From the boundary between Hungary and Serbia, where a new wall is being built. The first episode of a reportage
“Where are we?”
“Yes, where are we?”
“They don't even know where they are.”
“I've come fromSyria – I escaped from ISIS.”
“I'm from Iraq, from Kurdistan.”
A twelve-year-old Afghan girl asks again where she is. She escaped from the Taleban, worked for a year with her mother in Turkey and now she's arrived with her at the gates of Europe. No father, at least not here and now. Many don't even know what this place is called.
We are at the railway station of Szeged, as some found out thanks to the GPS on their smartphone, those same telephones that guided them blindly across the last boundary, between Serbia and Hungary. With the navigational systems they managed to find the coordinates sent by the traffickers in one of their last messages. The future, which has so far cost hundreds or thousands of Euro, is not yet here. At this station, on the perimeter of Europe, we are spending the early dawn together. But do we really know where we are, as a new, 175 kilometre long iron curtain is about to go up in the heart of Europe?
4.36: the loudspeaker announces “Departing from platform 1, the train for. . .”
The Wall on the Triple Frontier
“The meaning of life is crossing frontiers”, said the Polish reporter-travel writer Ryszard Kapuściński. This phrase resounds amplified when the boundaries converge from three directions. Here, where Hungary, Serbia and Rumania touch, the eastern limit of the barbed wire structure will rise, three to four metres high, announced by the Hungarian authorities in the spring of 2015, to stop what seems to be becoming the biggest wave of migration towards the European Union in the last forty years. The two main points of entry are southern Italy and – precisely – the south of Hungary, with Greece or Bulgaria, then Macedonia and Serbia as places of transit.
This “Western Express” through the Balkans has already become the main access route into the European Union, even busier than the maritime ones of the Mediterranean. To stop the migrants, fences are erected: the barrier, as foreseen by the authorities in Budapest, to extend from here, where our journey starts, to another triple frontier (between Hungary, Serbia and Croatia), at right angles to an arm of the Danube, our final destination.
Some call it a wall, others say it's just a “fence”, which is how it is officially defined. There's no need to give it a definitive name, while the horizon remains untrodden and our gaze crosses the boundless plain like an eagle that hovers above an old abandoned control tower of the Yugoslav army. The gigantic tower resists the rust of time, as an archaeological symbol of an ancient fissure which has never stopped being a frontier and now will become even more of one. It was the frontier of Tito and also of Kádár and Moscow and now it will be the frontier of Orbán. It was the non-alligned frontier of Yugoslav socialism “with a human face” and now it will be the neo-frontier of capitalism, also “with a human face”, and of a European Union which is incorporating the faces of neo-nationalisms which win the elections in these parts.
Fallen walls and paralised thoughts
Eagles here, crossing the skies, seagulls there over the Mediterranean, over Sicily and Lampedusa. Here too there were once islands, in another geological era, before man, when all this endless sea, now green as maize, now golden as wheat, was the Sea of Pannonia. Out of a field of sunflowers, a hare jumps unexpectedly in front of our car. No policeman, no refugee, only us.
“We could have a lovely picnic here” exclaims Móni Bense, University Professor and translator, from Budapest to accompany me on this journey to the Lowland.
The Hungarian Lowland and Serbian Vojvodina blend, Siamese in their geography, sisters on a human map which history has carved up many times. Although much smaller than Tito's tower, the marker of the triple frontier is here, in this boundless plain, and could be a rendez-vous for the picnic Móni proposed. She wasn't there then, but she would have liked taking part in the historic picnic on 9th August 1989 near the Austro-Hungarian border between Sankt Margarethen im Burgenland and Sopronkőhida, at Sopronpuszta, where the Hungarians and Austrians organized the meeting described by the French newspaper Le Monde as “the picnic which shook history”. The first place in the whole of Europe where the iron curtain was symbolically cancelled, on a summer's day when a few hundred East Germans (to become tens of thousands in the following months) crossed the border into Austria to meet up with their families in what was then West Germany.
The wall which began to fall there, fell in Berlin only three months later, and with it the remains of the iron curtain which, in the middle of Europe, divided the world. Móni was an adolescent then and perhaps grew up laughing at Gusztáv, the legendary cartoon character of the 60s and 70s, produced by the Pannónia Filmstúdióin full “goulash comunism”. Gustáv was revered in Hungary (but also outside Pannonia, in Yugoslavia and elsewhere) where people might watch the same episode over and over again, five or six minutes repeated till they died of laughter.
On other screens, however, the memories are hazier: “History repeats itself so rapidly that the generation that lived through its most tragic episodes is still alive here, but doesn't seem able to remember”, says Móni, resigned, bewailing the partial amnesia of many of her compatriots, unheedful of their long-lasting status as migrants and refugees, if not of the first, the second or third generation, which the Hungarian people endured, going back just one century to the peace treaty of Trianon. Perhaps a re-reading of the works of the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi, a contemporary of those events, could help us understand how it is possible to register a blank in the place of the traumas they'd experienced, an apparent paralysis of thought, leaving the individual, hence also the citizen and voter, more defenceless. In effect, if history in some way repeats itself, Ferenczi had already told us why.
The Mayor against the Anti-Immigrant Barriers
Probably Robert Molnár also grew up with the adventures of Gustáv. I would bet he too would have liked to be part of the “pan-European” picnic of August 1989. That summer which preceded the “People's Autumn”, Molnar was 18, having grown up in Kübekháza, the town a little over a kilometre from the Triplex Confinium where he is now mayor. When we leave the border and head across the fields towards the village centre, we already know we won't see him at home, in the town hall or the kocsma, the local tavern: he's abroad for some days, for work, but can talk at length on the phone.
