"We are the other of the other"
This phrase by José Saramago is the epigraph of one of my notebooks in this trip, words that dialogue with those of another Portuguese writer, Alexandra Lucas Coelho, also a journalist: "There is no us and them, the other is us. We are in our midst". In all senses. We are those refugees who did not even know where they were when the police left them at the train station in Szeged. "Where are we?" We are Robert on the Triplex Confinium, where this journey began, but we are also Orbán, we are the farmer that swears against the refugee who stole his tomatoes and we are that same refugee, we are the hostesses of the kocsma and their guests in the taverns of the Hungarian Lowlands, where the world is moving in slow motion, and we are József and Rigó among the sheep, we are Sharbat, Márk, Rita, Zoltán, Mohammed, Balázs, we are those railwaymen who wanted to put little Fatma and her brother Ahmed to sleep in the open air, and later we are also Rafiq when we get to Subotica, in northern Serbia, but now, still in Szeged, we are Péter. It is always urgent that we try to listen openly to all the "others", to better understand this moment, or to feel even more lost in this "history of the present" in which there is one more wall in our midst.
Only Péter was missing.
Péter Tóth was so kind as to say yes first time – he just needed to ask permission from his party's chief at the press office. At 32, he is the leader of Jobbik in Szeged, a political force that is regarded as far-right and, in turn, calls some of the other parties "liberal extremists".
At the last local elections in October 2014, Jobbik got just 3% of the votes, while it had obtained 20% in last year's general elections. On Hungary's monochromatic political map, Szeged is one of the country's few major cities that is not loyal to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Fideszdel. From Budapest the permission came quickly for the interview and Péter suggested the Szeged Étterem bar-restaurant in Széchenyi tér, a beautiful garden square, where Móni and me had dined by chance two days before. But there was a more practical geographical coincidence: Péter was invited to a wedding at 3 pm that very Saturday, right next door, in the municipality where he had lost the elections less than a year ago.
Everyone drinks coffee, I sip a beer, still caught in the koscme rhythm of the previous days. The first answer is already a surprise: Péter's vocabulary contains the word "refugee". While Gàbor Vona, leader of his political party, just like Orbán and his party, always speak of "illegal immigrants", he almost always chooses to say "refugees", perhaps because he looks at them in the face, just past the border, and not only through the filter of state television or some pro-government media outlet that, critics say, censor some images – for instance, scenes with the children, as they might arouse empathy and understanding in the audience. These are the details that the ear registered. But let us hear his own points:
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First. Péter agrees with the project of the border barrier, "but only if it is possible to strengthen human resources. This is why one of the proposals of Jobbik is to form an independent border force in order to implement effective control on incoming refugees". The word "control" occurs in each and every answer. "If the fence had already been built, the administration would perform today a more effective control of incoming refugees".
Second. "The refugees are in transit, as their main destinations are Germany, the Netherlands, and England". Even more than the Netherlands, Sweden is part of the favourite triangle for those seeking a second life. Péter did not call refugees "criminals" at any time, nor did he refer to their religion, if any, as many supporters of his party do, nor did he accuse them of wanting to steal the Hungarians' jobs or being potential terrorists – two arguments of pro-Orbán's wall rhetoric. They are in transit.
Third, and the argument that Péter supports most insistently for the entire half-hour conversation: the medical examination. "I am not against refugees, but it is necessary to examine them. I'm asking you, have you been by the banks of the Tisza? They leave many clothes there. They cross several countries and come from war zones and from another climate, therefore they can carry diseases. It is therefore essential that these people are identified and undergo a medical examination. For example, the vaccination rate for hepatitis A in Syria dropped from 91% to 68% since 2012, which means that there are children who have not been vaccinated for three or four years. This can only be addressed with an examination".
The leader of Jobbik in Szeged emphasises precisely that "this is not only the most important issue for us in Hungary, but for all of Europe". Péter Toth also points out that many of these people "have already had this examination in countries previously crossed, but they destroy the papers themselves. Then it becomes impossible to know whether they have already been visited. The government has not disclosed any information about particular diseases detected in the latter half of the year, but probably the Szent László Hospital will have data about it. I would not be surprised if they had already identified tropical diseases". (Dear Péter, allow me a note two months after our meeting: to this day, there has been not a single case of serious disease, and it seems unlikely that Orbán would be hiding information that would be so advantageous for his propaganda strategy).
