Now we go, he says and kicks Khaled in the thighs – a 20-year old Syrian who is snoring in Hungarian corn, under the cold September moon. They haven’t slept in a day, Khaled’s feet are wrecked with callouses, he can barely drag his boots across the furrows, he caught a cold, he is dehydrated, only last hour he peed six times. The Hungarian border is the hardest part since they set foot on European land. And he fell asleep. His last words were „if I fall asleep I won’t be up for a day“.
They’ve been going around in circles for two hours, guided by a voice recorded on whatsapp + the maps on the telephone hidden under a cap, so the police would not spot them. They argue whispering every stop; they didn’t travel for 4000 kilometers to rot in Hungary. Some corn away, a guy is searching for mobile signal ready to disclose their position. Hundreds of refugees are hiding from each other and themselves in the thorny bushes.
Some bushes behind, we proceed on the sly, so as not to make noise, but hurriedly, so as not to waste time, along a dismantled railway. Ameen, the Syrian, and a guy from Iraq are leading the convoy. Two men are holding a small child each. They gave them sleeping pills to prevent them disturbing the silence of night. Ameen is looking down on them, reproachfully – there are secure areas in Syria, they didn’t need to bring their offspring, says Ameen, who doesn’t have children himself. But this way they can impress the authorities and get away more easily.
Their pathway is visible only due to some faraway lights and the stars. ‘Who’s there?’, someone asks in panic. ‘Is there anyone in the bush?’ But Ameen calms him down – probably another group like ours.
VooVooVooVooVoo, a helicopter’s rotor blades cut the air. The searchlight above is looking for us in the fields. We jump off the rails and snoop into the bushes; the light goes away. Whew, we made it!
People lose their patience – they’re going towards a gas station to get a taxi to Budapest. Khaled knows about this plan from Athens, so he rushes towards the parking lot, but he falls in a five meter ditch. He gets up, I’m OK, I’m OK.
Some Hugarians, local go-betweens, guide them towards the transportation and present the offer: they stay here and end up in the police camp or they come up with 250 euro at the bus or taxi. Excited, they want to get into a moving jalopy, but they fall right into a police ambush. The Seagull disappears, Khaled hides in the bushes.
During the past months, hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia have stretched Europe’s borders on highways, through fields and under fences, running from wars and misfortunes or just because it’s possible.
We followed the refugees from Greece to Germany, six countries in two weeks. We’ve crossed the European frontiers, imaginary lines that some people transform into barbed wired.
Normally, we could’ve cross the borders, get taxis, trains and airplanes. But the trip with the refugees was more chaotic – in the trunk of some speculators, hiding in the woods, or jumping fences and running. Go, go, go!
Six in the morning, cold, the sun is barely up. The Piraeus Port is full. People are fretting over their phones, talking on Whatsapp, looking at maps, counseling over the safest way to the European dream. Undeterred by the cold wind, a girl with a ponytail caught into a cap is selling telephone cards: if I buy a 10 euro sim card, I get 1 GB of internet usage and 50 minutes for international ones.
Ginormous tourist ships are crowding in the packed port. It smells of fish and spices. Tens of thousands of refugees fished off the Greek islands pass through here. Those who arrive at night go to sleep and wait for the first metro to take them to the train station or the bus. Yala, Yala!
In the middle of Athens, on the hot pavement, under the torrid midday sun, five boys are quietly soothing their exhaustion with a box of chocolates and some cheese and bread. The sixth, Khaled, is mesmerized by the Sony smartphone’s screen, ears taken over by headphones. He is crouching in a phone booth, trying to invest his energy wisely: he needs to get the instructions into his head, to save the maps and move on to the next step of the plan.
He’s been thinking about this for months, he spoke to about 50 friends who are already in Western Europe, he follows all the news and is also responsible for the other five, although he is the youngest. They are all from Syria, but he’s the only one who speaks English.
