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O Balkan Pioneers: Anatomy of an Escape Route

Serbia 234-2Note from the LeftEast editors: This article appeared originally on Antidote Zine and has been reprinted with the kind permission of the author. The images portray scenes in Serbia and Macedonia, December 2015, captured by unnamed photographers; please inquire before reprinting: antidote [at] riseup . net

Perhaps twenty years old, probably younger. Kabul, Afghanistan.

At the transit point in Adaševci, buses arrive in clusters from points further south in Serbia: the border camps of Preševo (on the Serbian-Macedonian border) and Dimitrovgrad (Serbian-Bulgarian), or from Belgrade. In Adaševci, there is a wait—sometimes several hours, sometimes half a day—for the arrival of a Croatia-bound train in the nearby city of Šid. When it comes, the buses deliver travelers to the train station there, from where they are taken to the Croatian border camp in Slavonski Brod. During this wait, once the initial crush of arrival is over (travelers are often not let off the buses for the entire trip, even if the driver stops for a bathroom break himself; meanwhile volunteers meet the arriving buses immediately to distribute food and hygiene items and direct travelers to medical or internet services), everyone gets a little bored. Kids kick a football around on the asphalt: what was once a parking lot in front of what was once a roadside motel. People gather in clumps, smoke cigarettes and converse. They try to distract their babies from the strain of travel with song, laughter and dance. They drink cup after cup of blindingly sweet chai.

Q. noticed me chatting with a companion of his and approached cautiously with a couple other young friends in tow. “You are speaking English,” he gently interrupts. “Do you have a phone my friend could use? To call his brother in France?”

His friend looks young, still a little acned, gawky, and embarrassed to be asking a favor, or worse yet, to have Q. asking one for him. As his friend wanders off chatting excitedly with his brother in France, Q. tells me a little about their journey so far. He is a very polite, earnest, and sweet young economics student, and clearly sees himself as responsible for his young companions. They walked through Bulgaria into Serbia. Familiar stories. Forest, hardship, “adventure.” Bad police. They are happy to be in Serbia now, by comparison.

He said the police have gotten progressively less cruel (but always cruel) as they traversed from country to country: Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia. He asks if this pattern continues as they get closer to Germany. I tell him I don’t want to promise anything, because police are cruel everywhere, but that yes, more or less the pattern holds. His friend returns with my phone, overwhelmed and guardedly ecstatic. He and his brother had exchanged much love, relief, and information. He will go to France.
Serbia 168Q. will go to Germany. His family in Afghanistan has not heard from him in ten days. “I will call them from Austria,” he says quickly, forestalling an offer of my phone that would have embarrassed him.

There is no Balkanroute. There are routes through the Balkans that refugees are attempting, trails that they are blazing, their direction determined by myriad factors: social, political, economic, personal, emotional. Over recent months, these factors have often combined to funnel refugee traffic along a somewhat prescribed path, this is true, but nothing is certain, nothing is defined.

The Balkanroute is not a route. It is tempting to think of it this way, as something discrete, an actual path being trod into the landscape by hundreds of thousands of feet, which changes course occasionally when a fence is built somewhere, but which we could draw (in pencil, please) on a map.

Along this oft-erased and redrawn pencil line we would then mark a dot here, a star there to indicate the various transit points and camps that have taken shape over recent months, at varying degrees of improvisation and institutionalization, which in turn have begun to determine and solidify the shape of the route itself.

But volunteers, activists, and refugees at these transit points know: there is no Balkanroute. The transit point at Adaševci, Serbia, could become a camp tomorrow—they have been preparing for the eventuality, should Croatia decide to close the border, for example—or it could disappear. And even in its current form and with its current status as an established destination for state-provided buses, it is foolish to assume that all—or even a majority—of travelers crossing Serbia move through Adaševci.

Officials would certainly like them to, and many volunteers agree that it is safest. There are smugglers, crooked cab drivers, gangsters and bandits waiting around every corner to take advantage of vulnerable calves who stray from the herd. Obnoxious as this metaphor is, it is not an exaggeration—and I suddenly understand why the slang term for a smuggler of migrants traveling north in the Americas is coyote.

