In the wintry first light two dozen heavily bundled Syrian refugees are huddled on blanket-softened benches in front of the aid station at the edge of Miratovac village when I arrive for my day’s work. Dads, moms, and children are already munching bananas and mandarin oranges and fighting off the icy fog’s chill with chai tea. YWAM volunteers from Schloss Hurlach, working with German-based Humedica and American Medical Teams International medical personnel, greeted them as they began arriving an hour ago. Led by 6-foot-5-inch Michael Gun toting children and luggage up the last hill, the volunteers welcomed cold refugees with warming drinks and needed nutrition. It had been a sleepless night for most of them.
At midnight, after a series of metallic shrieks from the brakes, a 1940s-vintage train had jerked to a stop with a decisive final jolt, coming to rest in the feeble yellow glow cast by three temporary light stanchions. To the unshaven men and the scarf-bedecked women anxiously peering through windows, a full moon revealed rolling hills, barren trees, and frost-covered fields – but no railroad platform and no buildings. Reminiscent of an Eastern European passport control stop when borders still mattered, it soon became clear this train’s destination had been reached. Lights came on in the carriages, children woke and asked their parents, “Where are we?” – the parents did not know, and a uniformed Macedonian conductor, his undersized hat balanced on curly black hair, strutted through the carriages, announcing, “Granična kontrola. Izlezi sité!” – Border control, everybody get out!
Borders mattered again. All the train’s occupants were by now painfully aware of that. Carefully negotiating the three steps attached to the train’s doors, lunging the last eighteen inches to the coarse rocks lining the railroad bed, the mostly Syrian travelers numbly disembarked. Children, bedding, and suitcases were handed down the steps with sleepy chatter. Well worn but not uncomfortable, the ancient carriages dating to an era when all passenger trains were dark green, had provided a four-hour respite from the life of waiting and hurrying, hoping and worrying. With babies and bedrolls strapped to winter-coated fathers and mothers, the pitiable human chain robotically followed the officials in the funny hats through the no-man’s land at the border, then a swamp, and finally onto a hastily built road made of coarse crushed rocks. By the time they reached the reception center on the Serbian side, moist clouds of exhaled breath hung over the struggling procession. Fatigued and emotionally exhausted, a dull disinterest had settled over the midnight arrivals.
Hours earlier, a spark of hope had energized Sofia, a refugee from Aleppo, as she prepared to board the ancient train in Gevgelija at the Greek-Macedonian border.
“Omar, over here. This one is going to Berlin,” she had called to her husband as she climbed onto the stairs of one of the green carriages rescued from the railroad retirement yard. Indeed, in a slide-in slot adjacent to the door, the weathered sign proclaimed Berlin Hbf – Berlin Hauptbahnhof – as the destination. Berlin! Their goal, their hope, the shining city of their dreams, rubbled Aleppo’s replacement. For a moment, it seemed too good to be true.
“Sofie, the signs don’t mean anything. The last one said Budapest Keleti,” Omar, struggling with the luggage, shouted back, as he jerked his head in the direction of the previous carriage. Having heard what a dead-end Budapest’s main train station was for refugees, and taking no chances, he played it safe and followed Sofia onto the steps of the Berlin Hbf carriage.
That was twelve hours ago. A packed reception center had forced them to huddle together under the stars until the false dawn peeked over distant hills and creaky joints were prodded into movement again. Now cradling hot chai after a three-mile, pre-dawn trek to the Humedica aid station, Sofia and Omar, beginning to warm up, are gratefully receiving the kindness of the volunteers. It is not Berlin, but they are one country closer to their goal, and one country farther from their lost home.
(Note: The first, second, and last picture are wire service pictures)