“The border radar is installed there”, indicates József Szécsi, 62 years old, his whole life spent as a farmer and shepherd at Térvár, where we have just arrived. But he is more interested in another radar - his small, black dog Rigó's sense of smell – a dog with a name, body and manner like a blackbird's.
Leaning on the rake he was using to gather hay, this seaman of Pannonia (as the Serbian musician Djordje Balašević calls the farmers in Vojvodina), just gives a captain's shout and Rigó flies off to round up 23 sheep. When József's herd is scattered across this green plain it reminds me of the Atlantic expression used to describe the sea full of tiny waves, balls of froth blown along the surface by the wind. Then (in an Italian simile) the sea is said to look like sheep.
Tér in Hungarian means square, which in Serbian would be Trg, while Vár comes from Város/Varos in both languages meaning castle, fortification or settlement. On the “bilingual mouth” of whatever frontier, Tévár could have remained on one lip as much as another, but it remained on the side of the Hungarian Lowland: 30 houses, some less than 100 metres from the border line, 90 people, perhaps the calmest place we passsed through on the whole journey, an island of peace. From the doors of these houses, the yellowish green sea, white in winter, stretches north, dotted with Rigó and József's sheep. To the south, however, the horizon will be cut. “From the window of my house I'll see the wall”, says the shepherd, and the sheep and other animals will no longer be able to graze that land. “Once, last winter, even though it's forbidden, I inadvertently crossed the line after the better grass”. But apart from that, József continues, the new construction “won't change our life or resolve anything because they (the migrants) will go around, go by the river”, and with his rake he points to the Tisza, one of the wide water courses from the Lowland to wrap around Vojvodina.
The day we left Térvar, 781 migrants were caught by the Hungarian police, right by the river, about five kilometres from here. All along the border where Orbán is building the wall-fence, every night as I write this journal, roughly a thousand new migrants cross from Serbia into Hungary, towards the European Union, and the wave shows no sign of diminishing. At this rate, in round figures, 30,000 people a month, in just two months the migrant boom of the 2015 spring-summer has exceeded the figures for the whole of 2014 when, according to the IOM, approximately 50,000 people crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border. “The police get them”, concludes József, “but they don't want to stay in Hungary, they want to go to London, Germany or France. We're used to seeing refugees go through here. I've even seen a family with a small baby. Poor things, they're fleeing from a war in their own country. They come from Afghanistan”.
Afghanistan. Back to the future. At this precise moment in our history of the present at Tévár, the village due to have a new wall in its back yard, we had not yet met Sharbat, the 12 year-old Afghan girl who'd escaped from Kabul with her mother. She might have crossed the border here yesterday, or in another place, depending where the traffickers, like rabid dogs biting at their pockets, had directed her particular herd of refugees. We only met her later, in the evening, in that epicentre of this journey, the railway station of Szeged.
Still a few hours before the 4.36 train leaves for Budapest:
“What's your name?”
“Who are you?” - she answers, secure but diffident, in perfect English. - “Are you the police?”
“No, I'm a journalist.”
“How can I know if I can believe you?”
“You can trust him.” - Márk Kékesi tries to confirm. He's a 38 year old sociologist, an inhabitant of Szeged, one of the few volunteers who stays there most of the night (their group would grow in following weeks) to help those waiting for the train, waiting for Europe. Despite his backing, she does not reveal her identity.
“What are you writing in that notebook?”
“ Your story, and that of those travelling with you.” - I answer
“In all the countries we've been through, everyone tries to take advantage of our situation. Not only the dealers. They all try to steal from us, change money at the wrong rate, over-charge for taxis…”
“That's why I'm here” – interrupts Mark – “because I want to help you and I'm ashamed of how my fellow countrymen take advantage of your situation.”
“How come you speak English so well?” I try to overcome her fears.
“I was a teacher of English” – she says proudly.
“I've also taught English” – rejoins Mark – “we're colleagues!”
