What’s it like to be a refugee? Crossing the Serbia-Hungary border with those fleeing conflict zones

Richard Sudan
Richard Sudan is a London-based writer, political activist, and performance poet. His writing has been published in many prominent publications, including the Independent, the Guardian, Huffington Post and Washington Spectator. He has been a guest speaker at events for different organizations ranging from the University of East London to the People's Assembly covering various topics. His opinion is that the mainstream media has a duty to challenge power, rather than to serve power. Richard has taught writing poetry for performance at Brunel University.
Migrants, hoping to cross into Hungary, walk along a railway track outside the village of Horgos in Serbia, towards the border it shares with Hungary, September 2, 2015. © Marko Djurica
The so-called migrant and refugee crisis is deteriorating, but the last people to blame are those making the treacherous and deadly crossing from war-torn lands to the safety of European shores.

It should perhaps be noted that there was no talk of a ‘crisis’ by Western leaders when NATO and their death squads were busy accelerating the destruction of the countries where many thousands of these refugees come from. Apparently, the decimation of land and life is only a ‘crisis’ when the consequences affect our cozy way of life.

Up to this point of course, in the liberal media at least, it was words like ‘democracy’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ that had been thrown around to describe the destruction and bombing of people’s homelands. Interestingly, the same leaders are not so keen on any ‘humanitarian intervention’ to save those now fleeing the devastation that our governments’ helped cause. They would rather let human beings die at sea by cutting funding for sea rescue boats, and build walls to keep people out, rather than face the music of the song they composed and undertake real ‘humanitarian intervention’ just this once.

Many people of course now see through the pile of lies that led to the so-called crisis we now face.

The reality is that the suffering these refugees are going through is unimaginable, but I wanted to feel and see what they felt making the crossing into the EU. This of course is impossible, but nonetheless I wanted to at least see if I could make the crossing from Serbia into Hungary along the disused railway line, and see if I could pass myself off as a refugee in order to enter the refugee/migrant camp itself. I succeeded.

Before explain my attempt, I would like to apologize to anyone who feels it may be disrespectful to those who have had to actually leave their homeland and make the journey for real – I felt I owed it to our brothers and sisters from MENA (Middle East and North Africa) to at least try to attempt it, in order to more effectively tell their story and convey conditions they have to endure. We owe them that much. Their voice needs to be heard.

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So, a couple of days ago I set off from the Serbian border late into the night, and joined a group of young men whom I saw being dropped off by bus, having likely been staying in the camp in Belgrade for a few days. Most in Belgrade had arrived in the Belgrade camp after trekking through Macedonia, and traveling via Greece and Turkey, with their country of origin frequently being Syria.

English being my only language, I decided to keep my words to a minimum, conversing with the other men I had joined who were largely from Pakistan, through gestures and spates of English.

Before I arrived to make the trek I had no fear of refugees, and that remains the case. To be honest, I was more concerned about the eventual and inevitable encounter with the police and ‘gypsies’ than I was with any of the men who graciously allowed this stranger to join their group, who apparently emerged out of the night from nowhere, and who latched on to their group to make the approximately 2km crossing from Serbia into Hungary.

What they did – was offer to share the little food and water they had with me. Peaches, plums, and mostly fruit. They were all smiles and treated this newcomer like their brother. It dawned on me that despite the almost impossible journey they had made, with some of them literally losing everything, they nonetheless considered themselves lucky because of how much worse the situation back home was.

My group in turn, merged with another larger group who seemed to be mainly from Syria and northern Iraq. The larger group was made up mostly of men, but with many women and children also present. There were also several other smaller groups which began to form a long line.

This was clearly not planned but I think there was an unspoken understanding that the group would be more able to defend itself if it was larger and stronger. These people were informed enough to have heard that armed groups of ‘gypsies’ were frequently targeting groups of migrants traveling along the disused railway line stealing peoples goods and assaulting them. They had not traveled hundreds of miles to be beaten up by rogue opportunists when they were within touching distance of the EU. Some began to pull branches from trees in order to arm themselves for such an eventuality. Someone threw me a thick branch, which I carried with me.

The group began to set off.

Migrants rest at an underground station near the main Eastern Railway station in Budapest, Hungary, September 2, 2015. © Bernadett Szabo

It was pitch black at this point and humid and muggy. Some walked in silence, others chatted. Young children were carried, while slightly older ones walked briskly with excitement. One or two limped with injury and were assisted by others. People knew they were a stone’s throw from their destination, safety compared to what they had lived through, and you could feel the tension and anticipation.

