Words and Pictures by Ruth Earley
I sip on my beer and tap out a blues rhythm to the beat of the band. It’s a Monday night and the bar is packed. A harmonica keeps the crowd entertained and transports me to a Chicago blues bar. But I’m far from Chicago. The beer is local, but I didn’t get its name. It’s pretty good. The bar is a Jazz and Blues bar called Muha (meaning ‘fly’). Right now, I’m happy to be a bar fly here in Belgrade, Serbia.
“He’s the best in Europe,” my new Serbian friend, Predrag tells me. It takes me a moment to realize he’s talking about the harmonica player. I can easily believe it. I know nothing about music, but I know that this sounds really good.
The place is what a blues bar should be, complete with air thick from cigarettes. I can’t remember the last time I sat in a smoky bar. Unpleasant as it may be, the smoke belongs here in a bar that doesn’t seem to be of its place and a city that certainly isn’t of its time.
Belgrade is a city stuck in a time warp. It’s like a city from the ’90s trying desperately to be a city of the 21st century. The glass facades of new bars and coffee shops hint at modernity. Billboards make promises of urban renewal fit for a European capital. Which, of course, it is but it’s a European capital falling just outside of the European Union and just behind its western neighbours.
The people of Belgrade embrace the western world. They have the high street shops, the fashion and the coffee drinking culture of other cities in Europe or North America. If you just look on the surface, you might be fooled into believing they enjoy similar lifestyles to the people living in western cities. Wipe away that thin facade of modernity, though, and you will see a stark reality. On the streets behind the shopfronts, buildings crumble and rot. The national minimum wage in Serbia is little over €1 per hour. The average monthly salary is about €420. It’s a traveller’s dream, but the situation for the average Belgrade worker is grim. Each of those beloved coffees costs more than an hour’s wage. My beer costs two.
It’s the first beer I’ve had in Belgrade since I arrived over two weeks ago. It’s my first night out because, unlike most of the party people who come to Belgrade in search of cheap beer, good music and a constant party, my reason for being here has nothing to do with being a barfly (though I’ll quite happily play the role when the occasion calls for it). Believe it or not, I came to Belgrade to volunteer with people even poorer than the economically challenged Serbs. I came to work with the refugees currently calling Belgrade home.
It’s not by choice that these people are in Belgrade and it’s certainly not by choice that they stay. In most cases, the refugees in Belgrade have traveled from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Belgrade was supposed to be just another city to tick off as they passed along the Balkan corridor to the EU. Most of them have dreams of living in France, Italy, the U.K. or many other European countries. Serbia was not on the agenda.
Until the borders were closed.
Now, Serbia is a kind of limbo. Some still try to cross into Croatia or Hungary to get one step closer to their European Valhalla, but they are beaten back. Often, that is quite literal. Some of the men I’ve spoken to have suffered police brutality that should not be tolerated in the civilised world. When their attempts to cross the border aren’t hampered by police, they have other difficulties to contend with. Smugglers exploiting them charge €2200 to get them into Croatia. Their journeys are often dangerous.
One of the young men I’ve been working with for the past few weeks told me of a crossing attempt just before I arrived in Belgrade. The weather was particularly harsh in Serbia in January with temperatures as low as -14ºC. For the thousands of refugees sleeping rough, there was little relief. A group of men decided to take their chances with a lake on the Serbia-Hungarian border that had frozen over. They planned to walk across it.
We know how this story ends. We can’t know the desperation those men must have felt to risk their lives. When the ice broke and one of their group fell under, his friends couldn’t save him. We can’t begin to imagine their devastation. Worse still, the utter hopelessness as they were subsequently caught by Hungarian authorities and sent back to Belgrade in the knowledge that it had all been for nothing. Their moods were low, but still they clung to hope. As they plan future border crossings, the possibility of failure is never discussed. They say their goodbyes and I bite my tongue while I wish them well. When they re-appear days later, quiet and downcast, there is little that can comfort them. We carry on as usual, until the next time.
I spent some time at “The Barracks”. It’s an unofficial refugee camp in Belgrade where these men live. During the harsh winter, with numbers at the official camp outside the city beyond capacity, men sleeping rough got together and with the help of some of the aid agencies working in the area, they took over a disused warehouse. It provided much needed shelter and, thanks to the support of local charities, tents, sleeping bags, blankets and clothing were supplied to keep inhabitants warm. Medecins Sans Frontiers set up medical tents to take care of the men suffering from frostbite and hypothermia.
Guesses as to the numbers sleeping in The Barracks range between 1600-2000. There is no running water, no electricity, no toilets and only makeshift showers. Aid agencies provide one meal a day, so you had better get used to rice, beans and corn. If you’re extra lucky, you may be able to get your hands on food, tea and cooking equipment from a charitable donation or on the black market. A charity brings firewood every day so that the men in The Barracks can keep fires burning in barrels rather than burning the toxic materials they’d been foraging for on the old railway tracks. The fires keep them warm and also helps them to hear water for washing, cooking or tea if they get lucky enough.
And the Serbian government?
In the two weeks I’ve spent working at a charitable agency and among the men from The Barracks, I’ve heard no mention of them. There are an estimated 6000 refugees housed in the official camp outside the center and at designated centers provided by the Government, but for those living outside of the system, there is no support. Many are mistrustful, afraid of deportation or of being forced into seeking asylum in Serbia. They stay away from the camps, but it makes little difference. The official camp outside Belgrade is overflowing and the support offered to residents is barely better than the conditions these men live with. It’s policed and monitored by the state, guarded by Serbian authorities and governed by Serbian rules, right down to the strict curfew.
In The Barracks, the Serbian government doesn’t come into the equation. It’s like the refugees here don’t exist. It’s not necessarily a negative thing. The Serbian government turned a blind eye on the taking over of The Barracks and allow the men to live there undisturbed. Out of the way. The charities working here are either international organisations such as Medecins Sans Frontiers and UNHCR or locally run groups providing food, clothing and education.
The strategy of ignoring the crisis seems to be working. The refugees are barely noticed by Belgrade locals who aren’t somehow involved with charity work or a little more socially aware. To most of the people I’ve met here, refugees are quite an abstract idea.
“Aren’t those the guys you see down by the bus station?” Asked a Serbian friend in the detached manner of someone asking about somebody else’s problem.
For all their faults, however, one thing the Serbian authorities have not done is turn people away in their time of need. Unlike their wealthier neighbours and the entire European Union, they have not adopted policies of self-preservation at the cost of people’s lives. Essentially, by doing almost nothing, Serbia has already done more than countries better positioned to cope with such a humanitarian crisis.
Ironically, the place where this crisis is playing out is directly related to the future of Belgrade. The Barracks is situated on Belgrade’s waterfront, a desolate and abandoned part of the city which seems like the perfect place for a forgotten community to pitch their camp. The waterfront, however, is the site for Belgrade’s planned urban renewal project featuring towers for offices, shopping centers, hotels and upmarket residential units. The project is estimated to cost approximately $3.5 billion and is a joint venture between the Serbian Government and an Abu-Dhabi based property developer. It will forever alter the Belgrade skyline and, Serbs hope, the city and country’s economy. This is their opportunity to truly become a 21st century city.
So, what’s next for the men in the rubble at the base of these towers? When the bulldozers move in and The Barracks is turned into a five star Balkan destination, what will the human cost be?
I don’t have the answers and I suspect they will only come in time. For now, all I can do is help my fellow man as best I can and, maybe, from time to time, beat away the blues.