Macedonia, The New Nightmare For Migrants

Thousands of asylum seekers are passing through the small Balkan nation on their way to the European Union, but the short journey is far more arduous than it seems.

In Kumanovo, Macedonia
In Kumanovo, Macedonia
Benoît Vitkine

KUMANOVO â€" On Macedonia’s roads, in the parallel world of migrants, a good pair of shoes is as valuable as hard cash. Last month, in Athens, Najib Mahmoudi bought a great pair, top-notch basketball shoes to match his standing as a celebrity, at least among his fellow Afghans.

Najib became a national idol in Afghanistan after winning the 2007 season of Afghan Star, the country’s most popular TV singing competition. Compatriots who see him here in this forgotten corner of Europe regard Najib with a mixture of respect and amusement.

The singing sensation was forced into exile after a video of him kissing a young girl after one of his concerts appeared on the Internet. When the Taliban in his local region of Mazar-i-Sharif threatened to kill him, he fled to Iran.

The rest of his journey to Macedonia recalls that of hundreds of refugees before him: he paid 1,200 euros ($1,306) to get into Turkey, then another 1,500 ($1,632) to board a plastic raft to reach the Greek island of Kos, where his first taste of the Europe he long dreamed of was a country facing a deep economic crisis.

Najib's new basketball shoes were supposed to help him finish his long trek through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, and on to his eventual destination of Germany or Sweden. “Maybe France too,” he says. “It seems that Afghans are welcomed and accepted there.”

But just after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border, he and his fellow refugees were attacked by men dressed in police uniforms and armed with Kalashnikovs and knives. In one fell swoop, gone were his new shoes, phone and remaining cash. Najib was forced to continue his arduous journey in his old pair of awful canvas shoes, worn down by the many kilometers he had already traveled.

Blisters and beatings

“They weren’t policemen,” says Zaccharia, 27, one of Najib’s fellow travelers. “Their uniforms didn’t match. And some wore track pants.” Zaccharia has a trained eye thanks to his years of work as a translator for the U.S. military. Despite their promises, the soldiers didn’t take him along to the United States when they left Afghanistan, and so he ventured off along, to join his wife and son in Norway.

The two friends take a rest in the cool air of the Tatar Sin Beg mosque of Kumanovo, a town in northern Macedonia, before walking the last few kilometers to the Serbian border. The 30 other migrants, hailing from Afghanistan, Syria and Africa, treat their blisters and are elated as they feel the softness of the mosque’s carpet. Satara, a mischievous nine-year-old Afghan girl, has been traveling for seven months with her parents and her two-year-old brother. She would like to stop in Kumanovo for a while because she is tired of walking and hiding.

At the Macedonia/Serbia border â€" Photo: Juanlu y Jessica engerundi

The Balkan route is taken by ever more migrants. Between 2,000 and 3,000 follow its path every day. On the treacherous journey, Macedonia, with only 2 million inhabitants, should be just a formality. Instead it is the worst stop on the long route, scene to assaults and long walks under the blistering sun.

On June 18, the Macedonian parliament approved a law allowing migrants to use public transport and taxis, but these options remain almost inaccessible to them. Using cars of private citizens is even riskier since the authorities, under pressure from the EU, adopted an anti-trafficking law that defines any citizen who carries three migrants in their car as a people smuggler. The law includes a punishment of six months to four years in jail and confiscation of the accused’s vehicle.

Gazi Baba, hell on Earth

For the migrants themselves, traveling in someone’s car also carries the risk of being detained at the terrible Gazi Baba transit center in the suburbs of Skopje, the capital. Oussam, a 19-year-old Algerian who has been wandering for three years, spent time in Greek and Turkish jails but says Gazi Baba is worse. He cites the overcrowding, lack of fresh air, absence of medicine and inedible food. The center hosts over 300 people, more than triple its capacity of 100.

Migrants arrested for their illegal presence in Macedonia are rarely sent back to the Greek border. According to a source in a European police force, “the work of the Macedonian police rests on only one factor, the capacity to host migrants.” In Macedonia this capacity is limited, with only a few hundred places in two centers near Skopje, one of which is Gazi Baba.

The priority of the Macedonian authorities seems to be to limit the influx of migrants to one route, the Thessaloniki-Belgrade railway, which crosses the country from south to north. The 230 km railway is a narrow thread crossing the country, the sole refuge from the police. It’s a difficult walk, forcing migrants to take small steps on rocks, where they often twist their ankles and tear their shoes.

Gazi Baba cityscape â€" Photo: markovskavesnicka

In some of the steeper valleys, there’s barely any space to sidestep the trains that roar past. In late April, 14 migrants were killed when they were struck by a train on the Thessaloniki-Belgrade route. This is the added danger of the railway route, where such accidents have taken place before.

On the rails, refugees also become much easier targets for gangs. Nearly all the 50 migrants we met over three days were assaulted on the route, many of them twice: once in the mainly Slav south of the country, and again in the mainly Albanian north. “It’s the mafia,” says Ali, a former wealthy businessman from Yemen. Before making his way to Macedonia he tried crossing through Albania, where he and his two children, aged 13 and 14, were met with gunshots in the air from the Albanian police.

Where local gangs rule

A European source disagrees, saying "smaller local groups," rathern than the mafia, are to blame for the attacks on the migrants. The mafia has other interests to attend to â€" "more profitable enterprises, like prostitution and arms and drugs trafficking,” the source explains.

Earlier this year one of those groups captured several hundred migrants, taking them to a house where they were locked away and beaten until their families paid a ransom to the kidnappers. In June Macedonian police dismantled a criminal network, but failed to arrest the group’s leader, an Afghan nicknamed “Ali Baba.”

The assaults and long marches erase the differences between the poor and rich refugees. Along the railway in northern Macedonia, members of Tehran’s middle class share the shade under a majestic tree with a group of destitute Afghans.

At the end of the route lies Lojane, an Albanian-majority village and the last stop before the Serbian border. Some of the locals make a few euros on the side by turning their houses into dormitories for the migrants, but the town’s mayor denies the practice exists. Oussam, the Algerian we met in Kumanovo, arrived at Lojane at the end of the day after losing 20 euros to a group of knife-wielding young men.

Here in Lojane, the police and border guards seem to follow a mysterious logic of their own. Most of the time crossing the border is a formality, but on certain days both the Serbian and Macedonian border police heighten their vigilance.

Ibrahim and his family will try to leave this forlorn country tonight. He, his wife Fatima and his six-year-old daughter Mobina have been unlucky on their travels. The Macedonian police stopped them five times in different places around the country, deporting them back to Greece without any documents. After every deportation, it was time to try the crossing again. By Ibrahim’s own count, he has walked 1,000 km in this tiny country.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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