“Covering this story changed me. When I look at people who have an immigrant background–whether here in America or in Europe, in particular — I am fascinated by the extraordinary story they must have of what they had to go through to get here. And I will never take them for granted again.” – photographer Charles Ommanney, on covering “The Black Route” for The Washington Post
The number of migrants and refugees fleeing parts of the Middle East and Africa and rushing the shores of Greece en route to Europe for a better life continues to mount. The swell of people spilling across borders from Italy to Greece with hopes of reaching central European countries has forced the European Union to scramble for a solution to the rising immigration concerns.
In Sight sat down with award-winning photographer Charles Ommanney last week to discuss his three-week assignment alongside The Post’s Berlin bureau chief, Anthony Faiola, to report on “The Black Route to Europe,” which chronicles the long road for hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants. The two followed the arduous journey of one Syrian refugee family — the Jinaids — as they traveled from the shores of Athens up through Macedonia, to the tense area of Kanjis in Serbia before finally being detained in Hungary, just short of reaching their destination of Gmund, Austria.
Ommanney describes the journey:
Anthony and I had been hanging around the hotel of the lobby of the Astro hotel in a town called Polykastros in the north of Greece, quite close to the border with Macedonia. This family came looking tattered and ragged. Anthony very cleverly spotted them and started talking through our translators. After a day of chatting they agreed to let us follow them. They decided that they were going to make their way the next day. This was the beginning of our relationship. Everyone was nervous because there were people in the hotel who were horribly beaten. People had tried to go across the border in the previous days and had been attacked by Macedonia mafia, Afghan and local Macedonian gangs, street thugs and paramilitary. Knowing the Syrians were carrying money, they would attack these families.
We learn they are arriving in Belgrade on this one train, so we get to the station early, and they are filled with police. It’s because at the same time there were Albanian terrorists [who] were going crazy, and there were problems. Police were looking for bandits. We of course thought they were looking for Syrians. It was like a scene out of World War II. We were sitting around trying to look inconspicuous, knowing at any minute this family was going to get off this train. The whole time we think these guys really stand out.
At the Jasmin Hostel everyone is exhausted, and the tension is building. The whole time Ahmed is checking his cell phone because he’s getting information on whether it’s safer to leave now or leave the next night. It’s a smartphone, and this is how the network passes down what’s going on ahead of them. People are writing on these special sites saying, “Go to the left of the railroad tracks.” “Ok, keep right.” “Watch out for the gang.” The tension was constant. Finally, after two days, we made the decision it was time to leave. Off we go on this journey north through Serbia with no idea what was ahead of us. We journeyed on a bus for four hours, and the entire bus was filled with Syrian refugees.
Immediately exiting the bus, all the other refugees who have paid for a smuggler to take them to Hungary disburse. Ahmed and his family had not arranged for a smuggler, and so we get off the bus and are just standing on the side of the street. Ahmed makes a bad decision to send his son off to get some bread. While he was away we are all detained by the police. The family were made to sit on the bench, and everyone was nervous about what was about to happen. But unbelievably, the Serbian police are actually telling us we’re going the wrong way. They told us that if we a want to go to Hungary we need to go the other way. We walk into the pitch dark, about one mile from Hungary. It is here in the forest where we eventually have to leave the family, and it’s the last time we would see them before they were arrested before reaching Austria.
We know that their ultimate destination is to reach Ahmed’s brother Ishmael, who is the father of the young boy traveling with Ahmed. Ismael lives in Gmünd, Austria, near the Austrian-Czech border, and works for a pita factory. He spends his entire day trying to get in touch with the family. He would work in the factory, and as soon as he would go home he would be tethered to his phone constantly to see if [there was] any news. Finally news comes through after five or six days that the 17-year-old had been released, along with Ismael’s 11-year-old son, and they make it through Vienna on foot and manage to be hidden in an underground mosque. We were with Ismael when he was reunited with his son and with the 17-year-old at the mosque. After a short stay, they leave out of the mosque, and that was the last time we saw them. It was an incredibly emotional separation.