It’s Wednesday. We spent a whole day visiting Venice. We sit in the hostel and discuss what we should do next. Are we staying one more day? The city is beautiful. We loved it. Are we going back home? It will take us more than 10 hours.
‘You know what? Wait. We will have to cross Austria on the way back anyway. And Civil March for Aleppo is in Austria now. Let’s go for the march.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. We have to go. It’s on our way!’
We check. It turns out that on Thursday the arch crosses the border with Slovenia. We don’t stand a chance to reach the border in the morning. We will go in the afternoon and walk in the march on Friday in Slovenia. I contact the organizers of the march. We get an Austrian phone number that we should call in case we can’t find the group.
We leave on Thursday afternoon. It’s only 7 hours’ drive. We drive through Italy and Austria till a small village in Slovenia Zgornja Kungota. Right after crossing the border the road is closed. Our GPS didn’t foresee that. We use side roads and cross many villages. It’s late, few minutes past 9 p.m. We start thinking if we will ever reach the place and find the marching group.
Finally we get to the village. We go around but unfortunately, no signs of the march. We call the number. No one answers. We try with another phone. No signal. It’s almost 10 p.m. and we still know nothing. Somehow we find Wi-Fi without password so we send another message to the Facebook profile of the march. We know they may answer in few hours. We have to ask someone. But whom? It’s late, streets are empty, it’s dark. We see a open bakery. A bakery opened at this time? We are lucky, we will try.
I go to the bakery. I try to explain in English what we want and who we are looking for. The owners, a couple in their forties, don’t speak English. The man says I may speak German, he understands German. I don’t. I know some basic expressions but I can’t explain what we need. Russian? Yes I understand but I don’t speak this language. Where are you from? Poland? Speak Polish! So in a bakery in a small village in Slovenia I’m trying to explain in Polish that we are looking for a group marching to Maribor tomorrow. I show them pictures on Facebook. Yes, they saw them today. The whole village did. Where are they now? They don’t know…
I don’t say anything for a while. I run out of ideas what to do. The couple looks at me and show me the clock on the wall. They ask where are we going to sleep, it’s late. I say I don’t know but I have to find the marching group. They look at each other, they want to organize a place to sleep for us. The woman brings some food so we can eat. I kindly say thank you and that we don’t need it, we have food and for sure we will manage to reach the phone number.
I thank them for help and go back to the car where I explain everything to Mohamed. The number still doesn’t answer. We are tired. What should we do? We will spend another night sleeping in the car. We stop on a car park where we have Internet so from time to time we can check if anyone replied us. Unfortunately, we wake up all the time but finally we manage to sleep few hours. At 5 a.m. we wake up and decide to go to Maribor. It’s only 12 km by car. We walk in the old part of the city. It’s early, dark and cold so we go back to our village. Still no message. But at least the car is warmer now. Maybe it won’t be so cold now?
We fall asleep again. Mohamed wakes me up before 8.
‘Wake up, we are leaving! I found them. We have five minutes, they are leaving!’.
‘But how? Where? How did you find them?’
‘Quickly we don’t have time!’.
I move as fast as I can. We turn on the car and drive around… 200 meters! You must be joking! Here? We were so close! A school. A school located 200 meters from the car park where we slept. This is where they stopped. Why didn’t it come to our mind earlier to check this place?
And how did Mohamed find the march? It turned out that while I was sleeping he checked again the Facebook fan page of the march. The pictures added in last days were tagged with the author, a photographer. Mohamed messaged him and he gave him directions to the school.
We stop the car next to the entrance and next to ‘Habibi’ a brave Volkswagen transporting indispensable things for the march. Near the entrance we are welcomed by participants packing their backpacks. We enter the gym. One of the girls, I don’t remember which one, tells us everything about the plan for the day. They are not leaving in 5 minutes but at 11 a.m. We still have few hours.
