Bordering on inhumanity: How Slovenia and Croatia illegally deport refugees and migrants

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, Mašenjka Bačić, Nerminka Emrić, Maja Čakarić and Klara Škrinjar, with the support of Journalismfund.eu

Rather than being allowed to apply for asylum, thousands of refugees and migrants attempting to enter Slovenia and Croatia are being illegally and often violently spirited across the border to Bosnia, and out of the EU. 

Image: ©Matej Povše

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Read the personal testimonies of migrants

Western Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a bottleneck for migrants and refugees who are fleeing through the Balkans. In the past year, many of them have been caught en route to Northern or Western Europe in Slovenia and then systematically handed over to Croatian authorities. In Croatia, they are often subjected to police violence. They finally end up in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they are condemned to an interminable wait.

The Slovenian police deny illegal migrants access to asylum and turn a deaf ear to their appeals. These are first-hand accounts of the migrants who we met along the Balkan route from Slovenia to Bosnia. Similar cases are also recorded by NGOs and are being investigated by the Ombudsman.

Such actions systematically contravene international conventions on human rights and are occurring in two EU member states.

The situation today is very different from the one that came as a rude awakening to the public in the fall of 2015.

Memories of those events, during which, according to rough estimates, a million displaced people entered the EU via the Balkans, are perhaps still freshly etched in our minds. The situation on the ground now, however, has changed dramatically.

This migration route to Western and Northern Europe became impassable after the agreement between the European Union and Turkey entered into force. Among other things, it provided for the return of refugees and migrants from Greece to Turkey. The deal’s effects included the termination of mass migrations and an almost complete closure of the Balkan corridor in the spring of 2016. This meant that many migrants were left stranded.

The following year, information emerged regarding the controversial return of displaced people in Slovenia and Croatia to the border with Bosnia, including reports of violence, confiscated and smashed phones, stolen money, thefts and damaged personal belongings.

Despite the existence of numerous testimonies and compelling evidence, the Slovenian and Croatian police outright deny the case put forward by NGOs, the media, migrants and refugees.

In the middle of July, the Croatian Ombudsman published an anonymous complaint from a group of Croatian police officers. In it, they admitted that their superiors had instructed them to return illegal migrants to Bosnia. Many of their colleagues used violence and took away migrants’ belongings while executing these orders. “If we stood up to this, we would get laid off and then how are we supposed to support our families?” wrote a presumably concerned but fearful police officer.

Many displaced people we met along what is left of the Balkan route confirm that such treatment routinely occurs. Among them was a young Syrian family from Hama who made it all the way to Slovenia this spring. “As soon as we crossed the border, we bumped into Slovenian policemen. We tried to apply for asylum but they said that this wasn’t possible; that there ‘is no asylum in Slovenia,’” the father recounted. “They returned us to Croatia where they took our phones. They treated us like savages even though we were travelling with kids. They threw us into a van and took us to near the Bosnian border.”

From there, they went on foot in pouring rain and biting cold to Velika Kladuša, a town in north-west Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is currently one of the hotspots on the Balkan migrant route. The Bosnian Ombudsman estimates that at least 60,000 migrants will enter the country this year, but local authorities warn that the country is ill-prepared for them.

In Velika Kladuša, innkeeper Asim Latić-Latan let the drenched and exhausted Syrian family into the dining room of a former pizzeria, now converted into a makeshift soup kitchen. He has been serving refugees and migrants for a year and a half. Every day, he prepares as many as 800 evening meals for them. His guests are fleeing from war, totalitarian regimes, poverty, violence and climate change, and he serves them dinner.

After arriving, one family ate dinner, their first real meal in a week, the father of two small children told us. He only gave us his initial, A. He was the only refugee who did not wish to reveal his full name among those whose testimonies are published below. He said he feared that the regime in his homeland, where his parents, brothers and sisters remained, would take revenge on his family.

He had left Syria for Europe with his family, brother-in-law and his partner in the hope of asking for international protection when he arrived. He did not expect any complications as he was coming from a war zone and was travelling with children. He was wrong. His family joined the ranks of a mounting number of people who were stripped of their right to asylum before they had even applied for it.

Fast-track refoulement

Slovenian police have denied many undocumented refugees and migrants the right to asylum and handed them over to Croatia.

This practice of blocking the filing of asylum applications and pushing back refugees and migrants began at the end of May 2018. At that time, a now former director-general of the Slovenian police, Simon Velički, issued instructions to police that people who are caught crossing the border illegally by mixed Slovenian-Croatian patrols “should be handed over to Croatian police to be handled by them.”

This was the moment when Slovenia systematically started to begin thwarting the possibility of claiming asylum by deporting refugees and migrants en masse.

Data published by the police on its own website confirms the changes in the treatment of migrants, and also possible irregularities in the procedures used for handling people who enter Slovenian territory with the purpose of applying for international protection.

The number of refoulements, i.e. the forcible return of refugees to countries where they are liable to face persecution, has risen dramatically since last year when, according to data from a report by the Slovenian police, as many as 4,653 people were deported to Croatia, which is 11 times more people compared to the previous three-year average since 2015, when the Balkan migration route was mapped out.

Slovenian and Croatian police deny entry to displaced people on the grounds of a bilateral agreement which the two countries concluded in 2006. This agreement provides for the return of migrants according to a summary procedure.

“It’s appalling that two EU member states simply get rid of some asylum seekers by using a summary procedure to bounce and return them into a third country,” says Amnesty International.

The Ombudsman’s office also warned that such treatment is controversial because the agreement does not absolve the police of the obligation to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Slovenian constitution, laws and other regulations.

If the Slovenian police hand over a foreigner who is caught by a Slovenian-Croatian patrol in Slovenian territory to Croatian security authorities, even though she or he has expressed an intention to apply for asylum, this infringes on the laws of international protection.

This conclusion was reached by the Ombudsman’s office in the report on the treatment of migrants by the police at the border. Due to allegations against the police regarding violations of the right of access to international protection, the Ombudsman’s office, as an autonomous and independent agency, reviewed the work of police.

Among other things, it highlighted the lack of (serious) consideration of the personal circumstances of each individual. From police documents, it was not clear whether a detained person stated his or her intention to claim asylum or whether he or she stated such an intention but was possibly ignored. Such inconsistencies could mean that the police denied some people asylum procedures.

The Ministry of the Interior assured the Ombudsman that everyone is able to find out their rights in police facilities and that brochures are available in various languages. Such provision of information is, according to the Ombudsman, undoubtedly useful, but should be accessible in places where people can leaf through the brochure’s contents.

The Ombudsman insists that an asylum seeker should be granted the possibility to apply for international protection and obtain it in line with the provisions of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, i.e. the Geneva Convention.

“The negligible number of intentions to apply for asylum actually recorded at Črnomelj police station reflects the seriousness of the allegation that some police procedures could be irregular, including collective expulsions which are prohibited in compliance with the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms,” explained Nataša Kuzmič from the Ombudsman’s office.

In its report from April 2019, the civil society initiative InfoKolpa found that “the practice of violating the legislation by denying the right to asylum” became systematic last June. It states that this practice spread from Črnomelj station to other police stations in the southern border region, such as Metlika, Ilirska Bistrica, and Dragonja.

A sudden slump in asylum seekers

Last June, soon after the above-mentioned instructions were issued, the volume of people stating their intention to apply for asylum at the Črnomelj police station decreased by 95% in only one month – from 98% to 3%.

We asked Slovenian police for updated data on asylum seekers from January 2018 to July 2019 (by individual border police stations), but received none. They explained that gathering the data would constitute a “disproportionate burden” on them.

The statistical report on illegal migration, however, confirms that “the number of foreigners handed over rose considerably due to a strengthened collaboration with Croatian security authorities. The increase was noticed especially in the second half of 2018.”

This year, numbers have hit an all-time high. The number of people whom Slovenian police returned to the authorities of other countries rose by as much as 406% in 2018 compared with 2017. There was also a spike in the number of people returned to the Croatian border – a staggering 507%.

The available official data from the police, nevertheless, shows that the number of filed asylum applications in the first half of 2019 was similar to the same period last year, but that the number of unauthorised crossings of the national border increased by as much as 47%.

The number of refugees and migrants who the Slovenian authorities returned to neighbouring countries under the guise of various bilateral agreements rose even more – by 200%. In the same period last year (from January to June), the authorities deported 1,117 people, whereas this year the number was as much as 3,534 people. By far the most (98%) were returned to the Croatian border.

Urša Regvar from the Legal Information Centre for NGOs (Centre PIC) stated that some asylum seekers still attest to being refused access to asylum procedures, “which confirms our observations and shows that individuals at the border are still being denied access to protection.”

The police claim otherwise: “We have already provided answers to such generalisations and unfounded accusations in the past, as well as explained that we verified each and every one of the concrete cases presented to us. Until now, these allegations were confirmed in none of them.”

For some time, journalists, activists and NGOs have warned that the police procedures at the border are untransparent, carried out systematically and en masse. Last year, these suspicions reached the Slovenian Ombudsman and Information Commissioner. Suspicions of illegal police procedures and possible violations of human rights are being investigated by the Specialised State Prosecutor’s Office. The investigation is ongoing.

A crucial document was appended to the report which states that, last May, the Slovenian police command gave orders to all police stations about how to treat migrants and asylum seekers at the border. Until recently, the document was confidential. “The public, however, is not familiar with the entire content of these instructions, because the police is contesting the disclosure in court, despite the decision of the Information Commissioner that it involves public information,” InfoKolpa added. The procedure is pending.

The systematic and collective expulsion of asylum seekers continued this year. We gathered testimonies that prove this.

Entering the bureaucratic triangle

Not far away from Plitvice National Park, one of the most important Croatian tourist sites, lies the town of Korenica. It looks slightly forlorn, its buildings rather dilapidated.

Although it is just a stone’s throw away from a national treasure, it is off the beaten tourist track. According to Croatian NGOs, the Korenica police station compound has become a “bureaucratic triangle” or “temporary accommodation centre” for a different type of visitors.

