In autumn 2015, a huge wave of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and several African countries swept over the western Balkans. For the German Press Agency’s radio department, I went to eastern Croatia, in order to cover the story, while thousands of asylum seekers crossed into Croatia from Serbia, every single day.
After an 8-hour trip from Sofia, via Nis and Belgrade, I arrived in Tovarnik, a larger village in this beautiful part of Croatia. One gas station, two little supermarkets and one pizzeria were everything this place offered. The usual quietude was off for a while, since thousands of people from other parts of the world were forced to use Tovarnik to stop over on their way to Western Europe. One year ago, it was indeed possible to get to Austria, Germany or other countries up there.
Once the refugees got to Tovarnik, they already had long journeys behind them. Many had walked 50km and more. Serbia just picked up refugees at its border to Macedonia 24 hours a day. The buses would later stop close to an unofficial crossing at the north-western border to Croatia. From there, they walked across fields, until they got to Tovarnik.
During my first two days on site, thinks looked more than dull. What the Croatians called a refugee camp, was actually a pasture. Rain showers turned it into a muddy place, which was far from deserving the expression refugee camp. There were hardly any tents, children, many with bronchitis, were sleeping on the cold ground. Apart from five chemical toilets, there was no sanitation whatsoever. Part of the pasture was covered with excrement.
The Croatian government had not yet managed to organize food and beverages either. Had it not been for some volunteers from the UK, France and Germany, the growing numbers of refugees would not have had anything at all. Thanks to the mostly young people, who had come down here with vans full of bread, bananas and other items, there was at least something to eat.
During the day, the number of people increased substantially. At the Tovarnik train station, trains would pick up 1,000 refugees at a time, in order to take them to Slovenia. Once one train had left, the station would fill up quickly again and again.
What happened in Tovarnik, was a huge chaos, while the numbers increased from 3,000 to 6,000 new refugees per day. In comparision, the number of refugees in Bulgaria today, a total of 10,000, seems harmless.
After two days, the efforts of the government in Zagreb started to kick in. Some 12 kilometers away, in Opatovac, the army had set up a real refugee camp, which included hundreds of tents. At this vicinity, arriving refugees would be registered, fed and accommodated for one to two days, and then brought to the Hungarian border, in order to make room for more asylum seekers. When the Hungarians basically closed the two border crossings, which had been reserved for refugees, the asylum seekers were taken to the Slovenian border, located further west.
The government in Zagreb had hired all buses available in eastern Croatia. But that was still not enough. When more and more refugees arrived, they could not manage anymore. Thousands had to walk 20 kilometers and more, partially through pouring rain, in order to get to Opatovac. Fall had just kicked in. Many of the immigrants did not have coats or pullovers. Still they walked long distances, in the cold.
One of hundreds of buses with refugees. Photo by Imanuel Marcus.
In the meantime, the arguments between Croatian and Serbia escalated. The government in Zagreb accused Belgrade of having a secret deal with Hungary and of intentionally sending all refugees to Croatia, instead of taking them directly to Hungary. In between, both countries closed their common border checkpoints, because of those arguments.
Hungary, under right-winger Victor Orbán, finished the first segment of its border fence at that time. The parliament in Budapest decided to have the army take control of the southern border. There were many complaints of abuse in Hungary.
The refugee wave in the western Balkans ran dry later, when the E.U. Turkey Deal took effect.
Today, countries are complaining about having to accommodate too many refugees, including Bulgaria. The truth is: Compared to those times in Croatia, today’s situation is harmless, at least north of Greece and Turkey. Back then, the Croatians took some time to react, but once they did, things worked. It was a 24-hour endeavour.
(All photos: (c) Imanuel Marcus)