“You can’t tell who is craziest: the refugees, the police or those women,” said a local shopkeeper. He made a cross over his chest, to express his sincere Serbian bewilderment.
He had just witnessed ten shabby Afghan and Syrian refugees walking past, escorted by ten Women in Black from Serbia, Italy and Spain, themselves escorted by ten policemen and a police car.
By the railway station in downtown Belgrade, the temporary citizens-from-nowhere are living their nomad existences in the the rubble of the so-called Belgrade Waterfront construction project. The refugees loiter all day, hoping for something to happen, between the city bus yards and huge trash-cans full of boxed food that the aid workers supply on a regular basis.
Around five pm there is a kind of tea ceremony where about 800 people gather, most of them arriving from the organized camps where they sleep. They arrive to be heard, to be seen. We Women in Black went to join them to show this Belgrade political scene to our international colleagues.
It’ s been now two years since the Syrian refugee crisis seized headlines, but the refugees are not entirely Syrians, but a global peoples’ market of Afghans and Nigerians as well. In the beginning there were many more refugees, and far less aid from the locals and the Serbian state. The migrants were simply collapsing on flat surfaces anywhere in Belgrade, urban nooks, parks and lots where they ate, drank and slept.
Now the bus-station square, a favorite place to cluster for obvious reasons, has been fenced and organized. The police are everywhere and a routine has been invented for the nomads. Its scope is international: border walls are being erected around Serbia, blocking the paths into Schengen Europe, where of course the refugees long to go. They come from the perilous South, the imagine safety in the West, and Balkan Serbia is only a transit zone.
I spoke to some : they are 90 percent young men. They aspire to reach France, Germany, Italy and Spain. They have addresses and phone numbers of relatives and allies in those countries, but they have no transit papers and no money.
A Nigerian young man confided me: “Money is the only real problem. If I had the money for travel, trust me: no walls or police could stop me.” I believed him, because, although money cannot buy you a happy life, it can swiftly bail you out of misery, in war and in peace.
I remember how I myself smuggled chocolate into wartime Serbia from Hungary by handing cash to the customs officers. Chocolate was pure joy for Serbian children living under sanctions. The same applied to toilet paper, diesel fuel, gasoline, cigarettes, liquor…