I put my bag with my rubber boots on my back and set on into the unknown, heading for Röszke. As I approached it, I met policemen, soldiers, and groups of refugees running through fields and along fences. Some were lying in bushes by the side of the road.
The refugee camp was located alongside the road. A long, broad line of people had been waiting for hours in the cold night for the old blue buses that would come to transport them somewhere else. The police did not tell them where they were to be transported.
For this reason, many refugees preferred to strike out into the corn fields and surrender themselves to the traffickers shoaling there, just a few steps away from a large knot of policemen. It was a dangerous choice; the traffickers tend to be aggressive. They lie, fail to bring people to their promised destinations, and even cooperate with sex and child traffickers.
I was given my first task: to walk along the rails and bring people to the tents (or, if needed, to a physician), providing them with blankets, water and food.
First, we helped a large family with three daughters settle into a camping tent. Then, we went to have a look at the area along the rails up as far as the razor-blade fence that was being built. Refugees were still trickling through the unfinished section. Most of them were Syrian, but we also met Afghanis and Iraqis. They were welcomed by torches aimed at their faces, a soldier with a kalashnikov, and a helicopter flying over their heads.
Some Austrians who had come there to volunteer had managed to begin coordinating the camp. Before that there had been total chaos, with various groups, organisations and people coming and haphazardly trying to do whatever they knew how – build tents or distribute food or clothes. Now the cleaning process and the garbage collection had begun to improve.
A group of various families came to occupy a big tent during the night. We provided them with blankets, water and something to eat. They were exhausted, and most of them fell asleep immediately. But one baby was crying. His mum tried for a long time to calm him down.
I came to ask her if she needed anything, if I could help her somehow.
“No, thanks!” she said.
I went to the depot, found a small teddy bear and took it to her. I am unable to describe the gratitude in her eyes. Suddenly, everything fell away from me. A man can isolate himself from the unhappy destinies of those around him by keeping busy, by always managing something, keeping the inventories, building and cleaning the tents, losing himself in the rapid rush. But suddenly the stream of technical operations stopped, and I managed to establish an emotional connection with the destiny of this family. I was flooded with empathy, and tears struck me as unexpectedly as if I had been hit on the head.
While the majority of this group of refugees was more or less resting, we had a discussion with their leader about what to do next. He was facing an impossible dilemma. If they embarked on one of the buses provided by the Hungarians, they would be probably taken to a camp for a couple of days and then all of them would be fingerprinted. At that point, they would not be able to continue on to Sweden where they wanted to go.
If they decided to march to Szeged on foot alone, however, they could possibly be caught by a patrol, and then their situation would be much graver. On the other hand, to turn to the human traffickers was dangerous. There was no way of knowing if one would be cheated or worse.
He talked to us for almost an hour.
“Isn’t it possible to get on the bus, then walk away without entering the camp?”
Information came at around 3 A.M. that policemen were waking up all the people in the tents and taking them in buses to Szeged without fingerprinting them. From there they would be allowed tocontinue on their way by train to Budapest and Austria.
The Hungarians probably made this decision because of the fact that the Austrians were planning to restore border controls, and the Hungarians wanted to get rid of as many refugees as possible before then.
The refugee group’s leader rolled his eyes.
I grabbed him by the shoulder and told him, “Go!”
“Is it certain?” he asked me.
What is, for god’s sake, certain in this surreal chaos? I thought, but you have to act and this is the best knowledge we have right now.
“It is certain,” I told him.
“Yalla, yalla!” He began to wake up his crying, exhausted children and the rest of the group.
He even asked me if he was not supposed to make the beds after everyone in his group. I shook his hand, told him to go and wished him good luck. They had undergone enormous difficulties, and despite it all they remained decent, considerate and human. If I wanted someone as a neighbour, it would be them.
I spent the next day moving some bigger tents. I went up to the razor-blade fence at around 5 P.M. A line of policemen was standing there, backed by another line of soldiers in steel helmets, military cars rolling around and policemen parading on horses. And then there was a line of journalists. I recognised one of the reporters; she was, I believe, from Al-Jazeera.
I will never forget the looks in the eyes of the refugees who were not allowed over the border. I saw one boy carrying a man on his back – probably his father.
One woman sat on the rails for a long time. She had two boys – one no older than 4 years, the other a baby in a sack on her breast. In the background, the Hungarians were finishing the hideous fence. I was hanging onto its razorless part and staring at this woman. She had a beautiful dark face. Her tears were like ornaments on her cheeks…
Later, I took a ride in a car to the Serbian side. The last point where refugees were still able to cross the border was the official checkpoint near the village of Horgos.
When we arrived, some journalists were interviewing a Syrian sitting in despair with his family on the pavement. I began a conversation with him. He was waiting to be fingerprinted at the checkpoint. He told me that rumours were spreading on the internet that it would take from five to ten years for him to be released from the camp in Hungary. Maybe these rumours were spread by traffickers in order to attract refugees to them.
I told him to wait for some real news, and that I would come back. As it turned out, the Hungarians were taking fingerprints; however, they then let the refugees continue on to Austria, maybe because they wanted to get rid of them. So the best choice for this Syrian man was probably to go across the checkpoint.
However, around midnight they closed the border to the refugees for good. At that point there was no sense in staying at the checkpoint. No one could get through.
We started thinking about what to do next. I had two choices: try to somehow get through Croatia to the other side, or join the last of the Viennese who could bring me to Austria with them. I chose the latter.
We came to Vienna after 10 P.M. I wanted to see how things were going with the refugees in Austria. It turned out to be a completely different kettle of fish. The organisation was brilliant. The Viennese people had built everything for the refugees without governmental assistance; they had secured places for sleeping in the city so people wouldn’t have to sleep at the railway station, and were bringing refugees from the station there in buses.
I went out to have a walk through Vienna. I sat in front of St. Stephen’s Dome at around 11 P.M., stuffing myself with wursts I had bought in Schwedenplatz. Women with careful makeup and men in clean, fashionable sweaters were sitting in chairs at a restaurant nearby, holding glasses of white wine in their hands.
I did not know which I found to be more obscene – Röszke, or the streets leading from the Danube to St. Stephen’s Dome.
This article was published in Czech on the online magazine Blisty.