The plan is fairly simple: they cross the Macedonian and Serbian borders, countries that let them go through, legally, then they enter Hungary illegally – they don’t want them – and pay a driver to take them to a safe-house in Budapest, then someone will hopefully buy them train tickets so they can get to Vienna with just some decent clothes on. Then, each of them goes on his way…
They choose to go through Hungary because it’s the shortest and easiest route, even though the Hungarians have raised a fence guarded by the army to protect Europe from Islam and they have the worst attitude towards the refugees.
Khaled is 20 years old and he studied English literature in Damascus, the capital city, controlled by the government forces but packed with snipers and surrounded by fronts with multiple factions. He speaks English from childhood, he believes this is his talent, he learns fast and can adapt easily. He would have liked to attend a private business school, but the war has bombarded the Syrian pound, so the prices increased sevenfold; the salaries cannot even cover the food, he says.
The money was scarce and he could get killed on the way to school. The days had become a gruesome routine: ‘you wake up, you go to school, you avoid the snipers, you get back, you eat, you wait for the power to charge your phone to get on the net, you sleep and wait for the next day, which is the same. No new experiences. It’s awful!’
His best friend died next to him, shot by a sniper. ‘We were visiting his grandparents and they shot him… I don’t wanna talk about it. It’s been awful watching him. You live with someone for 10 years and then they die for nothing.’
After a year of discussions and negotiations with his parents, Khaled decided to leave. His father is still working, he makes end meet, but there is no telling how long it will last. He took the family’s savings, laid by for rainy days, and he packed his suitcase. He got out of Damascus easily. He took a bus to the Lebanese border, where he waited for six hours, as he didn’t pay for the bribe. Then he travelled for a day to Mersin and another half a day to Izmir. He spent 8 days at the border in a shack, until a smuggler sold him a patch of boat and a piece of engine and he left.
He split the boat with 45 people. On the Lesbos island he queued for one day and one night to get his pass. Lots of misery, crying babies and children, people hitting one another and police hitting people. The next day he got on the ferry and he reached Athens.
The Larissa Station in Athens is full of migrants heading for Thessaloniki. A group of guys are seated down on their backpacks or their sleeping bags, waiting for midnight, when the train leaves.
I start talking to a short-haired guy, black beard, long mustache. „Are you Christian?” I shrug. „Because my name is pronounced amin.” He wears army pants, a grey t-shirt and a pair of Adidas Superstars. I didn’t buy a ticket and the train is full. Ameen comes to my help: he gets a ticket from a friend, I just have to pay for it. Super, thanks.
Ameen is 25 and comes from Deir ez-Zor, a city in Eastern Syria, pop. 200.000. ISIS controls 80% of the city, the rest lays under the government’s jurisdiction. The Islamic State terrorists hold the area under siege, with no food or water. So president Bashar lets citizens leave, after they pay the 175 dolars, tax for the military plane that gets them out of there.
Ameen’s father, a manager with a petrol company, sold his car to give him money for the road. His mother is a teacher, and his sister used to be a Red Cross volunteer, then she got a job at a bank.
He was kicked out from the Marine Engineering Faculty because he did time. It’s not hard to go to jail in Syria: if someone holds a grudge against you, he goes to the authorities and invents stuff about you. Ameen was accused that he beat and killed people, but he swears he would never do something like that. The judge did not believe him and gave him several months in jail.
He bites his nails and tells me about a friend who was jailed because his twelve-year old son denounced him – the kid was allegedly forced to declare that his dad was an ISIS member.
the first kill us in the name of Allah, the latter in the dictator’s name.. A nutcase who’s making loads of money while the people die charred.
Ameen speaks English like an American, he didn’t learn it in school, but from movies and music. He listens to Elton John and Frank Sinatra. He sings merrily through station Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.
On his Facebook profile and cover photo he has images of his friends who got shot and of his relatives who died when a bomb exploded. One of Ameen’s buddies, working for the Red Cross, got shot in the head by a sniper – he was waiting for the ambulance to take him to a bombed area. A cousin who enrolled in the rebel army took a bullet in the neck from a government sniper. They had made a truce, but when he came out of the hide, the sniper did his job.
