Awakening to the Reality of War: A Journey Along the Refugee Trail
Novelist Navid Kermani and photographer Moises Saman recently traveled for SPIEGEL from Budapest through the Balkans to Turkey. They tell of Europe's treatment of immigrants who almost all have the same destination: Germany.
It was a strangely softened Germany I had left. In the train stations of major cities, foreigners lay on green foam mats amid travelers rushing to catch their trains. But no one tried to shoo them away or saw them as a public nuisance. On the contrary, Germans wearing bright yellow vests kneeled next to the foreigners to serve them tea and sandwiches. While other countries were harassing the foreigners, so much so that they escaped on foot along highways, Germany was sending special trains to pick them up, and wherever they arrived, it was to the applause of local residents, and even mayors, standing along the platform.
From one day to the next, even the most xenophobic newspapers were telling the life stories of these foreigners, accounts of war, oppression and the rigors and dangers of their journeys so impressive that even Germany's more conservative citizens would have trouble opposing their rescue. Citizens' initiatives were formed in cities and villages -- not in opposition to, but in support of these new neighbors. Football teams in the German Bundesliga affixed stickers to their jerseys with slogans welcoming the refugees, and the most popular actors and singers railed against anyone who refused to display solidarity.
Yes, there was also hate for the foreigners, there were attacks, but this time politicians immediately lent their support to those who were being threatened and paid visits to the hostels where they were staying. Even the chancellor, Germany's sedate and sober-minded chancellor, who had reacted helplessly to a crying Palestinian girl only a few weeks earlier, stunned her fellow Germans with her emotional defense of the right to political asylum. Not to mention the government: Was it still the same one that had, just months ago, criticized louder than any other government in Europe Italy's "Mare Nostrum" program to rescue migrants and refugees on boats in the Mediterranean? And then the state -- the German state: To care for hundreds of thousands of new refugees went way beyond all possible forecasts, and still worked surprisingly well. Grumbling over the fact that schools could no longer use their gymnasiums was kept to a whisper, and any cost estimates that foresaw Germany needing to take on fresh debt were also kept quiet. And what if another million refugees arrive next year, and possibly even more in the year after that? It was a strangely softened Germany I had left, a country whose gray, stern, unwelcoming aspects seemed somehow coated with powdered sugar. Just as I was leaving, I couldn't help but think how easily powdered sugar is blown away.
From the veranda of my hotel, I look out at the Turkish coast, only a few kilometers away, on the other side of the Mediterranean. It is 8:30 a.m., and just as I write this sentence, the first refugees come walking around the corner. Judging by their appearance and the bits of conversation I can hear, they are a group of Afghan men whose rubber dinghy appears to have landed on Lesbos without significant difficulties. Unlike many other refugees who, out of fear of the police, land their boats on rocky or steep, brush-covered shorelines, or whose boats are hopelessly overcrowded, these men seem neither soaked nor suffering from extreme cold. Having survived the most dangerous leg of their journey, they look happy, even jaunty, as they chat and joke with each other, as one would on a weekend excursion. What they don't know is that they still have a long walk ahead, 55 kilometers (34 miles) to the port of Mytilini, in the hot sun and cold nights, without food, sleeping bags or warm clothing. The United Nations hasn't chartered enough buses to pick them up.
As I write, the next group is already walking past the hotel, Afghans again, except that this time, one of them is an unveiled young woman in jeans, most certainly a city dweller. This is unusual. Almost all Afghans I have encountered on my journey along the refugee route from Budapest across the Balkans to Lesbos are from rural areas, speak no language other than Dari and are clearly not the skilled workers and engineers the German economy is hoping for.
"Why are all of you coming here?" I asked yesterday, when I took along groups of the elderly, women and children in our small Jeep, with nine or 10 people crowded in each time. "What do you expect to find in Germany?"
"Work," they replied, "schools, and a little safety. There is no future in Afghanistan."
"But why is everyone leaving now?" I asked. "There was no future in Afghanistan last year, either."
