SERBIAN-HUNGARIAN BORDER, Serbia – Two kilometers from the Hungarian border, within Serbia, stands a group of a dozen Syrian men who are trying to find their way through the night. Their ages span from 20 to 50. They left Aleppo 10 days ago, traveling side roads to the Kurdish controlled area in northeastern Syria. From there, they crossed the border into Turkey and embarked on the route tens of thousands of refugees have taken this year. Many more will likely follow.
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They crossed Turkey from East to West to Izmir. They crossed the Aegean Sea on a smuggler’s boat, reaching Greece and proceeding to Macedonia and Serbia. Most of the families and individuals spent a month making this journey.
“We didn’t stop. We kept going the whole time, sleeping a few hours outside and then moving on,” says Muhammad Azar, the oldest of the group and the only one who speaks English. He owns a restaurant in Aleppo, but hadn’t had any clients since the beginning of the civil war over four years ago. “We waited year after year for the war to end. You get the message in the end,” he said. "The war won’t end.”
The small band of people has one common goal. Half of them are fathers, the rest the oldest sons in their families. They are en route to Germany to pave the way for their relatives to follow. So they are in a rush. Every additional day it takes them is another day of fear for the fate of their families left behind in the midst of fighting. They are wary of discussing politics or being identified as supporters or opponents of the Assad regime. Their only politics is survival.
Serbian authorities set up several temporary camps, with very basic conditions, near the border. Most of the people residing in them are families with small children, who find it hard to sleep outside in the cold, already dipping to 10 degrees Celsius in September. Groups of men traveling solo prefer to sleep in the fields and save time. They also fear any contact with authorities. So far, reports about Serbian treatment of refugees are relatively positive compared to the Hungarian police, which tried in the last few weeks to send the refugees to ad hoc internment camps. But there were some cases in which residents of local villages along the border shot over the refugees’ heads with their hunting rifles to keep them away from their property.
There is mutual distrust. Every driver who randomly offers a ride can turn out to be a bandit who will take their money and dump them on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Some of the groups equipped themselves from the start with smartphones with GPS apps, but they have to buy a new SIM card every time they cross a border, and in many cases refugees are not allowed to enter stores to charge their devices.
The battery of the phone held by the group with Muhammad Azar, the restaurant owner, has long been empty, and they got lost. They deliberate whether to continue looking for railroad tracks that signal the route leading into Hungary at night, or to wait on the roadside for sunrise. Along the road leading toward the border, one can discern in the night other groups stealing between the trees, looking for a route to follow or a place to sleep for a few hours. One minute’s walk from the road, there is a gas station with a 24-hour restaurant, but Azar is afraid of entering. He doesn’t know how the locals will receive him.
The cold intensifies and two other groups, one with small children, gather courage and enter the café. Each refugee approaches the counter and orders a cup of coffee. They sit around tables and within a few minutes give in to their exhaustion and lay down their heads.
Serbian truck drivers sit at tables across from them. Neither side makes eye contact with the other. The refugees who earlier were on the roadside looking for a driver to help them reach the border crossing already know that no professional truck driver will risk his job by violating the law against transporting refugees who have no documents. They have no choice but to seek other drivers, like the one who abandoned 71 refugees to their deaths alongside an Austrian road two weeks ago.
In another corner of the restaurant, three young men sit, dressed in jeans and Serbian army shirts. One of them negotiates over the phone with a Syrian refugee.
“You have to wait,” he says aggressively in heavily accented English. “Our driver can’t pass through now because of a police barricade. Wait there. We’ll come to you soon.”
Milan, a resident of the adjacent village, who stops for a coffee on his way to work, says, “The Syrians really make an impression of being nice people, and I hope they will reach a safe place, but I fear those who will follow. Iraqis, Afghanis, they all want to reach Europe, and terror will arrive with them.”
Many of the refugee groups coalesced along the journey, with their members strangers until then. Among them are young men and women traveling alone, dependent on older partners who have offered their protection. Lina Rachu of Aleppo says she is 19, but she looks much younger. She is traveling with two women carrying children. Her family fled to Turkey three years ago but as refugees could not find work there and used up all their remaining savings. Her father went to Germany five months ago.
“There was only enough money left for one in the boat, so he went first. He now found a job in Bonn and sent money for me to join,” she says. “My mother and two little sisters stayed behind in Turkey. She doesn’t have a plan right now, just that all my family reach Germany first. I dream of studying to be a dental hygienist.”
'My school was blown up'
Omar Al-Tamu, 17, who comes from a town near Aleppo, joined a group of older youths and young men. He left Syria three weeks ago.
“My family stayed there, despite the army’s airplanes and helicopters constantly blowing up our city. My big brother is still studying in college, but my school was blown up and closed, and I was a year short of a matriculation certificate,” he says. “I am going to my uncle in Sweden. I hope they’ll let me finish high school there.”
The sun rises and with it, indecision. Groups trudge along the roads toward the border. Some keep negotiating on their cell phone with local drivers. Both sides speak broken English, making it hard to understand when the vehicle will come, how many spaces there will be and where it will take them. And perhaps it is better simply to cross the border on foot. Some of the groups wait alongside the road, hoping that a vehicle appear after all. Most of them cut toward the field, in the approximate direction of the old train line between Belgrade and Budapest. When they reach the train track, they will continue eastward into Hungary, the next stage in the journey.