I arrived at the refugee camp in Dobova on the Slovenian-Croatian border just after the first snow had fallen. The large white tents, humming generators, military vehicles, police vans and flood lights stood just off the road about 100 meters from the passport control area. The heavily clad police walked in pairs or threes through the slush and others stood under a propane heater smoking. Near the first large tent stood two soldiers with helmets hanging from their belts and machine guns strung up high against their chests.
Straightaway I was given a badge, a florescent vest and told to take plenty of latex gloves and a facemask and to follow a man who’d obviously been there for many hours. He looked tired as he popped biscuits into his mouth and shifted his weight from one foot to another talking rapidly. Although he spoke Slovenian I understood enough to make out that he’d held a two-day-old baby that day; his face gleamed despite his tiredness. He rolled a cigarette clumsily and I followed him to pick up two large garbage cans and take them into tent number 3, which we were to clean.
Inside was that humid, sweet, nauseating stench of wet humanity on the move, something I’d experienced before but never on this scale. A heater vent pumped in hot air and the wet UN blankets strewn all across the floor of the 30m wide and 100m long tent gave off a light steam. The tent was broken up into four spaces longitudinally by portable metal fences, the kind that are put up at sporting events, parades and outdoor concerts. Everywhere were half-eaten tins of sardines, milk packs, water bottles, bruised apples, pieces of white bread, diapers, shoes, trousers, socks, plastic bags full of garbage and abandoned blue Ikea bags, wrappers, wet sleeping bags, rough plastic mats for sleeping on. By its appearance, a great traumatic event had just taken place here involving hundreds or thousands of people. I wasn’t sure where to start, so I swept things generally into the middle of the floor and moved wet blankets up on the railings to dry.
Most of the volunteers were women, so the two of us that were men were in charge of taking the green garbage containers across the snowy yard to the dumpsters. They had to be lifted, tilted and shook empty. We made many trips as the amount of garbage was considerable. Every time I returned into the tent my glasses fogged up, the hot sweet stench hit me and I remembered to put up my mask with dirty latex gloved fingers. The smell reminded me of the bathrooms in the public libraries in the USA during the wet winter months where homeless men go to sit and take long shits.
After several hours an organizer came to tell us that the refugees would arrive soon so we should gather up all the bags of garbage and quickly get them to the dumpsters. The tent was not clean but it was much better; there was an oily milky layer across the wood floor that was perhaps impossible to remove. The smell remained.
In a pen made of metal fencing in the corner there was a group of some 40 men standing around or sitting and waiting. I wasn’t sure if I should make eye-contact, to say hello or what. Some of them ended up asking the police if they could help fold blankets and they were allowed to do so in a small area adjacent to their pen. A few said hello to me and smiled. I lowered my mask and said hello back. Later, after I’d been in the middle of a 1000 such people, it would occur to me how strange those men looked as long as they were set apart in their pen. They appeared criminal and dangerous as long as I hadn’t actually come into contact with them.
Just then another volunteer said that the refugees were arriving and that I should take the wheelbarrow to the dumpsters and then park it somewhere. After doing that, Adriana, an acquaintance from Zagreb, told me that we’d reached the good part.
First she took me to disinfect my hands and get a new mask and gloves.
“Stand here and if you see someone that needs help with his bags or a mother holding a baby you can either offer to take the bags or hold the food bag open for them,” she said. “Hold it open as they go along the line and the workers will drop food and a water bottle into it.”
The first bus pulled up. It was a long old city bus with the accordion ribs in the middle. The bus stood there for some time but then the front doors opened and people stepped out and into an antechamber tent where there were also wheelchairs kept and on into the food tent where they were given a plastic bag with two pieces of white bread, a package of margarine and a package of chocolate spread. At the next stop they were given a bottle of water, then a tin of sardines and finally were able to take diapers for children if needed.
Apart from the men penned up in the tent, this was my first face-to-face contact with refugees and I was surprised at how normal they looked. That is to say that the fathers and mothers carried smiling or sleeping kids and babies, the girls wore elegant scarves and smiled sweetly and shyly, the old men had mustaches and gold teeth and unshaven cheeks, the old women dragged large bags, the young men looked sharp in their pristine white skiing jackets or navy blue quilted variants. Most people must have been wearing multiple hats, for I noticed how high they went, like some old Ottoman style. There were dark faces, Asiatic faces, black faces, pale-skinned faces, faces of poverty and early aging, elegant and petite faces, middle class faces, peasant faces and aristocratic faces—in short every kind of face under the sun! I could hardly believe it. What beauty! I thought to myself. I’ve never seen such beautiful people!
