Anatomy of an exodus
In the first few months of 2015 as much as five percent of Kosovo’s population – an estimated 100,000 people – left the country in search of better opportunities in the EU. We witnessed the upheaval first hand and traced the human cost to those taking the newest route into Europe
25th March 2015 (Taken from: #18)
9th December 2014
Pristina, Republic of Kosovo
Despite the perpetual motion of people passing through it, the Pristina bus station is a grey and dismal place. It looks run-down and dirty, no matter how many times its concrete steps are swept and cleaned.
It’s 11pm, and it’s getting cold. There is one bus left for the night, but the stalls, shops and one cafe still thrum with people. For years the bus to the Serbian capital of Belgrade would leave every evening almost completely empty, passing the border that separates Kosovo and Serbia with just a handful of passengers. Not tonight.
Several hundred people have crowded around the bus to Belgrade. They have packed lightly. There are young families clustered together in fours and fives. Young men – friends – in groups of two and three. Older men travelling alone.
They all have tickets but there are not enough seats to go around and, as the bus leaves, the aisles are full to bursting with standing passengers. It is a six-hour journey to Belgrade, but it only takes an hour to get to the Kosovo-Serbia border.
In the past the bus, with its meagre numbers, would be quickly waved through. But today a Kosovar border guard ushers the coach to one side for an inspection. Everyone is ordered off and their papers are checked. Most are allowed to cross but about a third – a mix of men, women and children – are told they cannot travel any further.
They walk back down the unlit road towards Pristina without argument. Before they begin the long trudge home, they stop a few hundred metres from the border post. Dozens more are waiting there, the remnants from the previous bus. They are unsure of what to do or where to go next.
Those who survived the cull smoke cigarettes before re-boarding the bus. Where are they going? Why are they going? And why now? “I will tell you,” one young man says, looking around to see if he is being overheard. “But not here.” He walks around to the back of the bus, away from the guards, as if about to reveal a shameful secret.
“We are escaping,” he tells me. “First we go to Belgrade. Then we go to Subotica.”
3rd January 2015
The woods outside Subotica, Republic of Serbia
A campfire burns on the floor inside an abandoned brick factory on the outskirts of the northern Serbian city of Subotica. Three young men sit around it. Their clothes are dirty and an icy wind is blowing through the glassless windows. The men are a long way from home. All three of them came here from Afghanistan. They didn’t know each other until a few hours ago.
“First Turkey, then Bulgaria and now Serbia,” says Mahmad, a man in his early twenties, when asked how he reached Subotica. He is the only one of the three who speaks a little bit of English. Mahmad pulls his black hat over his ears against the cold wind. His new friends don’t say a word, but stare silently into the fire. “I came here yesterday,” Mahmad continues. “Tomorrow I will go to Hungary.”
Mahmad had been told that Hungary, a country he hadn’t even heard of before he left Kabul, was his gateway to reach the “real” Europe. Subotica, located just a few miles from the Hungarian border, would be the jumping off point. Mahmad is one of around 30 men trying to keep warm in the empty brick factory. Most of them, like him, are from Afghanistan. Some are from Syria. Many more are hiding out in improvised tents in the woods behind the factory. Mahmad was a taxi driver in Afghanistan and he left his wife and two small children behind in Kabul. As soon as he has reached Italy or Austria, he says, he will try to get his family to come too. “I didn’t see them for a year. I hope they can come,” he says forlornly.
The men are on the latest migration route into the European Union, the Western Balkan route. The trails via Melilla, Spain’s territory on Morocco’s north coast, and the Italian island of Lampedusa are still the most commonly used amongst migrants and refugees from Middle Eastern and African countries into the European Union. But these routes have become well known, crowded and dangerous. According to the International Organisation for Migration, at least 3,279 migrants and refugees died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2014. The actual figure is certainly far higher than that. The toll for 2015 is set to be at least ten times more.
The border between Serbia and Hungary, a few miles outside Subotica, is the final barrier on the new trail – or, at least, the last border that will have to be crossed illegally. As soon as migrants arrive in Hungary they will be inside the European Union and, more importantly, within the borderless Schengen zone, the 26 member state area that has abolished the use of passports. There is no fence and no massed ranks of border police to keep them out. Just a few hundred miles of farmland with forests on the Hungarian side to disappear into. A river marks the crossing point for a few miles. Elsewhere, small white border stones placed every few hundred metres are all that show where the European Union both ends and begins. Yet this deceptively easy final hurdle, especially during the notoriously harsh Balkan winter, can be the toughest few miles.
