the long walk to europe

 

Boštjan Videmšek

Photos: Jure Eržen

 

By the side of the road leading from the small town of Kanjiža in Northern Serbia to the Hungarian border, a large band of Syrian refugees had just sat down to rest. It was early on a Tuesday evening, and there were some forty people forming the group: women, children, young men, one elder. Finally getting some respite from the sun, they were plucking not quite ripe plums from a nearby tree and checking their cellphones where they had stored the directions for the fastest and safest route to the border.

This was of course only one of the numerous groups making their final bid for the European Union. On the flatlands by the oily and quiet Tisa river where we joined the group, life was unfolding according to its ancient, decidedly slow rhythms. Most of the residents have long become accustomed to the endless procession of human suffering. In the last few months, Serbia had been turned into yet another way station for a human tragedy mere language can hardly describe. It is no exaggeration to say this tragedy is sure to become one of the definitive humanitarian stories of the 21st century. 

 

Resolve

»We have some eight kilometers left before we reach the border. If all goes well, we'll be there in two hours and a half. We can't really rush it, we'll have to make a few stops so our women and children can rest. Most of us are absolutely exhausted. We've been travelling for weeks, some of us for months,« nodded one of the men as we marched side by side.

His name, he told us, was Rami. He was twenty-seven and hailed from the north-western Syrian city of Raqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate and the Islamic State.He fled the city soon after it was captured by the members of the radical Sunni militia. He claims he had no choice. He had received word his name had been put on the death list. During the initial months of the Syrian conflict he had been working as a journalist and had decided to help out one of his American colleagues. He had even been issued a press card by one of the prominent international newspapers.

This was not something the Islamic State was likely to forgive.

»It made no difference that I come from one of Raqa's strongest families. If I were to stay, they would have certainly killed me, no questions asked. The worst of it was that my own cousins were out to get me too. Almost all of them had joined Isis. Almost everyone in Raqa had gone over to them, that is why they're so strong… Raqa will always be their territory. And so there was no one who could protect me,« Rami went on as we trudged on along the dusty local thoroughfare.

His first destination was Turkey, where he had to stay longer than he originally planned since he got robbed in Istanbul. It took him a long time to earn enough money to continue on his journey. As soon as he was able to, he set out for the Turkish coast. In the meantime he had learned his father had been killed while his brother, who also refused to join the Islamic State, had been severely wounded while fighting the Syrian government forces.

In the Turkish port of Bodrum, one of the region's hubs for human trafficking, Rami met the other members of the group he was currently travelling with. That was two months ago. Since then, they never once parted company.

As we walked on, Ali, 28, joined our conversation. He was a civil engineer from Azaz, a town near the Syrian-Turkish border which has seen heavy fighting between various insurgent groups after being almost completely razed down by government bombers. »In Turkey,« he told us, »the traffickers robbed us on two different occasions, and we also got a lot of trouble from the police. We sailed to the Greek island of Kos in a rubber boat. The boat was really small, but somehow everyone you see here managed to fit. It seems incredible that we survived. At least half of these people don't know how to swim. If the boat capsized, we would all have died. It was horrible, just horrible!«

 

A Modern Odyssey

After arriving to Kos, where the recent heavy increase in the number of incoming refugees has plunged the society into a chaos-like state, the band of Syrians took a ferry to Athens. Every day, hundreds of refugees and immigrants arrive to the Greek capital. The Greek authorities, bogged down on countless other domestic and foreign fronts, had virtually stopped dealing with the problem. Their solution was to simply leave the door wide open. It was little wonder that the flood of refugees immediately headed for the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders. A new route to the European Union soon gained prominence, starting in Macedonia and leading through Serbia all the way up to Hungary.

Three weeks ago, Hungary started building a wall measuring 175 kilometers in length. Its basic objective is to put a stop to the influx of refugees and immigrants. Yet so far the Hungarians haven't been very successful at it. In the days we spent on both sides of the border, we have seen it was really quite the contrary. The fact is that the start of the immense construction project only speeded up the current rate of migration. Especially through Macedonia and Serbia, where the authorities understand very well what the erection of such a wall could mean.

In reality, the wall is not so much an actual obstacle for the inflowing refugees as a clear political statement by the Orban government.

. . .

»We made quite a large part of our journey through Greece and Macedonia on foot. It was horrible – it was hot, and we were all so hungry and thirsty… The people there refused to have anything to do with us. Somewhere in Macedonia, where we were generally treated very badly by the police, they herded us up on some buses which took us to the Serbian border. The entire region was full of refugees. After that, we walked for a few more days, then they put us on another bus and drove us to Belgrade. We remained there for three days. We all slept in the park. Belgrade, too, is flooded with refugees. But for us, that was actually a good thing, since we managed to get all the information we needed on how to safely cross the Hungarian border,« Ali told me equably, as if he were describing, say, a lovely view of the seaside.