There were many children of every shape and size and most of them were happy and laughing, which is a real credit to their parents’ ability to keep them oblivious of what was happening. One father said, “Thank you! Thank you!” to me enthusiastically because I held his little plastic bag open and he stopped and I instinctively shook his two-year-old son’s hand, whom he was holding. The father said something that amounted to “give him a kiss!” to the boy and he was leaned over and he gave me a peck on the cheek. What enthusiasm! Later, after I’d be told by the refugees that this was the worst camp that they’d been in since leaving their respective lands of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran or wherever and travelling across Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia, I wondered whether the man with the boy hadn’t put some false expectations on me. Perhaps he thought that now that they’d entered Schengen and ‘free Europe’ that they’d be given rooms and showers and hot meals. Perhaps he expected to not be treated as a criminal because I’d smiled at his boy and held his bag. Later that night if I’d found him in the tent that was wall-to-wall full of sitting, lying and standing bodies and a hum of near-panic, of chaos about to erupt, would he have had his son give me a kiss? Perhaps, for the generosity of spirit that I saw was amazing, but I shouldn’t expect so. They had every right to hate me and everything I represented, if only out of tired frustration.
After bus upon bus had arrived and we’d repeated this welcoming, we wandered in the tent where people regrouped and then got back into lines to wait to leave that tent and go to another, smaller tent, where their possessions were checked and then yet another tent where they were registered and finally into the last, large tent where they might spend the night or from where they would be taken (when?) on to Austria by either bus or train. There a young man about my age wearing black rimmed glasses, jeans and a stylish winter coat (he could have been on the street of any world metropolis) came up to me and asked for shoes. As I could see, his shoes were in pretty good shape, but it occurred to me later that they must have been sopping wet as was the case with most of the other peoples’ shoes. (Imagine if you’ve lived your whole life in a moderate or hot climate and then you are suddenly faced with a European winter—and you’re wearing stylish but totally inappropriate shoes!) I went out of the tent, past the police, down the corridor (like the ones where they shuttle cattle to butcher), through the food and then the antechamber ten, past the parked bus under the flood lights, across the slushy road and container outside of which police smoked under their propane stove and into the warehouse where there were piles of clothes and boxes of shoes. I found his size: and pretty decent looking light hiking boots besides. I repeated this walk back and found him where I’d left him, at the back of the tent. He looked around, moved a blanket into place with his toe and sat down and tried them on. They fit, so he left his old wet shoes where they were, said thanks and melted back into the crowd. By now I had three other requests for shoes so I repeated the whole operation but only found one pair in the coveted 40-45 size range and brought them but, as they were worn out old summer shoes (full of dog hair, too, I noticed) there were no takers.
There were no men’s shoes in any meaningful sizes and plenty of need. There were women’s shoes, however, and plenty of children’s shoes, so I got busy distributing those and then coats for a family that had abandoned any hope of making it quickly through the registration and had instead sat itself under the heat vent. The man in charge—perhaps 50 years old, unshaven, dark, with moody even angry eyes and roughly handsome—spoke some English. He was very polite, saying things like “if you can find a coat like this one but smaller that would be very good and if not—no problem; thank you, thank you” and he was sunken with tiredness and moved slowly. I gave a younger man in the group a mod jacket—longish, green with fur around the hood—but he deemed it too big. The leader said, “shoulders good, this good, that good, new, warm, it’s good!” with a tone that implied “so shut the fuck up!” I kept bringing new coats (for some reason all the available coats were very big, as if they’d come from the overstock of one of those big, tall and wide men’s stores) but I managed to find a James Dean style black leather jacket—very thick with three big buttons—for the leader man and he tried it on and was satisfied, so he emptied his pockets and transferred the things into the new coat and gave me the old one (a 1980s blue skiing jacket: very ugly and the kind that makes a swooshing sound with every step) and said “thank you, thank you” again. There was also an excellent Barbour oil skin jacket in the warehouse, brand new, something that would cost a good 500 euros, but it was for autumn and rain and not snow and temperatures below zero. It agitated me that such a good coat was going unused.
