Fear is stronger than pain

In November 2015, I followed the refugees on their way through the Balkans. I ended up all alone on the fringe of a road a few kilometres from Szeged, Hungary.

Wkimedia Commons, Author: Mstyslav Chernov

We are taking a rest in the rail yard of the provisional camp in Röszke. The refugees who come here try to orientate themselves as soon as possible. The policemen instruct them to form a line on the road leading to the camp. Then they must board the buses that constantly come and go, transporting them to refugee camps near the Austrian border.

And then their bad dream comes true.

The bogey of registration

The much-feared fingerprinting and registration process is done here. Hossein and his friends are shaking with terror. I remember a man in Macedonia who showed me that he had burnt his fingertips because of this. He wanted to avoid transferring his data to the Eurodac system, which collects the fingerprints of all applicants for asylum in the EU, and thus circumvent the directive stating that refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU member state they enter.

Their fears are intensified by widespread awareness of the police’s potential for brutality applied in cases where a refugee refuses to cooperate with the fingerprinting process. Recently, Amiad from Damascus, Syria, whom I met at the Macedonian-Greek border in August 2015, wrote to me: “Please, come (to Sweden) as soon as possible. I have to tell you all they did to me just to force me to give my fingerprints.”

A spontaneous protest

Hossein’s bunch waits in the rail yard for night to come. Their rest is suddenly interrupted by a group of refugees gathering in our immediate proximity. Suddenly, we are in the middle of a crowd of several hundred people protesting their transportation to the refugee camps in north-western Hungary where they will have to be registered.

The policemen in dark blue uniforms form a double line. The men in the first line discuss with the refugees of various ages and genders why they must be registered.

“We want to go to Ireland. We have family there. If you register us here, I cannot apply for asylum there and I won’t see my family, do you understand?” a young woman screams desperately.

“We understand you that none of you wants to stay in Hungary, but you have to register. You are in the EU and this is both our responsibility and yours,” one policeman responds calmly. The crowd grows; there are soon five hundred refugees. Still, dialogue prevails and there is no violence.

The discussion is often interrupted by shouts of “Liberté! Liberté!”, “No fingerprinting, stop the fingerprinting!”, “We want freedom!”

A march to nowhere

The crowd spontaneously starts to march at around 10 P.M. It follows the rails to the north, where the refugees think the city of Szeged is. We react swiftly and join the others, soon arriving at the head of the crowd. The problem is that no one knows where we are going.

We walk along the narrow sides of the rails, through cornfields, ditches and plains. People are mostly silent. Children, carried by their parents, cry. Parents take turns holding them. I even carry one of them for a while.

When I pass the child back to his father, he tells me, “Why don’t they let us go through the country without fingerprinting? I do not want to stay here. I want to get asylum in Belgium where my brother lives, that’s all. The Hungarians are mad. They should help us, but they don’t. Look at those families…”

The police escort

Hossein and I try to figure out what is going on, because there are policemen escorting the crowd. We remember this every time the silence of night-time and our own heavy breathing is interrupted by the sound of the police transmitter. After two hours walking through the fields, we see moving car lights in the distance: the road to Szeged. On one hand, it is a relief… but on the other hand, no one knows which direction Szeged is in. Hossein stops a passing car and the driver shows us the right direction. It is only 12 kilometres to our final destination.

The once dense crowd has turned into a long, loose column of people in the meantime, and the police has exploited this in order to part it into four groups. Two buses and three police vans stop at the edge of the road every kilometre. They pick up the most exhausted refugees.

“Where are you taking them?” I ask without expecting an answer. It is clear to me that those who board will be transported to registration.

When you are not able to carry on any more…

After roughly four hours of night marching, the people give up and board the parked buses. It is a smart move by the Hungarian police, actually; they just wait until the people get exhausted. It happens quickly. Only a few were ready for such a spontaneous march.

Only a small group of about one hundred refugees, led by my friend Hossein, manages to reach the roundabout near Szeged. There is a traffic sign in front of us: Budapest, 187 kilometres.

A father of two children leans in close to me and says, “Local government treats the refugees horribly, but I swear, we will go to Budapest. We will sleep on the highway and wait for a solution.” He stresses: “We haven’t walked 40 kilometres just to be fingerprinted.”

“Turn on the camera and tell them all what is happening here in Hungary. There are thousands of people without help. Tell them to just let us go through. We do not want to end up here. We want to start a new life elsewhere.”

Closing the circle

Hossein suggests that we all hold hands and walk exactly this way through the whole of Hungary all the way to Austria. The idea is not successful. Everyone is sitting down on the fringe of the road, weighed down by exhaustion.

We have been overcome by hunger, dehydration, and the desire to close our eyes for a while and rest. To fall asleep. To dream. To forget. We are surrounded by policemen. There are now more of them than remaining refugees.

Three buses stand ready to swallow the last several dozen refugees.

Now is the moment when Hossein, with a previously agreed upon signal, indicates to the others that he is unable to take care of his group of Iraqi co-refugees anymore. That he must act on his own. When he is able to slip through the cordon of policemen without being spotted, I see him with his friends Mahmoud and Ali disappearing into the darkness of a cornfield near the highway.

As if he fizzled out of existence. We did not have time to say goodbye to each other, but I believe that I will see him again sometime. Will it be in Britain? Only time will tell.

At the end of the road

It’s 3 A.M.. The buses with refugees are disappearing, destination Budapest. The policemen are leaving as well in their vans.

I am completely alone on the fringe of the road. This was the last image of the Balkan refugees’ route – Hossein’s escape into the darkness, the moment the curtain of corn closed behind him.

It is the image of the refugees’ uncertain future. And the image of Europe itself.

This article is the last in the series Michal Pavlásek wrote and published in the online magazine aktuálně.cz.

Michal Pavlásek

Michal Pavlásek

works at the Institute of Ethnology of the Czech Academy of Sciences.