Standing in the doorway of his modest home near the Serbian city of Subotica, pensioner Piero talks about how he is no stranger to the politics of border crossings.
A former Yugoslavian customs’ officer from Poreč - today’s Croatia - he now lives in the last house before the Hungarian border in Kelebija, where he is celebrating Easter with his family.
“This used to be a highway for migrants,” he says, pointing to the narrow unpaved road, which continues beyond the fields and trees, leading to the border.
From 2015, thousands travelled through here from the Middle East, south Asia and Africa to west Europe. For two years, a chain of migrants unceasingly walked in front of his house.
“They were so many that one morning I found a man camping in my garden,” says Piero. “He was shouting ‘Ghana! Ghana!’.”
In mid-2015, Hungary erected a double razor wire fence to prevent the inflow from Serbia to Hungary. Everyone who tries to cross the border now must face the fearsome Hungarian police.
“Just let them through,” says Piero, “they have no intention of staying in Serbia or Hungary. They want to go where the quality of life is good, like in Germany.”
Now the wave is no longer so strong. By November 2016, the Hungarian government – led by Prime Minister Victor Orbàn - limited the number of refugees coming into his country to 25 per week.
Therefore Serbia became a huge temporary camp for thousands. This translated – both in the city of Subotica and Belgrade - into the creation of improvised shelters in city centers, woods and abandoned factories.
But the authorities broke apart many of these makeshift camps. Now any refugee wishing to enter Hungary must wait in the Serbian government camps in the suburbs of cities around the country. These host around 5,400 among refugees, asylum seekers and people in transit, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
The migration flow stirred up conflicting reactions among people living in the Serbian regions most affected - confusion, fear and close-mindedness, but also solidarity and support.
This is because many Serbians remember experiencing a deluge of migration less than a generation before.
“This new humanitarian crisis forced us see ourselves in these people,” says Saša Gravorac, president of the Serbian Societies of Northern Bačka, an association, which provided food and clothing to refugees in 2015 in Subotica. “We can really understand their suffering, because of what we went through in the 1990s.”
In 1991, Croatia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia was one of the triggers for a spiral of conflicts, which resulted in a civil war. The Croatian separatists relegated the status of the Serbian community to a minority. This was especially severe on regions such as Krajina, which were populated by a large Serbian community. Many here self-proclaimed the Republic of the Serbian Krajina, which led to a military response from Zagreb.
In 1995 Operation Storm (Oluja) forced more than 200,000 Serbs to leave Krajina and head to Serbia, were they became refugees.
Gravorac’s recent message of solidarity gained some exposure after the local newspaper Subotičke Novine reported that the Serbian Societies had sent a document to Aleksandar Vulin, Serbian minister of Social Policy.
The association was asking the Minister to submit a proposal to his counterpart in Croatia: to reassign the houses on the territory that had once belonged to the Serbians who fled the country during Operation Storm to Middle-Eastern refugees.
“We are willing to hand over the keys of our empty houses simply to help these people,” commented Gravorac at the time.
The project did not happen - but the symbolic connection between the two migrations shed light on an unresolved social issue in both Subotica and Serbia: the social and housing conditions of Serbian refugees from Croatia.
Many have been denied a residency permit to go back to their houses in Croatia, and were not able to sell their properties. This situation benefited from an uncontrolled private market of real-estate middlemen who, through a series of favors and corrupt practices with the Croatian authorities, purchased the properties without informing or sharing the profit with the rightful owners.
“The war ended in 1995 but the souls of the Serbians who migrated here still bear its mark,” says Gravorac. “Some refugees managed to become integrated in the community, but many still struggle.”
Many Serbian refugees are still living in refugee camps built in the 1990s. But these now house the newcomers from Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
So we went to visit them.
Driving on the E-70 from Belgrade to the Danube with the Krnjača neighborhood on our left is a congested four-lane arterial road. The urban landscape of the Serbian capital is replaced by the Danube woods and industrial compounds, appearing through the forest.
Some of these, which date from a time when Yugoslavia was still united, are still active, others are shut-down. The Krnjača refugee camp was built as a village for workers and employees of the Ivan Milutinović-PIM, a national factory from the 1950s that manufactured harbor infrastructure, until it went bankrupt.
When we reach the entrance gate, an informal-looking guard checks our passports and escorts us to the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, a government agency responsible for managing the refugee and migrant camps. We walk on narrow concrete streets connecting around twenty white prefabricated small units, which are used as dorms and rooms for education and recreation.
In 1993 Krnjača became one of the 700 collective centers set up to shelter Serbians fleeing from the war in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. There are now five active collective centers in Serbia, and the total number of refugees still living in these structures is 153.
Ms. Zorica, who worked at PIM for 30 years, also recalls when the refugees from Croatia and Bosnia first arrived at the camp. “We’ve been taking in their sufferings for 23 years,” she says.
Zorica explains that many migrants coming from Bosnia were able to sell their houses and buy new ones in Serbia, whereas Serbs coming from Croatia were transferred directly to social housing.