I also brought winter shoes for a little girl; her grandmother was dressing her (the girl was passive, sitting and staring ahead of her: tired or in shock, I wondered?) and as I waited to see if the shoes would fit I noticed the old woman’s hands were covered in bloody open sores. She also asked for a coat for the girl but I couldn’t find one that would fit (each of these requests required the same back-and-forth traversing as explained above). The young man I’d given the mod jacket to (whom did he remind me of? He looked just like a friend of mine but I couldn’t place who it was…) was watching me as I went back and forth. I asked him about the jacket since he wasn’t wearing it. He pointed at a table and it was there in a heap.
Wouldn’t one expect a refugee to wear whatever, as long as its dry and warm and readily available? I thought about that as I watched people try on jackets and reject some, accept others, and came to the conclusion that no, you wouldn’t. These people in general looked good; they were elegant and well dressed and proud. Imagine the houses they’d lived in back in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran before leaving. There were beautiful verandas with shade plants and big tiled kitchens with all sorts of excellent foods, hot dinner each night of meats and lentils and vegetables and breads. After dinner this young man who kept eyeing me as I walked back and forth, a kind of half-smirk on his face and concentrated grim look in his eyes as if he were imagining pulling my teeth out one by one, would go out with his friends after eating and he’d look good. He’d smell good, too, and his hair would be perfect and he would be generous and laugh and talk loudly. Now he was being offered a jacket that was far too big and though I could make the mod reference (I thought it was kind of cool) he perhaps didn’t and it looked like the kind of baggy coat a homeless man would wear, not the slender form-fitting leather jacket he’d envisioned. Is fashion important for refugees? Of course! It may even be the most important thing besides shelter, food and transportation. Besides family, too, I might add. Fashion is the last thing they have left of their individual identity. I noticed that with the young women, too: how good they looked tip-toeing across the rubbish. At first I’d felt slightly guilty for trying to find “my” people the best and most beautiful clothes but then I realized that it was a very healthy instinct.
The children ran around playing, others sat quietly with their families. Right away upon arriving a mother had set up a pile of blankets and buried herself beneath them to sleep with a baby next to her. Although the mother had completely disappeared, the baby’s sleeping face was visible and facing the tent ceiling. Her older brother leaned on his elbow making sure no one would step on her. Another mother bore her bare breast, the black nipple contrasting with the soft, light skin, and tried to make her crying baby eat in the middle of the floor. A family urgently needed sugar for their baby. I recognized them as the young parents that had been very frightened as they got off the bus showing their empty thermos and pointing to the little girl. They were quickly given hot water to make formula. I understood that the sugar was for the baby so I went off to find some (by the time I found it, taken from the volunteer tent, and returned they were gone).
The point where I almost started crying was when I saw a family sitting on a bench all together near the entrance. I think they were waiting for the father or grandfather to visit the doctor. The grandmother held a sleeping girl at an uncomfortable angle. From her clothes, her scarf and the frames of her glasses you could tell she’d been quite well off back in Damascus or Tehran or Baghdad or whichever urban center they’d left behind. I looked at her and she looked at me with such sadness and vehemence and tiredness that I had to keep turning to look at her and she didn’t take her eyes off of me. She was trying to pierce me with her look and she very nearly did. I prayed for her quietly and looked at the young woman next to her with a bundled baby in many blankets. She, too, was defeated and so tired. Life had very nearly drained out of her—who’d she lost? What had she seen? Where had she been and what had happened to her? A woman came and asked her if she’d like to take the baby to the baby-changing container. She didn’t understand. The woman held a sign with the offer written in three or four languages, the mother understood and, after some effort, got to her feet and followed the woman out of the door.
Little by little the tent way emptying out. When the police at the door gave the word, ten at a time would cross the snowy yard and go into another smaller tent where their bags and bodies were checked. I know this because twice I was standing at the second big, destination tent and someone came up to me saying he’d forgotten something in the search tent. First it was a hip young man who’d forgotten his size 44 Timberland boots at the check! What a disaster! It was impossible to find such boots on this trail and boots were the most important accessory! I went in and the meekly poked around and a woman police officer eyed me (she was wearing a black balaclava) and finally she gave me a tongue-lashing and asked, “What are you looking for?!”