Migrants who are captured during unauthorised border crossings are first taken to this faraway police station and then onward to the green border from where they are expelled to Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“It’s true that they bring migrants here,” confirmed a resident of Korenica. As to why, how and how many, she did not know.

However, the report on illegal push-backs and border violence published in April of this year by the NGOs that collaborate in the Border Violence Monitoring initiative contains more testimonies about this particular police station or, to be precise, a garage next to it. According to the news published by the H-alter.org portal, people are detained and mistreated there, and then returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Croatian police categorically deny that they are carrying out push-backs. However, the testimonies of refugees, a series of photographs and videos prove the opposite. Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović herself recently asserted that “a touch of force” is necessary. The irregularities in police treatment are reflected also in official statistics, or rather in their incongruities. The civil initiative Dobrodošli (Welcome) and two NGOs, the Center za mirovne študije (The Center for Peace Studies, CMS) and Are You Syrious, discovered inconsistencies in official data.

In 2018, 8,207 people crossed the Croatian border without permission, 71% more than in the previous year. The rise in unauthorised border crossings was most obvious close to the border with Slovenia and amounted to as much as a 158% increase. In the vicinity of the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian police noted an 88% increase in unauthorised crossings, whereas such crossings in the rest of the country increased by 55%. Of those 8,207, 1,438 were returned to third countries, 1,068 applied for asylum and 536 were detained.

This means that there is only data on a total of 3,042 people who Croatian police detained who attempted to cross the border clandestinely. “Where are the remaining 5,165 people and how did police treat them?” asks Julija Kranjec of CMS. In its report, CMS assumes that these people were illegally refused entry in Croatia. It speculates that the police do not register all of the people they capture.

According to CMS, there are no official statistics on expulsions of refugees from Croatia. In light of data collected by international organisations, they conclude, however, that Croatian police have illegally pushed at least 10,000 people back to neighbouring countries. “I constantly repeat the question: where are these people?” says Maja Kević from the Croatian Ombudsman’s office that receives complaints about illegal returns of migrants to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The majority of complaints in the last annual report of the Ombudsman refer to police procedures against migrants who were apprehended while attempting to cross the border or immediately after.

The Ombudsman’s office also discovered unpublicised internal rules which allow the Croatian police to carry out the push-backs.

According to the statements of XY, one of these rules is supposedly based on an oral order from the end of 2016 and the other on a written document from 15 February 2018. According to instructions from the then Director General of Police Marko Srdarević, police officers must send undocumented migrants found deep inside Croatian territory to a police station near to where they crossed the border and not to the station closest to where they were found – as stipulated in the regulations.

In addition, according to Kević, the Ombudsman’s investigations revealed the existence of a form that is presented to migrants “which, among other things, says that they agree to be returned, do not need a translator, can communicate also with the help of Google Translate and the like.” This is flies in the face of Croatian law. Refugees should be given the option to apply for asylum if they wish to do so. They should be treated individually in order to find out why the entered the country, says Kević.

The form they receive is actually a decision on their departure which demands that they leave the country within seven days. In order to cross the border, they would need to possess valid identity documents which the majority of migrants neither have nor can obtain. “Therefore we think, and also state it in [our] report, that they take them to these outlying police stations in order to get them over the green border,” continued Kević. She thinks that this actually constitutes a violation of human rights, which, considering the large numbers of returns, are being committed en masse.

The Croatian Ministry of the Interior – as is the case with its Slovenian counterpart – consistently denies that border police are engaged in such illegal conduct, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. This May, a Swiss television channel published footage of a policeman pushing migrants over the green border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. When questioned about it, Croatian Interior Minister Davor Božinović said: “This is another futile attempt at throwing accusations against the Croatian police that abides by national and European laws.”

Bosnian camps

The migrants and refugees caught by the Slovenian or Croatian police upon crossing the border end their journey in Bosnia and Herzegovina for an indefinite period of time. Bira, a former factory which produced air conditioners in the northwestern town of Bihać, is one of the largest migrant centres in the country. Every migrant that lives there has attempted to cross the border with Croatia at least once, and then to continue their journey towards Slovenia. Some of them were returned; others succeeded in their attempt, or ended up in Serbia.

According to data from Bihać’s communication office, around 11,000 migrants arrived in Bihać between last April and this June, whereas the Ministry of the Interior of Una-Sana Canton counted 17,000 of them. These were only how many they actually registered. No one can explain this discrepancy since both authorities say they are registering them correctly.

Various displaced people converge on the streets of Bihać: from Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and other Middle Eastern and African countries. Many of them sleep outdoors. Some of them find shelter in abandoned buildings, of which there are plenty in Bosnia. For a long time, no one took care of the migrants without a place to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In July of last year, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) took over the care of refugees and migrants in all of the reception centres across the country. These centres, however, are often full, meaning that many migrants are left on the streets without a roof over their head.

Outside the entrance to the Bira centre there are reception facilities where, during our visit this spring, around 500 people were milling around. When we talked to them, they asked us for help and told us that no one in the Bira centre wants to help them. They claimed that they were not given food or water. Melisa Kljuca, the IOM representative who manages the Bira centre, assured us that everyone is getting regular meals but that the centre is overcrowded.

We also witnessed how security officers from Bakrač, the private security company that protects the Bira centre, used electric stun devices to force the migrants away from the entrance to the reception centre. The use of such devices is prohibited by Bosnian law. We contacted a representative of the Bakrač security company but they were not willing to explain why they use them. Melisa Kljuca of IOM told us, however, that the individual security guards had already been suspended and relocated due to the use of these batons.

That night many migrants were left outside, sleeping in a meadow close to the Bira centre. Not far from Bihać, Bosnian authorities set up tents in a field previously used as a landfill site. The police now send the migrants that they find on the city streets to this improvised camp, called Vučjak. Living there is worse than being in prison, they say.

The Balkan bottleneck 

Migrants usually enter Bosnia and Herzegovina from its eastern border, where there are no reception centres for them. Then they head to the country’s interior, towards Tuzla. As we witnessed on the ground, the brunt of the migrant crisis is borne by a handful of volunteers. They act on their own initiative and are occasionally aided by humanitarian organisations and a few of Tuzla’s residents. Among the most active is local Senad Pirić. He says that they cope as best they can and that they are already exhausted. Their supplies of food, sanitary material and other basic necessities of life are almost gone, but there are more and more migrants pouring in every month.

Displaced people enter the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina or Republika Srpska from the neighbouring Serbia over the Drina River. The government of Republika Srpska, one of the two political entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, insists that it will not help migrants but that it can provide a humanitarian corridor. Hence, police direct everyone who enters the Republika Srpska to the other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Tuzla.

During the late evening hours, several migrants arrive in Tuzla on foot, usually in groups of up to 30 people. They are soaked, hungry and afraid. They gather in front of the assembly centre, in the park or at the main bus station. From there, they continue their journey to Sarajevo. “There is no location in Tuzla that is suitable for living. Public toilets do not operate in the evening. There is also no provision of health services or any help from the responsible authorities,” explained Pirić.

The authorities are intentionally indifferent to this problem, says Pirić, the tireless volunteer, who offers help to refugees and migrants day and night. He says that Bosnia and Herzegovina has no systemic solutions to deal with the migrant crisis. “They are not allowed to enter the EU and here, where they are stranded, they are also not provided with anything,” reflected Pirić, sadly. “They are stuck and can go neither backwards nor forwards.”

“By being unresponsive, the country blatantly infringes on the basic human rights of refugees and migrants, while the EU encourages non-member states to use repressive methods,” finds Nidžara Ahmetašević, a Bosnian activist and journalist who has been following the migrant crisis since 2015.

Denial and indifference

Following three months of intensive fieldwork and data processing, we conclude that the practice of push-backs – denial of entry to refugees and migrants at the border without the possibility of applying for asylum – on the Balkan route continues unhindered in 2019, despite the warnings of national Ombudsmen, NGOs, journalists and other activists in this field.

The clearest proof of this is the testimonies of numerous refugees and migrants to whom we spoke in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly in Velika Kladuša and Bihać – and our verification of the facts on the ground, as well as our combing through and analysis of the available data. The testimonies are of key importance because they provide evidence of the systematic treatment of migrants that contravenes the international conventions on human rights and refugees.

It is impossible to know with any accuracy how many refugees and migrants Slovenian police pushed straight back to Croatia after they crossed the border illegally, because many of them are not included in the Slovenian statistics and often not in the Croatian ones either. In Croatia, the local police – also confirmed in the collected testimonies – employ brutal and cruel measures to return refugees to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where inhumane conditions prevail in the IOM accommodation centres. Many must fend for themselves.

Read the personal testimonies of migrants

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The adventures of Rami and his magic violin

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Syrian Rami Basisah and his violin have been through hell and high water together. His childhood dream of becoming a world-famous musician is about to come true. But the trauma of losing is country means he cannot enjoy his success.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

Tuesday 12 September 2017

A strong, refreshing breeze was caressing the mountains high above a prestigious Swiss holiday resort. At the height of summer, the soft and fragrant grasses could barely be greener. From the nearby glacier, flashes of white brilliance were glistening in the afternoon sun. A small cluster of mountain bikers were hurtling down a steep trail towards the valley below, while a number of hikers topped to marvel at their courage. Herds of cows were munching on the grass or staring off into space. But instead of the Swiss horns and accordion you might expect as mood music for this quintessential scene, the exuberant sound of a violin playing Arabic rhythms and the laughter of a boy who had survived echoed in the Alpine valley.

Rami Basisah, 22, a Syrian refugee from the countryside between Homs and Hama, was playing to chase away his demons. Applying the bow with a series of flourishes, he was doing what he could to fight off his strong emotions.

His violin is his best friend and trusted companion. It is both the core of his identity and his ticket to freedom, his passport to safety and perhaps even a modicum of prosperity. In his mind, the idyllic Swiss mountains all around us formed the perfect counter-point to the Syrian carnage. Yet a single glance would tell you Rami was present only in the most basic physical sense. This was clear from his every move and every word, spoken or unspoken. It was also embedded in every note of the music issuing from beneath his fingertips.

