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World Balkan odyssey: A desperate journey through Central Europe

Blocked from entering the Schengen Area through Hungary, thousands of refugees seek alternate routes, including here in Harmica, Croatia on Friday where Slovenian police guard the border.

Blocked from entering the Schengen Area through Hungary, thousands of refugees seek alternate routes, including here in Harmica, Croatia on Friday where Slovenian police guard the border.

Srdjan Zivulovic/REUTERS

Balkan odyssey

As thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees navigate through an increasingly inhospitable Central Europe, Mark MacKinnon joins a small group in Serbia on a desperate journey through Croatia to the Slovenian border

Friday evening, Croatia-Slovenia border

"How is Slovenia? Is it open?" whispered one of the Syrians walking with me as we entered the border zone.

"We're about to find out," I replied in Arabic learned a decade ago, half-forgotten since.

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Slovenia didn't look open. A line of perhaps two dozen riot police stood on the road in front of the border crossing on the highway between the Croatian capital of Zagreb, and Ljubljana in Slovenia. The police had donned black helmets, some fiddled with truncheons. On the side of the road, five or six were screwing filters onto their gas masks, getting ready for trouble.

The first group of several dozen refugees, Syrians and Iraqis – many men, but some women and children – proved to be no trouble at all. They obediently followed instructions from the police, who guided them onto buses bound for a nondescript building a short drive away, still in the border zone. I watched as the man I had been speaking to, Ayman al-Beda, a 22-year-old university student from Damascus, boarded a bus. Clutching his hand was his eight-year-old brother, Omar.

Utter bewilderment was etched on the boy's face.

For refugees and migrants, access to the favoured destinations of Germany and Sweden relies on crossing into the Schengen Area, a zone of 26 EU and non-EU countries where travel across international borders in visa-free.

For refugees and migrants, access to the favoured destinations of Germany and Sweden relies on crossing into the Schengen Area, a zone of 26 EU and non-EU countries where travel across international borders in visa-free.

Friday afternoon. Harmica, Croatia

Tiny Slovenia – less than 100 kilometres wide in some places, and home to just two million people – is suddenly the last hurdle keeping another wave of refugees from the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa from reaching their dream destinations in Central Europe. The previous route through Hungary is now avoided by most refugees, who know that Viktor Orban's government uses fences, tear gas and water cannons to repel any who illegally approach its frontier. Those who somehow manage to enter are often arrested and expelled.

All day Friday, the refugees moved north through Croatia. From Tovarnik, at the Serbian border, to Zagreb, the capital, where an impromptu registration centre was established at the city's main fairground. And then onwards.

As evening fell, a small camp sprouted in the basketball court of this farming town pressed right against the Slovenian border. The overwhelmed Croatian government was absent, but orange-vested aid workers from Remar SOS, a Spanish non-government organization, appeared with donated food and clothing. The mayor of Rigonce, across the border in Slovenia, sent tents across for the hundreds expected to spend Friday night camped in Harmica.

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But such shelter was offered only on the Croatian side. On the Slovenian bank of the Sutla River that forms the border here, a quartet of police vehicles was parked blocking the bridge. More officers spread out along the far side of the river, ready to tackle anyone who tried to swim into the visa-free Schengen Area.

"We can't handle this," said Hanna Nochta Melinsodic of Remar SOS, referring to the swelling number of refugees in the town. "I don't know what the [Croatian] government will do if this continues. I can't understand why Slovenia won't let them pass. None of these people want to stay in either Croatia or Slovenia."

Slovenia is insisting on something cherished in Central Europe: order. The country's government said this week that it would take formal asylum requests from those who entered the country, and then process them with an eye to implementing the European Union's planned system of assigning a set number of refugees to each of its member states under a quota system. Those deemed to be economic migrants would be returned to Croatia.

But the refugees don't want to be sent to Estonia or Portugal under a quota system concocted in Brussels. Those who have relatives in Europe want to go wherever they have family. The rest – including some who are clearly economic migrants fleeing poverty rather than war – are drawn by the magnet of the better lives they expect in places like Germany and Sweden.