“Boots,” I said sadly. “A man forgot them here, they’re very important.”
“They’re not here!” she said.
“They’re not there!” I told the man. “What a tragedy!”
“Oh, well,” he said, smiling weakly. “It’s OK. Thank you! Thank you my friend!”
Another time an old peasant, bloated with poverty and with a broad wrinkled face, spoke to me animatedly in Arabic. I’d watched my friend Goga, who is an old pro at these things and with a personality perfectly to match such an operation, quickly search out a translator from a group of people and very quickly get problems worked out, information passed on and the issues sorted. So I tried it. A young man was exiting the registration tent.
“Arabic?” I asked. “And English?”
“Yes,” he said.
“What is he saying?” I asked.
“He says he left his bag in the check.”
Oh God, I thought! The police again! After much motioning and trying to communicate on the part of the old man, I went back through the registration tent and into the search tent where bags were being emptied and lighters, USB sticks, shavers, scissors and the like were being tossed into garbage piles, and made my way to the entrance door where the old man motioned down. I looked and there was a plastic bag with the pieces of bread, water and sardine tin that he’d received. I picked it up and showed it to him. “YES!” he motioned and smiled.
After the body/bag check each refugee is registered in Slovenia. I overheard police yelling at people in English “HOW MUCH MONEY DO YOU HAVE?!?” as if the louder they spoke the easier it would be to understand. There were about 10 computers set up and police sitting around them, two to each computer, and the individuals or families would stand in front answering questions.
Outside the latter tent after the sun had long set and the temperature had dipped well below freezing Goga and I talked with a young man with big sad eyes. Goga offered him a cigarette but he said no and then smiled meekly, slightly embarrassed, and pulled out a soft pack of cigarettes of his own.
“Where were you able to buy cigarettes?” asked Goga. “In Serbia?”
“No,” he hesitated. “Yes! Yes, in Serbia,” he said.
The young man said he was from Afghanistan and, after Goga asked him, said he’d arrived in Turkey by plane. That was quick, he said, but the boat ride across from Turkey to Greece had been so frightening, so small boat and cold and so frightening, he smiled. Several times I came across this young man and once he asked for a cleaner WC for his mother (the porta-potties were overflowing and disgusting) and another time he confessed he was not from Afghanistan but rather Iran. He’d lied to the police and was having second thoughts: perhaps he should amend his statement? What did I think? I had no idea. Better Afghanistan than Iran, I told him, as Iranians are supposed to be sent back to Slovenia and then back to Croatia; but Croatia won’t take you and then Slovenia will try to send you to Austria with better papers again and hope you get through. But it’s up to you.
Could he trust the police? he asked. No, I said quite bluntly, of course not. Goga talked to him later and it turned out his father had stayed back in Tehran where he was a professor; his mother, a painter, and his sister and come along with him to Europe. “I’m not usually like this,” he motioned vaguely to his clothes. He worked with computers and was also a barista, he said. He could work with coffee. They were headed to Hamburg where they knew someone.
Another group of youngsters were talking animatedly in guttural Arabic and looking at me. Finally, one of them asked, “How long to Austria?” I told him two to three hours. “Then where do we go?” the same one asked. “You’re asking me?” I thought. I said, “Germany, I suppose.” They were quite satisfied with that and went back to their discussion.
After the majority of people had been transferred from the first large tent through the bag and body search to the registration tent and finally into the second large tent, the sick started to appear. Of course they’d been there all the while and I’d noticed a few volunteers helping very ill people straight from the bus to the doctors’ tent. One older man couldn’t breathe and his large entourage—several generations—waited by the entrance of the first tent under the heating vent while he was checked by the team of Czech doctors. I was told that if I took someone there I’d have to wait for him/her until he/she was ready to go back. The person was my responsibility and if he/she escaped I’d have to answer to the police. Wildly inefficient but so it went.