Pastor Tibor Varga walks through the snowy woods around the brick factory, looking for signs of life. He is wearing a blue raincoat, his large boots making a crunching sound in the snow. “It is so wild here that they call it ‘The Jungle’,” he says, pushing his way past thick branches as he walks deeper into the woods. Varga is the minister of a small protestant church in Subotica. He comes here every day, his minivan filled with bread and water, sometimes clothes, shoes and blankets too. He keeps his eyes peeled for footprints. “By the footprints we can see how many people there are,” he says, eyes glued to the ground.
Varga is always on the lookout for migrants hiding out in ‘The Jungle’ who might need his help. Some are easy to find, inside the brick factory, but there are those who are afraid and hide out in the woods. “They are afraid of the police,” he says. “The police know about the brick factory. Sometimes they come out here to catch them.” A small tent made out of scraps of plastic appears between the trees. “Look,” says Varga. “Here’s one!” Inside sits a young man wrapped in a blanket. He doesn’t look much older than 20. He is numb, mute and refuses Varga’s offers of help with a shake of his head.
The area looks like it has been used as a temporary sleeping space by many before him. There are a few more makeshift tents between the trees. Mattresses and sleeping bags lie around, spread over the frosted earth. A toothbrush is stuck between two tree branches and a towel hangs from another. “Everything has become dirty,” Varga complains. “But at least they are using the sleeping bags that I brought.” The pastor had received 40 old army sleeping bags from a friend who works in the Serbian military and brought them to ‘The Jungle’ just before winter set in.
Varga discovered the brick factory, and ‘The Jungle’, about three years ago. “It just breaks your heart when you see people outside all the time,” he says. “They have been travelling for weeks, sometimes months. Some say they haven’t eaten for days. They come from nowhere, and here they arrive in nowhere again. It was minus 15 a few days ago. Surviving is not easy in temperatures like that.” Tonight the temperatures are due to fall even lower.
They have been travelling for weeks, sometimes months. Some say they haven’t eaten for days. They come from nowhere, and here they arrive in nowhere again”
Mahmad and the other men in the old brick factory are waiting for news of their next move. Parts of the building are on the verge of collapse. It is damp and there are no toilets or running water. But they can at least charge their mobile phones – after money, the second most important tool for reaching the European Union. A door on a little fuse box attached to the factory wall has been broken open. Two mobile phones hang inside, connected to trailing wires.
“I get calls from a different agent in every country,” says 21-year-old Adnan, who fled Afghanistan with just a small backpack. “The agent tells me what time and where I have to be.” Before he ended up in ‘The Jungle’ in Subotica, he travelled from Afghanistan to Iran, and then through Turkey to Bulgaria.
“I paid them [the people smugglers] $10,000 to get to Europe,” he says. Back in Kabul he had got in touch with the main ‘agent’. This smuggler is responsible for arranging the entire journey and is in contact with agents in other countries who he pays for services in advance. The agents arrange cars to drive from border to border, often carrying large groups of people. Once close to the border, they point the migrants in the right direction, where they cross by foot. At the other side transport, often arranged by a different agent, is waiting for them.
Adnan talks about it as if he had booked a hiking holiday with a travel agency. But the reality is bleak. Adnan didn’t leave his home country because he wanted to. “I was threatened by the Taliban because I worked for the Americans,” he says. After the US army left Afghanistan in 2014, they left many local translators behind. He became a target. “One day they shot at the car me and my brother were in. I couldn’t stay, I had to go,” he says. Adnan was in the process of getting a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for the US, a programme for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who’d worked for the US army. But his former bosses told him the process could take up to two years. Adnan felt that time was running out. “I could not wait for it. They [the Taliban] would have killed me.” So he planned his escape, leaving his parents and his brother and sister behind. His plan is to reach Germany within a few days.
Pastor Varga brings Mahmad, Adnan and the other men some bread from his van. They devour it at speed. “I can’t give them much, I’m just one person,” he says. “At least I hope I can give them a better introduction to Europe. That they will one day remember there was a guy who was kind to them in ‘The Jungle’ in Serbia.”
