I saw the chaos of 1946 in Röszke

Nobody tells me about how mature and humanistic Europe is. I witnessed a legal and informational vacuum, resembling the months after WW2, in the centre of Europe.

Wikimedia Commons, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-V00022-3 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Under the influence of the latest news from Hungary, a few glasses of merlot and The Best of protest singer, evangelical pastor, dissident and signatory of Charter 77 Sváťa Karásek (“and you cringe again in the crowd, just a bystander again…”), I offered my hands and my car to a Facebook group organising assistance for refugees.

Before I could think twice, we were turning away from the highway at Szeged toward an improvised camp at the Hungarian-Serbian border, located in a field near the village of Röszke.

There I cut vegetables, distributed food and transported volunteers and materials from Szeged. On Monday night, however, Hungary closed the border fence and the gloomy free party, visited by more than ten thousand people in two weeks, ended.

After spending 48 hours there, I have an urge to answer a few questions – whether anyone is asking or not.

Should we fear the people I met in Röszke? No. That makes about as much sense as fearing any other group of travellers – let’s say, all those travelling to the Prague airport Ruzyně in a given 24-hour period. I won’t say that all of them were beautiful souls, that Europe should accept them all and give them the privilege to choose their destination country a la carte. I am just saying that there is no reason to fear them any more than any other accidental grouping of people anywhere in Czechia.

No invading hordes of barbarians were coming to Röszke. A lot of middle class families with children, a surprisingly high number of old people pushed in carriages over the rail frets by their relatives, and of course those legendary young men. By which I mean youngsters about as capable of fighting as a boy with a wooden sword.

Now on to the frequently debated cultural differences.

The Arabs, waiting at a stand to receive food, let themselves be disciplined and lined up into queues by young female volunteers. All the males understood that women and children were given priority in food distribution, even if that meant they would not get anything. Only a few diners out of a hundred asked if the food was halal; they were all okay with the fact that it was just vegan. Out of thousands of women, I saw only one of them wearing a niqab. Most of them wore only a hijab, some of them no hair covering at all.

The day after my departure, some of the refugees clashed with the Hungarian policemen at the closed border. This does not change my analogy; take a crowd of passengers on a bus to the Prague airport, make them a bit depressed, and a minority of them would become just as aggressive as that small minority of refugees.

Was it really such a mess in Röszke? It was. When there are a lot of people in one place and no system of garbage collection, then there is a mess. And even if there had been separate containers for garbage, you do not have time to think about an empty bottle when policemen are rushing you from your tent onto a bus.

Speaking of culture, even more telling than the garbage is the fact that among the refugees I did not see something that is common in Czech towns: urinating in public. I did not spot a single bit of excrement, even in the distance outside the boundaries of the camp. Everyone obediently stood in queues to use the overflowing portable toilets.

Wasting the donations? When I was there, no – but thanks to the time and energy of the volunteers. The problem with donations was, in almost all of the cases, due to the absurd reality that nobody knew anything. On Monday, there came the news that a thousand-head crowd was attempting to get to Hungary for the last time, so we went to fill the car with food. The crowd did not come, so the food worth three thousand Czech crowns remained with older deposits in the tent. We failed to get the contact information for  any nearby food bank to donate the food.

It is true that used sleeping bags and sleeping pads were burnt on the spot at the beginning. That is, until the medical staff came to disinfect them against the spreading of scabies.

What terrible pro-refugee brainwashing…! Well, having said all this, there are two positions usually held by people who share my opinions that I, however, do not agree with.

Firstly, the Germans’ gesture of opening the border to Syrian refugees created a terrible mess. If Germany genuinely wanted to help the Syrians, then they should have sent buses, trains or airplanes for them and secured for them legal transportation via transit countries.

It was desperate to watch the foot competition of exhausted, forlorn and confused people to reach the German border quickly before the free entry period was to close again. I would compare this idea of the Germans’ to throwing money into a crowd and then being surprised at the resulting stampede.

Secondly, the policemen in Röszke sometimes worked as long as two days non-stop. Some of them had even come from other parts of Hungary after being ordered to report to duty in Röszke in two hours’ time. Despite their exhaustion, they managed to behave correctly to the refugees while loading them into the buses. They gave them instructions in English, which was then translated by refugees themselves or by volunteers into other languages. I was upset, therefore, when the German cook insisted that the policemen should not be served food. It was not the individual members of public institutions who failed in Röszke, it was the institutions in general.

What was the biggest shock? Absolutely the inertia of public institutions on all levels when faced with human suffering, manifested in the fact that it was the volunteers and NGOs who had to bear the full burden of taking care of the incoming refugees. The state only managed to repress. It failed to bring a tank with drinking water, but it was able to bring water cannons. It was able to raise a razor-blade fence, but the cuts made by it had to be patched up by the Medicines sans frontiers.

This inertia indirectly managed to produce an informational fog, as institutions often changed the rules and then refused to even follow them. And this does not apply only to Hungary. I was often asked questions and, despite actively trying to obtain real answers, almost every time I eventually had to reply, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know.”

Where do the buses go from Röszke – to the camps, or to the borders? Are they going to take fingerprints? What exactly does it mean? The officers who knew were unable or unwilling to tell, and even if they did, they could not promise their answer would still be valid in 30 minutes. The result? Some of those who crossed the border and made it to the tent town later, absurdly, went back to sleep in fields on the Serbian side because they feared being interned in Hungary.

In Röszke, as in the Vamossabaidy camp, every new police shift took a different stance toward the volunteers’ transferring refugees in their own cars to the railway or even further. Sometimes it was prohibited, sometimes not – but it was somehow never prohibited for the overpriced taxis offering the same service.

The situation outside Hungary changed from hour to hour; news came that Austria, the Czech Republic or Germany was about to close its borders to install random checks. This collided with rumours about special trains about to be dispatched. Decisions about the destinies, and in some cases lives, of whole families were dependent on information that was about as reliable as a psychic’s prophecies. Smart phones, wi-fi, Facebook, Twitter – all these are useless when you do not have information.

One time, when a rumour about David Cameron visiting the camp began to spread, I realised that I was participating in a collective loss of the notion of what reality was, so for the rest of the day I decided to do nothing more than peel and cut onions.

Only a few days before, I had had no idea that it was possible to find oneself in such an informational and legal vacuum in the centre of the civilised world. A transparent state administration, the Information Era, a humanistic Europe – let alone an “overly humanistic” Europe – after Röszke, it is all bullshit for me. A phrase without meaning.

While Jean-Claude Juncker was correctly persuading national governments in the European Parliament, babies were being born in corn fields in Röszke.

What I saw there was what I have read about in books but was unable to imagine, unable to even come close to in my mind: the chaos and inertia of the year 1946. At best.

September 2015


This blog was published in Czech on the website finmag.cz.

Michal Kašpárek

Michal Kašpárek

has been a freelance journalist since 2010. Before that, he was a journalist writing for MFDNes, Metropolis and Computer Press between 2006 and 2009.