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Refugee crisis in Europe – Macedonian Border

By Georgi Licovski

An exhausted and frustrated migrant holds his head after he failed to get a place on a train heading to the Serbian border at the train station in Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 13 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

An exhausted and frustrated migrant holds his head after he failed to get a place on a train heading to the Serbian border at the train station in Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 13 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

My first pictures for epa date back to more than 20 years ago and that first decade of my epa career was connected exclusively to the breaking up of Yugoslavia, only to be followed by the terrible crisis in Kosovo. It was then that I first experienced huge waves of refugees, when half a million people left Kosovo and were settled in the Macedonian refugee camp Stenkovec. Those were very difficult times and sincerely I thought, and hoped, I would never need to take pictures of refugees on European territory again. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

A Macedonian policeman walks ahead of a group of refugees crossing the border checkpoint of Blace, some 25 kms north of the Macedonian capitol Skopje 24 April 1999, after their arrival from Kosovo by train. epa / Georgi Licovski

A Macedonian policeman walks ahead of a group of refugees crossing the border checkpoint of Blace, some 25 kms north of the Macedonian capitol Skopje 24 April 1999, after their arrival from Kosovo by train. epa / Georgi Licovski

After the war in Macedonia in 2001 and the surrounding conflicts, I continued working for epa, mainly covering sports events. I have to admit that I have enjoyed these last 14 years and the sport assignments far away from the human suffering and tragedy.

I continued to cover news in Macedonia and the surrounding countries but rarely something that is breaking news. With the coming of the migrants on Macedonian territory in March and April this year, I was among the first who took a serious interest in it because I assumed that the migrant story would continue to develop. In the beginning the pictures were not really accepted in European newspapers because Europe still didn’t take the migrants situation seriously. As time passed however, the story got bigger and in July and August it exploded and became one of the biggest stories of the beginning 21st century. When I consider that I am not so young, and having 30 years of working as a photographer behind me, I started looking at things differently. For me, I was faced with a big moral question. We all try to take the most touching pictures of the migrants because we know that those kind of pictures have a better impact in the newspapers in the world. Those are the types of pictures that sell. But at the same time I became very aware of how deep I got into the intimacy and misery of the people who left their homes and were running away from the horrors of war, dreaming of the “paradise on earth” called Europe. How moral is it to use their misery and their terrible situation for a better picture and a better play? But truth be told, never in my life did I receive a greater reaction from the many European journalists and their readers as they tried to contact me and ask if they could help the migrants in any way. I received emails in which people asked me where can they donate money for the migrants. That made me a little happier.

Migrants fight to get onto the train heading to the Serbian border at the train station in Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 13 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

Migrants fight to get onto the train heading to the Serbian border at the train station in Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 13 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

The majority of migrants don’t want their pictures taken for many reasons. While the younger ones and the children are easier to come into contact with and accept being photographed, the adults and especially the women are not happy when they see the cameras. A big problem for me nevertheless is how to approach and make contact with the migrants. In all the chaos, what is difficult for me and the other photographers is the police which, by default do not like the photographers. The permits for taking pictures at the border line are easily acquired from the ministry of interior. Nevertheless it’s completely different in the field. Even if you have all the necessary papers and permits required, the permission to shoot is given by the commander of the police force who is in charge at the moment. In any case, experience and patience is required to make good contact with the police which allows for better access to the border zone.

Migrants wait for the train heading to the Serbian border at the train station in Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 14 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

Migrants wait for the train heading to the Serbian border at the train station in Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 14 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

Where I faced my biggest dilemma was the situation when the migrants placed women and children in front of the police cordon. The police could at any time be given the order to close the cordon and not let anyone pass. But the migrants, in their rush to pass the border as quickly as possible, try to breach the police cordon by setting the women and children in the front of the line. The migrants then start to push from behind. As the police try to stop their passage the innocent women and children are caught in the middle. There are horrible scenes of women and children crying and fainting. While taking pictures of these incidents, I am not sure how much we captured the real situation in the field. Are the police being brutal or are the migrants just creating a scene that makes it look that way? During one of these situations I made a picture that was published as a double page in “Time” magazine and many other newspapers around the world. In it you can see two children crying in the middle of a police cordon.

Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 21 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 21 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

The situation was so horrible that for the first time in my life I saw my colleagues cry, shaken by what’s going on in front of their eyes. I also cried, but still I wonder if that picture, and dozens of others we made that day with similar themes truly show the situation of what happened that day on the Macedonian-Greek border. With certainty I know that some of the migrants took other people’s children in their hands to be allowed to pass the police cordon after which they left the children alone on the railways and continued on their way. The children were left alone crying, searching for their parent who was on the other side of the cordon. What is the truth here and how can we capture it without manipulating the facts?

Migrants wait for permission to board a train heading to the Serbian border at the train station in Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 15 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

Migrants wait for permission to board a train heading to the Serbian border at the train station in Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 15 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

I am however, proud of the picture I took of the little Syrian boy whose parents carried him in a bag because, according to them, he was badly hurt from a chemical attack in Syria. That picture was widely published on several front pages in Europe and caused big a response, which I mentioned before in the text. Many people and organizations became interested in the fate of the child and from what I understand, they were able to locate him and his family and he was able to get the care that he needed.

Migrants from Aleppo, Syria, carry their injured child in a bag as they get in a train heading to the Serbian border, at the train station in Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 04 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

Migrants from Aleppo, Syria, carry their injured child in a bag as they get in a train heading to the Serbian border, at the train station in Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 04 August 2015. epa / Georgi Licovski

I use different camera bags depending on how many days I will stay in the field but my standard equipment during the time of the migrant crisis is my two Nikon cameras D4 and D4s, 14-24mm, 35mm, 70-200mm and 300mm.

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