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This Is What It's Like To Be Trapped On Europe's Doorstep

Politicians called it a symbol of European failure. Media reports called it squalid. But until it was bulldozed this week, the Idomeni refugee camp offered hope to the thousands of people who lived there. Jina Moore reports for BuzzFeed News.

Last updated on July 3, 2018, at 1:45 p.m. ET

Posted on May 28, 2016, at 10:00 a.m. ET

IDOMENI, Greece — If it hadn’t been for that good-for-nothing son of a bitch, Fatima wouldn’t be stuck here.

She’d been trying to do what nearly a million other people had already done, many of them, like her, from Syria. For a small fortune, the refugees had bought spots in overcrowded rubber boats and set across the sea between Turkey and Greece. They’d washed up on paradisiac Greek islands, or been rescued by the Greek coast guard; they’d ferried to Athens; and they’d hitched their way north, to the border crossing, and then on through Europe.

Fatima’s brothers had made that trip too, in mid-January, and waited in Germany for Fatima and the rest of the family — her mother and sisters and aunts, and two young nephews. They were 12 in all, and the plan was to set off together, with Fatima’s husband, and join her brothers in Germany.

But Fatima’s husband turned out to be a no-good, lying cheater, and she refused to leave Turkey without getting divorced. She finally left with the rest of her family only a month later than her brothers — but that month made all the difference. Instead of slipping through the Balkans to Germany, Fatima and her family were trapped in Idomeni, a small village on the border of Greece and Macedonia, with 15,000 other refugees. They slept in tents, slogged through mud, and waited in line like it was a job for ad hoc handouts to wear or to eat or to wash with.

“I feel guilty. I feel like this is all my fault — our situation. We would’ve left. I would be there, and we would do the reunification, and we would be with everybody else,” she said.

Fatima and her family got to Idomeni just in time to watch the Macedonians close the border, in early March. A few weeks later, the European Union finalized a deal to ship new arrivals back to Turkey. The people of Idomeni were stuck between these two decisions — they’d arrived too early to be returned to Turkey, but too late to get through to Europe.

Their job was to protect the border, not the refugees.

In April, the Greek government began building smaller camps for the people trapped at the border. Pictures of the new camps, on display at the United Nations compound in Idomeni, promised small, clean, organized facilities with reliable food and beds. They looked nice, those pictures. But the refugees of Idomeni stayed put.

That’s the part no one expected, because Idomeni was, plainly put, a shit-hole. It’s a farming village in the mountains, hardly 250 feet from the border, where the fields turn into small lakes when it rains, which is constantly. In a good gust of wind, tents collapsed on top of anyone inside. Despite humanitarians’ best efforts, the toilets were sloppy, and there was universal agreement that the food sucked. After months sleeping on the uneven ground, people’s hips hurt. A lot.

So you might have thought that convincing people to leave Idomeni for the spick-and-span registration camps in the pictures would’ve been easy. And convincing them was important: The UN was helping to move people who volunteered to leave — but only if they volunteered. “It’s a condition of our engagement,” Elodie Lemal, a field staffer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in late April. “People have to make an informed decision [to leave].”

But most of the people in Idomeni weren’t convinced. For starters, very few of them actually want asylum in Greece. On top of that, everyone knew that, in March, the Greeks turned island welcome centers into “closed detention centers” overnight. The change was orchestrated in part by the EU’s deal with Turkey, but the centers were converted without any warning. They'd effectively become prisons overnight, and Doctors Without Borders and UNHCR stopped offering services at the centers in protest.

The move also made it hard to take officials promising an easier life at their word. And there were rumors that the camps were in much worse shape than the UN let on; a half-dozen times a day, you might hear the story about the moldy chicken and wormy rice that sent one group straight back to the border camp.

The Greece-Macedonia border.
Stoyan Nenov / Reuters

The Greece-Macedonia border.

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Being near the border, people thought, was their best option. More than that, being near the border was their only form of power. They didn’t even call it “the border.” They called it “the door,” and they believed that if they just held on long enough, they would be let through.

“This will get worse here,” Fatima said in early May. And, strangely, she hoped so: “It will get worse, and they’ll have to open the door. So we have no choice but to wait.”