If you’re not a student, the government forces you to enroll in the army. If you manage to dodge it, here come the guys from the Free Syria Army/ the Islamic Front/ The Kurdish Army/ the Christian militias/ ISIS asking you to join them. You refuse? They will most probably execute you. All these factions either kill one another cold-heartedly, or they shake hands and form alliances according to interest, says Ameen while rolling a cigarette.
But this guy does not want to kill innocent people. So he escaped from Syria.
The EU is not a paradise, it’s a long road towards a better life’, says Khaled, while waiting for the bus to take him from Athens. ‘Maybe we will find it, maybe not… only God knows.’ In Damascus there was just him and the girls from University, hanging out in cafés. Most of his friends had already left Syria, there was barely anyone left for him to talk to.
His parents didn’t want to let him leave, but they had no choice. Now he cries when he speaks to them on the phone, although ‘I’ve never cried before. When I shed tears for the first time, the people laughed. How can a grown man cry? Men shouldn’t cry, or something like that…’ He appeases the guttural emotion in his voice and he lies to the boys, they don’t understand English anyway.
The Thessaloniki buses unload their merchandise in the courtyard of a motel-restaurant close to the Macedonian border. The parking lot is full of tents and sleeping bags. The owner comes out, mad at the people who have turned the bushes under his window into cotes, and he swoops them while cussing in a purely mediterranean manner.
Yala, yala!, there is no time for resting. The boys join a group of about 50 Syrians and they proceed through the 5AM gloom towards Macedonia, on a stony pathway, through bushes and thorns.
They walk in silence along the main road, guided by two lights, one in front of the group and one in the back, women and children sheltered in the middle. Some of the men are armed with clubs, they say gangs of predatory Afghans roam the area.
Every other sheaf, the leader of the group stops and yells sabotage, or something. Saba-tashar means seventeen in Arabic. It means they are the seventeenth group heading for the boarder that morning. The guy is announcing that now is the time to advance a few more meters. Between two and three thousand people pass through here daily and eventually get stuck in the Idomeni train station.
To be able to advance, we need to get a number. Close to the control point there’s a railway station that turned into a ghetto: thousands of people are resting on the two platforms in tents, on blankets, on the sharp stones, in sleeping bags, with their heads on the rails or on the ground, in the dust and among piles of trash.
You can hear music, telephones ringing, children crying, snores covered by a generator. A one legged-guy plays with the tips on his crotches in the dust. A stall sells potatoes and water. The duty free store can barely cope, there have never been so many people crossing the border.
My group’s number is 45. After a whole day they got as far as 39. Just a little more to go. Ameen leads the gang. He organizes the group in rows of five people, one behind the other, to as to get ten rows. He doesn’t want to get sworn at for putting his friends in front, so he places the women in the first rows, then their relatives and then the others.
Someone lights a fire. The smoke rises towards the half-covered moon. A man throws a log into the fire. His group is number 134, they will cross tomorrow, maybe after tomorrow. Or maybe they take the risk and enter Macedonia illegally.
We went through the control point. I assemble my tent, prepare my things and my sleeping bag and ‘brother, they are moving us. We need to go’. Great! We enter a refugee camp in a very organized fashion. ‘Write your surname, name and country of origin on a piece of paper’, shouts a hurried policeman over his swinging belly.
I tell him who I am and what I do. ‘It’s not right’, he declares firmly. ‘Go back where you came from and get in legally.’ Ok, it’s just that the military police, a different breed, with different bosses, doesn’t let me get out of the country. They have to arrest me, keep me overnight at the district office and have me pay a fine of 510 euros.
I sneak through the bushes and I walk firmly and quickly towards the dawn. I see a highway, it shouldn’t take me longer than one and a half hour. A brown SUV from another era, appears outofnowhere. I hide behind a bush, waiting for the patrol to pass. Some kilometers further, I sneak through a dump site and I hear some voices.