In Belgrade our band of refugees learned there were several viable options for reaching Hungary. The first option was a so-called 'unaided'journey, meaning travelling by themselves. The route itself was clearly defined and there was plenty of useful information on how to maximize one's chances… But since the situation at the border was so unpredictable, this was considered to be the riskiest choice. The alternative was to entrust one's fate to the professionals, the human traffickers organizing the trip from the cities of northern Vojvodina (like Subotica, Kanjiža, Horgoš) to Hungary and then onward to Austria and Germany. One could even take a taxi from the Hungarian border directly to Vienna, which, according to our sources, would set one back 400 Euros. The entire package deal for getting from Serbia to Austria costs somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 Euros. For the Syrian refugees, the cost of all available options is about three times higher than for the rest.Traffickers consider them to be much wealthier than, for example, Afghanis. To really grasp their predicament one needs to keep in mind that they are always facing a very real possibility of getting arrested, and that many of them have already spent most of their savings in order to reach Serbia. A large number of them got mugged, either by local criminals, their fellow refugees or even by the police. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of solidarity between different groups of refugees – say between the Syrian and Afghan ones. Sadly, it is quite the contrary.

In Serbia and the entire wider region, the trafficking sector of the local economy had undergone a significant boom. The basic set-up is simple, the profits are huge, and the risk is almost non-existent. Especially if the traffickers had done their homework and made proper arrangements with the police and the authorities, who are openly supporting the concept of the refugees crossing and leaving Serbia as swiftly as possible.

Once you get out in the field and see how things work, it could hardly be more obvious which way the wind blows.

 

»In Germany they're sure to help us – after all, we're refugees, we come from Syria…«

Right after the war started, Ali lost his job in a privately owned company, yet he decided to stick it out in Azaz. In the summer of 2012, the Free Syrian Army gained control of the city for a while, then the Islamic extremists took over. In a flash, the dream of the Syrian revolution was but a tragic memory. What started out as an insurgence against the ruling regime degenerated into a brutal civil war. Countless people started fleeing the devastated country.

»I'm glad that I'm not married and that I don't have any children. It is so much easier for me this way,« he explained as we proceeded toward the small Vojvodinian village of Mortanoš, the last notable settlement before the Hungarian border. »Most members of my family had fled to Turkey and decided to stay there. I, on the other hand, am young and I've had a good education. I'm going to do everything I can to get a job so I can take care of my parents. Right now, that is my only goal. I want to go to Germany. If we can only reach Hungary and not get caught, then things will be so much easier. In Germany they're sure to take us in and help us – after all, we're refugees, we come from Syria…«

Like most members of this tattered little band Ali was growing increasingly cheerful with every step closer to the border. As we entered Mortanoš, the entire group decided to rest. The women sat down on the grass, the children were visibly tired. The men took to discussing the optimal route for this final phase of the Serbian crossing. The local plum trees were quickly being relieved of fruit; it was getting darker by the minute. The refugees knew very well they were approaching the critical part of the journey. Only a little more than four kilometers were now separating them from the European Union. A gentle breeze picked up over the Pannonian plains.

»What can we do? Like everyone everywhere, we only have one wish. To live in peace. To be safe. Look how lovely this place is! It is so peaceful and quiet. There are fruit trees everywhere. The people leave us alone, and there is plenty of water. I could certainly live here. You know, right now this seems like a paradise from my dreams…« It was obvious that Rami was getting a little carried away. But how could anyone blame him? With every kilometer he was less of an attention-starved showman and more of an excited little boy.

 

Basic Human Decency

At the village's outer edge, the refugees were approached by a merry-looking elderly fellow, who offered them water from the hose in his garage. The Syrians were visibly confused. As the village dogs' barking approached a crescendo, they kept exchanging glances. The last few years have made them forget what basic human decency felt like. For them, it had become the exception that proved the rule.

After a few moments one of the refugees handed out an empty plastic bottle to the Serbian elder. Then the others slowly followed suit. Bashful yet profoundly grateful smiles were spreading over their faces as the elder used one hand to pour the water and the other to shoo away the mosquitoes.

»You need to follow the river,« the hospitable native told them in place of goodbye. »But not up on the banks, you need to go as low down as possible. Otherwise the police can spot you. But I haven't seen them here today. The border is not far away from this place. Many other groups came passing before you today. Here, take some more plums. But you need to be very careful, okay? Good luck to you!«

It is very easy to lose one's faith in humanity. It is infinitely harder to get it back.