"They said on TV that Germany is accepting refugees," they told me, one after another, to explain why they had embarked on their journey in early September. Most sold their belongings and made their way across Iran, ultimately traversing the mountains on foot into Turkey without spending money on accommodations or hot food, hired a trafficker in Izmir, who often demanded more from them than the agreed upon price of 1,400, only to discover that their boat was so overcrowded they had to throw their luggage overboard. Arriving on Lesbos empty-handed and often with no money, they wondered how they would ever reach Germany. Shit, I thought to myself, this isn't what the Germans meant to happen when they announced they would welcome refugees.
They would need 65 for the ferry to Piraeus, I told them, and 40 for the bus to the Macedonian border, the train through Macedonia was free, and then they would need another 35 for the bus through Serbia, the trains and buses they would take across Croatia, Hungary and Austria before reaching Germany would be free. The aid organizations had set up tents at the border and they would probably manage the night, although there wasn't always enough room, and, starting in Macedonia, they would be provided with a little food and diapers. And yes, the borders were still open, but no one knew for how long.
When I arrived in Budapest, the capital of the European country known for its hostility towards strangers, I was surprised to see no foreigners at all aside from the usual tourists. When I traveled out of downtown Budapest, the faces in the subways remained white and Hungarian was the only language to be heard. Even in John Paul II Park, where thousands were stuck in August and then began to leave the city by walking along a highway, prompting Chancellor Merkel's impulsive decision to open the German border, there was not a single refugee in sight.
I had arranged to meet with Júlia, Eva and Stefan, who had joined many other volunteers in helping the refugees in the park. Back in July, they had no idea they would become activists -- they were leading ordinary lives as a translator, a psychologist and a financial adviser, and they weren't even particularly interested in political affairs. But then, in early August, they were confronted with the suffering of refugees on their own doorstep, and found themselves speaking with the migrants who were neither the freeloaders nor the terrorists state television had made them out to be, but actually people just like them, some were even translators, psychologists and financial advisers. Aside from the very sporadic deliveries of aid supplies by the Red Cross and other organizations, the care of thousands of refugees over a period of several weeks depended on the work and donations of local Budapest residents.
The government painted a disparaging picture of the volunteers by claiming they were being paid by George Soros, evoking old anti-Semitic sentiments while simultaneously arousing anti-Muslim feelings. Government billboards could be seen on the streets featuring an attractive Hungarian woman saying she had something against illegal immigrants -- after the government had declared that all migrants who did not enter the country legally were criminals. Other billboards told the foreigners to respect Hungarian culture or reminded them that in Hungary, one spoke Hungarian. But the exhortations to the foreigners were in Hungarian, making it clear that voters were the true addressees, not the foreigners.
The propaganda served only to strengthen the volunteers' solidarity to the point that now, when there were no longer any refugees in Budapest, they were still getting together. Instead of Hungarian television, she now watches CNN and Al-Jazeera, said Eva, the psychologist, a blonde woman in her forties, wearing an elegant red dress. No matter what they did, she said, the refugees repaid it with gratitude and by offering them insights into other worlds. She had become a real expert on the Middle East, Eva said with a laugh. She said she also knew she was in the minority in Hungary, and that few outside the cities felt the way she did. After all, she explained, one reason the government had not provided for the refugees in parks and at train stations was that it knew they would become filthy and, yes, begin to stink, and that people would be afraid of them, especially of the young men at night. Even her own 16-year-old son grumbled when she took in a Syrian family that had been walking for three days, and he made sure they hadn't stolen anything.
Author György Dragomán, who in his early 40s is already one of the country's best-known writers, sat down and joined us in the café. Yes, he said, he too was living in a bubble. Surveys maintained that 70 percent of Hungarians supported Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's migrant policy, yet no one he knew was part of that 70 percent, he said. All of his acquaintances and fellow writers despised the government. It isn't a good idea to meet only with like-minded people, he said, but the unfortunate truth is that Hungarian society is deeply divided. There aren't even public debates in which people could express their opposing views on the issues. Besides, he asked, what would they discuss? All this talk about Christian Europe is nothing but a farce, he explained, noting that the government had no interest in Christianity until recently, that it had invoked pagan traditions of a Greater Hungary and advocated closer ties with the East and loosening ties with the European Union. But now, said Dragomán, Orbán suddenly claimed to care about women's rights, even though there are no female cabinet ministers in his government. Orbán is taking advantage of the refugee crisis to fuel fears of foreigners throughout Europe and promote his ideas about homogeneous cultures. In the end, the writer asked, the real question is: Do we want Europe or don't we? And although, Muslims are the primary focus of Hungary's xenophobic government, he explained, it is in fact targeting anyone who deviates from the norm: homosexuals, Jews, the Roma, critical media and members of the opposition.