First a man with a girl came up to ask for a doctor. I didn’t understand him and furthermore I’d never taken anyone to the doctor and so didn’t know the process. Goga stepped in to help. I asked the girl, about seven years old and wearing a black hijab, if she spoke English. She beamed proudly and shook her head no. The man had a grey UN blanket wrapped around his shoulders and head and had half-closed eyes that rolled around in his head looking quite ill. Goga organized someone to translate quickly that he should inform his family that he’d go to the doctor and not to leave without him, but he said something like “this is my family” indicating the girl, who was smiling and alert and full of nervous energy. If someone were to make a film about the refugee route, I thought, this pair would make excellent central characters. I looked at the man more carefully: very tall, slender, strong, moustache, dark eyes, and with a deep solid core of affection or softness surrounded by a silent, hard shell. He had the physique and air of a craftsman carpenter.
And was this his daughter? It must be so but it didn’t look like it was his daughter; she was too elegant and fine as from a higher class family and too happy and extroverted. In any case they went across the snowy yard (as I followed) through the four or five rows of metal fencing that we had to open and close behind us, snaking our way through to the doctors’ tent on the other side. Where was the mother? Who all had they lost? Was this by plan that only a daughter and father would cross Europe alone together? How did he sleep with the lone girl somewhere near him yet susceptible to all sorts of danger if he slept too soundly? He was, despite his strong body and silently directed energy, like a sailboat pointed in a steady wind at night, with a broken mast and tattered sails.
I then took many people, mostly pairs, to the doctor and had to wait in the cold as they were checked. Many of them did not let on that they were actually sick. They were very polite and meekly followed me through the fences. I took the three young men dressed in identical, bright white skiing jackets, who I thought might be non-identical triplets. A friend of theirs went with them. They entered the doctors’ tent and I stood outside waiting. They’d seemed chirpy and talkative and I wondered whether the trip to the doctor wasn’t just for something to do, to pass the time, to see if anything extra could be gained by it like when characters in gulag novels try to balance their sickness so that they can avoid work but not actually be in true danger.
Suddenly, one of the three rushed out and vomited at the side of the tent with a doctor/nurse (they all wore short sleeves and red fleece vests with ‘RESCUE’ written on the back) hot on his trail. After vomiting he went back in the tent. Goga had observed it, too, as she was taking a middle-aged man that, from the aging of his face, his way of walking, his clothes, you could tell was a lower-class laborer or perhaps market hawker, to the toilets. Just then there was another commotion as a doctor/nurse came out of the tent and yelled at the man to come back. He was holding a cup and also had a grey UN blanket draped over his shoulders. Some explaining was taking place in the middle of the yard where the three of them discussed. More people were arriving to the doctor’s and placed to wait in a small tent with a heater and a large canister of hot water and, under the table, hundreds of boxes of tea. But no cups! There were some used cups strewn about with half-drunk cold tea or filaments of cold tea against the white Styrofoam but the patients didn’t take them. On second thought—or rather with hindsight—that was probably very wise seeing as we were in the waiting room for the doctor, but my instinct was, from my hard travelling days where I’d eaten grotesque food from grotesque places, to rinse a cup out and re-use it. It turned out the man with Goga was asked to take a urine sample (they suspected something wrong with his kidneys) but, upon inspection, they realized they didn’t have the device to check the urine. So the test was simply not done and that line of medical reasoning left open.
After many trips back and forth I enlisted the help of an Italian woman who was clearly not cut out for this line of work, a look of dazed, sorrowful shock on her face as she trudged back and forth across the yard pushing a wheelbarrow of garbage. Goga ran off to help someone else and left me her patients for a moment. Then the Italian woman returned (after her first visit to the large tent) with six young men in an Indian file across the yard. A fat police officer came across and asked who was who, why they were here and, most importantly, how many patients we had all together. I mumbled some explanations (the Italian woman had figuratively gone into the fetal position) and the police officer said, “then we have a problem. We will close down the doctor. No more,” and he marched off across the yard closing the fences taunt as he went. Well, that was that! What could one do? Not much. It certainly wasn’t well organized, the ‘system’ was haphazard and inefficient and designed to fray one’s nerves as all help—the warehouse, the doctor, the container for babies and mothers, the tents themselves, were all spread out and separated by fences and police and bored soldiers wearing machine guns. You kind of operated on the assumption that you’d keep doing whatever you needed to do unless told otherwise. What were the rules? I had no idea except that you had to escort people (refugees? criminals? inmates? what were they?) and not leave them to walk around on their own. Well, now we’d come up against a rule in the mushy form of an overly ambitious police officer.
