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Trail of hope

Lidija Tomic, Serb-Hungarian borderSeptember 10, 2015

While the EU struggles to find a united response, migrants are streaming along the Balkan route. Tired, hungry and weak, their journey is fraught with risk. Lidija Tomic reports from the Serb-Hungarian border.

Image: DW/L. Tomic

In an effort to get a grip on the continuing influx of migrants Hungarian authorities are speeding up construction of a solid, 4-meter-high metal fence after stretching three layers of barbed wire along the 175-kilometer border with Serbia. As the fence rises, so do the tensions in the area.

Trapped in a bureaucratic limbo, hundreds of angry and frustrated migrants broke through a police cordon near the border village of Roszke the third day in a row. They tried to escape from a collection point shouting "No camp!" Some headed for a nearby motorway that leads to Budapest, which police initially closed down. The M5 motorway was later re-opened after a majority of the migrants agreed to be taken to a nearby refugee camp to register.

This was just the latest in a series of tense confrontations between police and desperate migrants. During one recent night chaos erupted when a policeman fired pepper spray to contain the crowd fleeing from the collecting point. Migrants dropped their possessions and ran into a nearby cornfield. Some of them, mostly women with children, were stopped and sent back to the camp by a bus. The others walked north toward Szeged and Budapest hoping to board a train to western Europe.

Unstoppable flow

Despite many obstacles, the flow of migrants shows no signs of easing. Up to 4,000 migrants, transported by 69 buses, arrived recently in the northern Serbian towns of Subotica and Kanjiža. Most of them moved to the village of Horgoš, only a few kilometers from the border. Walking along a railway track that cuts through the fence, they took their final steps to what they believed to be freedom in the EU.

Tens of thousands of migrants streamed into Hungary last week as the message had got out that the Balkan route would soon be closed. Zaid and his friends from Syria, Iraq and Palestine were among the latest influx. The group arrived on the outskirts of Horgoš in the late afternoon with only a small rucksack and the clothes on their backs, constantly checking their phones. Soon, the telephone rang and young men continued to move along the rail tracks.

man walking along railway track copyright: Lidija Tomic
Following the trash trail toward safety and freedomImage: DW/L. Tomic

"That was our guide. We paid him 500 euros to show us how to get to the Hungarian border. He will send us GPS coordinates in a minute," Zaid told DW as he walked at the front of the group.

Like many others, Zaid and his fellow travellers have no knowledge of Europe's geography. All they know is that they have to keep going west until they reach Germany. Which is why both their smartphones and access to social media are as crucial to them as finding food. They need them to let people back home know they're OK and, even more importantly, to make sure they're not getting lost or being led astray.

No way back

Zaid was glued to his mobile phone, tracking the GPS coordinates displaying pathways ahead. Those behind him followed quietly, trying not to draw the attention of the Hungarian guards lurking with heat-seeking devices and binoculars.

"There is no way back now. I am not afraid. What could be worse than the bloodshed we left behind in Syria?," whispered Adnan, a 16-year-old boy, to his older brother Omar after seeing some figures in nearby cornfields.

He relaxed when he realized who they were. Two local women had set up an improvised stand along the tracks in order to sell snacks, fruit juices and water to exhausted and hungry migrants. Adnan and his friends decided to take a break and buy two bottles of mineral water.

"We share everything - information, food, water... We rely on each other. They are like brothers to me, although we met only two weeks ago in Turkey. So far, we crossed four borders unnoticed. Now we are facing the biggest obstacle - the Hungarian fence," Zaid said.

barbed-wire fence copyright: Lidija Tomic
Hungary is speeding up construction of a metal fenceImage: DW/L. Tomic

He was curious why the Hungarian police would need their fingerprints. "If they ask for our fingerprints, we'll even agree to that. But if we can avoid it in any way, we will run away, because we want to continue our trip to Germany," he explained.

Rubbish trail toward hope

New groups of migrants arrived from different directions as the young men continued their way toward the border. Some of them were following the trash trail in order to find their way to Hungary. The garbage is strewn all along the railway tracks. Among the countless items in the dirt were empty biscuit wrappers, discarded shoes, clothes, rucksacks, and abandoned identity cards written in Arabic.

"I feel a bit ashamed that migrants have left so much garbage along the way. But it makes it very easy to find the right way to go," said Zaid moving past discarded babies' diapers.

Ahead of him, the railway track curved between orchards and vineyards, and fields of sunflowers, opening up to a view of the border crossing. More migrants gathered there while the Hungarian volunteers brought them food and water. It was the first moment of relief after a long and dangerous journey. But Zaid and his friends didn't stop to rest. They didn't want to miss the chance and rushed to cross the fence before it was too late.

people sitting on tracks copyright: Lidija Tomic
Taking a breather: For many this is the first moment of relief after an arduous journeyImage: DW/L. Tomic

Ten minutes later tension flared on the border as the Hungarian and Serbian police came to defend migrants from Hungarian right-wing nationalist protesters who had marched to the site. Officers quickly pushed them back into Serbia and formed protective circles as the demonstrators from the hard-line Jobbik party screamed at them and verbally abused them. Left without any explanation, frightened and confused migrants waited for the night to fall so they could continue toward the border.