12 million Syrians have been displaced during the war in Syria and 4 million of these people have fled the country. In 2015 alone, more than 700.000 Syrian refugees and other migrants have risked their lives on their journey to Europe. Many have died and continue to die at the European borders.
In September, I went with three friends to join a group of other self-organized activists at the border area between Serbia and Croatia, our purpose to supply the constant stream of thousands of refugees with food. After returning home, the four of us spent many hours together processing our experiences and all of our outrage. We decided to write down our experiences in order to publish and share first hand observations of the situation, the treatment of the refugees, and the behaviour of police, military, and several large NGOs present at the site.
It is now end-November, and as it is getting colder the situation is constantly worsening.
Follow the situation, and see photos, through the SoliConvoi tweets: https://twitter.com/soliconvoy
No Borders! All refugees welcome!
Below is the account of our experiences. Each person has kept their writings in a separate colour.
Soliconvoy September 2015 – Sid (Serbia); Tovarnik, Opatovac, Bapska (Croatia)
When we arrived in Sid, we were passing a little entertainment park with blinking lights, alcohol and carousels, as well as a Red Cross tent which was set up to provide medical care for the drunken people. This first image showed me clearly the apathy and ignorance of the still privileged European society, that was like “dancing around the fire that burns at least others”, or just this deep helplessness that results in escape of reality, because when we drove around the corner, we suddenly came upon 10 great buses all filled up with tired looking refugees heading to the Hungarian border, towards the alleged fortune waiting in Germany or Austria. Because of this large convoy the street that went directly to the border was blocked and we had to take a 40 km detour to finally arrive in an apparently quickly built up camp consisting of about 8 cars and 2 transporters as well as a kitchen, all arranged in a line on the side of a dirt road which was seamed with garbage and donations on both sides. We were informed that large groups of refugees used this track as a bypass for the Serbian border control and were now waiting in the “no-mans land” between the two borders to continue their journey.
There were people already cutting vegetables and cooking, and after some time of helping there and organizing food for tomorrow, I drove off with the next shuttle minibus a few kilometers to this “no-mans-land” to deliver hot soup out of a great pot. After being checked at the border and arriving, the situation seemed pretty chaotic: volunteers from various parts of Europe were running around, trying to organize stuff and carrying lots of food and blankets. We quickly got out of the car, grabbed the still very hot and heavy pot and headed to a small tent that was built up right next to a great blue border information board which was like the entrance of it.
Many refugees were already waiting with hungry eyes in front of this food distribution point, trying to keep themselves warm. I was immediately accepted in the working group there. Some of us put the soup in plastic cups, others put the spoons in it and the rest were actually handing out the cups with a slice of bread. The pot was really quickly emptied, but only a small part of the crowd was satisfied and we had to wait for the next one while trying to talk to the refugees and handing out some chocolate bars and fruits.
The refugees constantly asked us for blankets because of the cold night air by then, but there were none left. During this first little break I could get a glimpse through the waiting crowd on the situation behind it: The refugees in between waste were sitting and lying close together and tightly wrapped in clothes or blankets on the naked asphalt, trying to cover every bit of the body to keep the cold out. At some spots, people started making fire with collected wood or garbage, which was officially forbidden by the police, but nobody seemed to care about this. I suddenly realized that on the right side there was a graveyard, probably a memento of the Yugoslav Wars, just about 20 years ago, where also a lot of refugees were lying in groups on the wet grass in a flickering fire light, right next to the tombstones under which victims of civil war, that was also about borders and states, were allowed to rest.
I realized how little we have learned form history or how little fact has changed, that power-greedy (nationalist) politicians are sitting now in positions where they can let humans suffer and die.
While we were delivering mostly warm food at the small tent, all the time new people, also from other border points, with cars full of donations, arrived. They unloaded lots of stuff like baby food, water, crackers, and fish, which we piled up next to our tent. Later that night, one of the refugees asked us if some help was needed, and after joining us he worked really hard all night long, handing out food to hungry people, amazingly still having the power to do this although he himself was on this exhausting journey.
When a box with blankets arrived, some of the helpers tried to hand them out as fair as possible, but when a group of refugees got aware of this, they ran to this box, wrestled it form the volunteers’ hands and a little fight started, in which everybody tried to get hold of one of these blankets. It was obvious that their basic needs weren’t satisfied and therefore they weren’t able to think carefully about the situation, maybe in fear of freezing to death that night. Later that night, a man came to us. He was agitated and explained that he absolutely needed hot water for making food for his baby, but we helplessly recognized that we didn’t have a water cooker, and it would have been hard to communicate to the kitchen to bring hot water in a bottle. Suddenly a man right next to him opened a plastic bag in his hand and unwrapped a water cooker that he obviously, to my amazement, had brought all the way here with him, and gave it to us. In an attempt to boil the water with the little power we had, the generator was dying, so we had to turn off the lights just to cook the water. Finally we made the baby food and the father seemed very relieved and grateful.
