The ‘Balkan Route’ is No Such Thing

I met an 18-year-old last week, who had walked from Bangladesh to Belgrade. The circles under his eyes formed hypnotic spirals. His gaze had all the qualities of an icepick. It made me feel two-dimensional. His passport, phone, and money had all been taken from him, somewhere outside the city. His companion was in a hospital in Greece. It was his intention to keep marching, at least to Berlin, I suppose. Somewhere solid and stable and West. If only we could let him use the computer for a few minutes, so he could message his aunt over Facebook…

After a plate of beans he sat as if asleep, his eyes open. I asked a friend from Iraq if we could use his phone, so that our Bangladeshi friend could contact his companion in Greece. There was no chit chat. We didn’t exchange names. The three of us just looked at each other.

It’s not clear to me where he went. He hung around our Aid Center for two days and promptly disappeared. Maybe he looped backwards to Greece, to think of a new way forward. Or he could be trekking through some pathless forest in Bosnia right now. We were unfortunately sparse with advice- the authorities yawn over asylum requests, the refugee camps have become holding cells, and the neighboring countries have lined their borders with barbed wire and screaming neo-Nazis.

What to do? In all likelihood the worst is behind him. He’s made it across half of the continent already. What hasn’t he seen? Something in his cold eyes says that he doesn’t believe us and our entreaties to register for camp. He thinks that we’re not for real here at the Aid Center, that we are not what we seem, that the Balkan route is no such thing.

Balkan Hopscotch/the Bizarro Refugee Café-

Most days it’s pretty quiet at the Aid Center. The lights are kept low; the tea in our giant samovar is warm. We have boxes of beans stacked behind the counter, crates of good bread. We serve breakfast at 9, a bun and black tea, to whoever comes in. We all know each other by now. Contrary to international coverage, the refugee population here in Belgrade seems to be mostly young men. They arrive for breakfast in large groups of 5 or 6. They come in completely awake but not in the mood to talk. The Aid Center has given a few who’ve requested sleeping bags, but I think most of them sleep on the sooty concrete of Belgrade.

Every day is more or less the same, with more or less the same faces. Right now a young Syrian, Hussein,* is our assistant. He’s on the route to Germany with his father. His family life was destroyed in Syria and his mother killed. He is twelve years old, but frequently lies and says he is thirteen. He wears a broad-rimmed New Era every day. I’m amazed at his humor and good-nature. His father looks like an older fellow, stoic, at least 60, weathered by stress and the insanity of the world. He looks at his son with a proud half-smile at the energy and resilience in him.

Hussein is up in the morning and we’re giving everyone tea. He is approximately half my height. We execute our flawless high five. He doesn’t eat his bun until every other possible person has gotten one. I eat one and feel bad about it.

Breakfast ends when the bun boxes are empty, which doesn’t take long. I take up my broom. The world outside rages, everything in here is now calm. I’m still fresh-faced, still an idealist, still an eager pawn with my mop and broom. I sweep by the computer bay, where every seat is occupied. Another Syrian, Karim*, is watching some mad samurai anime. I stand by, transfixed. The cartoon is Youtube-bootlegged Satsuki, with Arabic subtitles. There’s a group of 3, in the quiet dim, watching with the sound off. I was touched by this scene, this chill-out session in such sorrowful context. I feel the calm come over me, too.

The broom pulls bun-flakes. The screen flashes and lights our faces with the primary colors… I see the expression on Karim. His is the saddest face I’ve ever seen. His eyes are outlined by a blood color, deep moons under them. He could be twenty or fifty, seventeen or dead, at peace or losing it by degrees. It’s as if he wants to, but can’t weep. I can’t understand. I shut my mouth. Satsuki ends. Another episode begins.

We make coffee and sit on our asses. We man the front desk and begin to crack jokes, talk about the news; the infamous Serbian black-humor over black Turkish coffee. I think about Karim and how watching children’s cartoons in a refugee center is probably the very last thing he wants to be doing with his life. Karim just appeared one day. No one seems to be sure who he is travelling with. Like many of the Syrians I’ve met, he is a remarkably gentle fellow, you can’t help but notice. I think about how we would be fantastic friends had we met in school, in work, in any context.

