BELGRADE — It's still dark at 5 a.m near the railway station in the Serbian capital. The streetlights are on but the roads are quiet. A half hour later, everything changes as the camped-out migrants awaken, and dozens of migrants quickly get up, take their sheets and clear the way for the commuters arriving at the train station.
The new day brings with it the race for some free electricity, and behind a small café five young men huddle around an adapter plugged into a wall socket. The smartphones are everything for a migrant in a faraway place: a direct line to loved ones they've left behind at home and the source of all the information they need to proceed, including addresses and maps.
We are at the heart of Belgrade's transport system, where every day dozens of migrants arrive and depart from two bus stations and one train station. They follow the Balkan route, aiming to reach Hungary after coming up from Macedonia from the south.
An estimated 100,000 asylum seekers are crossing Serbia on this August day, and most stay in the capital for less than a week. They then travel onwards by bus, train or taxi to the border with Hungary. Some of them have heard about the Hungarian government's construction of a wall along the Serbian border, for now just a four-meter-tall metal fence, but they are optimistic nevertheless about their chances to making it inside the European Union.
Hundreds of migrants are camped in two large green spaces, where trash and rags litter areas once covered in grass. There are tents in every corner, even under the trees, while others opt for sleeping bags strewn on the ground. The less fortunate resort to sleeping on cardboard, huddling against one another to conserve heat. Some seek shelter in the corridors of the station.
"I arrived in Italy from Algeria, after crossing the Mediterranean," says a 40-year-old who gives his first name, Said. "In Rome they refused to give me asylum documents, so I took a flight to Istanbul and now I'll try entering from Hungary."
Taxi to the border
It is mostly men here, and the few women are married and arrived with their families. The majority of the refugees camped in Belgrade are between 20 and 30 years old, and hail from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and countries in Africa. Most dream of reaching northern Europe, especially Germany, Belgium and Scandinavia, following in the trail of their friends or family members who have made the same journey before them.
Refugees last week in a Belgrade park. Photo: Nemanja Cabric/Xinhua/ZUMA
Five or six men raise their voices, smartphones in hand, and show a map to the taxi driver to help him understand where they want to go. "They all want to come, all of them," says the Serbian taxi driver to Rosheng, the only refugee here who speaks English.
They reach a deal on a route to the Hungarian border, roughly 200 kilometers away, for fifty euros each. It's expensive, but Rosheng accepts. But then, the driver refuses to have seven people, even after Rosheng explains that the two children can be carried in their parents' arms.
In the end, the driver proposes taking two taxis for 500 euros. Another driver intervenes, saying he'll take the group in one car, and receives insults from his colleagues. They depart for the border.
Rosheng is 21, speaks four languages and studied engineering in university. He fled Syria with his six brothers. "In Syria you can be a student until you're 18, then you must go to war," he says. "Even as a college student I can no longer avoid going to war. I don't want to fight."
He landed in Greece a week ago, before making his way through Macedonia. "Some soldiers put us on the train to Serbia. We paid ten euros," he recounts. Rosheng left his friends, fiancé and parents behind in Syria, and they now wait for him at the Turkish border.
He and the others will leave again tomorrow on the bus with their ten-euro tickets. "Then, at the border, we will see," he says.
"All the hostels are full," explains Jovac, who has driven taxis for a long time. "Not the hostels in Belgrade, they ask to see passports, but they go outside the city." The other option is a city park, but there is rubbish everywhere and the night brings strong winds and colder temperatures.
It's past 11 p.m. at the station when three full buses arrive. The people streaming out of the buses seem disoriented, and some don't even know where they are. One group runs immediately to a cab driver, and the head of the family brandishes his smartphone, presenting a photo of a map: "We have to go here," he says. His destination is a hostel 25 kilometers from Belgrade, where he has a reservation.
Many of the migrants in the camp are children, and they run around playing with whatever they can find: a rolled-up sock, a pair of underwear, a cardboard box. The younger ones don't understand the situation they're in, while the older kids stay close to their parents, sitting on the ground in silence. Representatives of local associations distribute food two or three times a day, but they don't bring much — and many of the camp's residents buy their own food.
Two young social workers from Belgrade freely distribute food and clothes to the camp's residents. "No one thinks about them, we do the least we can," says one. There's no police presence anywhere to be seen, but one refugee claims that they patrol the area in plainclothes.
A few meters away, Belgrade's nightlife awakens as the Serbian capital's famous bars lining the Sava river open for the evening. Design galleries, nightclubs and cocktail bars on barges fill with young revelers as music seeps into the open air. The locals seem unaware of the dramatic situation only a few meters away.
Rosheng hasn't taken a shower in two weeks, but he says it with a smile. "They took away my future and that of my brothers, just like they did in Europe during World War II," he says. "But we won't give up, we will make it."