13 November 2016

Wrong side of the tracks

Every morning, the slightly dilapidated Ivo Andric train leaves Belgrade and trundles along to Budapest, eventually arriving eight and a half hours later. It's a bargain at €15, even if the four-carriage train has seen better days. Belgrade's main railway also has seen better days: as there are plans to move it to another part of the city, it's looking distinctly unloved at the moment. But there's a little cafĂ© at the station that makes a halfway decent cup of Turkish coffee, which is what you need when you're going to be deprived of a restaurant car for nearly nine hours.

I had noticed a disjointed group of men hanging around the station, at times getting together, at other times splitting up. They looked as jumpy as the caffeine in my coffee. They didn't look any more relaxed when they boarded the train, again making an effort to seat themselves in separate clusters. Occasionally one would make an anxious, terse phone call. Another would scoot to the toilet every 15 minutes or so.

When I went to use the loo, I saw immediately that the men weren't suffering from weak bladders. A somewhat battered Samsung phone was charging, and obviously the men were just making certain that no one was running off with it. I wasn't sure where the men were from, but I had an inkling they were from Afghanistan – just eight or so of the countless people trying to get from Serbia to a European Union country, specifically Hungary.

Sure enough, at Subotica, the last Serbian city before the border, all of the men got off the train and scattered at once. Then began the lengthy two-part visit from both sets of border police, first the Serbs who were doing a thorough search of all the train. We then crept over the border into no-man's-land, where the Hungarian border police came on board. If I thought the Serbs were being thorough, they had nothing over the Hungarians who were checking every nook and cranny, shining torches into places I hadn't spotted.

As we crossed into Hungary, we passed the fence that the Hungarian government hastily put up to stop the flow of refugees. I took one look at the tall, spiky mass of metal and barbed wire and my heart sank for anyone who tried to get past that. The fence was briefly opened to let the train through before it was abruptly shut. Where were those men, I wondered?

They certainly weren't on the train. When I next went to the loo, I had to duck to avoid having my head smacked by the dangling ceiling that the border police opened to check no one was hiding within. I looked into the forest of insulation and tubes above me and thought that maybe a chihuahua could just about fit in there. I don't think even the most desperate refugee could contort his body to squeeze into that minuscule space.

This happens every day, on every train that goes between both countries. I wish I knew how many make it across that steel barrier between despair and hope.