I hear the gravelly voice calling from the far side of the campfire. I can barely see him through the dim light, the thick smoke and the layers of grime coating him. It’s his teeth I see first, bared in a welcoming smile. He holds up the pot he’s been warming on the fire.
I turn down the offer of tea, but shoot a smile so he knows it’s appreciated. He and the others gathered around the warm fire go back to their business, my presence now barely noticed. I’m just another visitor, another curious passerby clicking a camera.
I’m not your typical tourist in Belgrade, Serbia. I’ve come to volunteer with refugees here as part of a larger project to volunteer in countries across Europe. I started in France in January and have spent the past two weeks working with Refugee Aid Serbia, an aid agency based in Belgrade.
I’m with some of the refugees now. They’re showing me around their home, an unofficial camp populated by up to 2000 men, known informally as “The Barracks”.
Serbia has been hit pretty hard by Europe’s refugee crisis. For thousands of migrant families and individuals fleeing war and persecution, Serbia was meant to be a pit-stop. People travelled from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in search of a better life in Europe. They didn’t expect to be turned away at the borders. Many shouldn’t, legally, have made it this far and are grateful to have crossed over from Turkey and from Bulgaria where conditions were much worse.
And still, the conditions they live with here in Belgrade are appalling by anyone’s standards. They are fed one meal a day which is supplied by an aid agency; beans, rice and corn, with two slices of bread. It’s the same every day. They’ve learned to like it.
It’s almost lunchtime when I arrive with Shabir, an eighteen year old Afghani who has been here for five months. He often tries to cross the border into Croatia and Hungary in his attempts to get closer to his dream destination, France. He’s tried now 16 times and each time, he’s been caught by police, often beaten, and always sent back to Belgrade. His friend Abdul had his arm broken by Bulgarian Police before he crossed into Serbia.
In January, when Europe suffered an extreme freeze and temperatures in Belgrade fell to -14ºC, a group of refugees tried to take advantage of the adverse weather conditions. Rather than continuing to sleep rough, they tried to cross a frozen lake to sneak into Hungary. But ice cracks and breaks. When it broke this time, it claimed one of their group. He died for nothing because the men were soon found and returned to Belgrade.
The stories fascinate and horrify me in equal measure, but to them, this is now a way of life.
Shabir watches the lunch line grow outside The Barracks, but doesn’t want to leave me alone. I know he’s hungry and insist he joins the line. I can wait. He finds a stool and the cleanest blanket he can find to make sure I’m comfortable before he joins the queue. I don’t want him to make a fuss, but I quickly learn that he’s not fussing. Like most of the men I meet in The Barracks, being a gentleman comes naturally to him. I sit and watch the lunch line grow and a nearby group begin a game of football. Men crouch around the open space outside The Barracks, eating from disposable boxes on the ground. An aid agency has gathered a group of people in need of new shoes and I watch them inspect and measure feet before the shoes can be distributed. There’s a black market for basic supplies in The Barracks, so the agencies do their best not to feed into it. No system is perfect.
A smiling man clutching his lunch offers a greeting in Serbian as he passes by. Sometimes it’s in English, sometimes in Farsi. From time to time it’s just a smile, but all are kind. I smile and say hello back. One man offers me his bread. My heart almost breaks.
The Barracks was a disused warehouse in the industrial area of Belgrade, close to the bus and train stations. It was lying idle until this winter when the men from the refugee community sought shelter from the unforgiving elements. Families are all housed at the refugee camp a short drive from the city, but with the camp stretched beyond capacity, there was nowhere for the men to go. They made The Barracks ‘home’ but with that also overflowing, others have set up their tents and sleeping bags in city car parks. The Barracks, though, has become a recognised symbol of the European refugee crisis with its well photographed graffiti and campfires gracing the pages of newspapers worldwide. Newspapers in countries that won’t let these people across their thresholds.
I realise that I feel perfectly safe here. In an environment with hundreds of men from cultures so different to my own, I should probably feel a little uncomfortable or out of place. I don’t. I look around at the graffiti, the piles of rubbish and the burned out buildings. It looks like a dangerous place, but I’m not phased.
“Do the men fight?” I ask Shabir when he gets back with his lunch. It actually looks really good.
“No,” he tells me, almost surprised by my question.
His response confirms my belief that I am surrounded by a hundreds of gentlemen. These are men that offer me their bread and invite me for tea when bread and tea are like gold dust to them. They find clean blankets when there is nothing clean in this place. They give me a stool to sit on when they crouch on the ground to eat.
I try to give Shabir the stool but he won’t hear of it. After he’s finished his lunch and feeling satisfied, he walks me around a little more before he accompanies me back to the centre where the agency are based.
I thank him for showing me around and I know that I’ve made a new friend. It doesn’t matter where either of us have come from or where we’re going. What matters is mutual respect. I feel lucky to have met Shabir and many of the men from The Barracks. I know that my life is richer from this experience. And I feel sorry for the rest of Europe who have closed themselves off, who have turned away and shunned good men. They don’t know what they’re missing.