If Hungary closes its Croatia border, where will all the apples go?
Update: Shortly after this blog was written, Hungary did announce its intention to seal off its border with Croatia at midnight on Friday 16 October. Our researchers will be following developments closely to see if that is indeed what happens, and if so what may be next for those already on these journeys but unable to continue on this route.
Last week I found myself drying apples with a sock. As spontaneous innovations go, using a sock for this task is not a bad one. But it doesn’t take many wet apples before the sock is sopping wet and the net gain of one’s efforts increasingly marginal.
I was at Zákány at the Hungary-Croatia border with Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty UK, and Jeney Orsolya, Director of Amnesty Hungary.
We had come to see what appears to be the last remaining gap in the fence constructed by the Hungarians along their borders with Croatia and Serbia.
The train station at Zákány is a small, solitary building – which the police and army had commandeered.
We picked our way gingerly across the tracks to where we could see various groups of people huddled together in the limited artificial light.
There were around 15 soldiers – in their full military fatigues, weapons strapped across their backs. There were probably 50 or more police officers – uniformed and each carrying side arms and batons.
The last and possibly smallest – but by far the most active – group were the volunteers. They were busy preparing food parcels and sanitation packs for the next train. We joined in, and began to learn a bit more about the extraordinary events now routine at a formerly isolated and unremarkable Hungarian border village.
The volunteers – under the loose leadership of a couple of locals – come from right across Europe. Those we met came from Austria, Germany, Poland, Italy, France, the UK and even the US. They don’t get to use the station building, and have thrown up a couple of tarpaulins over a loose frame to give them a covered, dry-ish space to work from.
Here’s where the apples and sock come in.
The volunteers pack small cellophane bags with an egg, a few slices of bread, a bit of cheese, a muesli bar and an apple.
There is a production line – from picking and opening the bag, through various stations stuffing it with food to the last person who seals it up and deposits it in a large bag to be carried out to where the next train will stop for around 15 minutes and the food parcels can be handed up through the train windows.
The refugees arrive by the thousand or more throughout the day and night.
There are many women and young children, including several babies. There are heavily pregnant women, elderly and infirm people too – some pushed along on old, rickety wheelchairs.
Most people have little or no possessions, but a few arrive carrying overloaded cases stuffed full of their remaining worldly possessions. Many of the children clutch their favourite cuddly toys.
The police we saw did respond by trying to reunite families who had become lost in the crowd.
Once everyone is squeezed on board the train, it’s shunted up the track a few hundred yards and stops for about 15 minutes. The volunteers had placed several large bags of food parcels, sanitation and diaper packs, and bottled water along the tracks in preparation.
As we rush to pass up as much food and water as people need, making sure that every window gets as much attention as necessary, armed soldiers stand behind us.
At least they’ve left their weapons on their backs, but curiously they (as do the police) wear masks – presumably worried about infection, but of what who knows?
As we hand up the parcels, there are friendly exchanges between us and those on the train.
Some have a few words of English. Many shout out ‘thank you’. A few have questions – Where are we? Where next? Is this Germany?
There are smiles and even some laughter. We wish them luck, and wave back to the children.
15 minutes of relief
It’s a brief moment of respite for everyone. But as the train pulls out at two in the morning and the volunteers return to their tarpaulin to escape the persistent drizzle to take a breather and smoke a cigarette, their exhaustion is palpable.
The trains run throughout day and night, as many as 6 or 8 a day.
It’s been like this for about three weeks, though the number of trains seems to have increased. Some of the volunteers have been here the whole time.
Of course, they take shifts. There is no obligation to stay on hour after hour, and some leave to get rest so they can come back later and relieve others. But the wet, the packing, the lifting and the sight of it all… It takes some resilience not to feel the weight of this.
Where will the refugees go next? I don’t know. But they’ll go somewhere because there’s no other choice for them.
And the volunteers will follow in their wake, and the apples too.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.