Finally Sharbat gives us the biggest smile in the world (though she doesn't tell us her name):
“I spent the nights reading till two in the morning. Then I taught English to the other children.[she must have been 9 or 10]. My mother and I left Afghanistan nearly two years ago. We worked for a year in Turkey to save up for the rest of the journey. Now we're here, on our way to Germany. I want to be a doctor. I have a dream... I just want a great future!”
“You will!” - and the biggest smile in the world is now Márk's – “You're a smart girl, you will make it!”
The story seems to repeat itself. Another Sharbat – at 12 years old, she was photographed by Steve McCurry for one of the best known photos of all time, on the cover of the National Geographic that became a collectors' item, the one the whole world saw exactly 30 years ago, in June 1985. For a long time her name was not known. She was just “the Afghan girl”, pupil in a school in a refugees' camp, known only for her green eyes. In 2002 Cathy Newman removed the veil from the name of this famous Afghan girl – her name was Sharbat Gula. She told her story and Steve McCurry met and photographed her again. “Names have power”, wrote Cathy then, but her text took us back to that photo of a girl with sea-green eyes: “her eyes challenge ours. They unsettle us and we can't take our eyes from her”.
In February of this year we heard that Sharbat Gula, now surnamed Bibi on the false Pakistan identity card in her possession, is still one of the 3 million war refugees living in Pakistan, originating from nearby Afghanistan. An eternal refugee. Between her and our Sharbat (whose real name we will probably never know), three decades have passed but the war is still more or less the same. Sharbat Gula has green eyes, Sharbat at Szeged has light brown eyes – no less beautiful. But her eyes are not the thing to entrance us – it's her voice. Just as the gaze of the first Sharbat filled McCurry's lense, the strength of this Sharbat's voice in expressing her dream deserved to be immortalized in Márk Kékesi's recording which he made as a correspondent for Radio Mi, a local radio station. (Mi means “we” in Hungarian and Serbo-Croat.) And we can't forget the voice of this 12 year old woman: “I have a dream... I just want a great future!”
Back in the present, we pat goodbye to Rigó, the sheepdog Sharbat would have enjoyed playing with, leaving the border and Térvár behind – not before being identified for the first time by the Hungarian police and also encountering two uniformed Austrian police in a civilian car with Viennese number plates. When our bicycles have become nothing but ants in the rear view mirror of the authorities, we come into Tiszasziget.
If Térvár is an islet, Tiszasziget is one of the main islands, perhaps the one to compete with Kübekháza for the title pearl of Pannonia. On the land held in common, between house and street, the gardens, full of roses of all colours, are like coral on an ancient sea floor – literally the floor, because the lowest point in all the Lowland, and all of Hungary, is here.
“If you come to Hungary you can't steal Hungarians' jobs! National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism.” At the entrance to Szeged, after pedalling fifteen kilometres from Tiszasziget, we come across the first gigantic billboard of the government proposing a vast opinion poll. It's only written in Hungarian, so highly improbable that any refugee on his/her way to rich northern Europe will understand the message directed at him/her. It's not only Greece carrying out consultations which are decisive for the history of Europe in this spring-summer of 2015.
Between May and June all Hungarian citizens received a letter at home from the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, containing about a dozen questions. The reply could be sent in at no cost, by post or internet, voluntarily. Some answers were not too orthodox, like those of the anti-anti-immigration campaign promoted by Vastagbőr (a blog whose name could be translated as “Tough Skin”), and by Magyar Kétfarkú Kutya Párt (the Hungarian Party of the Dog with Two Tails), which together collected individual donations to the tune of 33 million forints (around €100,000), which were turned into 80 billboards, in the same style, but with a different content criticising the government slogans.
There are billboards in English saying, “Excuse us for our Prime Minister!” and “Please excuse us if our country is empty, we've gone to England”, alluding to immigration of Hungarian citizens into one of the coutries preferred by the refugees; there are still other counter-messages, including the hyperbollically ironic “We hate everyone!” or another evoking the voice of Stefan I (a figure idolized by Orbán, when convenient), with the phrase of the Saint-King in large letters, “a country with only one language and one custom is a weak country, destined to failure.”
