VELES, MACEDONIA —
This is the moment when Sandrine Koffi's dream of a new life in Europe ended, and her nightmare of an infant lost in the Macedonian night began.
As club-wielding police closed in, the 31-year-old from Ivory Coast couldn't keep up with her fellow migrants. Not after more than a week of treacherous hikes through mud and bone-chilling rain; of leaky tents, stolen food and fitful sleep; of loads too heavy to bear.
Koffi had given her 10-month-old daughter, Kendra, to a stronger person to carry as the 40-member group of West Africans walked with trepidation into Veles, Macedonia. They hoped, because it was pitch dark and miserably cold, that no one would see them and raise the alarm. But after a 10-day trek over 150 kilometers (90 miles), their luck ran out.
Officers captured Koffi and deported her with most of the group back to Greece. Others who escaped carried Kendra all the way to the Serbian border. That was more than two weeks ago. Now, the mother cannot stop crying for her distant daughter, or wondering why they can't travel like "normal'' people.
"I feel like I'm not a human being,'' Koffi told The Associated Press from the migrants' safe house in Greece, where she and her daughter had arrived last month in hopes of being escorted through the Balkans to Hungary and, eventually, to family in Paris. "Why is it necessary to separate a mother from her child? Why is all of this necessary?''
Each month, a tide of humanity pours through the hills of Greece, Macedonia and Serbia in hopes of entering the heart of the 28-nation European Union through its vulnerable back door in the Balkans. This is the newest of a half-dozen land and sea routes that Arab, Asian and African smugglers use to funnel migrants illegally from war zones and economic woes to opportunities in the West.
Most don't make it on their first attempt. Nor their third or fifth. Many, it seems, just keep trying - and failing - over and over.
The AP followed a group of migrants to document the challenges of the Western Balkans route, witnessing key events on the journey: the confrontations with police and locals, disagreements with the smuggler leading them and among themselves, and other difficulties along the way.
The flow of migrants has grown from a trickle in 2012 to become the second-most popular path for illegal immigration into Europe, behind only the more dangerous option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Frontex, the EU agency that helps governments police the bloc's leaky frontiers, says it appears nothing will deter migrants from trying the long walk that starts in northern Greece. Their monitors have detected more than 43,000 illegal crossings on the Western Balkans route in 2014, more than double the year before. And 2015 already looks on pace for a record number, with 22,000 arrivals in Hungary in the first two months.
One pivotal point for the route is Turkey, a magnet for refugees of wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Turks provide easy travel visas to residents of most of Asia and Africa, too.
Another is EU neighbor Greece, where migrants can claim asylum and usually, after a short detention, are permitted to travel freely within the country. But few intend to stay in Greece, with its debt-crippled economy and locals' antipathy to the migrants.
"Europe has not faced a situation like this since World War II, with so many conflicts happening so near to home, with fallen states from Libya to Syria and unrelenting conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan,'' said Frontex spokeswoman Ewa Moncure. "And it's a lot easier to take a boat from Turkey to Greece than to cross the open Mediterranean. Thousands drown taking the other route.''
From Abidjan to Athens
"Never in my life was I even on a boat,'' says Jean Paul Apetey, a 34-year-old Ivorian with a reputation as a sharp-witted opportunist. And so, when smugglers ask him if he wants to pilot the vessel to Greece in exchange for a free ticket, he goes straight to the stern engine of the rigid inflatable boat, overloaded with 47 migrants, and acts as if he knows what he is doing.
Smugglers rarely ride on one-way journeys, facing prison if caught. Instead, they charge 1,000 euros ($1,100) or more per passenger, rich compensation for the sacrifice of a boat.
The smugglers point Apetey to a Greek island in the distance - he doesn't know if it's Kos, Samos or Lesbos because he had no map - but boasts of reaching the target in 17 minutes flat. "I have many witnesses,'' he says proudly.
The safe house
The walls are sweating in the safe house in Thessaloniki, Greece, a windowless basement apartment with no furnishings, two bedrooms and a camp-style cooker on the floor. It's the end of February, and an African smuggler has brought 45 clients to this base camp to escort them on off-road paths through Macedonia to Serbia. Among the group are 11 women, including two with 10-month-old children.
The smuggler, a former soldier, agreed to allow an AP journalist to accompany them on condition he not be identified because what he's doing is illegal.
He goes from migrant to migrant, checking their readiness for the journey to Serbia. By car, it would take less than five hours. On foot, it's an estimated 10 days.
