all around the compound. The United Nations Refugee Agency on Thursday said more than half of those stranded are children and described the conditions at the camp as "alarming," with migrants sleeping in small tents in a muddy field between the two countries. Many children get sick from the cold, rain, and the inevitable mud. Their parents take them across the narrow gravel road to the refugee center on the Macedonian side of border for medical treatment. Afterwards they return to the mud.
The only fuel for their small campfires is plastic. Combined with the urine stench it makes the air almost excruciating. Men talk gathered in small groups glancing towards the black tent 40 meters ahead: a Serbian police outpost. That is the obstacle they want to overcome.
No more than 100 meters (100 yards) away is the transit center Tabanovce, on the Macedonian side. Designed for 700 people it already houses over 1,100 people.
Conditions in the transit center are better than outside in the mud, but the people are equally desperate. The closure of the Balkan route from Greece though Balkan nations and into western and northern Europe has left them in a hopeless situation.
There are big tents, housing tens of people inside. Here at least there is some order, and a lot of volunteers from the Red Cross and other organization are helping. Hot meals are served; some children are taking soup bowls to their relatives, others are playing football or volleyball.
Samira from Afghanistan washes clothes by hand, like other women here, trying to keep elementary level of hygiene.
Yama, also from Afghanistan, said he spent 10 years away from his homeland and earned a master's degree in political science. He said he returned to Afghanistan out of a sense of duty to help his country, but the devastation he saw there convinced him to pack his bags again. He and his family have been stuck in Tabanovce for 20 days.
"We are still hoping," he said. "People working in the center are doing their best. Cold weather is not helping, heating is a serious issue. Kids get sick all the time, mostly fever. We try to cope with the problems, but the main issue is to reopen the border. We just want to go to any EU country where it is safe to live in."
Austria and Balkan countries on the route from Greece to northern Europe began imposing border restrictions for migrants last month and halted crossings completely last week.
According to official information, almost 800,000 people have traveled through Macedonia on their way to northern Europe since the beginning of 2015. On March 9, Macedonia closed its border to illegal migrants after other countries along the Balkan route announced tight restrictions on who would be allowed to enter their countries.
Thousands of refugees and migrants are also stranded at the Macedonia's southern border with Greece, at Idomeni.
Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov caused a stir on Friday after he accused the EU and Germany of completely neglecting his country in the refugee crisis.
"In the refugee crisis, we are now paying for the EU's mistakes, we have already spent 25 million euros of our taxpayers' money and had to declare a national crisis," Ivanov told Germany's "Bild" newspaper.
Nowhere to go
Meanwhile the refugees stranded in Tabanovce after making the perilous journey through war-torn countries and across the Aegean are the victims of this political back and forth.
Fatima from Afghanistan spent two months trying to reach safety, and, holding her daughter, said she won't give up hope of reaching western Europe.
"I ran away from war that has so far has taken couple of my cousins," she told DW. "The Taliban killed them. I have had a lot of problems to come this far. I call upon European Union countries to help us."
"I want to go anywhere, believe me just anywhere, no specific country, just to be part of European Union," added her neighbor Kabir.