It is a marvellous adventure – when you can go back home

We again set out to help refugees in the Balkans just as we did last winter. For a week, we worked in two refugee camps, Adaševci and Principovac, near the town of Šid.

Photo: Lucie Karmová

It’s the first day. I have barely seen anything yet, nor spoken to anyone. But even from the tiny peeks into the lives of the local inhabitants that I have been able to get, I feel disgusted.

The refugees are squeezed together in a former motel near a gas station along the highway from Belgrade to Zagreb, with cars whizzing by only ten meters away and a mess all around, washed clothes drying on rusty fences.

There are also the so-called “rub-halls,” big tents with bunks for tens of people, where mainly men sleep.

The motel resembles a squat. There is a sudden racket – a pack of children running through the corridors. Rooms are divided by grey blankets instead of walls, obviously with more than one family living inside. The word “privacy” has likely been erased from these people’s dictionaries. Someone is trying to Skype home with headphones on at the reception desk. The wi-fi is awfully slow and does not cover the whole motel.

The barracks smell like dirt, but there is nothing to clean them with. There is no room for common activities – for playing, drinking tea, screening films, lecturing, nothing. No entertainment, no school, no work. Only a total of ten people have officially managed to get over the border in the last month. The rest are waiting, sitting on the benches in the hall, staring silently at the highway out the window, wandering back and forth. Boys are kicking a ball, children playing with garbage, men smoking.

One volunteer finds a record holder: someone who has been stuck here for eight months. Young men without families have the smallest chance of being allowed to cross.

I would go mad being in such a place for even a month.

How long can hundreds of men endure this hopelessness before something goes terribly wrong?

They say men hang themselves here from time to time.

Compared to the barracks, it smells good in the laundry room. Families can wash one or two loads of laundry per week. We wash their clothes on a 17-minute programme at 30 degrees, and hand it back wet, heavy, poorly rinsed and full of soap bubbles – but it is better than washing it in a sink.

Children sometimes invade the laundry room. They are all beautiful, looking at us curiously. We caress and cuddle them, and then quickly make them leave; the buttons and circles on the washing machines are too tempting for them.

The next night, I find myself in a Czech xenophobe’s nightmare: I am alone in a giant tent with almost 150 swarthy men. In Principovac, the volunteers have to take turns doing guard duty in the tents as a quid pro quo for the Commissariat permitting us to distribute hygienic packs to the refugees. We assist in calming down the sometimes tense atmosphere and observing the bans on smoking, cooking and playing loud music so the majority of people have a chance to sleep.

This place is different from Adaševci, where volunteers sometimes tell stories about knife fights breaking out. I would definitely not be surprised if the refugees lose control from time to time, with almost 150 people squeezed into one “room” (although at times I saw as many as 200 there at once) and two-storey blocks where only hanging blankets create the impression of privacy.

I feel like a jail-house would look better than this.

The tent is a kind of Babylon. I have been sitting with one group for a while, and the easiest way to communicate is to speak French. A Moroccan translates the words into Arabic for an Iraqi, an Iranian and a Syrian, and the Iranian translates them into Farsi for the Iranian Kurds.

We accept an offer of tea. As Czech volunteers, we have a reputation and a special position among the locals. All of them understand what a terrible calamity it would be for everyone if something happened to us. People in the tent are a very diverse group, and everyone watches everyone else. I asked my friend Radka if she had ever been harassed in the camp. She drily replied that she was facing harassment everyday – from the guys employed in the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration.

The gentlemen prepare some terribly sweet tea. I sip it and want to let it circulate amongst the crowd, but alas, I have to drink it all by myself. We are then taken from this group by another invitation to have a meal with a young Iranian, Reza. In the end, I am as full as a ball, but it is impossible to reject the food. It goes on like this until 1 A.M.

People are constantly haggling with each other; a group of guys are playing cards and hooting while being shouted at by others to shut up. Others are listening to loud music. When I see someone with a cigarette, I try to persuade him to finish it outside. If I only warn them, they simply smile, hide the cigarette and continue smoking. But when I stand and wait until they go out with me, it’s like a kind of negotiation for them, and so it’s okay.

The majority of people fall asleep at 3 A.M. when the machine producing hot air ceases to work. The temperature falls to zero in a couple dozen minutes.

I let it be, wearing thick socks and covering myself with two blankets, but it is clear why everybody is coughing and sneezing here.

When the morning approaches, I think to myself that it was a nice experience for one night, but in my mind I am in my hot shower at home.

Throughout the next day and night, I am pretty busy.

When I go into the tent, a lot of people greet me as if they have known me for a long time. Soon I am sitting on a bunk with a group of Afghans and Pakistanis, and in ten minutes we are discussing religion.

They did not hear it from the Czechs for the first time, but still they are still surprised to hear that I have “no religion”. My hosts’ poor English unfortunately (ha ha) does not allow us to engage in a deeper theological conversation. Clearly if we went deeper, we would find a lot of areas of friction. Eventually we agree that we are all “brothers and sisters”, supported by a remark by one man that his cousin’s wife is a Christian and it is okay.

I ask an Iranian why he left his country. He tells me that people in Iran are not free. He mentions the alcohol ban, and then he turns away and pulls up his sweatshirt. For the first time (and I hope for the last), I see a human’s back mutilated by tens of crisscrossing scars caused by lashing. Who knows whether the religious police caught him during a raid on a party, or if he was moonshining schnapps secretly, or if he took a walk with a woman who was not his wife?

It sometimes starts to seem like one big, fun party – until I see someone sitting in between the bunks with a crying baby in his or her arms. Or I spot someone going barefoot. Or I stop to listen to the constant coughing and sneezing. Or I watch two men washing their sweatpants in a bucket and spin-drying them in the frosty air outside. And most importantly, until the moment I remind myself again that I do not have to be here and I will be going back home in two days.

This article was published in Czech on the website Respekt blog herehere and here.


Lucie Karmová

Lucie Karmová

works at the South Moravian Centre for International Mobility (JCMM) on the projects “Support for Talented High School Students” and “High School Research”.