It has been compared to Dachau by the minister in charge of it, described as the pride of the Greek nation, been visited by top US diplomat Victoria Nuland, and it could soon be the scene of a pitched battle.
“We are worried that it could come to violence or an attack on the Macedonian fence”, a police officer from Kilkis told the Deutschen Presse-Agentur today.
And now the Greek border crossing of Idomeni is the subject of a short story too. A story written in the spirit of the Bibliotherapy Foundation, which aims to ‘relieve, restore and reinvigorate the human mind’ by immersion in great literature.
The Lancet discusses the therapeutic effects of literature.
‘But humankind’s awareness of the therapeutic valueof words dates back at least to the second millennium BC. According to the Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, the entrance to the sacred library of Pharaoh Rameses II bore the inscription “Healing-place of the soul”.
The Battle of Idomeni
(Edited : bibliotherapy for the writer need not mean pain for the reader)
Regina Newman, surrounded by security agents, police and journalists, toured the battlefront.
Leaving her assistant to carry her umbrella, she climbed down from the safety of the SUV with black tinted windows and US diplomatic license plates. In ankle boots, she splashed through the mud to the camp that had sprung up on the new defensive line. Aware of the camera teams breathing at her heels, she put on a grim smile. Her eyes scanned the mass of tents pitched on the gravel railway bank, flitted over to flimsy shelters floating in a sea of brown.
There was a commotion throughout the camp as the entourage advanced to the main border crossing point. Hundreds of figures, wearing identical green raincoats, issued to the troops when the torrential rain had begun, lifted up their hoods. From all directions, exhausted figures appeared. They staggered over gleaming railway tracks. They waded through pools of water. They came in search of a scrap of food, a bit of fire wood, a change of dry clothes or just some information about how long they would have to stay at Idomeni.
Wielding batons, the police held the throng away from the visitor. She walked briskly along. Ignoring everything to her left and right, she zeroed in on her objective.
Buffered by her cordon of security, Newman paused on the railway bank lined with a tangle of electricity poles. She put her hands in her pockets and assumed the stance of an observer. From this position, she had a good view of the fence that had appeared virtually overnight obstructing the railway tracks, and stopping her migrant army. She frowned at the sight of enemy soldiers with guns on the other side, guarding the main gateway to northern Europe. Gazing past the formidable fortifications to survey the terrain in the distance, she saw what, at first sight, looked like mist and shadows. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a chain of mountains capped with snow. Appearances can deceive, she thought to herself. A smile crinkled her tight face as she thought about the gap between who she was in reality and what she seemed to be before she turned back to her task.
The terrain north through the Balkans would be difficult for her troops, she mused. Especially at this time of year. But then her troops were highly motivated if only in a negative sense. There was nothing for them in the camp except hunger and disease.
Her goal now was to identify a way for her troops to rapidly cross the obstacles and continue their march north. By their sheer weight of numbers, these soldiers of a new hybrid army would destroy the social and economic system of Europe and sow political division. And the advance guard was already deep in enemy territory. In NATO and US military bases, terrorist sleeper cells from Brussels to Berlin were being armed and organized to destabilize the heartlands of the enemy.
As Newman surveyed the fence, she became aware of the odour of smoke. She turned and saw an elderly man in a red jacket squatting by a fire on the other side of the railway bank. His trousers were pulled up to reveal horribly swollen, blue feet. They were half stuck in filthy sneakers.
In the tent behind him, a figure was lying under wet blankets, convulsed with coughing.
Newman stood, for a moment, mesmerised by the sight of the old man and of the battle between the elements, of fire and water, the fire vanishing in the rain; and the old man turning more and more towards the flames, the water reflecting its fading glow; and more and more away from the cold in his own small battle between life and death.
Drops of rain began to fall. They were so heavy that Newman felt the weight of every single one of them on her face. The same sting, the same wetness, the same tears, bound her for a moment to the figures around her, to the elderly man crouched beside a fire and the sick figure in the tent behind him.
For a split second, others’ suffering encroached on the edges of her tunnel vision. Thoughts about other people rarely crossed her tidy mind. Instead, she was constantly preoccupied with calculations, estimations, classifications of how she could achieve whatever goal she had set herself or been set by her superiors. Results, quantifiable in terms of money or territority or power, were all that interested her. Results were also all she was asked to report on to her higher ups.
An assistant pushed out an elbow. An umbrella flew open above her head. Sheltered from the icy lashings of rain, Newman lifted her eyes from the blurred figure at the fire and looked back to the fence. She could no more explain the process by which her feelings of sympathy for the people who composed her migrant army turned to contempt for their weakness and to the wish to use them for her gain, than she could explain the process by which the clouds and mist turned to rain, and the rain turned back to mist and clouds again.
