This August, Katrin and Max joined Rigardu’s project on site in Šid, Serbia. Here we organize mobile showers, the distribution of drinking water and cooperate with other NGOs that provide food and medical care.
Serbia it is then. A friend had told us about Rigardu and their activities in Serbia and, without too much pondering, we decided to go there. Before we left, we planned to stay for about ten days. Afterwards we wanted to make use of our time to travel, maybe go hiking in Albania or Macedonia, we would see.
When we arrive in the evening, Nathalie picks us up and takes us directly to the evening distribution of food and water. Rigardu is providing a large tank for drinking water and a charging station for phones; afghan music is played from a pair of speakers. Although it is already past seven, the temperature is still around 40 degrees. Someone has just become unconscious due to the heat and lack of water; volunteers have taken him to the hospital.
Since the police have disturbed the activities again and again at the previous place, an abandoned factory building, the distribution now takes place on the edge of a field, outside the city. Roughly 100 people are standing in line for a serving of chickpeas; others are sitting under a pair of trees to charge their phones. Having just arrived, we are standing around somewhat confused for the first few minutes, unsure what to do. Not for long though, it is impossible not to get into a conversation. On this first evening we already meet and get to know many of the people we will keep seeing every day over the next weeks. Most of our conversations follow a similar pattern: I ask the same questions over and over again, for I want to get an overview of the situation.
Where are you from? Afghanistan. Pakistan. Algeria. Tunesia.
How long have you been here, in Serbia, in Šid? Three months. Seven months. One year.
How long has it been since you left home? 18 months. Two years. Two years and a half.
The conversations do not leave me unaffected. In Serbia there are few official camps for refugees, in Šid there is none. The about 150 to 300 men and adolescents here sleep in the ‘Jungle’, in the fields and bushes outside the city, hidden from the police. The only reason that has brought these people here is the town’s proximity to the border – and the border is also what makes them stay here, often for many months. Hungary, situated further north on the EU’s external frontier, has closed its borders with fences and barbed wire already two years ago. Here, this has not yet happened; still, crossing the border to Croatia has become almost impossible. The police patrol detain the people in the borderland and push them back to the Serbian side – which is non-EU territory. Some, if few, still make it to Zagreb or even to Slovenia. Yet, in most cases they will still be caught and driven back all the way to Serbia, where the police either leave them directly behind the border or brings them to one of the closed camps. More often than not, people are beaten up by the police during this process; Rigardu and others have been documenting police violence on the border for months now. The increasing impermeability of the borders makes the endeavor evermore dangerous. Many refugees have started to hide in lorries, hopping freight trains, even trying to hide beneath the wagons by clinging to them. People die in doing so. In the three weeks that we stay in Šid, there are at least two deaths.
We wish the refugees the best of luck when they say goodbye in the evening to go ‘to the game’, as they call it when they try crossing the border. Most of the times they will be back the next day, or the day after, sometimes after a week. I ask:
How many times have you tried crossing the border? 12 times. 21 times. No idea, they shrug. It will work eventually.
But the life here affects those people, changes them. Other volunteers, who have been here for longer, often several months, tell us how they note changes in many of the people. They become quieter, sometimes apathetic and spend a lot of time just staring into space. Others are just one step from blowing up, tend to be aggressive. There are conflicts almost every day, sometimes fights. Violence will then erupt all of a sudden, situations can escalate in seconds.
Being on the run means being without a home or refuge for months and years on end; in order to survive one has to be constantly alert, on guard.
That is another impact of the highly fortified border walls of Europe: They sort out. Those who make it to their destinations in the end are the strongest and toughest of all those that started this journey. They are also the most privileged: Crossing the borders illegally costs thousands of Euros. When asked for the route of his journey from his home at the afghan border to Pakistan, Zia tells me: Afghanistan – Turkey: 2200 Euro. Turkey – Bulgaria: 1800 Euro. Serbia – Italy: 3000 Euro. Only those who can get support from home, from their family and friends, can afford to travel this way. Others have to spend many months along the way in underpaid jobs in order to be able to continue their journey. Many of those who make it in the end are traumatized and struggle with mental problems. Those who do not make it – just as well. For that, you do not even need to have experienced war in your home country.
What I find most frustrating is the absolute lack of perspective. What am I supposed to tell Zia when he asks me whether the registration of his fingerprints in Bulgaria will be a problem? According to the Dublin Convention they are – technically, he would have to stay in the country where he first entered the EU. When kids from Algeria ask me whether it is better to go to Italy or France? Or Germany? I have no idea. Ultimately, none of those countries offers them a long-term perspective or a right to stay. Some have already lived in those countries and can speak the languages. They were deported and now they are trying again, not knowing where else to go.
Even I, as a volunteer, have to learn how to cope with the experiences I make, with the stories I hear. In our group, we try to support each other in this and exchange strategies. Some of us try to limit personal contact with the refugees to a minimum, working on an exclusively professional level. We agree that distraction is important, so whoever needs it, can take a day off. We are able to do that, the refugees are not. That reality will often hit me at times when in fact we are trying to take our mind of the work: In the evening, when we are sitting in the town’s centre, having a drink or some food, I often feel like in a parallel universe. I sip on my beer and think about what is happening right now in the Jungle or at the border just a few kilometers away. Strange; almost as if those things would become more real as the physical distance to them decreases, as if emotions had only a limited reach.
Instead of the ten days that we had planned originally, in the end we stay three weeks, which is all the time we have at the moment. Back in Germany, many things have a different feel. I sit at home and read about deportations to Afghanistan or the situation in refugee camps in Libya. Of course, I had done that before, but now it almost makes me physically sick. It is as if someone had removed a curtain or a protecting glass pane. The reports suddenly seem much more real, much closer than before. I am much more conscious of the fact that behind every name and every number in these reports there is actually a human being. Persons like the ones I got to know in Šid. A banal insight, you would think. Yet, even though I had worked with refugees before, nothing has changed my perception of the situation, of this so-called ‘refugee crisis’ like the experience at the border. I wrote this report in order to convey an impression of this experience, because it is important. It is damn important to realize what is actually happening right now, every day.
Pictures by fotomovimiento.org. Find more photos in their gallery.
Written by Max