I’ve never seen a refugee camp before. I didn’t know what to expect really. Makeshift wooden sign at the entrance? Security? Ikea beds?
There are two types of camp, I guess. Official and unofficial. Bristol Park definitely falls into the second category. There wasn’t a wooden sign at the entrance. There wasn’t even an entrance.
Around the corner from the main train station in Belgrade, unnaturally bright orange fencing has been erected cornering some rather bland clods of grass. A man prays under an elevated car park. Some clothes swaying on a line occasionally hide his face. Some pillows and blankets sit drying in the corner. A blue tent sits above, occupying a space that would otherwise be taken by a car. A walk around led me to an open place, with a few sheltered stalls selling hot food. It was full of people. This is Bristol Park: a refugee camp right in the centre of Belgrade, the capital city of Serbia.
The floor plan of the camp was slowly morphing into view. A sprawling of life from a different part of Earth. People were standing, sitting, chatting, drinking, eating. The quite obvious non-refugees were walking around Belgrade going about their daily lives.
It comes as no surprise really that the locals are tolerant of a refugee camp right in the middle of their biggest city. Many know all too well the reasons why they would flee their own country. I had walked past two NATO bombed buildings to get here.
Conditions in this part of the camp are all right. There are toilets, water supplies (a water truck provided by the government) and nearby is a stall providing a free meal once a day. There is a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) vehicle stationed and some government employed staff monitor the situation.
There I met an Iranian translator who has been working at the camp for a year. He told me that it’s not as busy now as it once was. But there is still plenty of work for him. Around ten pregnant woman a month visit the medical van, and many more still do not. They give all kinds of medical care and he added, quite profoundly, psychological care too. Many refugees were gathered round curious as to why I was there. The translator asked which company I worked for, which surprised me a little. It suggested that perhaps not many everyday people enquire about the state of the camp. Or maybe now it’s just old news.
Most members of the camp are Afghani or Pakistani and most are young adult males. There is an official camp across the river, but frequently it gets full.
The Syrian refugees have by now all been let through the border to Hungary or Croatia. Unfortunately, those who are not Syrian are nearly always turned away at the EU border. Between 300 and 500 people are now at the camp, but that’s somewhat reduced from its peak in 2015.
Talking to Refugees
I spent a long time talking to one man from Afghanistan. He was a taxi driver and picked up English from talking to American, Canadian and British tourists.
“Why did you leave Afghanistan?”
“Daesh and other terrorists are there.”
It somehow didn’t strike me as obvious that the people would use the same language to describe terrorists as we do here. Or even use the word “terrorist”.
“The Americans, and others, are bombing the area, right? They have drones there, to fight the terrorists. Do you think they are working?”
“No. I don’t. These are very bad.”
He lifted up his sleeve and showed me his arm, which had been cut to pieces from shrapnel from a bomb. He then lifted up the trouser on his left leg and showed me huge, even more horrific, gouged-out scars seemingly replacing the muscles on his lower leg.
And despite me talking to him for a while now, I hadn’t noticed that he was missing half a finger.
Suddenly all the problems in my life evaporated.
He stood and looked at me with warm, dark eyes, smiling. Neither of us cared that it was now raining. Other refugees had gathered round, knowing that he was telling his story but not understanding the English he was speaking. They silently listened anyway.
“I left because of the terrorists. They don’t target the very old people, it’s the young people they want. Like me, like him, like him. If you want to kill me, put a gun to my head and shoot. I will die this way. But they don’t do that. They cut off heads, they cut off arms, it’s a horrible way to die.”
He gestured the slicing with his hands.
I listened intently.
“They killed my brother.”
“Yeah?” I said, caught of guard, trying to digest the sentence and react appropriately.
He paused, deciding if to tell me the rest of the story or just leave it there. Softly and sadly he continued.
“They cut off his head.
Right in front of me. I saw it.
I couldn’t stay. I left my family. I left my wife and my children.”
I had never before heard such sorrow emanating from someone. His face and body had moved heaps of pure and unquestionable misery upon airing those words. The sadness he projected from every inch was so dense that I couldn’t help but absorb it. Swallow it. And unintentionally add the unexpected black weight to the top of my unprepared heart. Pushing it deep down somewhere towards my belly and dragging all the sinking lines in my face down with it. And said with such veracity and conviction, that I really wish he had lied.
Here Jamie, catch! This is a lead ball of reality.
A queue had began to form already for the food, not due for another hour. I walked to another part of the camp, the barracks.
Conditions in this part of the camp are noticeably worse. Some parts too disgusting to describe.
Two young boys, about my age, smiled and said hello to me. We started talking. They were from Pakistan, and had just arrived back in Belgrade. They spoke a lot about “the jungle,” which I later learned is the forest near the border of Croatia—they had just crossed it a day or so ago. They had previously made it to an asylum centre in Zagreb, the capital, but were refused and told to go back to Serbia. They had to make the journey back on foot. When they got to the border a guard took their bag, which contained everything they owned and their spare clothes, and wouldn’t give it back. Now they had nothing but the clothes on their backs and no money left. They were still smiling. Well, one of them was anyway. When I asked them if they call home they told me that they spoke only to their mother. They had just got off the phone. Their father and little brother have been missing for days.
Because the young, old and sick get priority at the official camp—and it’s full—these guys have to make it out on the street now. They didn’t know what to do. But were extremely positive given the circumstances.
I’ve noticed that talking to someone the same age really puts things in perspective. Who knew when we were both kids living our separate lives on opposite sides of the globe that one day, one of us would end up fleeing a deadly war. Money doesn’t even come into it. The privilege of being born in Europe, is massive. Unequivocally massive.
For many in Bristol Park, it’s now a waiting game. Waiting to see if they will ever be allowed into the EU. Waiting until the money runs out. Or for many, simply—or not so simply—returning home, back to war.
I will forever carry those heavy words on my heart.