Maybe we are friends- we talk a little using google translate. He says there are thieves about and his face is disappointed and weary. I say ‘the situation is so hard…’ and the words appear in Arabic…

‘The situation is horrible.’

Anxious journalists from Britain and Spain arrive, one of them every couple weeks. They sweep the Aid Center with their eyes, full of decent intentions, and ask the calm staff how they’re managing such a bizarre reality. ‘We’re Serbs, we know what is crisis.’ The Western journalists would usually scram after a twenty minute talk. Occasionally we would receive requests to make special ‘scenes’ for their cameras. ‘We need a young male, no beard, ill. He has to be sick.’

Okay. Things are different on the other side of the TV screen. The crisis, however, is not show business. Generally the abject misery of everyone, palpable beneath the stoic calm preserved, vastly outweighed the joking, flirting, and life. Many afternoons were spent watching kung fu movies, playing soccer, listening to Biggie Smalls. You get very quickly immunized to sights of sadness. Thusly the roses in the cracks make a bigger impression.

There is rarely violence or even arguments. The refugees are good-humored, grateful, and patient with us. It’s the staff, a particular one or two of them, who are stiff and troublesome. This is an NGO, full of NGO types, caffeinated do-gooders and social scientists; and yet years in the trenches of an international crisis would fray the nerves of even the most good-natured. I would like to lay a basic fact before anything that might be taken as criticism: the 3 or 4 NGOs operating in Belgrade are the only ones doing anything. There’s probably about 80 people (mostly very young Serbian women) managing one of the largest migration crises in human history. Yes, you will see the intimidating capitalized ‘UN’ everywhere, with the logos of USAID and other abbreviations, but where are the people? What you see is what you get. No camera tricks here. Every day they find ways to lighten the mood, to help people laugh, still bringing their utmost focus. They are completely acclimated to the hectic Migration Crisis that has the international governance of Europe in a cold sweat.

Even in the calm of the mid-morning you can feel you’re walking in a special zone, where the pressure is higher, every glance a different meaning; the situation here will boil you down to your make-up. I’m not a strong person, but I work hard. Some of the activists’ hearts are like geodes, crystals protected by something stern and rough. But they can’t move too much. They have to preserve their energy for the tricky stuff, people without papers, without plans, without money.

We’re not saints here. Among us is an ill-humored bartender with a penchant for screaming at people for using the women’s bathroom (the only one that works) or for asking for another cup of tea. ‘He’s really burned-out’ explains the staff psychologist. ‘Or is he just an idiot?’ I want to say. As a lowly volunteer, who everyone suspects of being a journalist, I have to keep my mouth shut. And I do.

Ah, but how soon I, too, would figure out what ‘burned-out’ means.

Lunch rolls around. This is the worst time; not because of the work involved, but because of the disorganization of the NGO. It seems that the staff is not all together on how, and to whom, food should be given. The split is between the sympathetic and the pragmatic hardline. The sympathetic here are not automatically the more timid. They usually win the daily argument, but service to the refugees is nonetheless reluctant and condescending, stooping to a petty sadism. One of the staff resents being talked to as if he’s a waiter, ‘they talk like I’m working for them,’ he says to me in English. ‘This is not a restaurant,’ is a frequent refrain.  Ah, well, we do work for them, you guys. The would-be waiter bestows a half-loaf of Refugee Aid Center bread like he’s God, zapping the wilting fingertips of Adam, with a frown and head turned away.

Indeed I could dwell on this character, the relish and whimsy with which he decides who gets to eat and live, but I won’t get carried away. It’s worth mentioning that he’s a foreigner to the Balkans, himself. In personal conversations he is amiable and charming, even warm.

Regardless, shouting matches ensue between the proud waiter and the insulted refugees. Our supervisor chews him out and Hussein the twelve-year-old and I laugh behind the counter.

