“El Camino de Balkan”: In the footsteps of the refugees from Greece to Hungary

Twelve days ago atlatszo.hu announced that a Hungarian journalist, who initially didn’t reveal his name, decided to go to Greece and from there join refugees traveling north to the Serb-Hungarian border. He published his experiences in daily installments in atlatszo.hu. They were titled El Camino de Balkan, a take-off on El Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago.

He went to Idomeni, the last Greek village, only about two kilometers from the Macedonian town of Gevgalija on the bank of the Vardar River. This is the favorite spot for refugees to begin their journey from Greece northward.

Of course, by that time the refugees had traveled thousands of miles from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Their last stop in Turkey was Izmir, a large city in the westernmost point of Anatolia. From there they sailed to Mitilini (Lesbos) or Kos and then edged their way to Athens, Thessaloniki, and Idomeni, where our man joined a group of refugees.

Greece to Hungary

He didn’t have to wait long. After walking about six kilometers he encountered the first group, about twenty Afghans whose final destination is Germany. They had left Kabul, Herat, Mazar i Sharif a month ago and traveled through Iran, Turkey, and Lesbos. They had just arrived from Saloniki by bus. According to the owner of a local pub, twenty busloads of refugees arrive daily in Idomeni. That is at least 1,000 people. Small shopkeepers sell their wares: hamburgers, soft drinks, ice cream. On a small field there are at least 300 refugees and a policeman, who tries to keep order by dividing them into smaller groups that then cross to Macedonia.

After sitting in the dust for about an hour our journalist encountered two Syrian brothers from Homs, who seemed to be terribly worried about the Hungarian part of the trip. “Everything will be decided there,” they said. They are heading to Norway, where allegedly the rest of the family is already. Eventually, they began their short walk to Gevgelija, the first Macedonian town from which one can reach Belgrade by train.

By the time our journalist, surrounded by Syrians, arrived at the Gevgelija railroad station, the whole place was full of refugees. Every shady spot was already occupied, but some volunteers of the Red Cross tried to help the ailing members of the group. They also distribute food and water twice a day. Apparently, the situation is much better organized now than it was a month and a half ago, when “chases took place among the bushes and the corn fields” and many of the refugees got hurt. Now the authorities organize the crossing themselves.

It was a long wait for the refugees to receive a piece of paper that allows them to stay in Macedonia for 72 hours. Eventually the train to Skopje, which carried only refugees, arrived, and all hell broke loose. There were more people than places and the adults, leaving their children behind, stormed the train. But don’t fret. They knew what they were doing. Once inside the train they lifted their children into the carriage through the windows.

Given how limited space was on the train, our journalist thought he shouldn’t take the place of a real refugee and decided to go by bus to Skopje. As it turned out, the bus was also full of refugees except that these were the better-off ones who could afford to pay their way. Here his companion was Aden from Iraq, with a master’s degree in robotics. Aden didn’t even know where he should go and asked the journalist’s advice, who suggested Norway because “surely there they need engineers.”

At each border crossing the police organized the smooth movement of masses of refugees. Some of them received the Macedonian handwritten piece of paper which makes them legal for 72 hours, some didn’t. It didn’t matter. They all got on trains or buses and moved closer and closer to the border they feared most: the Hungarian.

Our journalist, after reaching Skopje by bus, hired a taxi. Its driver took him to Tabanovce and pointed toward a forest, the customary path into Serbia. Soon enough another taxi arrived which brought seven Syrians. They were well-dressed men and women who received the same directions from their driver as he had. So, they began walking together, but a Macedonian policeman discovered that our journalist wasn’t a refugee and refused to allow him to cross illegally. As a result he had to walk 14 kilometers to the Serbian town of Preshevo. It was 35 degrees, with no shade. After about 8 km a group of Afghans, who until then had been hiding in the ditch next to the road, joined him. They spoke no English; they just kept repeating “asyl… asyl.”

Preshevo is an important station in this Balkan journey. The Serbian authorities are waiting for the crowd. Behind the railroad station is an area whose official name is “place for a single stop,” but everybody just calls it the “kamp.” Here the Serbian police hand out 72-hour passes, this time for Serbia. Again, the wait is extremely long because these passes are handwritten, just as in Macedonia. The crowd is so large that “the whole thing looks absolutely hopeless,” but unfortunately if a poor refugee wants to travel free on a “refugee train” from Preshevo through Belgrade to Subotica/Szabadka, he must have one of these pieces of paper.