At a picnic table beside the basketball court-turned-refugee camp, 15-year-old Ayham Tabbakh was making a sign in English he'd learned at school in the Syrian city of Aleppo, before it was shattered by four years of civil war. "Women, children, sick people. Please let us pass!" he wrote with black and red markers. Not all those around him fit into those categories, however. Sitting beside Ayham at the picnic table, was a young African man with bulging biceps, a New York Yankees cap pulled down over his eyes, and headphones in his ears.

By the end of the day, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar suggested his country might not last long as the Schengen area's bulwark. "If the pressure is too great," he said, his government would consider opening corridors to allow the migrants and refugees to continue moving north to Austria and beyond.

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Croatian Police stand beside a train carrying migrants and refugees in a marshalling yard near Zagreb on September 18, 2015. A special train transporting some 1,500 people from Tovarnik, near the Serbian border, arrived in the Croatian capital where some Croats, recalling their own plight during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, offered aid.

Croatian Police stand beside a train carrying migrants and refugees in a marshalling yard near Zagreb on September 18, 2015. A special train transporting some 1,500 people from Tovarnik, near the Serbian border, arrived in the Croatian capital where some Croats, recalling their own plight during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, offered aid.

AFP PHOTO

Friday morning. Zagreb

The Hotel Central has stood in the heart of Zagreb since 1893. Through several changes of ownership, and a succession of redesigns, its primary source of guests has been the city's main train station, directly across the street.

But on Friday morning, the manager told a line of would-be guests that the hotel's 76 rooms were completely full. "I'm sorry," he told the line of exhausted-looking Syrians and Iraqis who had travelled through the night to reach the Croatian capital. "September is our busiest month. We have a lot of pre-paid reservations."

Ghaiath Khaddam stood in tiny lobby, disbelief on his goateed, 39-year-old face. The hotel didn't look busy. September in Croatia didn't seem like high tourist season.

"I have money, they just don't want us here," he growled, before walking out of the lobby. Mr. Khaddam, who ran an import and export business in Baniyas, on Syria's Mediterranean coast until fleeing last month, was travelling with his elderly mother, who sat in a park near the hotel. "I just want to wash myself, and let my mother have a rest."

A quick check of the hotel's website proved Mr. Khaddam's suspicions correct. There were plenty of rooms available at the Hotel Central that morning.

At the train station, another group of Syrians stood dumbfounded, complaining of having been taken advantage of by locals capitalizing on the fact the refugees knew nothing about Croatia, its geography, or even its currency. A group of six men, two women, and two preteen children said they had paid 100 euros to a pair of taxi drivers who promised to take them to the Slovenian border. Instead, they had been driven to a police station, loaded into the back of a truck, and returned to the train station.

But other Croatians were doing their best to ease the new arrivals' rough landing. "People are just scared," said Sara Pasic, a 22-year-old university student who grew up in Egypt and came to the train station to volunteer her services as a translator.

By mid-morning, the Croatian government, which reeled through Thursday making contradictory declarations about how it would handle the refugees, finally came up with a plan. All new arrivals would be taken to an impromptu processing centre established at the Zagreb Fairground.

Just after noon, busloads of refugees brought from the Serbian border zone began to arrive. Under heavy police watch, the refugees were herded into the processing centre for registration and medical checks carried out by the Croatian Red Cross. Media were kept outside, left to take grim-looking pictures of refugees being herded like cattle into the fenced-off registration area. It was hard not to recall other, darker periods in Europe's history.

The system soon crumbled. "We cannot register and accommodate these people any longer," Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said a few hours later. "They will get food, water and medical help, and then they can move on. The European Union must know that Croatia will not become a migrant 'hotspot.' We have hearts, but we also have heads."

The short-lived system was introduced after 24 hours of utter chaos. Standing outside the Zagreb Fairground, 28-year-old Taha Ali – a translator from Baghdad – peered frantically through the police line, hoping to catch a glimpse of his 18-year-old brother Mohammed. The two had been separated on Thursday when Croatian police in the border town of Tovarnik put Taha on one bus to Zagreb, and his brother on another.

"He has no papers, no money, all his stuff is with me," Taha panted, patting an Adidas bag on his hip. "I won't go any further without him. We started this journey together, we shall finish it together."

