Photos accompanying this essay were taken at refugee way stations in Berkasovo, Serbia; Botovo on the Croatian-Hungarian border; and Rigonce, Slovenia.
Yet another dawn comes as a surprise in this Balkan no man’s land. After a 20-hour work shift, we aren’t quite sure whether it is daytime or nighttime. Not that it matters. Time doesn’t really apply in Berkasovo, Serbia.
We are volunteering in a provisional refugee camp at the Serbian-Croatian border—an entry point to the European Union, of which Croatia is a member and Serbia is not. It is a linchpin of the so-called “Balkan refugee route,” leading from Turkey through southeastern Europe and on to Germany.
Here, days and nights are marked by the number of refugees that pass through: 6,000 since yesterday, 20,000 since our arrival, 150,000 since the beginning of the crisis. These abstract numbers can be translated into more tangible terms: tens of thousands of warm jackets, raincoats, scarves and baby socks; an endless number of cups of unbearably sweet black tea; a constant flow of people that never stops.
The help point has been set up in the middle of some corn fields by a group of Czechs appalled by their government’s attitude toward migrants. Their project, as well as similar ones at different border crossings along the refugee route, has filled the vacuum left by the EU’s absence, local governments, and international organizations. As the United Nations’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) does not have an official mandate for a full-fledged mission in Serbia, and the Serbian Red Cross is not delivering sufficient aid, the fate of the refugees depends on a group of European 20-somethings.
Accordingly, the whole movement is coordinated through social media—mainly Facebook and Twitter. This is also how we—four 26-year old Poles—found out about it. In five days, we managed to collect clothes and money from friends and family, pack our van, and drive down to Serbia.
As volunteers, we hand out tea, water, warm clothes, energy bars, and most importantly of all, provide the refugees with information. The Balkan refugee route can be compared to a powerful stream. Once you get sucked inside it (and they all do, as everybody wants to get to Germany), there is no way out. You get pushed from one border to another, on buses, by train, or by overpaying for a taxi.
There are no shortcuts, toilets, or snack stops. The journey can last up to couple of weeks. It’s no wonder that by the time the refugees reach the Serbian-Croatian border, they are exhausted, freezing, disoriented, and scared. They are desperate for a smile or a friendly face, and starving for information. Unfortunately, no one knows anything for sure.
While we reassure them that in a couple of hours they will be transported to a proper refugee camp, run by the Croatian government, we cannot guarantee what will happen to them after that. From what we know, the route leads to Vienna or Berlin, but no one—not the German or Austrian governments, not EU officials, not the UN, and certainly not us, a bunch of volunteers—can give these people the definitive answers they are longing for. Fleeing war and persecution, what they crave most is a sense of security or stability. That is the one thing we cannot provide.
After some time, you get used to the smell of mud, rot, and unwashed bodies. After all, we also don’t shower, as the only sanitary facilities here are portable toilets. Sleeping in the car and eating energy bars for every meal quickly becomes a part of our daily routine as well. We expected these discomforts, but other, more profound frustrations sometimes get the better of us.
No matter how hard we try, we do not have the skills, resources or knowledge to help the refugees in the way we want to. Our resources are nowhere near sufficient, and so we find ourselves forced to make decisions that no one taught us how to make. To whom shall we give the last pair of warm shoes? And what about the last banana? What happens if everything we are telling them turns out to be false, and there is no happy ending in Vienna after all?
But giving into frustration is simply not an option. In the face of so much human misery and confusion, you just do what you can—full stop.
Part of our job is to organize the chaotic stream of refugees into groups of 50 and guide them through approximately 1000 meters of no man’s land to the border crossing with Croatia. The waiting time varies, from 30 minutes for the luckiest ones to whole nights for those who arrive at a particularly congested or disorganized moment. It all depends on the schedule of buses, unknown to anybody except Croatian officials.
Tonight the flow of refugees seems to be moving quite smoothly. I speak to an Afghan family of three. This has become a habit of mine: in the sea of anonymous faces, I always ask a couple of people about their personal stories. This is how I try to convince myself that I differ in any way from the Croatian police rushing groups of refugees through the border, screaming “Go! Go! Go!” and shaking their truncheons.
The father, Karim, speaks English. In Afghanistan, he worked for the occupying US military, and then for the Afghan stabilization forces. His unit was stationed somewhere near Kabul until last month, when 30 out of 40 soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack. Karim survived, but he had become an “undesirable element” for the Taliban. He went into hiding. After the third death threat, he sold everything he owned and set off on the road to Europe with his wife, who was 9 months pregnant. That was 31 days ago.
Next to Karim is his wife, standing patiently with a 24-day-old baby in her arms. The baby was born in the mountains, somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We are lucky, our baby boy is healthy,” he says. “And he is too small to remember anything from this hell. The worst is behind us, inshallah.”
I came back from Berkasovo two weeks ago. The adjustment to so-called “normal life” has been difficult. Getting up in the morning instead of in the middle of the night, job-hunting instead of handing out hot tea to strangers, taking hot showers instead of using wet wipes. The hardest part has been my constant awareness of a parallel reality, a couple hundred kilometers away. While I’m having dinner, catching up with my friends, or even shivering at the bus stop and cursing at November in Warsaw, human tragedy is still taking its course. People are leaving their homes, selling their possessions, and freezing on the dreadful path to a better world. Or so they believe: at the moment, they are stuck in almost inhumane conditions somewhere between then and now, between the past and the future.
The challenge that the EU has been facing is extremely difficult, unexpected and yes, maybe a little unfair. Yes, we all do have our own problems and we are doing our best in the given circumstances (or at least we say so). But to know is one thing, and to see is another. The refugee’s plight is easier to dismiss in the abstract.
And it hurts to see how badly we are failing this test—as individuals, as countries, and as a human species. I am well aware that at this exact moment, there are terrible things happening absolutely everywhere in the world. But this one is happening right at our doorstep, and carried out with our tacit agreement.
The contrast between the human face of the crisis, which I remember from our stay in Berkasovo, and the official discourse in the Polish media is striking. While I think of the Syrian and Afghan families, children, the elderly and the wounded, young boys running away from military conscription, all I read in the newspapers is the menace of Islamization and a wave of economic migrants making their way to Europe. No one talks about individual tragedies, or about any kind of long-term policy or solution. The refugee crisis is not only a humanitarian one; it is also a crisis of misinformation, miscommunication, and miscoordination.
For the past two nights, for the first time since my return, I did not dream about refugees. Somehow I cannot make up my mind whether this is a good thing. Although remembering is making my life a little harder, I am terrified of forgetting, and of developing indifference. Remembering faces and stories is the only way to think of them as people instead of numbers. And it is the only way we too can remain human.
Volunteers and NGOs from all around Europe wrote an open letter to European governments, pleading them to take action in the face of approaching winter. You can read it here.