It didn’t end how she thought. In mid-April, refugees protested, demanding to be let across the border. The Macedonian border guards fired teargas. Last week, refugees protested again. This time, it was the Greek police who broke out the teargas. On Tuesday, five days after putting down that protest, police in riot gear rounded everyone up and shipped them to the new, smaller camps. Then they bulldozed everything that was left behind.

In its last days, the head of a European Union delegation called Idomeni “a symbol a failed European migration policy.” Media reports called it “squalid.” On Tuesday, when the camp was evacuated, a UNHCR spokesperson dodged questions about whether the relocation was “voluntary” and said, instead, “These people need to move to more dignified and humane conditions.” On Friday, UNHCR said it was “seriously concerned about sub-standard conditions” at some of the places the Greeks had sent the refugees.

Idomeni was a challenging environment, but until its last moments, it was ultimately a place people chose to stay — and not because refugees like squalor or indignity any more than the rest of us. The thing that kept people in Idomeni is the same thing that trapped them there: that chain-link fence with barbed-wire curls, the rest of Europe so tantalizingly close, just on the other side.

In early May, when I spent a week working and sleeping in Idomeni, I heard nearly a dozen rumors about the door: It will open on Monday. It will open on Wednesday. It will open at the end of the month. Angela Merkel is talking to the Turks. Angela Merkel is talking to Macedonia. Angela Merkel told the Serbs to open their border, so that when the Macedonians open the door, the people can get all the way through.

The door was closed before, people said over and over, and then they opened it again. Why not one more time? Why not now?

Macedonian soldiers stand guard at the border in November 2015.
Armend Nimani / AFP / Getty Images

Macedonian soldiers stand guard at the border in November 2015.

There’s a way refugee camps usually work. There are rules, settled almost 20 years ago after consultations with virtually every crisis response organization, about toilets and water and how much laundry soap everyone gets in a month; the minimum number of calories you should eat, the minimum square footage you should have in a tent. There’s a rule that your clothes should be the right size, and you should have two outfits.

There’s also a rule about how all this gets set up. That rule is about basic national sovereignty: The United Nations can’t just go setting up refugee camps anywhere it thinks people need them. The country where people are piling up has to call the UN and ask for help. No call, no camp.

The Greeks didn’t ask for a camp, so Idomeni was, technically, a squat. Thousands of tents spread across farmers’ fields; if you went tent-by-tent, as one international aid group did in late March, you’d count around 15,000 people, though the population always fluctuated, and official estimates, even the officials agreed, were probably on the low side.

The squat started where the main road from town bends to follow the border. The road ends at the train tracks, which run toward the border, on the left, and away from it, on the right. You could walk right up to most of the border fence — in some places, tents perched right next to it, and on a few patches of low-slung barbed wire, mothers laid wet laundry out to dry — but the train tracks led to the border gate, so the tracks were heavily protected.

At the junction where the road meets the rails, police buses straddled the tracks. Officers lolled. Their job was to protect the border, not the refugees. When a squabble broke out near the buses — the last stand between thousands of people and the fence they wanted to cross — the officers were quick into riot gear. When fistfights broke out on the other side of the camp, or a guy pulled a knife on a girl, or somebody stole whatever seemed worth stealing, though, there was no officer to be found.

This junction, where the road ends in train tracks, was like the city hall of the refugee squat. Above the tracks, there was a Doctors Without Borders clinic for women and a UNHCR office for legal aid. A long, single-file path curled toward a trailer, where meals were given out. The path, like the border, was pinched by a fence. On top of the trailer, an electronic sign ticked out crucial information — “Welcome to Idomeni. Today is Monday” — in multiple languages.

That was the reason Qadour decided to come to Europe. The bombs scared him, but the kids’ future scared him more. 
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The tracks themselves were also fenced in, and they were packed. Hundreds of tents wedged tightly next to each other. The farther down the tracks you walked, the tenser it felt. Five hundred yards or so from the border, two abandoned cars sat on the rails. One, even the aid workers knew, was a brothel.

Just below the tracks, on the last stretch of the road, there was a marketplace. Men flipped cardboard boxes to make tables and stood behind them, hawking whatever they had — cigarettes, flatbreads, sugar. One guy had a tabletop espresso maker; for a euro he’d fix you a shot, with cocoa sprinkled on top. Someone always had vapes, and sometimes, someone else had refills, though how and why this many vapes ended up here no one could explain.