I cannot stress how fundamentally awkward the food rule is. Every volunteer has remarked upon it in some manner. Like any bureaucracy in Serbia, there are rules in place, but when and to whom they are applied depends on how rainy the afternoon, how you slept last night, how charming or blessed you can look as you ask for a meal. This capriciousness stems in part from our immaturity and incompetency, but also from the thorough lunacy and absurd cruelty of the larger situation. A feedback loop seems to be whirling between the two, inside our heads. Patience and benevolence and grace wear thin- one fellow lost it one recent afternoon and hurled a brick through our front door. We could’ve just given him beans. Now we need a new door.

Indeed, prior to The Brick, there were several afternoons where the door was blocked with a hungry crowd, and all of us inside sweating, making hundreds of take-away lunches. We were close to just hurling bread into the crowd like Bolsheviks or the Jacobins. Apparently the police caught wind of this all-too-human development and sent the Commissary with the New Rules after us. Everyone got pissed off. Spirits were low in the days following.

As the founder and headman of the Aid Center told me, ‘we’re swimming between legal rocks, the game got complicated’ as the borders tightened and closed. The reaction of government rhetoric was ambivalent and included bald point-scoring with the EU, later devolving into a shrugging apathy. As the crisis begins to stagnate, the apathy turns to vinegar and malevolence. In late November we received a directive from the cops, with a following inspection (several following inspections) from the Commissariat. The cops say we’re not aiding enough to control the refugees- that, in fact, we are sustaining a giant homeless population on the streets of Belgrade, giving them free food and making the situation a bit too live-able.

After six weeks I admit I feel burned-out. It’s not that we’re working especially hard at our refugee café- it’s not exhaustion, it’s a certain vertigo, delirium. Nothing is as it seems here. We have parameters we can work within. We have powerful people we certainly don’t want to piss off. How is it that xenophobia manifests through complacency; through the Commissariat’s conscious lack of action? How is it that the rational legal processes are enforcing an unrealistic insanity? How is it that the enforcers of peace, the police, only create misery?

Hussein the twelve-year-old doesn’t listen to my philosophizing. He isn’t as surprised as me. In the dimness we sit on top of the many boxes of beans, their distribution being illegal. I eat the end of a bread loaf. Hussein shares his beans with me. It means everything to me.

Many of the volunteers express their reluctance to form any opinion on this situation. A volunteer from Belgium, a marine biologist by training, admitted her uneasiness at the discrepancy between the Western politics she sees at home and the Eastern hopes she’s witnessing in Belgrade.

‘It’s strange… that… everyone here thinks there’s, somewhere to go. There’s nowhere to go!’ She gives me a bewildered look, a weird smile. Activists in other organizations do not shy away from admitting the situation is hopeless. We wouldn’t say such a thing in ours, but it’s in all of our hearts.

How difficult it is to articulate the situation in Serbia. Refugees are deposited, pushed here from all sides. The Balkan route is turning more into a merry-go-round of Kafka’s design, complete with beatings and thievery (from the Law’s side, mind you.) Our Aid Center is some twisted café, guests blown in with the wind wounded and traumatized. We sit drinking strong black tea that makes your stomach turn, speaking completely unrelated languages, Urdu and Kurdi, Serbian and Arabic, French and Farsi. Pantomime works better than google translate. We keep the lights down low, as if to ward off the despair that we know clarity would bring.

The Alice in Wonderland kafana of geopolitical refugees. The violent Kafka Ferris wheel of the make-believe Balkan route. Try not to judge us, your humble staff. It’s hard work. The merry gang of social workers sweeps the streets and brings us the new arrivals. At the refugee café we convince people to register with the cops and the commissariat and persuade them to pick a camp, any camp. This is a simple machine.

‘What’s Going On?’-

The whole situation is a great ambiguity – you can’t get the sense of it from any of the coverage available. In reality, most of the refugees in Belgrade seem to consciously avoid being sent to the camps. They don’t want to go. The camps are in periphery towns, guarded and controlled- in some cases the refugees can’t leave them which indicates that they’re something closer to a detention center than a refugee camp. At least in Belgrade they can come and go as they wish, and get food and supplies as they need. I also suppose that some are waiting for a smuggler, or waiting for friends and family to catch up with them in the city.

