By Eleonora Boguslavskaia
— Starting on the 17th of October, Simona Zagoricnik, Pleun Andriessen and Andrea Haefner, second year AUC students, spent six days at the Serbian-Croatian border providing humanitarian aid to thousands of refugees waiting to enter Croatia. As European Union’s officials struggle to agree on a strategy to manage the crisis, the number of refugees fleeing their war-torn countries keeps growing. Making their way through Turkey and Greece, thousands of refugees end up at multiple borders within the Balkan region. With Hungary having recently closed its border, the majority of asylum-seekers are now concentrated at the border of Serbia and Croatia. Hundreds of volunteers travel to the Balkan region in order to help with the crisis management. Simona, Pleun and Andrea have shared their impressions of the situation at the border in their interview to The Herring.
Andrea, in your Facebook post you wrote that all of you arrived in Amsterdam sick and exhausted. Was that due to the amount of work you had to do?
P: Oh well, it was very cold. At night it was about four degrees and we spent most of the time outside. There were hardly any places for people to stay, not for us either.
A: Yes, working for twenty hours straight, not having enough sleep or proper food. It was just a mentally and physically exhausting week.
Are you feeling any better, now that you had a few days to recover?
P: Partly, yes. But we are still recovering.
I hope you all get better soon. So, first of all, how was the idea to volunteer in Serbia born?
P: All of us are taking Human Rights course here at AUC, and there was a project for which we had to volunteer on a very minimal level. We decided to use this as a starting point for organizing this trip which in the end turned into something bigger. The organizational stage went really fast, we simply decided to look into different possibilities and see where the help was needed. One afternoon we were just sitting together and researching; we found a lot of information on Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Greece, where the situation seemed to be the most severe. So we decided to get into contact with “Refugee Aid Serbia”, who told us about their distribution center in Belgrade. They basically said that the help was needed and we decided to go.
After landing in Belgrade, how did you navigate yourselves?
S: We were met by my dad who lives in Belgrade and went to my place first, as we thought that we might offer our help in the city. Then we went to a distribution center and spent a couple of hours there; but soon realized that we were more needed at the borders. The Serbian-Croatian border turned out to be the one where help was most needed at that moment, so we just bought the bus tickets and went.
A: Although there are all sorts of organizations, it is not like they are going to navigate you once you are there. Most of the people just check the situation, find out where the help is needed and go themselves.
Since this whole trip was organized by you, you must have spent a lot of money on the tickets and donations. Is there any sort of refunding or at least some supplies provided by the Serbian government or NGO’s [Non-Governmental Organizations]?
P: No, we had to pay for everything ourselves. We did some fundraising beforehand and spent the money on food, water and other essentials. Everything that we handed out were private donations and NGO’s provision. But if you want to contribute, it is at your own expense.
What were your first impressions of the border?
S: It’s just vast fields, there was basically nothing except for the tents of NGO’s and a checkpoint. I remember seeing some portable toilets, which creeped me out a little. The guy who we initially contacted tried to explain the situation; they were trying to accommodate refugees in tents, 50 people in each. He wanted us to stay in the tents and talk to people, nothing very specific.
A: The checkpoint was occupied by non-Serbian volunteers, without any protest from the Serbian side, just to illustrate how chaotic the whole situation was. Everyone was lost, refugees were waiting for the buses to come and bring them to Croatia. Some did not even know which country they are in, since as soon as they are picked up in Greece, they just go with the flow, changing busses, walking.
So there is a sort of organized path that they have to follow?
P: Yes, organized by the Balkan states, but it’s not free, I believe.
A: Starting from Croatia it is supposed to be free.
P: And if they chose to follow the route they often end up waiting for the free buses for days.
How would you describe the presence of Serbian and Croatian authorities at the border?
S: During the day there were maybe five officers on the Serbian side… They were basically just standing there, not doing much. On the Croatian side there were as many as 30 Croatian officers trying to hold the border, depending on the situation.
A: I found this very shocking. There were thousands of people sitting there, waiting for the buses to come and the officers were just standing there, maintaining the order by their presence, not offering any help. Their only concern was to prevent refugees from going back to Serbia and maintain some sort of order.
P: Well, they provided prisoners to help with the cleaning…
A: Yes, there were like eight of them trying to clean up the mess that four thousand people have made. They would come for about two hours and leave.
There is a big discussion right now about the general hostility of Serbian people towards a large numbers of refugees coming in. Is that something that you have noticed during your stay?
S: It is hard to say… From discussions with friends and from Serbian media I know that refugees are always called ‘migrants’ which I think is quite telling. I can’t say for sure since I am not an expert in the situation, but my general feeling is that we do not mind them as long as they just go through Serbia and don’t bother us. But there are many people helping out with food and clothes, all sorts of things.
P: The donation centre in Belgrade is organized by Serbians. But I think a lot of people there just do not know about the situation, they do not know how to help. There is a lot of fear created by the media, no one really knows what these people [refugees] are like, they are different, and people do not like difference.
What was your impression of the refugees? Did you find them threatening?
P: I was amazed by how nice they were. They come from places that are not safe, go through this journey which is awful, they hate it. But they are so nice. There was one guy who helped us out for a couple of days instead of crossing the border.
A: And the extreme gratefulness. They were constantly saying how they grateful they are for what we do, thanking us.
