17th – 19th December
Where Athens ends, the snow begins. I am with a group of fourteen other people going north, north, north on the sleeper train to Thessaloniki. I join the others in the “party cabin,” doing the train version of ‘how many people can you fit in a mini?’ with plastic ‘happy birthday’ cups of cheap wine and crisps. It’s nobody’s birthday, but it’s the closest I’ve had to one this year so I cheekily claim it as my own. “Happy Birthday Jo!” everyone says as we clack plastic. After some drinks I retire to my bed two cabins away and watch moonlit snow-covered mountains pass by between snippets of sleep.
We chug into Thessaloniki tired and cranky at 5am, make our way by bus to the social centre, where we slug coffee and munch various snack items people pull from their bags. At 8:30am it’s time to get our bus. We meet the Thessaloniki group at one of the squares. There are only fifteen of us from Athens, but with the hundred or so from this group we’re starting to look capable of making a demonstration, albeit a small one.
The most curious thing about not speaking the language those around you communicate in is that your level of understanding is at the mercy of the details other people think to tell you. Here is what I know: we are going to Evros. There will be a demonstration. We are going to take the bus. Here is what I do not know: having travelled all night on a train, we’re still only halfway to Evros. The bus is one of three coaches hired by the Thessaloniki group for the occasion and the drive will be another five hours minimum, north and east along Greece’s winding snow-covered roads.
After many hours driving we stop in Orestiada, where we’re joined by another coach load of local activists. There is a brief re-grouping in a schoolyard and we’re back on our way.
We arrive in Fylakio: literally the middle of nowhere. There are only fields of snow in every direction, as far as the eye can see. Half an hour to the East, I’m told, is the Turkish border. The detention centre is a small yellow building, surrounded by barbed wire fences, with bars at the windows and a coach full of riot police out front. Evidently we are expected.
We pile out of the coaches, unfurl banners, raise “flags” (large chunky sticks with a bit of fabric on) and people begin chanting in Greek as we advance toward the cops.
We can see people at the windows, their hands reaching through the bars. The sound of very young voices chanting “we want freedom, we want freedom…” is audible over the chanting of our own group. I feel something snag in my heart and tears come to my eyes. I feel angry at the police, the politicians, the remote bureaucratic processes that reduce real human beings to numbers, to prisoners, to “illegals”. But more than anything, I feel the futility of standing outside this prison, unable to do anything but chant and hold a banner, then return to my bus and begin the long, long journey back to Athens. A small group of us stand to the side of the riot police with a clear view of the prison. We respond to their chants with our own voices, echoing theirs: “freedom! freedom! freedom! freedom!” When they chant “Athina! Athina!” we repeat the same, though I’m sure the others are thinking the same as me: really? – you want to go to Athens? You really don’t know what you’re saying… I think of the stories I’ve heard of what migrants go through in Athens: the hunger strikers who sewed their own lips shut, the fascist attacks and the battle for Attiki Square, the young child who was raped against a tree and covered in shit.
After an hour and a half the sun is setting. I learn that a delegation of doctors, lawyers and translators was able to get inside and speak with the detainees, always under the watchful eyes of the staff. They also took in blankets, shoes and other basic necessities. There is a short feedback in Greek about the situation inside. I get the edited version, translated. Basically conditions are very bad: young unaccompanied minors, overcrowding, inadequate medical care and no communication with those being held about how long they will be there or why.
We leave the detention centre hearing chants of “thank you! thank you! thank you! thank you!” as we board coaches and drive away. I am full of tiredness, guilt and something like helplessness.
I assume we’re driving straight to Thessaloniki, but we stop again in Orestiada and again the banners, flags and chants are raised. This is the city where the FRONTEX headquarters are located. We march around the town in a circuit. No police, we are not expected. This is the first demo I have ever been on without a single cop. We complete our circuit and people pile into a University building for a feedback and discussion about the day. Others of us go to get some food before the coach journey back. No police, no violence, no riots.
It’s late when we go back to the social centre in Thessaloniki. Three of us will stay together with a couple who we meet in the bar. All I want is to curl up somewhere and go to sleep, perhaps after a good hard cry. But no, we have to sit and drink beer and try to be friendly. I’m aware that I probably look something like a moody teenager, but after a glass of beer I perk up a little. It’s late by the time we get to bed.
I only have a few hours to see Thessaloniki. I take a little tour of the city, which is completely different from Athens. It seems cleaner, more middle-class, less rough and ready. If they were people, Thessaloniki would be an art teacher in a white blouse; Athens would be an unwashed heroin addict with a black eye*
I spend half of my train journey back to Athens in a deep discussion with the woman next to me, with whom I have many disagreements. She is more self-aware than most people I meet in this way, aware of and owning up to her own prejudice. She recognises her own fear and how it closes her down. We are discussing migrants of course, among many other things. She has an unquestioning nationalism, which annoys me, but she seems to have a genuine desire to open up to other people, to see past her own fear. If only we all did.
*based on my limited experience
For more information about EU border activities see: