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Refugees at the Keleti train station attempt to push their way on board an incoming train.

Refugees at the Keleti train station in Budapest attempt to push their way on board an incoming train.

David Maurice Smith for The Globe and Mail

In Hungary, Joanna Slater bears witness to a cruel journey with no end in sight

The very first person who asks me for information – the first of dozens in the days to come – approaches five minutes after I arrive at Budapest's Keleti station. He taps my shoulder to get my attention. I am standing still, rooted to the spot by what I am seeing. The station appears to have sprouted a human fringe, a border composed of scores of people sitting on cardboard and blankets.

The man tapping my shoulder has a question. He unfolds a rectangular piece of blue and white paper which I will come to recognize: a Hungarian railway ticket. Its destination is Munich and it is dated today. But since morning, no one who looks like a refugee has been allowed to enter the station. The man wants to know if the trains are running normally, whether they will go to Germany and why the authorities aren't honouring the tickets.

I have no good replies to these questions, only conjecture and apologetic smiles. Nor do I have responses for the many more queries that will follow. For refugees and migrants, Hungary has become a maze and the search for answers is the search for a way out. Is it better to rush onto a train or to wait and watch? Is it better to risk striking out on your own or stay with the group? Which choice will take you forward, and which one back?

I meet a dignified man named Mohammed Mustafa, a Syrian engineer from Aleppo whose roll of the dice has gone badly wrong. His eldest son made it to Munich two weeks ago. A friend, a doctor, arrived in Budapest a day earlier than Mr. Mustafa did and caught one of the last trains to Germany open to refugees. But in a twist of timing, Mr. Mustafa and his 18-year-old daughter Judy are stuck here, sleeping on a piece of cardboard beneath the railway station.

Meanwhile, his wife and two younger children stayed behind in Turkey, since the family couldn't pay for everyone to come together. Now they find themselves divided among three countries, with Mr. Mustafa and Judy facing the prospect of years in a Hungarian refugee camp as their asylum claims are processed. "If we had known, we wouldn't have come," he says bitterly. "We are on our way to start a new life, but they destroy our life."

Eager refugees await the arrival of a train at the Keleti train station in Budapest.

Eager refugees await the arrival of a train at the Keleti train station in Budapest.

David Maurice Smith for The Globe and Mail

Kafka and Keleti

Franz Kafka was born in the Czech Republic, not Hungary, but I keep thinking of his books during the time I spend in Budapest. The authorities' treatment of refugees seems either hapless or malicious or both: At times it appears to bear the marks of a crafty plan and at others there seems to be no design at all.

Take the situation at Keleti. The government has done as little as possible to assist the people there, seemingly in the hope that the conditions will dissuade more from coming. There are only two showers available for the more than a thousand people camping in the vicinity of the station, and four portable toilets. The city has provided a supplemental pipe with a handful of taps, the principal source of water. In the days I am in Budapest, the authorities add a few more portable toilets, for a grand total of 8.

But no move is more Kafkaesque than the government's decision on Thursday morning to stop blocking refugees from entering Keleti station. When I ask Zoltan Kovacs, the government spokesman, for the reasoning behind the decision, he says it was made possible by the fact that all train service to Western Europe had been suspended. In other words, refugees were allowed to enter the station once they were unable to leave the country from there.

It grows stranger still: the loudspeakers at the station announce Thursday morning that all trains to Western Europe have been cancelled "for safety reasons." But whose safety are they talking about?

Police stand guard at the Bicske train station in Budapest.

Police stand guard at the Bicske train station in Budapest.

David Maurice Smith for The Globe and Mail

Ghosts and restraint

It's hard to witness what is happening in Budapest without seeing the ghosts of history. Refugees are looking to leave the country and cannot. They board a train, only to see it stopped at an intermediate station. Men in uniform are waiting for them and forcibly separate the "legitimate" travellers from the "illegitimate" ones. The panic and distress at that moment is one of the more harrowing things I've witnessed in my work.

The Hungarian police I see – at least under the watchful eyes of the media – show considerable restraint. On Thursday afternoon in Bicske, one traumatized refugee gets off the train halted there after leaving Budapest. He is seeking medical help for his young daughter and is surrounded by police officers. "Just kill me!" he shouts. "Just shoot me!" he continues, reaching toward an officer's gun. The officer doesn't act aggressively but simply turns and walks away.

At Keleti one evening, the police also serve as a barrier between the refugees and a handful of right-wing protesters. The agitators stand just beyond the line of police officers and yell at the confused refugees on the plaza. "They're Nazis," explains a Hungarian volunteer named Robert, one of dozens working to help the refugees in the void left by the authorities.

Robert notes that some of the police officers are wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves. "The government has put out a lot of propaganda – that these people are dangerous, these people are contagious," he says. "Hungarians are contagious too!"

Refugees from Afghanistan wait early in the morning outside the Keleti train station.

Refugees from Afghanistan wait early in the morning outside the Keleti train station.

David Maurice Smith for The Globe and Mail


Each morning, refugees line up at the makeshift office of the only organization providing them with continuous assistance at Keleti, a group called Migration Aid, staffed entirely by volunteers. Nearby stands Sherzad Waris, a tall, slender 20-year old from eastern Afghanistan, and several friends. I am struck by the courage and composure of many of the young men at the railway station, some of them mere teenagers.

For 14 days, Mr. Waris walked through Iran, where he says police are ready to shoot migrants like him. Then there was a journey by car and on foot through Turkey; to cross from Turkey to Greece, he and 50 others crammed into a small boat that lost power at sea. They were finally rescued by Greek authorities, but not before people began calling relatives to say their last goodbyes.

His whole family is still back in Afghanistan. "Don't send anyone else," Mr. Waris says with a weary laugh. "This is a very difficult road. I am the first and the last."

I think, too, of Khaled Alak, another 20-year old I met, this time from Syria. We travelled together on the train from Budapest that was halted at Bicske. He was very frightened, like everyone else, when police prevented the refugees from leaving the train. But he also acted as intermediary, sticking his head out the window to speak as calmly as possible with the officers. More than 24 hours later, he was still on the train, vowing not to leave for a refugee camp.

Where are the other people I spoke to? Despite efforts to exchange numbers, battery power and cellular service are precious commodities, making communication difficult. Some of them must be in camps. Perhaps others are still at Keleti. And no doubt some were in the march of hundreds of refugees that departed from the station on Friday, heading for the Austrian border in a gesture of defiance and despair. It doesn't seem possible that Hungarian authorities will let them reach the frontier. But that is how I picture them all, walking forward, despite everything.

Joanna Slater is a Globe and Mail correspondent based in Berlin.

Watch Hundreds leave Budapest train station to walk to the next destination