We look around the gym. From each side we see smiling faces. After a while I see Ania. The march was her idea. She is also the author of the blog The Family Without Borders. She approaches us.
‘I know you. I mean I don’t know you but I read your blog. We were looking for you yesterday evening but we didn’t know where you were. We asked people but no one knew where you are staying so we slept in the car. But I read your book and it inspired us to sleep in the car…’ I want to say so many things at the same time that I get confused. It’s such a relief to be in a place where we are supposed to be.
Ania hugges me. She is happy we came. I explain that we were on holiday in Italy and we decided is near Slovenia so we will come at least for one day. Every now and then someone comes to meet us. I feel as if I finally met a family I haven’t seen for a long time.
After morning organization meeting we have a while to prepare our stuff. We decide that I will walk in the march and Mohamed will take our car to Maribor. We will meet there. Besides, extra space to transport the luggage of the marchers will be useful. We pack what we can and leave at 11. We have 15 km to walk.
At the beginning I get a flag of the march and I carry it all the way. Some other people take plastic bags. If we are walking we can do something good for our planet and collect some rubbish.
The weather wasn’t very optimistic. We walk on uneven terrain. We go up the hill and down and then up again. Even though I have only a bottle of water and an extra jacket in my backpack the beginning of the walk is hard. It makes physically tired. Especially that my physical condition is not good. We take 5 minutes break every hour. It helps a bit. I decided I will walk and mae it till the end. It’s only 15 km. We walk through the forest, it’s raining more and more, the paths are slippery. My jacket is already all wet. We have to watch out so we don’t slip on the wet leaves and fall.
On the way I meet more and more people. We are more than 30 people walking. Some came for a week, others have been walking since the beginning in Berlin for two months. There is a teacher from Warsaw who spends winter holiday on the march. It’s two of us then. There is a British who has lived in Poland for more than 20 years, a Syrian who lives in Austria, a Turk living in Germany, there is an Austrian girl who left her job to join the march and she wants to go till the end. Some people who walk since the beginning and want to walk till Aleppo. There are people from Poland, France, Austria, Germany, Slovenia… Many people I didn’t manage to talk to even for a while. There is a mix of cultures and different personalities. Each participant has a different story and reason to walk in the march.
Few hours later we reach Maribor. Mohamed is waiting with a warm jacket for me. It’s good to see him again. After a break for a soup we will walk a bit more and then stop for the night. Unfortunately we have to go. We take one of the marchers to Graz so he can take the train back home and we also start our way home.
I regret we has stayed only one day on the march. I regret we hadn’t gone there right away. We could stay one week on the march instead of our holiday. One day. Only one but it teaches more than anything else could. Although it was ‘only’ 15 km it wasn’t easy. Uneven terrain, going up the hill, rain and cold made the kilometres much longer. At the same time I listened to so many amazing stories of the participants. They were telling me about meetings with refugees during the march, people who helped them on the way, about refugees and immigrants who wanted to walk with them but they couldn’t leave the country of their current stay.
Even if it wasn’t easy every time I thought I wouldn’t make it, I thought of people who walked this way in the opposite direction. Refugees who went this way alone, often with their families and small children to reach a safe place. Sometimes they didn’t have anything, sometimes they just had basic luggage. But after one day I can go home. I have a place to rest after the march, I can eat something warm and at the end of the walk there will be my husband waiting with a dry jacket so I don’t get sick after walking in the rain. The refugees weren’t so lucky. They walked because they had to. They didn’t know if they will be welcomed anywhere or if they would find a place where they can stay. People who decided to go this way, not an easy way, they really didn’t have a choice.
If you have a chance, go for the march! If you have friends in places where the march walks, contact them! The help is more than welcome at least in finding a place to sleep for the marchers.
I’m really proud that there are people like the participants of the march. I’m happy that I could meet them. It was a pleasure. They do something beautiful. I cross my fingers for you. You are amazing.
*The author of the pictures is Janusz Ratecki who takes photos each day of the march.