It took Hassan Omar four long hours to cross into Macedonia, his wheelchair pushed by strangers across the muddy paths of Greece’s border – but a day later he found himself back at the squalid migrant camp he had left.
Like scores of people, many from war zones in Syria and Iraq, who streamed out of the camp near the Greek town of Idomeni on Monday and crossed into Macedonia, he was rounded up and sent back.
“We were surprised to see the army there,” said Omar, who fled fighting in Iraq, recounting how one man carried him for hours during their 8 km (5-mile) trek, up mountains and through valleys.
“They were very harsh with us. It felt like a death machine, not humans dealing with us,” he said.
An estimated 1,500 people left the camp on Monday trying to find a way past the razor-wire fence erected by Macedonia, on a route they hoped would take them to Germany and other wealthy European Union countries.
Most were picked up by Macedonian security forces, put into trucks and driven back over the border late on Monday or overnight, a Macedonian police official said.
The Macedonian action was part of a drive by Western Balkans states to shut down a migration route from Greece to Germany used by nearly a million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Asia over the last year in Europe’s biggest refugee influx since World War Two.
Greek authorities said they could not confirm the return as there had been no official contact from the Macedonian side, but those who arrived back at the camp recounted their experiences on Tuesday.
One man from the northern Syrian province of Raqqa, who gave his name as Abdo, said Macedonian authorities divided the detainees into groups of 25 to 50 people, put them in cars and dropped them off at the border.
“They told us to run, so we started to run,” he said.
Authorities estimate at least 12,000 people, including thousands of children, have been stranded in the Idomeni camp, where sanitary conditions have deteriorated after days of heavy rain. Concern about the spread of infection grew after one person was diagnosed with Hepatitis A.
It was unclear why so many people made for the border on Monday, but Greek officials say leaflets that circulated at the Idomeni camp before the march showed it was a planned action.
Sixty-year-old Syrian Mohammad Kattan, who hoped to be reunited with his family in Serbia, said it had taken him six hours to trudge to the border.
“At my age it was very difficult,” he said, bundled up in a thick blanket. “My hope was to get to Macedonia … so that I could continue on to another country.”
Downcast and exhausted, he returned along with a second group of migrants, numbering about 600, who were prevented from even crossing the border by Macedonian security forces.
They waded back knee-deep through the icy river near the border on Tuesday, some barefoot, others weighed down by children and their worldly belongings on their shoulders.
On the riverbank, men and women stood around a fire drying their feet and clothes. One woman sobbed, her face framed by a pink headscarf. Others dragged their belongings across the dirt, and pulled along their children in fruit baskets.
A Syrian woman who gave her name as Nasreem described how she sheltered her children overnight with plastic bags and said she believed they would finally be “done with all the rain and the cold” when they arrived at the border.
“But they didn’t let us through.”