One Saturday afternoon, Mohammed stood in the market, behind his cigarettes. He didn’t have many customers — cigarette hawkers had been holding back their goods and hiking their prices — but Mohammed also didn’t have anywhere else to be.

Mohammed is 25, soft and smiley — until a soccer ball flew between us, over his cigarettes and, as if trained on his competition, nearly toppled another hawker’s box.

“Be careful!” he shouted at the teenagers. “This is a market!” He apologized for being so brusque. “It’s better if we say that now, before problems start.”

I asked Mohammed if he thought the border would open. “Inshallah,” he said, politely. “We have hope.” The hawker next to him overheard this. He was in no mood to be nice about it. “Obviously,” he said. “Why else would everyone be sitting here?”

Our conversation attracted a crowd. I wanted to know why people believed they’d be let across, when all the available evidence suggested otherwise. I wanted to know whose information they trusted, and how they decided to trust it. But they were more interested in what they wanted to tell me.

“All the stuff here, it’s only words. On the ground, we have nothing.”

“People think we’re like animals, trying to get stuff out of trucks.”

“They traded us into the sea, closed the borders, and now they’re trading us against the smugglers.”

“You think we left Syria to come here for sandwiches?”

“It’s more honorable to us to be there than to be here.”

“Syria’s better than this. In Syria, you die quickly. Here, you just die slowly.”

“We’re really depressed.”

“It’s the food, it’s how the lines work — everything here is based on hope.”

Qadour's family. Seated, from left: his mother, Sarah Ramadan; his sister-in-law Sana and her baby; his wife, Sahar, and their baby, Sadin. Standing, from left: Qais, 10; Quador; Ahmed, 8; and Sarah, 12.
Jina Moore / BuzzFeed News

Qadour's family. Seated, from left: his mother, Sarah Ramadan; his sister-in-law Sana and her baby; his wife, Sahar, and their baby, Sadin. Standing, from left: Qais, 10; Quador; Ahmed, 8; and Sarah, 12.

Qadour’s family lived in three tents along the road, a short walk from the market. His brother, sister-in-law, and their baby slept in one, his mother in another. She’s 68, but she looks almost twice that, her face wrinkled like old fruit, her teeth gone. Nana was the comic relief in that place. “People always ask me, ‘Why did an old woman like you want to leave Syria for Germany?’” she said, “and I always tell them, ‘I only have three courses left!’” Then she'd grin, reinforcing the joke that she was headed to Germany to finish her college degree.

Qadour lived with his wife, Sahar, and their four children in another tent. Sarah, 12, usually wore a baseball cap on top of her hijab. Sadin, the baby, bounced, incessantly. She was nearly a year old, and so happy that it was hard to imagine she had any idea what she’d been through. Her family moved around Syria for five years, dodging regime bombs at first, and then ISIS.

All that moving around meant Ahmed had never been to school. Eight years old, he was hyperactive, and sensitive. He was jealous of his baby sister, and skeptical of all children. When kids in the camp played games together, Ahmed stressed out. He often accused his playmates of skipping his turn.

Qais is 10, so he’d spent a few years in school, but whatever he’d learned had mostly worn away. “When he came here, his brain was not functioning,” his father said. That was the reason Qadour decided to come to Europe. The bombs scared him, but the kids’ future scared him more. The family fled Damascus for Deir ez-Zor, a large city in northeastern Syria near where Qadour and his wife are originally from. They were bombed there, too, and then they were surrounded by ISIS, which Qadour, like most Syrians, calls Daesh.

Qadour has no patience for sectarianism, let alone the extremism of ISIS. “I don’t care if my neighbor prays on top of a pole. He can pray to his god, I’ll pray to mine,” Qadour said, practically spitting. He is a man who knows how to wait things out, to a point. “It was terrible for the minds of the kids, especially kids Qais’s age, when you’re wanting to be liked. Daesh gives them weapons and makes them feel like a king,” he said.

