It’s Friday morning on September 25, 2015. I am approaching the headquarters of a charity organisation in Brno in the Czech Republic. For the first time, I meet with Kateřina, Štěpán, Soolaima and Martin, with whom I got in contact via Facebook and whom I agreed to accompany to Croatia and Serbia to help the refugees there. Our goal is to get to a small border checkpoint near the town of Bapske. After a whole day’s travel, we manage to get to the spot; however, we are commanded to go to a place called Jamene instead.
I do not know what to expect. It is dark outside, and I am tired. We are changing our clothes and putting marks on our reflective vests, the uniforms of Czech volunteers. We receive several tips from local volunteers. Monika, the rescuer who will accompany us, teaches us the basics: “There is an enormous amount of people at this spot. We do not have things for everyone. It is important to save the children.”
Trying not to step on anyone
There is no infrastructure here and very few volunteers. I am given a bag of socks and a clear directive: there are only a few socks, and I am authorized to distribute them only to children and to adults who do not have any. We enter a narrow road, its start covered in garbage. I see children’s clothes scattered all over and food thrown away. I say to myself: “So it is true. They all waste and throw away things we give to them. What am I doing here?”
We walk through a never-ending crowd of people lying on the ground. I am scared to death that I will step on someone. When the refugees see us, they come running to us. “Baby, baby!” they shout from all sides. They know that most of the things are allocated for the children, but they are freezing too, they are thirsty, they have bare feet. We are not allowed to give them anything.
I am not scared any more once the first turn in the road is behind me. People are nice when they see that we have only a few things; they prefer them to be given to others. I see little babies, sleeping on the chests of their mothers. Children under one thin blanket. The smoke from the open fires makes me cry. In 15 minutes, I have run out of socks.
We continue to distribute the blankets and water. It seems to me that the road we walk on has no end. We have no time to stop and ask people what they are doing here and why they came here.
We have nothing else to distribute. Most of the refugees have fallen asleep at this point. We choose who will be on guard duty, put up our tents and go to sleep too. It is 3 A.M.
When they open the borders
I am woken by noise and screaming at 6 A.M. People wake up and press to get to the border. They are waiting for the border to open so they can go farther. Only now I understand why there is garbage all around. The buses brought two thousand people here and left them on this two-kilometre village road. There is nothing around the road. A corn field, a ploughed field, and as I learn later from the locals, a minefield in the distance. No dustbins, no toilets, no water, nothing. Just a lot of people.
I spend the whole morning walking among the people and apologising constantly that I have neither food nor water for them. And when I finally do get some water, I can provide them only with a very small cup of it because the water is scarce.
There is only us on the road. As roughly fifteen people, we try to organise a crowd of two thousands. Surprisingly, with a mixture of English and sign language, we succeed. Finally I am able to have a small chat with the people about what they need.
Mohammed has been on the road for a while. He was a construction engineer in Syria. He asks me for a jacket or shoes. He is wearing only slippers and a sweater in 15 degree Celsius weather. “I lost everything in the sea,” he explains to me. I do not know what to do. I have only women’s coats, no shoes at all. I apologize to him. He only smiles and goes to help with cleaning up the garbage.
I see a university professor of mathematics whose name I forget picking up the garbage with us. A woman in her ninth month of pregnancy is sitting on the ground. We are all worried that she will give birth soon.
The Czechs from Facebook
The policemen slowly allow groups of migrants onto the Croatian side. The Serbs do not show up at all. No policemen, no assistance.
I meet the UNHCR representatives during the day, and despite the fact that I do not know what they are doing, I am glad we are not alone here any more. They ask us in the afternoon: “You are really a splendid organisation. What is your name? And how do you organise yourselves?” They are not able to grasp that there is no institution, and we do not know each other in our real lives. They do not understand that we have been organising ourselves on Facebook.
I do not get it either, how a group of Czechs who have never seen each other before can manage such troubles between the Serbian and Croatian borders.
It seems that other humanitarian organisations have woken up during the afternoon. They bring toilets, TV crews and photographers, but I can’t resist the impression that they are late. All this was needed yesterday. Suddenly there is a lot of us on the spot and I almost have the impression that I do not know what to do with all those people. But still, there are only 30 volunteers to assist one thousand refugees.
