Hazy clouds of smoke carry the pungent smell of burning wood and plastic through the old abandoned buildings located just a couple hundred meters from the Belgrade railway station. Hundreds of blankets and sleeping bags lay scattered in rows and piles across a dirty cement floor, a stark contrast from the life which most of the men currently living in the barracks left behind. This corner of Belgrade is home to close to 1,000 refugees and migrants coming mainly from Afghanistan and Pakistan who choose to take their chances living outside of formal refugee camps in hopes that they can retain more possibility of mobility along the basically closed Western Balkan migrant route.
Their numbers used to be much more. Before a harsh winter left people fighting below freezing temperatures for days on end, the barracks were packed with sleeping bags from one end to the other. When the weather refused to let up, hundreds of people decided it was impossible to remain there, instead moving to one of the 16 reception sites/camps in Serbia operating to provide temporary accommodation and resources to refugees.
An estimated 7,500 refugees are now located in Serbia. Mostly originating from Pakistan and Afghanistan, they make their way through Iran, Turkey, over the mountains and through the “jungle” of Bulgaria, and eventually cross the border by foot into Serbia. From there they hope to make their way father west. The wait for most is unending though, as Hungary now permits only five refugees to cross the Serbian-Hungarian border per day. Those in the barracks thus take their chances instead with smugglers to find an avenue for them across the border.
The camps are at least a half hour bus ride away from the city of Belgrade, though a daily bus enables transport to the city during the day. Many folks take the ride in to spend time at InfoPark, a center offering computers, language courses, and a sitting lounge. Refugee Aid Miksalište also operates a refugee aid center. Its main facility is a large room where refugees come during the daytime to charge their phones, chat with friends, play games, and attend less formal language courses. It is also a daily refuge from cold weather. The main room is filled almost exclusively with men of varying ages, from young kids nearing their teens to (from my observations) the main demographic of late teens to early twenties, to older men who have left careers behind. A women’s corner sits at the far side of the room, enclosed with room dividers to make a small and comfortable space for any women who wish to spend time in Miksalište.
New arrivals to the barracks are easily identifiable by the backpacks on their backs, carrying what little they have from some previous destination. For many the most important possession is a phone with which they can keep in contact with relatives. The people here do not all come from poor homes in search of economic opportunity, as is sometimes assumed. I have met many people who say they come from families who are relatively well off. They are not trading in their old lives to receive a small stipend in exchange for refugee status. Their motivation in leaving home is to escape violence and uncertainty in search of a more stable future.
One young man described the state of living in his home country as “dying before you are dead.” He states that people are unable to live without fear or apprehension, or to express their views in their own homes. They cannot leave their house for a coffee or to go to class without experiencing some sense of insecurity that one or one’s family could be in danger. He calls refugees people with no place in the world: they cannot return for the sake of their own safety, nor can they move forward. People have attempted to cross the Serbian-Hungarian border twice, five times, nine times, and those who are caught and sent back to Serbia simply wait to do it again, preferring to believe they can make it across rather than consider returning home.
This young man tells me that the life of a refugee feels like that of a beggar or thief. Refugees live like beggars because they must now live off of charities, waiting an hour everyday at noon for their one hot meal or standing in line for three hours with a ticket to give in exchange for a sleeping bag or pair of shoes. They feel like thieves because they “are hated by the authority and the people” alike. He tells me that it is better to be a bird than a human, for a bird can fly where it wants while a human’s mobility is limited by politics, laws, and social norms.
I struggle when asked by so much destruction has happened in their homelands. One girl tells me that the U.S. has caused many problems in her home country of Afghanistan. She seems desperate for answer when she asks me, “When will the U.S. finally step up and do something good for my country after basically destroying it?”
Not all of our conversations carry such a heavy tone. New acquaintances often introduce themselves starting with their names, where they are from, and where they are going. I meet most of them while assisting during English language lessons at Miksalište. On my second day I decide to bring a guitar from my hostel to play some music for the girls who come every day for English class. The guys at the center become interested in the music and soon I find myself every day staying a couple extra hours, strumming some tunes and joining in on the daily conversation with a group of guys who hang out every day in the room where the language class is conducted. Our tastes are completely different, and the guys don’t know a single song I play for a couple of days…until I pull out Waka Waka. Finally, something they’ve heard before! We’re soon pulling out our phones, searching song after song that I might know or learn, and every day they give me homework: a song to learn for tomorrow. The funniest song request I ever get is “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie Titanic. I am asked at least three times to sing and play this. Out of curiosity I ask why this song was such a popular request. The guys then tell me that they do not watch many English movies, but nearly everyone has seen Titanic and so they all know that song! It cracks me up each time they ask me to play this song again. One day I am given the challenge of learning a song in Pashto. I am sure my pronunciation is incredibly subpar, but the day when I finally walk in there are sing in one of their languages, the room lights up and the guys happily join in singing the tune. One guy tries to convince the others to stand up and dance. I am reminded once again of the ability of music to act as an international language. No matter how separated we are by culture, lifestyle, history, or mother tongue, music is a form of communication and expression in any culture. We may not always be able to communicate well in words, but through music we form a fellowship.
One of the most beautiful moments at the barracks is on a Wednesday afternoon after I have spent an hour bent over the guitar to play music while the men wait in line to receive a hot lunch. Guys come over and ask for a rock song, some Michael Jackson, or if I know any songs by Akcent or a few other modern artists. They are standing in a half circle, gathered round the guitar to listen and chat. One of them then says “my friend here can sing!” He gestures to the fellow standing next to him, a quiet man holding his half-eaten lunch who hasn’t yet said a word. We all agree that we would like to hear this man sing, and so the group goes silent to allow him two minutes to perform a beautiful melody in Pashto. The music sounds tinged with sadness, carrying a slightly somber tone to tell a tale. When his two minutes end, he gives us a smile, takes his lunch tray back in his hands and walks away, presumably back to his place within the barracks. I stand there speechless, for while what I sing I can learn in a day or two, I am sure this man seriously studied vocal performance at some point. His voice is a gift to us and I am so happy that he has chosen to share it, even for a short amount of time.
The guys at Miksalište become more outgoing every day. They show me the dance which is performed for the family of someone who is to be married, carrying a platter on their head bearing gifts. I try to teach them a few passes in salsa dancing, though to their dismay the counting is a bit more complicated than they were hoping. Topics turn to cultural customs – comparing family life, marriage, what people aspire to do when they are young. My life decisions seem fascinating to them – a woman venturing different countries and traveling alone, living without haste to settle down or have a family. Women are often married in their culture by the age of 21-22, and one of the girls even tells me during our last goodbye that I should find a man soon! Her friend rebuts however, encouraging me to not worry about it and to continue living how I want. These two girls’ back and forth discussions during their English class are always similar friendly debates, discussing different ways of living and debunking beliefs about other countries and cultures. I am happy to hear the guys say that they see me as a very self-confident person and think women back home should also be more like this, though I do not get much of an answer when I question whether their perception of this could also be related to cultural norms.
Two weeks passes by much too quickly. Soon I am saying my goodbyes, wondering if and where I might see these people next. Some ask me if I will come back; this is a bit saddening because it indicates they don’t believe they will move forward with their lives any time soon. Others say we will meet again one day in France or Spain or Germany, where they hope to soon reunite with brothers and aunts and other relatives. Some I know are trying to cross the border within a few days. A couple people ask me jokingly if there is any extra room in my car back to Slovenia. They are trapped for the moment in place and time, watching a world through a glass window. I am on the other side, and the farewells are quiet as I turn around and walk out the door one last time.