I jokingly asked whether he had considered applying for political asylum in another country. "If they start censoring my books," Dragomán replied, "I will leave Hungary."
The next group is already arriving, the third in half an hour; once again, it consists of 40 to 50 refugees, but this time it includes entire families, even babies. Some are carrying gold and silver insulating blankets over their shoulders, which crackle in the wind, they had obviously been soaked and freezing cold, and they were helped by the volunteers who have spread out along the northern coast of Lesbos waiting for the migrants' rubber dinghies. It is a strange and at times almost macabre sight to see the refugees, unasked, being -- "welcome, welcome!" -- hugged by longhaired men and scantily clad women wearing bright yellow vests. If I were an Afghan, I might consider turning around and going back.
Oh, that's unfair. With the Greek government doing absolutely nothing -- but doesn't Greece have a leftist government? -- the volunteers are doing great things on Lesbos, as they hand out clothing, blankets, sandwiches and water. There are doctors who have broken off their vacations to care for invalids and comfort traumatized migrants. And isn't it touching to see people from different cultures mingling among the volunteers, with even Israeli and Muslim NGO workers sitting together in the local tavernas in the evening? Still, some activists are filled with such self-righteousness, such paternalism vis-à-vis the refugees -- on top of an aggressively holier-than-thou attitude -- it leaves one at times longing for the good old Samaritans or the Salvation Army. On the northern coast of Lesbos, volunteers get a sense of just how good it feels to do good. It doesn't seem to occur to these tattooed and scantily clad individuals that their concept of freedom might not match the one of the Afghans and Syrians of both genders they are -- "welcome, welcome!" -- so warmly embracing.
On the other hand, perhaps the culture shock many migrants experience upon arrival is good preparation for the West and its sometimes very curious freedoms. And the reporters, especially the photographers, waiting for migrants and refugees on the northern coast of Lesbos are also not always the epitome of tact. Some run into the water with their cameras to be the first to reach the boats, shouting at volunteers to get out of the picture. There are altercations here and there, and I once witnessed a fight between volunteers and photographers. A camera team even read me the riot act because I had blocked the road for three minutes when I stopped to allow wet women and children to climb into the Jeep.
Because Hungary had closed its border with Serbia to refugees, we drove from Budapest to id on the Serbian border with Croatia. Just as we arrived at the small border crossing, Croatian officials had finally decided to allow refugees who had been waiting for days in a cemetery between the two border posts to enter Croatia. Behind the gravestones, we could see what they had left behind: tents, diapers, water bottles, Christian missionary brochures in several different languages, empty food cans, blankets. The European border regime began a few kilometers down the road: The refugees were loaded into prison buses and driven to a camp near the Croatian town of Opatovac. They didn't seem bothered when they were finally allowed to get out, but rather relieved that they were even making progress again. No one complained when they were forced to stand in line for hours to be registered: And there were even occasional smiles.
By chance, I interviewed Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostoji, who had emerged from his official car dressed in hiking pants, as if he too were about to start walking to Germany; three or four Croatian journalists had been told about the visit in advance, but, alas, not the international media, so I was taken to the minister without being asked. He assured me that Croatia was treating the refugees decently, and he said that I was welcome to form my own opinion about procedures, that cots were available, sufficient food, doctors and even showers. He was particularly proud to report that no refugee remained in Croatia for longer than 24 hours.
