The train flashes through rolling fields outside Budapest, heading westward on a clear, sunny day. For about two dozen refugees sitting in the first car, the journey feels like a small miracle. After days of waiting, they are no longer stuck but in motion, going in the right direction.
Forty minutes after departing, the train slows as it approaches the town of Bicske. Standing along the length of the platform are rows of police wearing riot helmets with clear visors. The refugees fall quiet as the train rolls to a stop. Then, a few minutes later, the thrum of the engine ceases. The silence is terrible.
For a time that feels endless, they wait. Then there is an announcement in Hungarian: To continue to their destination, all passengers must switch to a train on another platform. The group of refugees begins grabbing their bags, confused and frightened.
As they move toward the exits, they see police officers standing at the doors at both ends. They look back and forth, not quite believing what is happening – that this stop on the journey turns out to be a trap.
The train's journey to Bicske on Thursday marks the latest chapter in a drama that has transfixed the world and divided Europe. For days, more than 1,000 migrants and refugees have been stuck at Budapest's Keleti station, unable to travel onward and unwilling to go back. The wretchedness of their limbo – and the squalid conditions at the heart of a European capital – epitomized the inadequacy of the political response to the migration crisis. And no country's response has faced more criticism than Hungary's.
The day begins with a flare of hope. Mohammed Jarad is sleeping when he first hears shouts. "The station is open!" people yell. He scrambles to his feet and gathers his belongings. Then he joins the crowds flowing upward from the underground plaza next to Budapest's Keleti station that is serving as a refugee camp.
At the top of the stairs, the young man from Damascus sees a sight that stuns him. Hundreds of people are flooding into the front door of the ornate 19th-century building – a door which, for two days, had been guarded by dozens of police officers to prevent any refugees from entering.
Inside the station, sunlight filters in from the glass façade and the air is electric with a sense of joy and bewilderment. For days, people have slept outside on the concrete waiting for this very thing to happen and now, to their amazement, it has materialized: They can enter the place where they can continue their journey.
In less than 10 minutes, the central platform is packed with parents, children and young men, all carrying or sitting on the bags they have brought on long treks from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is no information about what they are supposed to do next – especially after a voice on a loudspeaker announces that all international trains to Western Europe have been cancelled "for safety reasons."
A train heaves slowly into Platform 8. A sign on each car indicates that its destination is Sopron, a town in western Hungary. No matter: It is going in the right direction and, most important, it is leaving here. With a little luck and enterprise, some may be able to catch connecting trains to Austria or even Germany.
In the first car of the train, there are about 25 refugees awkwardly mixed in with Hungarian travellers heading west. Syed Karim Sharife and his wife Shabnam are from Kabul. They sit expectantly with their daughter Madeena, 5, and son Imraan, 3. Across the aisle sits Khaled Alak, a university student from Idlib, Syria. Behind them is another Syrian family with five children under the age of 13. Samah, the mother, speaks little English, but she makes her intentions clear – even if it takes her several connections, she is leaving Hungary.
Slowly, with a jolt and an occasional screech, the train pulls out of the station. Ms. Sharife smiles as the platform slides away. "We are happy," she says. "We are a little bit closer."
Ms. Sharife and her husband say life in Kabul has become untenable. There are bomb attacks every week and Mr. Sharife says he was threatened by the Taliban, who wanted him to stop his work supplying food to NATO forces. They delivered a warning; he pulls up a pant leg to show a bullet scar on his upper thigh.
The train car is not sleek, but it is clean and air-conditioned, and the upholstered seats represent a degree of comfort that the refugees have nearly forgotten. Samah, the Syrian mother, falls into a deep sleep, her mouth hanging open. So does Madeena, the Sharifes' daughter. Her brother Imraan, however, is entranced by the train. He hoists himself onto the little ledge by the window, grinning and twisting in different directions to see the landscape rushing by.