The sound of music

“I used to dream about this when I was a kid. Every day I used to dream of playing the violin before European audiences as the people clapped and cheered,” Rami told me as he put the instrument away. His violin was always with him. He never let it out of his sight. He knew very well what it had helped him overcome.

But the tragedy-ridden path to fulfilling Rami’s childhood dream has made it hard to enjoy the achievement. “I can’t really say I’m happy,” he confessed. “I’m confused. I’m not sure what is happening to me, or even where I am. I mean, yeah, things are great and I’m very grateful… But my thoughts are somewhere else. Above all, I really want to help my brother, who’s spent the past three years as a refugee in Lebanon. And I want my parents and my three sisters, who remained in Syria, to be safe.”

The dark-haired youth’s stare was a compelling one, powered by a mixture of hard questions and a resolution not often seen in one so young.

“The events are starting to overtake me,” he confided. “This is becoming so huge. Everybody wants something from me, and I’m not yet fully prepared. I don’t even know if I’m good enough, you see. What I want is a little peace and quiet, a true friend and some love. Yes, that’s right, all I want is a normal life… But everything around me has been the opposite of normal for such a long time. I can sometimes no longer tell what’s real and what’s not.”

Following a string of happy coincidences, Rami had been invited to the Swiss Alps as a special guest of the prestigious classical music festival in Klosters. Up here, the traumatised and very lonely Syrian musician was awarded the opportunity to play in front of one of the world’s most demanding audiences. The onlookers may have been knowledgeable and refined, verging on the blasé, but Rami still managed to take their breath away… and not just with his indisputable musical talent.

The border concerto

Rami performs ‘Ode to Joy’ Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

August 2015: darkness was slowly descending over the savannah-like border between Greece and Macedonia. Startled flocks of doves were sweeping over the wizened sunflower fields. A local hunter, dressed in an army shirt, was leading his three dogs through the brush. Tired yet relaxed-looking clusters of Syrian and Afghan refugees were lounging under the trees and near the deserted border guard facilities.

This was the heyday of the so-called Balkan refugee route, and the men and women were waiting for permission to move on. All the time, fresh groups of refugees and migrants kept rolling in from the Greek side of the border. At the nearby reception centre, Rami, who was 20 at the time, took out his violin from his travelling bag. Giving it a long, affectionate stroke, he went on to tune the strings. The bashful and introverted young man then stepped in front of a mass of his fellow refugees waiting to catch the next train to the Serbian border.

His friends were encouraging him to abandon himself to the moment and just start playing. But it still took Rami, a former student of music at Homs university, a while to work up his courage. The Macedonian police watched on in bewilderment, trading glances and wondering if they should possibly confiscate the instrument. Then one of them motioned to Rami that he was free to proceed.

The young man began playing, slowly at first, even somewhat timidly. A hush descended over the crowd of refugees, their lively chatter turning to primal awe. The police officers’ faces broke into a grin when they recognised the melody. The refugees’ warm response had a visibly relaxing effect on the young musician. He started playing with redoubled vigour, drawing in even the most apathetic ears. Rami was getting more and more in the zone. His stifling thoughts finally dispelled, he was guided by pure love. Yet he was far from being in a trance. He was all too aware of what was going on.

As he smiled, his face was suffused with a hard-boiled irony. The reception centre was ringing with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which the EU had adopted as its anthem. Was this indeed irony? Or more of an inspired prank? A spurt of brilliant political analysis? Improvised psychotherapy? Whatever it was, the police themselves were soon keeping time with their boots.

When he was finished, the audience clapped and urged Rami to play on. He paused for a few seconds. Then his violin gave birth to the profoundly mournful, yet also movingly proud tones of a Syrian patriotic song.

His friends – all of them from the vicinity of Homs, all of them educated and urban – began to sing along. Many of the others were happy to join in, men and women who had nearly forgotten dignity could occasionally be found in the world as well. Some of them were soon weeping openly. The women hugged their children a little tighter to themselves. For a few precious minutes, the ice of pain was melted by the fire of hope. Rami played on… And on. The new refugees kept rolling in. It was getting close to total darkness.

The astonishing concerto ended with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, both an obvious and spirited choice. There was plenty of applause. Rami gave a bashful bow. As soon as he put away his violin, his motions became stiff, and the contours of his face slid back into their default traumatised expression. His trance broken, anxiety was king once again.

“Forgive me,” he smiled, still catching his breath from his exertions. “I’ve made a number of mistakes. I was so very nervous.” Just before he was swallowed up by the crowd, we exchanged contact details and promised we would stay in touch.

A crescendo of memories

The superb acoustics at the St Jakob church in Klosters had helped it become one of the music festival’s main venues. Outside, the Swiss organisers were mingling with the guests. The heavy heat was something of a drag on the mood, along with the overdressed atmosphere and the often bizarrely refined manners.

Rami, a lad from a different world altogether, stepped out of the car. He was besieged by doubt and fear. Confused and still rather innocent of the European music scene, he was about to perform in front of David Whelton – the festival’s acoustics director, the long-time head of the British Philharmonia Orchestra and one of the most influential people in the world of classical music.

As we caught each other’s eye, it was as if the ground beneath both our feet gave a momentary shudder.

So here we were. Rami’s concert at the Macedonian-Greek border and the feature article I’d written about it had helped to turn his life upside down… And now, two years on in Switzerland, it seemed like a miracle.

“Wow! Hey! Oh my God, this can’t be happening.”

His words sounded about as shaky as he looked. Our embrace lasted a long time, our limbs heavy and joyously light at the same time.

“I didn’t think we’d ever get to see each other again. Everything is coming back to me now, everything… Well, how could I forget it? The war, the journey, the Macedonian performance, our meeting, and then the horrible journey to Germany,” Rami reminisced. 

Prior to our brief encounter at the Greek-Macedonian border, Rami had already spent 40 days in flight. Before that, he had been a refugee in his own homeland for two years. He now told me he wanted to continue with his studies at whichever European music academy would have him. Overall, he did not feel like talking too much about himself or the war.

“I need to do everything I can to help my brother. He fled Homs two years ago and went to Lebanon. As he left, he promised he’d help me reach safety. He worked so hard over there in Lebanon. When he got enough money to fund my trip to Europe, he sent it to me right away,” Rami explained. “Now he’s lost his job. And so it is my duty to help him out somehow. I owe him my life.”

Instead of focusing on the moment and the incredibly important rehearsal ahead, Rami was swept under a barrage of memories. He was grasping for concentration, but the thoughts were simply coming on too strong. For a few minutes at least, the music became what it actually is: an ancillary, secondary thing. But then David Whelton determined that, at least for the moment, Rami’s heart would migrate to where the music was.

A brother’s sacrifice

Rami left his homeland on 30 July 2015. From the regime-controlled Al Bayadiya village, located between Homs and Hama, he took a taxi to Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast. Along with a number of fellow refugees, none of whom he had met before, he then took a bus to Beirut.

They first had to wait 15 hours to cross the Syria-Lebanon border. Rami had arranged a meeting with his older brother Faheed, a fellow musician who had fled to Lebanon a year before. At a time when the Balkan refugee route was still open and Germany was boasting an open-door refugee policy, Faheed summoned his younger brother to Lebanon and told him he would pay for his long trip to Europe.

In Beirut, Rami collected his plane ticket to Turkey. It was very difficult for him to say goodbye to his brother again, Faheed being something of a central figure in Rami’s life. Their farewell was extra hard on Rami since he knew his brother also wanted to reach Europe but was willing to sacrifice himself for his younger sibling on account of his exceptional musical talent.

And so Rami was sent on as a sort of vanguard force, one charged with the exceedingly important task of ‘making it’… Not only for his own sake, but for the sake of the entire family – father, mother and three sisters – staying behind in Syria.

Farewells and hard roads

“At the airport, I played a farewell song,” Rami Basisah recalled, as we strolled through the idyllic Swiss mountain village, which had been transformed into a temporary backdrop to the mad bruising toboggan his life had long become. “It was tough on both of us. I so wished he was on that plane with me. My brother saved my life.”

Rami flew to Izmir on the Mediterranean coast, where he was supposed to meet the people who would ‘manage’ his entry to Europe. But things didn’t work out as planned. So he first had to reach Istanbul to make the necessary arrangements. At the time, as many as 10,000 refugees were sailing to the Greek Aegean islands daily. The smuggling business was booming. The Turkish authorities were content to look the other way and leave the incomers at the complete mercy of the smuggling industry.

While Rami waited for the fateful call, he met a few of the local musicians in Istanbul, along with a number of very talented refugees. Together, they played a series of spontaneous concerts at Taksim square, in the heart of Istanbul, and were met with unexpected warmth from the passers-by.

When the call came, Rami and a group of 39 fellow refugees travelled back to Izmir, destined to become their jump-off point for Kos, Lesbos and other Eastern Aegean islands.

It took them no less than five attempts to reach Greece. On the first one, the water flooded their crowded rubber dinghy, causing it to start sinking a few hundred meters off the Turkish coast. Compulsively holding on to his violin, Rami managed to swim back to the shore. But the saltwater had done extensive damage to the sensitive instrument, especially to the strings.

The second time they tried to set out, the Turkish police chased them off the beach moments before they were to embark. And so Rami and his fellow refugees decided they would try their luck from Bodrum, Turkey’s second great launch point for the refugees’ heading for Greece.

The third attempt saw them trying to row off by themselves, but the coast guard again sent them back. They opted to regroup into a few smaller groups of eight. On the fourth try, three smaller boats cast off together. The one Rami was on was powered by an electrical battery. “We were going very slow,” he recalls. “Our boat was commanded by a man from Pakistan. When we reached the open sea, water started leaking in. The Pakistani wanted to push on. In the distance we could already see the lights from Kos. We would need about an hour to get there. But the other refugees decided to force our ‘captain’ – a few actual blows were necessary – to turn the boat back to Turkey.”

They somehow managed to reach the shore, where, in Rami’s colourful phrase, they were ‘met by the mob’. The criminals roughed up the Pakistani pretty badly, while making the other refugees pick up their boat and set off on a night-time march.