Provided there is sufficient capacity, the Croatian interior minister said, once the refugees have been registered they are immediately brought to the nearest train station, where they are taken in special trains to Hungary. Hungary? Yes, to Hungary -- yet another oddity in these European times: Hungary boasts about defending its border with Serbia against the onslaught of refugees with fences and barbed wire, and then quietly allows the same refugees to enter the country from Croatia, as long as they are immediately taken to Austria on free buses. Of course, this belies the notion of European solidarity, but those who complain about other countries opening their borders merely to rid themselves of refugees should be reminded that Germany, too, was opposed to a fair distribution of refugees so long as the Greeks and Italians were the ones bearing most of the burden. The refugee crisis began long before it came to Germany's attention.
What would happen if Germany closed its borders, I asked the Croatian interior minister. "That's impossible," he replied. "What do mean, it's impossible?" I asked.
"People who are this desperate can't be stopped. If they can't get through at one point, they will find another. And if you build wall, they'll sit in front of the walls until we can no longer bear to look at them. In the end, the only way to stop the refugees is to shoot at them. Nobody wants that."
Of course it's asking a lot of Germany to accept more than a million migrants and refugees within a single year, and in some areas, it's asking too much. It may be easier for affluent neighborhoods and communities to provide assistance, but in places that are already suffering from high unemployment and social conflict, grumbling over the need to provide for even more of the destitute and to integrate even more foreigners is understandable. But what would happen if we chose harshness and isolationism instead? It would harden our hearts and it would shrivel the openness that characterizes the European project. We would not only witness great suffering along the borders of Europe, but along Germany's borders as well -- all while refusing to extend a helping hand. For that to happen, we would have to demonize these strangers and blame them for their own fates, their culture, race or religion. We would have to disparage them in books, in the media, on posters and on billboards, emphasizing their worst qualities and portraying them as barbarians -- so as not to see their suffering. Do we want Europe? Or do we not want Europe?
It is no accident that it was the image of a drowned child that triggered a wave of solidarity. Children are exempt from the mechanisms of public contempt, because they cannot be held responsible for their own fate. Not to have compassion for children would truly require closing our hearts. It's feasible, but it's not possible without mutilating our own personalities. Everyone could see how uncomfortable the chancellor felt, almost physically uncomfortable, how awkward she seemed when she stroked a crying Palestinian girl, offering appropriate but stilted words of comfort. It feels much better to do good, not just for the tattooed and scantily clad, but also for me when I report stories, a sense of relief when I return to my life of affluence.
The refugees were only allowed to disembark from the prison buses near Opatovac when the line at the registration office had become a bit shorter. In many cases, they spent as much as an hour behind bars, and yet they were still better off than when they had been forced to stand in the open field in the chilly night air. Waiting in such close quarters, though, was hard on the children. The police officer who had been assigned to guard the prison buses, a Croatian of around 50, silently opened the doors, held out his hand to help the elderly and lifted the children from the vehicle, but he never smiled. Yet there was a moment when a Syrian girl, perhaps five years old, with shoulder-length black hair and a friendly face, ran her flat hand across his blue uniform, from his shoulder to his belly, as if it were a precious object -- so gently that tears came to the police officer's eyes.
The whole thing lasted only a second or two at the most, but I was standing only a meter away and saw exactly what happened, I saw the girl's gesture, which was just as surprising for me, and the tears in the policeman's eyes. He held the girl in his arms for just a moment longer than the others. Then he put her down, and the girl ran after her mother to get in line. As he wiped the tears from his eyes, the police officer noticed that I had observed the scene; he immediately looked away, as if I had caught him doing something wrong.
On normal days, between 3,000 and 4,000 refugees land on the north coast, most within just a few hours in up to 100 rubber dinghies on just a few kilometers of coastline. In some spots, not a single pebble can be seen because the beach is completely covered by life vests, swim rings and remnants of rubber dinghies. Seen from a nearby knoll, Lesbos glows red and orange for several kilometers. It's different with the boats. Wherever they land, pickup trucks soon appear to load the engines and the plastic floors. The only thing left behind is the often shredded inflatable portion of the boat. The refugees, who gather together to continue their journey, are not taken in the pickups. This feels as cold-hearted as the determination of us reporters to shoot the best photos, but that becomes more and more understandable from one day to the next, as we try to do our work on the island. After all, locals aren't merely here for a short stay -- they live on the island, which numbs them to the suffering they see. I too cannot spend my entire day driving refugees back and forth or interpreting for them, if I hope to get any writing done, and I now often drive past them without a thought.
