One August Sunday afternoon, we arrive in the park and immediately are in the middle of a protest. One would think it is a joyful celebration: music plays, people are having drinks and food, talking, but the topic is quite serious: this is “The park is for everyone” solidarity event during which volunteers and refugees try to raise awareness about what is going on in the city: that asylum-seekers are being forced out of public areas and are pushed into camps and to register. We are in Belgrade, in a park often referred to as ‘Info park’, named after an NGO which is active here. It is situated on the side of the road next to the railway station and - similar to II János Pál square / John Paul the Second square - served for a long time as a transfer point for many refugees for a few nights before continuing their journey, much like the “Afghani park” on the other side of the road as well. The situation on the Hungarian border, however, became increasingly dramatic and serious. As an employee of the Infopark put it: last summer, the atmosphere at night was actually quite happy, people played music and had fun. They knew they were supposed to spend only a few days here, which made them optimistic and full of hope. However, most of the people who are currently here have been here for months now, many already tried leaving and continuing their journey but all attempts failed and no one has any idea what lies ahead. People do not have any reasons to be happy and enjoy the music anymore.
Next to the railway station, there is an abandoned, dilapidated building complex - perhaps a former storage facility - which has a covered entrance area as well, these now serve as shelters for refugees. During rain, there is a bit of water inside. Right next to the place is a landfill. There are of course no bathrooms, if someone needs one, they can walk over to the railway station and pay 50 dinars. This means that showering and bathing is also impossible, though there is a public well nearby - surrounded by filth, rubble and trash - this is where guys go to clean themselves. Due to lack of hygiene, diseases spread quite quickly: the cold, flu and their acquaintances are quite basic, and recently scabies also appeared, which cause extremely unpleasant symptoms and is very contagious. People, however, still push to maintain their dignity amidst the filth. Paper carton boxes, neylon trash bags or in luckier cases, sheets and covers are put on the ground on which they don’t step wearing shoes. They wash their clothes, that one t-shirt or pair of pants, what they still have left, in small wash basins. And even though they want to remain clean, the fact that there is no trash bins or containers means that the place itself is impossible to maintain in a proper condition. Food leftover, plastic bags, liquid containers, roaches are everywhere. One day, some MSF workers and volunteers tried to clean up the area which improved the situation at least temporarily for a bit.
Unfortunately, we’ve also heard that theft is occasional here which is not committed by refugees but local criminals. The most common victims are the most vulnerable group, unaccompanied minors, who sometimes tell that by the time they wake up, their mobile phones or money went missing. They are an easy prey for thieves, they couldn’t even file a report, even if they actually saw the perpetrator.
The police and the Commissariat has been continuously present in both parks ever since and they never fail to emphasize - sometimes in a normal, sometimes in a violent manner - that there are four buses per day to the camp, but the people do not want to go there and authorities seem to leave them alone for now. I once overheard a hopeless conversation between a Commissariat employee and a 16 year old boy. The position of the Commissariat is clear: one has to register, then go to a camp, especially since rumor has it that nowadays, it is possible in camps to sign up on the dreaded list, according to which if someone is lucky, they might be able to legally enter the Hungarian transit zone in a matter of 6 months. The comissair also mentioned as an argument that in the camp, there is at least food, a toilet and blankets, ignoring the boy’s counterarguments. The boy said this is not the case. He spent 3 days in Krnjača before. He testifies that there are quite a few barracks empty in the camp, currently unused, while everyone is forced into the same building with 10-12 people in a room. Food is scarce and horrible, there are flees in the beds - if someone is lucky enough to get a bed - and once he tried to leave the camp with one of his friends, they were not let out. Krnjača camp currently serves as a hub to distribute people among one of several camps after they have registered (In Serbia: registration currently means the same as applying for refugee status), in a luckier scenario, one near the Croatian or Hungarian border, but in other instances, far far away from the border and the capital. Others say that there is chaos in the camp - people sometimes board buses and attempt to get in but they are informed that there are no more places left, while others, people who have been in the camp for a few days already say they were told to “go, leave wherever you want or can because you are too many”.
Tensions are high in the park also because several locals living nearby are not open to the situation. They supposedly have their own facebook-group where they organize regular gatherings in the park, during which they usually complain to each other and to the police and sometimes vex and bother refugees and volunteers helping them. I also managed to speak with them, while they were verbally abusing a German girl. One man called her a lesbian because of her looks. Later, the same man went to a group of refugee boys and shared his George Soros theory with them, as it seems this accusation is also popular on this side of the border. He said what is happening to them is not their fault, but George Soros’ and NGOs, for which they need to watch out. Another woman told me someone once mentioned her breasts and since that she’s been too afraid to walk through here. This fear did not, however, prevent her from scolding some young boys totally unrelated to the event.
Hungary is a big problem
Already on the first day, my arrival made a huge scene and probably not because of my amazing personality. Rumor spread among people that there is a Hungarian here, from the country whose measures forced people to stay here for months, without any hope. May I say, my welcome was met with quite mixed emotions - a boy, after he heard where I’m from, turned away and did not want to speak to me. Later, when he got to know me and learned that I’m not a monster, he was willing to talk to me, although each time we met, he greeted me saying:
- Hello, problem!
- Hungary is a big problem!
The most common thing police use against people are dogs: they simply unleash them against those trying to cross who are unable to defend themselves against the bites and scratches. The sight of refugees in dirty cloths, bleeding and arms or legs dressed is sadly an everyday occurrence in Belgrade. The other, almost basic tool is the gas spray. This is also used systematically, simply being sprayed in people’s faces right before they are attacked by dogs or possibly after, thereby causing more pain and blinding the victims. There are less accounts of people being assaulted, this seems to the be “specialty” of the Bulgarians though it also happens here from time to time. The third, in a way, the cruelest of all is the systematic recuperation and destruction of refugees’ mobile phones. The police probably has an explanation why it does this, but I’ve actually seen a person seriously distressed and concerned who said: he simply has no idea how he will communicate with his family, because all the numbers were in the phone.
There are other quite “juicy” stories about police spreading around - I heard several times that they drink during “work”, and they yell horrible things at people. One boy said they told him: “büdös disznó (“stinky swine”) and he asked me what it meant.
People are waiting and waiting and clouds are gathering over their heads. They constantly hope that the Hungarian border will open someday - there are countless rumors that in 4 days, a week, or a month, the Hungarian government will change its mind or someone from the EU will make a call and people can finally continue their journey. I was also asked many many times whether I know something and I always felt ashamed when I had to answer: from what I know, they want to reinforce the fence, the police are trying to recruit new people as “border hunters” on Facebook and allow completely unqualified people to join their forces. Unfortunately, the Hungarian approach has launched a quite serious development in Serbia. They are preparing for a scenario in which refugees will be stuck there for quite a while and they are building new refugee camps funded by the EU.