At the border between Serbia, Hungary, and Romania, where the EU geographically begins but morally ends
Not even the soldiers believe it could stop someone. Head bowed, sweating, they walk reluctantly along the imaginary line on which they were ordered to hoist a palisade. A tall, white caterpillar tread follows them through fields of sunflowers and corn, stabbing the ground with regularity every four metres down and planting a steel pole of the same height. A dull thud, followed by a puff of dust in the summer heat. The galvanised mesh must then be unrolled; the wire is already curled, like cotton candy, in a soft, pointed cloud. It is laid down on the ground, in the middle of nowhere.
This is Kübekháza, the Hungarian town which borders with Serbia and Romania, and hosts nothing less than the end point of the "wall of Orbán". The last pillar of the 175-kilometres barrier has already been planted, and it just takes a look at it to sense the absurdity of all those hours of work. Behind it, the Pannonian plain opens up in its blatant indifference. The wall ends in a meadow. A few metres away, the monument celebrating the meeting point of the three countries stands beyond the railing, on the other side of the wall. Geographically, the EU starts here. But morally, it seems to end.
A couple of days earlier, the meeting is scheduled for noon at the bus station in Subotica, a town in the North of Serbia, crossed by the E-75 highway to Budapest and the main railway line from Belgrade. The red car carrying the rest of the group (a small crew of young European journalists) is already parked outside the main entrance. The plan is three days of reporting, in and out of the Schengen area, near a border that in the past six months has been crossed by over 100,000 refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first stop is the so-called "jungle" of Subotica, a former brick factory, where those who travel on the Balkan route stop for a night or two before heading for Hungary on foot. When we arrive, between the abandoned structures and the long grass, just over a hundred people are lying down. A few weeks before – activists say – there were at least 400. Disseminated with garbage and under a merciless sun, the "jungle" gives off a pungent smell. "The municipal landfill is only a hundred metres from here: we fear that rats will come and bring diseases", says Dalibor Karadža, a volunteer of the Serbian association "Centre for Integration and Tolerance".
Other NGOs come by within a few hours, providing basic health care or bringing some basic necessity to refugees, otherwise left to themselves. "We asked the municipality to bring drinking water to the former factory, but they decided to set up some showers over the road", says Dalibor. To fill a bottle of water, we need to leave the camp and walk for a few minutes, crossing a stretch of faded asphalt. As we leave, a black Mercedes approaches the entrance, the driver speaks with a group of Afghans, then starts again. The plate is of Vrbas, a Serbian town 70 kilometres South.
The old town is three kilometres from the "jungle" of Subotica. One can reach it on foot, following the tracks up North, which then continue to Hungary (the border is about 11 kilometres away), or by taxi, or by paying some private driver. At the Town Hall, commissioner for social affairs Milimir Vujadinović is aware of the situation, but his council – he says – "does what it can. This is an issue of the EU, not of Serbia". Since 2014, the municipality allocates about 23,000 Euros per year (out of a total budget € 40 million) for finding a place in public kindergartens for some children or transporting refugees, if they want, to camps. But, obviously, very few take advantage of these programmes – most just want to reach the EU.
Forty kilometres to the East, in Kanjiža, a camp was opened just two weeks ago, with the aim of clearing the city centres of the area. Police buses continuously carry newcomers, that are placed inside large green tents, equipped with festival tables. Inside the camp there are toilets and an Internet connection, while outside a private booth cooks pljeskavice (hamburgers) 24/7. "We have no beds, but there is room to lie down", explains Robert Lesmajster, Commissioner for Refugees in Belgrade. "And anyway, most people only stay here for a few hours".
"We are leaving tomorrow", Ayham says confidently, holding hands with his wife Hadil. Sitting on the grass, this Syrian couple is resting after the long adventure. Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia by train, by bus, by taxi, on foot. "We walked for over 150 kilometres", says Ayham. Hadil confirms with a smile: "We are a super-family". They are surrounded by Hadil's younger sisters, Hamsa and Idaia, and little Zain (the couple's son) with his maternal grandmother Hafisa. "The stroller came with us from Damascus", continues the young father, who in 2012 had obtained a pilot's license, but never used it. They are heading to Germany, where an uncle has lived for some years.
The night rules
When the sun goes down, as Robert Lesmajster continues to illustrate the rules of the camp to the new arrivals, a large group walks through the entrance in the opposite direction. They are mainly Syrians, equipped with GPS or smartphone, and with a backpack or a child on their shoulders. The Hungarian border is about 15 kilometres away, and to get there we will follow upstream the course of the Tisza (Tisza/Tisa), which cuts the border perpendicularly. At nine, we walk along the road, cars whizzing by our side with the high beams on. We follow it for a few kilometres, then turn right, taking a small gravel slope that leads to the embankment.
It is the first stop. We all sit on the ground, under a clear August sky, constantly crossed by shooting stars. A boy with a white cap sums up the few rules of the trip: "Do not walk too much to the right because there is the river, and turn off your phones". We start walking again, hidden among the trees and the shore, while conversations continue softly. Omar, one of the few Iraqis present, asks: "Are you married?" He isn't either, he says shaking his head – but hopefully, soon... He's walking in flip flops, but, laughing, he swears he has a pair of shoes in his backpack.
