Part 3: The Serbian/Macedonian Border

Note: This is part three of four describing our journey to Serbia to work with refugees this past October. Please look for the final part soon! (Miki and Charlie)

The first hour of our drive after leaving Belgrade was pretty quiet. 

We had spent no more than 3 hours at the train station, but felt quite weary from what we had experienced in that short time.  As we drove towards Preshevo, we were once again uncertain about what we would find there.  Any doubts we had harbored regarding the significance of the need there, however, had completely disappeared after our time in Belgrade.

With our van now empty, we decided to stop off in Niš, Serbia along the way to search for more humanitarian aid.  In addition to tents, we hoped especially to find shoes for children who were old enough to walk, as we had learned that these were the biggest needs in these camps.

This was when we learned of yet another complication in the effort to serve the refugees coming through Serbia.  In the few stores we were able to visit, we found exactly 3 camping tents available for sale, all of which were quite expensive, and too heavy to carry.

Additionally, we learned that it is illegal to bring used shoes into Serbia.  All supplies would have to be purchased new.  However, as we shopped we found almost no children’s shoes – and the ones we did find were being sold at premium prices.

With the available funds on hand, we had to make a choice between buying blankets, socks, water, cereal bars and bananas for about 100+ people, or buying warm, fairly sturdy walking shoes for less than 10 children.  It was actually a very difficult choice for us, but we left the shoes behind.

By the time we reached Preshevo, it was around 7:00 pm.  It was dark and raining quite heavily.  As we pulled into the village, it felt eerily quiet.  There were 3 or 4 police officers directing the little bit of traffic we saw on the street, occasionally pulling cars over to search, presumably, for hidden refugees.

In the dark and rain, we tried to find and follow signs for the bus station.  After a few minutes of driving, we had almost decided that there were no refugees there at the time, and that we should head on into Macedonia, where we had planned to stop for the night.

As we approached what we’d decided would be the last street we would search, we began to see some activity. Through the dark and rain we slowly began to make out figures walking through the street.  Once we reached the next intersection, Charlie said, “I think we’re here.”

As we turned onto the street, our headlights broke through the dark and rain to reveal what looked like thousands of people – adults and children – walking through the rain and mud in one direction down the street.

As we drove slowly through the crowd, we saw people walking together in small family groups.  Many of them had identical yellow ponchos (with UNHCR logos on them) laying soaked and heavy on their heads, water running off the bottom edge onto their feet.  Their faces, legs, and shoes all appeared to be completely soaked.  Women and men carried babies and small children.  We saw some older children walking with no shoes on their feet at all.

Everyone was making a great effort to keep themselves covered.  Parents held their own ponchos over the heads of their children for extra protection.  There wasn’t a sense of panic, but the expressions on the faces of the people reflected the reality of the long night they were facing:  sitting in the dark, in the pouring rain, huddled for hours together with their children, all soaking wet and shivering.

People also seemed to be aware of the risk of unrest in such a large crowd spending so many hours in such difficult circumstances.  So there seemed to be some effort to keep the mood light.  As people walked, many were chatting almost casually.  Sometimes children would linger in the rain for a bit, and would then run to catch up with their parents.

Other people were not walking, but were sitting huddled together under ponchos.  About 50 people had found a bit of shelter under a store front eave.  Even those who had managed to find some shelter from the rain were soaking wet, many sitting with children in their laps for some warmth.  As they sat, some talked – even occasionally shared a laugh.  Others just sat quietly. 

I remember as I looked over the scene, thinking to myself that sleep for any of them was going to be impossible.

In the dark, we initially could find no charity or service tents at all.  Finally, we came upon a small medical tent that appeared to be open. It was the only light shining on the whole block.  Charlie pulled the van beside it and went in to find a volunteer who might be able to give us direction on distributing the supplies we had in the back of our van.

The lady he met told him that at that moment, there were about 9,000 people there in that street, and that they were expecting 10,000 to 12,000 more to arrive in the next few hours.  She explained that they were all coming to Preshevo in order to catch a bus bound for Croatia.

However, we heard that there was only expected to be about 1,500 available seats on buses that evening. This meant that they were planning for about 17,000 people to be spending that night huddled there on the street in the pouring rain.

Upon hearing those numbers, we once again felt embarrassed by the scarcity of the supplies we had brought with us.  But Charlie explained to the volunteer what we had brought, and she suggested that, as in Belgrade, it was probably not a good idea for us to simply open up the back of our van and to start handing out food and water – particularly in those circumstances.  She told us that near the police station in town was a gathering place for supplies, and that maybe it would be safer for us to take the aid there.

So, Charlie climbed back into the van, and we headed off towards the center of the village of Preshevo, maybe a 7 minute drive from the bus station, in search for the police station and the supply center.

