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On board the 'refugee train'

Ben Knight, Munich
September 8, 2015

The dam set up by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been broken, and every two hours or so a train leaves Keleti station headed for Munich - each with a couple of hundred refugees. Ben Knight was on board.

Budapest nach München Passkontrolle Flüchtlinge Zug Bahnhof
Image: DW/Ben Knight

"Germany has become a country which people outside Germany associate with hopes. That is something very valuable when one looks back at our history." Chancellor Angela Merkel found resonant rhetoric at a press conference on Monday as she addressed the huge wave of refugees currently creating historic scenes at railway stations across Germany.

But in the restaurant car on the train from Budapest to Munich, Mustapha, staring incredulously at the menu, was forming more prosaic associations with Germany. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight .... nine," he said, as he looked over the counter holding up nine fingers. The former policeman from Damascus couldn't believe how many euros he was expected to pay for four deep-fried chicken strips on a bed of limp lettuce. It proved difficult to explain in sign language that this was just the way it was on long-distance trains. Welcome to Europe.

With a straitened budget, he and his friend Ahmed, a student from Deir ez-Zor, eastern Syria - wearing a donated trench-coat that looked too small - were forced to go for the children's option, which included a small bag of Haribo gummi bears, plus a bottle of beer, which they shared. The former proved a hit, and Mustapha offered the candy around enthusiastically.


As the seven-hour, 20-minute journey around the green foothills of the Alps went on, the restaurant car gradually turned into a place for similar new cultural experiences, as Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans moved forward to pool their resources and buy whatever overpriced junk food they could afford, and passengers and increasingly shrill staff tried to explain the various meal deals.

Back at Keleti station in Budapest, the Hungarian police had been careful to keep regular travelers away from the 200 or so refugees, whom they shepherded into the last three carriages. Ticket sellers had not been made aware of the authorities' segregation plan, for those travelers who had seats reserved in these cars were funneled forward along the platform and allowed to sit in business class. "You should not go in there, it is full of migrants," one security guard said.

Budapest nach München Passkontrolle Flüchtlinge Zug Bahnhof
Budapest's Keleti stationImage: Ben Knight

The lip service to extra security continued on the train, where a Hungarian, an Austrian, and a German police officer embarked on a baffling attempt to check travel documents. The folded, ragged papers that were produced, partly in Arabic, were dutifully inspected and handed back, though it was clear that very few of them, and hardly any of the children, had any documents at all. Would they be thrown off the train? "Well, the rules have sort of been suspended," the Austrian officer admitted sheepishly, though he and his colleagues allowed themselves a chuckle over the badly faked passport one woman handed them. "How much you pay for this?" the Hungarian barked. The woman didn't understand the question.

Helping out

In fact, hardly any of the refugees on the train spoke any English or German. One exception was Ali, an Iraqi living in Vienna who had gone to Budapest to help his cousin. "He called me and told me 'I've been in Budapest for nine days, I've got no money, I've got no food, I've not eaten for two days,' so I came to Budapest the next day," he told DW. "It turned out he had three or four friends with him, so I bought food for them all. But I couldn't give them very much, because I don't have a job at the moment."

Ali already has his whole family in Vienna - his mother, his siblings. "I lost my father and my brother in the war in 2007, and that's why I came to Europe," he said. But he'll have to wait before his family can be reunited, as his cousin wasn't able to get on the same train. "I think he'll be on the next train."

Ali, out of work while he gets a driving license, was thankful for all the donations he'd seen people give at Vienna's Westbahnhof in the past two days: "It's super, it helped a lot, thanks so much! I was there too, I went to McDonald's and bought food for three or four families."

Wien Österreich Flüchtlinge Zug Bahnhof
Refugees at Vienna train stationImage: DW/Ben Knight

It's already dark when, after the tunnels through the Alps and stops in Vienna, Linz, and Salzburg, the train finally rolls into Munich's central station. As it turns out, there are no applauding crowds or spontaneous gifts here anymore. As the doors opened, the platform was already filled with German policemen in dark uniforms, who had sealed off the end of the platform leading into the city, and then efficiently filtered out the refugees from the rest of the passengers (a couple of Indians had to show their passports though). Then the refugees were funneled straight onto another train - to somewhere else in Germany. One officer explains: "Munich is full." These journeys are nowhere near over.

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