When some giggle at his questions, he sets a stern tone: "Shut up. This isn't a joke once you're out there. If you think it's funny, I'll send you back to Athens.''
He's taken three other groups on the route, and charges those on this trip a wide range of prices, depending on their ability to pay but averaging around $500. Discounts apply if they help him keep the others supplied and disciplined. Kids go free.
Most are French speakers from Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. Only a few speak English. One - a Congolese whose communist parents named him Fidel Castro - speaks both.
All are hungry, so a Malian woman named Aicha "Baby'' Teinturiere boils macaroni on the camp stove, adding to the humid air. The smuggler sends others to stock up on sleeping bags, socks and gloves for those who haven't brought the necessities.
Shame and regret
Some are confident of reaching Germany or France. Sekou Yara is not.
The 28-year-old Malian has failed three times to breach EU immigration checks at airports, costing him at least 3,000 euros. This is his first attempt on foot, and he has mixed feelings.
"I left many people whom I love so much. I left my wife and our 4-year-old child,'' said Yara, frustrated at sacrificing so much only to be stuck in Greece, where he says migrants can't find jobs and sometimes must dig for food in the trash.
"It is shameful to live like this. I just want a normal life,'' he said.
Yara's trip doesn't last long. The next morning, he and another Malian are arrested shortly after the 45 arrive at the Thessaloniki bus station. Unlike the others, those two have no ID papers.
The smuggler deliberately keeps his distance at the station, communicating by phone to reduce chances of being spotted as a trafficker. Tell police you're going to Athens, not the border, he instructs them. Don't all sit together; spread out.
In every direction are migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, all looking suspicious. Some hide in toilet stalls as the police canvass the crowds, checking documents. At least 20 from other groups are taken to a nearby police station.
Fear of arrest keeps the West Africans from boarding their intended morning bus north to the frontier town of Polikastro. It's not illegal for documented asylum-seekers to board a domestic bus in Greece, so nerves eventually settle, and all 43 get on four later buses: Greeks in front, Arabs in the middle, and blacks in the back.
They're a half-day behind schedule as the last members arrive in Polikastro. The hatred of some locals toward the Africans is clear near the town square as women prepare to boil water for the babies' formula. A motorist drives over their bags, smashing the milk powder and cooking gear as he curses them.
The easy part of the trip has ended.
The first day's hike from Polikastro takes the group along a rail line, and they must navigate a rickety wooden bridge, hoping no train comes. Within the first hour, both women carrying infants become weary.
"This is my souvenir!'' jokes Apetey as he agrees to carry Sandrine Koffi's daughter, Kendra. Another man takes Christian, the 10-month-old son of a Cameroonian woman, Mireille Djeukam. Kendra was born in Turkey, Christian in Greece. Both have relatives in Paris.
After 10 hours, the 43 reach the border with Macedonia before midnight. They don't bother with tents, preferring sleeping bags in the open air.
The smuggler doesn't want the full group to cross the border in daylight, but they're already short of supplies - and the cheapest local shop is on the Macedonian side. So he leads three men on a reconnaissance trip through the trees. A border patrol vehicle sits on a hilltop but doesn't move.
The three others crouch down in the woods as he heads alone into the supermarket. A cashier inside warns the smuggler to hide because police are shopping in another aisle.
After a tense wait, he emerges with six trash bags full of bread, canned sardines, juice and water.
That night, the group crosses the border and a highway. Each approaching set of headlights is feared to be police. The chill means it's time to sleep in the 10 tents they've brought.
At the campsite, Hilarion Charlemagne illustrates his journey with a collection of cellphone SIM cards.
"This one is from Togo, where I was a refugee for one year and eight months,'' the 45-year-old Ivorian teacher says, identifying others as from Mali, Mauritania and Algeria. He tells of being turned back at the Moroccan border because he lacked 500 euros; of working as a tutor for an Algerian family for a month; of trying to reach Europe by boat five times and managing to reach Greece on the sixth attempt.
Charlemagne and others have another way to remember the countries they've visited: recounting the racial epithets hurled at them in a half-dozen languages.
The group is startled by a Macedonian shepherd and his snarling dog. Tents are hurriedly packed. But in the rush, one of the smuggler's helpers has lost his cellphone. Angry accusations are levied, and everyone is searched without success.
The trek resumes at night. They scramble over an exposed ridge and sprint across a road junction, hiding in long reeds. They catch their breath under a full moon.