Fourth. "I do not like comparisons with past history. Decisions like this are taken when a country wants to defend its borders. A country can defend its borders the way it wishes to do so. For example, it happens in the West Bank, where Israel built a wall. Talking about a ghettoisation of Hungary, like Robert Molnár did, the mayor of Kübhekáza, Hungarian town near the triple border with Serbia and Romania, is a liberal-extremist interpretation of what is going on". "My father in law [sitting beside Péter] is adding that this is not so unusual, because even on the border between the United States and Mexico there is a wall".
In the corner of my eye I glimpse some wedding guests already regrouping to the entrance of the municipality, next to the tables outside the Szeged Étterem. We reassure Péter: we are almost done. Kindly, he tells us that we still have some time. I am a few years older than him, but not enough to put us in different generations. I try to keep the thread of the conversation in the territories of the past, with a more personal angle. I tell him that I remember my parents celebrated, in front of the television, when the wall fell in Berlin on November 9th, 1989 and – as it can do no harm to repeat – that the Iron Curtain began to fall months before, in summer, precisely at the border between Hungary and Austria. You were 6, do you remember, Péter?
"I remember the time of the Iron Curtain because my grandmother lived and still lives in Szentgotthárd, a town close to the wall. But at that time it was really forbidden to cross the border. That's not the case now: people can cross the border, but only in a controlled manner. We have nothing against refugees, neither I, nor the inhabitants of Szeged. But public health is a priority. If the inhabitants of Szeged are angry with someone, it's with the local gypsies that collect clothes for refugees and sell them at the market.
The head of the police team has already started checking the gypsies, but also the taxi drivers who, for a lot of money – sometimes a thousand Euro each – drive refugees to Budapest or Vienna. It is our responsibility to bring order to the domestic situation of traffickers and lomizós [Hungarian word for those who live on trafficking any type of used goods, sometimes found on the street or in the garbage]. The inhabitants of Szeged are more angry at gypsies than refugees. I believe that we are in solidarity with refugees. But their arrival and transit must take place in a controlled manner".
Just at the end of the interview, last minute, as we were still recording, the conversation started to "gypsy around" a bit, as if to leave us with the certainty that we actually were right in front of a member of Jobbik. As I confess to Moni Bense, my travelling companion and linguistic bridge between me and Péter, I expected a different register for this conversation. Maybe it was a stereotype of mine, but I probably expected to hear arguments copied word-by-word from Vona's, the leader of the party that at the national level obtained many more votes than that of the Szeged colleague.
Gábor Vona's anti-refugee rhetoric eliminates the very concept of refugees. He claims, like Viktor Orbán – perhaps they seem more and more each other's ideological alter-ego, even though they are political opponents – that an "illegal migrant" is a "criminal" and therefore must go to prison instead of a refugee camp. Moreover, Vona asks for the immediate suspension of all European legislation on refugees and asylum seekers.
A new word appears in the dictionary of my journey. To "gypsy around" – cigányozik. It is a word used in spoken Hungarian when someone wants to attack the Roma ethnic minority, which had been, up to the migrant boom, the main target of other-phobic speech. Hungarian nationalist, exclusionary rhetoric has dominated the country's political chessboard for a long time. Now Orbán is attacking Jobbik with the wall, in a dangerous move that some call the "Jobbik-isation of Fidesz". Refugees are the casualties in this internal political struggle.
I became seduced by the chess metaphor when, last night, I was watching a game between veterans, during a brief visit to the Szeged thermal baths. At the centre of the main pool, a stone table-board and two stone chairs take the noble place. A man on each side, silence between them, a slow game. Around them, whispered conversations that I do not understand – words that sound as light as the vapours surrounding us. The environment is totally out of the script for this journey full of people and words, and a few landscapes crossed by barbed wire. All the times I have been to Hungary, I never had the chance to play chess in a thermal bath. What about those tokens? Will they float or sink if they fall from that island-table in the middle of the pool? Either they all float or they all sink, they must all be made of the same material. If Pawns sink, so do Kings, Queens, and Bishops. Even faster, as they are larger, heavier pieces. Europe, pay attention. Move your King out of check.
