Preševo: From a moment of calm

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I have to admit it’s quite hard to write about Preševo. The dynamics here are extremely complex, between the government and international organizations, between volunteers and both legitimate and illegitimate taxis, between the local population and the situation generally, and of course between each of these actors with each other and as a group. On top of that are the 24 hours a day spent on one street in one small town, and line after line of tired people looking for safety and rest. It’s hard sometimes to know when to put down the camera and help, and when to pick it up and record. With media companies passing through for a couple of hours once a week or so, the people documenting what’s happening in Presevo are independent photographers and writers like us, and many with whom I speak wrestle with the same internal struggle. As a result, I find myself spending a lot of time thinking of Robert Capa, embededness, and positioning, and wondering whether it was as hard for him to decide what picture to take with his limited rolls of film. Of course the conditions are different, but I imagine that he too spent a lot of time switching from fast-paced action to the laughing, sometimes yelling, and lots of yawning involved in doing and documenting at the same time.

The situation in Preševo is constantly changing. In fact, the only constant, especially when it comes to information, is change. It’s been mostly calm here since last Saturday, with trains arriving from Macedonia seeming to have settled into a regular pattern. Groups of 600-1’000 arrive from the border area at intervals of a few hours throughout the day and night, except when they don’t. Since last night, however, larger numbers seem to be coming, unless it’s the registration centre that’s working more slowly. But in any case, the line is out there again, and people are waiting, talking, stretching, organizing and sleeping whenever and wherever they can, and the organizations present have responded to many of the requests of the volunteers, who’d been alone with the police holding the line on that fateful Saturday night, and many other critical nights before that.



UNHCR has now implemented 24-hour shifts, which means there’s a referral point for vulnerable peoples and more patrolling of the line to identify those who need special attention. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Humedica are coordinating to cover more time throughout the day and specifically night; they have rented a storefront on the street and as MSF covers the day shift, Humedica has been covering the night shift from 22h – 6h. They have also made available an emergency line for volunteers to call at any time when there are no doctors present on the street.

We’ve been lucky with the weather here; it’s been cold but the rains have mostly calmed, so we’re not seeing too many cases of hypothermia (though we have seen quite a few). Most of the medical issues are things like infected wounds, chest infections (many of them), and broken bones. The lines have been generally shorter, as the registration centre has received additional computers from UNHCR and is being reorganized to take in more people.



But it’s hard to know how things will go in the coming days, as the Hungarians have closed yet another border (this time with Croatia) with a 3m high barbed wire fence, re-routing the corridor for safe-passage from Serbia to Croatia, now to Slovenia, and then to Austria.

Though Croatia has declared it will not close its borders unless Austria and Germany do so, and Slovenia has done the same, uncertainties were high in the last two nights about whether and how safe passage would be assured. Rumours and unconfirmed information circulated Friday night that the Croatians would close their border, and that busses might stop running if that happened. This would have meant that large amounts of people would be stuck in Preševo, and uncertain of the centre’s capacity, volunteers were ready to respond by setting up a small number of tents in a nearby field to shelter the most vulnerable people.



Croatia did not end up closing its border, nor did Slovenia, so the busses kept going. However, by Saturday morning we learned that roughly 33 busses were halted at the border, waiting to pass. They are still passing, but the process is slow, likely to control the flows of people and give Slovenia a chance to set up their logistics. Today, busses continue to be held for many hours at Šid, a Serbian border town with Croatia, and volunteers there are calling for help to respond to the needs of the bussloads of people waiting to cross. Meanwhile, Europe is in muggy talks with Turkey, essentially aimed at paying them off to keep asylum-seekers off of European soil.

Those working here keep the thought of a jam in the back of their minds, preparing for a potential backlog if anything goes wrong at the more northern borders. With Hungary closed, the only remaining corridor is through Slovenia, which means that if any of the countries north shut the border, the whole region will be blocked. Asylum-seekers continue to arrive from Greece to Macedonia, and when they get to the north continue to walk the 1km from the Macedonian border to the Serbian border, and then the 2km from there to the village where busses bring them to Preševo, often with damaged feet, injuries sustained on the journey or during the war, chest infections from being exposed to the elements, and general fatigue. One man we met last night had walked five hours down this road with a broken leg and a walker, having been denied vehicular assitance. Of the people coming are young single men (including unacompanied minors) often sent by their families because of a) cost, b) the likelihood they will make it, and c) the possibility they will be able to help the family once they arrive, small and large families with young children, and a small number of children with Downs’ Syndrome who I mention out of an immeasurable admiration for their resilience.



The call for help launched following the events of last Saturday has been met with an enormous response from a large body of individuals within the networks of volunteers. It has resulted in an influx of funding, as well as people who have come down to help out. This support has been essential, as the activities covered by volunteers are wide-ranged, from distributing food and water, to providing critical information about registration and borders, responding to immediate needs, referring vulnerable people to UNHCR or to medical services, caring for babies and young children in a resting house, managing stocks of clothing and blankets, and in times of crisis providing shelter to the most vulnerable few.

Normally, the arrangement of the centre will change in the next few days, and people will be brought by train straight from the border to the inside of the centre for processing. This will mean that the street we’re now so accustomed to will return to normal, after four months of queues. However, it is still unclear exactly how the new arrangements will work, when they will be fully implemented (it could take up to a couple weeks), and whether there will be an adjustment time before services are fully provided to those arriving.



Today the line is long, but people are calm and it is moving; there are doctors present, volunteers are preparing tea and food, they along with UNHCR are assisting the most vulnerable, and the weather is good. So long as the borders stay open, and the weather doesn’t change (though snow is expected by midweek), things should go smoothly. The concern will come if and when it does.