The forgotten war

‘I can tell you’re Afghan’, explained the volunteer, ‘because you have Chinese eyes, like this’, she demonstrated, stretching the skin either side of her eyes with her index fingers. I stared, horrified by this un-PC behaviour, but Ramazan roared with laughter.

Ramazan and I were friends for a week, or maybe ten days. It isn’t long, as friendships go, but I find I think of him often. Ramazan has an infectious smile, eyes that convey both shyness and confidence, a small but strong frame for his 20 years and reddish brown hair. I only wish I knew where he was.

When I think of Afghanistan I think of the most gracious people I’ve ever met. People who shake your hand and then touch their heart. When I first saw Ramazan I felt a wave of joy and relief. We were not in his country, nor in mine, but in a field in the hills of northern Greece in Europe’s fastest-growing refugee camp.

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I had been in Idomeni just a few hours when I learnt that Afghans were often jostled out of food lines. I asked a Greek policeman to protect them and he replied: ‘This is a camp for refugees not Afghans. Show me where they are and I’ll arrest them.’

We decided to bring supplies directly to them. Laden with see-through bags of bread, milk and biscuits I found myself tailed by Syrian children as I strode through the camp looking for Afghans. ‘No Syrians, it’s for Afghans’, said a fellow volunteer – words that no child should ever hear. In Idomeni there was no time to train people in the dos and don’ts of aid distribution, but I learnt my lesson fast. Mortified, I hurried on until I saw the unmistakably Afghan face of Ramazan. ‘Thank Christ for that,’ I breathed a sigh of relief, ‘I’ll drop the food with that guy and make a hasty exit.’

‘This is a camp for refugees not Afghans. Show me where they are and I’ll arrest them.’

Over the next days we brought clothes, food and sanitary kits to Ramazan and his group of friends. We mastered subtle ways to smuggle aid around the camp under the cover of darkness. ‘We like fruit,’ explained the old man in their party, ‘I especially like bananas’.

Ramazan is from Helmand in southern Afghanistan. He saw me simply as myself, yet I could not separate my own identity from my country’s role in the war he was fleeing. My guilt was stoked by his kindness. Europe has grown tired of the Afghan war. ‘I was an interpreter for the British’, said a man in their group, fishing papers out of his tent. ‘The Taliban say I’m a collaborator, if I stayed they would kill me’. How could I tell him this would not guarantee asylum in the UK?

I was becoming nervous at the prospect of saying goodbye to my friend. I went to his tent, ‘Ramazan has gone,’ said a girl, ‘he left this morning.’

The barber of Aleppo

‘Take a seat!’ said Mohammad, peering at my eyebrows. The enterprising barber from Aleppo welcomed me to his roadside salon. I had assumed the long queue was for soup, coffee, cigarettes or some such precious commodity. Stationed at the entrance of the refugee camp, Mohammad and his thread took me entirely by surprise.

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I wouldn’t have thought a stylist could contribute much in the life of a refugee camp. A doctor – yes; a lawyer; carpenter; linguist; teacher – all these people could make a real difference. But hairstyling and eyebrow threading are luxuries of an ordered world.

Refugees need food and shelter, clothes, medicines – the bare necessities that I had travelled to Idomeni to provide. And yet, how wrong I was.

People in Idomeni slept in fields that make Glastonbury look dry. They had no showers, no clean toilets, cast-off clothes, ill-fitting trousers held up by belts or rope. Little boys wore pink. Remove all choice over what you eat, where you live, where you go, who your neighbours are, what your future holds, whether you can protect your family.

People in Idomeni slept in fields that make Glastonbury look dry

Nobody really smiled when I gave them something they needed to survive. But faces lit up when a group of clowns performed tricks alongside food lines, when children were given balloons to play with. Kids riding bicycles yelled with delight – even when the bikes had no tyres. Teenagers cheered on breakdancers. Music, of any kind, lifted spirits.

Mohammad left Aleppo with the essentials of his trade – scissors, clippers, combs, thread and gel. When we met he’d arranged two chairs in a five-foot gap between a German radio truck and a parked car. On either side people living in camping tents hung out their rain-soaked blankets to dry, lit fires with anything that would burn and set about making breakfast. Mohammad charged a small fee. He was one of few people able to make honest money at the camp.

In a place where people were humiliated daily, I watched the pride creep back into his customers faces and the spring in their step as they strutted back into the camp. Mohammad restored a semblance of dignity. I declined his offer to thread my eyebrows, but slightly wish I hadn’t.

One emergency too many

‘There’s an old women on the floor of the tent over there and I think she’s dead’, I said, trying to steady my voice and relay my message coherently. ‘Well if she’s dead,’ the doctor replied, ‘there isn’t much point in my coming, is there?’ ‘Well,’ I mumbled, ‘I mean I’m not sure if she’s dead or not, she’s either dead or really ill. I’m not a doctor – I don’t know what she is but I think you should come.’ The doctor inhaled slowly, taking in the line of mothers clutching coughing children desperate to get his attention. ‘If you think it’s important, I’ll come.’

It wasn’t the first time I felt I was playing god with precious resources in Idomeni. I’d found myself deciding on the night shift which family got the last tent, and – after days of torrential rain – which man the last pair of shoes. Fewer than 50 doctors served the needs of 14,000 refugees: calling a medic to an emergency meant taking them away from another patient.

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The camp on the Greece-Macedonia border was set up to provide refugees heading north with basic aid: water, jam sandwiches and a communal tent for shelter. Shortly after I arrived they closed the border, yet people kept coming and the camp continued to swell.

‘If she’s dead,’ the doctor replied, ‘there isn’t much point in my coming, is there?’

 

 

The old woman had the face of an old master painting – like the wizened figure in Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes but without the compelling expression. Unsure of whether my medical companion was a fan of the arts, I kept this thought to myself, adding only ‘She’s lying on the floor of a crammed tent with kids jumping and shouting around her.’ The doctor took the opportunity to smoke a cigarette and set an unbearably slow pace as we dodged children playing along the only path that wasn’t up to their knees in mud. I resisted the temptation to hurry him on.

His attitude seemed callous at first. I was new to aid work, it was only my second time in a refugee camp. Only later did I learn that you need to take care of yourself first, before you can help others. My medic had been closeted in a small tent for hours treating case after case with limited supplies.

The old woman was sitting upright when we got there. I found myself in the singular position of being slightly embarrassed that she wasn’t dead after all, almost wishing that she might lie down again to justify my urgency. The medic gave me a sideways glance; he didn’t mind, I’d allowed him to snatch 10 minutes of relative peace.

I couldn’t tell you what happened to the woman. Hurrying towards another emergency I didn’t give her a second thought.