A group of Syrians or Iraqis is now walking past the veranda, many young people, including men and women, all unveiled, whose outward appearance would be indistinguishable from the volunteers, were they to pull on bright yellow vests. Their hairstyles, brand-name jeans and sneakers, sunglasses and earbuds for listening to music all identify them as members of the global middle class; even the backpacks they carry are the same ones hikers use in the West. They aren't the have-nots who comprise the majority of refugees and will probably be able to afford a hostel in Mytilini instead of spending the night at the port, and will be able to make their way through Europe more quickly because they speak English and have smartphones. But they too would have a story to tell, a tale of drama, hardship and violence of the kind no longer found in a Western European life, stories of barrel bombs raining down on their cities, of extremists beheading a neighbor for not having a beard, of torture because of a critical play. There are wars raging on the southern and eastern borders of our ghetto of affluence, and each of these refugees is its messenger. They represent reality breaking into our consciousness.
At all border crossings, small multicultural economies have also taken shape, with Afghan pilaf suddenly on offer in the most remote of Serbian villages, tea available in Macedonian cafés and prices for a haircut or lodging advertised in Arabic. Taxi drivers are sharply raising their prices, and even though the official fare for the bus trip through Serbia is 30, the driver demands an extra 5 when boarding. But that's nothing compared to the profiteering the traffickers are engaging in. They rake in significantly more than 50,000 for each rubber dinghy, which may have cost them 2,000 to 3,000, and they often cheat the migrants and sell more spots than actually exist. No official I met disputed that the entire European asylum system is sheer insanity, but it is important to recognize the reason for this insanity: In order to apply for asylum in Europe, the refugees must enter illegally.
As long as neither regulated immigration nor safe routes exist, refugees and immigrants both will continue to climb into the same rubber dinghies; and if Europe tries to stop them with military vessels, as it did in the past, the boats will resume taking the longer, more dangerous routes, hundreds of kilometers straight across the Mediterranean or across the Atlantic to the Canary Islands. Then we will soon find ourselves shocked, once again, by the news of drowning victims, sometimes 200, sometimes 600, and of several thousand people dying at our borders each year, among them children whose images we will have to bear. We will never be able to remove this reality from our consciousness. Germans should be gratified to have a chancellor who can still be moved to compassion. If she is remembered by future generations, it will be for her impulse to offer aid when hardship gained the upper hand.
What would have happened to the thousands of desperate people on the Hungarian highway? Where would they have slept, who would have cared for them and how violently would they have been stopped at the border had the German chancellor not opened the borders to them? Whenever politicians exhibit greatness, they must defend themselves against objections from those around them, and their popularity declines. Instead of criticizing Merkel, we should promote the kind of Europe that can manage this crisis through a show of solidarity. Only a strong, unified and liberal Europe can contribute to bringing peace to the world from which so many people are fleeing.
The ancient Turkish town of Assos, a picturesque fishing village with attractive hotels and restaurants, lies directly across the water from the northern coast of Lesbos. Almost all the refugees who walked past my veranda climb into rubber dinghies along the sparsely populated coastline near Assos. A young man who turns out to be a Syrian Kurd is sitting on the side of the road a few hundred meters behind the amphitheater. His name is Mohammed.
"The boat was so full," he says, in good English, "that I panicked at the last minute and decided not to go."
Fortunately, Mohammed didn't lose the 1,400 that refugees usually deposit with an agency in turn for a code to release the funds that they only give the smugglers once they have been ferried across the water. Mohammed had been studying business in Al-Hasakah until IS captured the city. On March 20, he wasn't far away when a car bomb exploded, killing 60 people. He saw body parts flying through the air, heard screams and smelled the stench of burning flesh, he still dreams about the incident today. Six months ago, he applied to study in Germany and says he had among the best grades in his class. Because he received no response, he left Syria a week ago, flew to Beirut and then made his way to Istanbul before catching a bus to Izmir, where he found a smuggler.
