Ramita Navai

Ali Baba and the 300 hostages

In the ‘Wild West’ between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, being beaten up and robbed is far from the worst that can happen

Ali Baba and the 300 hostages
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In the heat of the midday sun, the fields and woodlands between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia look idyllic: birds sing, the grass is smudged with wild poppies, all seems quiet. But this picture of pastoral peace is, I’m afraid, an illusion. This is Greece’s Wild West, a lawless and desperate place known as ‘The Jungle’, where people are beaten up every day.

‘It’s dangerous out there,’ says the fat Greek policeman standing with me, just north of the village of Idomeni. Then he waddles back to his car.

The predators in this jungle are Afghan people-smugglers, their prey the poor migrants who have struggled here from all over Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The steady crunch of gravel that carries through the air with the birdsong grows louder as we approach a railway line. From here, I can see a biblical vision of flight: a continual flood of refugees who have travelled to Greece by dinghy from Turkey and are now heading for the conifer forests that disappear into the hills that encircle us. Men and women carrying babies, pulling their children, spurred onwards by poverty and war, faces scorched by the sun. A group of backpacked Syrians pick their way along the tracks. ‘Goodbye Syria!’ cries a young man, flicking a peace sign. In the distance there are more; a long line of them grinding along a road.

I walk towards the woodland. The migrants are hidden from view in the shrub, but as the tall grass gives way to the trees, they become visible. Hundreds crouch in the vegetation. Most of them are bound for Germany or Austria. Some shelter in abandoned outhouses. The new arrivals are easy to spot, limping and shoeless, airing calloused feet swollen by days of walking. A woman exposes her toddler’s little body, blanketed in red welts from the midges and mosquitos that descend in their swarms at dusk — along with the snakes.

At a clearing ahead, a charity’s jeep pulls up, followed by a foreign TV crew. The camera rolls as medicine is distributed. And then I hear them, talking in Dari: the Afghan people smugglers.

Between dick jokes, they are discussing business: how many have you got? Who is going to cross tonight? These are the men the fat copper was afraid of, smugglers now posing as refugees in a queue for gauzes and pills. Migrants exploiting migrants: they are hard to spot at first. But soon you can pick them out from a distance — the swagger, the flamboyant hair, all undercuts and mohawks, the leather wristbands and the flashy trainers.

A Syrian man was shot in the head a few months ago when he resisted a robbery. Increasingly there are reports of rapes. A young Afghan jogs towards us gripping his head. A dribble of blood leaks from a gash on his cheekbone. His face is bruised black. He says the Macedonian police beat him as he emerged from the other side of the forest. If it’s not thieves, it is the police.

But I am looking for information about something more sinister than either: a kidnap ring said to be holding hundreds of migrants to ransom at a house in northern Macedonia. When I ask an Afghan smuggler about it, his stunned reaction and the looks that pass between him and his friends tell me that it is true. One of them takes me aside, ignoring the others urging him to shut up.

Every week, he says, hundreds of refugees are transported by freight train to a small farmhouse in a village called Vaksince, in northern Macedonia, where they are held for ransom. The operation started less than a year ago and is raking in hundreds of thousands of euros a month. The smuggler is talking to me because the ring is encroaching on his patch — twice already he has had to rescue ‘clients’ from the house, refugees who were kidnapped en route to Serbia. He describes the place in detail; conditions are so bad it looks like somewhere you would keep livestock, he says. The kingpin is an Afghan known as Ali Baba — real name Nusrat. But how can a bunch of Afghans set up shop in a village in Macedonia? ‘Albanian Mafia,’ he whispers.

Everything the smuggler tells me fits with what I already know. I’d met Mohammed and Ahmed in Budapest. Best friends from Aleppo in Syria, they had made the same journey with a group of about 300 other refugees. After making it out of the jungle in Greece, they were loaded on to a wagon at Gevgelija station in Macedonia, near the Greek border. Several hours later the train stopped. Gasping for oxygen, the group stumbled out into the dawn air — and into the hands of about 50 men armed with batons and knives. They were forced to walk a few hours until they reached a house. For five days, Mohammed, Ahmed and the others were packed into a stinking, airless room; windows blacked out with bin liners. At night bodies piled on top of each other. The house was guarded at all times by Ali Baba’s henchmen. Beatings were regular. Food was scarce. Syrians, assumed to be the richest, were charged the highest ransoms at €1,000 each. Those with no cash were forced to call their families for money or download the Western Union app on their phones and make transfers. Turnover was high — every few days a new batch of prisoners would be delivered to the house. Ali Baba threatened to kill anyone who did not pay.

Mohammed and Ahmed, who saw local Macedonian police working with the traffickers, used their phones to identify position of the house and to send pleas for help. They escaped one morning during a battle between the police and Albanian mafia.

The battle lasted more than 30 hours, bombs and bullets ripping through bricks and concrete. At least 18 people were killed, including eight members of Macedonia’s special forces. The authorities said they were fighting ethnic ‘Albanian rebels’, some of whom were wearing the uniform of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel movement which fought for independence from Serbia — and had deep roots in organised crime.

Using the coordinates that Mohammed and Ahmed had given us, we drove to the house. As we approached, several Afghan guards appeared. A group of locals gathered around. They said they heard shouting from the house every night — they had even called the police, who never turned up. A short Afghan in a black T-shirt who had darted up a hill started shouting instructions to his men from some bushes. The locals pointed at him and said: ‘They call him Ali Baba.’ When the guards began making phone calls, the locals became anxious and told us to leave. They feared the Afghans were calling the mafia — the real men in charge.

A couple of weeks later the Macedonian police raided that house. It had already been cleared, but hundreds of migrants were rescued from other houses. Fourteen people have been arrested so far — but there is no sign of Ali Baba.

His operation was a business that pumped a million euros a month, perhaps more, into criminal networks that spread across Europe, fuelled by corrupt officials. ‘Everyone knows what’s going on. And nobody does anything, because they’re all involved,’ said an off-duty Greek civil servant. He named police, customs officials and railway workers in several European countries, accusing them of accepting bribes and tampering with seals on wagon doors to help traffickers transport their human cargo.

And that’s the problem. The scale of the new trade in humans is so vast that it’s engendering corruption through south and eastern Europe. Confusing and discriminatory laws on undocumented migrants — such as ones that bar them from taking public transport — make them easy prey. While Europe is concentrating on how to keep desperate migrants out, organised crime syndicates are counting the cash as they expand their empires.

If Europe wants to help refugees, it must concentrate on fighting these criminal gangs. Attempts to stem the flow of migrants are not working — even the 110-mile fence that Hungary is now building along its border with Serbia will not keep them out.

As Ahmed said: ‘I would do this journey again tomorrow. And again. A thousand times more. When there is nothing for you at home, nothing for you to lose, what else would you do?’

Ramita Navai’s City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran is out in paperback.