A Night Like This
It’s early summer 2016, and I’m along the Serbian-Hungarian border. Hundreds of refugees are camping right up against a barbed-wire fence recently erected by the Hungarians. Tents are made out of anything and everything they could find lying around- blankets, towels, old clothes, sticks. People are cooking at open fires and eating whatever they can buy. If they’re lucky, some families living in better places or those who have made it into Europe send money, but options are sparse at expensive shops near this border in northern Serbia. This is farm country.
A baby’s cry comes from behind the bushes. Her mother tries to calm her down by breastfeeding under a tree. Behind it, other tired children are sleeping on dirty blankets, while women cook and clean nearby just as if this was the courtyard outside their real home. It’s my second day in this place, and everything is different than my experiences so far. I know I shouldn’t stare. These people went through hell and shouldn’t be treated like animals on display for humanitarian workers, volunteers, journalists. I almost feel like a tourist, but turning my eyes away doesn’t come easy. Children play in the mud, a pregnant girl searches for a moment of peace under a shaded tree. Usual daily activities in unusual circumstances.
The woman breastfeeding invites us for dinner. We don’t want to offend the family, so we accept the invitation. The dinner is spicy and delicious. We talk about everyday life in the camp and the situation at the border. Finally, I dare to ask about life in their country.
“There is no life in Syria”- I hear in response. “We spent two years in fear, praying the next bomb would skip our neighborhood. Water and electricity for just a few hours a week had to suffice. Our children were not attending school, our shop is a pile of rubble. One can’t live this way, one has to escape a place like this to secure a better future for the children.”
But now their present and foreseeable future is living here in a wild camp at a heavily defended border, with just two toilets and two showers for 400 people.
The father of the family describes everyday camp reality with just one word- Lines.
“Every day we line up for food, for diapers, for blankets, to charge our phones, to talk to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). We constantly wait for something. Then we return to our tents, sleep, wake up and line up again. We are living at a border camp that lacks everything. Nothing, except for the children, distract the mind from the thought of this closed border.”
People I talk to are the lucky ones. They come from Syria and will be granted priority in crossing the border. At the moment, Hungarians allow only 15 people at each of two border crossings to claim asylum in their country. The list is long. Families from Syria and Iraq are given priority while single men from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are left to the very end.
Dinner is over. Two boys fell asleep in their father’s laps and a toddler dozes off in her mother’s arms. Another asks me to hold her baby while she cleans the dishes. “I gave birth to her in Greece”, she says. “I went into labor while collecting wood for fires close to the camp. When a doctor arrived, he told me it’s too late to go to a hospital, so I gave birth in the bushes. Two days later we were told that the Hungarians will close the border, so we had to go. I was very weak, but we needed to hurry and had to go on foot the whole route.”
“We didn’t make it.”
The night is pitch dark with just our smoldering fire and the near-distant lights of the border crossing faintly lighting the wild camp. I look around and see over a dozen fires like ours, and there is at least one family next to each of them. It seems there are so many people here, but Serbia is only a transit country for refugees. My mind races to thoughts about the masses in Greece, Italy, and Turkey.
My Syrian family had camped at the border for several months before finally being permitted to present their asylum case just across the border inside Hungary. Despite horrific conditions inside a transit zone camp, they’ve stressed how grateful they are for being in a safer space, out of the wild.
Experiencing a night like this changes you.
And there have been many like it for me this past year. The stories of bombings, losing loved ones, the fear and the unimaginable poverty…Sometimes I’d experience deep sorrow, frustration, feeling utterly powerless.
Yet returning to Poland has always been harder as I struggle to explain the issues to family and friends. I simply cannot “unsee” or “unhear" what I have experienced, but no one can comprehend what is now so obvious to me. I find myself lost in a reality I no longer understand, and living as I did before seems almost impossible now.