Hundreds of migrants at a time are being held by a kidnapping gang at a house in Macedonia. Reporter Ramita Navai tracked the house down.
The messages from Mohammed were desperate: please help us; we are so scared.
Mohammed then describes the conditions – about 300 migrants locked inside a few small rooms, crushed in so tightly at times it was hard to breath; at night bodies piled on top of each other to sleep. The house was patrolled by armed guards 24 hours a day, the windows were blacked out with bin bags. Beatings were frequent. Food was scarce. There was no escape.
He sent the messages from his phone when the kidnappers had turned on the internet. The hostages were told to contact their families to send ransom money. But Mohammed and his friend Ahmed, both university students from Syria, had no one to turn to.
Ahmed has not heard from his family since he fled the bombing and Mohammed’s mother has lost everything in the war. When they left their home town Aleppo they could never imagine they would find themselves hostages in the heart of Europe, human commodities traded by Afghan people smugglers.
What began as a desperate message from these two students lifted a lid on an operation that generates millions of euros a year for criminal networks that extend back to the bad lands of Afghanistan.
I was forwarded the messages by a contact and began to investigate their story, retracing the journey that Ahmed and Mohammed had taken from where they were kidnapped – the border area between Greece and Macedonia.
Here, under willow trees and in fields of wild flowers and poppies, over 500 migrants camp out every night, most of them sleeping rough; some families find shelter in disused barns and outhouses.
This may be Europe, but this is Afghan smuggler territory and scores of Afghan people smugglers swarm the undergrowth, negotiating cash deals with migrants to take them to Western Europe.
The smugglers are armed with machetes to protect themselves and their charges against the criminal gangs that stalk the woods robbing them of mobile phones and cash.
The drill is nearly always the same: at dusk, the smugglers lead groups of migrants into Macedonia. At Gevgelija station the migrants are loaded into the windowless wagons of freight trains that heat like furnaces in the sun, and transported like cattle across the country. But every week, hundreds are not arriving in Serbia as planned.
Instead, their train is intercepted by a kidnapping ring. Guards wielding batons and knives are waiting for them – for the Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Libyans; for all those fleeing bloodshed and death – and when they stumble out of their metal boxes, often gasping for air and delirious with panic and thirst – they are made to march two hours north to a small ethnic Albanian village called Vaksintse.
My investigation led me to that village. Mohammed and Ahmed’s mobile phone had logged the exact GPS coordinates of the house where they were held.
The locals here are weary of outsiders. A few weeks ago a firefight between ethnic Albanian rebels and the Macedonian police in the nearby town of Kumanovo left 18 dead, eight of them members of Macedonia’s Special Forces.
This has always been a part of Europe that has lived on the fringes of the law. A landscape where the mafia rule and blood ties are far stronger than any nation state.
Mohammed and Ahmed escaped during that attack, when the house was unexpectedly evacuated. Their captors had taken them into nearby woods where they slipped away, along with a young man from Yemen; the others were too scared to follow and remained in captivity.
As we approached the house the presence of a local person from our team reassured the villagers. They told us they hear shouting every night.
From the outside it was just as Mohammad and Ahmed had described, it was also patrolled by Afghan guards who would not let me close. The guards were reluctant to speak, and clearly thrown by someone talking to them in their own language.
“Are their immigrants in the house ?” I asked. “No. There is no one in here. Leave now.”
But I had seen the backs of heads through a window – before it had been shut. The shadows of people who had fled mayhem and dictatorship and were now having to buy their freedom from gangsters – many of whom probably started life as refugees themselves.
We’d learned that when they were taken to “the house” they were forced to pay anywhere from €500 to €1,000 to get out and to start the lonely walk into Serbia. Syrians are charged more than others as they are deemed to be richer.
This is big business. In only a few hours in Belgrade, I met 10 different people who had been kidnapped and held by the gang – some of them in a different house to where Mohammed and Ahmed were kept.
A smuggler who knew about the house told me that over a thousand are extorted every week. There will be inevitable fears of connections between the gangsters and international terrorism.
But there are also more immediate dangers. When they started making phone calls, the villagers told us we should leave. The Afghans were one thing. But what they feared more was who was taking those calls. High powered ethnic Albanian mafia – the sort of men who can take on the Macedonian state in open combat and could be relied on to violently protect their share in the profits from human traffic.
We have passed on the coordinates to the house to the Macedonian police. They said they would look into our allegations. But until they do, if they ever dare, it’s clear that the distant families of hostages – hundreds of men, women, and children, mostly refugees from war – are being fleeced for the last of what they have.
Tracking Down Macedonia’s Migrant Kidnap Gang is a Ramita Navai Productions film for Channel 4 News. Follow her on Twitter at: @ramitanavai