April 1, 2016 Idomeni Greece By Dr. Bill Dienst
A week later, several changes are apparent here on the Greek-Macedonian border. The refugee population at Idomeni is starting to be reduced, slightly. Last Saturday, we witnessed a convoy of 4 buses full of refugees heading South on the Highway with police escorts. As far as we can tell, it appears that the population, once estimated as high as 20 thousand, is diminishing by several hundred each day. We are hearing that these are refugees willing to leave voluntarily: i.e. those who have had enough. These people are heading to reception or relocation centers which are being set up by the Greek military on the Greek mainland. There, they will have better living conditions and three square meals a day in exchange for finally sacrificing their ability to roam freely, as well as their hope for a better future in Northern Europe.
Still, many thousands remain who, so far, will not leave voluntarily: Those who have invested all their physical and financial resources to get this far and still have fading hopes for pressing on to Germany. Tensions are mounting. This past Sunday, the refugees who remain were joined by Italian and Spanish activists who flew in for the weekend to show their solidarity. They all assembled Sunday morning on the railroad tracks in the center of the refugee camp, about a hundred meters from the border. There, they were met by hundreds of Greek riot police, and a face-to-face standoff ensued.
Salaam Cultural Museum was trying to enter Idomeni camp with our mobile health van. We were blocked by the Greek Police while getting off the highway. We had to double back and take a 40 km detour through back roads and beautiful countrysides of foothills and vineyards to get to the camp. As we approached the camp, I jumped out with some others at the railway station and walked up the tracks through areas B and A toward Area C where our van was negotiating traffic to get into position at our usual spot.
We crossed the tracks in the middle of the confrontation: tense but not yet violent. A large crowd of refugees and their Italian and Spanish allies stood face to face with a line of police in full riot gear and shields. Slogans were being shouted. Our Norwegian partners, Medics Bergen were on standby with their trauma packs in hand. We pressed on 300 meters beyond and met up with our mobile health van in our usual spot in Area C across the road from the cluster of tents, which have become known as “Little Kurdistan”. There are also districts of Idomeni populated by Arabic speaking Syrians, Iraqis and Yazidis . . . also Pakistanis who speak Urdu and Pashtu, and others. Sometimes there are tensions between these different ethnic groups.
As we arrived, there did not seem to be much happening in terms of primary care at our usual spot. Many people were heading in the opposite direction toward the tracks and the border with all their belongings and with hopes they might finally get across. I started pulling our trauma first aid packs from the van and handing them out to our volunteers, with the intention of sending them back toward the tracks. But wait a minute . . . here is a Syrian family wanting some primary care. So we decided to see them before heading to the tracks. But before we had finished, several others arrived, and not too long after that, a long line had assembled and we were back in business. Hours later, we saw the Greek riot police walking out peacefully. Conflict had somehow been avoided, but I am not certain about the details, as I was caught up examining a lot of people with coughs, sore throats and other maladies by then.
So that was Sunday. On Monday, I inherited the role of being medical director of a freestanding medical clinic which was constructed out of plywood and tarp by Medecins Sans Frontieres. MSF decided to consolidate their operations in Idomeni. So they handed over operations for the clinic at EKO gas station to us. We moved in Monday, outfitted the clinic that morning, and started seeing patients at 2 pm. We have now offered 13 hours of continuous patient service per day for the past 2 days. Now it is Thursday . . .
Salaam Cultural Museum and Off Track Health had previously been present during the past few weeks running mobile health clinics at EKO gas station. Previously, EKO was the last bus stop where passengers coming from Athens were let off. Refugees getting off the bus there then had the option of taking a taxi, or walking 20 km up the highway to the border at Idomeni, or pitching a tent. And so may tents sprung up there, including many large ones sponsored by UNHCR. And so, a community of perhaps 1,200 refugees has sprung up: a ready made small town of refugees for this small town doctor now medical director of this small town clinic with a very small medical staff that changes every week.
Dr. Bill Dienst is a rural family and emergency room physician from North Central Washington. He has extensive experience in medical exchange programs in Veracruz, Mexico and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He is currently on assignment with Salaam Cultural Museum, a Seattle based nonprofit organization doing humanitarian and medical relief work in Lesbos and Idomeni, Greece.