Even though the men were armed, Rami and one of his mates refused to go with them. They knew that the boat’s battery was empty and that the smugglers would be sending the group to their deaths. So they stayed on the coast and watched the sea filling up with refugee boats. Suddenly the police appeared and snatched them up. The two of them spent the day at the Bodrum police station. “They were pretty nice to us Syrian refugees over there,” Rami continued his tale. “But they beat the others, especially the Africans and the Pakistanis.”

When he and his mate were released, they had to fend for themselves. They eventually hooked up with another group of smugglers, who placed them with yet another group of refugees.

On the fifth attempt, luck finally smiled down on the by now all but exhausted and bankrupt Rami. Since it was a Turkish national holiday, most of the policemen had stayed home, and the sea was rather calm for a change.

“I was completely fed up,” he remembered. “I was prepared to take some major risks if necessary. I was on the verge of really losing it. Anyway, we were going very slow again, and then sometime near the halfway mark the electric battery went again. This time we didn’t turn back. We had two big paddles on the boat. I took hold of one of them, the other one went to a strong young guy from Latakia. As it was getting light, we sent our coordinates to the Greek coast guard. They came to pick us up. On their boat, I saw four dead refugees from my previous group.”

From there, it could have been a swift journey from Kos to the Ode to Joy concerto at the Macedonian-Greek border… But Rami decided to hang back in Athens for a while to wait for a friend, visit some relatives and get new strings for his violin. It was a decision destined to mark his life in completely unexpected and very profound ways.

Answered prayers

At the great concert hall in Klosters, the Swedish philharmonic orchestra from Malmö was playing Beethoven, whom, along with Vivaldi, is Rami’s favourite composer. It was raining heavily outside. At times, the downpour turned so heavy the sound of raindrops pounding the roof worked its way into the intensity of the music.

“This man – what music! What madness! Oh, the violent mood swings…. This is exactly how I feel. That’s why I feel so close to Beethoven,” Rami whispered to me during the concert.

Photo: ©Jure Eržen/DELO

He still looked pretty lost in the Swiss setting. Even the well-wishers who came over to pay their respects succeeded in making him uncomfortable. This was simply not his world. After a few more minutes of listening to the music, his attention was shot and wandered off to who knew where. He suddenly became very tired. He nodded off, but his entire body gave a violent shudder that brought him to again. His first instinct was to cover the whole thing up, to pretend nothing had happened, that he had been listening all along… But to no avail.

Tears flowed from his eyes. “I would like to play on such a stage one day too, so I can help my family,” he whispered, avoiding the curiously appraising looks from the members of a high society still governed by strictly demarcated etiquette, much like in the times of the great European monarchies.

That same day, Rami spiced up the rather staid atmosphere at the festival sponsors’ lunch with a string of Arab melodies. A few hours later, he performed at a mountain lodge in front of NGO members of from all around the world. Rami’s musical performance was so brutally honest even this normally so garrulous and cocky crowd was left speechless.

One of the festival’s main sponsors, who wishes to remain anonymous, was grinning from ear to ear. Inviting Rami, despite his being somewhat lost in time and space, had proven a great success. Near the end of May, his CD Rami: My Journey (by Decca), recorded in collaboration with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, was presented on the legendary British Classic FM radio. Among the many listeners who had voted it Album of the Week was a retired businessman who went on to invite Rami to Switzerland. He decided the young Syrian violinist deserved all the help he could get.

Musical doors

That August, in 2015, when Rami crossed the Greek-Macedonian border, where my Jure Eržen took his iconic photo which would later be chosen by Classic FM radio as one of the 10 most iconic photographs of wartime music, the Balkan refugee route to Germany was still open… though it was increasingly strewn with obstacles and humiliations.

Rami ventured forth to Serbia and then on to Hungary, Austria and Germany. He was accompanied by two friends named Mohammed and Mudhar, both of whom he had met in Turkey. Amid the chaos reigning at the various borders they stuck together and helped each other out. In the Serbian town of Preševo the police broke them up. His two friends were allowed to continue, while Rami was taken into custody. After a six-hour wait at the station, one of the policemen asked him what was in his bag.

“It’s a violin,” Rami replied.

“Is it yours?” the policeman wanted to know. “Can you play?”

“Yes.”

“Well then, why don’t you play something for us?”

Rami knew exactly what to do. Relying on his tried-and-tested formula, he once again played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, this time in the south of Serbia. The policeman was so thrilled he called his wife on his mobile so she could partake in the ‘solo concert’. In a matter of minutes, Rami was issued with the papers enabling him to push on.

At Belgrade, where tens of thousands of refugees were waiting for the next stage of their journey to the promised lands, he bought a ticket for a train to Budapest… But this was a tactical mistake. At the time, the Hungarian government was finishing the building of the fence at the Serbian border and was turning its attention to the border with Croatia. Viktor Orban’s government was starting to implement a series of systematic anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies.

Rami and his two friends had to get off the train before they even reached the Hungarian border. They crossed the border via the classic route at the time, winding through the forests. “I was very afraid. I didn’t want to go on, but my friends convinced me otherwise. Mohammed was the one who carried my violin. We walked for a long time. Then we were arrested by the Hungarian police. The three of us got separated again. I was suddenly left without my violin and without my friends.”

Rami spent the next week at a small refugee camp. Even now, he didn’t feel much like dwelling on this period. He was almost devoured by various mites, he said, and his allergies were killing him. He was then relocated to a bigger camp, where he was finally able to sate his hunger, wash up and don a fresh set of clothes.

But all he cared about was resuming his journey. He escaped the camp during the changing of the guard and somehow found his way to Budapest. He reached the capital’s central railway station at a time when the authorities had halted the trains carrying refugees to Austria and then onward to Germany and northern Europe.

“Things were pretty crazy at the station… There were at least 20,000 of us. We were shouting that we wanted to go on to Germany. We talked to the press. A lot of good people came to see us, they brought food, drink, clothes and medicine,” Rami remembers.

Along with his fellow sufferers, our involuntarily intrepid violinist set off from Budapest to Austria. After a few hours’ walk, the Hungarian authorities backed down a little – at least enough to allow the refugees to use the buses. A number of perfect strangers from Austria and Germany drove over to pick them up and transport them north in their cars. Crowds of thousands were gathering at the German railway stations to greet the incomers. It was a time when it still seemed that European humaneness, however fragile and hard-won, might prevail. But this proved to be just one more in a series of tremendous illusions.

Like so many of his fellows, Rami was quick to grasp that Germany was not nearly ready to receive almost a million Syrian refugees: not politically, not logistically, not bureaucratically.

For several months, he was moved from one overcrowded camp to the next. At a camp near Aachen, a woman handed him a small violin and asked him to play something for her. Since he was happy to oblige, the woman made a recording of his performance and played it to the conductor of the local orchestra.

The man invited Rami to take part in two different concerts, while his story began to spread across Europe with the help of various newspaper and magazine articles. Soon a number of agents were calling to offer their services, while the maestro from Aachen offered him a permanent place in the band as well as accommodation. But Rami had to wait for his asylum request to be granted, and so his first serious chance at a better life eventually fell through.

The washing machines ft. Bach

An order was issued for his relocation to yet another camp, situated inside a basketball arena near the city of Lahr. “The place was crammed with people. We were sleeping virtually on top of each other. I was only able to play my violin outside or in the laundry room, where I had to compete with the rumble of the washing machines. So I mostly played Bach,” the young Syrian violinist recalls with a mischievous glint in his eye.

As rumours of his musical acumen spread, an old lady from one of the local churches came to visit at the camp. As a Christian himself, Rami had no problem complying with her request to come play at the church. The people in charge of it were also among those quick to recognise his indisputable talent, so they invited him to join their ranks. But Rami was still ‘in the waiting room’.

In March 2016, the German authorities finally granted him asylum. Teresia and Winfred Oelbe, an elderly couple from the village of Niederschopfheim, offered him a place to stay – a room and a bathroom, free of charge. The brunt of the young man’s ordeal had finally drawn to a close. A few weeks later he signed a deal with Decca, the British publishing house, whose executives learned both of his lengthy plight and his technical accomplishment. It wasn’t long before his CD was released, consisting of his own compositions and a few adaptations.

Collateral damage

When all his social and concert-related responsibilities at the mountain resort were dispensed with, the visibly exhausted young musician retired to his hotel room as soon as possible. He needed a bit of peace and quiet to reflect. These last few years of turmoil hadn’t exactly provided a lot of opportunity for that. Events, he told me, were again starting to overtake him. More than anything he needed someone he could confide in: a good listener, someone he could trust, someone who would neither expect nor demand anything of him, at least for the time being.

“I am very grateful to all these kind people. I know I’ve been very very fortunate. But more than anything I’m interested in how to best help my brother, without whom I would never have got this far. He sacrificed everything for me! You know, I’ve felt so alone much of my time here in Germany. I miss my family, my friends – I really miss my old life. I’m learning to speak both German and English over the internet while trying to get in touch with my acquaintances, who are scattered all over Germany. Let me tell you, it’s not easy,” he told me while absently fondling his violin in his hotel room.

He was quick to add he was keen to avoid being seen as a victim. Unlike hundreds of thousands of refugees and those who never even got the chance to get out of Syria, he was very lucky – and he was all too aware of the fact. “My friend Mudhar, for instance – he wasn’t half as lucky as I was. When he got to Germany, he started having these headaches. They kept getting worse and worse. And so they finally took him to a doctor, who eventually found a tumour in his brain. His condition rapidly deteriorated, and he soon died. I miss him very much.”

Rami buried his face into his hands, sinking down into his thoughts. His body was twitching uncontrollably. His head was between his knees in a sort of foetal spasm. He looked for all the world like a heavily wounded child. All of a sudden, he was unable to answer a single question, not even with a syllable.

The next day he told me he was sleeping poorly, very poorly indeed. His post-traumatic stress disorder felt all-pervasive, but nobody seemed to be addressing the issue. Instead, everyone was focusing on how hot Rami had suddenly become, how popular. His anxiety, even depression behind closed four walls was merely the collateral damage of success. Yet I am happy to report that a safety net has nonetheless started to form around him – an informal network of people not interested in him as a product but rather as a human being. People who had felt enough pain in their lives that they can understand and accept it when they see it in someone else.