"No one wants peace for Syria," says Mohammed. "IS will stay, Assad will stay, and no one in the world is doing anything about it."
At 11 p.m. last night, he was driven to some woods near Assos, where a group of other Syrians had already gathered. Most of them were too cold and excited to sleep, and they were all sitting against trees without saying anything. Starting at daybreak, they watched Turkish coast guard vessels and were frightened to see them intercept so many boats, at least one in two, as Mohammed recalls. When they finally spotted a gap, things happened very quickly. Everyone jumped into the boat, and Mohammed was also standing in the water when he suddenly lost his nerve.
"It isn't a big deal," says Mohammed. "I'll try again."
He'll spend a few months working illegally in a textile factory to earn the additional $800 he needs for a spot on a better boat, a wooden vessel. His friends from Izmir are already on their way to pick him up in Assos.
"Not a big deal," Mohammed says once again, as he points to a path leading into the woods. "Take that path if you want to meet people who are in really bad shape. But watch out for the smugglers."
At a point where the path reaches the road, there are three men sitting on a rock. They must be the men Mohammed was referring to. They are in their early to mid-20s and, unlike most, they are not from villages, but dreamed in cities like Kabul and Kunduz of the free West. They worked in construction in Istanbul for four months, seven days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, to earn the money for the traffickers and then they traveled to Izmir and paid for the crossing. On the day before yesterday, they were finally taken to the woods near Assos, but there was no boat waiting for them. Instead, there were Turks who held them at gunpoint and demanded they surrender their code.
"That means the money ?"
" is gone."
They've had nothing to eat since yesterday, are thirsty and have literally no idea what to do next. Somehow they have to make it back to Istanbul or to another big city and find work. But how is that possible for an Afghan without a lira in his pocket, without luggage and without warm clothing? They almost hope to be detained by the police.
"Leaving Afghanistan was a mistake," says one of the men. "We had war there, but at least we had a roof over our heads. We shouldn't have done this."
"Yes, we had the wrong idea," one of the others says affirmatively.
If they can make some money, they say, they won't use it to pay for another boat, but to return to Afghanistan or try their luck in Iran, where people at least speak their language.
"But they also despise us in Iran," the third Afghan interjects.
I ask them where the path leads.
"To people who haven't eaten in five days."
We walk along the path and meet five Afghans, who say that they aren't allowed to say anything, and yet they do reveal that their boat also never arrived, and that they too were forced to reveal their code. When I press them for details, they run away. Then an old, white station wagon drives by with three men inside, who look at us in surprise. But they don't threaten us. The path seems wide enough for a vehicle, so we go back and get our car. As we drive along the path, we encounter the white station wagon again. A few minutes later, we come across another car, which is blocking the path. The driver is sleeping with his mouth wide open. We get out and stand directly above the forested area where we witness a hellish scene in the midst of a heavenly landscape. The area is littered with garbage, and dozens or even hundreds of people are lying underneath trees or wandering about. As we look out to sea, we see boats leaving the forested area every few minutes, even though military ships are patrolling off the coast. Perhaps it's an eleventh-hour panic or an attempt to overwhelm the coast guard with a rapid succession of boats. Four warships surround one boat, but the others seem to make it through.
In the bushes, we encounter the five Afghans who had run away from us an hour earlier. They have three water bottles that are now almost empty, and there are two empty cans of white beans in tomato sauce lying on the ground. The people in the white station wagon apparently brought them some food, their first meal in days. They won't tell us who the men in the station wagon were. The Afghans say they want to get away as quickly as possible, down a steep path that seems to lead into the woods. No, we shouldn't come along, the guards have knives and pistols, we are told. One of the Afghans starts to take one last sip of water, but then, perhaps unconsciously, he makes a gesture that seems as insane as the European border regime: Even though he may need to make this water last for days to come, he offers me the bottle first.
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