My two days in Tovarnik

Impressed by the Czechs’ volunteerism, fascinated by their effective organisation, surprised by the refugees’ calmness, and pleased with the Croatian police’s professionalism.

Wkimedia Commons, Author: Mstyslav Chernov

I spent two days in the Croatian town of Tovarnik, where people from Syria, Iraq and other countries were crossing the border from Serbia. Spending just two days in a place, one can only get a very subjective and fractional impression of it, but even this can be interesting…

I am still fascinated (and filled with hope) by the ability of people to organise themselves quickly and effectively, with no hierarchy or profit incentive, when it is needed.

I met volunteers – both men and women – from Germany, Poland, Australia, the USA, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and several other countries. One American told me that he was travelling through Europe with his girlfriend, but they could not continue vacationing as tourists any more when a situation like this appeared.

I was impressed by how many people were from Czechia, perhaps due to good communication on social networks where they share real-time information about the situation and current needs on the ground. I would like to mention specifically the anarchists and their fellow travellers, both men and women, from Germany, Poland and Brno in Czechia, as well as other places, who managed to deliver and set up a fully equipped kitchen and continued to cook and distribute meals for the whole period. Hats off!!

I was surprised by the calm and discipline of all those on the run. They often reacted with smiles when given instructions and directives by volunteers, as well as by the police. They managed to quickly defuse even more tense situations. I definitely did not meet with any condescending behaviour or contempt towards the aid we offered. If they did not need something, they refused it with a thank you. In general they thanked us a lot, almost every time, and very respectfully. Many of them helped where it was needed, and they even gave us advice on how to spice a meal to make it tasty for everyone.

In between food preparation and distribution, I had a longer conversation with two Syrians. One of them was a young guy, a postgraduate student from Damascus. He told me in perfect English that he wanted to avoid being enlisted into Assad’s army. Therefore, he decided to leave via Lebanon and Turkey, then by ship into Greece (they were lucky, he said, and made it to shore), and then ideally to Germany, where he wanted to finish his studies or, if necessary, begin his studies again from scratch.

The second one was an older man who spoke fluent Slovak. He had graduated from pharmacy school in Bratislava and lived there for some time. In Syria, he repeatedly contacted the Slovak embassy applying for assistance with relocation. He was repeatedly told that he had to wait. He finally decided to go on his own, apparently wanting to handle the details himself. Logically, he wanted to go to Slovakia. Hopefully he managed to get there via Vienna. Even after a three-day stay at a tiny railway station almost without any support (not to mention the road he took to get there), he managed to keep a positive mood. I would have gone mad.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the Croatian police. Being used to Czechia’s armed hoplites, who sometimes like to demonstrate their power over those weaker by hitting them, I watched with pleasure this proof that policemen could behave humanely. Instead of showing sulky faces in those masked helmets, the Croats communicated relatively willingly with the volunteers. They let us go everywhere we were needed, and they behaved rationally and humanely to the refugees, although it was sometimes necessary to raise their voices. They did not escalate an already tense situation. Maybe they were better trained than our policemen, or maybe the war and the suffering linked to it are still in their living memory.

I saw, learned and went through a lot during those two days. I said to myself that if it was possible in Tovarnik, Croatia, it might be possible elsewhere. Good will is still there in people.

September 2015

This blog was published in Czech on the Respekt blog.

Jan Trnka

Jan Trnka

teaches biochemistry at Charles University.