So what was there to do? A long road still ahead of him, Rami picked up his beloved instrument to help him confront his stark realities.

Play on, Rami,” I whispered as we embraced in another temporary farewell. “Play on.”

And play on he has and he will, spectacularly. On Tuesday 19 September 2017, Rami is set to perform at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall, and I will be there to watch him bring down the house.

 

 

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Eutopian nightmares

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

By raising the drawbridge in the face of desperate refugees and succumbing to bigotry and hatred, the EU’s utopian ideals are being abandoned for a dystopian reality.

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Wednesday 1 June 2016

When Slovenia’s army began to erect a barbed-wire fence on its border with Croatia in November 2015, almost a decade had passed since that historic day when the former Yugoslav republic was admitted into the European Union. During this period, we had become accustomed to the wonderful fact that there were no borders within the EU – at least not of the visible kind. Despite the savage quickening of the economic, financial, social and political crisis, free travel all over Europe had become a matter of great simplicity. It was something one could count on, something that almost went without saying.

And so we only started to debate this entire business of borders, fences, barbed wire and “the strengthening of Europe’s external borders” when these outer frontiers were already in great peril. But contrary to popular belief, that peril didn’t really come from the refugees and economic migrants who started pouring in on a large scale in 2014 and 2015.

In fact, the refugees and the migrants were the ones who, by breaking through the physical frontiers, were making clear that Europe’s borders had never been truly eliminated. Quite the contrary. The more the old continent had been opening up internally, the more it had been beefing up its outer ramparts. And so, slowly but inexorably, a thing some of us like to call Fortress Europe had been born – this enormous yet infinitely fragile and self-obsessed ivory tower… And the more fragile and self-obsessed it became, the more removed from its lofty freedom-loving ideals its immediate future had become. And in 2015, that immediate future had finally merged with the present.

The discourse – both in private and in public – was soon radicalised beyond repair. The cankerous genie of the far-right had broken out of its bottle, and its twisted worldview soon became the norm. The differences between Europe’s high castles and “the streets” were soon dissolved. Instead of the alarm that should be ringing out in every house and every soul still clinging to a shred of human decency, all one could hear was a thunderous silence. The core of the entire continent has been radicalised with a ferocity quite unprecedented in modern times.

The people of Europe took to acting as if it was quite natural that the incoming refugees should have no names, faces, fates, stories and future. Even worse: we started treating people on the run from war zones as if they were so much nuclear waste; as if we had all been stripped of any semblance of historical memory; as if the entire continent had been living a giant all-pervasive lie, which had clouded our judgment and had left us quite satisfied with this vague and infinitely flimsy idea… An idea that – a quarter of a century after the collapse of the iron curtain – had been thoroughly humiliated by the construction of the two walls on the Hungarian-Serbian and the Slovenian-Croatian borders.

As hard as it is to state this out loud, the flood of refugees and terrorism Europe has witnessed in recent years is partly a consequence of its failed foreign, immigration and integration policies. Its neglect of its neighbours in the Middle East and Central Asia, and its neglected immigrant neighbourhoods at home, not to mention the active role a number of European countries have played in fuelling conflict, war and despotism in the Middle East, have blown back in the form of large-scale radicalisation.

For the European Union, the crises it is experiencing today are the consequence of decades of living in a bubble, of distancing itself from reality – both within Europe and in its neighbouring regions – while immersing itself ever further into the heartless algorithms of an ever-burgeoning bureaucracy. What happened was the consequence of decades of catastrophic delusions and of failed immigration policies and processes; of our being unable to grasp the realities, let alone confront them or respond to them in a constructive and proactive manner which could result in (at least) our moral distancing from the wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. Instead we fuelled them, through our indifference, ignorance, arms exports, ill-conceived military interventions, our favouring of trade over human rights and dignity, our support of dictators and violent, authoritarian regimes.

It is little wonder Europe was so quick to adopt the language of war: Europe, after all, had proven quite adept at starting wars while being absolutely awful at putting a stop to them. Given its historical legacy, it is hardly surprising the continent was so quick to renounce its ideals and keel over before the challenges of the present moment.

The post-terror developments in Europe are also tragic in their predictability.

First, the shutting down of borders, both inwardly and outwardly. Then the “Americanisation” of our security and the systematic creation of fear. The rapidly escalating division between “us” and “them”. The spine-chilling rise of private security firms. The radicalisation of policies, fomenting grave polarisation within society, increasing our internal frictions and fostering the rise of the far-right and even neo-Nazis, the European equivalent of Daesh. The outbreak of populism, the vanishing of what remained of our common European identity, the strengthening of both benign and malignant strains of nationalism. The crumbling of the masks dictated by our mostly feigned political correctness and the streamlining of both racism and xenophobia. The triumph of reflexes over reflection. The dehumanisation of refugees, who have left their ransacked homes fleeing the exact same demonic violence Europe had first faced in Madrid, then in London, then Paris and now Brussels.

Above all, the dehumanisation of ourselves.

These developments are something to be feared at least as much as the next terrorist attacks, which are at this point inevitable. We should be at least as afraid of these developments as we should be afraid of the thunderous silence created by our lack of reflection and the by now chronic absence of critical reasoning… That awful, inexcusable silence of our ever so comfortable European minds, the silence that will ultimately enable the extremists to shriek at the highest possible frequencies. This is what the so-called Islamic State could understand as their victory.

As early as 2004, the Dutch migration researcher Paul Scheffer told me that Europe is treading a dark and dangerous path. He went on to explain he felt that its grave mistake was to ignore some fundamental parts of human nature, and all under the guise of multiculturalism and tolerance. Holland was, he said, the best example of that wishful thinking with (socio-economically) limited expiry date.  “We were passing each other by looking the other way so determinedly that we ended up colliding,” Scheffer opined at the time when Europe was facing its first major terrorist attack in Madrid and the Dutch film director Theo Van Gogh (the maker of Submission) was murdered in Amsterdam by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim Mohammed Bouyeri. The idea of the functioning multicultural society was for the very first time shaken to the bones. Even a dozen years ago, Scheffer was well aware of what was likely to happen to a continent steeped in a chronic lack of reflection in the times of growing open conflicts.

The tragedies were as awfully, inexcusably predictable as the future we are now facing – a future we have done virtually everything in our power to facilitate.

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War crimes v thought crimes

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

While war criminals walk free, Florence Hartmann landed in solitary confinement for her insider leaks on the politicisation of the Yugoslav tribunal.

Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Florence Hartmann – a journalist, author and human rights activist – was recently imprisoned by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), for whom she had worked as a spokesperson between 2000 and 2006. For six days, she was kept in solitary confinement in a cell where the light was on 24 hours a day while every 30 minutes she was checked up on by a prison guard because she was a supposed “suicide risk”.

Hartmann’s only crime had been to tell the truth. In her book Peace and Punishment (Paix et châtiment), published in 2007, she revealed that the Hague-based tribunal, heeding the wishes of Serbian authorities, intentionally neglected to take into account the documents linking the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević and the Belgrade establishment to the Srebrenica massacre. Charging Hartmann with contempt of court, the ICTY fined her to the tune of €7,000, which the court maintains she never paid, but Hartmann claims the opposite: “I paid the fine in France in order to  seek remedy through the French judge who would have been appointed to authorise the ICTY to transfer the money.  the €7,000 is still in the dedicated bank account and will be used to pay the translation and the fees for the upcoming legal actions.”

The court, nevertheless, changed Hartmann’s sentence to seven days imprisonment in 2011. She was arrested on Thursday, 24 March 2016, when she dropped in to witness the historical sentencing of Radovan Karadžić. Thus far, the tribunal has financially sanctioned four journalists while sentencing one to a month in prison.

Word criminal

Having met up with the Mothers of Srebrenica activist group, Hartmann arrived on the square in front of the tribunal’s headquarters to await the reading of the sentence of one of the most infamous war criminals in the Balkans. The time has come for the final act of a long-lasting judiciary procedure, which – among other things – conclusively demonstrated Karadžić’s responsibility for the Srebrenica genocide.

Suddenly, a number of police officers with UN insignia burst onto the scene. In a manner described as “rough” and “humiliating”, they seized Hartmann and transported her to the nearby Scheveningen prison. The arrest distracted the public eye from the sentencing of a war criminal.

“To me it came as a total shock. I absolutely did not expect it to happen. They simply stomped in and basically kidnapped me. And this in front of a crowd of Bosnian war victims, who had come to see justice being served,” a confounded Hartmann said. “For them, it was yet another in a long line of humiliations. I saw a woman being shoved to the ground… I myself was pushed and pulled around and lost my glasses,” she added, her voice more disappointed than angry.

In her years as the ICTY’s spokesperson she had encountered numerous cases of war criminals escaping justice, as the tribunal was barred from arresting them on foreign territory.

“There are many cases where the tribunal was well-informed of these people’s whereabouts,” Hartmann says. “The prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, managed to set up a tracking system. But we were unable to go in and arrest them, since the UN hadn’t been given the madate for such a course of action. Apparently, it didn’t matter that these people were responsible for some of the most heinous crimes against humanity in history. Yet now it is entirely unproblematic for the UN to arrest me in a foreign country? The ICTY has no mandate to do so, as it was my duty to explain to the press about a million times in my years as the tribunal’s spokesperson.”

Hartmann has repeatedly pointed out that the tribunal did not sanction her in her capacity as a former spokesperson but as a journalist. “They say I broke the code of silence, yet I wrote my book as a journalist, not as the spokesperson for the tribunal. To claim otherwise is sheer manipulation, though one that is now being repeated as a mantra by many members of the press.”

Solitary Confinement

Florence Hartmann, 53, is an intrepid and level-headed journalist who reported on some of the most savage attrocities of the Balkans conflict. As the Karadžić sentence was read out to the public, she was already in solitary confinement in the notorious prison which, over the years, housed numerous war criminals from the Yugoslav wars.