Of course, the well-off refugees can save themselves days of waiting for this piece of paper. Our journalist, who worked for years in the Balkans, knows Serbian, and he learned from one of the policemen that “many avoid Preshevo altogether and take a taxi all the way to the Hungarian border. It is only a question of money.” Surely, the well-dressed Syrians our journalist encountered close to Preshevo were not standing in line for that piece of paper.

The situation in Belgrade is somewhat similar to that in Budapest. Two parks near the railroad station are full of refugees. Buses going to cities close to the Hungarian border are booked for days. In the Serbian capital our journalist sensed growing apprehension about the refugee issue. The reason: the fence the Hungarian government is erecting along the border.

The next stop was Kanjiža/Kanizsa, a small town in the Vojvodia, where 85% of the people are Hungarian-speaking. Three buses arrived at the same time from Subotica/Szabadka, all full of refugees. The main square was full of them, but by the next morning the square was empty because the refugees start their final journey at night. According to a town council member who is in charge of the refugees in Kanizsa, only the better-off Iraqis and Syrians end up there. The poorer Afghans wait in Subotica in a large camp set up for them. But still at least 1,000 people go through this town of 9,000 inhabitants daily.

You may have noted that up to this point there was not a word about the smugglers who are allegedly responsible for the onslaught of economic migrants, who lure innocent and ignorant people to begin their perilous journey only to strip them of their last pennies. Instead, we heard about willing Greek, Macedonian, and Serbian policemen who facilitate the refugees’ movement from country to country. This is not the case, however, on the Hungarian-Serbian border, and our journalist had the misfortune of encountering one of these smugglers during the last leg of his journey.

This last stretch meant a journey on foot from Kanizsa to Martonos, where he made half the trip by car thanks to a Hungarian Gypsy. Originally the driver offered him a ride believing that he was picking up a refugee, but when our journalist answered him in Hungarian he got excited: “Oh, my brother, you are Hungarian? Then I’ll take you free of charge.”

From Martonos the refugee route follows an embankment, which eventually goes to Szeged and beyond. Here our journalist encountered a group along the Tisza River of about eighty, led by a bearded Arab who was very suspicious of him, especially when he heard that he is a Hungarian journalist. “Not a good pedigree around here.” Half of the people were Kurds from Iraq and other half, Syrians.  The terrain was rough. It was a heavily wooded area, plus they had to cross a canal which was luckily dry, but the embankment was very steep and there were a lot of children in the group. There was a second canal, which is apparently the actual border between the two countries with an even steeper embankment. The leader of the group made them run as fast as they could through heavy brush only to stop and wait. The journalist found this all rather mysterious.

Eventually he figured out what was going on. The bearded Arab, who was about 35 years old, was the chief here, assisted by four younger guys. They were the ones who walked ahead of the crowd, and all four of them carried knives. At sundown these five washed their hands, face, and feet, and rinsed their mouths. The others watched in silence. Eventually two or three groups joined them, and it became clear that all these people were “paying customers.” A final mad rush and one of the young smugglers came to him, saying “Hungary, go!” They all ended up in Gyálarét, in the outskirts of Szeged.

* * *

Since then our journalist has revealed his real identity. He is György Kakuk, author of a book on Kosovo, where he spent a year during the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia. He worked as a foreign news editor at Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió. After retiring from journalism, he was a diplomat with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, mostly in Balkan countries. A few years ago he decided to enter politics and joined the Demokratikus Koalíció, where he is one of the foreign policy advisers to Ferenc Gyurcsány. He is also on DK’s ten-member executive board.

Yesterday Gellért Rajcsányi, one of the young editors of the conservative Mandiner, wrote a glowing report about the series of articles, which he read with amazement. He considered El Camino de Balkan “the report of the year.” At that time he didn’t know who the author of the report was. Since Rajcsányi is not exactly an admirer of Ferenc Gyurcsány, to put it mildly, I wonder what he would have thought of this fascinating story if knew the real identity of the author. I can only hope that he wouldn’t have changed his opinion.

