Text and photos by Matthias Canapini* – Unimondo**
Since the official closure of the Balkan (and other) borders in 2015, thousands of migrants have been stranded in Serbia. The few reception centres take in more people than they should, and are likely to become home to many who will not be able to make their way back: the elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill. Mehdi is from Kapisa, a province neighbouring Kabul. The sound of an explosion echoes through the speakers of his mobile phone. “Look, the Taliban have blown themselves up near a primary school in Ghazni. Afghan TV says twenty-one dead… I went there before I left home. Ghazni is famous for its minarets, which are built in a star shape. They are said to be sixty metres high and are the remains of the Bahramshah mosque. I also liked Iran very much, I spent two months in Tehran. In Iran, you only have problems if you are gay or atheist. The good thing about being a migrant and touching so many countries is that you learn many languages. I am on my way to Switzerland or Holland, where my aunt and uncle are waiting for me. The problem in Afghanistan is not the Taliban or the fundamentalists, but the government that allows all these deaths. Explosions and bombings happen all the time, you can never be safe. If it weren’t for that, you would live very well! People are friendly, the landscape is unique”. We are interrupted by a fight.
Dada, 16, is punching left and right, defending himself with dry, angry biceps. As soon as the atmosphere calms down, the young Ghanaian turns around: “This is my time! I am young and strong and I have friends in Italy, Germany and France. I avoided Libya and the Mediterranean and opted for Turkey. Why don’t they speed up the bureaucracy? Why don’t they help a father like Mamadou, who has been here for two years, to find a job, an opportunity? So many minors like me are confused, they come here thinking they will find a land of milk and honey. If I could go back… But I can’t. I have a brother and a sister in Ghana, but look how some thugs beat me up for old grudges,” Dada shouts, mispronouncing the words. He lifts his shirt to reveal a huge pink scar that runs from his collarbone to his stomach. The wound is jagged as if made with a hacksaw or kitchen knife. “You’re going to go mad in here if you haven’t already.” Alarmed by the commotion, psychologist Zorana rushes in. “Some of the boys here are hurting themselves, maybe to prove something, to imitate others, or because they are unstable and depressed. Depression reaches sensational heights, but addiction to synthetic drugs is no joke either. Many women suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Everything is so complicated, in these non-places, we try to make the waiting easier with dialogue.”
I have the feeling that few, perhaps none, have any idea how to improve or contain a powder keg. Unwittingly, I cross paths with 11-year-old Farhad Nouri, a very young Afghan refugee whose artistic talent is so outstanding that President Aleksandar Vučić has promised him and his family Serbian citizenship. As a child prodigy, he is called to the limelight. Farhad has a drawing pad, a pencil and a smartphone on which he collects images and patterns to reproduce: Picasso is his undisputed idol. The very young painter, who dreams of Switzerland, already has an exhibition, many famous admirers, a long article in the New York Times and a photo report by the Associated Press. The only thing missing is an escape route from the Krnjača camp, although the government has tried to find a job for his father. Many argue that behind enigmatic headlines such as ‘refugee-friendly Serbia’, ‘resilient earthquake victims’ or ‘heroic nurses’, it is easy to detect rhetoric that deflects attention from the mistakes and indifference of the institutions. It is a way of using language to shift responsibility onto those who should be protected the most, giving them an unwanted medal instead of real support. Inside the camp walls, a short distance from the Titoist huts, there are still refugees from old wars. They do not wear Pakol hats or Kanga robes, for their home was Croatian Krajina or Kosovo. You can recognise them by the painted fence, the sunflowers on the windowsills, the goldfish swimming in glass bowls. Gradually they settled down and never left. History is a cyclical bingo.
