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article imageSyrian war amputees join torturous Balkan migrant route

By Serene Assir (AFP)     Sep 2, 2015 in World

"However hard you try, you just can't imagine how hard this journey is for me," says Abu Fahed, 25, who lost both his legs in a bombing and is fleeing Syria's war through the Balkans in a wheelchair.

He is among some 250,000 people who have lost limbs in Syria's savage four-year conflict, and among dozens in wheelchairs and on crutches who are braving the especially arduous journey over the Aegean Sea, then up to northern Greece, through the Balkans, Hungary and ultimately northern Europe.

They have to tackle often bumpy and muddy terrain, relying on friends, relatives and fellow travellers to carry them on sections of the journey that their wheelchairs cannot manage.

Some of the authorities along the way allow them to jump queues, but at other times they must wait with everyone else for hours under the sun to cross borders or be registered in the countries they cross.

"I want to reach a country where I can receive decent prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation," Abu Fahed says, as he and his friends wait at a hotel frequented by migrants on the highway near Greece's Idomeni for a bus to the border with Macedonia.

Abu Mohammad  a 74-years-old Syrian migrant  is helped by relatives after crossing the border from G...
Abu Mohammad, a 74-years-old Syrian migrant, is helped by relatives after crossing the border from Greece to Macedonia, near the Greek village of Gevgelija, August 29, 2015
Aris Messinis, AFP

The former hairdresser lost both his legs in the summer of 2013 when government troops shelled his rebel-held, besieged town near Damascus.

"I was badly wounded, but had I received treatment in time I might have kept my legs. Instead, regime forces detained me for a week and amputated them. They gave me no food throughout that time," he said, smiling as a friend he is travelling with wept with sorrow at the man's fate.

"Had it not been for my friends, I wouldn't have made it this far," said Abu Fahed, dark blue pyjama bottoms tied into knots around the stumps of his thighs.

- 'No choice' -

Khaled, a 20-year-old Palestinian-Syrian who lost his left leg and suffered serious wounds to the right in government shelling in August 2013, is making the journey on crutches.

Migrants pass through the Greece-Macedonia border near the town of Idomeni  northern Greece  on Augu...
Migrants pass through the Greece-Macedonia border near the town of Idomeni, northern Greece, on August 24, 2015
Sakis Mitrolidis, AFP/File

"I used to love playing football, but that's all over now," said the shy young man, who was hit by a shell as he was talking to a neighbour in a garden.

Khaled said he was terrified, "mainly for the children on board", while crossing from Turkey's shores on an inflatable boat to Greece's Samos island.

When he reached solid ground he had to spend the night in the woods, waiting for someone to rescue him.

"I walked many hours the next day, but my prosthetic limb kept falling off and I had to keep stopping," said Khaled, clad in a black T-shirt and jeans.

"I make a big effort not to fall behind the group, but it's hard. Others can run if they have to, I can barely keep up sometimes."

Khaled said that as a Palestinian-Syrian, he had "no choice" but to make this nearly impossible journey through the Balkans, which has become one of the major routes for the several hundred thousand people entering Europe this year.

Migrants walk outside the Eastern railway station in Budapest on September 1  2015
Migrants walk outside the Eastern railway station in Budapest on September 1, 2015
Attila Kisbenedek, AFP

"I am not allowed into Jordan or Lebanon for treatment, so I had to be smuggled to Turkey just so I could make this journey to a European country with decent health facilities," he said.

Gazing up at the sky, Khaled said he wants to learn to walk without his crutches one day.

"I want to go back to my studies. I don't want to feel like a useless member of society as I do now," he explained.

"I wish the road became easier for us," he said, adding that as things stand, it is well-nigh impossible for Syrians to obtain visas for Europe.

- 'Legal alternatives needed' -

UN refugee agency spokeswoman Aikaterini Kitidi agreed.

"European countries should provide them with legal alternatives, so that the irregular passage, with all its related dangers and exploitation by smuggling networks, does not remain their only choice," she told AFP.

"The EU could also expedite the implementation of the decision to relocate people in need of international protection from Greece to other EU member states, in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation."

But Abu Mohammad, a 74-year-old with a spinal injury that prevents him from walking, says the flow of refugees will continue whether or not the policy changes.

"I didn't choose to make this journey, but then again neither did any of the people you see standing here," said Abu Mohammad, who is confined to a wheelchair.

He tries to keep his family's broken spirits up as they make their way towards Sweden along dirt tracks, crammed trains and endless waits at border crossings from Greece up towards Hungary.

Four young men from southern Syria volunteer to carry the wheelchair through the especially rough tracks. "We do it because we believe it's right," says one.

Abu Mohammad, who wears a traditional olive-green robe and whose white hair and beard contrasts sharply with his dark skin, believes that even though the journey is near-impossible, "you must always chase life, wherever it is to be had."

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