A Malian woman, 34-year-old Miriam Toure, falls with a cramp. Two young soccer players in the group offer her a sports massage as she howls in pain. A man with a chronic leg injury, Mohamed "Mo-Mo'' Konate, applies some ointment he uses for himself.
Nothing works, so men take turns carrying Toure, joking she's only faking to get a piggy-back ride. After a half-hour, they're worn out and she's told to walk or stay behind. She limps barefoot, weeping silently while trying to keep up.
Passing through cabbage fields, some stuff the greens in their backpacks. They jostle to refill bottles when passing a tap bearing an Orthodox sign and the inscription "holy well.'' Around 4 a.m., in the rain, they pitch tents - difficult in the dark - under a freeway overpass marked by graffiti from Afghan migrants.
After sunrise, several members accuse each other of stealing their food, drink and bags as they slept. The smuggler threatens to return them to Greece, where Syrian smugglers will charge them triple for the journey. Apologies are demanded and given.
Nearby, Charlemagne reads from the Book of Job.
That night, the rain turns to snow, and the tents start to break. Sheltered campsites on the trail are occupied by other migrant groups, and the crying of the two infants is incessant. Some question whether the children, so cold and hungry, could be at risk of death if they continue.
They keep following the Vardar River north, but near a village abandon the 41-year-old "Mo-Mo,'' who cannot continue even with his cane.
Food is so scarce that sardines are rationed to one can daily for three people. On the sixth day of walking, they reach the town of Nogotino, two days behind schedule and with a freezing wind howling. At 1 a.m., Sandrine Koffi passes out and slides down a muddy embankment. She is revived, and they walk another hour.
Mireille Djeukam, the other woman traveling with a child, has tried and failed to pass through EU airports about 10 times already, but finds this trip much harder.
"It's very hard. Too hard,'' she said. "If I knew it was this difficult, I wouldn't have done it. I'm not used to this type of walking. I'm always in the back.''
The youngest and fittest men grumble under their breath that they might be in Serbia already if not for the women and children.
Laughter amid such suffering seems impossible, but a limping Miriam Toure brings down the house with an exasperated question: "Where is Macedonia?''
Casualties and choas
As the group reaches Veles, the first major Macedonian town on the route and 145 kilometers (87 miles) into their hike, Djeukam cannot go on because of her aching legs. The group leaves her and 10-month-old Christian at an Orthodox church.
The 40 remaining try to stick to Veles' riverside railway, but around 10 p.m. they are confronted by youths. They run onto a road, startling motorists. Two police arrive, brandishing clubs and beating stragglers. Five are caught, including Sandrine Koffi.
In the melee, members of the group drop their gear and scatter. A woman breaks an ankle and is hospitalized in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. By 3 a.m., the smuggler has found only eight of his clients.
The next day, Aicha "Baby'' Teinturiere returns to Veles to search for her bags and stumbles into the police. She claims, falsely, to be looking for her baby; she has none. The police believe her and agree to help search - and in the process discover and arrest many of her comrades.
By the end of the 10th day, all but 13 are in custody and put on trucks back to Greece with scores of others from Syria, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
But Teinturiere is not among them. The sympathetic police set her free so she could keep searching for the make-believe child.
Two days later, the West Africans reach a smuggler's safe house in the border town of Lojane, Macedonia. Teinturiere is given responsibility for caring for Kendra until Koffi can complete the trip.
Others, mostly the strongest men in their 20s, cross into Serbia, where they meet the next smugglers, who charge them 100 euros each to drive them hidden in trucks to the Hungarian border. Three weeks into the journey, the first few make it to Hungary and send triumphant messages to friends.
The smuggler returns to Thessaloniki with his deported clients. He organizes a second trek combining new migrants with many from the original group, including Koffi and the first person arrested on the previous trip, Sekou Yara.
They depart a week later but run into a police ambush south of Veles. All are returned to Greece.
Another attempt to complete the 250-kilometer (150-mile) journey on foot has begun this week. Joining the smuggler are at least 20 veterans of the last two failures, including Koffi.
Her focus used to be on reaching her husband, mother and other relatives in Paris. Now, she prays simply to make it far enough to be reunited with her child. There's no joy left in her heart, only a sense of being duped, over and over.
"In Turkey, I was told: 'You just take a train, it will be easy,''' she said. "It was a lie.''
Reporter Bennett traveled with the migrants through Greece and Macedonia. Pogatchnik reported from Berlin.