12th February 2015
Subotica, Republic of Serbia
At the headquarters of Subotica’s border police, Serbian officers park their cars and walk silently into the low rise building that houses both their offices and the cells.
Today is a big day for Subotica’s usually low-key border operation. A top official from Serbia’s border police, Jelena Vasiljevic, has arrived to check how things are being run in what has in the past few weeks become the most controversial border post in the country.
From 2011 onwards Serbia had become a major crossing point for migrants fleeing Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, using the Western Balkan route to seek passage into the EU. But something has changed. In the last few weeks, the numbers passing through Subotica have increased exponentially. There has been an extraordinary exodus, an overwhelming wave of people making their way to this small, unassuming city and then across the border into Hungary. This time, though, it is not Syrians, Iraqis or Afghans who are flooding through, but Kosovars.
The city’s hotels and hostels are filled with Kosovars. They have money: enough to pay exorbitant rates for a dingy room, enough to pay the inflated fees of the taxi drivers who offer to drive them to the border for 20 or 30 times the usual price. Enough not to have to stay in Subotica’s freezing ‘Jungle’, or its brick factory, or to need charity from Pastor Varga.
Yet unlike in Syria, there is no vicious civil war in Kosovo. There is no insurgency and chronic instability like there has been in Afghanistan. There is no Iraq-style sectarian meltdown. Kosovo is relatively peaceful. So why are tens of thousands leaving the country? The answer lies, partly, with a little-remarked bureaucratic decision made by Serbia in 2014, under pressure by the EU, to allow Kosovars free travel within Serbian territory.
The disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s unleashed the kind of bloodletting not seen in Europe since the Second World War. When the fighting ended, and the six former constituent republics of the country (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia) eventually secured independence, Kosovo was left out in the cold. Under the system held together by former Yugoslav president Josip Tito, Kosovo was not an official republic but rather an autonomous region.
Kosovo is viewed by many Serbians as the cradle of its civilisation. The 1389 Battle of Kosovo, which saw Serbia’s feudal princes take on the Ottomans, took place on the outskirts of the modern day capital Pristina. Over time the ethnic makeup of the territory changed. By the time of the fall of Yugoslavia, the vast majority of Kosovars were Muslim and self-identified as ethnically Albanian.
When Slobodan Milosevic became Serbian president in 1989, an already-deepening repression against the Kosovars intensified under the guise of protecting the territory’s small Serb minority. By 1998 an insurgency against the Serbian state was underway, led by the Kosovo Liberation Army. The 1998-99 Kosovo War saw NATO bomb Belgrade and other targets in Serbia to stop what they saw as the potential genocide of the Kosovars. By its conclusion, Kosovo had become a de facto nation, Serbia had been defeated and, a year later, Milosevic was removed from power following huge protests in Belgrade. He would later die in a jail cell in The Hague, midway through his trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Kosovo today is in limbo. It has a government and a flag and an anthem. But it will not become a state. Serbia has vowed never to acknowledge it. Russia wields its Security Council veto to ensure the UN will not recognise it, despite 23 out of 28 EU states, and a majority of UN members, having done so. As a result Kosovo has stagnated. Political and economic stasis has led to corruption and nepotism. Unemployment is at around 30 percent.
Serbia, too, has had enough of international isolation. In recent memory the country has endured civil war, NATO’s bombardment of Belgrade and 1,000 percent inflation. New prime minister Aleksandar Vui has vowed to join the EU, and as a first step he needs to regularise the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo. He couldn’t recognise Kosovo, so he formulated a compromise. From September 2014, Kosovars would be allowed to travel in Serbia with a permit obtainable at the border between the two.
His decision opened the floodgates. By February 2015, thousands of Kosovars were travelling to Belgrade, making their way to Subotica and crossing the border into Hungary every day. This was, of course, an acute embarrassment for Subotica’s border police force. The sheer numbers raised questions about who was actually patrolling the border with the EU, and how. And then the story went viral. A Reuters article on 6th February detailed the immense numbers of Kosovars crossing into Hungary near Subotica, as well as the lack of any border police or controls. A picture of a Kosovar man holding a baby whilst wading waist-deep in freezing water graced the pages of newspapers around the world.
