There’s a difference between “the masses” and individuals. A mass has no name; it is anonymous, and it is impossible to look in its face. It is huge and terrifying. It does not inspire sympathy, but rather a sense of danger and risk. It is inhumane. A mass is easy to criticise and judge. However, if one takes a closer look, the mass vanishes and a face appears. The face of every human being, with its pains and joys, desires and hopes. Particular individuals, with their stories and destinies, emerge.
This was our first “action”, our first encounter with them. We put on the reflective vests (the only distinguishing mark that set us apart in the eyes of the police from the Syrian refugees, endowing us with a special right: the right to freedom) and moved closer.
“Do not go in among them, it is dangerous.” The chief of Croatian police in Tovarnik stopped us on the spot. A cordon of riot policemen stood in a small, narrow alley between the walls of the railway station. With the help of iron bars and their own mighty physiques, they were holding in place a strange, murmuring and moaning dark mass. (After all, it was getting dark.) They were holding in place a so-called mass of refugees, consisting of perhaps several hundred “pieces”.
In that moment, the darkness opened and we saw them. There, behind the bars.
I saw men begging the policemen to understand that those few lucky women who had been transferred with their children to a camp were their wives, and that they were afraid they might lose them in the daily chaos.
I saw small children standing behind the fence, obviously cold; walking on the sodden soil without shoes or socks in late September was nothing special for them.
I saw a lot of women who sought to console those often crying children, saying this would soon be over, that this strange misunderstanding would surely end soon.
Above all, however, I saw the rows of people sitting next to each other in a disciplined manner, head to head, body to body, perhaps waiting for the policemen’s instructions. Locked up in small cells, they were prisoners. There was nowhere to escape now. The Serbs supposedly did not let anyone out.
The police would allegedly take them away in buses. But first, the Hungarians had to show mercy and open their border. As the chief of police explained to us, “If they do not open, neither do we.” There was no time to discuss politics. Above all, there was neither water nor food. The single small Red Cross tent was desperately unable to meet the demand. We quickly started distributing bottled water and those few boxes of crackers we had been able to transport to the place.
When we asked the police to step back, they did not understand that we wanted to insert ourselves directly into the crowd, to get in among the people. Finally we were able to come closer and see the most important thing – the individual human faces. Smiling faces offered to help us pass out those few packages of bottled water. Thanks to the educated people who gladly translated our directions to everyone else, just a few sentences in English sufficed to explain that our small amount would barely satisfy the needs of all the children there.
Nobody cheated. On the contrary, men came to take me to the families with the youngest children. Although the Syrians did not understand a word the Afghans or Pakistanis said, the coordination was excellent. And the mood was incomprehensibly positive. People wanted to engage in conversation with us all the time. It was as if you visited a jail and the prisoners still wanted to be friends with you – the free visitors who honoured them with a visit. They wanted us to advise them on their situation, or tell them where we were from and why we were helping them.
People could not move much, and because they feared the police they preferred to remain sitting. Despite this, they managed to thank us again and again in often broken English for those few apples we had brought them. We ran away in shame to bring out the last supplies we had. The smiles never stopped. The people had so much to tell us. About their journey, the future, their situation and ourselves, the volunteers. They had barely heard of our countries. They often did not even know exactly where they were, whether or not they were in the European Union.
How can we convince you?
I was very ashamed when some of them began to precisely enumerate all the arguments and concerns that we, the Europeans, were using against them, and then sadly hung their heads and said before leaving: “How can we convince you of the opposite?” They often talked about their current hardship, spending several days here with no one speaking to them, not knowing what was happening now and what would happen to them in the future.
The only thing they did not want to talk about at all was their past experiences in their own countries. It wasn’t until one young Syrian my age – a student like me, with a similar worldview – finally told us that his uncle’s family were his last living relatives, and that he had had enough of seeing people herded in the street onto a large grill and burnt alive, that I got it.
I feel so sorry that there was no more time to get to know these particular people and their stories. With the sunset, the blazing heat of the day was quickly replaced with the frosty chill of the nighttime plains. The last remnants of the distributed food had to be quickly supplemented with a small supply of clothing. Almost everything quickly became covered in frost, but the people had no time to be picky when many of them had been dropped off there wearing only short-sleeved T-shirts and flip-flops without socks.