Lucky for us human behavior is fickle and mostly lazy. The fat police officer, wearing a florescent vest, less dressed for combat and more for a beat around town with plastic handcuff tie-ups, a pistol and baton hanging from his waist, was not seen or heard of again. ‘The’ doctor came out, or at least who I imagined was the doctor. There were rumors that he was Syrian and hence spoke Arabic, priceless in such circumstances. He’d left his practice in Ljubljana or wherever, given it up essentially, and set up here working, as were all of those that were not police or military, through NGOs and mostly if not entirely on a volunteer basis. He gave one of the volunteers (whom I hadn’t seen before) a huge hug and lifted her up into the air. Her face was covered with a scarf; it was bitterly cold.
We were then told to no longer enter the tent and pass out clothes, etc. The migrants “needed to rest,” we were told, but this was from one of the volunteer organizers. She’d seen much more than the rest of us and was fraying at the edges, her nerves breaking down in agitation, or so it seemed. You couldn’t blame her. I was starting to feel rather broken myself; my legs and back ached and my head swam in a sea of images and thoughts, mostly of children and mothers and fathers (I had a baby and boy at home, a wife and a bed and hot food and it seemed very far away).
In a Feminism and Capitalism course I’d taken recently I’d read about the breakdown of the nuclear family as a means by which to combat gender inequality. Of course this is a rather simplistic way of putting it, but in short I couldn’t have disagreed with that sentiment or line or argument more at this point. Family was, apart from the fragments of fashion mentioned above, the only thing these people had left. That, too, was being stripped away as people were being lost, some died, others left dead in Syria or wherever. I thought again of the slender craftsman carpenter and his beaming daughter in the black hijab. Had the journey whittled down their family to just the two of them? What (I dared not even think of it, but did anyway) would happen if the man became sicker, decapacitated, even died? What would become of the girl? I shuddered.
It was just about time to leave. I cleaned my hands with disinfectant and drank a cup of coffee. I’d eaten nothing the whole day and didn’t feel hungry now. I wondered if I’d ever be the same again? How could things go on as usual? I was in Croatia for the Christmas holidays and leaving in two days back for Finland. Could I do something useful in Finland? Probably not as dramatically hands-on as this. I felt sure that, if I still lived in Zagreb, which is a mere 40 min from this camp, I’d volunteer weekly.
In a manner of conclusion, I will mention three things that occurred to me from this experience. First: what an amazing exposure to beauty! This was humanity in its fundamental, raw form, flowing like a powerful river through Europe into a delta that spreads out across a huge land mass. Here it was still in a narrow, powerful current and I saw 1000 beautiful faces that afternoon/evening. This was not an intellectual idea or poetic turn of phrase: my body, soul, heart and everything else reacted to this beauty independently of my mind, politics, words or ideas.
Second, though I didn’t help much in my one day at the camp I was able to pay witness to this monumental occurrence that is taking place right now in Europe. I can (and will) tell my grandchildren about this; this is the history of humanity in the making, a history-changing event. It is massive! The amount of suffering, tragedy, and courage I’d seen, the police and military and dirty crowded tents and crying babies and sick children and cold and hunger…! And this was these peoples’ first experience in the Schengen zone of the EU. Looking forward 20 years, it is what we do now that we—as a world together—will reap.
Thirdly, some might say that it is more efficient to give money to organizations that help refugees, which may be in part true. However, what the migrants (also) need is human contact—physical touch, eye contact, words, being there in physical bodily form next to them breathing the same air and paying witness to the degradation and experiences that they are going through. In this way the police and military aren’t the only people they see when they arrive. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if more people knew about this, if they could see this river of beautiful humanity flowing, they’d jump up and rush out the door to experience it for themselves, if only for selfish reasons! Nowhere else will you see such tragic beauty! And since the help is scarce down there on the Balkan route you, if you go, you will be one of a few that can then kindle the story and pass it along in the hope that it spreads. Spreading narratives of the things you’ve seen and heard are the humanity that can keep this history alive and turn these military-police camps and the migrants-as-criminals back into a story of human experience, courage and love.