Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza
Laura, an NNK volunteer medicating a young man with scabies, the most common illness amongs POMs

Balkan notes: in Šid, Serbo-Croatian border

On the road with No Name Kitchen between informal settlements and government camps


Text and translation: Leone Palmeri

This is the second of a series of articles that will cover a trip from Timișoara to Sofia, passing through Šid, Subotica and Belgrade organized by Leone Palmeri and Joyce Modolo (co-autor): “Our intent is to meet the people that are attempting to arrive in Europe, understand their main struggles and to understand how local and international organizations support people on the move”. 
All the pictures below have been taken by Leone Palmeri.

After leaving Timisoara, we drove to Serbia and went towards Šid, a small city immersed in the vast planes on the border with Croatia. Over the years, this rural center surrounded by corn, soy and sunflower fields has become an important node for what the people on the move (POM) refer to as the game, or rather the attempt to cross borders without being detected by the police. From here, young men, women, families and unaccompanied minors attempt to sneak on trucks that are about to cross the Croatian border, in the hope of not being detected either by the driver, or by authorities.

After days spent in the back of these trucks, if they manage to avoid border police and being seen by the driver, they come out once they reach the lorry’s point of arrival. If they are lucky, the driver does not beat them for putting him in danger of being accused of smuggling.

“They cannot call the police if they see us,” said F. a young man, with short hair and a round face that acts as a smuggler in Šid. “Sometimes drivers beat us, sometimes they have weapons they use against us, sometimes they do nothing, just let us go. If they call the police, they would be considered smugglers and go to jail.” 

During our stay in Šid we were hosted by the No Name Kitchen (NNK), an active solidarity group that has been working in the region for over six years now, and that provides basic medical care, distributions of food and clothes, legal support and reports abuses at the borders through the Border Violence Monitoring Network

After meeting us and understanding our intent, the NNK volunteers agreed to let us shadow them during their work, helping them with distributions of food and clothes, while getting the chance to meet and speak with some of the people on the move, to which they provide assistance and support. 

So after the morning meeting where the day was planned and there was the space for each volunteer to express their thoughts and feelings, we spent the morning preparing clothes and food for the afternoon distributions. After lunch, we got into the old ramshackle white van and drove for about forty five minutes to the first informal settlement, called the Old House, or White House by the people that live in and  around it in their tents. 

The Old House is a two story abandoned building on the side of train tracks where people live while waiting for the next leg of their trip. When we arrived, the first few people that emerged from the house and the trees surrounding the abandoned building approached the old van without hesitation, recognizing the volunteers and greeting them with smiles and friendly words. They were all less than twenty five years old, many of them wore scarfs with the colors of the Afghan flags, and had rosaries and gold-like chains hanging from their necks. 

“These are usual residents of the Old House,” said Laura, one of the NNK volunteers that has been coming back to Serbia for six years now, and that has been able to establish some significant ties with the people on the move.

“The relations between people on the move and smugglers are pyramidal in shape” she told us, even though very often they are all the same age, they come from the same country and have all done the journey to Serbia in a similar manner. The difference is that smugglers have been in the area for longer periods of time, they have been able to establish relations with local informal networks, they know where and how to get into trucks, and are often armed with knives or guns.  

However it is impossible to give an overarching description of the people that act as smugglers, the network is complex, with various layers of power, and their attitude changes drastically. In the Old House, one young man is known to carry firearms, he is the head of a group of about twenty smugglers that follow him acting as a gang, considering him the chief, but the network behind him is vast and complex, totally intertwined with various layers of organized crime networks of people from Serbian and from the countries from which refugees arrive.

He was in fact the first to approach us, to ask to take a shower, and his fellow smugglers went back and forth from the abandoned building, bringing him shampoo, oil for his hair and holding up a mirror for him while he made sure to look his best. After he left, uninterested in the distribution of clothes and food, people started to trickle out of the woods surrounding the building, gathering around the van, waiting for their turn to take a shower, or looking for the package of clothes with their name on it that had been washed and brought back to them by the NNK volunteers. 

Of the rest of the people that stayed, the second in chief was a young man of about 25 years old from Afghanistan. His attitude was very different from the first smuggler that appeared, he didn’t seem any different from any other person in the group, and his manners were calm, without the gangster attitude that seemed to characterize the smuggler that had just left. When talking to us about what he does, his eyes looked into ours knowing exactly what to reveal, answering our questions with knowing what we wanted to hear. He told us “God will reward me for the help I give to these people”. And the people that knew him seemed to think the same. “He is kind to the people he helps” they told us “he takes care of them, protecting them and guiding them through the game”. 

And while it might seem difficult and problematic to consider smugglers as humane people that facilitate movement of refugees attempting to arrive in Europe, the reality is much more complex, and leaves space for various tiers of interpretation. Their existence is a result of the militarization of borders and the discrimination that European countries perpetuate while deciding who is allowed to enter. “Without the mediation of the smugglers, people on the move’s lives would be much harder”, said the NNK volunteers.

“Often they act as intermediaries between local police and POMs, and without the smugglers these refugees would have significant difficulties” in navigating the landscapes they go through. An example being the fact that when the police come and cut access to electricity from the abandoned house they live in, it is the smugglers that go and bribe them, in order to regain access to the electrical grid, and it is the smugglers that have managed to collect the knowledge, skills and social connections that allow them to put people in the back of trucks destined to Europe. 

Motel Adasevici

The second place we visited with No Name Kitchen, was a governmental camp set up in an old motel that has been converted into a reception facility, on the side of the main highway leading to the Croatian border. The Serbian flag stayed idle under the midday sun, and the broken letters that used to make the word Motel Adasevici gave the building a decadent aspect that seemed to perfectly describe the way the Serbian government manages the reception facilities used to host people on the move. 