When the hot food was out, we started to deliver food, water, and especially clothes to the refugees who tried to get some sleep despite the cold air and the hard ground. We focused on the people in the very front part of the long line, furthest away from us, because they were stuck there between two police chains and therefore not able to go back and get some food. I was very careful not to step on the people lying tightly packed on the ground, and found a small path among the bodies and the piles of garbage everywhere. There was always a person in each large group, keeping guard over the others, mostly hardly protected from the cold.
The atmosphere was pretty dark and silent. To my amazement there was also a Red Cross tent on the other side, but there weren’t many helpers, not to mention enough blankets for everyone. Around 5 am I got some hours of sleep.
One man asked me urgently if he could charge his phone at our small distribution place. I unplugged some other gadgets and he was very thankful.
Another one was shivering and rubbing his arms, he was freezing a lot. I knew there were just a few clothes left and none that would fit him. I ran to the car in the back and got a pullover from me to hand it to him. He quickly put this one on as a next layer and thanked me in a way I remembered from a former meeting with refugees: he put his right flat hand at his heart and nodded.
When we were waiting for the next round of hot food (for example soup with rice or soya schnitzel), we asked what people needed to see if we had something that would help them.
Most refugees were lying on the ground trying to rest a little in defiance of the cold. A boy was waiting for the next hot pot in front of the pavilion when I remembered that I had seen a small ball between the donations. I thought this would be a good way for both him and me to stay warm. I found it and began to play some football with him. One man joined and we kicked until other activists brought the next pot from the cooking station. This was a memorable moment because we didn’t need any words to share thoughts, there was a good connection just by eye contact and a little gesticulation.
Later that night, a friend and I filled a big box with snacks and went down the street closer to the Croatian border to give something to those who hadn’t noticed that there had been warm food.
The refugees were mostly lying on the naked street, a few had blankets, others some pieces of clothing wrapped around them. It was a cold night, so a few small fires were lit, too. Some men and women were sitting around them to stay warm. The people were lying very close to each other, so we tried to step between them and find people who were still awake to distribute the snacks. I felt horrible because we came such a long way and couldn’t do more than just hand out these crappy snacks… We also helped one couple to built up the inner part of a tent in the dark. I turned on my headlamp and we tried to figure out how the construction worked. No matter how we put it, it was crooked – I think the rods weren’t the right ones. I am pretty sure that in the end they slept without the outer part in this incomplete tent.
The last clothes we found among the donations were some stuff for children, scarves, and a few pullovers. We looked for uncovered parts among the refugees and put those rests on the mostly sleeping, sometimes coughing women, men, and children. It hurt that there were far from enough warm clothes.
We handed out food and other donations until about 4 or 5 in the morning. After that, I had a nightmare where I was in a war trying to find shelter for wounded people and children. There was lots of fire around and I saw how my compagnion was struggling like me because we could’t help all those who were in need.
When I woke up, I rapidly got to the kitchen and checked if someone was already making food, but nearly everybody was fast asleep, so we managed to cook oat porridge and drove off quickly to the border. And then it began: As I expected, many refugees were waiting restlessly in front of the little tent and started to shout when they saw the pot full of hot food. Everybody was reaching out for the plates and really pushing the tent that logically couldn’t resist the pressure and broke at one point. It was very stressful for the activists, also because we tried to make lines, especially extra lines for children and women, but it was pretty impossible. The pot was emptied so fast we had to leave the unsatisfied rest of the crowd behind, and some drove off to cook more food while the rest of us delivered fruit and bread to somehow fill the stomaches.
This procedure continued for several hours, until around midday less and less refugees came to the small pavilion. When I was delivering food to the crowd, an upset man with a CD and documents in his hand asked me for help and explained to me in broken English that his child next to him had a broken shoulder. While showing me the bandage, the perhaps 2 years old boy looked at me with great, sad and dark brown eyes, while suckling on a chocolate bar. I quickly led them to the doctors and returned to the others who needed help.
Surprisingly, I saw some children playing football on the grass next to the graveyard, actually having a little bit of fun in this very hard time, and also a policeman joined them for a while. I couldn’t help smiling, just for a short moment, and I recognized that I hadn’t smiled the whole day.
Me and some other activists were interviewed by a Ukrainian journalist with accompanying camera man who came to our food distribution pavilion. He asked obscure questions such as: „Why are you here, what is your motivation to help?“, „Do you believe in the idea that these people should be allowed to live in Europe?“, and „what about islamization? Don‘t you think this is a possible threat?”