“These protests,” like the anti-anti-immigration campaign or other more isolated and spontaneous ones “are full of feeling, but desperate gestures, coming from inner feelings, but caused by pure desperation: unfortunately, I don't think there's any hope”, the director of the Cultural Centre Grand Café, Zoltan Lengyel, told us when we met him at the cinema Casablanca in the centre of
Szeged. This teacher of literature feels that the civil disobedience practised by some activists is their way to continue to breathe every day, in the midst of this “desperation of the present.”
But before we explore Zoltan's ideas (and music), our radar picks up Rita Szlavkovits, a freelance journalist we met in a café near the Cathedral Square where rehearsals were going on for the forthcoming Opera Festival, one of the most important in Hungary.
As she put her black bag on the table, I was struck by a white mark which, while we talked, she tried to clean off with her nail, when her hand was not holding a cigarette. It was proof that, some days previously, as well as the guise of a reporter, Rita had wanted to wear the one of a citizen: with like-minded friends she had painted over in white some of the writing on the gigantic posters in town about the national questionnaire on immigration and terrorism. It's like this, only like this, that she decided to answer Orbán's twelve questions.
Then we asked Rita the eternal question: “Does history repeat itself?” “I'm afraid. People thought certain things could not happen in Europe again, but they are happening. I've lost faith in Europe seeing the reactions to this crisis, and that's why I'm afraid. Europe has taken decisions of military logistics, like the proposal to bomb empty boats [off the Libyan coast], meaning you don't kill the people, but you kill the means that could save them”. Another puff on her cigarette. “I'm also afraid because here in Hungary the government can change any law at any time, and this gives a feeling of insecurity. For example some groups have been created as “guardians of the countryside”, for rural areas, which are not police but they can carry weapons and can legally identify some people. If there is a law which permits them to be formed and gives them the power to use a weapon, it's clear it's scary”.
The operatic music in the background adds drama to what we are hearing. Seeming indifferent to the music, Rita continues her own aria on the actual situation, looking at another wall beginning to be built, the wall of people's fear of each other: “A few days ago my daughter saw an African girl on the bus who was so beautiful that she looked at her a lot. Feeling looked at, the African girl got angry and got off the bus at the next stop.”
And there's also the wall created by the unknown: “In Hungary no-one knows what's really happening in the Middle East and in the countries these people come from.” In the winter of 2015 the Balkan route was taken mostly by Kosovars, even if there was beginning to be a growing wave from the Middle East, then in the spring and summer this phenomenon has been consolidated, and since then most of the migrants, over three quarters, are refugees from wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “If they began bombarding my town, I too would take my children and leave,” sighs the journalist.
With and without memory
Rita, little over half a century in age, has a young smile which emits tough-skinned words. Her smile, though, shows fear, because one who has a memory has fear. She can't talk to her daughter with that belief in the future as the poet Vasko Popa from Vojvodina, Yugoslavia did to her, “forgetful children, without original sin”, the peace generation born after the Second World War, like this veteran reporter. Popa sang of the liberty of that new generation, supported by the shouts of “Never Again!”, and he sang with such poetic fervour that the writer Claudio Magris, describing these lands in his bookDanubio, warned us “that absence of memory and awareness of moral conflict makes those children resemble a crowd beyond good and evil, amorphous and colourless, with neither sin nor happiness, innocent and vacuous”, and, paradoxically, more exposed to the repetition of history.
But Rita is not an offspring without a memory: her grandmother was a Hungarian jew, her grandfather a Dalmatian fisherman who deserted military service. In 1944 – Rita's father was still a child – her grandparents lost everything in the bombardment of Novi Sad, which they left on foot, all their belongings in a suitcase, and came to Hungary (her surname, Szlavkovits, already implied an immigrant family). In 1954 the journalist's father was expelled from University and was imprisoned for six months as a political prisoner. On regaining his pseudo liberty he was forced to work as a miner. Every day he had to report to the police. However he fell in love with a policeman's daughter, Rita's mother. In 1956, after the failed October revolution, the young couple fled to Germany, going to live in a refugee camp.
