Massive, Menacing, Rust-Brown Gates: the Hungary-Serbia Border Slams Shut
Updated: Sep 19, 2020
The Röszke–Horgoš motorway border on September 15, 2015, was a long, hot, tiring day for everyone involved - be they police, asylum seekers, commercial drivers or even the press.
No Exit: the view looking north from Serbia at the Horgoš - Röszke motorway border non-crossing. It is September 15, 2015. This photo was probably taken around 11.00 am.
After the railway-truck drama on the Monday night and the need to do a live broadcast at about 11.15 for the UK's News at Ten, we didn't get to bed until well past midnight in our Szeged hotel.
And that meant we were a bit sluggish getting going on the Tuesday. I say we, it was the same ITN team as the first week in September: James Mates, European editor, camerman, beer aficionado and Germano-phile Toby Ash, producer Georgina Brewer, Attila the driver and myself.
I suppose we left Szeged a little after 09.00 and headed back to the Röszke–Horgoš motorway border, which we found swarming with police, many lined up on the Magyar side of the line. We eased past, and pulled to the side about 40 metres inside Serbia. This was no-man's land, with the Serb checkpoint 400 metres to the south.
There were already some would-be asylum seekers hanging around, unsure what to do, having been refused entry into Hungary. It was about 09.45, I guess, and these people were as good a place to start work as any for the day. But as we left the van the Hungarian border guards began wheeling a massive, rusted, steel-plated gate across both carriageways of the motorway, severing one of the main Euroroute links from Turkey and the Middle East to western Europe.
We had made it into Serbia by a matter of three-four minutes, and it didn't look as if we, or anybody else would make it back very soon.
Photo: Just inside Serbia, this picture was taken soon after the steel gates had closed the road. The kids shown are almost certainly following their parents, and are heading towards the 'official' gate into the Hungarian reception zone, about 100 metres away behind me, west of the southbound carriageway, seen in this photo. At this point, the crowd has yet to build up.
I remember staring at this menacing barrier in kind of politico-philosophical shock. In 1989, Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs, Poles et al in Soviet-dominated Europe rejoiced at seeing border fences dismantled. Now, a quarter of a century later, Magyars were bringing them back.
Photo: And so they gather in hope. The official entry into the Hungarian reception centre, later to be called the transit zone. For most, it would be an impossibly long wait.
A hundred or so metres to the west, the Hungarians had built a gated reception centre, and rumour spread that they would admit a handful of people every day, so most of the still-small crowd headed that way, spilling into the field on the Serbian side of the border. At one point a scuffle broke out as three young Syrians accused an Afghan of trying to steal their belongings.
Photo: It's still only an hour since the border was barriered and most are simply unsure what to do.
I busied myself trying to find refugees who both spoke English and who would go on camera. The three Syrians were bright, male students, from Homs and Damascus, I think. (I noted all these details down at the time, but as I can't find those notes, I'm doing this now from memory.) One was studying law and was prepared to speak if we didn't show his face – fearing for his family back home. Another, Amer, was an IT man. He later made it to Britain, and now lives in Willesden Green, north London.
Photo: As the crowds built up, the more hot headed went through bouts of chanting demands, though it was all rather mild stuff, with no real aggression.
Photo: Someone suggested a hunger strike until the border was opened. It proved rather half-hearted.
Someone suggested a hunger strike, which was taken up by some, though I doubt many had thought through the real consequences. It faded almost as soon as it had begun. The overall mood was of despair, having made it this far only to see an impenetrable barrier, topped by a coil of razor wire and backed by a line of unsmiling riot police.
Photo: They do protest, but it's all in vain, and they know it. That's Toby with the camera top centre.
I met some interesting people that day. I'd forgotten what little Arabic I'd taught myself in the 1980s, but I would utter “Ah-salaam alekham” - Peace Be Unto You - the Islamic greeting, and try to strike up conversation. As I'd been through Syria in 1984, that helped to build a platform and trust with people from there, but in truth it was difficult to find people both with the right language skills and brave enough to go on camera.
Photo: Time for a yawn. It's early afternoon, and we ain't going nowhere.
An air of resignation has set in. But what to do next? Wait here forever, or take another route?
By mid-afternoon the crowd has swelled to maybe 2,000 – 3,000, sitting, standing, milling around, unsure what to do.