We made clear that we were there in solidarity with every person who wants to move to other countries and that we are against any kinds of borders. I think he was disappointed by our answers and completely different mindset.
Finally, in the afternoon the police started to let the refugees enter the buses, and the people drove off little by little to the camp in Opatovac in Croatia. The atmosphere became better and better and the refugees were seemingly relieved to leave this place.
In the end we really managed it to get all of the people satisfied, and just after one hour all of the refugees were gone. We packed all the donations in the cars, reorganized ourselves, and one group drove off to the camp in Opatovac while the others stayed behind to pack the rest and then join us.
The Opatovac Refugee Camp:
A fenced area with large tents and capacity for ca. 4000 people. Outside the fence, a large grass area with various NGO tents: UNHCR, Docters Without Borders, Greenpeace, and others, as well as our kitchen together with SOS Konvoi. Doctors Without Borders had one large tent with space for people to rest who had received medical care.
An asphalt road with a parking lot where refugees all Tuesday night arrived only on foot from the border 17 kms away, and from Wednesday on arrived both in buses and on foot. At the parking lot was the entrance to the camp where people were queued and registered as they entered. This queue moved very slowly, and Tuesday night didn‘t move at all because the camp was full.
At the other side of the camp, the exit where people where led out in small groups and onto buses driving them to their next stop on their uncertain journey up through Europe.
Down by the exit a building used by the Red Cross.
We were looking for a place to build up the kitchen on the grass area outside the camp. We knew that a lot of refugees would arrive and the capacity of the actual camp would be too small for all these people.
Having been driven away several times by the police who had constructed, very arbitrarily, a barrier to make a parking area for police cars, we got an offer from a person of SOS Convoy to use a tent as a storage room, so we built up the kitchen right next to it and finally started unloading the transporter.
We carried drinking water from a big transporter to the kitchen and rapidly started making soup.
From time to time, cars filled with donations arrived, and we built a human chain, whereby also children of refugee families helped, to carry all of it into the storage tent.
After a few hours of sleep, the morning was already warm, so one could say that it would be a pretty hot day. We continued making soup until around 10am when we got the information that there was the need of water inside the camp, so a group was formed to bring in all the bottled water we had. We were told to be very careful and also to wear safety vests, otherwise we could not pass the police. So we began slowly one by one to hand out the bottles to the dehydrated people in the camp.
At first we asked the police for permission to go inside the camp with water. They let us through and after a while all of us could pass through the gates as often as we wanted. After an hour or so several of us were stopped on the way out and the police asked for other volunteers to identify us. After that we could enter only on the condition that we wore a safety vest.
Police (99% men) in front of the back entrance of the camp, sitting on banks, joked about us and the whole situation; aggressive appearance just a few meters away inside the camp.
Policemen called me a few times in Croatian, but I didn’t want to speak with them so I pretended I wasn’t hearing them, or if that wasn’t possible, I nodded slightly to make them stop, to focus on bringing water, water, water.
It was 27 degrees and full sun all day. The Red Cross was present but not distributing food and water to the thousands of people inside the camp.
To one side inside the camp, people were sitting and after a while not needing a lot of water and food. To the other side, people were standing completely crammed and very thirsty. They were barred by metal bars set up by the police, and police was standing everywhere around those bars.
I went to the bars with another activist from our kitchen and started passing lots and lots of cups of water out. Everyone was thirsty. One man was sitting right by the bars with his eyes closed and his forehead leaning against one bar. We tried to get him to drink, but he didn‘t want water.
There was a lot of shouting and agitation, probably because people were standing so packed in the beating sun, and the police started rearranging the bars. I focused on passing water out and there was still an aisle for me to stand in, as well as many hands in the air wanting a cup of water. Then a man in Red Cross clothes showed up and said in a loud voice to me and my fellow activist: „Go away! Go! Get out! Get OUT of here!“ We did not do as he said, but continued to hand out water, and the several policemen next to us looked a little at us but said or did nothing. Apparently it wasn‘t their idea to shove us out of the place. The Red Cross man came up to us in the narrow aisle and kept telling us to get out, now shouting. Still, i didn‘t do as commanded. I knew the people were thirsty, and I wondered what this man, representing a so-called humanitarian organization, intended with kicking us out, and also what on earth made him think he had any authority over us. He came right next to me, blocking my way to the bars with the thirsty people on the other side. Then he grapped my arm and started pulling me away while saying, „I said, get out. Now! I am asking you nicely!“
I was shocked by his behaviour and overwhelmed by the conditions in here and the suffering of all those people, and therefore didn‘t managed to give a proper response to his behaviour. I only said, „You are kicking us out?! Seriously! These people are thirsty!“ to which he repeated, „Seriously.“ and finally let go of my arm as I walked away together with my co-activist, intending to return as soon as possible.