I had the luxury of having seen the end of the track two days before hand, and knew that they were very close. The others of course did not.

We carried on into the night making steady progress, the various dialects around me speaking in quiet tones. Every so often a car would drive past on the adjacent road and everybody would crouch in silence.

I should point out here, that at two junctures on the walk, police were present to signal which direction to walk in and hopefully, to deter the potential of armed attacks on those making the crossing. It should also be pointed out that this was the job they were paid to do and are obliged to do under European and international law. I was glad to see this as I had heard reports of other police officers from neighboring countries demanding money from people in order for them to cross borders.

Eventually I found myself near the front, and crossed the border, walking past the white posts in the ground and was immediately handed water and bread. I was then told to head over to a makeshift waiting area (police tape and a tent with rubbish strewn around it) where I learned I would be escorted to one of the refugee camps, from which people would then be driven by coach to train stations to continue their journeys to northern Europe.

We waited around for about an hour until eventually, what can only be described as the sort of bus you see driving people to prison rattled around the corner. To be honest, I had not felt too much fear up to this point. When I saw the bus however, I felt scared. One of my biggest fears is being held in the back of a police van. British, Hungarian, it makes no difference to me.

We were all told to ‘sit down’ by one of the larger police officers, and not in a polite invitation sort of way. Women and children we called onto the bus first. Each person was asked ‘what country are you from?’ before being ushered aboard. The answers were generally Syria and Pakistan. When it was my turn I simply said ‘Syria’.

I was one of the last on the bus and would be the first off when reaching the camp. When the metal mesh prison door slammed shut on the inside of the bus and the bus began to move, I felt a loss of control which made me uncomfortable.

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The Camp

We reached the camp after ten minutes or so. We were each asked as we got off which country we were from. Again I said Syria, and they put an armband on me.

When everybody had gone through this process we were herded like cattle into the human camp.

It was that simple. No one searched me or checked my pockets, so did not see my recording devices.

I won’t ever forget the initial sight and stench of the place. The place stunk of urine and human feces. It would be impossible for anyone to remain clean in that place. There was nowhere to wash that I could see. The toilets there, made the ones you see at music festivals comparable to the ones you might find in the Queen’s chamber in Buckingham Palace. I found my colleague and friend who had walked with me and when we thought eyes were no longer fixed on us we began to take pictures and film. It was a heart-breaking scene. In the midst of all the squalor and filth were people keeping their pride dignity and humanity. Tents and beds were perched randomly and people were sleeping all around me as at this time is was almost 1:00am.

Many people were so tired they seemed oblivious to what was going on around them. The smiles I has seen on the walk were replaced by a weariness.

We were there for a few hours. Eventually my colleague and I walked to the front of the gate and presented our British passports. The guard at the gate, took them, looked at the pictures and then our faces and laughed in a bemused way.

He returned with an Arabic interpreter even though it was clear we spoke English and not Arabic. I explained we were journalists. The police were visibly annoyed, and one or two amused. But they treated us well. They did not hurt or search us, they only asked us questions. Their numbers, body language and the way they stood in a semi-circle, looking at us at times was unnerving and was probably meant to be, but that sort of thing doesn’t bother me. No one laid a finger on us.

We were driven to the border and made to walk through officially after that we were simply sent on our way by some very nice EU officials. We had a good chat with them. It was clear they were very sympathetic to the refugees. The police did their job but I sensed at times a reluctance with some of them.

There is certainly a crisis, but the conditions people are being made to live in en route to Germany must be viewed as a crisis too. Perhaps the money being invested in walls could be better placed to ensure some comfort and dignity to those who have already suffered.

The next day I interviewed a government spokesperson next to the Hungary’s parliament. He mentioned once the cameras were off that in a couple of days’ time there would be a new blanket police under law of simply making it illegal to cross illegally – no matter who you are – and that I should not do it in the future. I can’t say I will anytime soon. It was a privilege and honor to meet such kind people and I am talking about the refugees. We cannot fathom what they have been through but we have to try. It was so hard to these people who have gone through hell, end up in cages, to await an uncertain future. But the world is full of good people, and my faith remains in them. The problems I had before this trip now seem minuscule and irrelevant. I know we have an obligation to help these people first and foremost before we even get into the politics.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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