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Pilgrims in the landscape of lament

  • 19 April 2013

The tiny village of Lojane is perched in the foothills, 500m from the Macedonian-Serbian border. Mud-walled houses surround a dirt yard, and the thin minarets of a diminutive mosque rise above the rooftops. As we drove into the village, dogs, chickens and children scampered out of the way and men looked curiously from doorways.

We had come from Skopje, a city of dubious character, surounded by mountains, whose isolation belies the evidence of its historical experience as a meeting point: amidst a crumbling cityscape there are ancient Orthodox churches and Ottoman mosques; a Byzantine fortress perches on the hill above the city.

I was in Macedonia for research, interviewing irregular migrants and asylum seekers for a report on the Western Balkans as a transit route for mixed migration flows to the European Union. Hence this journey from Skopje, through the mountains to meet the mufti of Lojane, a stone's throw from border.

Greeting the mufti I couldn't help thinking of Hadji Murat, Tolstoy's Caucasian warrior, with his fierce eyebrows and intimidating beard. The mufti was a tad too portly to ride the slopes on horseback but, surrounded by henchmen of various shapes and sizes, he looked very much in charge.

The village was hosting several hundred irregular migrants from every country imaginable, from Pakistan to Nigeria. They were camping out in abandoned houses and sheds, paying the locals rent, scavenging in bins for food. Every night, large groups of them departed across the mountainous border, to be replaced by new arrivals.

This tiny village is now at the centre of the irregular migration route to the European Union and is struggling to cope with increasing numbers of migrants. In that sense it's a microcosm of the wider Macedonian situation.

The immigration detention facilities in Skopje are always full of new arrivals; undocumented migrants from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. In the prison and reception centre, men slept on the floor amidst the cooking pots, the air was thick and overpowering; rubbish filled the corridors, young children were thrown in with everyone else, living in shit-smeared rooms. The diet consisted of thin soup on weekdays, nothing on weekends.

One interviewee was the same age as me and had the same name — Benedict. But he looked old. He had left Nigeria and walked to Macedonia; four years of walking. His feet were covered in callouses, dried and thickened. In the course of these wanderings he had been kidnapped,