Buro, buro, buro, a short, sturdy guy rushes his companions, twenty guys from Afghanistan, young, the youngest is 13, wearing football players’ haircuts, colored sunglasses, school bags on their backs, phut trousers and Adibas shoes, I follow them, I run like the police chases me with billy clubs, I slither through branches, pipes and brambles, one of them holds out his hand, grabs me and pulls me over a ditch, I climb stones, „buro, buro, buro”, the boss hurries me, we cross a parking lot, a chick looks at us suspiciously, my legs go faster than me downhill, I crouch and fall in the dust, I run like it’s my only hope, I step carefully on a narrow path not to fall into the dingle and the river below. We slow down, we stop briefly just to let the sweat drip and have a sip of water.
‘We don’t want food, it’s not what we want. We come for freedom and safety!’, blabbers a guy in English. He says that Afghanistan has been at war for 40 years. He doesn’t like running like mad through the woods, but he has no choice, he can’t stay at the mercy of the talibans and the Islamic State. The road to here was a nightmare.
We hurry towards the nearest village. There, we’ll wait for a train to take us to rhe capital city, Skopje. We get to a hall, two Pakistanis are resting amid the ruins. Seems they’ve been there for two days and no train stopped. Kardar, the leader of the gang, hushes them, they make his head hurt. 11 Syrians come by, Kardar tells them that we’re waiting for two days, no train has stopped. The syrians keep going.
He’s 22 and they all listen to him in a soldier-like manner. When some run faster, Kardar scolds them, they should wait for the others. Then, he hits the slow ones with a stick. He wears a sleeveless t-shirt with a scorpio and a pair of battered sports shoes. He crossed illegally because the Macedonian police behaved like crap. He wouldn’t have had the patience to wait in line for a few days anyway.
Prdejtsi is clean, the houses seem solid, and the people – a lot of them speak English – invite us to lunch, give us bread and home-made zacusca, cucumbers, fruit, coffee, juice, water. The train stops in the hall at five, every day, a guy says.
At five, the Afghan puts his ear against the rail, but doesn’t hear anything. 5:10, nothing. 5:30, still nothing. Then he places a bottle on the rail ten steps away, and the younger ones test their aim. A 15-year old kid wins and goes over to put the bottle back up, but he becomes the boys’ target himself. Then, two of them spot a dog and the animal turnes into the third target. Kardar chides them that they waste their energy on useless stuff.
It’s six now. We head back to Gevgelija, the city at the border. ‘Good people are good, bad people are bad, it doesn’t matter if they are muslims, christians or atheists.’, says an Afghan like the whole planet could hear him. The guy is 35, he was the best football player in his town, but what’s the point, you cannot play football in Afghanistan. He is ready to give up anything to integrate in Sweden. He cannot stand war any more, and rich countries from the Muslim world practice an extremist internal policy, that’s why he came to Europe.
We split – they go to a bus, I manage to catch the Skopje train just in time. Go, go, go! Yells a guy wearing reflective tape, shaking his lantern. I find myself in the sleeping wagon. The police patrol the corridors and chase the darkness with their lanterns. ‘Papers? Do you have papers?’
The border between Macedonia and Serbia is a white milestone on a field. No one asks for your papers, but if you get caught you can get 6 months – says a nice volunteer. Convoys of people meander towards the north, following a river, through some muddy ravines. Only one guy comes back. He went to study the terrain, he is with his mother who’s in a wheelchair and he doesn’t know if he can carry her to the Serbian railway station, but there’s nothing to be done. The heat remained behind the Macedonian hills on which kiwi grows. It’s cold and full of Serbian panders carrying refugees to Belgrade for 200 euros.
Serbia’s capital comes as a relief to the immigrants. The authorities brought toilets and running water to a little park next to the bus station, policemen offer them advice, and people bring them presents. Even the beggars are thriving, Syrian women share food with them. But the happiest people are still the stall owners and bus companies managers cashing in tens of thousands of euros. It costs 15 euros to get from Belgrade to the border, it’s a non-stop route.