Maximo, a 25-year-old Argentinean, the great-grandson of immigrants from Piedmont, Italy, picks me up at the back of Subotica station. We set off at a brisk pace towards the Dragonfly project house, set up by the Escuela con Alma association. “We try to provide necessities and legal support to all refugees living in northern Serbia. Their situation is extremely precarious. The conservative Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has presented to parliament a package of laws called Stop Soros, named after US financier and philanthropist George Soros: it proposes to criminalise illegal immigration and people or organisations that encourage it in any way. Anyone caught ‘propagandising’ immigration (which includes even talking about it in positive terms) or helping irregular migrants to apply for asylum could be prosecuted (up to one year in prison). In addition, a 25 per cent tax has been imposed on any funding for any activity considered to support immigration, even if it comes from abroad. ‘Como’ our ‘Asociación’!” Maximo intones, mumbling in an Anglo-Spanish dialect invented on the spot. The house, Spartan and cosy, was provided by Aris, a Hungarian who is in charge of the humanitarian project. He sneaks into the kitchen, glances at the street, then stretches out and swallows an egg. “Europe and the police are always watching us. They do not tolerate the solidarity of the citizens or the courage of the many migrants living in Subotica. I manage hotels and restaurants for a living; I don’t care what my customers think. I have been following the routes for years, and for me, it is right and normal that a person wants to migrate, out of satisfaction or necessity. Three times a week we go out to meet them and distribute phone cards, food and clean clothes. We even managed to offer them a hot shower. In 2015 we were faced with a terrible situation. We counted up to 5,000 Kosovo Albanians belonging to the Gheghi ethnic subgroup crossing the border, taking advantage of the open borders. The media focused on Idomeni, the famous camp of shame, but the situation here was just as bad. Winter is harsh all over the Balkans. We know that Serbia, like Italy, is a transit country. Here, too, many migrants end up being exploited in the countryside or rejected on the road, as is happening in your south”.
On 31 August 2017, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, wrote to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, demanding that the EU pay half of the costs (around four hundred million euros) incurred by the Hungarian state for the construction of a wall. In short, a double barrier of barbed wire, directional cameras, infrared lasers, microphones and armed patrols. Orbán appealed to the principle of European solidarity. His proposal was rejected because, according to Juncker, European solidarity cannot be demanded for border management and rejected when it comes to implementing decisions on the relocation of migrants. Words from which deeply disturbing narratives emerge, exposing shame. A wall is a symbol of global failure. A talking wall that gives orders in five different languages, depending on which migrant is passing through: Arabic, Persian, Urdu, English, and French. A high-tech, electrified, seemingly impenetrable wall, guarded by sentries and guard dogs.
Karolina, 22: “They don’t understand in Prague. I am here to do good and change things. They always say there is so much to do in the Czech Republic and maybe it is true, but I think this is a special historical moment and I feel I have to stay here, on the borders. At home, we have a few refugees, almost all of them from the war-torn eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. Our government suffers from xenophobia, but I do not, I am one with the refugees on the road”. The sun sets over foamy fields and magenta roofs. “The squats you see were used as night shelters by migrants waiting to jump. They were burnt down by the police, perhaps by two particularly stupid officers, but the result is the same. That night they woke up the forty or sixty boys who were sleeping in them, took pictures and finally set fire to them. In February, with the snow, the temperature was deadly,” Maximo tells me. “They wouldn’t even let us go near it that day. When the firefighters had put out the fire, the boys looked at each other and went back into the crumbling huts as if nothing had happened, lying on tarpaulins or blankets that had been untouched by the flames. No problem, no problem,” they kept saying in chorus. Streaks of soot testify to the recent and fleeting coming and going of a few souls. Then comes the desert. The evening breeze creeps through the blackened beams and pieces of metal torn off by arson. “Here was the bathroom, here was the kitchen, twenty people were sleeping,” Maximo continues in despair. Milk cartons, medicines, toothpaste, glasses, cicadas, crickets, tall, rough grass, and a dirty latrine covered in moss and insects. Marginal places that bear witness to the passage of history. Last date in Serbia – Shady(30/07/2017). In Kelebija, a rural village with an ethnic Hungarian majority, cut in two by the border, history is also passing by stealthily. In smashed rooms, we collect handfuls of childish watercolour drawings. A huge train half-shakes the village, carrying sacks of cement and aluminium pipes to Budapest. It is clear that the world is moving, but it is often only the goods that leap.
* Matthias Canapini was born in Fano, central Italy, in 1992. He travels at a slow pace to tell stories with his notebook and camera. He has published five books since 2015 and is currently a news editor and reporter for the news outlet Unimondo.
** Unimondo, founded on 10 December 1998 under the auspices of the Fontana Onlus Foundation, is an online news outlet dedicated to providing authoritative content on peace, sustainable human development, human rights and environmental issues. It offers diverse and timely information, amplifying the voices of different facets of Italian and global civil society. As the Italian hub of the OneWorld network, founded in London in 1995, it is part of a global network with 11 centres worldwide and 1,600 partner associations.