Nujeen, p.13Nujeen Mustafa
Lots of other refugees were arriving – some like us by taxi and some by train. A camp had been set up in a meadow which they call the Jungle (all migrant camps seem to have the same name), but no one was stopping, even though many had tiredness etched on their faces. We joined what looked like a human highway heading towards the border.
The route was through a cabbage field, which wasn’t very easy as it had been raining the night before and it was very muddy. A man was going up and down on a tractor in the next field, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and somewhere a rooster was crowing. Nasrine was struggling with the wheelchair in the mud but some Swiss and Dutch aid-workers handing out energy bars and water bottles spotted our predicament and sent four Afghan refugees back to carry me in the chair.
‘Welcome to Serbia,’ one of the aid-workers said as the men put me down.
‘This is the country of famous tennis player Novak Djokovic,’ I replied. Nasrine said nothing. I thought about young Gavrilo Princip whose shot started the First World War and Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb leader responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Muslims in the 1990s – then I was mad at myself as yet again it was always the bad guys I remember! I didn’t know anything else about Serbia.
It took us about half an hour to walk across the border to Miratovac, which is the official entry point. Serbian officials checked our papers from Greece and Macedonia. Now we needed a Serbian paper, which took a long time. Nasrine kept looking at her watch. I knew she was trying to work out if we could get to Hungary before nightfall.
When all this crisis started, Serbia had tried to force refugees back to Macedonia, but by the time we came, about 4,000 a day were crossing and the authorities had clearly decided it was easier just to help us on our way. They had even laid on cheap buses to the capital Belgrade, which meant we didn’t have to use people smugglers. We followed everyone else uphill along a dusty road where volunteers were handing out water and vegan sandwiches.
It was around 1 p.m. when we got on a bus. We had to pay 35 euros, which was much less than a taxi but it was crowded with immigrants – Syrians like us, as well as Iraqis, Afghans and Eritreans. Disability benefits meant I got to sit at the front.
I stared out of the window. Another country, another language, another culture, none of which we would get to know. It was a long journey, about six hours. I was getting sharp pains in my shoulders and arms and I started worrying I was having a heart attack as I had seen on Dr Oz that these can be symptoms. I nudged Nasrine awake to tell her and she was cross. ‘You’re just exhausted,’ she said. ‘You won’t have a heart attack at sixteen!’
The seats had tables, so I put my head down and tried to sleep but couldn’t. Then I tried to lean on Nasrine, but that didn’t work either. ‘Give me a break,’ she muttered.
Belgrade is a big city on the Danube which I was excited to see. We arrived there around 7 p.m. just as normal people were gathering in cafés and bars to wind down from their day’s work. They had a kind of hard look maybe because they had had their own civil war in the 1990s. Maybe our life in Syria will go back to some kind of normal one day.
Next stop Hungary and back into the EU if we could get through in time. Nasrine always tells me not to worry about things – she would sort everything out. So I tried not to think about what would happen if we couldn’t get through.
Once again we followed everyone else out. There were so many people on the migrant trail we didn’t really need the Facebook groups. The park next to the bus station looked like a campsite, full of people and tents amid lines of laundry. Like Basmane Square we could see refugees huddled in negotiations with smugglers on side streets, and cars and vans occasionally pulled up to whisk groups of people towards the Hungarian border.
We had been trying to save money so that Mustafa and Farhad didn’t need to keep sending more and planned to get a train. Unlike some refugees who paid smugglers for the whole journey, we were Pay as You Go Migrants. But Nasrine was worried about the time and we found a taxi whose driver said he could take us to the border for 210 euros. Nasrine rested her head against the window like she was sleeping, but the driver spoke some English so I told him, ‘I like Novak.’ He replied that Djokovic owned a restaurant not far from where we were. I would love to have gone there. Sometimes I wished we weren’t doing this journey in such a rush.
It was about 10 p.m. when he dropped us at a small farming town called Horgoš, the same place Bland had come through earlier in the year. I was happy to have crossed two European countries in one day, but it turned out we hadn’t been fast enough. Everyone said the border was closed – we were just too late.
There was nothing we could do, so we looked for somewhere to sleep. A lot of people were just huddled in fields, but we didn’t want to do that. Around midnight we found a big tent marked with the letters UNHCR. Inside were lots of refugees sleeping so we lay down too. It was very cold and we had no blankets, and I was intimidated because there were a lot of strange people, so didn’t really sleep.
When I got up at 8 a.m., everyone was discussing what to do. Breakfast was just an apple someone gave me. Though the border was closed, some women were saying that Hungarian police had let a number of people pass. We thought that, having travelled all this way, we should at least give it a try.
There was supposed to be a bus to Röszke, a few miles away where the crossing was. We waited and waited and were about to give up and get a taxi when the bus came. There was about a half-mile walk from where the bus dropped us to the crossing, along the old railway line, which jolted me in my chair. As we followed everyone – young men, pregnant women, men with children piggybacking – we could see the tall fence that had just been completed with rolls of razor wire on top and we could hear a lot of noise. The gap through which refugees had been entering was closed and people were protesting.