Which is why one of Serbia’s top border officials is visiting today, and why the police are on their best behaviour. Once the dignitary has left, a surly policeman beckons us towards his police car, marking the start of a tour for journalists. At the start of the year, before the world’s eyes were focused on Subotica, you would be lucky to find a policeman answering the phone. Now our recalcitrant guide drives quickly down the road towards the border, veering off to the right down a dirt track. In front, another 4×4 is waiting. Two Kosovars are standing by the boot. The policemen spring into action, showing off their catch for the morning. The men look freezing, as if they have been made to stand and wait for the journalists’ arrival. No one is allowed to speak to them.
The surly policeman stops once more, near the border, to point to the nearby Hungarian forests and show just how close the European Union is, before quickly driving back to base. The tour lasts barely 10 minutes. Back at the Subotica border police station, several more vans arrive. This time, they are full of Kosovars who have been caught in the fields just a few hundred metres from Hungary. They step out of the back of the car and walk in a weary line towards the police station.
They are mainly families. Young children and women. One is heavily pregnant. The Serbian police usher them inside the building where they sit against the wall of a long corridor. No one speaks. Everybody looks at the floor. The only sound is that of a baby crying, and the shuffle of an Albanian TV journalist as the police invite him to set up his camera and film the people they have caught. He isn’t allowed to talk to them either.
13th February 2015
Across the border in Hungary, László Toroczkai, the ultra right-wing, 37-year-old mayor of Ásotthalom, has been enjoying the media attention. His small village (pop. 4,000) has seen tens of thousands of Kosovars passing through it in recent weeks, and he has been inundated with interview requests from international media organisations from the BBC to AFP. “All European people know what the situation is at the border of the European Union because of this,” he says. “The Hungarians and Serbians have made changes [because of the coverage].” These changes include the Hungarian government sending 26 police officers to help capture and process the new wave of immigrants.
As the mayor of a small village, Toroczkai has few resources at his disposal. There is, he explains, no dedicated Hungarian border police force. It was scrapped in 2008. Before the arrival of the 26 police officers from Budapest, the only force available to patrol the border was a detachment of forestry rangers, numbering three men and one car.
Toroczkai has arranged a tour of the border. Outside, a Lada Niva 4×4 is waiting. Next to it stands Zoltan Saringer, a tall, young forestry ranger who has been patrolling the border for 15 hours a day. “I’ve only seen 50 to 100 today,” Zoltan says as his Lada bumps along mud tracks and through tall pine tree forests towards the border. A few farmhouses remain here, but most of them have been abandoned. The only industry is a small oil field, its pumps rising in the distance. “Five hundred a day has been normal in the past weeks,” he adds.
Before the world arrived on Saringer’s doorstep, he had a quiet job. He was charged with patrolling the remote parts of the village to protect the fields. Occasionally he would investigate a break-in at a local farm. But he has no gun and no power to arrest anyone. “Ninety percent of my time now is dealing with immigrants,” he explains. “I have to stop them and protect the empty farms, because they go to the houses and light fires.”
Saringer’s Lada emerges into a clearing by a river which marks the border with Serbia. Trampled reeds and muddy, eroded banks covered in footprints mark the spot where tens of thousands have scrambled across the water in recent weeks. Once on the Hungarian side, Saringer explains, the migrants strip off their soaking wet clothes and dump whatever identification they have with them. If they are caught without ID, they cannot be repatriated. All the clothes and all the papers have been gathered and left in dozens of grey plastic bin liners. Inside one bag is the torn remains of one Kosovar family’s Serbian ID papers, printed in Cyrillic. They give the names and ages of a family of five; a father, a mother and three children. The youngest is 13 months old.
The sea of immigrants left its mark elsewhere in the area too. Nearby derelict farmhouses are filled with hundreds upon hundreds of soaking wet, dumped pairs of shoes, backpacks and sweatshirts. The floors are matted with detritus and most have blackened walls from the fires that have been lit inside.
Migrants strip off their soaking wet clothes and dump whatever identification they have with them. If they are caught without ID, they cannot be repatriated”
The next day we meet a small group who have been detained in the woods. Yll, a 24-year-old Kosovar, has a big smile on his face. He has spiky black hair and is wearing large, aviator style sunglasses, tilting his head to get as much of the morning sun on his face as possible. “We started from Kosovo, from Pristina to Subotica and today we crossed the border into Hungary,” he says of his journey. “We didn’t see any police. I came with GPS and talked with some Serbian guys who told me where to go. They said: ‘Walk over there, that is Hungary’.” He shows off his Samsung smartphone, with the Sim card he bought in Serbia. “We are 12, and one is a baby,” he says. Originally there was just him and his cousin, but as they got closer the group picked up new members.