In Idomeni, though, Qais had blossomed. “Now he speaks English and everybody loves him,” Qadour said. The boy had recently fractured his arm, and he used his cast to wring extra rations out of foreigners — the aid workers or journalists or indie volunteers who roamed the place, handing out whatever they happened to have. Qais was so good at it that Qadour said he could die tomorrow and the family would still be provided for. But it was the game of it that Qais liked, testing just how much he could get away with when he approached foreigners and played at being charming, or helpful, or pitiable. Anything but patient.

“My mother hasn’t showered in two months. I just clean my whole body with rubbing alcohol.”
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Sahar and Qadour stayed up late most evenings, talking around the fire and smoking. He used to be a taxi driver; she was a tailor. They spent eight years saving money to build their house; 28 days after they moved in, it was bombed. When they left Damascus, Sahar had to find new ways to earn money, so she started smuggling cigarettes. It’s a small social scandal for women to smoke in Syria, but Sahar shrugged: “You have to try your product.”

For five nights, the couple passed their time telling stories to me and Zakia, who came with me to translate, about what happened in Syria. “It’s not something happening only to us,” Qadour said. “Everybody here is facing the same thing. Sometimes, you see other people’s situation is worse than yours. You say, ‘I only lost my house. That other guy, yeah they bombed his house too, but his children were inside.’”

“Sometimes, you can sit in a corner and just think about your stuff,” Sahar said. “But then you think, well, God knows best. And anyway, you’ll just go crazy.”

These were the things Mohammed, who is Qadour’s cousin, thought no one understood or cared much about. It baffled him, given how much time so many foreigners spent there, the lengths they went to trying to represent life in the camp. “Today I saw a drone flying above the tents,” he said. “There’s always people taking pictures of refugees, saying, ‘This is an agonized person.’ But they’re not taking a picture of how he’s agonized inside. They’re not taking an internal picture.”

Women and children talking in Idomeni in mid-April.
Daniel Mihailescu / AFP / Getty Images

Women and children talking in Idomeni in mid-April.

If you were a woman in Idomeni, even the banality of daily life was a battle. Sahar’s next-door neighbor, Shaza, geared up for this battle every day. She’s 30 and unmarried, the youngest child in her family, and the only one who joined her parents for the journey. Her parents are in their seventies, and soft-spoken Shaza had to fight to take care of them. “You have to fight for everything — the showers, the food,” she said. “Especially the showers. Whoever doesn’t fight, doesn’t get in. My mother hasn’t showered in two months. I just clean my whole body with rubbing alcohol.”

There’s a certain protocol to thinking about women in refugee camps, one that focuses on physical danger. Experts have a list of things they can check off to make women safer: Are the toilets nearby, or do women have to walk to the far back corner of a camp? Are there street lamps or some other kind of lighting, or do women have to move around in darkness after the sun sets? Are the showers separated by gender? There are even less obvious things to consider, like how a woman charges her phone or gets her food: Are the spaces for these services crowded by men?

But real life usually happens where bureaucracy cracks, like in the tent where Nada lived with her husband, four daughters, and a son. Nada and her family had abandoned their stand-alone tent, after it flooded one too many times. Which flood, when, who can say? It rains so much in Idomeni that one man asked: “Does Greece have seasons?”

So Nada and her family moved into the big, white tent with a Doctors Without Borders logo, filled with dozens of cots. The cots looked like hospital stretchers, slings so narrow it was hard to imagine rolling over to relieve your back, and stacked two or three high. Inside, families imitated privacy by tying thick gray blankets around the stacks. It worked, as illusions do, until it didn’t. Whenever someone felt curious about what was going on inside Nada’s soft-sided cube of a home, he — it was usually a he — just pulled back the blanket that was her makeshift door and popped his head in. He might’ve greeted her, or he might’ve just given the situation a once-over and walked away.

“You never know when someone is going to come in,” she said. “I have to sleep in my hijab.”

These group tents felt like boys’ clubs. Women and children stayed there too, but it was men who brooded in the doorways, who sat on the highest cots and just stared at people — sometimes absently, sometimes leeringly — during the day. And it was the men who, once it was dark, couldn’t keep quiet, Nada said.

“You should see how they put on a party at night! No one can sleep,” she said. “My husband goes out and screams at them sometimes, but I’m even scared of that. We don’t want to make problems.”