When Rita was born, in 1963, the family went back to Hungary, thanks to an amnesty. But before the end of “goulash communism”, Rita too packed her bags and left. From 1987 to 1989 she taught Russian far from the Iron Curtain, in Oregon, where she had gone with her husband, recipient of a grant for scientific research. They came home at the height of the “People's Autumn”, hoping for a
new beginning, in the period when “the end of History” was announced too readily. The family adventures Rita will one day be able to tell her grandchildren, continued, when ten years later they lost their last link with Novi Sad in Serbian Vojvodina. Her father still had a fish shop, destroyed by NATO bombardments as it was near one of the bridges they attacked. Known as “collateral damage”.
No, Vasko Popa, history doesn't let Rita forget.
Which are the twelve questions of the National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism Rita didn't answer?
- How important is the spread of terrorism, given that your life is also involved?
- Do you think Hungary could become a terrorist target in the near future?
- Do you agree that incorrect immigration policies can lead to the spread of terrorism?
- Did you know migrants for economic reasons illegally cross the borders and their numbers have recently increased by twenty times?
- Do you agree with the idea that economic migrants put Hungarians' jobs and social security at risk?
- Do you think the immigration and terrorism policies of Brussels have failed?
- Would you support the government in its effort to introduce more severe regulations on immigration, at variance with those of Brussels?
- Would you support a new law allowing the government to put immigrants entering the country illegally into internment camps?
- Do you think immigrants entering the country illegally should be sent back to their country of origin as quickly as possible?
- Do you agree that economic migrants who stay in Hungary should work to cover the cost of their keep?
- Do you agree that the best way to combat immigration is to give economic assistance to the immigrants' countries of origin?
- Do you agree with the government that, instead of giving funds for immigration, Hungarian families and children not yet born should be assisted?”
Zoltan Lengyel didn't answer these twelve questions of his Prime Minister either. The director of the Cultural Centre Grand Café had just taken his doctorate in Comparative Literature with a study of the concept of faith in Walter Benjamin, “also a refugee in his time”. This young intellectual, teacher of literature, talks in a sombre tone. One hears little future in his words, even if he says decidedly he is not “a pessimist, but things are how they are and they are taking advantage of the situation”. “This government is draining us, working on people's most basic instincts. In general, people don't have an historic awareness, they just worry about getting their daily bread. That's why this propaganda works,” Zoltan states sententiously, “we are here drinking a beer and at the next table there's a group of rom. I bet that in less than a year this may no longer be possible”.
We are in the bar of the cinema Casablanca where a group of people has just entered to watch Saul fia (Saul's son), a story set in Auschwitz, directed by the Hungarian László Nemes, which won the Award of the Grand Jury at Cannes some months ago. The main character of the film is a Hungarian jew called Saul Ausländer, his surname meaning, in German, the foreigner, the stranger – from another land, the other one.
Zoltan Lengyel is also a singer, player of many instrumentsand who writes the words for the experimental rock group of Szeged, the Médeia Fiai (children of Medea) who play music he says is not very socio-politically committed – a spiral of dark sounds it seems to me at first hearing. It transports me like a kind of soundtrack in a loop to the expected unhappy end, on both an individual and social level.
Infidel 88, the group's latest album, which is probably part of the playlist of Radio Mi, was recorded last winter, across the border at Subotica, in Serbia. Going home by car after the recording, Zoltan took the road taken by many refugees on foot. “They walked, with children, along the side of the motorway, without a light. Such a sad image, apocalyptic”. Just as Walter Benjamin says he is tired of bombardments, in one of the songs written and sung by Zoltan, these refugees are tired of the explosions of today's wars, and they undertake, exactly like Benjamin, a walk which, many times, is not just a walk. So, like the philosopher-refugee who committed suicide in 1940, at the border of the Mediterranean Pyrenees, they cross Europe on foot because, as George Steiner, another refugee, later philosopher, wrote “Europe has been, is walked”. In the minds of those who walk towards and across Europe, Europe walks, without a path, lost in its own GPS. Somewhere between Kabul and Porbou, Damascus and Szeged.