What will happen to my refugees?
Many people have departed. I start to feel relieved, and I hope very much that no one else is coming. I thank the guys who put up our tent for us. I send the others to clean or just provide them with information. They all do everything by themselves. I only try to check whether we have forgotten anything.
The departing refugees are waving at us. “Thank you, my friends!” they call at us when they are crossing the border. We wish them good luck and they send it back to us.
I am afraid of what will happen to my refugees. I have appropriated them internally. I hope they won’t get stuck on their way to Germany, won’t wait in cold and smoke from open fires for the dawn of a distant morning.
I recall children who laughed when we distributed small teddy bears; gracious mums in scarves; men on whose faces it was visible, the worry of not knowing what will happen tomorrow. I forbid myself to think and go to sleep.
I will continue to Bapske tomorrow.
The Czech Bapske
I get up. There is no one, only the Croatian policemen guarding the borders. They are not very enthusiastic when they see us again. We set out for Bapske, the busiest checkpoint at the Croatian-Serbian border. Here, humanitarian organisations fill the road connecting Croatia and Serbia with their stands. Then there are the Czechs, with their unbelievably huge base of fifty volunteers working there at the moment.
A designated group of volunteers takes care of the refugees immediately after they get off the bus, before letting them move on to another station. This prevents the migrants from creating a crowd and allows the volunteers to equip them for the longer journey ahead.
Bapske is heaven on earth compared to the unequipped Jamene. Clothes, water and food are stored in the depots. In a cab that previously served as a resting spot for the board guards, there is even a provisional kitchen making tea and cooking food.
Before the refugees cross the border onto the Croatian side, where they will get on buses, we try to provide them with the necessary minimum. The temperature is about 15 degrees. Many refugees are walking around in only slippers and short pants. If we see someone in this situation, we try to give him or her what he or she needs. At first, I see it as a piece of cake. But soon I realize that with a bag of T-shirts and summer clothing I am not able to do much – and there is a desperate shortage even of those.
It is definitely quieter in Bapske than in Jamene, despite the fact that six thousand refugees come through here on a daily basis. I am having lunch in the afternoon with a group of other volunteers. “Who are you in your real life?” is the question. We find out that a lawyer, a nurse, a recently graduated teacher, an actor, a director and a student of physics are all having lunch together right now.
On this spot, there is hardly anyone who knows each other from real life. I have absolutely no idea how we managed to congregate somewhere at the end of the world just because someone needed help. I am tired, sleep deprived and full of impressions. I am extremely proud as well that I am a part of all this. That I am a Czech. That it is us who extricated ourselves from school, work and other duties and departed for a place 700 kilometres away to help people who needed it.
The last shoes
The alarm clock rings before 3 A.M. I go out to relieve other volunteers on distribution duty. It is cold, dark and raining. We have run out of shoes, and warm clothing is down to a desperately low amount. And yet every time another group comes to our distribution point, I see exhausted men in slippers, crying babies and freezing women. I have to decide to whom I hand the last pair of warm shoes, for whom I find a warm coat, and for whom only a light wind jacket.
I am putting shoes on the twentieth child. I distribute hot tea, and in between I stop and watch something I am not able to understand, even now with the benefit of hindsight. What can expel a person from the warmth of his or her home out into a world he or she knows nothing about, whose language he or she is unable to speak, whom he or she fears? What pushes these people with small kids to go to the middle of nowhere? I do not know. I have no answers.
I am leaving in the afternoon. I say goodbye to people I hadn’t known before this weekend, whom I feel are now best friends of mine. We hug each other, exchange contact information and wish each other good luck.
On my way back, I think about what these last few days have brought me. First, the sight of a thousand people lying on the ground. Small details like a man without a leg, a young girl with a banana in her hand, excellent volunteers attempting to crack an uncrackable problem.
I hope that my help will never be needed again. That nations will wake up and begin to show more interest in these people. And if not, I am back here again in two weeks.
This blog was published in Czech on the website Respekt blog.