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"Are you here to open the borders?" Dispatch from Serbia

Updated: Jan 8, 2020

By Elizabeth Pennington

FEBRUARY 2018 | In Serbia alone, there are approximately 4,500 refugees. Many unaccompanied children from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a crisis that has fallen away from the World’s media...

I traveled to Serbia about a year ago, working alongside Paris-based Irish artist Bryan McCormack and Stratis Vouyoucas, working on the art/research project:‘Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow' that invites refugees and migrants to draw their past (Yesterday), present (Today) and future lives (Tomorrow).

Photo from inside Adasevci Camp. Serbia. Photo by Elizabeth Pennington

Adasevci Centre: 12th February 2018:

10:00AM: On the first day of our visit, on a cold February morning, we arrived at our first centre, Adasevci, close to the Serbian/Croatian border. I was tense, anticipating all I would see, all I would hear.

The camp, surrounded by the new addition of barbed-wire fencing, was next to a busy road surrounded by forest, in a small village. So small in fact that it wasn't shown on a map. It was, in the middle of nowhere and only increased the feelings of despair and isolation, shared amongst the majority of the camp population. On the doors, many MISSING posters, overlapping with the names, of children, fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins, siblings - all lost somewhere on the journey, wondering if someone was still looking, still caring, for them.

I have never forgotten that.

Yet, the shouts of the children playing, some inside the fence, others running alongside the road as cars drove past at high speed, brought me back to reality. Through the doors, up the stairs and into a small room filled with children no older than four years old, and their mothers - at first glance, you may have thought it was a parent/toddler class. Not a refugee centre in rural Serbia.

I remember saying, either aloud or to myself (I don't remember which):"they are all so young." I couldn't quite grasp the idea that these children had made, let alone survived the treacherous boat crossing in the Mediterranean, that has claimed so many thousands of lives to date.

It was after around 10 minutes of walking around the room, seemingly trying to process the scale of what I was seeing, and my failed attempts to speak Arabic with a two year old Iraqi girl who was drawing colourful squiggles and holding her paper up for approval, that a 25 year old Afghan mother, comes over to me, with the translator, holding her pieces of paper.

“She wants to show you her drawing” the translator tells me. As I looked at the paper, all I could see was red. Just red. I readied myself for what I might hear:

“Daesh (ISIS) were killing the children, butchering, slaughtering them as they played.” the mother explained. "They came to my house, dragged my young child out into the street and then they cut off their hands with a machete. I watched him as he bled to death."

The woman spoke in a somewhat calm tone - most likely numb from the trauma. The translator, a Serbian/Syrian woman, not much older than me, blinked away tears and took slow deep breaths, as she relayed the story. I had tried to take notes, but later, when I looked back down at my notepad, it was blank.

For months, I had tried to mentally prepared myself for the trip.... But I wasn't prepared for that.

It still haunts me.

Principovac Centre: 12th February 2018:

13:00PM: “Are you here to open the borders?” This was the first question I received from a group of Afghan and Pakistani women in Principovac Centre, just a few metres shy from the Croatian border. I was numb, having only just travelled from the Adasevci Centre about an hour or so before. Hearing that made my heart sink.

Principovac was a hospital for children who are mentally handicapped. Now, it is a centre for refugees. With strict rules and guidelines enforced by the Commissariat (the governing body for all the refugee centres in Serbia), there are fears that the centres will close, becoming more and more like detention centres, with few allowed to enter or leave until their papers are reviewed.

At the centre, I met 13-year-old "B," an aspiring artist from Harat, Afghanistan. She had been at the centre for approximately a year. “Art is what keeps me alive,” she told me. I could see both the raw determination and the pain from the last few years of her life, all that she has sacrificed in order to give herself the best opportunities for her future.

* "B" is now living in Zagreb, Croatia with her family, her brother is studying in Sweden. They still hope to be able to join him one day.

I also met a toddler with a beaming smile. She was around 18 months old and was born in the centre. Her mother brought her to the centre, left her and returned to collect her at the end of the day. Not because she didn't love her, far from it. She just had her own trauma to deal with. Though this meant that the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) present, practically became her family. When I met her, the smiling baby, had only just started to crawl.

What was perhaps most shocking to me, was that if a child is born in a refugee camp or centre, the child is stateless. They will barely have any rights, making the situation all the more painful to witness. As I walked around the room, watching as the refugees drew their memories, their lives today and their aspirations, one, in particular, caught my eye and needed no explanation.

A woman, also from Afghanistan, had drawn the memory of seeing the aftermath of a car-bomb in Kabul. "Half body. The leg is cut off” read the words beneath, as she told her story to me via a translator. I remember vividly seeing two young boys looking at the drawing as though it was an frequent event. Then I remembered, it was.

Refugee Drawing Title : : Yesterday & Today. By a 38 years old Afghan Woman. Currently living in Principovac Refugee Camp, Sid, Serbia.

Obrenovac Centre: 13th February 2018:

The next day, we travelled to Obrenovac Centre on the outskirts of Belgrade. It was a former army barracks, now a well-equipped space for refugees with gym facilities and a recreation room. The centre was entirely for single male refugees and unaccompanied male minors, bringing the total to around 900 refugees. It is the largest refugee centre in Serbia.

The individuals have classes in a variety of subjects: English, Serbian, Mathematics, Geography and Civil Rights. We were told that one member at the centre, began to cry when he was told about human rights. Something that he had never had or known about in his native country.

While at Obrenovac, I met a young man, 21 years old, again from Kabul. He explained to me how he hid in the forests in Bulgaria for four days, watched as people drowned on the crossing from Turkey. He said: “there was no difference between being beaten by police in Bulgaria and being beaten by the Taliban.”

I had no words.

"Children Should Be Children" - Artwork displayed in Obrenovac Refugee Centre, Belgrade, Serbia to campaign against the use of child soliders in warzones.

At night, I was restless, my mind racing, having nightmare after nightmare from the previous days spent at the centres. During the day, I was often either numb or in a kind of dazed state as I tried to process what I was seeing and hearing.

Psychosocial Innovation Network (PIN):

Later that day, we travelled back into Belgrade, to the Psychosocial Innovation Network (PIN), a centre for refugees providing psychological support and art therapy. I met three inspiring sisters from Kunduz, Northern Afghanistan. "M," who wants to continue with her university studies to study economics, "SP," who wants to be a best selling author and "SA" who dreams of being a pilot. Their bravery and strength continues to inspire me daily.

The refugee crisis in Serbia is intense with thousands simply waiting for answers, unsure of what the next day will bring. For us working on YTT in the country in 2018, it was harsh wake-up call and allowed the project to shaped and altered to include educational research and community cohesion programs.

If there is one thing that I have learned through the experience of working on "Yesterday-Tomorrow-Tomorrow" and travelling to the refugee centres, it is that we all have a voice that needs to be heard, no matter what nationality we are, our religion, the language we speak. We are all human.

*YTT has continued to work in the Balkans, establishing an academic link with the International University of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina and will begin workshops in the city in February 2019.

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