The truth, actually, makes less sense. Really, there isn’t anywhere to go. The borders are closed and the cops have no sympathy. Western European states, self-observed paragons of humanity and modernity, are directly guilty of senseless, despicable cruelty beyond the incompetence and cowardliness of their general inaction. A recent story in the Guardian  reports how a little girl was hit by a train after being forced to return from Croatia to Serbia. She was killed in the night and her family forced to bury her without the religious rites, in a foreign land.

The situation is quickly boiling down to a very base disjunction. In Europe, where there isn’t open racism and antipathy towards the refugees, there is every attempt to avoid direct action, even bargaining with non-EU states to keep the refugees farfar from Fortress Europe.

I can’t find the words to ask my comrades at the Aid Center: are we really helping the refugees along their way, with bus tickets to a hostile camp, plates of lukewarm beans, and chit chat; or are we actually just turning the gears of the gate, unwittingly doing the bidding of the abusive authorities? In our minor, humble attempt to serve, are we aiding their journey to Europe, or are we just luring them into detention? Many of them have walked half the world to get to Berlin; from Bangladesh to Belgrade, aren’t we breaking their momentum, just short of their goal?

Is our NGO heart-operation actually a façade, felicity to cruelty? More frankly, is following the law really even the right thing to do at this point?

We aren’t evil, I think the balance of our pros and cons strikes positive. I remember the enthusiasm of Hussein and our other assistants, how happy they were to help the other refugees, how much peace they got from working, making food and pouring tea. They were always eager to do anything; get supplies, clean, translate from Arabic to English. This enthusiasm was encouraged by the NGO, to the extent that most of the work was done by the refugees themselves. Anyone who could be of service stepped up. They were gladly willing to break out of their role as dispossessed and in-need, to be working and improving their own situations. There is a spirit of camaraderie here that I’ve never felt anywhere.

The Aid Center focuses remaining energy to documenting the stories of women on the road. They interview different refugees and compile accounts. The operation requires several translators, from Arabic to Serbian to English, as well as a resident psychologist and a resident poet who compose the accounts into narratives. The product of this is extremely potent. It could change the hearts of Europe if given the right channels. There is no truer, and more powerful, account of the situation available.

So now you see how we idle and maintain here in Belgrade, right at the doorstep to everybody’s dream. In the face of Europe’s resounding ‘No,’ a chorus ranging from the far right to the center left, we continue to improvise and tread water. We share music, jokes, stories. We know the Syrians of today were the Yugoslavs yesterday. On the outside of everything, yet in the eye of the storm, things take on a brief clarity. It’s sitting under everyone’s tongues, hanging with the insomniac moons under our eyes- we know what Europe needs. Europe can’t face that. The circumstances seem to ask the impossible of us: a positive mass affirmation of common humanity. How many countless passages of the Testaments exhort us to do the same? Angela Merkel’s original offer to house a million refugees was hopeful. The first response was the correct one, the only practical one: ‘Yes, come, share our land, make our home your home, together it will be our home again.’

Here in Belgrade we’re keeping a finger on the pulse of Europe, and everyone is aware of where things stand- yet ask yourself: if you had walked from Bangladesh to Belgrade, how would being pushed out at Hungary feel? In all likelihood the worst would be behind you- so there’s no turning back. And there’s no staying put. All aboard the Balkan Express!


Cover photo credit: Fotomovimiento/flickr/some rights reserved

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Niko Popovich

Niko Popovich was born in Arizona and finished his studies at the state university. After graduation he sold all of his worldly possessions on the internet and fled to the Balkans, without any real plan in mind. He's not heavily inspired for more schooling, and would like to do more journalism, continue learning Serbian off the streets, and find beautiful friendships. Eventually he would like to rejoin productive society and make his family and friends proud, but that's not today. And not tomorrow. You can follow him on Twitter: @android_eros