It was a beautiful, calm morning when I met my team at 9am last Sunday near the Idomeni refugee camp, close to the Greece-Macedonia border. Our plan was to work in the Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) mobile medical clinic, to assist refugees and migrants who are staying at a distance from the main Idomeni site. Just before lunch, we were requested to attend Idomeni camp to help the rest of the medical team respond to the large number of injuries following altercations at the border and alleged violence by Macedonian police.
Idomeni camp is situated in a vast terrain of flat agricultural land, divided in two by a barbed-wire, steel border fence. A number of tents back on to this fence and the majority of the camp extends away from this point. We left the MSF jeep near the train station, close to the clinic. As we approached the camp, I saw what I assumed to be tear gas in the distance. I heard loud explosions or banging sounds, and worried that this was the sound of blast bombs, rubber bullets or tear gas being fired.
Walking closer to the camp, the first thing I noticed was the number of families who had gathered, approximately 100 meters from the border fence. Many women and children were in tears and consoling each other. There appeared to be a number of unaccompanied children among them, presumably separated from their parents during the violent events.
Walking on, I observed people distributing toothpaste and crafting facemasks from it, in an attempt to protect themselves from the teargas.
Others poured cans of cola onto cloth and placed it over their faces in order to protect themselves. The scenes were chaotic, with people receiving treatment from one another in tents or at the side of the road.
As I reached the clinic, the MSF team was working hard to treat people affected by the teargas attack. It was not long before another attack began. From where I was positioned near the door, I heard a number of large blasts, followed by screams - which got louder as people approached.
What sticks in my mind was the large number of women and children, many of whom were carrying some of their belongings. They were in significant distress, attempting to find the clinic but unable to see where they were going. We started triage and assessment for injuries - the majority were facial, related to teargas, with many young children’s lungs having become inflamed. Men, women and children were also carried into the clinic on blankets that had been used as makeshift stretchers, as they were unable to mobilise themselves due to lower leg injuries, or as a result of psychological shock.
After examining those with non-teargas injuries, I found evidence of well defined, non-penetrating blunt trauma, presumably due to plastic bullets. A number of these injuries were located on the back, indicating that the person was likely walking or running away from the source. A number of such injuries were also to the chest as well as to the head. In particular, I remember one of the three children who were shot in the head wandering around in a dazed state, with the plastic bullet in his hand. His mother said he had been unconscious for at least five minutes. He was transferred to hospital for further imaging, along with a number of others who sustained fractures through the course of the day.
The team regrouped and we prepared for further incidents. Again we were not waiting long. I heard screams as people ran from the border fence. I stepped outside to assess the situation and to my right I noticed white smoke billowing from an object bouncing on the roof of one of the large white tents that sheltered refugees. It then bounced onto a pathway running through the camp, engulfing the entire area.
In a panic, people started to flee their tents. Within seconds the white smoke - tear gas -- entered the now-packed clinic, with everyone inside bending over almost instantly and simultaneously to protect their faces.
My eyes were quite irritated and I managed to grab a water bottle to wash my face and eyes. The air was suffocating and I struggled to continue my work to assess and treat patients. Again, many people were in distress and crying. A few were screaming; “we have done nothing wrong”.
During my assessments, I came across a pregnant woman, caught in the stampede. She was concerned she had lost her child. She, like many others, had been certain that “the border would be open today”.
Dr Conor Kenny is currently working with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) at the Greek border with the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Conor treated refugees and migrants injured by alleged police violence during altercations at the border on Sunday last. In total, MSF teams treated 300 people. Among them were 200 treated for respiratory problems following the use of tear gas, including 30 children. Forty people were treated for injuries sustained from the use of rubber bullets, including three children with head injuries.
More than 11,000 refugees and migrants from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have been camped out in a make-shift site close to the border for more than one-month, following the closure of Balkan borders. Between 30 and 40 per cent of those at the site are children. msf.ie