Next to a public toilet, Khaled dresses his calluses in talcum powder and gets the gang ready for shopping. They want to look like Europeans, so they run into a Chinese store and buy all sorts of crappy stuff. Now they’re 12 boys, which halves their chances to cross into Hungary unnoticed. They tried to get into a hotel, but they got kicked out. Everybody’s dead tired and cranky. They empty a bistro of all their halal food, they buy their bus tickets and proceed towards the border singing patriotic songs until sleep glues them to the dirty chairs.
Kanjiža, a small Hungarian town in the Serbian Northern Banat, experiences its most prosperous period in the new millennium. When the first refugees started showing up, three months ago, the taxi drivers were very happy, they had five clients per day, sometimes ten. Now they have five clients per drive and there are thousands… the drivers stop the cars just to refuel; in a month’s worth of work they will be able to start a transport company or raise a villa. Or both.
The Serbs invented a parking lot and raised some military tents with loads of power extension cords and free wifi. Khaled is crouched again over his phone, he learns how to cross the border, but doesn’t quite know how to do it, the Hungarians change tactics every day. It’s best to cross at midnight. Or before dawn. Or after sunset. But it’s only 7PM.
As it gets dark, cheap buses start flowing towards the border. There’s some hubbub, people are throwing their bags and kids through the windows so as to successfully resume their rough-and-tumble. Irritated policemen yell at them and send them to the taxis. No one is allowed to walk, for security reasons, although one can get there pretty fast through the fields. So the refugees have to take taxis.
The boys gather their stuff from the tents in a hurry and join the brouhaha. Khaled is waiting calmly while his friends pogo on all bus doors. After about an hour of squashing they pommel a berserk driver and disappear into the night.
W e are ten miles from the Serbian border. The police splits the refugees into two groups: those going by taxi and those going by bus. ‘If you intend to walk, they will catch you’ – threaten the lawmen. The taxi driver charges ten euros for the drive. We squeeze into the car, seven of us – tough luck! Ten euros each and we race towards Hungary.
Next to the border, refugees with eyes stuck to smart phones plan their route. An Iraqui guy asks Ameen that we go with him. He’s traveled this route before, but he came back because he panicked at the rumors that he will get caught and they will take his prints. One of the refugees’ major dreads is that they will get registered in Hungary and will never get to their dream destination.
We climb out of the taxi’s trunk. The Serbian policemen show us the way and wish us luck. The overabundant buses empty as tiny groups go up the railway tracks and towards the Hungarian fence.
Some of Khaled’s group argue like mad, one of them disappears in the bushes and comes back after a few minutes, ready to fight the whole world. Reason is blinded by stress and lack of sleep, they don’t know which way to go and how to stay away from the crowd, there’s too many people everywhere, if the police catches them it’s going to suuuuck! A young scammer asks for 15 euros to guide them on a safe, unguarded path. ‘He’s lying and people believe him’, says the Seagull, but he doesn’t dwell too much on it.
Khaled is focused solely on the telephone screen, not keeping the pace, not arguing, he changed the plan but there’s no point in telling, no one listens to him any more. The fewer they are, the easier it will be.
They get away from the rails, cross some ditches and zigzag through the fields, until they figure out how to read the maps. They left the fence behind, now they’re looking for the right moment to run into a petrol station and get a drive to Budapest. Khaled is exhausted, he is falling asleep in the cornfield, driving his Kurdish companion mad, Khaled wakes up with great effort, they proceed towards the target and in an open field they run into an old man who offers to take them to the bus. ‘The police are coming! Tell them in your language to go back!’ the old man yells in a whisper, but Khaled collapses in a five meters deep ditch, after which he can barely stand.
Behind the ditch there’s an asphalt road, heavy with the roaring of jalopies and buses. Across the road, a huge parking lot with an OMV gas station in the middle. Lots of Romanian, Hungarian and Serbian jobbers gobble energy drinks and pastries while waiting for a fresh refugee transport to materialize out of the bushes. The jobbers lure families to the bus, Khaled and the Seagull want to get on too, but the police shows up: they scamper desperately wherever they can, the jobbers get into the cars or hide in the toilets.
