Notes From The Camp: 2


In Europe they only beat us, burn with cigarettes
and release dogs on us. Europe is better”

Western Balkans is the most popular route chosen by refugees aiming to reach Europe. The breakup of Yugoslavia meant, however, that countries like Serbia face a wave of internally displaced people themselves and are not ready to admit refugees from the South.

Hussein, a thirty-year-old Syrian, arrived to Kelebija refugee camp three days ago in broken spirits. Naturally, he asks me about the chances for opening the border. I answer honestly but also cautiously in order not to encourage him to cross illegally.

The border will remain closed, but thanks to his nationality, Hussein will get a priority to cross it. On the other hand, he is a single man, and this means the whole process will be delayed.

The route that Hussein chose is the most common one among refugees and migrants trying to enter the European Union. It leads through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and on to Serbia. From here, everyone tries to enter either Hungary or Croatia to move further north. 

Hussein hasn’t seen his family for more than five years.

He escaped Syria before the permanent fighting started. –Three months after graduating from college I was walking on a street. A military car stopped next to me, and the soldiers told me to get in. They took me to one of the military buildings where they announced that from now on I am a soldier. This is how they do it in Syria. They just kidnap people from a street. You don’t even get a chance to inform your mother – he tells me evidently upset.

Hussein didn’t want to fight in Assad’s army, so he escaped after a few months. He was hiding in Syria for almost a year trying to earn some money to cross into Turkey. There he spent another year trying to make it to Greece. This journey brings traumatic memories.

– There were many children in our boat. We were drowning. Almost all of us were already in the water when the Coast Guard found us. This was the very last moment.

Hussein’s experience is shared by almost everyone in the camp. Stories about overcrowded and sinking boats, and smugglers leaving people in the middle of the sea are common. However, everybody here claims that it was a necessity. Escaping war, persecution, and poverty is very dangerous, but the faith in a better and safer future in Europe is stronger.

The Balkan Route- the road from Turkey to the Hungarian border with Serbia or Croatia, usually takes a few months to traverse. With European borders now closed, refugees have to add several months of waiting in camps into the experience. With just 30 a day permitted to cross legally, many try to cross the border without waiting for their turn. The first obstacle comes when they attempt to overcome the border to Macedonia, which has been secured with a 2.5 meters-high barbed wire fence donated by the Hungarian government.

In addition, Macedonia protected itself from the ones that somehow manage to cross the fortifications by amending the asylum law. According to these new regulations, no legal consequences will follow if a foreigner that entered Macedonia illegally, leaves this country within three days.

The small surface of Macedonia doesn’t make it hard to cover the distance from the border with Greece to the one with Serbia within three days. Most of the refugees don’t want to stay in Macedonia in any manner and plan to leave this country as soon as possible.

An alternative to the Macedonian route is the one through Bulgaria. It’s a troublesome and dangerous road, and the border in Dimitrovgrad has a reputation of being one of the most depressing places in Europe. My friends who worked there last winter distributing most needed items, shared stories about refugees forced to wait in lines in temperatures as low as -20 Celsius (-4 F) for several hours just to register.

No exceptions for women and children were made until humanitarian organizations demanded it. People came to this place with light backpacks and the clothes they had on. Very rarely was it a winter jacket, more often a jumper or a raincoat.

This is how I imagine lines in concentration camps during the II World War – states a young German who distributed first aid in Dimitrovgrad last winter. He adds–People reached that place exhausted, freezing and wounded. I will never forget the night a seventy-five-year-old women came to our distribution point. Her face was so severely beaten by the Bulgarian border police that it was impossible to imagine how she might have looked before.

The ones that managed to reach the north of Serbia face another closed border. Each of the two crossings allows only 15 people to pass to the Hungarian side every day. Hungarians not only strengthened the border but also created new police forces.

Local press claims that the demand is so urgent that even people previously rejected will get the possibility to serve now. The new units also have a specific name: “határvadászok” – border hunters. Naming them this way is significant. It’s supposed to indicate the type of active approach towards the ones that get closer to the border.

Surprisingly Hungarian actions discourage only a few to cross the border illegally. A young Pakistani who left his home eight months ago sadly tells me that he considers this option. For him, there is no alternative to the journey towards Western Europe. His father was murdered by the Taliban. Aged only fifteen, he became the head of the family. He wants to start working as soon as possible to support his mother and give his sister a chance to get married. He awaits his turn to cross the border for several months now.

I ask him whether he fears the illegal crossing. I have seen wounds from the police beatings, and marks from dogs’ teeth on the bodies of those that failed. His answer comes as a surprise: –We escape one persecution to face another, but European borders are not that bad. In Iran they don’t ask, they shoot to kill. In Europe they only beat us, burn with cigarettes and release dogs on us. Europe is better.

Sonia Nandzik
Text first published Sept, 28th, 2016 on

Douglas Herman