The winter came upon us, too, at midnight – despite our precious Gore-Tex jackets designed for wear in the mountains. When the heartless frost was joined by intense rain and chilly winds, things started to become truly terrible. We had run out of almost all our stocks. Only the occasional arrival of new supply lorries full of German volunteers averted the most tragic scenario from happening in this, the most critical spot in the Balkans right now. The cold hard reality was, however, still waiting for me…
I accidentally passed through a space between the walls and saw a terrifying scene: not a few hundred people, but about two thousand, all sitting on the same spot. The space was so small and tight for them that it had become covered in a tens-of-centimetres thick layer of garbage during the day. People needed to have a rest, but faced with the lack of space and perhaps at the end of their natural shyness and reluctance, they built their night shelters directly on top of the garbage. This garbage was decomposing in the rain, and had become so smelly that we had trouble even walking through the space.
The lucky ones managed to at least warm themselves around small fires fed from the garbage for a while, often using PET bottles, an excellent heating material. There were no doctors, yet the space was ripe for infection, pneumonia and hypothermia from the soaking cold. At night, the situation only worsened with every hour.
Still, after six days in Croatia I retained the same impression: I had never met anyone rabid or ferocious. People were desperate, disappointed and frustrated. In places where the border remained closed all day, they stayed sitting humbly on the ground with their heads hanging for days. Yet, absurdly, they always accepted my soothing words without anger. Young children kept shouting the only English words they had learned – “thank you” – and the older people greeted us with thumbs-up signs and smiles when we merely passed by.
When we called out the names of their missing parents with small children in the crowd (often their parents were already on their way to a Croatian camp, even though the kids headed back to Hungary with others), the cooperation was perfect. People passed our names to each other, they did not wait for exhortation.
When they managed to find a broom, they often immediately seized it and set it work. One father, as a sign of gratitude for the ambulance that came for his child who caught a fever from lying on the cold ground at night, began single-mindedly sweeping the whole road even as it was being drenched in ropes of rain. A Syrian doctor meanwhile organised a crowd of one thousand refugees into small cleaning units all by himself. I had not grasped until now what these little desperate gestures exactly meant. I see them as gestures through which those (in our eyes) often “mute” people sought to say something – perhaps something about themselves.
The miraculous deliverance came at 3 A.M. Somewhere in the distance, the Hungarians had decided to open the border to Austria for a few hours after all, and the Croats could thus finally dispatch the two promised trains to carry these two thousand people. There are days when this miracle of high politics comes, and there are days when people just sit and wait in the rain and garbage. But what a short-lived relief it was, when the news soon came that there were another five thousand people similarly trapped at the border crossing ten kilometres away from us. Now there was nothing to distribute or transport. The only option was to collect those few blankets not completely soiled from the garbage and the few tents that our German colleagues had been able to deliver.
Perhaps only ten of us volunteers remained on the spot. Our work continued until eight in the morning, when we finally learned that the Croatian police would not let us in to visit this other group, trapped in the most extreme conditions. The next afternoon, a similar report: another five thousand unfortunate human beings were now blocked at the crossing between Tovarnik and Šid…
I saw large masses of refugees during my week in Croatia. But I also saw thousands of unique faces with unique life stories, faces so similar to ours. I saw a lot of faces freezing in extreme conditions that soon – unless the situation changes – will inevitably bring sacrifices.I saw suffering more immense than physical pain when grown men cried in the car because of losing their entire families, when we, during one 17-kilometre-long march, unfamiliar with the situation and the police system, were gathering their children and mothers and transporting them in a camp.
I saw faces that, despite their suffering, had managed to preserve their inner beauty and dignity. I saw the joy of hope that maybe, someday, might finally come and shine through their terrifying past.
I saw faces that would like to come with us, speak and learn. There were other, different faces, yet much the same. No masses of bloodthirsty marauders or “Muslims”, but ordinary people with names and stories.
I also saw the Europe that those people in need believe in, the Europe that builds a wall to keep out people trying to escape from war. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps indifference, perhaps even hate. I saw a Europe that calls itself “humanist” and “Christian”. I saw a Europe that was definitely not a Christian one, although many people in different contexts and with different interests claim it to be so.
Europe can truly claim its Christian identity only when it opens its doors in solidarity and emphasises tolerance as a required component of love. Because respecting the liberty of others means appreciating them and respecting them as equals. What’s more, it means honouring the “image of God” in them according to the Old Testament – from which the oft-maligned Quran sprang – or the “living icon of Christ”, according to the New Testament.
On that site in Croatia I saw the new era of migration that is just about to begin, and that will be a challenge – both for the fascists and communists, with their razor wire and armies shooting at all who want to come in (as we experienced before in our country), and for us, the Christians, as a call to fulfil Christ’s message. After all, the Muslims are not our enemies, but brothers on the same path.
The Church is not truly made up of “the people who go to church”, but of all those who yearn for Good and for God – even if only subconsciously.
This article was published in Czech on the website Deník Referendum.