Overzealous police at the Zagreb Fairground even blocked a group of Croatian women from handing out toys to the refugee children.

"You don't understand!" 39-year-old Jelena Ljubicic shouted at a police officer who prevented her from handing a stuffed penguin to a little girl whose eyes welled with tears at the confrontation.

Twenty-four years ago, it was Croatia that was crumbling into civil war, and Ms. Ljubicic who was fleeing her homeland to Germany, where she and her family spent two years. "I was a refugee once too," she said, still holding the penguin. "So I know how it is."

Overwhelmed by the flood of refugees entering Croatia, officials began busing hundreds from a gathering point in Zagreb’s main fairground to its border with Hungary, threatening to create a new flashpoint in Europe's worst migration crisis since World War II.

Overwhelmed by the flood of refugees entering Croatia, officials began busing hundreds from a gathering point in Zagreb’s main fairground to its border with Hungary, threatening to create a new flashpoint in Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II.

AFP PHOTO

Thursday afternoon. Serbia-Croatia border

The ghosts of wars past surrounded the refugees as they moved from Serbia, through Croatia, toward Slovenia.

Serbia, under Slobodan Milosevic, tried in the early 1990s to hold together what was once called Yugoslavia. After a short war in 1991, Slovenia broke away and declared independence. Then the fighting moved to Croatia, sparking a much bloodier and more protracted conflict that lasted 41/2 years. Tens of thousands died before Croatia too gained independence from Belgrade.

Two decades on, there are still hundreds of square kilometres of uncleared minefields in Croatia, most of them near the Serbian border. That fact haunted me as I walked with a group of several hundred Syrians and Iraqis, from Serbia into Croatia.

The official border crossing was closed to those without Croatian visas, so our group zigs to the north of the Serbian town of Sid, and heads through the tall cornfields, where the border police aren't watching.

The main group follows a well-worn path cleared by farm equipment, but the sun is scorching and the women and children frequently leave the trail to seek shade. I ask whether everyone knows about the landmine risk.

"We've heard about this. But how are we supposed to know if we're in a minefield?" an Iraqi man replies.

After several kilometres' nervous walk, we reach the end of the cornfield, and the trail heads south again. Shade appears in the form of a thatch of trees and everyone pauses to rest and drink from dwindling supplies of bottled water.

Serbia is behind us now, and the Croatian border, and the town of Tovarnik beyond, can be seen in the distance. Once, this area saw fighting as fierce as the wars now raging in the places those around me are fleeing.

The thatch of trees we are resting under marks the outer edge of a graveyard. The dates on most of the gravestones are from the early 1990s.

Thursday morning. Belgrade.

When I reach the office of Atina, one of the few civil society groups in the Balkans devoted to helping refugees, the place is buzzing with talk of brutality at the Hungarian border. The NGO was founded to counter human-trafficking and specifically the exploitation of women. The group's mission has rapidly expanded as Belgrade has become a key way station on the route refugees – and those smuggling them – use to reach Europe.

Since the start of 2015, tens of thousands of refugees passed through Belgrade following a roughly similar route: to Turkey, then a hazardous sea trip to Greece, then overland through Macedonia and Serbia, and finally onwards to Hungary and the Schengen area.

Mr. Orban had changed the rules of the game on Wednesday, and now Hungary's refugee problem was becoming Croatia's.

Jelena Hrnjak, Atina's program manager, said she was pleasantly surprised by how the Croatian government was responding, but worried the welcome for refugees wouldn't last long.

The changing rules in Europe, she said, were also creating a situation where smugglers were able to charge rising rates to take those with money around the newly erected barriers (including Hungary's border fence). The poor were left to walk from country into the next.

The sense that Europe's briefly opened doors might be about to shut has also created a race to get inside the Schengen area before it's too late. The last 24 hours before the Hungarian border fence was completed saw young men sprint ahead of those they were travelling with. Those with families couldn't keep up, and were shut out. In some cases, parents were separated from their children.

But Ms. Hrnjak saw the border walls and tougher policies as doomed to fail. A great human migration is well under way, an event that – for better or for worse – can no longer be arrested or reversed.

"Nobody can stop this," Ms. Hrnjak shrugged. "Europe will never be the same. For sure."

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