The journey through Serbia
Despite the onset of winter, refugees are still arriving in Europe from war-torn Syria. Amy Merone meets some of them.
In Miratovac, on the Serbian side of the Macedonian border, hundreds of weary refugees begin to appear in the distance. Arriving in Serbia by train from Macedonia many are, perhaps surprisingly, weighed down by suitcases and backpacks. Entire lives packed into bags, one imagines. Children are swaddled in blankets to protect them from near-freezing temperatures in the Balkans. Some still arrive in sandals, or without socks. Most are covered in mud.
One man, on his arrival, removes his well-worn boots, peels off his damp socks and reveals feet covered in huge blisters. He gratefully accepts new socks and a pair of wellies, and even manages to smile throughout. His daughter seems equally happy to have new shoes and reaches up with arms outstretched, and a huge smile, to bid me goodbye. And then they’re off. Undeterred and determined, ever onwards. And still they come.
Despite predictions that the flow of refugees fleeing conflict-ridden countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq would significantly decrease as winter sets in, an unusually mild November means this has not been borne out. On average, 5 to 6,000 refugees have been arriving in Serbia from Macedonia every day. Co-ordination by the Serbian authorities, local and international NGOs, has meant that refugees now arriving in the country are registered and transit usually within 24 hours.
In Serbia, this seems to suit the majority. In Miratovac, refugees hurriedly ask: ‘Which country after here?’ and ‘How long to that country?’ Few take up the offer to rest in tents erected by the Serbian authorities. Those who do, do so only momentarily to recompose themselves and catch their breath. One such person is Majd, a young doctor from Hama in Syria. He’s understandably distressed and close to tears when he arrives. Travelling with his family, he is weighed down with luggage, and also with grief, it seems.
‘It’s like hell [in Syria]. Perhaps you cannot see what is happening, there are no cameras… I do not want to stay and die.’ He has to continue on his journey, he tells me. But then he turns around and reminds me that he was a doctor in Syria. He says he’s been following the news on Facebook; he knows what some people think and say about refugees. ‘I do not want money. I have money,’ he tells me. ‘I have a house and a car. I am not coming for money.’
For many, humanitarian aid provided by organizations such as Philanthropy, a Christian Aid partner in the ACT Alliance, is vital. Their operation in Miratovac is soon to run 24 hours a day. But as refugees like Majd so articulately point out, many of those travelling across Europe in search of sanctuary are educated professionals who don’t want to rely on aid. Nobody does.
On the two-kilometre walk from Miratovac towards Presevo, where refugees are registered, I meet Ahmad. He’s 26 and from Kabul in Afghanistan. He’s fluent in English and university educated. But years of conflict in his homeland means he has finally had enough. He is journeying alone and hopes to reach Belgium. Like so many others, he dreams of a future free from conflict.
As we follow the route north that refugees take, we meet many more people with stories of years spent enduring the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, years without education, dried-up savings, and the ‘living in hell’ which has finally proved too much for so many.
At a motorway service station in Sid, close to the Serbian border with Croatia, refugees wait for several hours for news that a train has arrived that will take them on the next leg of their long and exhausting journey. It’s a strange sight in Europe. Signs in Arabic depict where refugees can access a doctor, charge their mobile phones and find clean water.
A young couple from Syria, Jourdy and Mhealden, take a selfie on the edge of the motorway. Married only two weeks ago, they are starting their new lives together on the road, hoping to reach Sweden. Their phones are vital in helping them to remember their lives in Syria. They show me where they once lived. Now their phones reconnect them to the past, to their families left behind in Syria, but also to their futures. Routes are exchanged and contact made with friends or family who have already ‘made it’.
In several hours, as news comes that the train has arrived, everybody will rush back to the buses, eager to be on their way as quickly as possible. There will be hurried goodbyes, hands clasping children tightly and, soon enough, hundreds more to replace those who have left.
Amy Merone is the Communications Officer at Christian Aid. Christian Aid works in Serbia through the ACT Alliance. Their partner, Philanthropy, provides humanitarian aid to refugees seeking sanctuary. For more information, visit their website.
The January/February 2016 issue of New Internationalist looks in depth at migration.