Still the behaviour of this Red Cross man plays in my head, and I feel baffled and outraged that this man acted as if he were a cop, not only acting authority over us and commanding us to leave with no explanations, but even including an indirect threat much like what you would expect to hear from a cop on a power trip: „I am asking you nicely.“ To him, this meant grapping my arm and pulling it, shouting at us to get out. I wonder, then, what would he have done next when he was no longer asking nicely?
On a constructed dirt ridge which was part of the camp, around 20 people, mostly young men, had placed themselves standing, holding signs made out of sleeping mats torn in smaller pieces. They were hunger striking. These are some of the signs they were holding:
„We will not drink or eat until we are let out of here“
„Police is equal to ISIS“
„Police threaten and beat us“
„We are humans, not animals“
A couple of times we heard them cheering: „Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”
The police formed 4 lines of refugees and only allowed about 50 of them at once onto the buses that went further in the direction of Germany. Clearly most of the refugees were shouting and pushing because they had spent several days in this camp without warm food, little water and sleep, which created great tension. Therefore the police were really stressed. There were many police officers who really threatened the people with teargas and to hit them with their truncheons, just stopping right before their faces, yelling harsh commands.
Then the situation escalated. There were some inner conflicts between the refugees, and some hurt people had to be carried out, one of them with an open wound.
The police lost control of the situation and used teargas, also in the presence of some activists who got slightly hit. Suddenly, around 5 men squirmed with pain on the ground, yelling with high-pitched voices for water and help. We took 7-liter water bottles and quickly ran to the men throwing as much water over their faces and hands as possible. With effort we had to open their eyelids, which was impossible for them to do themselves because of the pain, to pour a little bit of water in the dark reddened eyes. By then I did not see any Red Cross or UNHCR helpers, only when one man got teargas in his lungs and was screaming like dying, we carried him together with 2 Red Cross helpers into the Red Cross doctors’ tent.
One of the refugee got very angry and yelled swear words to the police because of the pain, and would have been beaten up by a policeman if I had not stopped him. One policeman told me to go away because, in his opinion, there was nothing more to do and “the victims should just resist the pain.”
The police forced all the refugees to sit down, and a few minutes later I found a man sitting on the muddy ground, his face twisted with pain, pressing a piece of cloth to his forehead, when the refugees around him told me he had been hit by a policeman. After bringing him to the doctors’ tent, I found another woman crying hysterically who had also been hit by a truncheon.
Then the situation calmed down a little bit, but I saw the horror, pain, and fear in many wide opened eyes of the refugees sitting now in rows between mud and garbage. The families stayed very close together, mothers wrapped the arms around their children’s eyes, trying desperately to protect them.
Some refugees also said that they were hungry so we picked up all bananas and snacks we could find in the tents with anonymous donations in front of the camp. The people were very thankful the whole time. But there were always some who didn’t get a piece of what we were distributing, and seeing the disappointment was hard. The whole situation was fucked up because we couldn’t just ask: ‘What do you need?’ and try to get it because of course number one was their freedom. Some refugees refused to take something to drink or eat, some shouted „let us go!“ at us. They for sure didn’t know we were totally on their side. We had to wear neon security vests to enter the camp so the police could identify us from the refugees – so how could they know which role we play? Maybe some even thought we were paid to help calming them down – which is more than a disgusting thought! Passing the police, trying to sneak through without being stopped, and trying to stand the whole situation, tears were suddenly running down my face. Without a sound I went on handing out bananas and the refugees who saw me crying stopped shouting and shared the food.
I don’t remember when I started, but I remember that I had the deep desire to say something to the refugees to show my solidarity. I had always tried to get eye-contact, but I wanted at least to make clear on whose side we were. The phrase shouldn’t be complex because there was no time to lose, so I instinctively whispered „I’m sorry“ whenever I kneeled down or bent forward to hand out water. At the end of the rows, where the whole situation was more calm, some men responded to me and we could have some exchange. I felt relieved to be able to have a few honest and very appreciating conversations and to finally also be able to describe the reasons why we were there.
After we had supplied the waiting refugees with water and food again and again (and policemen helped to hand it out sometimes), I went further between the military tents to see if there were still people who we hadn’t noticed before. Several were asleep inside or between the tents.
We wanted to help the people as much as possible, continued bringing water and snacks, when suddenly the people refused to take anything because they thought we were supporting the oppressive camp system. They made wild gestures and shouted at us “No no, no food! Free us! Free us! Free us!”, despite the beating sun and their thirst. I felt pretty helpless because I understood them very well and maybe would have done the same, but nevertheless I tried to explain to them that we do not support the police, and they really need water if they want to continue their journey to “freedom”. After some discussions they understood me and realized my intentions, so they again accepted water and food.