Various media keeps on reporting that refugees population mostly consists of young men, which often provokes fear and this “ISIS is on its way” feeling. How would you characterize the people you have encountered at the border in terms of nationality, age, gender?
S: Well, in Belgrade I saw only young male refugees. At the border, however, there were many kids and women of all ages.
P: We mostly met Syrian people, I felt like 90 percent were Syrian, although the official numbers state they make up around 50 percent. But we certainly saw some people from Iraq, Afghanistan.
A: Syrians were mostly in families. Many women with their kids travelled with their cousins or uncles because husbands went first. However, Iraqi, Afghans and a few Iranians were mostly young men.
As far as I know volunteers come to Serbia from many different countries. Were there any other Dutch volunteers and how many people were helping in general?
P: Yes, some Dutch people came later. But in general there were maybe 25 people at once. Over the weekend we grew to 30-40 people, but never more than that. Most of the volunteers were from Czech Republic, around 10 people, some Germans arrived later.
There is a lot of footage from the border circulating around internet, in press, on television. How would you characterize media presence?
S: I think the media presence had a good effect on the situation as at times when reporters would come, boarder would suddenly open and let everybody through. The problem for us was that we could not criticize the Serbian government in any way. Standing in front of the camera and saying that “Oh, the Serbian government is not doing anything, we as volunteers have to do all the work” could result in deportation. They did not want bad publicity so it was better for us to just keep quiet and do our work.
P: It was ridiculous. I was interviewed by a Dutch reporter who asked me if I expected more actions from the Serbian government and I just could not say anything.
Now that you are here, what are your thoughts on the role of the Serbian government in the crisis?
S: I do feel that Serbia is doing something, of course far from enough. I think that they make use of the situation and offer help in order to put forward some sort of European attitude, because one of the main issues at the moment is Serbia’s EU entry. On the other hand, refugees do not stay in Serbia, so their work ends once refugees are transported from Macedonian border to the border with Croatia. Then it becomes Croatian problem which de-motivates Serbian authorities from doing more.
What do you think are the first steps the government should take to improve the situation?
P: The first thing they should do is to provide tents. If everyone has shelter there is no chaos anymore and it is easier to organize everyone.
S: And more officers. Situation tends to get calmer when officers are present. The crisis management should just get a lot more organized; right now there are just independent volunteer organizations who have to do all the work. They should build a camp, because right now there are just tents unable to accommodate all the people for a long period of time.
A: Also communication and information for the refugees and between the countries. They need to decide: ‘‘Okay, we have this many refugees, coming through this or that boarder at this or that time, so we need this many buses’’. And, of course, provide them with food, clothes, water.
You said that the situation gets calmer with the presence of the police. Given that refugees are coming from all sorts of different countries, perhaps having different experiences and political views, how do they co-exist with each other? There were instances of violence in German camps, for instance.
S: There were fights, definitely. There were problems with different nationalities, especially language wise, we always had to have two translators.
A: I think the terrible conditions, anxiousness and frustration about the situation also causes these fights and they were times with a lot of aggression.
P: There was one conflict between two groups from either Syria or Iraq. They would just scream or argue, but nothing major.
A: The only time when there was a real threat to our security was when the crowd management went completely out of control and we would have 300 people walking into us. But I cannot link this to any political or religious factors.
To conclude, I know from Andrea’s post on Facebook that you have met lots of people and got to know some of them. Was there someone or something in particular that struck you most?
A: You just constantly hear these stories about men and women who were computer engineers, had great jobs, great life and then the war came and they lost everything. They had to flee and you see them in these extremely miserable conditions that they would never imagined themselves to be. That is just striking.
S: We talked to a woman who was left alone with three daughters because her husband has drowned. We met a man whose baby has drowned. There were many individual stories… It is hard to hear them, but it was very important for them to share. People often came up to us and said that they regret this whole trip, which was very striking to me. If people regret fleeing for their lives it is very telling of how bad the conditions are here for them.
P: On our last night we were in one of the tents for women and babies, where they stay overnight. At one point we got a call; we were told that there was this woman coming over with a 27-days old baby. They were both sick, coming from the doctors. As soon as they entered the tent, woman gave me the baby for a second and just completely broke down. She was crying for like half an hour and that is when I realized how inhumane and crazy this journey is for them. Even mothers who are supposed to be strong, they are the ones who last longest… She was so far gone that she just could not anymore. She was also feeling so guilty for taking her child through this experience.
Are you guys planning on continuing your work as volunteers? Perhaps organizing something here in the Netherlands?
P: Right now we are recovering, we would not be able to go again right now. We are still processing everything. Afterwards we want to do something with it, like raising awareness. We are going to give Who’s In Town lecture on the 18th of November on volunteer possibilities and other issues. Everyone keeps asking us: “How did you do this? How can we help?”. Most of the people do not know, so I think this is the main thing we are focusing on.
A: There is also an idea of creating a volunteering platform for AUC students in cooperation with Hands On, we are planning on contacting them. Just to keep people informed, so that they can just leave their emails to be passed to the Red Cross or something. I think AUC students have a lot of compassion and interest in helping so we just want to mobilize people.
The Who’s In Town lecture is going to take place at Amsterdam University College on 18th of November.
All images in the article are taken by Andrea Haefner.