When we got there and saw all the crowds pressed against the fence, with riot police on the other side, that’s when for the first time I realized we were in the middle of a big tragedy. Until then I had thought of the journey as an adventure. Now I saw that there was a lot of grief. ‘We are escaping war!’ someone shouted. To be turned back now after all we had gone through would be unimaginable.
You would think a country like Hungary, which had been cut off from western Europe behind the Iron Curtain until twenty-five years before, would be the last one to build a fence.
But in contrast to the welcome we had received in Serbia, Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán really seemed to hate migrants. He kept complaining that migration was fuelling terrorism, and had erected billboards which warned, ‘If you come to Hungary don’t take the jobs of Hungarians!’ and ‘If you come to our country you must obey our laws.’ Orbán claimed that Hungary was simply trying to enforce EU asylum rules by stopping refugees travelling on. To do this he had erected a 12-foot-high razor-wire fence running along all 110 miles of the border with Serbia, using prisoners to build it.
Until the night we got there they had been allowing people through a gap by the disused railway line, but they had now closed it. We were unlucky. By then around 180,000 refugees had passed through Hungary, just as we had planned to, heading from the border by train or car to Keleti Station in Budapest and from there by car or train to Austria. There were plenty of people smugglers happy to oblige.
About ten days before we got there, Orbán even wrote a newspaper article saying that we migrants threatened Europe’s Christian identity. ‘Those arriving have been raised in another religion and represent a radically different culture,’ he said. ‘Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims. This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity. Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? There is no alternative, and we have no option but to defend our borders.’
It wasn’t just the government. A Hungarian camerawoman had been filmed deliberately sticking her leg out to trip
Annoyingly, Nasrine told someone I spoke English and suggested that maybe we could use the fact I was in a wheelchair to get them to open the gap again. So I was pushed right to the front facing the gate and the police with helmets and riot shields. Behind me people were shouting ‘Germany! Germany!’, cursing Hungary and demanding they reopen the border. Some had placards which read ‘Europe, Shame’. Others were shouting ‘Thank you, Serbia!’ I couldn’t bear the noise and covered my ears.
Then Hungarian TV pushed a camera at my face. ‘If you had Angela Merkel here, what would you say to her?’ they asked. ‘Help us,’ I replied.
I didn’t want to say more. I hated the way the wheelchair was being used to try and make Hungarian soldiers feel sorry for me. I hated seeing that the police were wearing white medical masks as if we had infectious diseases.
There was a lot of barbed wire and a little girl with blonde hair standing like a statue with one hand trying to open the gate. ‘Hungary, open the door! Hungary, open the door!’ she was crying, which broke my heart. ‘I want to get out of here,’ I told Nasrine.
As the day went on, things got worse. Nasrine wheeled me back along the trail of refugees and discarded rubbish to the main road which was lined with tents, and we watched as a column of armoured vehicles arrived on the Hungarian side. Hundreds more riot police emerged and started turning water cannon and teargas on the people protesting at the border. ‘Hungary is a country with a thousand-year-old Christian culture,’ Orbán had told the police before sending them off. ‘We Hungarians don’t want the global-sized movement of people to change Hungary.’
Afterwards the police claimed that ‘aggressive’ migrants had been breaking through the fence ‘armed with pipes and sticks’, but we didn’t see anything like that, only people throwing plastic water bottles.
I couldn’t believe this was the Europe we had dreamt of.
People were saying that, even if you got through the border to the other side, there was nowhere to stay but a muddy field with no facilities. Every so often buses would come and police would herd people on to them to take them to registration camps. Only desperate people would go because everyone was scared of being stuck there or sent back and we’d heard horrible stories of the conditions – that the camps were filthy and full of cockroaches and the guards beat people or forced them to take tranquillizers to keep them quiet. On Facebook you could see secretly filmed footage of guards treating people like animals, throwing food at them. It’s funny because actually it costs money to be a refugee. Among us were lawyers, doctors, professors, businessmen. We were human beings, we had had homes before.
Apparently many people were also stuck at Keleti Station, stranded outside, camped out there, with the Hungarian police refusing to let them on to the trains. For a while they even closed it altogether. Some people had been put on a train and told they were going to Austria, only for the train to come to a halt before the border and they were all taken to a camp. Now people were walking.
Everyone was denouncing Hungary. The Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann even likened what they were doing to the Nazis’ deportation of Jews to concentration camps. ‘Sticking refugees in trains and sending them somewhere completely different to where they think they’re going reminds us of the darkest chapter of our continent’s history,’ he said.
The whole scene was incredible. This was a country from which around 200,000 people had fled in 1956 after their own failed revolution which Soviet tanks had moved in to crush. Some went across the border we were standing on to what was then Yugoslavia, and most went north to Austria and they were welcomed by their neighbours. I had of course seen a documentary about it which showed all the thank-you notes written by the Hungarians to Austrians about how well they had been treated.