We continued bringing water and lots of fruits which were stored in a great hall of the Red Cross, undistributed. The helpers there were just standing around and watching us, which was unbelievable. I also found 3 hurt people lying in tents, obviously not tended to by any of the organizations responsible.
In the evening, when we gave the refugees bananas and apples and really tried to speak to them, the atmosphere became more relaxed, and the people even started to chat and smile.
One policeman told me to just hand out single bananas because “they are not able to share.” With intention to falsify his patronizing order, I gave a whole bundle to a hungry looking man and asked him to share it. As expected he did, to the embarrassment of the policeman. It seemed as if they really appreciated to be treated with dignity.
On the same day, it was planned that all of the refugees standing or sitting in one of the lines would be going further in the direction of Hungary.
Outside of the camp, on the parking lot and in the area where we had our kitchen and all the NGO‘s their tents, it was full of press. But the police had put barrier tape around the area, denying any access by journalists and cameras, thus preventing them from getting near enough to the camp to catch any glimpse of what was going on in there. One of the activists from our kitchen even said he had heard one journalist saying to the camera that once people had passed through the queue and entered to actual camp, they were taken care of.
One activist managed to get a journalist into the camp. The person was caught and had to go the custody overnight.
The front part of the camp was kind of cleaned up, and all the people were led to the bottom end of the camp where new big tents were built up during the day. Some local helpers collected all the garbage in a garbage truck. What they put in there consisted partly of barely used mattresses and blankets.
Meanwhile, many new refugees were arriving, so there were still about 2000 or more inside the camp.
In the afternoon we were denied access and couldn‘t enter the camp anymore.
We tried later to bring hot food inside and were denied access by the Red Cross. They gave us 2 reasons for this:
1) They could not verify the hygenic standards of our food.
2) „It is a problem if we give them hot food today because then they will just want it tomorrow too.“ !!!
To their first point, I want to say: The hygenic standards of our food would have been easy to look into if one really had the interest; they could come to our kitchens and help cooking for a while and see how we do it (our routines with desinfection and gloves, etc.). No one ever did. Also, who in their right mind would believe that it is better to prevent very hungry people from being fed hot meals, than to believe that the food we prepare is edible and hygenic? In short, I don‘t believe for one second that this was a genuine concern of theirs.
To their second point – well, what can I say? This is one of the most disgusting and outrageous statements I have encountered. Let us not be too good to the refugees, they might get used to it. I cannot imagine what kind of mind these words spring from.
Besides, what is this whole constellation all about, that the Red Cross put themselves in charge of who enters the refugee camp and what other organizations and self-organized activists do? How and why is it that the Red Cross are policing the entire area and preventing the people in the camp to have their basic needs met?
One of us managed to make a deal with one of the few Red Cross workers who had some sense: we would bring hot food inside descreetly, without calling everyone‘s attention to it. It worked once: we entered the camp, 8 people, with hot soup.
When we returned 20 minutes later, a person in military clothing stopped us and asked us if we had a permission to cross the police barrier tape. Until then, we had been able to cross the police parking lot with our safety vests all day long, with the cooperation of the police, to hand out water and food in the camp. Now he told us that by crossing the barriers twice, we had broken the law twice, and that if we did it again, we would go out of Croatia.
A refugee told us there was no access to electricity, and asked if we could get a flashlight (too dark inside the tents to see anything) and a needle because he wanted to fix his backpack which had ripped. We said we would try to get these things and would come back with more hot food. With a small flashlight, a needle, black thread in my pockets and lots of cups of hot soup, I wanted to return with the other activists, but we couldn’t enter the camp anymore, and so I didn’t see this man again. So unfortunately I couldn’t even tell him why we didn’t return. I felt a little bit relieved that I hadn’t really promised to bring the items, but still I was angry and sad that access to the camp was denied to us.
In the late evening/night, we decided to try again to enter the camp with hot food. 6 of us walked to a side entrance – not the exit where we had been entering all day with water until we were denied access – where police was standing guard. We brought with us two large pots with rice and bean stew, as well as plates and forks. We all wore safety vests and walked confidently toward the entrance. The 3 police officers there asked us what we were doing and let us in when we replied that we were „bringing the food.“ We walked to a spot in front of a small construction and were immediately surrounded by several hundred people. They were all shouting and pushing and squeezing, and within seconds we were crammed close together with the pots and had no space for serving and no chance to hand out places of food because many hands were grapping them at the same time. We started shouting at the people: „step back!“ and „give us space!“ and „stop pushing!“ and „please, form a line!“
Everyone was shouting, countless hands were reaching in to grap a plate of food, people were pushing so much we had no space. Next to me, one man kept screaming the word „line!“ and gestured to us that they had formed a line. One activist was pouring food and handing it to the children who were let through the crowd to the food. I shouted back to the man, „Yes, children, then line!“ to tell him that we would serve them when there were no children to serve.
