Walking the Refugee Balkan Route

A trek to raise awareness of Europe’s humanitarian crisis.

I wasn’t born to run. My joints are fragile. Once, I dislocated my knee standing up from a sofa. Strolling through the city with friends, I regularly have to ask them to slow down. None of this has ever really been an issue. I swim. I practice yoga. I amble around at a leisurely pace, enjoying the slowness, the moment, the peace.

But when Refugee Support, an aid charity working at camps in Greece, invited me to participate in a five-day trek along the Balkan refugee route through Macedonia, I signed up straight away.

20 kilometres a day didn’t sound so bad. One foot in front of the other. What really motivated me, though, was the cause — and the context. Yes, I would be slow. I’d likely also suffer some pain. But my experience would not come close to that of the tens of thousands of people who have walked that path before me, with their worldly possessions, young children, and all the emotional baggage that comes with war and displacement.

The trek was planned not only to raise money, but also awareness. The refugee narrative has all but disappeared from the headlines (unless you count the xenophobic tabloids), but it continues in the form of a humanitarian crisis, in Greece, across Europe, and in the Mediterranean Sea, where over 600 people have lost their lives already this year, in part because the land borders were cruelly closed.

Throughout the week, as our bones rattled along the tarmac, I was troubled by a seeming contradiction that I’m only now beginning to resolve. Namely, the extent to which travel can evoke empathy. How meaningful is “being there,” when “there” is so much more than a physical location? Equipped with comfy boots and all the right gear, a bus to carry our luggage, hotels to rest our weary bodies… what we experienced was a walking holiday. A group of 20 strangers who became fast friends, we marvelled at wildlife, drank in the views and dined on local cuisine.

The refugee narrative has all but disappeared from the headlines, but it continues in the form of a humanitarian crisis.

There’s a fine line between raising awareness and trivialising or fetishising this issue, and it’s all about how you frame it. (Remember the uproar caused by the Guardian’s expensive “educational” tour of Greece’s island camps and poverty stricken towns?) By “being there”, we were simply able to get a more tangible sense of the distance involved, the sheer scale of the endeavour, and it became an opportunity to start a conversation and bring the situation back into the spotlight.

Idomeni © Rachael Pettus

We passed by Idomeni, the site of Europe’s largest informal refugee camp, which was home to over 12,000 people. In 2016, Macedonia closed the border and Greek riot police violently evicted the site. To this day, it’s heavily regulated — we were not allowed to walk towards the border; our trip leader got picked up by the police during her recce.

“As a continent, it felt like we were being so neglectful of our fellow human beings,” said Paul Hutchings, Refugee Support cofounder, who also participated in the walk. He shared his story in a cafe in Idomeni, which has now returned to the sleepy village it was before. His stories highlighted the way this issue has been swept under the rug. Dispersing people makes the problem less visible, but it doesn’t diminish those people’s suffering in any way.

How meaningful is “being there,” when “there” is so much more than a physical location?

The following day was among the most beautiful of our adventure. We wound along dirt tracks (a welcome break from asphalt) through fields of poppies, the horizon dotted with wind turbines and, further in the distance, some serious mountains. The weather was unseasonably warm, and as temperatures soared into the low 30s, the sight of Lake Dojran in the distance kept us going for the final steps of the day.

Finally, armed with that most powerful of weapons — European passports — we entered the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The process was smooth, taking less than half an hour. All the while I reflected on this privilege, this double standard, and why freedom of movement is seen as a right for some yet denied to others. What stories do we tell ourselves to make this so?

Train tracks near the Greece-FYROM border

The next morning, as the town of Star Dojran came slowly to life after a raucous May Day that stretched late into the night, we set off for our first real walk through Macedonia. The cloudless sky provided an idyllic backdrop for our lakeside start, but soon began to punish us with relentless sun.

Why is freedom of movement seen as a right for some yet denied to others?

Every now and then the smell of rotten cabbage drifted across the landscape; we’d look up into the glaring light and and see field after field of the vegetable decomposing. According to Marjan, our local guide, the price of cabbages had dropped so low that it was not worth paying for labour to harvest them. On we walked, surrounded by life laid to waste, at the mercy of distant and indifferent human forces.

Before the borders were closed, most refugees travelled over land through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, sometimes along railway lines, which offered a clear path through tough terrain. The perils of such a strategy, however, are obvious, and stories abound of robberies by bandits and deaths by train, especially during the night, when most people chose to travel — to avoid the heat (both literal and figurative).

UNHCR warning about the railway tracks © Rachael Pettus

Our penultimate day was spent walking alongside a train track. Station houses were littered with graffiti in Arabic and English, as well as official warnings about the dangers of the railway. Towards the end, we passed through Demir Kapija, a name derived from the Turkish for Iron Gate (a hangover from the Ottoman Empire), and referring to a deep, narrow gorge that closes in from all sides before opening out into an eponymous town. Again, we learnt that back in 2016, the sleepy town was barely recognisable, covered in tents with thousands of people arriving every day.

More than once, I was overwhelmed by the futility of this knowledge. Where are those people now? Is their life any better? How many of them made it? And what are we doing to ensure safe passage to those who need it today?

Demir Kapija © Rachael Pettus

What are we doing to ensure safe passage to those who need it today?

With these questions echoing in my mind, we began our final day with a six kilometre pre-breakfast walk around Lake Mladost. To my surprise, I’d hardly felt any pain, and my feet remained blister free. But that morning my muscles began to protest, and soon my hips and heels joined the mutiny. I finally caved and took some painkillers, but in the end it was the conversation that kept me going every day. I’d fall in beside someone, learn something about them and their life, spend a bit of time reflecting alone, before repeating the process over and over.

Lake Mladost © Rachael Pettus

Time flew. We finished the trek, all 20 of us. Together we raised over £50,000, which is already being spent on essential food items for people stuck in camps in Greece.

And I’ve finally figured out the connection between travel and empathy: there is none. Sure, there’s something to be said for a change in perspective. Yet you can travel the world with eyes and heart closed, and learn nothing. Or you can step out of your front door and see infinite souls, each on their own journey away from suffering.

A longer version of this article will be published in the next edition of Trek & Run magazine.

Humanitarian, writer, yoga teacher, budding urban farmer. Managing editor @ medium.com/post-growth-institute

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