Staring at the Wall

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For the past two weeks I have been traveling the Balkan Route, which migrants take to get from the port of Athens to points north. I’ve been meeting refugees and the people who help them. In this post, I visit a “transit zone” camp between Serbia and Hungary.

A closed border, all razor wire and gloom. And, running through the heart of it, is a road where every now and then a car rolls through, full of luggage and kids with their feet on the back of dad’s head-rest, and maybe one of them slowly turns their head to interpret what they’re seeing: Ragged tents with the poles pierced through shredded nylon; an old man shaving over a puddle; two kids running circles around a Red Cross van.

I had thought the mood would lighten the further north I traveled. I was now at the top of Serbia in Subotica, the last town before Hungary, and Hungary was the last barrier to the wealthy West: Austria, Germany, Sweden!

But that assumption left out an important point: Hungary knows this. Viktor Orban, the prime minister, has said candidly that he doesn’t want more Muslims in his country, and Hungary’s policy toward migrants has reflected that: They’ve reduced the number of asylum centers, given border police more power to “push” migrants back into Serbia. Even when asylum-seekers enter the country legally, Hungary detains them, sometimes for several months.

So the Serbian border has become a kind of trench where people walk around biting their nails, making small talk, taking showers, preparing for the next step.

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When I arrived, I had no contacts. I’d tried asking around in Belgrade for a phone number or even a name, but border volunteers shift from place to place and are difficult to get in touch with. Besides, the word among volunteers in Belgrade is that there’s nothing for the public to see. Neither journalists nor aid workers can get into the camps at the border without permission from some minister or other. At first I didn’t understand this. The Serbia-Hungary border has unofficial camps as well as official ones, and I couldn’t imagine who could stop civilians from getting into an unofficial camp. It’s just tents in a field, after all.

That’s because I didn’t understand the “transit zone.” People had tried to explain it to me. I knew what it was in theory, but I didn’t believe it until I saw it.

The transit zone is the space between the Serbian fence and the Hungarian fence. It doesn’t belong to either country. It’s not really a place in any sense of the term. Even with the best passport in the world you cannot visit a transit zone. You cannot stop in a transit zone. The only thing  legally sanctioned in a transit zone is transit. So you have to keep moving toward the Hungarian passport control station.

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Rest, Recovery, and Reconnaissance in Belgrade

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A few years back, I was fixed on a French word — debrouillard — which describes a person who can literally clear the fog, figuratively solve the little hang-ups that ruin plans. If you’re traveling with a debrouillard and you miss your train, somehow you’ll arrive at the next city before the train does. I don’t know how. Maybe they’ll talk to the ticket booth attendant and the attendant will drive you personally to where you’re going. There’s no straight lines in a debrouillard’s life, though. The rule is, they never catch the train. They’re always one cent short, and then they get the meal for free.

When I met Mohammed at the Miksališta center for refugees, I could tell he was of this tradition.
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The Night of the Humanitarians

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Since June 14, I’ve been traveling from Athens to Berlin and writing about refugees and the people who help them get where they want to go. In my last post I wrote about Macedonia, a hostile country refugees have to cross as quickly and quietly as possible. Serbia is a good place to rest. Although the country is surrounded by closed borders, it’s own borders are open. That means once refugees enter Serbia, they can stay, they can buy bus tickets to other points within the country, they can rest up for their trip north. Almost everyone I talked to was heading north, to Vienna, to Switzerland, to Germany.

When I arrived in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, there was an event at a bar/art space where refugee helpers were going to share stories and strategies. It was a glimpse into the world of humanitarianism, and I learned two things: There are too many NGOs in this world to keep track of; and people working on the ground tend to look askance at the people in charge of the money.

A row of unframed black-and-white photos in a hall, hanging next to a bar, finger food, people in little clusters, chatting. I was looking for Elise, the German woman from Refugee Aid Serbia who had invited me, but I didn’t know what she looked like. I went over to the photos, read the artist’s statement: “Older Syrian men are a pleasure to photograph…” I suppose the series of portraits intended to make refugees appear human to the people who only see refugees depicted in photographs.

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