But I digress. The Balkanroute is not a route, it is an ecosystem. It is an organism. It is a “constellation of vital phenomena.” I will continue calling this beast the Balkanroute, and as shorthand I will continue to refer to such vital phenomena as transit point, camp, volunteer, refugee, smuggler, official, and state as if they were meaningful categories. But my main goal is to demonstrate that they are not.

Serbia 254-2A. 
Late twenties. Damascus, Syria.

A. is a refugee-turned-volunteer (not at all a rare phenomenon). He had been in Belgrade for a couple months when I met him at an independently-operated transit point there. At that time, he was only just getting the hang of volunteer life at the transit point, one of three independent spaces for refugees overseen by three independent organizations within five minute’s walk from Belgrade’s central train and bus stations. It is clearly difficult enough for a refugee to find a place to stay in Belgrade (which A. has; he has also applied for asylum in Serbia in order to continue as a volunteer helping other refugees), never mind integrating into a specific community. Even one as open and loving as the volunteer team at this particular transit point. I think it took him a while to discover just how welcome he would be, and it may have taken a while for some volunteers to get used to the idea that not every refugee who lingers in Belgrade longer than a couple of days is a smuggler or a skimmer.

He told me the rest of his family is still back in Syria, and they talk every day. He is mostly confident of their safety, saying that they live in a highly secure part of Damascus. As for his own situation, he was too polite to reveal much. He seems to be relying (very tenderly) on the solidarity of other volunteers to get by day-to-day as an asylum-seeker in Belgrade. This is fine, of course, but is also clearly against his nature.

It is against the nature of almost every refugee I met, regardless of where they were from, to ask for charity. They would much rather be giving it. Every volunteer has a story about refugees offering them their last cigarette, their last sip of water, a blanket off their backs which they were given only moments ago. A. is a case in point, visibly aching for the opportunity to exercise, rather than receive, hospitality. One of the independent organizations in Belgrade should start paying him for his invaluable work as a translator. This would have to be on their initiative. He will never ask.

Along the somewhat official, semi-established Balkanroute (from Turkey to Greece or Bulgaria, up and away through the uneasy countries of the former Yugoslavia until the giant, well-attended reception center in Spielfeld, Austria) there has emerged an archipelago of nodes at which state officials, international NGOs, state aid organizations, and independent/autonomous aid organizations work, in concert and in conflict with one another, to detain, control, shelter, relieve, and inform travelers (in proportions that vary, of course, according to disposition).
Serbia 268I divide these nodes into three categories according to function. Rescue/reception points are the places refugees enter the attended route, usually in very bad shape and after very trying journeys; the most well-known of these are on Greek islands such as Kos, Lesvos, and Samos, but I also consider the Serbian border camp of Dimitrovgrad to be a rescue/reception point considering what people report having undergone in Bulgaria. Transit points are places refugees only pass through: waiting/resting time at a transit point is a matter of hours, not days. At camps, refugees can sleep. Or at least try.

At each node, over the course of the last two to five months, a fragile and contentious hierarchy of institutions has taken shape. Each has the same pecking order (state authorities—international NGOs—state aid organizations—independent/autonomous aid organizations), but the rigidity or fluidity of the hierarchy at each node is completely unique, and also variable over time. Also, position in the pecking order is generally inversely related to the amount of actual direct solidarity and infrastructure work an institution is doing.

I got an idea of what this looks like at its most rigid when a fellow volunteer in Serbia told me about her previous experiences working on a Greek island. She did several night shifts on the beaches as part of a local autonomous rescue and solidarity crew that has been in existence since well before Balkanroute became a term. She spoke of a recalcitrant Coast Guard which occasionally refused to respond to SOS calls, and which would detain new arrivals—cold, wet, unfed, young men mostly, children actually, fourteen-year-olds—in prison conditions, sometimes for days.

The local solidarity organization she was working with would prepare warm food for these detainees, but in order to get it to them, they had to hand it all over to UNHCR, who would then hand it over to the detention center, where the food, now cold, would be distributed by guards, who also stretched out the portions with unseasoned noodles and water. But her organization did this every day anyway, she said, because otherwise the detainees would have no food at all.