In Hungary it isn't easy, especially in the centre-right political panorama, to find such a direct voice against the construction of the new barrier. “Looking at history”, he says, “in the past when a country decided to build a fence or a wall, as at Auschwitz-Birkenau, at Berlin or all along the frontier with the comunist bloc, it always became a pain for who built it”. For Molnár, “Hungary is already an isolated country, intellectually and psychologically. As a consequence the country will become a ghetto. Hungary will close itself in, which means there's neither exit nor entrance, from outside or inside. We are in the middle of Europe, if we cannot navigate in peaceful waters, Hungarians' room for action will shrink” until “people will lose hope and flee the country”. Rather than become an island, “Hungary will become a ghetto”, emphasizes this politician who, up till 2002 sat in parliament in Budapest for Szerző(Independent Party of Small Farmers and Citizens).
In that period he was expelled from the party and withdrew from parliament. He returned to his homeland and since then, as an independent, is responsible for this frontier municipality of 1,500 inhabitants.
At the Triplex Confinium a sharp ear can maybe detect three bells, depending on the prevailing wind: the church at Kübekháza in Hungary, the one at Beba Veche in Rumania or the one at Rabe in Serbia, the three almost equidistant villages which make up this triangle and meet together once a year for a cross-border festival. Robert Molnár stresses that, as a practising Christian, “one needs to take care of foreigners”, the message of Stephen I, King of Hungary, Saint Stephen for believers. “The Bible says this: do not do to others what you would not be done by”, he recalls and then prophesies “harm will be reciprocated. If we don't wish to be harmed, we can't harm others. Because, as the proverb says, you lick the ice cream, but it can lick you too.”
In the kocsma in the main street, the beers and pálinke (brandies) are more popular than icecream. One man, leaning on the entrance, keeps his balance with a beer in each hand and continues to drink, first from one then the other. The tavern tables spread from the building to the road, as is the case for every house and every street in the Lowland and Vojvodina. Outside each house, this patch which seems like a five, ten, sometimes fifteen metre garden creates a pleasant transition and harmony, instead of a sharp boundary, between the wooden door and asphalted street – a no man's land cared for by all, as if it were their own garden - a land for everyone. Whatever grows or is planted in this patch is public; in the rural world it seems impossible to think of a better example of public space. Alongside us a child is lifted up by his father to pick cherries.
A similar picture is presented to us by the landlady of a kocsma in another village where she witnessed “the happiness of group of refugees as they picked fruit from a tree”. In the doorway of the kocsma in Kübekháza the landlady recounts a similar episode she saw on television – until our visit, in late June, the refugees were seen only on television and she personally had seen none pass through there. She had heard speak of just one concrete problem: a refugee had stolen some tomatoes from a farmer who complained when interviewed on television as if it were the end of the world. “Poor things,” says a voice in the background, sympathetically, “they were hungry. In the same situation any of us would have done it”.
Kübekháza is not yet another Lampedusa, at the end of the Balkan migrants' route from the East and the South, but both the mayor and the landlady sense how it will go. Speaking of the barrier to be erected at the Triplex Confinium a kilometre away, they agree that “it's clear the refugees will go round by Romania and then come back through here”. Responding to this deduction, which is obvious to anyone looking at the map, Péter Szijjártó, the young Minister for Foreign Affairs and Investment, stated to various media “in all sections of the boundary where there is no other effective form to stop illegal immigration [other than the line dividing Serbia and Hungary], a secure method of closing the frontier will be implemented”, that is, an extension of the wall/fence.
Until the barbed wire cuts his horizon, Robert Molnár, the politician governing this frontier town, maintains it's the turn “of rich Western Europe to find a unanimous answer, which cannot be expected of Hungary alone, because this humanitarian catastrophe concerns the whole world”. But then, looking inwards, he refers to the wall as a decision of the government in the interests of the party in the executive, the Fidesz (popular right with 44.5% in the 2014 elections). Molnár classifies that decision as a “mere act of an internal political campaign”, for which the State will have to pay out over 20 million Euro. This structure would be an enormous nationalist propaganda poster, four metres high and 175 kilometres long. Continuing his appraisal, our ex-parliamentarian concludes this measure “is not against immigration, but just serves Viktor Orbán and the Fidesz to take the wind from the sails of Jobbik [considered a party of the extreme right, with 20.5% at the 2014 election], as there is already a radar system installed all along the border which picks up 98% of the refugees”.
Where are we?
In a garden where Orbán is planting walls there is also a garden of Europe. Here at the tables of the kocsma the day flows slowly by, like the Tisza or the Danube, like the two beers in the hands of that man in Kübekháza. On the tree in front of us the child has left many bunches of cherries for the first refugee to cross the border in this quiet town. Tomorrow or later they'll be here. Maybe Sharbat, maybe Mohammed, people we'll meet at Szeged station one night on this trip, or maybe Rafiq who's still waiting, without a passport, in a derelict Subotica factory, for a trafficker to give him the coordinates to continue his journey.
In the meantime, in the memory of the tavern, the voice of that farmer echoes, lamenting on television how “they stole his tomatoes”. “They” are the ones who fled from the end of the world, hoping to find a place in the Eden-Fortress of the European Union. In Hungarian, Serbian and Croat (the two sides of the language Serbo-Croat), tomato and paradise are sister words with the same root which indicates both the fruit-vegetable and the idyll: paradiscom/paradiscom, paradajz/raj , rajčica/raj. I can think of a great episode for Gusztáv: Gusztáv transformed into a refugee-thief of paradises, a selfie caricature, which Hungary and Europe probably both need.
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