We hitch carefully through the darkness. We turn left through a cornfield, stepping through ruts and mud. We get to the side of a road. A faraway reflector paints the pavement yellow. And we cross, two by two.
We need to find the barbed wire, to walk along the fence until we find a hole to cross under, and just like that, we’re safe. But we got lost and we just go round in circles through the fields, as through an invisible maze. No one wants to get caught. We run, we creep, we jump through the brambles.
We follow a road. Two blue lights from behind. Police, panic! We jump into the bushes. I land on some thistles and they pierce through my hands and legs. I get up and run. The police van drives by and then it turns around.
’Sssst!’ Everybody is dead quiet. We hide through the tall grass, laying down, mummified by fear. A sound of footsteps, getting closer and closer and closer. ‘Taxi?’ Asks a woman’s voice. – How much? – 250 euros each. Way too greedy, but others take the offer. Some have paid 300 euros for a drive to Budapest, but they were taken only a few kilometers away, to Szeged.
We keep the road. ‘Look, Budapest – 110 miles, it’s good. Creeeeeak, a van stops in front of us.
– Where are you from?
– Get in.
And the policeman opens the door. Damn, right when we thought we got away. Ameen is thinking that we could bribe him to let us go. Better not.
We get out, thank you! ’Ciao!’ We’re in a refugee camp, in Hungary still. Some are getting their prints taken, some aren’t, the rules are changing every hour.
‘If we tried the same maneuver in Saudi Arabia, they would have kicked us out of the country. Or they would have shot us.’ The volunteers give us clothes, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, food, sweets and water. All coming from people’s donations.
We eat some sandwiches and drink a cold vegetable soup. The only hole in the fence is next to us, a lot of people come here and camp overnight, 90% of them Syrian refugees, I’m told by a German volunteer.
The cold creeps under my clothes, I breathe in the cold, humid air to calm down. I set up the tent, crawl into the sleeping bag, god I fall into such a deep sleep.
Morning, breezy sunshine, around me – hundreds of abandoned tents, blankets, garbage and zombified people roaming through the remains of the night. I received a message on Whatsapp from Ameen – he escaped and he’s in Budapest.
An Iraqui guy steps on Khaled’s head as he’s sleeping in the woods. He hid when some twenty police vans arrived and he laid unconscious for some time. He can’t take it any more, he wants to get his prints taken and stay in Hungary, but the Iraqui guy doesn’t let him do it, he gives him water, grabs him and carries him towards Szeged. He wants to give up, he feels he’s dying. He tries to stop three police cars, but they ignore him. He begs a patrol to arrest him, but they send him to the district office.
The office is closed, so he just slumps there on the pavement, resigned. He loses track of time until a tiny car stops next to him. Taxi to Budapest? 300 euros. A brand new, luxurious Benz comes from behind. They pick up some Iraquis on the road and they rush to Budapest at 190 kilometers an hour.
Exhausted, he checks into a hotel of thieves at the periphery. He’s freaked out, he doesn’t want to get arrested, he can’t wait to leave Hungary. A trafficker lures him for a 450 euros drive to Germany. He gets a phone call on the way, the train station is safe, you can take the train, so he dodges the trafficker, grabs a döner, a pizza, some cheesecake, buys a ticket and leaves for the capital of Austria.
I get down from the Vienna train into a different world. The train station is a refugee center, young volunteers distribute food, water, tea and clothes, there’s free wi-fi and a kids zone – toys, sweets and clowns; the police makes sure that everything goes smoothly, the medical personnel tends to ailments, Refugees, you are safe– say the papers on the walls. People clap and sing, guards make jokes with the homeless and explain to them in a civilized manner, in English, that they are not allowed to sleep in the train station.
Although Austria has a strong far right wing, there was an extraordinary response from the citizens to help the refugees after they found out about the death of 71 people in an abandoned truck’s container on the highway. The busy ones donated money for clothes, equipment, food, anything, others came after work or school to lend a hand in Vienna’s train stations. At some point there were so many volunteers that some of them didn’t have anything to do. All of this ensures the flow of the refugee flux towards Germany.