Hala, Nada’s 17-year-old daughter, hated everything about these few square feet that had become home. She sat on the floor with her sister, Noelle, eating lunch and tending to their 3-month-old sister, Sarah. “There’s always boys outside, and they’re drunk,” she said. “If I want to go to the bathroom at night, I have to wake up my mom and have her go with me.”

Even in the daytime, she or her sisters were trapped there by strangers, she said. “If we all leave at once, they’ll steal everything.”

“A few days after the teargas, we heard fighter jets.”
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Fatima had her own tent, with her mother, her sisters, and her aunt, but she felt just as exposed. She heard drunken boys wandering around at night too. “They can wander into your tent — you don’t want that,“ she said. She didn’t want to speak directly about it, but it was clear this has happened to her. She was distraught that she was there alone with only female relatives, and it compounded how guilty she felt about delaying their trip to divorce her husband.

R, 20, has two teenage boys with her family. (The NGO that facilitated the interview required her name not be used.) In late April, when she was waiting for a doctor at a medical tent, a drunk guy wandered in and pulled out a knife. She froze in front of him for a few seconds, she recalled, before she ducked and snuck to the back of the crowd.

It’s not that this happened regularly; it’s that it could happen at all that scares her. One Friday night, some independent volunteers handed out tents just before 1 a.m. She thought the late-night distribution was meant to avoid the small-scale riots that could break out when too few resources, manned by too few volunteers, became the day’s must-have. But avoiding a brawl where the strongest man wins also kept women from getting goods. “After midnight, it’s too dangerous. There people who are drunk, people who have knives. There’s no light,” she said. “How is my mother going to let me out after 9?”

So it was hard to tell if women felt safe in Idomeni. But it was also hard to know if they would have felt safer in the new camps dotting northern Greece, for the same reason it was hard to tell if women feel safe anywhere: The answer is, it depends.

“It really depends on the site, on the context. It might be easy, or it might not be easy,” said Elodie Lemal, the UNHCR field staffer in Idomeni. UNHCR was part of a team that had been vetting the new camps, looking at everything from toilets to water distribution to whether the place is likely to reduce the risk of sexual or gender-based violence, or SGBV.

But with so many priorities, Lemal admitted, measures to protect women and girls often take a back seat. “We’re looking at everything,” she said, “from shelter to fire safety to water. Whether a site is suitable for SGBV response is obviously a luxury detail we cannot afford.”

Refugees pick up wood distributed by volunteers at Idomeni in late April.
Rodrigo Avellaneda / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Refugees pick up wood distributed by volunteers at Idomeni in late April.

Back in Syria, Mohammed learned something he didn’t think he’d need to know in Greece: that there’s a gap between the sound of a bomber jet and the force of an explosion.

“Being bombed is all about the sound. You don’t see planes in the sky. You just hear them,” Mohammed said. He’d survived a lot of these moments, including the bombing of his own house, where his wife and baby boy died.

Until mid-April, the sound of being bombed was something Mohammed thought he’d escaped when he landed in Greece.

There was a protest in the camp on April 10. Some refugees approached the door, shouting slogans about free movement and refugee rights. The Macedonian authorities shot off teargas; some reports said they fired rubber bullets. The Greek government accused Macedonia of violating international law and mobilized “military readiness drills” in response. The Greeks have protective feelings about this region that go back to Alexander the Great.

“A few days after the teargas, we heard fighter jets,” Mohammed said. “Like F-16s. We thought, They’re bombing the camp.”

The Greeks flew military planes low over the border — several of them at once, in formation, according to witnesses. When the planes came, Mohammed and his wife did on the border what they’d done in war-torn Syria: They grabbed everything they could hold in their arms, and they ran outside. They stood in the field, staring upward, listening for the sound they thought they’d left in Syria.

He didn’t know exactly how many planes there were, or how long they circled. But his wife, who is nearly four months pregnant, had a panic attack. The seizures she thought she’d left behind have come to Greece with her too. Now, any time something scares her, she shakes with fear.

“You never know when someone is going to come in. I have to sleep in my hijab.”
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That night, Zakia and I sat with Qadour and Sahar around the fire. “This one saw his uncle shot in the head by Daesh,” Sahar said, tipping her head toward Ahmed, who was asleep next to her after a nasty tantrum. “The man was just sitting there. Ahmed was playing with his cousin. Daesh called it an ‘accident.’ Brains went everywhere. Ahmed has been in Pampers since.”