It is still hot, and the humidity attracts mosquitoes. The path is littered with empty plastic bottles, a sign that we are not the first ones to follow it. Hungarian agents may therefore be lurking beyond the border. What to do if you meet them? Opinions differ. Getting arrested means having to give them fingerprints and risking deportation to Hungary from the other EU Member States (as stated in the Dublin II protocol). However, refusing to request asylum from the Hungarian authorities involves the immediate transfer to Serbia. Everyone would prefer the third option: reaching Austria undercover. But this is less likely to happen.
After midnight, at the umpteenth break, a guy drops to the ground, exhausted. His name is Mustafa and, from mid-thigh on, his right leg gives way to a rigid prosthesis. He cannot continue. "Can you help him, please?" asks his friend, who is already holding his wife and daughter by hand. Mustafa's back is completely wet, he repeats "yalla" through gritted teeth. Two of us lift him and off we go again. The more time passes, however, the more children start to complain loudly. The border is a few kilometres away, but now it's pitch dark and even the familiar faces have become ominous black silhouettes.
Zakaria's cries break the silence around one o'clock at night, startling the entire group. Immediately, four or five people try to calm him down, unsuccessfully – he is not even two. He screams louder and louder, while the forest, across the river, resounds with barking and howling of dogs. It will take twenty minutes to calm him down. Meanwhile, according to those with the GPS in hand, we crossed the border and we are officially in the EU. But there is no time to celebrate: a moment later, a mysterious blue light appears at the horizon and stops. To enter the forest? To keep on the same path? In doubt, we wait.
When the light goes out, the refugees decide to continue along the bank. We, however, have to go back, because going on could mean being mistaken for human traffickers. Two people then grab Mustafa, who is still limping, and we exchange a few hurried greeting. Then we are off again, in opposite directions.
From the Hungarian side of the border, in the early morning, Barnabas Héredi is travelling on his white Lada in search of those who crossed the border overnight. He is one of the "rangers" that the town of Ásotthalom hired to help the local police. Once a group of refugees is intercepted, his task is to lead them to one of the several "collection points" where the police will pass later. In front of his car, at 8:30, there are already several dozen people walking, mostly Afghans, who left Serbia ten hours earlier. "We are in Hungary, right?", asks Aziz. When I nod, he sighs in relief. Barnabas follows them in lower gears, with the four arrows flashing. He sort of looks like a motorised shepherd.
"What is going to happen now?", asks Ali, 22, a native of northern Afghanistan, who has now reached the clearing already manned by officers. Agents are loading everyone on different buses to Szeged, the closest major Hungarian city (about 160,000 inhabitants). After completing the asylum application, refugees receive a sheet that will allow them – in principle – to travel in the country and reach one of the camps. Yet, most will use this passport to continue the journey to Western Europe. "I want to study in Finland", says Ali, who is then still far from reaching his destination. "I'll remember this trip forever!", he says.
The last stage is Szeged, where trains leave for Budapest. In the press room at the headquarters of the border police, commander Gabor Eberhardt is talking to a camera crew from Vienna. "Are you going to install temperature sensors near the wall?", "Are there going to be agents patrolling the border?", ask the Austrian journalists. "And how many migrants have already been sent back to Serbia?". There is migration-induced anxiety in the air. The agent answers, then apologises: "Your colleagues are waiting for us". There's just time for a souvenir photo with the Hungarian policeman, then the Austrians leave.
Gabor Eberhardt is responsible for about 45 kilometres of border, through which 90% of illegal entry into the country pass. His men – he explains – are tasked with arresting refugees and make sure they apply for asylum. "Only 15% refuse and are therefore deported to Serbia", says Eberhardt, who argues that detentions are always carried out "within the law", "for up to 36 hours", "in premises sheltered from the heat", and even "providing faith-appropriate food". In fact, photos taken by Hungarian MP Tímea Szabó in mid-July, in the camps of Röszke and Szeged, show cages with mattresses thrown on the floor.
The story of ad hoc sandwiches does not seem to hold either. At the train station in Szeged, 15 minutes from the police station, the activists of the Migszol solidarity group provide refugees with water and coffee. "They no longer trust Hungarians about food, they have already received disguised pork meat too many times", says Daniel Szatmary. This tall, strong young man is one of the 200 volunteers that every day welcome the people brought by the police. Since July 1st, they have a cabin manned almost 24/7. In English and Arabic, they provide information on the next train to the capital, the "real" prices that should be charged by taxi drivers (who ask up to 400 Euros for a two-hour drive) and, more generally, what awaits those who have just arrived on foot from Serbia.
At 20:45, the last direct train to Budapest is ready. Volunteers of Migszol are quick to give the final advices: "Do not use toilets when the train stops" and "do not smoke on the train". Someone, euphoric, gets distracted, but activists insist: "Seriously, there is a 50-Euro fine." People run on the stairs leading to the tracks and, before boarding, they indulge in taking a few group pictures. Then the station master whistles and someone looks out of the window. In the golden light of the street lamps, the faces stretched by fatigue relax into the first smiles. There is still a long way to go to reach Germany and Sweden, but tonight the kilometres seem downhill. In front of the train about to leave, the wind that ruffles us smells like a new life. The thrill and luxury of a return to normality.
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