Yll had finished his degree in criminal psychology just a few days earlier. As soon as his studies were complete, he packed and left for Serbia, with dreams of making his way onwards to Germany. He wants to become legal and eventually work as a police officer. He and the others will be taken to a camp in the nearby Hungarian city of Szeged and then, he hopes, he’ll be back on the path to Germany.
Zoltan, much like Pastor Varga tending to his flock in Subotica’s ‘Jungle’, is one of the few people on this side of the border to have witnessed the incredible number of people flowing into Hungary first hand. He hasn’t lapsed into xenophobia or hatred. He is against building a fence to keep people out, unlike Mayor Toroczkai, who has called for a US/Mexico style border regime to begin. Fences, Saringer says, solve nothing. “If they want to come, they will come,” he says as we drive back to the village. “It can be a wall of stone, they would climb it. It would only make them slower, but they will still come. Maybe they’ll find another route. You can’t make a fence to protect the whole of Europe.”
That evening, Saringer stands in silence in the forest by the border on night patrol. In the darkness and the quiet he is trying to pick out any tell-tale sounds of broken twigs or bracken, or the weak glow of distant mobile phone screens. But there are none. For the first time in months, no migrants will be picked up tonight.
1st March 2015
Greme, Republic of Kosovo
It is quiet on the streets of Greme, a village in the municipality of Ferizaj in central Kosovo. Serif Aliu, a man in his sixties, leans against the fence of his house in the village’s main street. It is a sunny day and Serif stares at the beautiful Sar Mountains which are clearly visible behind the roofs of the houses. “As a country we never had better times than now,” he says. Serif was a construction worker for almost all of his adult life, but has now retired. He will never forget the war that ravaged Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. He was one of the few who didn’t leave. “I stayed all the way through the fighting,” he says. The war is the first thing he mentions when he’s asked about the mass exodus of Kosovars of the past few months. It is the first time since the conflict that so many people have moved away.
The population of Greme is roughly the same as that of Ásotthalom. Or, at least, it used to be. Although the exact numbers of people who have left are not known, Greme has lost so many people since the end of 2014 that the village feels abandoned. “We are now free as a country,” says Serif. “But the people are leaving.”
If they want to come, they will come. You can’t make a fence to protect the whole of Europe”
The Kosovar authorities estimate that 50,000 people left the country between December 2014 and February 2015. That is almost certainly an underestimate (other credible sources put it at 100,000), but it is still an alarming number for a country with a population of just 1.8 million – the equivalent of 1.78 million people leaving the UK in three months. Hashim Thaçi, Kosovo’s foreign minister and former prime minister, believes a mysterious rumour caused the exodus of Kosovars: that Germany had suddenly started issuing work permits to his countrymen.
Others put the blame squarely on the government itself. “People have lost hope for change in this country,” said Agron Demi of the think tank GAP in the capital Pristina. Around a third of Kosovars live under the poverty line and according to Transparency International’s 2014 corruption perception index, Kosovo, together with Albania, is the most corrupt country in Europe. “From the war until 2008 [when Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence] political parties promised that once we have our independence, everything would flourish here,” says Demi. “We would have foreign investments, a lot of employment, no problems with Serbia any more. But none of that has happened.”
The exodus is a sign of a growing dissatisfaction with the way the country is ruled, claims Demi. “Even people who still have a job are leaving the country,” he points out. “They don’t see a future for their children and so they grab at their chance. The only party to blame is the Kosovo government. We spent more than a billion euros on a highway that didn’t contribute to economic development at all. And in the meantime we still have power cuts, a lack of drinking water in the cities and no jobs.” Added to this roll call of misery is the new issue of depopulation. Some villages have been completely wiped out as every resident, including the mayor, has left.
Greme has seen some of its migrants return. Mother of three Svedije Sejdiu attempted to migrate to Germany with her family. Their attempt failed and two months after they left Kosovo, the Sejdius are back home. “We thought we had a chance,” Svedije says in a soft voice. “But we didn’t even make it to Germany.”