Her lawyer Guénaël Mettraux immediately sprang into action, but almost instantly hit a wall. As soon as the Karadžić sentence had been read out, the tribunal’s personnel departed for the Easter holidays. Mettraux placed call after call, yet no one was there to answer. At least not until the morning of 29 March, when the staff returned to their desks and Mettraux was finally able to put in an official request for her release.

During the time of her incarceration, the sole visitor permitted to Hartmann was the French consul who brought her newspapers. Yet in the end, even the consul – the ICTY requested Hartmann to be handed over five years ago, yet Paris refused – proved powerless to help.

What was it like waiting for assistance in her permanently lit-up solitary confinement cell? With a smile, Hartmann replies she felt much safer than while reporting from war zones. She was the only resident of her part of the prison, and she was never let out of her cell – unlike a number of convicted war criminals. “I was never let out in the open air for the one hour of activities to which other inmates are entitled. This was denied to me – a measure that was never justified to me or to my lawyer. I was watched over by guards around the clock, during the night only by men. They treated me well. They even offered me some reading materials. I told them I don’t much care for novels or love stories or anything of the sort,” Hartmann laughs in reminiscence. Her wish was to read Julian Borger’s The Butcher’s Trail, a book detailing the Karadžić hunt she had saved on her laptop.

“Never again”

Hartmann endured her prison sentence stoically. She now claims to feel perfectly fine.

Yet she also feels she has been through one of the weirdest experiences of her life, which is saying something. “Perhaps the most painful experience for me has been the eruption of mass violence in Europe at the end of the twentieth century. My generation had been brought up never to expect that sort of thing again. How many times have we heard the sentence ‘Never again’ being spoken,” she reflects. “Yet it is happening all over again. The Geneva convention is no longer in effect. In these past few months, some 30 hospitals have been bombed all over the globe. Merely the suspicion that a hospital may be harbouring suspects is enough for them to murder doctors and patients in the building. The Saudis, the Russians and the Americans are all doing it – and with absolute impunity. Also, torture has returned to the democratic countries,” the visibly exhausted author of many books explained in her Parisian apartment, adding that the 21-st century has also seen journalists imprisoned in the heart of the privileged European Union.

“ICTY failed to do its job”

Two days after Hartmann’s release, the ICTY judges reached the decision that Vojislav Šešelj, one of the key figures of the Great Serbia project and steadfast ideologue of its crimes against humanity, would get off scot-free.

Things could hardly get any more ironic. The distinguished arbiters were quite clearly communicating from a place where Franz Kafka had met Monty Python to write one of the most poignantly Orwellian stories of our time.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was set up in 1993. This was two years before Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were massacred. It was also six years before the end of the Balkan wars, two and a half years before the signing of the Dayton agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, by legitimising the Republika Srpska, also helped legitimise much of the ethnic cleansing.

Time went on. The historical record was slowly eroded, and the Balkan conflicts were soon forgotten. With the exception of Readovan Karadžić, the ICTY failed to pass sentence on any of the major culprits behind the wars. Hartmann has repeatedly pointed out that even the case against Slobodan Milošević, who died in detention, was built on very shaky ground, mostly due to political machinations and outside interests. The acquittal of the Chetnik duke Šešešlj is thus set to put the final nail in the coffin of the catharsis of the Serbian society. The Serbs had certainly failed in their attempts to complete the process of de-nazification, and the ICTY’s sluggishness and incompetence were a major contributing factor.

Slobodan Milošević wasn’t toppled for having started wars. He was toppled for having lost them. All of them.

Today, Hartmann can barely control her outrage. “At the end of the 20th century, we set up a system designed to bring punishment on those responsible for the genocide. But a few judges sabotaged the project. As far as the ICTY was concerned, Vojislav Šešelj was free to bay for war and remain unpunished,” she laments.

Hartmann’s arrest brought on a fierce response from European intellectuals, many of whom signed the petition for her release. According to the French journalist, the impunity bestowed on many of the key figures in the Balkan conflicts is utterly unacceptable. A system of swift supervision should be put in effect, she says, yet she is also afraid that by now this is no longer possible.

“We are living in a time and place undergoing a crescendo of barbarism. And the only response to barbarism we’ve managed to come up with is more barbarism,” Hartmann observes. “National and the international law should be synchronised to prevent future conflicts. To get justice, I intend to use every legal resource at my disposal. I’m proud to say I never faltered when they told me to stop and keep my mouth shut about their illegitimate secrets.”

 

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A Syrian ‘ode to joy’ on Europe’s border

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

A violinist’s inspired and impromptu choice of music at the Greek-Macedonian border tells us a lot about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Monday 7 September 2015

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Dusk was slowly settling over the savannah-like border between Macedonia and Greece. Flocks of doves were gliding over fields of parched and wilted sunflowers. In the distance, a local hunter was slowly negotiating the thicket-strewn terrain, accompanied by his three dogs. Under the trees and leaning against the deserted border posts still demarcating the obsolete Yugoslav state, visibly tired groups of Syrian and Afghan refugees were waiting for a sign.

What they were really waiting for was official permission to continue on the next phase of their doleful odyssey to the heart of Europe. This year, some 200,000 migrants and refugees had already reached their destination through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary – at the moment of our reporting, at least as many were on their way.

On the Greek side of the border, group after group of new arrivals were trudging their way towards the improvised collecting centre by the railway tracks. In a carefully coordinated effort, the Greek and Macedonian police were letting them through the bottleneck at the “wild border”, which, in the last week alone, has been crossed by more than 3,000 people.

At the collecting centre, which had been set up by the Macedonian authorities two weeks ago, Rami Basisah opened his knapsack and took out a violin. The 24-year-old musician went on to give it a few tender, almost enamoured strokes, after which he began to tune it. The seemingly shy and introverted youth – still more of a boy than a man, really – stepped in front of some 600 migrants and refugees waiting for the special train to the Serbian border, the next stage of their journey to what at least some of them still believed to be the promised land.

Rami, who had studied music in the Syrian town of Homs, needed a few moments to pluck up his courage to pluck away at his violin. His friends were encouraging him to take a deep breath and simply start playing. The Macedonian policemen – some of whom had been on duty for the past 30 hours – could only gape in a mixture of worry and confusion. A few of them exchanged silent glances, clearly wondering if they should confiscate the instrument. Theirs was an extremely stressful and demanding job, and most of them had not received proper training for it. Then one of them simply nodded to Rami to indicate it was okay for him to begin.

Rami shifted his stance a few times, taking in the atmosphere. It was becoming clear that he simply had to play. He started slow. The tune felt so gentle it was almost tremulous. The conversations among the refugees came to a halt; the children’s gibes instantly turned to primal awe. Even the policemen began to smile. They were obviously familiar with the melody, at least some of them must have heard it before.

The warm response enabled the young Syrian musician to relax and start giving it his all. Even the most dispassionate ears were beginning to respond to the tune. Rami was getting more and more in the zone. His oppressive thoughts were dispersed, and he was so clearly guided by pure love. He started to smile. His entire face became animated with tender irony.

The air at the collection centre was resonating with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Europe’s official anthem.

Irony? A good joke? A stroke of brilliant political analysis? Spur-of-the-moment psychotherapy?

Photo: © Jure Eržen/Delo

Photo: © Jure Eržen/Delo

The police were now tapping their boots in time with the rhythm. The migrants were clapping enthusiastically to cheer the lad on. After he was done with the Beethoven, Rami halted for a few seconds. Then hlade chose a profoundly rueful, yet ferociously proud traditional Syrian patriotic song. His friends – all of whom hailed from devastated Homs, all of whom were educated and urban young men and women – began to sing. Soon, more and more of the refugees joined in. Rugged old men who had seen and endured unspeakable things were starting to cry. The women hugged their children a little tighter. The icy pain in their chests was temporarily melted down by a fresh flame of hope.

Rami played on and on, oblivious to the his growing audience of refugees. Dusk was settling over the horizon. The stunning performance was concluded with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, an obvious yet still inspired choice. To the almost overwhelming sound of applause, Rami took a bashful bow and put away his instrument.

 “When will this end?”

“I apologise, I made so many mistakes. I was so nervous,” the young musician told me, still breathing hard from the exertion. “You know, this is my reserve violin – it is much much worse than the one that ended up in the sea,” he told me.

Rami left Syria some 40 days earlier. Before that, he had spent two years as a refugee in his own homeland. Two weeks ago, he and his friends had opted for the “classic” route from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. For them, the sea voyage had been the most stressful, dangerous and simply bloodcurdling part of the journey. The suitcase carrying Rami’s very first violin had been flushed into the Aegean Sea. “It still hurts,” he told me in a small voice, making a valiant effort to smile.

The distressed young man who wishes to continue his studies at any European university prepared to give him a chance refused to talk much about himself. As soon as he put down his reserve violin, his movements grew stiff and the contours of his face slipped back into their traumatised scowl. His trance had been broken, and now the anxiety was back with a vengeance. “My goal is to help my brother who fled Homs for Lebanon two years ago,” Rami informed me. “When he left, he promised he would help me get to safety as well. He worked so hard in Lebanon. As soon as he got enough money for my trip to Europe he sent it to me. Now he’s lost his job, and my duty is to help him. I owe him my life.”

____

A full moon was rapidly rising over the horizon, growing brighter by the minute. During the short trip from the border to the collection centre, the refugees and the police all-terrain vehicles were stirring up dust and frightening off the local birds, which had already settled down for the night. The quiet of anxious expectation was occasionally broken by the barking of dogs. The refugees were resting on cardboard mats under a number of dusty tarps. The local humanitarian workers, all of them volunteers, issued them with food, water and used clothes. They were assisted by the visibly exhausted Macedonian soldiers and policemen, whose sole questions for the journalists was: “When will this end?”

This” was the unpunctuated caravan of human tragedy, sent off on its long march to freedom by the aftershocks of history and that most innate thing of all, the survival instinct.

