September 28, 2015
In Blog News
Hungary has closed its borders completely. The Croatians cannot seem to make up their mind, as to which extent they are ready to be humane, and keep opening and shutting down their borders. The Croatian Prime Minister has accused Serbia of ‘not functioning like a state’, for its policy of allowing refugees to travel through the country towards EU countries. The number of refugees entering Serbia and camping in the parks near Belgrade’s main bus station has decreased as a result, but they still arrive. Smugglers are now their main recourse. They are ready to risk their lives.
Speaking to German officials, visiting the park, a group of Afghans explained,
“It is do or die for us. We have spent everything we have on this journey. We cannot afford to turn back.”
Many are trapped in the park, waiting for an opportunity to cross the border. I kept meeting the same group for several days. They were all young Afghans, the youngest was fifteen. Like other young Afghans he could have chosen either to work for ISIS or Taliban, or to work for the Afghan government, army or NATO. Regardless of his choice, in Afghanistan he was likely to be killed soon. His father was unable to work. His brothers were very young. He had to find a way to support them. He told me that in Bulgaria he suffered from high fever but was not given medical care in the camp.
“At home, my mother would have taken care of me. Still I got better. We Afghans are tough.”
“What will you do now?” I asked him, “The borders are closed.”
Instructions from UNHCR were to advise people to wait for further developments on borders. I told him that the situation was constantly changing because countries were not following international law applicable to refugees, instead were doing what they wanted.
“Yes,” he said, “Everyone is free to do what they want. Life is based on hope. I hope we will be able to cross the border.”
Despite the grim situation on the borders most people in the parks seem to be in fairly good spirits. To some degree their most immediate needs are being met. Tents, blankets, sleeping bags, clothes, shoes and food is distributed regularly. Doctors are available. They have access to free internet. Many can now be seen playing soccer.
When I met the Afghan group on Sunday, they were in a state of confusion. Almost the entire city center had been cordoned off. Hundreds of police officers stood alongside barricades. There were even armored vehicles. The police were there because of Belgrade’s Gay Pride. In Belgrade it is an unpopular event, which can lead to riots by extremist right wing groups which hate homosexuals, the Roma, Jews and Muslims.
“Are they here because of us?” the young Afghan boy asked me fearfully.
“No. Not at all. You are perfectly safe. They are not here because of you,” I reassured him.
“Why are they there?”
It was difficult to answer, not the bit about homosexuals but the parade.
“You know when people of the same gender like each other…” my words dwindled away as I realized the impossibility of explaining the concept of a special day for the LGBT community to him.
He looked blankly at me then said after some time,
“Is there going to be a festival?”
“Yes. That is it,” I said with relief, “There is going to be a festival.”
“And the police are there to stop the festival,” he deduced.
“No. The police are there to protect it,” I said.
His state of mystification was now complete but he did not ask further questions. The Gay Pride took place without incident, far out of the sight of the refugees.
A few days later there was the festival of Eid. The overwhelming majority of the refugees are Muslims.
At home they would have sacrificed an animal, a goat, sheep or a cow. Meat would be distributed among family and the poor. Feasts would have been held.
At midday interpreters were called to the park to resolve a situation. A large number of police officers were present. A group of about 20 Afghans were in possession of a sheep. A Serbian villager had sold it to them. They wanted to slaughter it. It took a great deal of explaining to convince the Afghans that it was indeed quite impossible for them to slaughter the sheep in the park. The police officers were amused because they had never faced a similar situation before. The Afghans were puzzled but remained good humored about the whole thing. Three hours later the sheep was removed from the park by the authorities.
Europe is in a state of great anxiety over the refugee crisis. One of the concerns is integration. The rise of Islamophobia has complicated the issue. Amidst the rhetoric it is easy to forget that refugees are only looking for a safe place where they can work and live in peace. They are not a threat to Europe.
A young Afghan, who spoke no Urdu, only Farsi and was able to communicate with me in English, whom I guided to the center for the distribution of humanitarian aid, could not believe his eyes as I said,
“Here you can find clothes, shoes and food for free.”
He looked around with delight and then said to me,
“You are very nice.”
I told him that showing him the way to the center was my duty.
As always, the word ‘nice’ reminded me of the WikiLeaks video of the Iraqi 2007 July helicopter attack. After killing the people one of the pilots says,
“Look at those dead bastards,”
The other responds,