Hell Is an Endless Queue With Wet Feet
Rain-soaked and hungry with refugees in Serbia
The situation in Presevo, Serbia on the border with Macedonia is so bad that some Syrian refugees are calling it the “second balam” — a reference to the rubber boat they traveled in on the dangerous voyage from Turkey to Greece. Not only is there a shortage of organization, aid and volunteers, but on Oct. 7 and 8, even the weather was working against the refugees. It rained continuously as they waited in a Hellish queue.
This queue is basically a jail cell. It’s enclosed by waist-high metal barriers which stretch for several blocks, eventually leading to the place where the refugees get their permission papers to leave Serbia. After getting off the bus at the drop-off point, they must walk in groups several kilometers towards this queue, yet once they enter it, leaving isn’t advised as they chance losing their place in line.
This means people are waiting hours and sometimes even days with no food or water, other than what the few volunteers are able to pass out, and also no restrooms. As a result, the refugees are often forced to step out of the queue to seek these basic human necessities, even though they risk being separated from their families and losing their place in line.
Once the queue gets closer to the middle section, people are jam-packed; anyone who stepped out previously is no longer able to get in and must start the seemingly endless process all over again, separated from their family. Families who are not reunited outside at the queue are sometimes — not always — able to find each other inside the camp, but only after many long and anxious hours have passed.
Refugees often reach out to volunteers and journalists, as well as other English speaking refugees, to help them explain their situation to the police and the United Nations. For the most part, police pay no special attention to anyone, even if they’re a child, pregnant, elderly or sick, unless they’ve fainted or are having a near-death health issue.
Even then, the “help” is merely to allow this person to be carried out by other refugees and volunteers. Police frequently push people and yell, “Go!” in English. In fact, this happens so often that refugee children have learned the word and can be heard using it as they play.
Shortly before noon on Oct. 7, an elderly woman with asthma problems who had used up her inhaler passed out in the mud in front of the metal barrier as she was trying to exit, having received no help from the officer standing nearby. She had arrived at 9:00 the previous evening and spent the majority of that time waiting in line. As soon as she passed out, her son jumped over the barrier in order to take her to a doctor, even though the officer stated clearly to him that he would lose his spot in the queue, despite the circumstance.
The son took the risk anyway and found a doctor to treat his mother, and it was only because that doctor had been interviewed by journalists who work for Doctors Without Borders that they were given special permission to enter for the paperwork.
There is a dangerous lack of basic supplies at Presevo due to the difficult Serbian customs process. When a young Syrian man with shrapnel in his arm was in great pain due to the wet and cold rain and desperately needed a blanket, there were none to be found.
Even when the only local hotel was asked if they would sell him a blanket, they claimed not to have any. The man had to push through and endure the entire process in pain, as he had no other choice. When supplies are present, there often aren’t enough to pass to the entire crowd.
A mother needed hot water for formula to feed her two-month-old baby, but it wasn’t available. She asked if she could step out to breastfeed her baby, but was told she could not. The baby cried for hours until a volunteer finally helped them pass, giving her clothes and diapers, and the other refugees in the queue helped guide her back to her family.
Once refugees get the permission papers, they don’t know what to do next. Several people told me they were not given instructions. An Afghan man stood outside a store in tears, holding his child while his wife and other child waited nearby. No one could understand what had happened to him as they didn’t speak his language. It finally became clear that he didn’t know where the buses were.
Worse, he managed to express that his money had been stolen and he couldn’t buy tickets, which cost 35 Euros per seat. Finally, a compassionate bus driver took pity on the family of four and gave them two seats on the bus right before departure.
Not everyone is as compassionate. Many locals are taking advantage of the situation, charging refugees a Euro to recharge their cell phones, requiring that people pay a Euro to use the restroom and selling food and water to refugees at elevated prices.
Other locals display growing frustrations over what they think is happening in their town. One woman clearing the garbage in front of her store was threatening refugees with a pitchfork as they passed, yelling “Go!” in English in between her Serbian sentences. The refugees walked by dumbfounded and demoralized.
There is also the problem of theft. Two young Syrian men had finally received their permission papers, only to have their bags stolen in a café — with the papers inside. They were told to go to the back of the line and start the long, horrendous process over again. Thankfully, after finding a more compassionate police officer at the entrance who spoke English, the young men were allowed in to expedite new paperwork.
Con artists prey on the refugees, as well, including families with young children and the elderly for whom they know the line is too daunting. Refugees are being offered taxis to the Croatian border costing up to 300 Euros, the drivers promising that no paperwork is necessary.
But stories are coming back that these taxis stop halfway and threaten to throw their passengers out if they don’t pay more. Volunteers from SOS Konvoi, based in Vienna, have now posted a sign with instructions written in Arabic by a Syrian refugee, to inform people entering Presevo not to take the taxis. The volunteers took photos of the sign with their phones to spread this news even faster.
However, as hard as these volunteers are working to keep the refugees safe, warm and fed, there are too few of them. Refugees are also offered fake paperwork for 20 Euros. On Oct. 9, several refugees — all of whom had bought the fake papers in order to skip the line — took a bus to the border, only to have the entire bus, including passengers with official paperwork, sent back to Presevo after it was well on its way.
Despite all of this, moments of humanity are still evident in Presevo. I saw an officer warming up a child’s hands. And volunteers are working around the clock with great compassion, finding people at night who are sleeping in the street and urging them to move inside tents in the nearby fields.
A family of five was offering to sell their daughter’s gold earrings in order to get on the bus to Croatia, until several Syrian refugees along with a bus driver and a bus coordinator donated money to buy three seats for them, instead.
What’s also amazing is that many refugees maintain a sense of humor. They may run out of money, food and physical strength, but not jokes. “You know that Hell isn’t red fire,”one joke goes. “Hell is an endless queue with wet feet.”
One Iraqi refugee asked me not to take his photo. His friend said to him, “You’re afraid? You think if Saddam came back to life out of the grave, he’d come to Serbia?”