Still people were pushing and shouting. A couple of them were shouting at the crowd to help us have space to serve and to get the crowd to wait, but it was so chaotic, the people were so desperate for food, and we then put lids on the pots and stopped pouring food to try to get people to stop pushing.
After a few attempts, we took the pots and squeezed our way all the way up to the wall of the construction, so that we couldn‘t be surrounded from that side. Then 3 of us formed a human chain around the pots to keep people at a distance, and 3 of us resumed to pouring food on plates. Those forming the human chain were being pushed by the crowd and had to struggle hard to sustain their stance. The shouts of „Don‘t push!“ as well as the shouts of the crowd continued.
Two men from the crowd were an enormous help. They both had to shout and scream and push people back in order to keep people at a distance and to try to prevent them from all grapping the plates at the same time. One of them joined the human chain while the other helped serving. I poured food from one of the pots, and the plates were handed out to one side by an activist and to the other by this man who helped.
Suddenly flashlights appeared and loud shouts of „Step back!“ and „Form a line!“ sounded. Immediately the crowd backed away from us, and within seconds had formed some sort of queue, although the desperation of all the hungry people was still thick in the air. It was the police that had come over, and their presence and commands had an immediate effect. We could now more effectively hand out the food as each plate was not grapped and fought over by several hands and as we were no longer being pushed and squeezed.
The two men helping us waited till the end and took the very last two portions we could scrape out of the pots. When there was no more food, the crowd scattered and we walked out. We had fed at least a hundred people, but there were many hundreds more, and all of them were so desperately hungry that they were ready to fight for a serving of food.
As we were leaving, the police said to us that when we came back, we should ask them to assist us. We agreed with them to do this as it had been the only thing that worked. We also concluded that the reason why this worked must be because the people know that police means pepper spray and beatings with truncheons, but we felt there was no other way to make it work than to agree to work with the police.
On our way back to the kitchen, we met the second group on their way into the camp with pots of food. We stopped them and briefed them and made sure everyone knew the situation and was okay with cooperating with the police.
Shortly after, though, we learned that this groupd had been denied access even though they tried to enter only 10 minutes after we had agreed with the police to ask for their assistance.
I joined the second group to enter the camp again, but at the passage next to the Red Cross tent, suddenly a guy asked us if we have permission to bring food in there. Not willing to lose time, we quickly wanted to pass, just arguing that there are very hungry refugees inside the camp and we cannot just watch while the Red Cross is actually responsible to give out food. But he didn’t listen to us. He stopped us and called his boss on the phone, and suddenly as a result the police didn’t let us pass anymore.
Then a corpulent guy in Red Cross uniform came and told us that we “should not try to be heroes”, that “he has everything under control” and “our food is unhygienic”. It was pointless arguing with him because he obviously feared for losing some of the prestige of the Red Cross.
Contrite at the thought of the hungry refugees, and unwilling to believe that precisely the Red Cross as a humanitarian organization stopped us from delivering hot food while the police was ready to cooperate with us, we went back to the kitchen and reported the events.
Since it was no longer possible for us to enter, and since we had seen how hungry people in the camp were, we got busy serving food to everyone who stood in the line before they would enter the camp. Their waiting time in the line, in between their journey to this place and their time to come inside the camp, seemed the only way for them to get something to eat.
We kept on cooking for all the refugees we could reach, when suddenly the information about the Red Cross’ help call reached us: Now, because of the fact that the high ranked military people had left the camp, we were again allowed to deliver hot food inside the camp. We couldn’t believe it. We were stunned and angry at the same time since apparently their plan was to keep us in the shadows and just use us when nobody was looking or when they felt helpless themselves and felt that we were really needed. Never would they have asked us officially for help. Thus, they showed us very clearly the weakness of every big organization, namely that they are always limited in helping people as much as possible out of fear of losing their whitewashed face.
We kept making lots of hot food until late in the night while building up and rearranging some tents in preparation for the rain that was expected. The first rain came at 5am wherefore the activists still awake quickly handed out the very last blankets and jackets, themselves being soaked and half asleep. As the sun was rising in a greyish red through the rainclouds, I finally got some hours of deep sleep.