 The Balkan bottleneck

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Photo: © Jure Eržen

From nearby Gevgelija, a special train pulled in to take the next shipment of exhausted and traumatised souls to Tabanovci, a town on the Serbian-Macedonian border. For the past 10 days, the collection centre had also been serving as a railway station for the refugees. This was the fourth such train today, each of them accommodating between 600 and 700 people. The remainder of the refugees reached the Serbian border with the help of special buses and taxi cabs. For the past few weeks, the local “transportation” business has been flourishing, even though last weekend, when the flow was at its heaviest, an official inspection stepped in to curb the dirty business. But in the end, even that could not disrupt the war economy, which is, after all, a special breed of animal. In this supposedly closed-off area, the bushes were always full of the local “merchants” who were there to sell the refugees cigarettes, water and snacks at double price. And if you asked them how they were doing, they simply spat and informed you: “Man, these Afghans – damn it, they really have no money left!”

It is much the same on the other side of the border, where one of the local hopefuls has actually parked a van neatly refitted into an ice-cream shop. Last Sunday, when as many as 150 buses pulled in to disgorge some 7,000 migrants and refugees, the shop was reported to have done excellent business.

____

Photo: © Jure Eržen

Photo: © Jure Eržen

As the air brakes started to squeal, the refugee-packed train gradually came to a halt. To avoid chaos, the police ordered the migrants and the refugees into a number of smaller groups. The tired and grimy travellers kept repeating they were in a hurry, all the while inquiring when the next train for the Serbian border was set to leave. Panic began to settle into the hearts and minds of these exhausted men and women. A few more days and it would no longer be possible to cross the Hungarian border. For the countless thousands of desperate souls, this would mean being trapped in Balkan territory.

“No, I don’t want to describe what we’ve been through. What matters is that we’re finally here. Our lives are no longer in danger. We want to get some air and maybe rest for a while, but unfortunately, that is not possible… We have to leave today. Where do we need to go, what’s the best route in your opinion?” I was asked by a confused-looking female student from Deir ez Zur, one of the key battlefields in the Syrian war. When this visibly traumatised refugee obtained all the relevant information from the police, she went on to acquire a fresh supply of drinking water. Then she and her two younger brothers grabbed the handles of a rather decrepit wheelchair they had used to transport their severely ill father all the way from Syria. “We shall go to wherever they will have us. We have no other choice. We need to take care of our father,” confessed the young student who preferred to remain anonymous. “We’re even fine with staying here in Serbia, as long as we don’t have to sleep out in the cold. We would, of course, like to return home as soon as possible, yet our homes are no longer there.”

 ____

Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

A three-year-old girl woke up from a deep sleep. As soon as she took in the night-time chaos of the highly restless crowd, tears came spilling down her face. The police allowed the handicapped, the wounded, the seriously ill and the mothers with babies to jump to the front of the long line waiting to cross the border. I heard one of the policemen ask a colleague why a certain 75-year-old man – clearly devastated by a number of serious illnesses – would even set out on this journey to cross half the world to reach Germany.

Why, indeed?

Because the Syrian conflict is worse than any of those etched on our notoriously short historical memories. Because in the last four and a half years, it has already killed 260,000 people. Because 11 million people have been forced to leave their homes, 4.5 million of them having fled to neighbouring countries. Because vast swathes of the country have been razed to the ground. Because the present is destroying every possibility of a bearable future while – remember Palmyra! – erasing every inkling of the past. Because the western countries who are now treating these people like nuclear waste have done nothing to end the war, have in fact done much to ensure it goes on and on.

Because hope may spring eternal, but there can be no hope when you and your entire family are dead.

Swimming marathon

“We are in a hurry. We’re worried that the Hungarian border will be closed down before we can reach it. We desperately need to catch that train! We don’t have the money for a taxi. In Turkey, we were robbed by the traffickers,” a man named Saeed told me as he stood nervously near the end of one of the queue. The 26-year-old English teacher was from the Syrian town of Latakia, the Assad regime’s stronghold located by the Mediterranean Sea.

Saeed fled the coastal town because he refused to join the government forces. So far, the regime troops’ heavy presence had spared the city from most of the fighting, but mobilisation was becoming inevitable. Saeed refused to shoot at his own people and take part in the utter destruction of his own homeland. When it was his turn to leave for the front, his two obvious options were to go murder his freedom-fighter compatriots or rot in a jail cell with occasional bouts of the sort of savage torture written into the very DNA of Assad’s regime. Saeed decided to take the third option, which was to escape.

Anywhere.

“A few months ago, I fled Latakia for the nearby hills controlled by the Free Syrian Army. They, too, wanted me to join them, but I turned them down. My wife had just given birth. Ahmed is now seven months old, and I didn’t want him to grown up without a father. So I taught English for a while in one of the schools in FSA-held territory, then the entire village was destroyed in a governmental air raid,” Saed recollected. “Most of my neighbours and friends were killed in the strike. I was the one who had to pick up what remained of their bodies and try to put the pieces back together. I could quite easily have gone mad. The whole thing was unspeakably horrible. As soon as I could, I got my wife and son and fled to Turkey,” Saeed went on with his grim tale, darting impatient glances toward the train and the police.

Saeed was one of the eight Syrian refugees who had actually swum from Greece to Turkey. After being swindled and robbed by the Turkish traffickers, they had no recourse but to try to swim the 12km to the Greek island of Kos. They spent 16 hours in the water. They were very cold, but they had managed to secure some life-jackets which enabled them to get plenty of rest. They stuffed all their belongings into a few waterproof bags they tied to their waists. As they slowly made their way, they were overtaken by a few rubber boats carrying their fellow refugees.

“I was not afraid at all,” Saeed beamed at me with the hard-earned optimism of a survivor. “You don’t believe me? But it was really nothing special. I have spent my entire life close to the sea. I’m an excellent swimmer. I knew I could do it. I just had to think of my wife and son who had remained back in Turkey. As soon as possible, they will come to join me in Europe. Oh, and my friends who were swimming next to me – it was no problem for them as well.”

___

Saeed and his swimming companions ultimately reached Kos when the conditions there were at their most chaotic. The police were openly beating up the migrants, who were also beating each other up. Some 500m from the coast, the freezing and dehydrated Syrian swimmers were picked up by the Greek coast guard. “They insulted us and pushed us around for a bit. When we got to the coast, they started beating us. It was horrible,” he recalled. “We didn’t know what to do or where to go. The other refugees told us we needed to register at the police station, since we were not allowed to continue our journey without the necessary papers. We obtained our permits after five days. We immediately got on a ferry to Athens. We didn’t even make a stop there – we knew very well what was going on at the Hungarian border. We took a bus for Thessaloniki and onward to the border, where we arrived today at six in the morning,” Saeed concluded his tale.

He also told me that he could no longer remember the last time he had had a good night’s sleep. “But we must not let our exhaustion get the better of us. We owe it to our families. I owe it to my son. We shall carry on, and nothing is going to stop us,” the long-haired young man added resolutely and firmly shook my hand.

Saeed  is one of several thousands of refugees who are being “stocked” at the Keleti railway station in Budapest by the Hungarian government. He found out that his best friend died while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece.

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The long march from Syria to Europe

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

Joining Syrian refugees on their long trek to the EU, Boštjan Videmšek discovers how easy it is to lose faith in humanity and how hard to restore it.

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: Jure Erzen/DELO

Thursday 6 August 2015

By the side of the road leading from the small town of Kanjiža in northern Serbia to the Hungarian border, a large band of 40 or so Syrian refugees – women, children, young men, an elder – had just sat down to rest. It was early on a Tuesday evening, and the group was finally getting some respite from the sun. They were plucking not quite ripe plums from a nearby tree and checking their mobile phones on which they had stored the directions for the fastest and safest route to the border.

This was, of course, only one of the numerous groups making their final bid to penetrate the fortress of the European Union. On the flatlands by the oily and quiet Tisa river where we joined the marchers, life was unfolding according to its ancient, decidedly slow rhythms. Most of the residents have long become accustomed to the endless procession of human suffering. In the last few months, Serbia has been turned into yet another waystation for a human tragedy mere language can hardly describe. It is no exaggeration to say this tragedy is sure to become one of the definitive humanitarian stories of the 21st century.

Horrible, just horrible

A few kilometres away from the border, a man in the group started to speak: “If all goes well, we’ll be there in two and a half hours… We’ve been travelling for weeks, some of us for months.”

His name, he told us, was Rami. He was 27 and hailed from the northwestern Syrian city of Raqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate and the Islamic State (ISIS). He fled the city soon after it was captured by the members of the radical Sunni militia. He claims he had no choice. He had received word his name had been put on their death list. During the initial months of the Syrian conflict, he had been working as a journalist and had decided to help out one of his American colleagues. He had even been issued a press card by a prominent international newspapers.

This was not something ISIS was likely to forgive.

“It made no difference that I come from one of Raqa’s strongest families. If I were to stay, they would have certainly killed me, no questions asked. The worst of it was that my own cousins were out to get me too,” Rami reflected, as we trudged on along the dusty local thoroughfare. “Almost all of them had joined ISIS. Almost everyone in Raqa had gone over to them, that is why they’re so strong… Raqa will always be their territory. And so there was no one who could protect me.”

Rami’s first destination was Turkey, where he had to stay longer than he originally planned since he got robbed in Istanbul. It took him a long time to earn enough money to continue on his journey. As soon as he was able to, he set off for the Turkish coast. In the meantime, he learned that his father had been killed, while his brother, who also refused to join the Islamic State, had been severely wounded while fighting the Syrian government forces.

In the Turkish port of Bodrum, one of the region’s hubs for human trafficking, Rami met the other members of the group he was currently travelling with. That was two months ago. Since then, they have not once parted company.

As we walked on, Ali, 28, joined our conversation. He was a civil engineer from Azaz, a town near the Syrian-Turkish border which has seen heavy fighting between various insurgent groups, after being almost completely razed by government bombers. “In Turkey,the traffickers robbed us on two different occasions, and we also got a lot of trouble from the police,” he told us. “We sailed to the Greek island of Kos in a rubber dinghy. The boat was really small, but somehow everyone you see here managed to fit. It seems incredible that we survived. At least half of these people don’t know how to swim. If the boat had capsized, we would all have died. It was horrible, just horrible!”

