Written and Photographed by Milos Markicevic
I spoke to some of the migrants in the camp in Belgrade prior to its closure. Malik, a migrant from Pakistan who came to Serbia via Greece and has been living near the barracks, says his goal was to reach France. He says he doesn’t want to go to the government camps because of massive overcrowding and the lack of facilities.
“One: no washrooms, they have two washrooms and three showers for 2,000 people. Every day people are fighting because it’s so crowded, but in the barracks we all get along, no problem,” says Malik.
However, the barracks camp has its own problems alongside the already decrepit conditions. Malik tells me how he’s seen drugs sold by Serbian dealers to the migrants who pay with phones stolen from fellow migrants.
“There are Afghani and Pakistani gangs in the camp,” says Malik “They harass people late at night and ask for their cellphones and money.” When asked about what he plans to do now that the camp is closing, Malik answered he might try and return to Greece or give up and go back to Pakistan.
Ahmed, a young refugee from Afghanistan no more than 20 years old, came to the camp eight months ago before the winter. He had previously survived a gunshot wound which had crippled him for months. Now relatively healthy, he’s one of the lucky few who have managed to find work at the camp. He speaks five languages and has gotten proficient using a large Canon camera his boss has lent him.
His boss nearby watches as I interview him and jumps in before he can give me his last name. It’s quickly apparent that the two are close and that his boss is very protective. Prior to coming to Serbia, Ahmed had been in Turkey and Bulgaria where he had encountered violence against himself and other refugees.
“I saw a lot of problems before in Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran… So when I arrived here I felt a bit more safe,” Ahmed explains. “They’re not torturing and doing bad things to refugees here, they’re good with people. We were living in the parks before but when the winter started, we came to the barracks.”
This past winter, temperatures dropped to -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit). One member of Medecins Sans Frontieres said there had been one death caused by hypothermia.
“We’ve spent six months in the barracks,” say Ahmed, “When the winter started, it was very cold and there were a lot of children that no one cared about. A lot of people had come from Bulgaria where they had been tortured. Some had their noses broken, others their head or arms.”
Ahmed’s boss chimes in and tells me how they burned wood inside the barracks to stay warm. This wood, however, was covered in old paint that created red toxic fumes when burned which induced heavy coughing and got people sick. The doors of the barracks, closed to keep the cold out, helped concentrate the smoke indoors making it difficult to see or breathe.
His voice turns angry when talking about the lack of aid during the winter and the sudden influx of support in the spring.
“Nobody cares about us. Nobody cares about the children. Now, after the winter, they’re coming to take care of the children. I was in the barrack three weeks after an operation. I couldn’t walk. They’re not here to protect and help us. They’re here to help the Dubai mafia. They’re not protecting refugees.”
Ahmed gets emotional and mentions his frustration on how blame has been placed unfairly on the refugees. He says that he and the other refugees have shown nothing but appreciation for Serbia, but a recent anti-immigrant protest has left him and others feeling unwelcome and betrayed. The siding of law enforcement and the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees with Eagle Hills, the Abu Dhabi development firm behind the Belgrade WaterFront project, has been particularly hurtful.
Like other migrants at the camp, Ahmed’s goal is to go to the “Game,” a slang term used in the camp to describe crossing the border into another country. But attempting the Game is risky. Best case scenario is that they manage to get through and let their friends know they made it. Worst case scenario is they end up in jail or get deported back and lose the place they held at the camp.
“We aren’t here to get food,” says Ahmed tiredly. “We’re here to move forward. No one wants to stay here.”