Because of the rainy day the activists only slowly gathered around the kitchen, partly being sick and partly obviously exhausted. Nevertheless, we continued preparing food, and we realized in wonder that neither the military nor any NGO was really prepared for the expected rain. Also, the truck with drinking water that we had used for cooking had disappeared, which made the situation for us pretty difficult because we had to use bottled water, and the Red Cross, although having lots of it, didn’t allow us to take any. In addition, around midday, a policeman came telling us that in 1 hour there would be an inspection of the kitchen, whose purpose we figured was to ban us from cooking at all. In a moment of disbelief, we decided to cook as much food as possible in this short time, which was very stressful but also very effective. After 3 hours of unstopped productivity, we realized that this was just a hollow threat against us, with the intention to remove us from the cameras’ eyes.
The parking lot was full of press because the Croation Prime Minister was supposed to arrive. Also for this reason, the police had stopped letting people into the camp. Instead, all the people who arrived were kept waiting outside in the rain, standing in line, because there had to be some show for the cameras when they would interview the Prime Minister. This dragged on for hours because he didn‘t arrive as scheduled.
Some of us were inside the camp handing out food and water. Several people told us they needed medical care – one in particular. A Red Cross person was standing on the ridge translating messages from the police through a megaphone. We called for him to help us find a doctor, and he replied in the megaphone: „It is not my problem.“
We went inside a Red Cross tent close by. Inside it was dark, and there were two persons from the Red Cross and a police officer pouring petrol on their generator. Our calls for help were completely ignored, they did not even look at us. Apparently they were too busy watching the police officer pouring petrol.
Back outside, an Doctors Without Borders doctor came by and offered his help. He also informed us that in another corner of the camp, a group of people had had nothing to eat for 2 days and one woman in particular urgently needed food.
Inside the camp we observed barely used blankets, sleeping bags clothes, etc. being thrown directly into a garbage truck as part of the clean up process.
Before Thursday, there had been no system to make sure that the refugees that entered the camp first were also let out first. They themselves had been responsible for moving towards the exit to wait in line. With approximately 5000 people and not sufficient information provided for them, this meant that many persons spent several days in the camp not knowing how to get out. One person we spoke to was on the verge of tears and swore to God that he was sure the Croatian authorities wanted him to stay in the country forever.
On Thursday, the camp was divided into sections, and the refugees were moved from one section to the next through the camp towards the exit. At every gate the police were shouting and often threatening with fists, truncheons and pepper spray to make people sit down or to stop the flow through the gate. On one occasion we observed a police officer beat a boy around the age of 12 twice in the chest and shoulders. The boy only managed not to fall because the crowd was so dense and people were pushing.
On several occasions one police officer was commanding them to sit down and another to stand up. The refugees were very confused and scared and some had developed the reflex to sit down at the sight of a police officer.
At the gates and especially at the exit, where people were driven away in buses, families were split and the police were often ignoring requests of people to be let through with their relatives.
In the evening a stormy rain hit us with its whole force, breaking some of the tent poles and blowing out the fires of the gas cookers. While occupied with repairing the tent, we suddenly heard a scream break though the night, and we quickly ran in the direction. We found 3 women with 2 babies and one girl sitting in a badly made big tent whose sidewalls were blown away by the wind, and trying desperately to cover the youngest with blankets, screaming for help. We got them out and as fast as possible organized a car where they could calm down a little bit. As we wanted to move them to a bigger car where they could lye down and rest a little, a woman from UNHCR stopped us because they “could get raped by somebody” in this car which was owned by male activists. After some discussions, we agreed on a tent inside the camp which was specially intended for families, and we left the car for other refugees.
At some point in the night, a nurse from the Medicines Sants Frontier came to our kitchen with a man and asked if we could help this man. He needed clothes for his wife who was pregnant and bleeding and had to go to the hospital, but all her clothes were wet and bled on. I took him to our tent full of donated clothes and helped him find what he needed. 10 minutes later he came back because she also needed socks and shoes. We found socks for her, but we had no shoes her size, so another activist and I took the man to another large tent in the area which we knew was full of donated clothes. There lay many shoes spread out and he found a pair the right size, thanked us many times and hurried off to his wife.
As the other activist and I were about to leave the tent, a woman with a UNHCR shirt came up to us and said, „Excuse me, are you in charge of this tent?“ to which I replied, „No.“ Then she asked: „Who is in charge of this tent?“
I replied, „I don‘t know“ and resisted the urge to add, „and I don‘t care.“ I was incredulous that she had any interest in asking me this question, let alone any interest in who was „in charge“ of a tent full of donated clothes in a place full of thousands of people more or less in a state of emergency. She then asked me: „Who are you? Are you a volunteer? Are you an NGO?“
Me: „No, I am not an NGO. I was helping this man finding shoes for his wife who is bleeding and who needs to go to the hospital.“
The UNHCR woman: „Who was this man?“
Me (repeating): „He needs to go the hospital with his wife who is bleeding. She had no shoes.“
UNHCR woman: „Can you please find him and bring him back here?“
Me: „No! He is going to the hospital! And I need to go back because I‘m cooking.“
We then turned and walked away from the woman who was only staring at us, saying nothing.