She was a mystery to herself. The only clear thing in her mind was a global vision of total power under the control of a banking elite. It was a multi phase plan for the total conquest of the world. And now she had her bit to do.
Walking up the railway tracks past figures sleeping in the rain under blankets, Newman saw armoured vehicles parked beside the railway buildings on the other side of the fence. She realized the defensive line would be hard to breach at this point even with the thousands of troops that had been massed in the camp. A full out attempt to storm the fence might not succeed. She would have to find another route around the fortifications at Idomeni.
Darkness was falling as she walked over to the enemy guards to talk to them and assess their morale. For, although she was a general commanding an army, she could not be identified as such by any insignia.
The old man rubbed his feet, numb and swollen from walking, then rose to check the tent and that all was ready for the night. Under the dark skies, inside the flmsey tent, lying on a muddy sheet, half covered with wet blankets, he saw his daughter. Fatimah was coughing loudly. Until two months ago, she had been a beautiful and strong woman, but now she was pale and thin.
Beside her, her two year old child sat and played with a filthy doll. The old man smiled and said a few encouraging words to the child. The child smiled back. Fatimah coughed again.
Tariq turned to look at his daughter with anxiety
‘Are you alright, Fatimah?’ he asked.
‘Yes, yes,’ came a weak voice. ‘Is Asra back?’
His son in law had gone to the nearest petrol station to get some food and fire wood in the morning and he had still not returned. It was a four hour march to the petrol station, and four hours back.
Tariq looked at his daughter, worried, then sighed. There was nothing he could do. He just had to hope Asra would come back with some food and wood. He hobbled back outside the tent to where the fire glimmered beside the railway bank, sat down, pulled his jacket around him against the icy air, and threw another piece of wood onto the flames.
All was silent in the camp. The TV crews, the visitors, the police had left. Everyone had gone into their tents to sleep or to prepare whatever scraps they could find for a meal. The only sound was the wind, the wind blowing down from the mountains, wailing around the tents. Even the rain had stopped.
Tariq half closed his eyes as he stared at the fire. He imagined he was back in his home country, in the city where the sun shone without a break, where there was always a bustle in the market, where the Mosque was always filled with chants and songs full of deep mysteries, and where he was used to going to sleep at peace, not like this place.
He regretted that he had not remained there in the relatively safe and peaceful city but had gone with his son in law and daughter to this foreign land, where it was a struggle just to keep warm and dry.
“What have I done?” He thought to himself. “I am going to die here, turn to dust here in this grim, grim place, far from God, my home, my land where all my relatives are, where I was able to eke out a living. I didn’t appreciate what I had. Now I’ve lost it all, and its too late. I ll never be able to get back on my own. My feet are all swollen. I have no more money.’
He thought about all the money he had spent on the long and dangerous journey to get here, on smugglers to bring them across the Aegean sea. And all that effort, just to arrive and find the border at Macedonia closed. He had watched the tent city grow with every passing day and his daughter get sicker.
He was roused from his gloomy thoughts by a voice.
‘Well, how is Fatimah?’ asked Asra emerging from the darkness.
‘Not good at all. Did you get some food?”
‘Potatoes and cooking oil. I have good news. There is a way out. Tomorrow a group are leaving for Germany.’
‘What do you mean? The border is closed. Look!’
‘I got this leaflet.’
Asra took out a soggy piece of paper from his jacket.
‘The activists were handing this out everywhere. Fanny, you know the Austrian who helps out at the kitchen, gave it to me.’
Tariq looked at the paper by the dim light and saw Arabic writing.
‘What does it say. My eyes are bad.’
‘It calls on people to assemble tomorrow at 2 pm in the camp and cross the border about five miles from here. Look at the map.’
Tariq screwed up his eyes and studied the document.
‘It shows a river. How do you plan to cross that?’
‘The river is dry, it says. Look,” Asra replied impatiently.
‘Even if you get across the border, what about the rest of the journey. How are you going to get through Macedonia? And how are you going to get into Austria? The borders are shut.’
‘Austria and Germany are still open. It was an Austrian who gave me the leaflet. She works in the camp for Doctors without Borders. She must know.’
‘I don’t know. I can’t go any further. It’s as simple as that. Look at my feet. The journey to Austria, the mountains in this weather is too far and we have no money left. Fatimah is sick and the child is weak.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Asra angrily. ‘Do you think we should give up now after all that effort? We have come so far we can’t just stop here. We ll get to Germany, have a future, trust me!’
The old man shook his head.
‘I can t go, but if you and Fatimah want to go, I won’t stand in your way.’
‘What will you do?’
‘Try to go back. I wish I had never left. Even with the Taliban it was better there than here.”