At the opposite end of the rigidity spectrum are places that are so new or so hidden that state authorities haven’t organized a response yet, much less begun to exclude and control the autonomous response. There are locations in northern Italy (not on the route, per se, but after it: this is where the first Dublin Regulation deportees from the UK and Germany are ending up) that fit this description, and likely many more elsewhere within countries where skimming and smuggling are most rampant, where travelers could be gathering and lingering in larger numbers away from the relative safety and supervision of the route. There are independent activists operating in the Balkans right now whose primary purpose is to find these places, so that we do not find them as mass graves in the spring.

Then there is Bulgaria, of course. In Bulgaria, it is only police. Local activists and refugees report no meaningful UNHCR presence in Bulgaria. The only official organization administering “aid” is a state “refugee agency” made up largely of police officers. Independent “volunteers” in Bulgaria are generally not aid workers, but rather vigilantes: nationalist gangs hunting and abducting refugees and delivering them into police custody. Although there are local autonomous aid and solidarity groups operating there, they go ‘on the field” only at great risk to themselves, primarily accompanying refugees on foot through the forest, mostly at night, to help them evade all of the above.
Serbia 140-2W.
Thirty-something. Sinjar, Iraq (Yezidi).

A traveling companion and I were hanging around in an autonomous transit point in central Belgrade, our first day there, getting to know some of the volunteers and refugees as they were preparing to close up shop for the day. I approached a pair already in jovial conversation; one of the guys looked at me and said, “You look pretty metal.” “I feel pretty metal, too.”

He introduced himself as W. He is from Sinjar, fleeing ISIS, and was a drummer in a death metal band there. He wants to start another band wherever he ends up, either Holland or Norway. Even though he speaks some German (in addition to Arabic, Kurdish, and English), he would rather learn a fifth language than go where everyone else is going.

We turn to leave, as the volunteer coordinator is gesturing she wants to close the gate, and he asks me if the Dutch or the Norwegians have a problem with nationalists. “It’s a problem all over Europe right now,” I say. He says he understands European nationalism, and understands Europeans’ fear. He fears ISIS, obviously, too. And having traveled from Iraq he is familiar with road stories in the region: that long stretches of migration routes originating in North Africa and traversing Syria are controlled by ISIS. To pass these stretches, migrants need ISIS permission or must use ISIS transport, or risk being killed. W. clarifies that this does not mean all these migrants are ISIS, obviously. But it does mean there has been close contact.

“Oh! watch out!” W. raises his voice suddenly. I duck immediately, narrowly escaping full contact with an air conditioner protruding at forehead level over the sidewalk. I had been concentrating on him and not watching where I was going. “You owe me one,” he said, laughing with understatement.

I should return to Serbia, and some semblance of order. All of my own experience “on the field” was at transit points there that fell somewhere in the goopy middle of the hierarchy-rigidity spectrum. State authorities were present and somewhat threatening in Adaševci—as were UNHCR officials, intermittently—but independent volunteers had quite a bit of room to move around and could have close interactions with refugees on their own terms. Again, it might not have been like that in November, and it might not be like that tomorrow, but that’s the way it was when I was there in late December 2015.
Serbia 223In Belgrade, there was a slight twist on the hierarchy model evident at the transit point where I worked, probably owing to its location in an urban center. There (and at each other Belgrade transit point I visited, each with its own purpose: internet and information at one place; arrangement of temporary lodging and train tickets at another; and direct delivery of solidarity and relief in the form of hot drinks, medical care, showers, shoes, and winter clothing at the last), state authorities were almost entirely absent, if still deeply relevant to the work of volunteers and the movement of refugees.

Instead, the people calling the shots were a mysterious board of directors at the hip cultural center nearby which administers and pays rent on the quite tony property in central Belgrade where the transit point was gradually built out of what was once a loosely defined autonomous artists’ space. Administering the transit point for refugees has won these directors a lot of good publicity as well as undisclosed sums of foreign foundation money, both of which have helped ensure the continued existence of both the cultural center itself and the autonomous artists’ space, which, considering its location, has long been vulnerable to development.

The police and commissariat in Belgrade mostly stay where they belong, in their stations and offices. This is quite welcome, except it means that refugees must go to them in order to sort out their traveling papers, in case they haven’t done so already, before continuing to Adaševci, Šid, and Croatia (or whatever route they choose). There are lines out the door in the freezing cold at the police station every morning, often forming as early as six o’clock.