I meet Ameen in a coffee shop. His two companions came to Europe a few months ago and settled in Austria. He tells me that after he escaped he kept on crawling for an hour or so, caught a taxi and got to Budapest. ‘The driver asked for 350 euros each, but we told him go fuck yourself! and he dropped the price to 250. I’m certain they work together with the police because the cars are never stopped’.
Mohammad Balcjaji interrupts Ameen asking him for a cigarette. He’s 22 and did not manage to finish his Business Management studies. His friend and namesake, Mohammad Othman, is 24, dark skin, a thick black beard and he graduated from Architecture. He chose Austria because his uncle is in Hungary and he wants to be close to him, but he would like to get back to Syria, after the war is over. To reconstruct the country.
They lead a normal life here, which is almost unimaginable in Syria. Balcjaji got caught by the police five times, in Hungary and Serbia. He spent two weeks in jail and suffered beatings and mockery from the guards. Othman got robbed in Macedonia, he lost 1500 euros. So he had to go back to Greece, to borrow money from some friends.
He is stroking his beard and tells me that Europe will not open its gates for fear the whole Arab world will flood in. ‘The result would be a huge mess impossible to control.’
‘Some of the refugees might be wretches, no problem, let them deal with the consequences’, adds his namesake. Anyway, ‘European extremist Muslims go to Syria because the jihad is burning there’ Ameen concludes.
We smoke some hash and he tells me I look like an Arab. Or like a gypsy. We split: Ameen proceeds towards Hamburg, I go to Munich.
I wake up in a train station from the future. It’s cold and dark. I stick to a group that goes to a camp set up in Olympiastadion.
I get out of the station and walk through the medical tent. Two men in white smocks ask me where I came from, if I am injured, if I have itches, any type of problem. They search me for fleas, bandage my wound and give me a green bracelet.
I get into a bus and fall asleep. The vehicle races on the highway, the driver informs us that we are going to Hermsdorf, an industrial little town between Berlin and München.
I arrive in front of a warehouse. A long banner hangs from the fence – ‘Wellcome refugees’. Two tall guys with white latex gloves direct people. Camouflage soldiers unload bedposts, benches and tables, the police is on the watch, the Red Cross register the newcomers. A guy in overalls, wearing round smoky sunglasses, observes the free toilets and explains how you need to wash your hands as soon as you’re finished.
The warehouse can host 600 people. Four different nationalities gathered together: Iraqui, Syrian, Afghan and Nigerian. Refugees receive three meals/day, a bed, a shower and a free shop where they can get clothes and toys for the children.
The border between Germany and Austria closed behind Khaled. To reduce the influx, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed a reduction of rights or asylum seekers – no housing or medical care, but he was reprimanded by civil society. The head of the Federal Intelligence Service warned that during these vulnerable times, the refugees risk being recruited by extremist Islamic groups.
The police fished Khaled after a few days of roaming aimlessly through the country. They took him to a camp under armed guard in Bichofswerda, a small town near Dresden, where a gang of neo-Nazis harassed the asylum-seekers.
Khaled says it sucks. He cannot get out, he doesn’t know how long the procedures will take, when and if he will get asylum. But he has a bed and food. He charges his phone and browses the net, then he sleeps, he eats, he charges his phone and browses the net. ‘It’s no paradise, but it’s better than back home’.
Ameen lives in a camp in Hamburg. He has no issues with the the extremists, he goes to parties and has fun while waiting to get asylum. He’s practically integrated, he just needs to learn German, finish his studies, get a job, a place to live.
„Now I’m free to live in peace”, supposedly.
*We were on the road in the first half of September. Check out our road journal (Romanian only)
Reporters: Matei Bărbulescu, Ștefan Mako
Photographer: Thomas Câmpean
Illustration: Giorge Roman
Infographic: Sergiu Brega
Translation: Silvana Doboș