‘When we get to Germany, it’ll all be worth it. I’ll get a job as an electrical engineer. We’ll have a good life. You know I have some heroin in my pack from that Turkish guy. I can sell it when we get to Germany.’
‘A drug mule. Good that Fatimah doesn’t know where the money has come from.’
‘We have to be ready tomorrow. I’m going to pack my things.”
‘I can t go. Look at my feet. And what about Fatimah? I don’t think she has the strength to go any further right now. She is sick.’
‘I know but I’ll help her. She can t stay any longer in this mud and cold. We ll all die here if we don’t do something.’
Fatimah, thin and pale, with her head covered in a scarf, carrying a bundle of blankets, saw though the bare branches of the trees, at the bottom of a ravine, hundreds of people thronging both sides of a river bank. The river was muddy and swollen with rain.
Activists in water proof clothes were waiting to help the crowd across. They had hung a rope over the water and stood up to their waists at intervals in the river forming a straight line.
‘I thought you said the river was dry, Asra?’ Fatimah said, frightened.
But Asra, who was carrying their daughter on his shoulders, was already walking down the slope.
‘Come on, we have to hurry.’
Fatimah did not move at first. She felt sick and dizzy. The walk from the camp to the river had been hard and tiring because they had had to walk across rain soaked fields and through woods.
By the time, Fatimah had made it to the bank, Asra was already in the river, wading knee deep through the water carrying their daughter on his shoulders. Soon the water came up to his waist. Fatimah watched with anxiety. After passing an activist in a yellow jacket, he began to emerge out of the water on the other side, his clothes dripping. He turned and waved to her to hurry up and cross.
Fatimah’s releief turned to apprehension. She looked at Asra and her daughter on the other side. They seemed so far away.
‘I have to go,’ she thought to herself. “I can’t stay here without them.”
As she prepared to step into the brownish river, it suddenly seemed to her that her whole life had been a process of crossing over from one stage to another, from one phase to another without time to really think about the significance of it all. She had passed from child, to woman, to wife to mother at the age of 20, moved from the countryside to the capital Kabul. And in the past few weeks on her way to Europe, she had crossed more landscapes and countries than she could count. And she did not even know what for. She had no idea what Europe or Germany might be like. Asra had decided to go and she had to go with him according to the ideas of her culture.
As she waded deeper into the river, she lifted up her bundle of blankets above her head. Keeping the blankets dry would be indispensible for her, Asra and her child to avoid freezing that night. Who knew where they would be forced to stay?
The volume of water flowing through the river, seen through the air filled with drops of rain from the side of the ravine, had seemed slower, smaller. But when she was inside the river, the waves sped by with a ferocious weight. The water hissed and foamed around her. The bottom of the river was also full of rocks, uneven and slippery, but she could not see anything through the muddy brown waters. Tentatively, she put one foot forward, halted, shifted her weight and lifted her other foot. Her clothes became wetter and heavier, and it cost her more and more effort to move.
One of the activists who was standing in the space in between her and the river bank where Asra was standing held out her hand and beckoned her on when she nearly slipped.
Fatimah hesitated. Her head pounded. Her arms strained to find the strength to keep the bundle in the air and out of the water. She kept looking to see how far she had to go. She saw Asra and her daughter waiting on the bank.
Next, she lost her footing. She was falling into the freezing water, losing her grip on the bundle, pulled down by the heaviness of the water into a whirling thickness, and driven along by a powerful current.
It suddenly seemed to her that her whole life had been a process of change, and now she was about to cross a new threshold into a new state of being…
Before Asra could clamber down the river bank, the photojournalists were there. Watching them standing on the dry bank and take photos of his drowning wife, he felt rage and betrayal.
‘So, we are just propaganda fodder!’ he thought to himself.
He plunged into the water.
It was late in the night, when Asra finally arrived back at the camp, carrying his child. Tariq was sitting beside a fire, staring at the flames. As soon as he saw his son in law and granddaughter, he jumped up with joy and hobbled over to them.
‘Come and warm yourselves. You look frozen through,’ he said. ‘What happened?’
He scanned the darkness for Fatimah. But there was no sign of her. It was then that he noticed the terrible expression on the face of Asram. He did not dare ask any more. He turned back to the fire and kicked it with his swollen foot.
‘You did this!’ Tariq said. ‘You and your blind ambition have brought ruin to us all! You and your idea of being an electrical engineer in Germany?’
Asra watched as Tariq went into the tent together with the exhausted child. The darkness around him seemed thicker than ever. The rain seemed colder than ever. The way back seemed further than ever. He slumped down by the fire.
Bent over in fury and pain, he watched the play of light and darkness. Inside him, was the fire and water, that elements that fought, met, separated, could never be reconciled, the flames that were extinguished, the fire wood that disintegrated into ashes…The battle was inside him.