It was mid-December when the family decided to leave. They had heard of other people in the village who did the same. They took their three children and got a night bus to Belgrade, and then a bus to Subotica. There, with the help of smugglers, they walked over the border into Hungary. “We walked, we passed a highway and then there were only fields,” recalls 12-year old Altina, the family’s oldest daughter. She speaks about the journey in detail. “In Hungary we took the train. We wanted to go to Germany, but the train stopped in Slovakia.” From that moment everything went wrong. “The police came in the train and asked for our passports,” says Altina. “We didn’t have passports. They took us out from the train in Bratislava.”
The whole family was taken to a camp for asylum seekers where they stayed for over a month. There was no way they could still get to Germany, where two of Altina’s uncles live. The family didn’t want to ask for asylum in Slovakia, which would have almost certainly been denied, so they decided to return to Kosovo voluntarily.
Svedije prepares Turkish coffee on a simple stove inside the house. They lost a little over 1,000 euros on transport and smugglers, she says. Her husband went back to work in construction after they returned home. In good times
he brings home 200 euros a month. Often it is less. “The main reason to leave,” Svedije says, “is the lack of good healthcare and education in Kosovo. I want my children to have better opportunities. There is no future here.”
In early March the first planeloads of Kosovars arrived in Pristina. They were being sent back from Germany and Austria. Germany had made it clear that work permits are not on offer and asylum is out of the question for Kosovars, as the country is considered safe. It even announced that it would speed up deportation procedures so that they could be sent back more quickly in the future. The Austrian government went further by posting a full front page advert in a leading Kosovo newspaper Koha Ditore. The headline read: “Smugglers are lying. There will be no economic asylum in Austria.” The propaganda campaign has started to work. By April the number of asylum requests by Kosovars in Germany had dropped
dramatically. In February, Germany had 1,500 requests for asylum by Kosovars every single a day. By April that number had dropped to 100 a day.
Kosovar TV channels interviewed returnees at the airport who said that they would try again anyway. The official numbers do not take into account those that didn’t want to claim asylum. Many Kosovars simply disappeared into the black economy. That was not an option for the Sejdiu family. Svedije still can’t believe she put her children through such a long and exhausting journey. “I don’t want to put my kids in danger again,” she says. “If we try again, we will try in a legal way.”
Altina is happy. She didn’t want to leave in the first place. The time she spent in the camp in Slovakia was unhappy. She lays out three drawings on the kitchen table. One is the flag of Kosovo, the other the flag of Albania. And the third is a drawing of their family house in Greme. “I drew them in the camp,” she says, “because I was missing home so much.”
Pristina, Republic of Kosovo
As the snows melt and spring begins, the Pristina bus station has grown quieter. It is still dirty and down at heel, a grim old hulk of a place. But the past few weeks have seen a change, especially late at night. At its peak in January and February, the station saw ten full buses leaving for Belgrade every evening. Tonight, there are just four. The crowds of people waving off their family and friends are more subdued, less expectant. The risks are now better known. It is likely they will be home soon enough. After all, the station is no longer the incognito first step on the road to Europe it once was.
The huge media storm, partly sparked by the mayor of Ásotthalom, made the route dangerously exposed for both traffickers and migrants alike. Politicians in Pristina, Belgrade, Budapest, Berlin, Vienna and Brussels were stung into action. The Kosovo government was acutely embarrassed that so many of its citizens felt their only route to a better life was to leave en masse. The government vowed to listen to the people and appealed to their sense of patriotism. Posters now adorn the walls of Pristina’s bus station, listing ‘Ten reasons not to emigrate’.
The first is perhaps the most telling.
“1. Without a permanent population a country cannot exist.”
Pastor Tibor Varga, the man who was single-handedly feeding migrants in ‘The Jungle’ outside Subotica, first heard about the big numbers of Kosovar migrants via the TV news. “Those months,” Varga recalls on the phone from Subotica, “were a tense and crazy time.”
But he never met any Kosovars in ‘The Jungle’. “They have more direct ways to get to the border,” he says. Whilst thousands of Kosovars flocked through Subotica, the Afghans and Syrians who were staying in ‘The Jungle’ had a much harder time. “The police were everywhere,” he says. “And catching them more.”