In the short portrait of W. above, readers may have noticed that the transit points in Belgrade close each afternoon. If this seems strange to you, especially considering that refugee trains arrive in Belgrade from Preševo and Dimitrovgrad at all hours of the day and night, it also seems strange to volunteers, who, as I also alluded to above, do the most work and have the least say.

I was in Belgrade over the New Year’s holiday, and the board of hipsters in charge of the transit point decided to close the point entirely for both the first and second of January. Recognizing that refugees don’t get holidays, volunteers and coordinators self-organized and did our work anyway, delivering shoes, jackets, blankets, toothbrushes, food, and tea off-site in parks and at the train station instead.

Couldn’t be thirty. Morocco.

R. is also a refugee-turned-volunteer. He has lived in Belgrade for over a year now, with his wife. He has family in the city that has been there for longer, and he has been able, through them, to work on-and-off and become part of a community. He has also become part of the shifting community of volunteers and refugees at an independently-operated transit point in Belgrade.

“Belgrade is actually quite a beautiful city,” he commented to me once as I was taking a picture of one of the grand bridges over the Sava river. I looked at him. “And it’s not as cold this winter as last winter.” There he goes, looking on the bright side. Earlier he had been telling me about his life as an Arab-looking person in Serbia. Not so bright, it seems. He has had confrontations with police and with racist gangs. His house was raided after the Paris attacks. (In Belgrade.) The cops found him and a relative on the street—they were both at work—and ushered them off to their respective homes, saying they had gotten photo tips identifying them as persons of interest.

They turned R.’s apartment upside down. His wife was there. They were both questioned, and their unwelcome guests didn’t leave until the early hours of the morning. He told me that he tried to explain to the cops that what they are looking for doesn’t exist and that these traumatic scenes they are inflicting on innocent Muslims are only going to push the most desperate into extremism. Brave man.

Aside from that, he says there is a lot of racism in Serbia—perhaps because Serbs have had so little contact otherwise with darker-skinned visitors, he thinks. He feels like he sticks out. He has gotten yelled at, pushed around. He says there has been much more hostility in the last couple of months than before.

One day at a transit point in a Belgrade park, a young Syrian man, early twenties, arrived leaning heavily on a crutch and clearly in tremendous pain—though he also clearly had no tears left. Some other refugees had found him in a Macedonian forest, where five days before he had been beaten by smugglers and left to die. His leg was broken. But he had to register and get refugee travel papers from the Serbian authorities before he could be treated at a hospital.

R. accompanied him on this awful odyssey, along with a pair of other volunteers, who all together had the combined languages necessary to get a delirious Arabic-speaking man expedited through a normally recalcitrant Serbian bureaucracy. R. stayed with the man until late in the evening in hospital. He said that the man wanted to continue his journey as soon as possible, and would board a train to Šid the next day if they would let him. I don’t blame him.

The last two terms I have yet to define/un-define are smuggler and skimmer. Sorry to have held out on you for so long. Both characters are present on both sides of the imagined border between refugees and officials, and both, as usual, take many different forms. Smugglers, as we have seen, are the really bad dudes. What distinguishes them from the less-malicious skimmers is that they actually physically take custody of people and promise to deliver them to this or that destination for a fee. In Bulgaria, refugees report paying 3,000 euros to get smuggled from “safe house” to “safe house” where people often stay, crammed in with as many as fifty people to a room, for a couple of days at a time in miserable conditions.
Serbia 209-2Just this weekend it was reported that thirty refugees escaped from a locked semi trailer in Macedonia. Smugglers in that country as well as Serbia could be mafia-connected or independently operating truck or taxi drivers; there are daily reports of refugees paying large sums to be taken across the border from Macedonia to Serbia only to be left, penniless and disoriented, sometimes beaten, in the middle of nowhere. There are also reports of the most vulnerable refugees, including families with small children, being snapped up by smugglers making big promises and then simply held for ransom.

