Window onto ordinary lives in the mayhem

Norma Costello travels to Keleti train station in Budapest, and speaks to some desperate Afghan children who crossed six countries only to encounter more hostility and police aggression.

Window onto ordinary lives in the mayhem

‘There are so many Taliban in my home. You cannot believe what we see. I am a student so they want to kill me. They want to kill me because I want to learn.”

Mohammed, from Logar province in eastern Afghanistan has just turned 15.

He sits shivering on a mat in Budapest’s Keleti station. I ask him if he’s cold even though its over 20 degrees in the makeshift camp.

“Not cold. Nervous,” Hamid a young boy, sitting near us pipes up.

“They want to send us to a camp. No more camps. We are afraid,” says Muhammed. Although barely Junior Cert age, he has made the trek across six countries alone.

“I want to go to Italy and go to school. I am alone. I want to have hope.”

He is one of the last to leave Keleti’s squalid camp after an impromptu move by the Hungarian government to bus thousands of refugees to the Austrian border on Friday night.

The camp, home to more than 3,000 people for several days, came under international pressure following a mass walkout with hundreds of refugees heading to the border with Austria on foot in the stifling heat.

A football match between Romania and Hungary further exacerbated tensions between refugees when hooligans marched through the station shouting nationalist slogans. Hungarian authorities decided to protect those that remained by sealing off the station with police.

After a few hours, the riot police pulled back and refugees were suddenly told there were buses waiting to take them to the Hungarian border with Austria. Many who reported beatings by the Hungarian police were afraid to embark, convinced it was a trick designed to let the hooligans attack them.

German and Austrian volunteers lapped the camp encouraging those behind to board the buses as people trickled out of the station carrying tents and sleeping bag. Sleepy children trailed behind parents fearfully scanning the streets for hooligans.

“They’re going to catch me and put me in a camp,” Mohammed says. One of the last stragglers, he stands up in the detritus of teddy bears, clothing and blankets. Underneath him lies a small Transformer toy, a coveted possession lost in the scramble for buses.

“I don’t know. You tell me,” he says. “Are the police bringing me to a camp? Am I still in danger?”

The fear of the migration camps is great here, and undoubtedly justified. Hungarian authorities are hostile to refugees and currently a razor wire fence is being constructed between the Serbia Hungary border near Horgos — a route popular with refugees.

According to the EU’s Dublin Convention, refugees, if fingerprinted in a country, should be sent back there. This, for many in Hungary — a country openly hostile to refugees — signifies a failed journey if caught and registered there.

Amer, a 27-year-old Syrian I met on the train from Belgrade to the Serbian border in Subotica, was caught crossing the border illegally at night. He was taken to a migration camp near the Hungarian border.

Using Whatsapp, one of the main arteries of communication in such uncertain times, Amer sends me pictures of the camp. Its bleak and filthy with a muddy floor and a ramshackle canvass tents enclosed with a large wire fence. In one image, I see a shop where Amer says people have to buy food and water.

“We don’t have enough money and they are not giving us enough food and water,” he says. Later, he tells me a child has gone missing and a frantic mother cannot find him. He says these things keep happening in the camps, where many are desperate to escape Hungary without being fingerprinted.

In Keleti, I speak to Taha Othmane, a cardiologist from Syria who has been living in Budapest for 23 years. Dr Taha and a group of Portuguese, German, and Austrian medical students are volunteering at the station-cum-camp.

“We are seeing a lot of injuries from the fence Hungary is building,” says Dr Taha. “A lot of people have problems with their legs they have been walking for weeks. These people are running from war and death and then they are treated badly by the police here.

“I had a patient who said he was beaten by the police and he couldn’t tell anyone. He has no rights. This is inhuman and not the Europe we should want.”

After the final bus departed Keleti, a handful of Afghans destined for Italy stood confused, breaking into groups to discuss their next move.

Mohammed consults with some older Afghans about the best route forward when I spot Hamid and his friend Farid checking the GPS co-ordinates for the border town on their phone.

Farid puts down his now packed bag , and pauses. This is an important move for him. If he gets sent to a camp and fingerprinted, he might not be able to meet his uncle in Italy, one of the few surviving members of his family.

“I think it’s a camp,” he says. “That’s just a border place. That is not Vienna.”

The cleaners have started to tidy up in Keleti and volunteers are urging Muhammad and Farid to leave with the buses.

The Austrians have confirmed they will now open the border. After weeks of walking, there is a glimmer of hope. An Austrian volunteer warns them they might have to live in temporary barracks.

“Camps?” Muhammad darts back, alarmed.

The volunteer presses his hands together and promises him: “No more camps, you are a free human being.”

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