As we entered into the lights of the center of Preshevo, we were surprised at the number of people we saw walking the streets there, who also were covered from the rain.  Initially, we assumed that these people were all refugees.  We were only about 3 miles from the bus station, but we did wonder why they had walked so far from the buses in that rain, and thought maybe they had gone there to look for food or shelter.

As as we kept driving, however, we began to realize that all of the people we saw walking around the center of Preshevo were locals who were just out on the town. We saw what looked like a government building with a large crowd of people standing outside, which we thought might have been the supply center.  But when Charlie walked up to the building, he realized that it was a high school, and that the people going in and out were students who were attending a school dance.

It was a bit surreal to see people carrying on so casually with their normal lives, just a few miles down the street from where thousands of people were spending the night in the rain. 

When we finally found the police station, Charlie pulled in and walked up to the officer working at entrance gate, in order to ask for directions to the supply center.  After chatting for a couple of minutes, the officer motioned for Charlie to follow him around to the main building of the station.  Charlie agreed.  So, the officer swung his Kalashnikov rifle over his shoulder, put his arm around Charlie’s shoulders and together they laughed and walked into the station.

In these past years of living and traveling through Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, Charlie and I both have gained some experience with the local police, so I never became particularly nervous.  But I admit that those 10 minutes before Charlie and a couple of Serbian officers finally emerged from the building were a bit longer than I’d liked.

I wasn’t worried for Charlie so much.  But, I had started asking myself how much longer I should wait before the kids and I could assume he’d been arrested for some reason, and we could head on down the road to the hotel room we had reserved in Macedonia.

As they walked back out into the rain, the 3 men chatted emotively, laughed and shook hands one more time before Charlie walked back to the van.  As he was getting back into the driver’s seat, I asked him, “So, did ya’ll have fun in there?”

Apparently, the police unit of Preshevo, Serbia does not get random visits from Americans often – particularly Americans who speak Russian, and who are carrying a load of aid to distribute to refugees traveling through town.

It seemed that Charlie’s visit brought a bit of a break – even some comic relief – to the officers, who had said they were gearing up for another difficult night near the bus station.

They explained to Charlie that everyone had been working double and triple shifts keeping order among the refugees for weeks, and that even at that moment several officers were at their homes getting some sleep before coming back in for the night.

One officer said, “I don’t know what we would do if it weren’t for those kids from Germany.”  He was referring to the medical volunteers we’d just met at the tent back at the bus station.  In total, there were 8 of them serving in Preshevo.

He also informed Charlie that the supply center was closed for the night.  He thought it was best if Charlie went back to the bus station and distributed the supplies himself, and then got his family out of Preshevo before it becoming “more tense” later that evening.

“This is going to be a long night,” he explained. “You don’t want to be here with your family.”

So, we headed back towards the bus station.  By the time we returned, we found that the street where the refugees were had been closed off by police.  Charlie explained to the officer there who we were and that we had supplies to distribute.  The officer didn’t ask any questions, and quickly waved us through.

When we returned to the charity tent, we decided we were going to have to do exactly what we’d hoped not to do – which was to open the back of the van and try to get the supplies distributed on the street.  Within seconds of opening the back door, the people began to notice us and started gathering around.

The children sat in the back seat of the van watching as Charlie and I began to distribute aid as quickly and easily as we could, while rain poured down on us.  Suddenly mothers were there with young children in their arms, dripping wet and asking me for leggings to put on their child.  Older children came with pleading eyes, and pointed timidly to the pile of dry blankets in the van.  All of the bananas we’d purchased earlier that day were handed out to the children and mothers in less than 2 minutes.

But when we began to hand out socks, the tension built somewhat.  Everyone was desperate for dry socks. 

One young girl came up whose shirt had no sleeves under her poncho.  So Charlie handed her a pair of socks, which she put on her hands as gloves. Men began to come up asking desperately for socks.  At this point we began to get a bit nervous, and motioned for the people to step back – which they all did easily – and we closed the door.

As the crowd slowly disbursed, we managed to get the remaining water and cereal bars unloaded into the charity tent with the help of one of the German volunteers.  Then the volunteer said, “We need to figure out a way to distribute these socks now. They really need those.”

We decided to put the remaining socks and blankets into large trash bags so that Charlie could carry them onto the street for distribution instead of letting people get them directly from the van.  I started looking through our own suitcase to find the few pairs of leggings I had brought for our daughters, in order to give them to young mothers who I saw sitting just a few yards away.  I asked myself, frustrated a bit, why I hadn’t thought of leggings when we were buying supplies to hand out.  Our oldest daughter, Isabel, who was still sitting in the back seat of the van with her brother and sister, took off her rain coat and handed it to Charlie, and asked him to give it to one of the little girls.