On the tables of the Szeged Étterem, the paper tablecloths feature various pictures of the bar-restaurant. I spot an old map of Greater Hungary in the image of one of the rooms. In that drawing, over a hundred years old, the frontier where Orbán's wall is growing today, was still Hungary. The entire Tisza used to fit in these topographic curves, source and mouth. Today, the river is born in Ukraine and flows in Serbia, into the Danube. Back on the street, I borrow a smartphone from João Henriques, professor of literature, translator, and poet, a local friend who will be our valuable driver for the next fourteen kilometres – the distance between Szeged and Röszke.
He drives, I check Google Maps (2015, pre-wall version) and I see that this border village, like Térvar, has houses with courtyards kissing Serbia. João loves the Lowlands, he lived here many years, for a while in Vojvodina too, and goes back to the peace of the plain whenever he can. "How beautiful", he repeats every time we cross sunflowers in bloom. "It's the last time, João, that you see this landscape like this, virgin, without barbed wire".
From this privileged position, it is no surprise that Röszke has turned into one of the main entry points chosen by traffickers, alongside nearby Mórahalom and Ásotthalom. The authorities established here, on the side of the highway that links Belgrade to Budapest, a camp for the temporary identification of migrants and refugees, close to the border. The day before, the police had used tear gas to dampen the revolt: "UN! UN! We want peace!", people shouted. Some protesters are probably still in the camp when we get to the entrance. We can see that beyond the fence there are beds mounted in several military tents. We identify ourselves and ask the guard if it is possible to go in and talk with the people there. "No one can enter, let alone journalists".
Hungary, in a miniature
MiniHungary. Here journalists are sure allowed – even welcome, to attract more tourists. I see the sign and regret not having the time to stop. It is already late and we would like to arrive early in the evening to the makeshift refugee camp in Subotica, Serbia, but the coincidence of this MiniHungary – a park featuring miniatures of the country's main monuments and tourist attractions – just here, in Mórahalom, next to the road travelled by thousands of refugees, makes me curious to know if any of them tried to get in to visit the country, summarised here in less than a square kilometre. I want to believe that, alongside many Hungarian children who come here on a field trip (see the pictures on the internet), also Fatma and Ahmed, two Kurdish children we met yesterday, might make new friends and learn a bit more about these lands, get to know something more than the police or the train station in Szeged, where we hardly saw them cry, but also hardly saw them play.
When I get to Mórahalom, I promise to myself: just like at the entrance of the camp in Röszke, I must knock, identify myself, and ask those in charge of this miniature theme park if any of the many refugee families who spent time here tried to give their children a moment of distraction in this "little Hungary". I also think that, even if it could offend Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghan visitors, the theme park could anticipate the pedagogy of the future by daring to include a miniature of the wall, the latest "monument" built in country, so that the children "who are not born yet" can grow up with the memory of what is happening.
On the map, like a river of iron that follows the winding course of history, the new wall will be built in Kübhekáza on the Triplex Confinium and end at the waters of an arm of the Danube, on another triple bifurcation, somewhere in a natural park divided between Hungary, Serbia, and Croatia. But chronologically, the creation of a wall is not necessarily linear. The first metres will be built here, where farm fields are cut by dense forests, in a very favourable area for those who need to cross borders in secret.
The first metal pillar of the so-called "Temporary Frontier Security Fence" was placed here on the morning of July 13th, 2015. Here, four kilometres from the city of Mórahalom, 6,000 inhabitants. The mayor is Zoltán Nógrádi, Fidesz.
Next stop, nearby Àsotthalom, 4,000 people. The mayor is László Toroczkai, leader of HVIM, Youth Movement of the 64 counties, a small radical party of extreme right. 64 was the number of counties in Hungary before the Treaty of Trianon, at the end of the First War, the same number of counties in that map of "Greater Hungary".
"They are weird, because they have darker skin", says, bustling, the owner of one of the local koscma, a lady in her fifties. We had not heard anything like that yet. We pass by a local minimarket. The girl behind the counter belongs to a different generation, early twenties. "The situation gets worse and worse because there are more and more of them. People are more and more angry. There are no jobs, people here in Hungary have no money, no access to public healthcare and they come and get everything for free. We are tired of waiting for this to end". But has there been some serious problem with "immigrants", we ask. "No, nothing happened. A couple of episodes, nothing serious. But the town already feels uncomfortable". Do you know where they come from? I don't. But I do not like them because they have dark faces. And the last ones that arrived are even darker".
Road. Kelebia. Hungary. Border. Serbia. Kelebija. Subotica. Abandoned brick factory. Rubbish and men. Face to face:
“Welcome!” - says the first refugee who sees us coming.
