Bea and Lucy's Story – Berkasavo, Serbia, November 2015
Bea and I wanted to update you all on our unimaginable trip to the Balkans to try and help refugees on their journey to Western Europe and how your generous donations were spent.
After arriving at a volunteer HQ in Slovenia on Sunday evening, we found that the situation there had calmed down for the meantime and there was a greater need for help in Serbia. We drove through Slovenia and Croatia arriving in the Serbian town of Berkasavo on Monday morning. In Berkasavo, we found a no man's land between Serbia and Croatia where thousands of refugees arrived from a nearby camp by the coachload throughout the day and all through the night and had to walk 2km up a hill with tiny children and all their worldly belongings to be counted, registered and transferred by coach into Croatia. By night the temperature dropped below zero and the walk in the pitch black was yet another exhausting ordeal in a journey that, for most of the refugees, started at least three months ago. At the top of the hill was only an unsheltered field where they had to bed down for the night or stand in a queue to register.
There we met an amazing and indefatigable team from the UK, Sweden, U.S. and Canada who we had met through the various facebook groups where volunteer efforts are coordinated. These are the most inspirational and unflappable people we have ever met - working for months on end, taking matters into their own hands and saving lives and making a difference. It was an honour to work with them even for the short time that we were there. They had pooled their resources and hired an enormous lorry which they filled with food to make food parcels and warm clothes from Belgrade were they have set up their base camp. They call it "winterification". Thanks to your amazing generosity, we raised £4,000 to put towards this.
We all worked around the clock on Monday handing out these supplies to the 10,000 refugees that arrived at the border in 24 hours, the majority of which were families from Syria, including pregnant women, tiny babies and young children. We put glow sticks round the wrists of the kids so their parents could see them on the dark 2km walk to the border. Unbelievably in these sub-zero temperatures, many of them did not have gloves, hats, coats or even shoes. We put fluffy winter boots on a toddler whose legs were so frozen he could not move them to put the boots on and fed bananas and sugary snacks to shellshocked little ones who were shaking from the cold, lack of sugar and fear of these new unknown and invisibly dark surroundings. We triaged the children for hypothermia and hypoglycaemia for referral to one of our team (a 25 year old pharmacist called Ayren and the only medic to be seen that night). We met a family with two severely disabled children that night. The boy, Iman, had cerebral palsy and was having a panic attack. His mother told us that he loved music, especially Adele and Ayren calmed him by playing "Hello" and soothing him so that he could get on our team's minibus which was taking vulnerable people to the top of the hill. His smile when we saw him again a few hours later in the morning and he recognised Ayren was magical.
At 7am, after the last of the refugees had made their way up the hill, we heard that the Croatian government had decided, without any prior warning, to close the border. Although this was a good decision as it meant that refugees could bypass the horrendous no-mans land at Berkasavo, the1,500 refugees who were still in the field were left stranded. They were told that they had no choice, that frosty morning, but to walk back down the hill and a further 6km further to a nearby train station called Sid (appropriately pronounced "shit") where trains would run "at some point that day". Some of the refugees refused to budge and tried to stampede the border. The Croatian police stood behind the barrier on the border in riot gear, carrying guns. Soon more refugees joined the stampede as the Serbian Chief of Police blockaded the road to Sid, forcing the refugees back up the hill so they were a Croatian problem and not a Serbian one. Fearing a crush, the volunteers formed a human barrier, knowing that the refugees would not rush against the people in the high-vis yellow vests who have helped them throughout their journey. We persuaded them to sit so that pressure did not build up and create a disaster. We learnt later that a few weeks ago, refugees died in a similar stampede. A few people from the UNHCR stood by watching the volunteers' efforts and, in what we soon saw was a common theme, did nothing to help. The Red Cross were nowhere to be seen. The volunteers (our team and an amazing team of Czechs and Slovaks who had set up an amazing infrastructure to give out tea and warm clothes at the border) were the only people doing anything in this scary and dangerous situation. The only NGO that we saw that was present and doing as much as they could, with limited resources, was Medicins San Frontieres - who are a wonderful, life-saving organisation. Eventually, the Croatian police let people through and Berkasavo cleared.
The next evening we arrived at Sid railway station with fresh supplies from Belgrade. 1,000 refugees had been waiting on buses, sleeping on top of each other for over twelve hours. We were just thankful that they were not freezing cold and gave them food parcels as they eventually boarded the train. During the night, thousands more refugees arrived to wait for the train and were fed by our amazing team. They were no other volunteers there that night so, had the team not been there, the refugees would have had no food for this time. The UN paraded around claiming to be "seeing what was going on" and "coordinating" but did nothing. One woman from the UN even asked us for some food parcels for them.
Despite being heart breaking for the atrocious lack of aid from any governments and NGOs, we witnessed an amazing capacity for human kindness not only from the volunteers but also from the refugees themselves who were full of humour and compassion for anyone more in need than themselves. We would be proud to have these people in our country.
If you have any time, we would urge you to go and join the wonderful teams of volunteers - to see what is happening and, even if just for a short amount of time, help some people who are being failed by everyone else and who really need it. And please do come to our fundraiser