 A modern-day odyssey

After arriving at Kos, where the recent heavy influx of refugees has plunged the island into chaos, the band of Syrians took a ferry to Athens. Every day, hundreds of refugees and immigrants enter the Greek capital. The Greek authorities, bogged down on countless other domestic and foreign fronts, had virtually stopped dealing with the problem. Their solution was simply to leave the door wide open. It was little wonder that the flood of refugees immediately headed for the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders. A new route to the European Union soon gained prominence, starting in Macedonia and leading through Serbia all the way up to Hungary.

Three weeks ago, Hungary started building a wall measuring 175km in length. Its basic objective is to put a stop to the influx of refugees and immigrants. Yet so far the Hungarians haven’t been very successful at it. In the days we spent on both sides of the border, the situation was quite the contrary. The commencement of the immense construction project has only speeded up the current rate of migration, especially through Macedonia and Serbia, where the authorities understand very well what the erection of such a wall could mean.

In reality, the wall is not so much an actual obstacle for the incoming refugees as it is a clear political statement by the far-right government of Viktor Orbán.

“We made quite a large part of our journey through Greece and Macedonia on foot. It was horrible – it was hot, and we were all so hungry and thirsty… The people there refused to have anything to do with us,” Ali recalled in an effable tone, as if he were describing, say, a lovely view of the sea. “Somewhere in Macedonia, where we were generally treated very badly by the police, they herded us on to some buses which took us to the Serbian border. The entire region was full of refugees.”

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

After a few more days trek, they reached Belgrade. “We all slept in the park. Belgrade, too, is flooded with refugees. But for us, that was actually a good thing, since we managed to get all the information we needed on how to safely cross the Hungarian border,” Ali continued.

In Belgrade, our band of refugees learned there were several viable options for reaching Hungary. The first option was a so-called ‘unaided’ journey, meaning travelling by themselves. The route itself was clearly defined and there was plenty of useful information on how to maximize one’s chances. But since the situation at the border was so unpredictable, this was considered to be the riskiest choice. The alternative was to entrust one’s fate to the professionals, the human traffickers organizing the trip from the cities of northern Vojvodina (like Subotica, Kanjiža, Horgoš) to Hungary and then onward to Austria and Germany. One could even take a taxi from the Hungarian border directly to Vienna, which, according to our sources, would set one back €400. The entire package deal for getting from Serbia to Austria costs somewhere in the neighborhood of €1,500. For the Syrian refugees, the cost of all available options is about three times higher than for the rest. Traffickers consider them to be much wealthier than, for example, Afghans.

To really grasp their predicament, one needs to keep in mind that they are always facing a very real possibility of getting arrested, and that many of them have already spent most of their savings in order to reach Serbia. A large number of them got mugged, either by local criminals, their fellow refugees or even by the police. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of solidarity between different groups of refugees – say between the Syrian and Afghan ones. Sadly, it is quite the contrary.

In Serbia and the wider region, the trafficking sector of the local economy has undergone a considerable boom. The basic set-up is simple, the profits are huge, and the risk is almost non-existent. This is especially so if the traffickers have done their homework and made proper arrangements with the police and the authorities, who are openly aiding refugees in crossing and leaving Serbia as swiftly as possible.

Once you get out in the field and see how things work, it could hardly be more obvious which way the wind blows.

“In Germany, they’re sure to help us” 

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Right after the war started, Ali lost his job in a privately owned company, yet he decided to stick it out in Azaz. In the summer of 2012, the Free Syrian Army gained control of the city for a while, then the Islamic extremists took over. In a flash, the dream of the Syrian revolution became but a tragic memory. What started out as an insurgency against the ruling regime degenerated into a brutal civil war. Countless people started fleeing the devastated country.

“I’m glad that I’m not married and that I don’t have any children. It is so much easier for me this way,” he explained, reflected a common sentiment among young refugees, as we proceeded towards the small Vojvodinian village of Mortanoš, the last notable settlement before the Hungarian border. “Most members of my family had fled to Turkey and decided to stay there. I, on the other hand, am young and I’ve had a good education. I’m going to do everything I can to get a job so I can take care of my parents.”

Where? “I want to go to Germany… In Germany, they’re sure to take us in and help us – after all, we’re refugees, we come from Syria,” he said, with perhaps unfounded optimism.

Like most members of this tattered little group, Ali was growing increasingly cheerful with every step closer to the border. As we entered Mortanoš, the entire group decided to rest. The women sat down on the grass, the children were visibly tired. The men took to discussing the optimal route for this final phase of the Serbian crossing. The local plum trees were quickly being relieved of fruit; it was getting darker by the minute. The refugees knew very well they were approaching the critical part of the journey. Only a little more than 4km were now separating them from the European Union. A gentle breeze picked up over the Pannonian plains.

“What can we do? Like everyone everywhere, we only have one wish. To live in peace. To be safe. Look how lovely this place is. It is so peaceful and quiet. There are fruit trees everywhere,” described Rami enthusiastically. “The people leave us alone, and there is plenty of water. I could certainly live here. You know, right now this seems like a paradise from my dreams.” It was obvious that Rami was getting a little carried away, but how could anyone blame him? With every kilometer, he was becoming less of an attention-starved showman and more of an excited little boy.

Basic human decency

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

At the village’s outer edge, the refugees were approached by a merry-looking elderly fellow, who offered them water from the hose in his garage. The Syrians were visibly confused. As the village dogs’ barking approached a crescendo, they kept exchanging glances. The last few years have made them forget what basic human decency felt like. For them, it had become the exception that proved the rule.

After a few moments, one of the refugees handed out an empty plastic bottle to the old Serbian. Then the others slowly followed suit. Bashful yet profoundly grateful smiles were spreading over their faces as the older man used one hand to pour the water and the other to shoo away the mosquitoes.

“You need to follow the river,” the hospitable local told them in place of a goodbye. “But not up on the banks, you need to go as low down as possible, otherwise the police can spot you. But I haven’t seen them here today…. Here, take some more plums.”

“But you need to be very careful, okay? Good luck to you,” the old man added in parting.

It is very easy to lose one’s faith in humanity. It is infinitely harder to regain it.

As we pushed on, a hush fell over the group. The closer we got to the border, the more the refugees were instinctively huddling together. One of the marching men took hold of his three-year-old daughter and put her on his shoulders. The group’s one elderly man was getting noticeably short of breath but – with the help of a sturdy wooden stick – he somehow still managed to keep pace with the rest. One of the refugees took out a tattered copy of the Quran and started to pray. The sun was slowly setting far away on the horizon. To our right, we could see a stretch of dense boggy forest and the Tisa river. To our left, there was haystack-strewn grassland, a few distant hamlets and the road leading to the official border crossings and further on toward Subotica. The evening light was growing softer as we trekked on to the soundtrack of dogs barking in the distance. Every now and then, we could see a stork touch down in a nearby field. For this particular band of migrants, these were all scenes of Xanadu-like tranquility. A perfect illusion.

“To be honest, I have no idea where we are. I hope we’re on the right track. We really need to hurry. We have to reach Hungary tonight. Once we get across the border we need to avoid being caught by the police. If that happens, we could lose a few weeks,” Rami pointed, his voice growing ever more quiet. “Our group would get broken up, and we also need to avoid getting fingerprinted. That would mean that, even when we reach Germany, they could simply send us back to Hungary at any time. No one here wants to stay in Hungary. Personally, I would much rather stay in Serbia because the people were nicest to us there. Everywhere else we were treated like criminals.”

In Europe, he told me, he is eager to get work – any sort of work at all, as long as it would help him live in peace and safety. Ali, the blue-eyed engineer, felt exactly the same way. Both of them had had their share of the savagery of war. All they wanted was for the people of their new homeland to show a little understanding.

The members of the group weren’t entirely clear on where they needed to veer off into the forest to avoid getting caught by the police. The border itself was rather poorly marked – in some places, there were no noticeable markings at all. And so the group decided to simply follow the tracks left by their predecessors. A trail of discarded objects led them onward. And at the precise moment when their doubts about having chosen the right path were turning critical, two local cyclists drove by down the nearby embankment. Opening their backpacks, the two men distributed a number of plastic water bottles “for the children” and relayed the vital information that the border was now only a 10-minute walk away.

“Simply follow the river all the way. We haven’t seen a single policeman,” one of the cyclists said to encourage them before their imminent ordeal.

Hungarian border patrol

We moved on. In the distance, we could already see the ramp marking the border area where movement is strictly prohibited. Heavy dusk was falling over us, bringing anxiety to the faces of the advancing refugees. The mosquitoes were now out in full force. The women conferred among themselves and decided to make the children put on an additional layer of clothing. The men – many of them had fled their country to another continent with only a small sporty knapsack on their shoulder – were putting the final touches to the group’s strategy. Many of their phones were starting to malfunction.

We crossed the dark Serbian-Hungarian border in complete silence. Only a few steps past the first Hungarian boundary stone the group came to a halt.

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Erzen/DELO

Rami put down his backpack and carefully set out on a reconnaissance mission – some hundred meters ahead, he detected a border patrol. He could identify one car and four policemen interrogating a small group of refugees. Two portable toilets were standing next to the police vehicle like some sort of mirage. Business as usual? It was clear that the mere four Hungarian policemen would be unable to stop our group of refugees. We had heard that the border guards often turn a blind eye. Despite the fact that the government had undertaken the huge anti-humanitarian project of putting up the wall, the Hungarian policemen are mostly treating the refugees with fairness and even respect.

But this was, of course, not something the group could definitively rely on. The moment of truth was fast approaching. Anxiety and even plain fear were returning to the refugees’ faces. They had long learned that the combination of borders and uniforms can mean the difference between life and death for them. The anxiety and terror on their faces was thus a matter of pure reflexes, and in such situations, reason is always trailing far behind. The night had fallen, but the moon was mercilessly illuminating the exhausted faces. The refugees quickly slipped into the nearby forest, from which one could hear clear signs of life. As you would expect, our group of refugees wasn’t the only one preparing for the final push into the heart of Europe. We were now on Hungarian soil. All the refugees needed to do to complete this crucial stage on their long journey was to evade the patrol. The children ate a few cookies and plums from their mothers’ backpacks. The rest drank some water. They were all waiting for Rami’s sign.

We bade them farewell.

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