Then I stood by our kids in the van and chatted with the volunteers at the charity tent while Charlie walked through the street handing out socks and blankets to the families huddled under ponchos and coats.  A couple of families sent their older children to meet Charlie and to ask him for socks.  The entire time, we were confronted with the reality that in the heavy rain, the socks and blankets we gave would likely only stay dry for a short time – most certainly not for the entire night.

After Charlie gave out the last supplies, he and I spent a few more minutes standing in the rain, talking with the volunteers at the tent.  We were surprised by how much the police and the volunteers there seemed to appreciate our visit, and by how eager they were to talk with us.  We were shocked also by just how few volunteers were actually there, working in these camps.  We had the sense that through days and weeks of serving thousands of refugees, they had begun to feel isolated, as though no one else in the world cared about what was going on there.

In those few minutes, they shared several stories with us, mostly about how helpless they felt most of the time as they were unable to provide any real shelter to these travelers.  Unable to provide shoes to the children walking barefoot, or warm coats to the people traveling through falling temperatures.

They kept saying, “We just do not have the supplies.”

We also learned from them that the Serbian government had begun periodically sending military into these unofficial camps in order to relieve the local police, to help maintain calm and order.  The volunteer who had helped us unload our supplies earlier now took a moment for a break.  He lit up a soggy cigarette and shared with us a story from a couple of nights prior, when the Serbian military had been called into Preshevo.

He told us that the situation on that particular night was like most any night:  thousands of people came through the village.  Some families waited in the long line, hoping to get a seat on a bus to Croatia, while others struggled to find a place on the ground to gather together for some warmth and rest.  As the hours passed into morning, people obviously became more exhausted and frustrated.

Finally, around 4am, after the buses going to Croatia had left, the people remaining in the street began to quiet down.  A sense of calm settled back onto the crowd.

The military personnel who had been patrolling the street through those hours also began feeling that they could take a break.  Several sat down on the same street corner at which we were now standing, just in front of one the aid tents.

After sitting for a few minutes, some of the soldiers sitting on the curb began to cry.

“Eventually, there were about 30 military guys sitting right here on this curb, with their heads in their hands, just weeping,” the volunteer told us. “Seeing so many people with such incredible needs, and being able to do almost nothing for them – it’s just overwhelming,” he said. “For everyone.”

After about 5 minutes of chatting, some refugees approached the tent needing assistance.  We felt so helpless, even ashamed for leaving them there in the rain to face the night on their own.  But the children were getting very tired, and we knew it was time for us to go.  We shook their hands, thanked them again sincerely for their service, climbed back into our warm, dry van, and drove away.

Less than an hour later, we pulled into the parking lot of the little hotel in Skopje, Macedonia, where we would spend the night.  We made our way into our cozy room, took warm showers, put on dry pajamas, and climbed into our clean, warm beds.  Normally, the sound of the rain pouring down outside of our window would have been a source of comfort – lulling us off to sleep.

On this night, however, it haunted us with recurring images of the hundreds of families, just like ours, who were spending that night just a few miles down the road, sitting in the mud and rain. 

We were exhausted, but sleep did not come easily.

The following evening we were expected to arrive at the missions conference we were attending in Albania.  In the morning, we were all still feeling worn out, and were moving very slowly.  Gradually, with several stops along the way, we made our way out of Macedonia, through Kosovo, and into Albania.

The few days we spent in Albania with other families who were working in missions throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia were very encouraging and refreshing for all of us.  We had opportunities to sit and learn from others who had many years of experience working with refugees.  We received rich, refresher courses on recognizing and embracing different values and perspectives in intercultural and interfaith relationships.

Perhaps most encouraging for us and our children, however, was simply time spent with others whose perspectives on these things are so similar to our own.  Our children didn’t feel like they were the “strange” ones in the group of their peers.  We never felt that we needed to explain or defend our actions.  Nor were we put on any sort of “pedestal” for what we were doing.

Everyone understood that we were all living and working only by the grace and mercy of our Father, in Jesus Christ.  We all knew that at times, as a child of God, this is simply what obedience looks like.  The timing for this fellowship was very good for all of us.

There were also several at the conference who had been following our journey through Serbia, and knew we were planning to go back through Belgrade on our way home in a few days.  Many of them had brought supplies from their homes all over the world, in order to pass them off for us to carry back through Serbia.  Others gave from their own pockets, saying they wanted to do what they could to help ease the incredible burden being carried in those camps. 

The day before we departed Albania, we took some of these funds to a local outdoor market, where we found several used, but durable winter coats, which we purchased from a local vendor.  The lady was a bit shocked that we wanted to buy so many coats, but happily obliged! 

By the time we pulled out of that little Albanian village, the back of our van was already halfway full again, with clothes and supplies to be distributed to the refugees we would encounter on our way back home.

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