Across the aisle, Mr. Alak, a quiet young man with curly hair and green eyes, tells me his story. He pulls out his phone and shows me the photo that has flashed around the world – of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who drowned with his mother and older brother trying to reach Greece – and asks me if I've seen it. Then he swipes his screen and shows me a picture of another toddler boy, dead amid rubble. He says his parents sent it to him – the result of a bombing of Al-Bara, his home village, by the Syrian army a week ago.
The train stops briefly at a station then continues its journey west. Mr. Sharife and his wife have no particular destination in mind. "Wherever fate takes us," he says. "Whatever country – but let there be work, food." They would even have considered staying in Hungary, but the reception gave them doubts they were welcome.
Ms. Sharife declares that all she wants when they reach their destination is to rest and sleep for a month. For the past 35 days, they have slept in the woods and next to toilets; they have gone whole days with nothing to eat or drink. Her son would often ask, "Why don't we go home to sleep? I'm so tired."
About 40 minutes after leaving Budapest, the train reaches Bicske, where police officers are standing at regular intervals all along the platform. As the train sits, Ms. Sharife turns her head away from the window and hides her face behind the edge of a maroon curtain. Several Hungarian passengers stand up, looking exasperated at the delay. With each passing minute, the mood grows more anxious. "Please Allah, let us arrive safely," Mr. Sharife says. "I think they're searching car by car."
Mr. Alak begins to knead the fingers of his right hand one by one. I try to distract him by asking about his studies of electronic engineering. He shows me a photo of a processor he built from scratch for practice – it translates a thermometer reading into an electronic display.
After an announcement in Hungarian, the regular passengers suddenly stand and gather their belongings. A mother of two translates the message for the refugees: They must switch to a train on another platform. But unlike for other passengers, their way is blocked.
Samah and her husband Mohammed, the Syrian parents, reach the door of the car first and Mohammed begins to shout. He attempts to get off the train, but five police officers, yelling and pushing, block his way and shove him back. Samah starts to scream, trying to hurl herself out the window. Her eldest son, Omran, 13, bursts into violent tears. His parents cannot bear the thought of another confinement; their family has already been in three camps since they left Syria.
Samah is wailing now. "Hungary, no!" she cries. "Just send us back to Syria!" The other refugees try to calm her. Mr. Alak, with remarkable composure, leans his head out the window to talk with the police officers, some of whom are wearing surgical masks. He ducks back into the train car and starts taking items out of his backpack – toothbrush, toothpaste, flashlight, an extra T-shirt. He puts them in a plastic bag. "They are taking us to a camp," he says. "I will run away."
The mood is desperate as the refugees realize that, once again, despite all their efforts, they are stuck. The police force me and a photographer to leave the train and a tense standoff begins. A large group of refugees is led off another car but they rebel, yelling and pushing back police. Some attempt to escape down the tracks, but police officers are everywhere. They knock down one man, handcuffing him and carrying him away, as his wife and infant daughter watch in horror.
The refugees – several hundred are on the train – give voice to their anger and despair in chants all through the long, hot afternoon. "Germany! Germany! Germany!" they shout, or "Human rights! Human rights!" and "No camp! No camp!" The police allow the refugees to spill out of the train cars and onto the platform, but no further.
Those on the train are destined for a nearby refugee camp, says Zoltan Kovacs, the spokesman for the government of Hungary, when I reach him by phone in the afternoon. The police response has been "polite and disciplined," he says. "What we are expecting is compliance."
There is little compliance on display in Bicske. Some refugees reject the water bottles and biscuits brought by the police in a form of protest. There are periodic announcements urging refugees to leave the train cars, co-operate with authorities and travel to the refugee camp, but very few obey. Several sick passengers – a toddler crying copious tears, a man collapsed from exhaustion or heatstroke, a father hyperventilating – leave the train to receive treatment from first-aid personnel.
In the early evening, the sun sets in a pearly white and pink sky. The train is still stopped, pointing west toward far-off hills. The police and the refugees have reached an impasse and everyone is tired. After night falls, I search from the other side of the tracks for the refugees with whom we travelled. I spot Samah, sitting on the steps of the first car of the train, looking blankly into the distance.
They will wait. They have grown accustomed to waiting. And they have been through far worse.