At one point I passed an older man, squatting, alone and looking very depressed. From his haggard face, he appeared like a Pakistani peasant-farmer who'd spent far too many hours tilling the fields of Sind or the Punjab under the burning sun.
There was no chance he'd speak English, but I gave him a “Salaam” to cheer him a little.
He looked up, saw me, and his face beamed. “Alekham salaam” he replied, smiling as if I'd not only made his day, but restored his faith in humanity.
Then I did indeed encounter a Pakistani, a youth from Gujrat, a town north of Lahore. He was 17. His story went like this: his father was a farmer, with a small plot, just about able to provide subsistence for the family. But a local oligarch, no doubt with good, bribable friends in the law enforcement agencies, had made an offer he dare not refuse: take the money on offer - or die.
That money was given to the eldest son. I have a feeling the sum mentioned was $6,000. The son was told to go to Europe and work to support the family back home. It felt like their best chance of survival. “But you're from Pakistan. It's not a country at war. You have no chance of being accepted as a refugee,” I told him, trying to be truthful while sounding sympathetic to his plight.
“What can I do,” he shrugged. “I just have to try.”
A little later, I walked over to a spinney just past the Hungarian reception centre, where people were resting in the shade. I wanted to get a better estimate of the total crowd.
At the other side of the spinney, two young women passed me. Normally, I never spoke or approached women on this work: you just don't do that in the Islamic world. But these two were different. They had a presence that could simply not be ignored.
I turned: “Do you speak English?” I shouted. One, I think she was a medical student, responded. They were sisters, in their twenties, originally from Afghanistan. The younger sister was studying drama. They said they were Hazaras. I confessed ignorance.
“You remember the Bamyan Budhhas?” she asked, referring to the statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. “We are from that area. We speak a dialect of Persian. We are Shia,” she said.
They had fled to Iran from Afghanistan some years earlier because of persecution by the majority Pashtun, who are Sunni. It's a long-running feud, like 1,300 years.
“Well, surely in Iran you would have been welcomed? After all, isn't it the land of Shia idealism?” I responded.
They probably sighed inside at my naivety, but were too polite to show it.
“We couldn't work, we couldn't study. We couldn't do anything legally. We were very much second-class citizens,” the elder said.
They wanted to go to Germany. They didn't look poor, but I had an urge to give them one of the green $100 bills that I'd got in my pocket for earlier TV work. I chickened out. I knew if anyone saw me hand over money to young women how the story would unfold. I wished them well. I didn't have much money myself, but I regret not helping them to this day. I just hope they made it safely. They would be an asset to any society that allowed them in.
Photo: I didn't normally approach women for interviews, but taking piccies was allowed. In truth, they didn't have much choice. I suspect these are Syrians or Iraqis, where brutal Bathist dictatorships did, at least help bring metropolitan women a greater sense of individual freedom and independence than more traditional Arab countries. (I fear a reader will now write in and tell me these pictured are nothing of the sort!)
Sunset was approaching. Tents had already sprouted up on one of the main transport arteries of south-east Europe. There was also a lot of rubbish, despite occasional group efforts at a mass clean up.
Photo: Fake News! How those preparing to overnight here wish it had been "Goodbye Serbia"
A group of maybe 50 men did a kind of “Tower of Babel” spontaneous folk dance - like a three-dimensional rugby scrum - standing on each other's shoulders. It looked impressive. And dangerous for the man up top, maybe six-body heights in the air. Someone said it was a Syrian tradition.
We did two live broadcasts for London, and left the growing shanty town at about 11.30 pm.
A hotel had been found in the nearby town of Palić. If you're ever nearby, it's got a nice zoo. And lovely lake - although my colleague Attila, who grew up nearby - says it contains unexploded NATO bombs containing depleted uranium dating from the 1999 conflict. It's a nice walk of a September morning though.
The next day – Wednesday – we left for the Serbian-Croatian border. It was a mistake.
That afternoon there was a vicious clash at the border crossing of the old, two-lane road from Serbia into Hungary. Many allege it was planned brutality by the Hungarian authorities. They retort that they were defending the country from 'terrorists'.
Whatever, we missed it. But you simply can't win 'em all.
Editorial note: I am normally scrupulous about getting quotations correct. In this case, I have reconstructed the quotes from memory, so they are, in truth, not exact, merely the gist of what was said as best I remember.