“These places are so overcrowded, that people prefer to stay in informal settlements in the countryside surrounding the city,” is what Laura told us, while we were arriving. “Mostly they come to these camps to regroup, to sleep on a bed, take a shower and get ready for the next border crossing. But you can only get assistance in the camp that you have been registered in, so some people are not allowed to benefit from the few services that are provided.”  

According to the NNK volunteers, people on the move do not have the necessary freedom to leave for the game if they are staying in governmental camps, so if they are about to try to attempt a border crossing, they move back into an informal settlement, where they have more freedom, and from where smugglers start each journey. 

Once we parked the minivan climbing past the front seats and out of the only two doors that worked, webarrived in front of the entrance to the governmental camp. The people that recognized us, and those who were curious to know who we were, surrounded our small group, talking to us in broken english, while the NNK volunteers that knew some words of Pashto tried to interact with them in their native language.

After a few moments, we decided to move with the people around us to the woods next to the camp, where people had been using the space to sleep, cook, and slaughter sheep. Walking down a narrow path through the trees and small bushes, every once and a while on the ground you could see a dry sheephead or skin, amongst the many pieces of trash and empty cans of energy drinks. In the distance, through the branches, groups of people lay down on tarps, resting, chatting, or looking at their phones. 

Some NNK volunteers started a volleyball game with a group of about fifteen of the people living in and around the camp, as sat down in a circle, trying to collect some information on the people surrounding us, using our phones and google translate to understand who we were talking to, and to hear some of their stories. As in the other camps and informal settlements in Šid, the people were mostly from Afghanistan, and they had come all the way on foot, crossing Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria before arriving in Serbia. 

Many of the people that sat in the circle with us were between twenty and forty years old. They had been teachers, government officials, policemen, soldiers and members of the special forces that had fought with the US army against the Taliban. Now, after the United States fled the country and the Taliban took power, they had no choice but to leave their homes, to avoid imprisonment, and summary executions. 

“The Taliban go from door to door looking for us, they arrest us, and then they kill us. If I go back I will die,” said a man while explaining to us the reasons for his journey, his mouth tightened in a bitter frown. “My father, mother and wife are still there because they work in the market, and the Taliban are ok with that”. 

When describing their journey, they all seemed to have had similar experiences, passing through the same countries, and spending a significant time in Turkey due to the difficulty of crossing the Bulgarian border. They start by walking through Iran, where they are often imprisoned and tortured by the local police. A young man showed us a video in which Iranian police were cutting a piece of a refugee’s ear, and other videos of people buried under rocks and boulders.

After passing through Iran, they arrive in Turkey. Here they often stay for longer periods of time, and attempt to cross the border with Bulgaria over and over, before managing to successfully arrive in Serbia. The Bulgarian police is considered as dangerous and evil as the Iranian authorities, and each person we interviewed had various stories of beetings, tortures and humiliations suffered in the European country bordering with Turkey.

While sitting in the circle, the word that we heard the most while describing Bulgarian police was cruel. Every man surrounding us had been beaten with sticks on their whole body, but especially on their knees with the intent of crippling them, attacked by dogs, forced to urinate on themselves and on their comrades, and sent back to Turkey in their underwear, stripped of all their belongings. 

Most of them had experienced this multiple times, the man we were talking to had managed to successfully pass the bulgarian border on his twelfth attempt. 

The crossing to Serbia had been different, easier, because of the absence of a militarized border, and the serbian police is described as much more benevolent and uninterested in pushing back people on the move that are found attempting to enter the country. A fact that is a precious point of reflection, given that the Serbian police are still involved in various forms of humiliation and violence.

As we were leaving the government camp, and the people surrounding us attempted to convince the volunteers to continue the volleyball game, many taxis were parked in front of the metal fence surrounding the governmental center in the repurposed motel, and small groups of about four or five people bargained with the drivers.

“The taxis are the only means of transport that these people have,” said Laura, seeing our inquisitive looks. “It is illegal in Serbia to transport refugees, except for taxis, people on the move are forbidden from using public transportation, and if you pick up someone that is hitchhiking, you risk being arrested for smuggling”. 

Moreover, not all taxi drivers accept to transport refugees, and the ones that do often ask inflated prices for the services they provide, asking up to three times the normal price, taking advantage of the vulnerable position in which refugees find themselves in, and often collaborating with smugglers to help these people complete parts of their journeys. 

Train Tracks

On our last day in Šid we visited an informal settlement referred to as Train Tracks, a small cluster of tents in the woods on the side of the railway, about two kilometers from the town’s station. As we unpacked the van, setting up the shower tent, and unloading the water to fill up the tanks used as reservoirs by the inhabitants of the camp, a group of about fifteen young boys came out of the woods, and came to greet us. 

The camp was made of six or seven tents under the trees on the side of the railway, in a small narrow clearing of about 20 square meters. Under a tarp, an extinguished fire with a few bricks around it revealed where they prepared their meals, and the cobblestones from under the train tracks arrived up to the side of the tent we sat in, while talking to a young man about his experiences along his journey.

After distributing clothes and water, we all emerged from the trees and sat on the railroad, chatting, drinking tea and playing cards, while others used the electric razors that the NNK volunteers had brought to freshen up their haircuts, and shave their peach fuzz beards. 

For a moment it seemed like we were suspended in time and space, just a group of young people sitting together, enjoying each other’s presence, while the orange sun loosened its grip, setting on the corn fields around us.