“In the past few years they were reluctant to speak to reporters,” she adds. “They were mad. They have been living in the camp for 20 years!”
From Zorica’s office we see children playing outside. Part of the 900 refugees living in the camp today, they are not Serbian, but mostly Afghans, and also Syrians, Pakistani, Iraqi and Kurds. They are waiting their turn to get onto the weekly list of 25 who pass through Hungary.
Zorica recalls the last months of 2016, when this new unusual cohabitation between the new migrants and the old Serbian refugees began.
“In the beginning, they were living in separate areas of the camp and there was some mutual mistrust,” she says. “After some time, they started realizing they were living in the same conditions and they became friends.”
The Serbian government issued a directive to expel all Serbian refugees from these collective centers some time ago, but in the past year this has been accelerated.
Krnjača is now one of the largest refugee camps, the so-called asylum centers. As Serbian accession to the EU becomes more likely, there is pressure from Brussels to resolve this issue, together with cash. The EU has allocated seven million Euro to renovate the camps and make them suitable to receive new migrants from outside Europe, but also to support social and housing assistance for Serbian refugees leaving the camps.
The camp is now studded with flags and banners thanking the EU, the charities and international NGOs which funded the camp’s makeover. There are 24 housing units and containers, which are used as offices, infirmaries, kitchens and rooms for the hosts’ activities.
With the Serbians’ departure and the arrival of new refugees, the number of services has increased.
There is a new recreational center for children, a classroom where volunteers from charity Caritas teach Serbian, English and Maths. Plus there is a sewing and an arts workshop, IT and geography classes. The camp also offers Wi-Fi and training on computers.
Until last July, Čovekoljublje – a philanthropic foundation of the Serbian Orthodox Church – offered financial support to refugees, providing each one of them with a 50 Euro per month pre-paid card. The camp also provides a EU-funded project aiming at integrating child asylum-seekers into the Serbian school system.
The refugees have few complaints.
“We ran away because ISIS started to kidnap our women and children,” says Omar, a Kurd traveling with his family from north Iraq to Germany. “I feel safer here, but the journey is still long.”
Meanwhile Adrakmo, an Afghan from the Parwan province, adds: “There are many upsides of living in this particular camp - the food is nice and we have a place to sleep.”
But it has also been a place where he can grow his family. In the camp, he became a father to twins last January.
We meet Miroslav in the game room. He is an employee of the Fondacija Ana i Vlade Divac, a humanitarian organization, responsible for social actions benefiting refugees, including the Serbians.
“This new migration along the Balkans brings back the memories of the previous forced migration,” says Miroslav. “Adapting to a new society is a very slow process, it forces you to change.” One of Fondacija’s first actions was to buy and remodel houses, to donate them to those Serbians still living in the camps. But there are negative effects for migrants due to this continued assistance. “The cohabitation lasted two months, after which the Serbians had to leave the camp,” says Miroslav. “Some protested that they didn’t want to leave because they had everything they needed to survive here: food, shelter, no taxes.” It is hard for refugees to suddenly stop receiving social aid.
“The few remaining in the centers today are those who didn’t want to leave, even if everyone was given the opportunity to move into real houses or apartments,” adds Miroslav. “They’re scared. They fear they won’t make it on their own outside the camp.”
He then adds, almost as if warning us: “If you meet any of them, don’t mention politics, they’re totally disgusted by it! For years no one wanted to speak publicly about their situation. They disappeared from the national debate and things haven’t changed since then.”
Varna is a small village 11km away from the city of Šabac, in west Serbia. 42 Serbians have been living in a refugee camp here for the past 20 years. The camp, owned by the Serbian Red Cross, was built in 1993 when 18,000 refugees from Croatia and Bosnia arrived in the Šabac province.
Between the village and the open fields are ten small white houses: eight are two-unit houses, one is a kitchen and common room, and the last one is the director’s office. The narrow gravel road crosses a small lawn, leading to the houses and a little playground.
Slavko - from the Šabac Red Cross - and Daniel welcome us to the camp. Daniel is 34, he fled from Croatia and has been living in the camp since 1998. He tells us about Zagreb, where he used to live with his family.
“In my old building, 95 per cent of the people were Croatian, the so-called ustaša,” he says. “They used to come knocking on our doors saying “četnici, we’ll slit your throat tonight!””
He ran away to Serbia in 1995 with his whole family, along with many others. His life changed and is now stained with anger and bitterness: “70 per cent of Serbians working abroad stayed in west Europe, sitting on their hands; now they live like kings, while I’m still here.”
In 1998, he requested to move into the Varna camp. In the following years, Daniel and his family lost both their house and their right to return to Croatia. Today, he doesn’t want to live in the camp, which he views as a place of isolation and a symbol of social stigma: “I wasn’t able to finish school. I used to get bullied and beaten by other students every morning because I was a refugee coming from Croatia.”
Other residents ask us to write about their need to get rid of their stigma: their condition of refugees still living in a camp, who are portrayed as slackers, taking advantage of the state’s resources.