Depending on the location, smugglers may be known to authorities as well as volunteers. Depending on the location, they may even be in cahoots with authorities. A volunteer in Adaševci told me she witnessed the arrival of a much-sought missing Afghan girl, whose parents are still in Turkey, in the company of several smugglers in a van; there was much commotion as refugees and volunteers recognized the girl, but police only perfunctorily questioned the men and sent them away.

Some of the more brazen skimming that goes on, I also witnessed in Adaševci. Skimming is when operators on the semi-established route give bad information, scalp bus or train tickets, or otherwise find ways to charge refugees out the nose for things they would be receiving at solidarity prices or for free. The amounts refugees told me they paid for the bus ride from Preševo varied widely, but were also multiples of what I was told the official bus company was charging (which also varied). It seems the bus drivers—who are also being paid measly wages for a stultifying job, it should be said, sometimes traversing the entire country twice in one day in poorly maintained, filthy vehicles—had started setting their own prices.

But refugees themselves also engage in skimming, just as they also occasionally engage in smuggling. In Belgrade, it was a volunteer’s job to explain to new arrivals where to turn for free or reduced-price accommodation and for train tickets to Šid at the standard fare (five euros). It turns out that this is an easy system to game: once you find your free bed in Belgrade, you can show up to meet arriving trains and buses, and tell travelers you can organize them a train ticket to Šid for sixty euros a head. Not a bad racket, and you’re not hurting anyone. But many refugees I talked to in Adaševci arrived there out of money. Everyone wanted to know if it was true that the trains in Croatia were free. I could only say I hope so.

 Twenty-something. Mosul, Iraq.

E. learned English playing video games online and watching American movies (he said, grinning, that his favorite English teacher was Angelina Jolie). He said it happened as if all of the sudden: one day he heard some American soldiers chatting in the street and found himself actually listening to their conversation. “I understood what they were talking about. I thought, ‘Holy shit, I know English!’”

He and his companions took the overland route from Turkey into Greece. They were surprised how easy it was to cross that border. They still had to ninja it up a little bit (my words, not E.’s), but that was something apparently kind of fun and exciting.
FirstSnowInMacedonia-2But then they got to Macedonia. On the border into that country from Greece, E. said he saw a man get thrown into a razor-wire fence by a cop for simply stepping out of line. It happened just meters away from him. “How do you do something like that to a person?”

He is going to Sweden to study. It doesn’t matter what, he says. He just wants to learn. It is all he wants to do in life. After the 2003 invasion, his father more or less forbade him to leave the house, which meant no school allowed. “I am the only son with six sisters,” he clarifies, “so he really didn’t want anything to happen to me.” E. is Kurdish, speaks four languages, will learn a fifth (Swedish), and is girl-crazy. He developed a crush on a volunteer serving tea in Adaševci, and asked me with a wink if I thought he had a chance. “But I left my phone in Mosul so I wouldn’t lose it!” he deadpans, clenching a fist in mock dejection. By the way, Q. and his friends did have their phones taken by police in Bulgaria, which is why they needed mine.

Bulgaria. That’s where it seems autonomous solidarity work is most needed, where people are the most vulnerable and desperate. Also, Macedonia, probably Albania soon, and Italy. And Greece. And northern France. Not that Serbia is fine. Oh dear. O Balkan pioneers. Many of you may be returning soon to these countries you are passing through. We are giving you shoes, a can of sardines, diapers and powder formula for your baby, and some kind words, and then sending you…where? To the Jungle in Calais? To years of degradation and humiliation in good, brave Germany—or perhaps just weeks of it before they Dublin you back to Bulgaria, like they promised they wouldn’t?

This is why autonomous solidarity work on the Balkanroute will always be inadequate, even futile, as long as nation-states continue to behave like nation-states. This is why it makes no sense to think of “Europe” as a coherent entity, or of the Balkanroute as a flight path with a beginning and an end.

One final thought: anyone following the ongoing—sorry, escalating—horrors in Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere knows that the numbers of people setting out to seek refuge in Europe is very unlikely to decline any time soon. In our last full article about the Balkanroute, the message was “Winter is Coming.” Now, it is “Spring is Coming.” Somebody is going to have to get their shit together soon. We know that state governments won’t. It’s still up to us.

EdSuttonBioEd Sutton is a musical instrument builder by trade, lives in Switzerland and writes about radical urban and social justice movements at Antidote Zine.