The stronger police presence due to the Kosovar exodus led to a temporary decrease in the number of migrants sleeping in the brick factory and the woods around it. “Many of them heard that the situation in Subotica is dangerous, so they waited or took other routes,” he says. “For a time there were less than ten people a day.”
Around the middle of March, the Afghans and Syrians started appearing again as if they had been hiding out, waiting for the Kosovars to pass. The Serbian border had gone back to normal and the chances of crossing without getting caught were reasonable again. Just a day before, Varga met three families. “They are Syrian Kurds, with seven little children,” he says. “The weather is nicer, it’s easier to sleep in tents. But it is hard with children. They are exhausted.”
Varga still visits ‘The Jungle’ every day. It has become harder to get people to donate food. “People here don’t have much sympathy for the migrants. The Kosovars coming made it worse. I spend my own money to buy bread and water. And I pray to God to send me support to help these people.”
Posters adorn Pristina’s bus station, listing Ten Reasons Not To Emigrate. No. 1: ‘Without a permanent population, a country cannot exist”
He doesn’t know what happens to the men and women he helps after they make their break for the border. There are just too many to track, too many to remember. One, Adnan – the Afghan translator waiting to leave ‘The Jungle’ in January – headed for Hungary the very next day. He crossed the border on foot and found a minivan waiting for him. “They pushed me inside, we were 26 people, everybody on top of each other,” he says. “We drove for five hours. It was terrible, no water, no air.”
The minivan stopped suddenly and the driver ordered everyone out on to the side of the road. “The driver said: ‘This is Austria’, before he drove off.” Adnan still wanted to travel on to Germany, but at the train station in Vienna he was approached by an Austrian police officer and gave up. “I was really tired, so I told him: ‘Sir, I can’t talk any more, I can’t walk any more. Please take me to the police station’.”
Adnan claimed asylum that day. He was moved between various camps before arriving in Graz. It was a paradise compared to ‘The Jungle’. “I’m here, I’m happy, I’m safe, and nobody can kill me,” he says. More importantly, he now has permission to travel in the country. “With a White Card,” he says proudly, “you can walk freely all over Austria!”
Yll, the young Kosovar who wanted to get to Germany and become a police officer, was taken to a refugee camp in Szeged. At the time, he was happy. The police were friendly and polite. That soon changed. “The Hungarian police have been very violent towards immigrants in Szeged,” he wrote in a Facebook message. All phones and cameras were taken off them. They slept 60 to a room. He sent a photo showing all the men cramped, swaddled in blankets, lying on a packed floor in what looked like a cage. They were cold, he said, and falling ill thanks to the conditions. “I personally asked the authorities for human rights and to advocate for human rights,” he says. “The Hungarian police only laughed at us and said that immigrants don’t have rights. They treated us like animals. There was even a beating of a person by the police.” Yll was eventually released and made it to Germany. He’s now in Dortmund, waiting for news of a potential job.
The mayor of Ásotthalom, László Toroczkai, continued with his anti-migration campaign after the international press had moved on to other stories. The 64 Counties Youth Movement, the far-right group he had formed in his early 20s, arranged its annual gathering in Ásotthalom in April. Toroczaki was their guide, taking them to the farms on the brink of extinction, usually run by pensioners in their 80s. The men marched in a long column holding a distinctive black and red flag. They visited farms and offered a few hours’ labour chopping wood and building fences for those old people who could use the help. A mass was held and, when they were finished, they all marched to the border where they took the task of policing the crossing into their own hands. “After several hours of border inspection they haven’t [sic] seen a single border guard or police officer,” reported Hungarian Ambiance, a blog that covers far right Hungarian politics. “While there, they managed to turn back dozens of illegal immigrants wanting to cross the border.”
Back at the Pristina bus station, the final night bus to Belgrade is about leave. “Not so many people go by bus any more because the Serbian police are sending them back,” says the middle aged bus driver as the last of his passengers hurry on board. Despite all the coverage, all the warnings, all the horror stories of police brutality and extortion at the hands of people smugglers, desperate souls still take the chance every night. Even if the Serbs suspend Kosovars’ new right to travel, it won’t extinguish the drive to leave the country in search of a better life in the EU. “Believe me,” says the driver before the door hisses shut and he pulls out onto the dark highway heading north. “They will find another way.”
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