But they are not absorbing huge benefits. They can only receive assistance from the province where they’ve been registered. They also do not have full rights. They cannot vote in either Serbia or Croatia, which is contradictory. They have the right to double citizenship, and the resulting identity cards - but if they exercised this right, they would lose their refugee status and, thus, the social protection of the state.
“Around this time last year, there were 80 people in the camp. Some of them were granted apartments, but the ones who stayed are the most vulnerable,” says Slavko. The families are now fighting to make their voice heard. They want to leave the camp and move into real houses, but in reasonable conditions.
The political pressure to shut down the camp is strong. The residents have been asked to sign an agreement to move to the new projects, including 17 prefabs with 36 small apartments, whose total cost amounts to 275,000 Euro. The leading organization in this project is the Serbian NGO Housing Center, which will work alongside the non-profit Initiative for Development and Cooperation (IDC), the city of Šabac and the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration. However, the early agreements have not been honored and the quality of the promised solutions keep falling, which seems to be the reason behind the residents’ protest.
“With no warning whatsoever, they’ve relocated the project 3.5 km outside the city, in the middle of the countryside,” says one refugee. “The purchasing conditions have changed: higher prices for smaller and lower-quality apartments”. The Varna families’ representatives are furious: “We’re supposed to pay 150 Euro per square meter to live in container-like prefabs with tinfoil roofs!” adds another.
They feel isolated. According to what they say, no lawyer wants to defend them.
“The problem lies in the common conscience,” adds one refugee. “People accepted us at first, but things have changed over the course of 20 years.”
They want to leave the camp, but only with dignity and reassurance about their future. One of the oldest representatives points out: “We have time to forget the past or expose it, even if we can’t fix it, but we have to think of the present now. We have to provide a place to die for our elderly and a place to start for our youth.
“...for all the gold that is beneath the moon / or ever has been, of these weary souls / could never make a single one repose.”
Using these verses from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, quoted in Serbo-Croat, Rade Belić presents us with his daily inferno. He is a former resident of the Krnjača camp and now lives in a tiny apartment in Veliki Mokri Lug, a small suburb of Belgrade. The Let’s All Help project is a typical example of a resettlement program, which aims at transferring vulnerable subjects from refugee camps to social housing. It’s supported by the Fondacija Ana i Vlade Divac, with the help of Unicredit Bank and international organizations (Danish Refugee Council, the German ASB). The houses are in four buildings, each with a total of 20 units, which are meant for refugees who used to live in Krnjača.
Rade’s place is made of two rooms: a small corridor with a bathroom on the left and another room, which acts as bedroom, living room and kitchen. Rade has no cooktop; he uses a small camp stove to prepare his food. In a corner, a pile of suitcases serves as a closet.
“I don’t have enough money to buy a real one,” he says.
On a table next to the bed, several prescription drugs frame a picture of a young Rade. It has been four years since he left the Krnjača camp to move into this apartment, but he now complains about the poor quality of the building: “You can already spot cracks on the walls, the heating doesn’t work, I have to warm up the place using firewood and if I leave the door open the whole place freezes in minutes.”
Rade Belić is 57, but has aged prematurely. He was born in Croatia, in the Lika region, but used to live in Zagreb. In the Belgrade newspaper Blic, he describes himself as a songwriter, budding actor, journalist, the owner of a karate black belt, and a football player in Rotterdam. This is who Belić used to be.
“I lost everything in one night, my family, my property, my mind. Everything I have left is in this tiny and miserable apartment. During my escape, I had to leave behind my girlfriend and the baby she was carrying inside of her. I never heard from them since.”
He shows us a picture of another Rade, Rade Šerbedžija, an actor born in the same village as him, Korenica, whose fate has been more generous.
Belić has terrible memories of Krnjača.
“Some managers of the camp used to steal everything, there wasn’t enough food,” he says. “All we got to eat was spare ribs with beans, except there was no meat, just bones.”
Rade is not interested in the Afghan refugees now populating the old Krnjača camp, where he lived for 20 years: “They’re running from their own war, I’m not the one who has to fight for them.”
The stories and the destinies of the previous wave of refugees can help us understand the influence these policies have on today’s refugees and asylum-seekers. To comprehend the effects of national and European policies on today’s migrations, we must consider the refugees’ sense of isolation, their humiliation and their sense of helplessness, their dependence on social assistance, and their alienation.
The Balkans is a land with a long history of mass migrations, suffering, conflicts and asylum. The passage of migrants is the reason why these social issues reappear. This comparison between past and present reveals neglected social issues that have long been disregarded, even forgotten.
Sometimes, to see themselves reflected in the journey of those who come after them helps the previous wave of refugees not feel relegated.
As we part ways with him, Rade turns to say goodbye with some of his own verses:
“Na trnovitom putu mom, da nije bilo vas, nebi imao reći kom”
This can be roughly translated as follows:
“If I hadn’t met you on my thorny way, I wouldn’t have had anyone to tell it to.”
Translator: Valentina Brunati