I looked at Ahmed. He would have been 5, almost 6, when ISIS came to Deir ez-Zor. He’s 8 now, with long legs. I wondered how you find Pampers for a kid that big.

“He was getting better. We got him down to one Pamper a day. But then the planes came, and now he needs two again,” Sahar said. She sighed and shifted her body out from under him, trying to stand. “That’s what I was doing before,” she said. “He’d peed on himself. That’s why he ran away and cried.”

She leaned on her hand to lift herself up. “Ach, he’s gone on the blanket!” She stood and flattened her skirt with her hands. “And also on me. A little bit.” She lifted his floppy body and disappeared into their tent.

Qadour was still stuck in a story of Syria. “When the planes set off, they keep the sound going for two, three hours, so you don’t know when the bomb itself is going to come,” he said. “Then you hear the plane pull up, and you think it’s over. Then it comes down again. It circles like this for hours.”

“They do it to keep you afraid,” said Sarah. “A girl younger than me faints every time she hears planes. She just drops. It’s something that makes you sad.”

There’s a way of bombing that’s more about torture than it is about killing. When the Greek planes flew over the border, that feeling Qadour and his kids thought they’d escaped came back.

Sarah crawled up next to me and examined my scrawl. “I’m very happy you’re writing all of this stuff down,” she said, “because I want people to know it, and to feel with us.” She’s still young enough to believe that that will make a difference.

One of the frequent floods to hit Idomeni.
Ayhan Mehmet / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

One of the frequent floods to hit Idomeni.

“Do you have any news?” people asked. They meant, Do you know when the door will open? This question came up constantly — in interviews, in the marketplace, when Zakia asked to borrow a lighter. Sometimes, people asked again, a few hours later. “You still haven’t heard?” They already knew that we didn't know anything, but asking was a ritual that connected people in Idomeni.

The ritual commonly came with a follow-up question, which Qadour asked late one night, as the fire died down: “If you were us, what would you do?”

I told him I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine. I wouldn’t presume to know how to make that choice.

He looked disappointed by my answer. He said they also didn't know. “There are two problems. One is the information keeps changing. We don’t know what’s really going on,” he said. “Two, we just want something to reassure us that we’re going to get somewhere better.”

That second part proved impossible for aid workers like Lemal, of UNHCR. She felt an obligation to avoid giving anyone any reason to think staying, or going, would be better. “All the actors here have a responsibility not to answer that question,” Lemal said. She thought her job, as an official, was to tell people what their options were, and that’s all.

“What if people are asking you, as an official, what’s going on with the border?” I asked.

“I welcome them to approach the police to ask those questions,” she said. But the police speak Greek, and most of the refugees speak Arabic, and they aren’t two groups that seemed to want to have much to do with each other.

“The police issued a flier saying the border won’t open,” I pointed out. “Why can’t you say that?”

“If they ask me what I think about that, I say, ‘I am reading the same leaflets as you are,” Lemal said. “And if they ask, ‘What should I do?’ I say, 'I don’t know.'”

“People are frustrated by these answers,” Lemal acknowledged. She also suspected people had private reasons for wanting to stay. “Once, I asked someone, ‘Why are you not going to the camps?’ She told me, ‘I have so many memories here.’” Lemal’s job, though, wasn’t to engage with people’s private reasons to stay. It was to answer any questions with publicly available information.

“Syria’s better than this. In Syria, you die quickly. Here, you just die slowly.”  
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But public information was pretty limited. It covered how to apply for different kinds of asylum, and how to get to one of the new camps. People in Idomeni interpreted such a narrow reply as a dodge. “We don’t really ask them,” Shaza said of the UN. “They don’t know anything. Or they just won’t say anything. Every time you go to ask them something, they say, ‘We don’t know.’”

Fatima’s distrust went further. She didn’t think the information was as neutral as it pretended to be. “They’re always coming up with new shit,” she said. She thought the UN just wanted to convince people to leave for the camps, and she wasn’t falling for it. “At least here, you see journalists, there’s distributions. At least here, people give you hope, even if you know what they’re saying is lies.”

