Zagreb, Croatia (GVO) – A few kilometres from the small Serbian border town of Sid, a dirt track through corn and turnip fields serves as a passage for tens of thousands of women, men and children seeking refuge and lives of greater possibility. The unofficial border crossing between Serbia and Croatia is surrounded by verdant, sun-lit fields, with apple orchards in the distance and a calm that brings temporary respite to those who have been on the road for weeks, or months. For a moment, the travelers manage to put aside the threat of militarised borders and the recent memory of dehumanising conditions along the way as they stop to drink freshly pressed apple cider handed out by a local farmer, chat, and rest before they continue on.
Parents carry small children in their arms, toddlers on hips, and on their backs rucksacks containing possessions salvaged from lives interrupted. Narin, a teacher from Mosul, hesitates as she and her group of survivors, Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds, approach the lone border police car stationed at the point where a corn field in Serbia becomes, a few metres onwards, a corn field in Croatia. “Every step away from Iraq, from the massacres of our people and those we left behind, has been so difficult,” she says. “This seems too easy—we’ve forgotten what it is like to feel safe.”
Fatima, pregnant with her third child, arrives exhausted, but despite the heat, dust and distance reminisces about family excursions to her parents’ village in Syria. Mohammed Ali, her three-year-old son, runs ahead. He’s wearing flip-flops, shorts and an over-sized vest, dragging behind him an over-stuffed blue unicorn given to him by volunteers at another border crossing. “He never lets go of that unicorn,” Fatima says. “He feeds it and sleeps next to it and tells it stories about our journey”.
Mahmoud, a Palestinian student from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, holding the hand of his young nephew, says: “This is our fate. We are experiencing what our grandparents and parents experienced. But with each generation, each exile, we are being scattered further away from home”.
Later, during the seven hours spent waiting in the heat for their names to be registered by comparatively sympathetic Croatian border police, Mahmoud sings songs of loss, struggle and love to those sitting around him.
Starting at sunrise, the buses arrive, bringing a continuous flow of those seeking refuge from a multitude of situations involving war and conflict, persecution and general precariousness. A constant amongst them all, however, is the sense of dislocation and often vulnerability, expressed in words and questions and requests for reassurances, in the tensing of shoulders and tight inhalations of breath as painful memories from the past—both distant and recent—are recalled.
Kamaal and Sabiha, a middle-aged Kurdish couple from Mosul are accompanied by their cousin, the dignified Jamaal, who struggles down the dirt road on crutches. Kamaal had been in hospital recovering from a heart attack when Mosul was taken over by ISIS over a year ago. He, Sabiha and their eldest son rushed home to find their home ransacked and their four teenage children gone, including their thirteen-year-old daughter. They stayed on in Iraq searching for them for almost a year before leaving, in the hopes that perhaps their search will be more effective from the outside. As we walk Sabiha begins to cry. Her husband puts his arms around her, his own shoulders heaving. Later they cross the border arm in arm, Jamaal limping beside them.
The young, the elderly, those in wheelchairs carried by friends and family, the wounded, families, solo travelers, young couples holding hands disembark from buses in one quiet border town in Serbia and travel the next few kilometres on foot into another quiet border town in Croatia. From there, in the degrading, exhausting chaos of the weather-exposed Tovarnik train station, the better organised and welcoming volunteer-run rest-camp next to it, or in a recently established government-run processing camp, they will wait long days for transport that will hopefully take them a step closer to their final destinations—and to the extended family, friends or support networks that await some of them there.
Later, as night begins to fall, those arriving voice apprehension and doubt. The path is unmarked except for the presence of a handful of volunteers, and those walking now seek reassurance that the path and its surroundings really have been cleared of land mines, that they will not be detained, that they will not encounter police brutality, accounts of which have filtered back from those who were stranded in Horgos and Roszke at the Hungarian border.
Beneath a striking, star-filled night sky, Khalid, a 77-year old Circassian great-grandfather from Quneitra accompanied by his extended family, walks with a walking stick and politely refuses our offers of help with the large bag he carries on his back. “Continue to trust yourselves and each other,” he advises fellow travellers. “We are strong and will face whatever difficulties lie ahead of us as we have faced everything else on this journey.”
A group of Eritrean women and a lone traveler from Congo share a bag of oranges among themselves. “We have travelled from further away and are more used to the hardships of travelling and to walking long distances,” says Mariam, a 22-year old nursing student. “We are young and strong but it is so difficult to see how all these children suffer.”
A young Iraqi boy pleads with his father, who is already carrying his younger brother and their luggage, to carry him. His feet, like those of many others, are blistered and raw, every step painful. He sobs and begs and then cries silently as his father apologetically pulls him onwards, worried that the border might close, leaving them stranded. We take the boy to the medical tent and hurriedly dress and bandage his feet. Then they continue on into the night.
Zaynab and Mustafa, two children in wheelchairs, are ferried through the fields with their families in a volunteer’s van. Mustafa’s mother speaks of the difficulties they’ve faced over the past weeks. The overloaded rubber dinghy in which they crossed the Aegean Sea to Lesvos had begun to sink, and in order to keep it afloat for the final few hundreds of metres to shore they were forced to get rid of any excess weight they could by throwing their possessions overboard. She had to convince their fellow passengers to make an exception for Mustafa’s heavy wheelchair. Sleeping on the streets and in temporary camps makes keeping him clean impossible. “I feel like I am failing him,” she says. “I cannot change or bathe him regularly, and he feels very embarrassed when I have to do so without privacy.”
Rima, a young law student from Aleppo, Syrian, and a mother herself, accompanies 8-year old Hiba, recently orphaned. Hiba’s remaining family live in Sweden and are awaiting her. She looks around, wide-eyed, at the hundreds of people walking with them through the fields. The stars above and thin crescent moon are insufficient to light up the path, and the walkers rely on the lights of mobile phones to help them stay together as certain family members slow down, exhausted from their travels and the hundreds of kilometres many of them have already covered on foot.
For many of those making the crossing, the journey is far from over, and they are acutely aware of the heavily securitised borders to be crossed, the humiliating conditions they’ll still have to endure. But the resilience, courage and strength of those seeking refuge is immeasurable, as they walk through these fields, down the roads and through the borders that will take them towards hoped-for possibilities that allow them to rebuild lives of dignity.
Caoimhe Butterly is an Irish organiser, migrant justice activist and post-graduate student. She has spent fourteen years working with social movements and community development projects in Latin America, the Arab world and elsewhere.