At some point we got the message from Tovarnik that lots of refugees were stuck there again in the “no-mans-land” between Sid and Tovarnik without any protection against the rain, and without food. With a group collecting the very last blankets that we had in our storage tent, we also went to the UNHCR people to ask them for support and supplies. Despite their organization and allegedly constantly driving monitoring cars, they didn’t know about the situation in Tovarnik and seemed pretty thankful. After some discussion, they promised us to send a great truck full of blankets and rain protection to the refugees where we should meet up to help deliver them. Happy about the help, we assembled our last forces and drove with 3 cars loaded with blankets, tea and hot food to Tovarnik. Arriving there, the situation actually was very much out of control. There were about 1000 refugees partly crowded under the little roof of the checkpoint, always together in groups of 10 persons hidden under a huge military tarpaulin and partly just lying in and next to little tents in the grass, while constant rain was relentlessly falling. Some police officers hurried around helplessly, obviously not in control of the situation, even being thankful when we arrived.
We parked somewhere in between the 2 refugee groups and handed out the soup right out of the car to the people. They seemed really tired and exhausted and were therefore very happy about the hot food and tea. Again they asked for blankets and rain protection, but we could only tell them that the promised UNHCR truck should arrive any moment, full of stuff. Shivering, they nodded thankfully, and waited with patience. We realized after 3 hours that the truck would never arrive.
The forenoon was pretty quiet. Some volunteers left the place, and buses with refugees were arriving constantly but not as frequently as usual. Because we still weren’t permitted inside the camp, we focused on the refugees arriving and tried to give them all they needed before entering the registration tent.
In the afternoon, suddenly the whole camp seemed to change. Many people were in movement, great military trucks came with tents that were built up very quickly to form a waterproof tunnel for the waiting refugees. Out of this police and military crowd, a man in uniform came to us and ordered us to leave the place within 1 hour because this would now be “military ground” and we were not an officially permitted organization. Additionally, he told us that there would be a military kitchen inside the camp and therefore we were not needed anymore. If we would not follow his orders, we would be arrested or kicked out of Croatia, so his words.
After this threat, we quickly organized a meeting and discussed the issue, concluding that there were still hungry refugees arriving and that we should continue cooking until we really did get kicked out. Because of the cleaning of the area around us, the activists got really stressed and it was pretty hard to find a consensus.
We tried to talk to the Red Cross, the police, and the minister who had arrived and ordered this, but everybody advised us to move the kitchen out away from the recently proclaimed military ground. Although we were all really exhausted and stressed, we began to move at least one of our two kitchens to the nearest field next to the camp. The police was really unfriendly, directed us from one place to another, really slowing the moving process down.
While carrying as much as possible to the new spot, I saw that all the good and barely used tents and blankets were thrown away into a big garbage container.
After about 2 hours, we managed to get the first kitchen to the field while, despite the police orders, the second kitchen continued cooking and handing out food to the refugees.
After some time, they also forbade us to distribute hot food, so we decided to send all the food to Bapska from where most of the refugees were coming, crossing the Serbian border there. The new military ground was now really cleaned up, only some Doctors Without Borders tens and a Greenpeace station were still there.
The press was just filming the seemingly nice place with the freshly built up military tents, and surprisingly some military high rank officer and the minister gave interviews. We were pretty much ignored, apparently we were not a bother to them as long as we were hidden in the shadows.
Paradoxically, a few hours later, when all the press had left the place, we were asked again by a highly ranked military guy for help to deliver hot food to the refugees. He also admitted that there was no military kitchen inside the camp.
In disbelief, anger, and exhaustion, we again handed out food to the people who needed it. Luckily, a greater group of activists arrived in the evening and we sent them with the second kitchen to Bapska because there were a lot of refugees, and only a small kitchen was built up there. Finally, over night when everything was more or less under control, I got some hours of sleep.
We kept on cooking for the people constantly arriving to the camp, aware of the disgust of the police for whom we apparently still were a thorn in the side. If a journalist dared to point the camera in our direction, the police immediately interfered to keep their perfect image up.
We gathered in a meeting in which some activists shared their feelings of being just a plaything for the government, like a tool just used if needed. Fore some, the cooperation with the police was too strong and they were tired of observing that we became more and more a part of this camp system. After discussions, we decided to go to a new place where we would be at least as much needed as in Opatovac, so we spent nearly the whole afternoon packing all the stuff in transporters and drove off, reluctantly leaving the refugees behind.