“Hello!” - A second stands up and goes to call the eldest of the group, who arrives right away through the bushes.
“Welcome! Sorry, we have no chairs, but sit down, please” and those who were sitting on the ground get up to make space for us. They give us their best seats, in turn we give them water, cookies, dried fruit, toilet paper, towels, whatever we came up with bringing. We remain standing.
“Did your government send this?”
“No, we brought it ourselves.”
“As-salamu alaykum!” - says another, putting his hand over his heart. Inshallah - thanks us another, hand raised to the sky, while from behind another bush two other refugees appear from nowhere.
“Hello, welcome!” - they greet us.
“Is everything fine, as far as possible?” - we ask.
“We have to live, we have to dream” - one answers.
“What's your name?” - asks the other one.
“André. And you?”
“Friend, yes” I smile in response.
“Rafiq means ‘friend’” – explains his companion, in a much more sophisticated English than Rafiq's.
“Women, women?” - interrupts Moni, showing a pack of sanitary napkins.
Rafiq and two of his companions lead us to another group where there are four veiled women and a little girl with her head uncovered. The refugees are scattered in this huge, self-managed makeshift camp; sometimes in small groups, sometimes in greater numbers, almost a hundred, often around a bonfire, a couple of tents, sleeping everywhere, anywhere.
Together, they are hundreds of potential clients for traffickers, who attack at dusk like mosquitoes. On the road that runs along the entrance to the camp, a brand new BMW, tinted windows, stops for a few seconds. A refugee gets out and immediately heads to the camp, trying to go unnoticed – he is probably an "ambassador" of traffickers, coming to negotiate or sell "tickets" to the other side of the border. The car starts at high speed.
When you reach the top of the ramp, next to the first barracks of the former brick factory, there is a well of undrinkable water. This place functions as a sort of informal checkpoint. Since we have not found any family with babies, we leave two bags with diapers there. The "jungle" of Subotica, as it has already been called in reference to the "jungle" of Calais, is the largest waiting room before the Hungarian border. It is the place that most hurt us throughout the journey, the one that left the most bitter taste. Next to the camp, on the other side of one of the rail lines that passes along its borders, there is the town's dump, nursery of mosquitoes. Among the decay, and several hundred people waiting to continue their journey, I see a train passing north. If they could get on it, here, now, they would get to their dream destination in a heartbeat, to start a new life. On this line, but southward, used to pass the Orient Express.
Moni and Szabi, now the third member of the team, have gone on to deliver more water and bags of cookies and dried fruit, which they are pulling out of the car. Meanwhile, I approach one of the smaller groups and offer a 5-litre bottle. It is gone in less than a minute. Behind those bushes, I'll find another group, perhaps the biggest in the camp. Quickly, I find myself surrounded by about 50 grown-ups and teenagers:
“You should be the one to distribute the things that you brought us” – they say.
“But we do not have water and cookies for so many people, sorry” – I reply. “You know better who needs help the most” – I try to argue.
“You choose!” - insists another one, talking to me in English and in Arabic to his companions. There is some tension.
“First, those who are doing Ramadan, they are the weakest!” - says the one who speaks better English, irritated.
Then, like a guardian angel, Rafiq reappears. The situation is soon back to friendly. He tries to share his story with me, even in his broken English.
“Afghanistan. No school, no work.”
“How many days have you been here?”
“How old are you?” - he can only answer by writing a number on the ground. "18".
“And when did you start your journey?”
“Three months ago.”
“Through which countries did you go?” - he does not understand, until I start drawing a map on the ground, with a wooden stick.
“Afghanistan. Iran. Turkey. Bulgaria.”
“And now Serbia” – I conclude. Family?
“No. No father, no mother.”
“Bang bang! Taliban.”
Without father, without mother, without work or school, now without a passport, Rafiq is another of these human beings that got on the road because they have nothing to lose and only Europe to gain. He accompanies us when we leave the camp at nightfall. He does not know when he will cross the border yet, maybe today, maybe tomorrow. He hugs me, then he joins his hands on his heart, in gratitude. I do the same. It is the last image I have left of him, the friend named "friend": "Names have power".
In Hungary, when you say "köszi szépen", thank you very much, it is possible for the person to answer "szívesen", which means "from the heart", as an alternative to "you are welcome". This is how I replied to Rafiq, but in the language of gestures.
“How do you say rafiq in Hungarian, Péter Toth?”