It was not that Fatima wanted to be lied to. It was that she wanted someone to break the bureaucratic script. She wasn’t alone. In my week in Idomeni, I asked dozens of people how they felt about the information they got. The more official the information, the less likely people were to trust it. There was no sense that a flier from the UN or the Greek police, say, was more reliable than a WhatsApp message from a neighbor’s cousin in Germany.

In Idomeni, people didn’t trust what you said because of who you were. Peopled trusted what you said — if they decided to trust you at all — because of how you talked to them. There was a kind of credibility even the most well-intentioned aid worker speaking from an official script would never. And so people believed rumors that the food in the new camps was poisoned and or they might be held prisoner there, and they trusted stories about the door opening on Monday, or Wednesday, or the end of the month.

I asked one staffer of a major international organization what he thought about this credibility problem.

“Yeah, we fucked that up,” he said, shaking his head. “The way we’re talking to people is not working.”

Refugees are evacuated from Idomeni on Wednesday.
Yannis Kolesidis / AFP / Getty Images

Refugees are evacuated from Idomeni on Wednesday.

One night, Qadour and Sahar and I talked about that question again: If you were us, what would you do?

I told them I’d go to a camp, because I didn’t believe the border would open.

“This is the same thing he thinks,” Sahar said. But she wasn’t convinced. This many people, living in these horrible conditions, for this long? She believed that, eventually, their patience would win them mercy, and the door would open. Like Fatima, she thought it had to.

If Sahar’s position was a bet against the odds, it was an informed one. Over and over again, people here said they couldn’t believe this was Europe, that Europe tolerated what was happening in Idomeni. “If a Western European country says open the border for Idomeni, it will be done,” a man in the market told me. “In the end, we know Europe will be different than this,” another said.

Europe, of course, is dozens of different things — different countries, different borders, different governments, different politics. It’s also the European Union, which is sending refugees back to Turkey. But these are technicalities, and for anyone living in Idomeni, they were irrelevant. To stay near the border was to believe in the promise of Europe — about welcoming refugees, about human rights, about dignity.

Somehow, people like Sahar still believed that. She believed that Europe would come to its senses — and when it did, the door would finally open.

But Qadour didn’t believe that any more. “Europe did so much for humanity. Then with everything they built up, those ideas, over all those years — they did this?” he said. “They ruined everything. They lost it all here, with this thing.”

“We fight about this all the time,” Sahar confessed.

“We do,” Qadour said.

The next morning, our last in the camp, Qadour and Sahar had that fight. It was an argument about what to do, but there was something more basic, more private at stake. What if she was wrong about Europe, and they languished here? But what if she was right, and they’d gone? Who could ever forgive whom?

“Enough,” Qadour finally said. “I can’t do this now.”

There was a tense silence, which Qadour’s sister-in-law broke with a song. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you,” she sang in English, over and over, to her baby. Nana poked the fire.

“Let’s just go,” she said. “I can’t take this life. Who can live like this anymore? What is this, this life?”

No one answered her.

“OK, we’ll wait. They’ll open the border. They’ll open the border, and I’ll cross like a lady.”

“What, you think they’re going to carry you up on a chair?” Sahar asked, sour from her spat. “They’ll be pushing and shoving.”

“Whoever pushes me,” Nana said, “I’ll hit.”

It wasn’t just Qadour’s family that was starting to fray. It was tense everywhere in the camp. The police had been threatening to shut the place down for a week. The food was getting worse. There was more theft, more fistfights, or at least, that’s how it felt.

I left Idomeni in early May. Qadour and his wife still hadn’t come to an agreement about what to do, but a few days later, I heard from Zakia that they had decided to leave. They took a bus to a camp in Lagadikia, not far from Thessaloniki, a big port city in northern Greece. The information sheet the UN showed to people in Idomeni said there was food every day, separate tents for each family, and that you could walk to grocery stores.

I didn’t hear from Qadour or Sahar, but sometimes Sarah texted me. We used the broken Arabic of Google Translate. It’s still raining, even there, she said. The food is terrible. There’s nothing to do. People feel sad.

The last time I heard from her was a few days before Greece emptied Idomeni. Of the 8,000 or so people they evacuated, police said less than 3,000 were taken to the new camps. The rest are squatting again, this time farther from the border.

From her home in the new camp, Sarah only wanted to know one thing:

“Please, do you have any news for refugees?”

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