The bodies were strewn across the meadow, the grass they lay in glowing gold in the dawn light. “It looked like one of those Renaissance paintings of battlefields, except they were all alive and sleeping,” photographer Rena Effendi tells TIME.
Having documented refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Azerbaijan in the past, Effendi was no stranger to the subject of migration. But in the Greek-Macedonian border town of Idomeni, the mesmerizing scene before her was something new—a slice of the journey itself.
This year, an estimated 2,300 people have died at sea attempting the voyage from Libya across the central Mediterranean to Italy, according to the International Organization for Migration. Refugees escaping war, poverty, or persecution, as well as economic migrants are increasingly opting for the more expensive, but safer land route through the Balkans to Western Europe, where they hope to start their lives afresh.
Once a sleepy, pastoral town, Idomeni has become the most trafficked crossing point for migrants between Greece and Macedonia. Between 300 and 800 people arrive each day, exhausted after crossing from Turkey to Greece by water. They rest in the fields and crouch in the bushes, whispering and waiting for nightfall and an opportunity to slip past the Macedonian police guarding the border.
“At this crossing, they’re really on their own,” says Effendi. “I saw a group of young Syrian men armed with kitchen knives to defend themselves.” Though they rely on smugglers for safe passage through the woods, the migrants also fear being robbed clean of the scant money and possessions slung over their shoulders.
It speaks to their desperation that they would take such risks, no matter their physical condition. “I saw a man who had lost both his legs to a land mine. Supported by friends, he was attempting the route on prosthetics and crutches,” Effendi says. “Even young, able-bodied people without children have problems walking for kilometers on end. It’s excruciatingly difficult.”
With a diversity of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, and Georgia, Effendi was struck by the unlikely connections borne out of trying circumstances. She recalls a young Afghan boy sharing his sandwich with a Somali man, and Muslim men who would take women by the hand to help them over hilly terrain. Even supposed enemy fighters would carry each other’s children and belongings.
“I think in times of crisis, these differences are just not a priority anymore,” says Effendi. “They’re all running away from the police. They’re all trying to cross. They all want their children to have a better life. Nationalities are irrelevant.”
For the migrants and Effendi alike, Idomeni is just another stage of a much longer endeavor. She hopes to photograph more of the Balkan route, telling a fuller story of not only how the refugees travel, but also why they have no choice. “There’s this sense of urgency for finding a new life, of escaping the horror stories back home,” she says. “It’s fascinating to me.”
Rena Effendi is a photographer based in Istanbul.
Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.