. . .

Soon we pushed on. A certain hush was falling over the group. The closer we got to the border, the more the refugees were instinctively huddling together. One of the marching men took hold of his three-year-old daughter and put her on his shoulders. The group's one elderly man was getting noticeably short of breath, but – with the help of a sturdy wooden stick – he somehow still managed to keep pace with the rest. One of the refugees took out a tattered copy of the Quran and started to pray. The sun was slowly setting far away on the horizon. To our right, we could see a stretch of dense boggy forest and the Tisa river. To our left there was haystack-strewn grassland, a few distant settlements and the road leading to the official border crossings and further on toward Subotica. The evening light was growing softer as we marched on to the soundtrack of dogs barking in the distance. Every now and then, we could see a stork touch down in a nearby field. For this particular band of migrants, these were all scenes of Xanadu-like tranquility. A perfect illusion. 

. . .

»To be honest, I have no idea where we are. I hope we're on the right track. We really need to hurry. We have to reach Hungary tonight. Once we get across the border we need to avoid being caught by the police. If that happens, we could lose a few weeks! Our group would get broken up, and we also need to avoid getting fingerprinted! That would mean that, even when we reach Germany, they could simply send us back to Hungary at any time. No one here wants to stay in Hungary. Personally, I would much rather stay in Serbia because the people were nicest to us there. Everywhere else we were treated like criminals. And we have heard that the Hungarians treat people like us worst of all,« Rami was telling me as his voice grew ever more quiet.

In 'Europe', he told me, he is eager to get work – any sort of work at all, as long as it would help him live in peace and safety. Ali, the blue-eyed engineer, felt exactly the same way. Both of them had had their share of the savagery of war. All they wanted was for the people of their new homeland to show a little understanding.

The members of the group weren't entirely clear on where they needed to veer off into the forest to avoid getting caught by the police. The border itself was rather poorly marked – in some places, there were no noticeable markings at all. And so the group decided to simply follow the tracks left by their predecessors. A trail of discarded, no longer needed things led them onward… And at the precise moment when their doubts about having chosen the right path were turning critical, two local bicyclists drove by down the nearby embankment. Opening their backpacks, the two men distributed a number of plastic water bottles among the refugees (»It's for the children!«) and related the vital information that the border was now only a ten-minute-walk away.

»Simply follow the river all the way. We haven't seen a single policeman!« one of the bicyclists said to encourage them before the ordeal.

 

Hungarian Border Patrol

We moved on. In the distance we could already see the ramp marking the border area where movement is strictly prohibited. Heavy dusk was falling over us, bringing anxiety to the faces of the advancing refugees. The mosquitoes were now out in full force. The women conferred among themselves and decided to make the children put on an additional layer of clothing. The men – many of them had fled their country to another continent with only a small sporty knapsack on their shoulder – were putting the final touches to the group's strategy. Many of their cellphones were starting to malfunction.

We crossed the dark Serbian-Hungarian border in complete silence. Only a few steps past the first Hungarian boundary stone the group came to a halt.

Rami put down his backpack and carefully set out on a reconnaissance mission. Some hundred meters on he detected a border patrol. He could identify one car and four policemen interrogating a small group of refugees. Two portable toilets were standing next to the police vehicle like some sort of mirage. Business as usual? It was clear that the mere four Hungarian policemen would be unable to stop our group of refugees. We had heard that the border controls often simply turn a blind eye. Despite the fact that the government had undertaken the huge anti-humanitarian project of putting up the wall, we have to report that, from what we have seen in these last few days, the Hungarian policemen are mostly treating the refugees with fairness and even respect. Though this is of course not something one can exactly rely on.

Yet at the moment, all of this was just some more information, while the decisive moment was fast approaching. Anxiety and even plain fear were returning to the refugees' faces. They had long learned that the combination of borders and uniforms can mean a question of life and death for them. The fear on their faces was thus a matter of pure reflexes, and in such situations, reason is always trailing far behind. The night had fallen, but the moon was mercilessly illuminating the exhausted faces. The refugees quickly slipped into the nearby forest, from which one could hear clear signs of life. Of course, our group of refugees wasn't the only one preparing for the final push into the heart of Europe. We were now on Hungarian territory. All the refugees needed to do to complete this crucial stage on their long journey was to evade the patrol. The children ate a few cookies and plums from their mothers' backpacks. The rest drank some water. They were all waiting for Rami's sign.

We bid them goodbye.

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  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 28 (08.2015)