Nasrine pushed me back and forth along the road, but we didn’t really know what to do. It seemed we were stranded on the wrong side of the border. We wondered whether to look for smugglers. If we had got across, we had planned to go to a petrol station on the side of the highway where smugglers ply their trade to get a ‘taxi’ to Budapest. We could see some cars and vans lurking around.
I think the local people felt bad for us. Volunteers were passing out all sorts of food. I watched one little girl devour a can of sweetcorn. I didn’t take anything because I was desperate to pee. It wasn’t easy finding a place I could use, so I was very careful about how much I drank to make sure I wouldn’t cause a problem. Fortunately, I’m a good bladder-keeper.
I tried to focus on other things. One woman was sitting at the roadside crying while breastfeeding a baby in a lilac sleepsuit decorated with fluffy white clouds. It was so tiny she must have had it on the way. Someone said she had lost another child on the train from Macedonia. I know lots of families were being separated and I didn’t want to listen because I didn’t want my morale to sink any further.
Then a photographer stuck his camera at her and she pulled her veil over her face. There were a lot of journalists at the scene, their satellite trucks and big cars parked all along the road. I know they were trying to do their job of telling the world what was happening, but I guess they don’t know that our culture is different. And sometimes it’s dangerous. Some of the young men fleeing conscription still had their families back in Syria, so they didn’t want their identities revealed.
I noticed the journalists wore a kind of uniform of button-down shirts, jeans and walking boots. I was still wearing the same jeans and favourite denim blue shirt with embroidered shoulders that I had worn from Gaziantep and had not changed since we left Athens. I also noticed they all interviewed the same people, like vultures closing in on prey.
‘Hey, there’s a Syrian girl in a wheelchair here who speaks English!’ I heard somebody shout.
All of a sudden they descended on me. One of them was an American lady from ABC who wanted to know how I knew English. I explained I learnt from watching Days of Our Lives. She was astonished.
‘That’s a great show,’ I said. ‘But they killed the main character that I loved!’
Another was a nice man from the BBC called Fergal Keane who Nasrine had met on the top deck of the ferry in Athens when she went up to see the sunrise. He had a lovely voice like honey spreading on bread. I told him I wanted to be an astronaut and go into space and find an alien and also go to London to meet the Queen and he laughed a lot.
By then we had lost hope of Hungary opening its doors and someone said the Croatian President had made a speech welcoming refugees. So we could try going that way, and from there through Slovenia. Some of these countries we had never heard of. I heard someone saying people are crossing from Croatia to Slovenia and a man replied, ‘That can’t be true – Slovenia is in Asia!’
Nasrine pushed me through fields of dead sunflowers, and we got a taxi back the way we had come the night before, then west towards Croatia. It felt like we were in one of those computer games where they keep cutting off routes and you have to find another one.
The Hardest Day
Croatia–Slovenia, 16–20 September 2015
I’d never been number one in my life for anything until we went to Slovenia, and of course it turns out it wasn’t a good thing.
From the Serbian–Hungarian border, we agreed 125 euros for a taxi back down through Serbia then west to the border with Croatia, a journey of about an hour and a half. Much of that border runs along the River Danube, but there was a crossing place at Apatin on the west bank of the river where we walked through a cornfield into Croatia. I was excited to see another country, even though I felt guilty as it meant more walking and pushing for Nasrine, and happy to see the blue sign with the ring of yellow stars showing that we were back in the EU, so no more borders.
Now we seemed to be on our way again, I tried to chat to Nasrine about my future in Europe. Maybe I would go to school, or even college, and she could help me with physics. Sometimes she likes to talk to me. She says I am a good listener and she ca
Once we were over the border Croatian police loaded us into one of those closed vans for transporting prisoners and drove us to a nearby village. There we were put in a bus with other refugees. None of us had any idea where we were going and we heard we were going to be fingerprinted which would have been a disaster as we would have had to stay in Croatia. We were all worried.
The journey was about five hours through the dark and ended in the capital, Zagreb. They took us to a building which seemed like it had been a hospital. There we were each given a number on a piece of paper and photographed holding it up like criminals. Nasrine was number 80 and I was 81. The good thing was there was a shower so we could wash and change. Nasrine washed the clothes we had been wearing since Greece and hung them up to dry. By the time we were done it was about 3 a.m. and finally we slept.
The next day there was a lot of confusion, some people saying we would be fingerprinted. But it didn’t happen. Then about midday we were suddenly released. Later we heard that the bus of refugees after us were all fingerprinted, so we were lucky.
We headed out into the city centre, blinking in the sunlight like moles. Zagreb is a beautiful town with grand buildings from the Habsburg Empire. Even the station looks like a palace with a majestic colonnaded façade and a massive statue of King Tomislav, who was Croatia’s first king over a thousand years ago and looked a bit grumpy. It turned out there wasn’t a train to Slovenia until 4 p.m., so we had three hours to kill. Finally, we might get to see one of the places we were travelling through.
That’s when we saw the red sign and golden arch – my first ever McDonald’s. By then I was ravenous and I did my best pleading face at Nasrine. I knew she was worried about going to public places. ‘OK,’ she said.
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