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August 15, 2015 4:42 am

Very interesting and moving story, thanks Eva!

Is there a prize for journalists in Hungary like the Pulitzer prize?
I would think this guy deserves it.

August 15, 2015 7:52 am
The Macedonian experience described in the Kakuk essay is radically different than the description in this essay http://www.amnestyusa.org/research/reports/europe-s-borderlands-violations-against-migrants-and-refugees-in-macedonia-serbia-and-hungary Here is one passage: <At Macedonia’s border with Greece, and at Serbia’s border with Macedonia, refugees and migrants are routinely subjected to unlawful push-backs and ill-treatment by border police. Many are forced to pay bribes. One witness told Amnesty International that Serbian Border Police near the Hungarian border threatened to return his group to Serbia if they refused to pay €100 each. One Afghan refugee told Amnesty International how he was part of a group pushed back to Greece by Macedonian police. “I saw men badly beaten. They beat my 13-year-old son. They beat me too,” he said. Some of those interviewed by Amnesty International had been pushed back more than 10 times, in operations that often take place well inside the Macedonian border. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers reported being pushed, slapped, kicked and beaten by Serbian police near the border with Hungary and an Afghan refugee told Amnesty International that “a woman who is five months pregnant was beaten.” Refugees and migrants are also vulnerable to financial exploitation by smugglers and attacks by criminal groups. Two Nigerian men told Amnesty… Read more »
August 15, 2015 9:39 am

It is true that the Amnesty report stopped collecting data in March 2015, but the report was filed just in July and there was no statement that they have reports of a radical improvement in relation to crimes against the refugees. It is certainly possible, but Kakuk was actually identified by Macedonia police before he got to the Serbian border where a good amount of robbery has taken place. He had to do an offical crossing miles away.

None of that reduces the value of Kakuk’s report, but the corruption of numerous police officers and the shake downs I suspect continue. After all it’s been going on for years with drugs, untaxed imports, and even stolen cars around these border areas, it isn’t just a few rouge Roma I suspect. Corruption goes deep among the border police in these areas, once the wall goes up the refugees will have to pay even more.

Cipi Weinstein
Cipi Weinstein
August 15, 2015 1:31 pm

OT: It’s an important article about why American white working class people like Trump. The story has a lot of parallels to Orban’s – like it or nor, very successful – populism.

Trump seems to care and Orban does seem to care too (given the election system, which is anyway rigged, if 20-25% of the population believes so then Orban can retain his power in perpetuity).

Sure, Orban is corrupt to the bone but when he sees “a problem” he is able to get the message to the people that he cares (builds a fence, cuts utility rates etc. no matter the arguments “intellectual types would raise”). The underlying message, that Orban cares is much more important than whether or not the fence works or whether people save 5 or 10k forints in electricity fees annually.


August 15, 2015 4:02 pm

The problem is that the people also are recieving the message that Orban is stealing from them, they also know that they are becoming poorer, have less freedom and yet saving a little on utilities and the fence is costing money that won’t actually help them in any way. If Hungarians cannot see the truth, it is so very unfortunate. They are the only ones who will suffer for letting him run wild and bankrupt them.

August 17, 2015 5:29 am

This is not how elections work. People, by the time the elections come, will have internalized which party “cares about them”.

The left wing has been – it seems to millions of rural Hungarians – consistently obsessed with urban, middle-lass issues, political correctness, rule of law issues and the like.

But in Hungary where – under this election system – the important voters are poor, uneducated and rural (and increasingly live beyond the borders in Romania, Serbian and Ukraine) these obsessions will get you nowhere.

People feel in their guts that Orban – though corrupt, that’s clear to even to his most ardent fans – is “for them”, “for Hungarians”, while the left wing seems to prefer foreign investors, immigrants, the people of Budapest, the EU, the intellectuals etc.

Orban is good at letting people know that he understands their grievances. He doesn’t have to be special, competent, clean, effective etc. he just has to be better than the divided left-wing. And he is.

August 15, 2015 4:40 pm

When you read the stories of these refugees, they turn out to be no lesser human beeings than those of us who escaped to Ausria in 1956. The significant difference is the attitude of the Austrians was far more humane than that of the intolerant Hungarian governmant.


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