BELGRADE — The derelict train warehouses still stand, tucked behind Belgrade's main rail station. The complex has imposed itself on this part of town since 1882. But soon, it will all be gone. Swept away with the relics of the past and replaced with the glitzy $3.5 billion dollar Belgrade Waterfront development. The stylised pictures of the precinct are a far cry from what this area is now. The buildings are grimy and ringed by mountains of trash. But the blue grey smoke pouring from broken windows, is enough to show that though the structures are unwanted, they are far from abandoned.
The old depot is now Belgrade's unofficial refugee camp and the smell of toxic smoke at its doors is a vapid, poisonous warning of what's inside. Hundreds of mostly Afghan refugees live here, caught in a fetid existence in the most awful of places. Strikingly, a large number of the occupants are unaccompanied minors.
There is no electricity, running water, toilets, bathrooms or anything that one might find in even the most basic of lives. The refugees have set up little squats all over the warehouse floor, manufacturing beds and tents from blankets, mattresses and broken bits of furniture. Amid the makeshift camps, they light fires to keep warm. But they're burning anything and everything they can — hence the blanket of acrid, nauseating smoke that is choking everyone here. People are hacking, coughing and spitting constantly, in an attempt to get the smoke out of their mouths and lungs. Others wash their burning eyes to calm the sting.
One can barely imagine a worse existence, yet, amazingly, this is an improvement compared with the situation only a week ago.
This place used to be totally full, so you can imagine, everyone was burning stuff. It was so disgusting.
- Hamidullah, a refugee from Afghanistan’s Logar province
Nearby, Abdullah, from Kabul, sits on an empty bucket, stoking a fire. "It used to be that in order to breathe, I had to cover myself in blankets. That would only work for a few minutes before I'd have to go outside. It made me so sick."
Going outside seems nearly as bad.
Passengers catch trains just 100 metres away in the part of the station that still functions, but here in the depot, no one is going anywhere. Although there are tracks, there are certainly no trains taking these people out of here – neither to the camps, nor to anywhere else. The old wooden tracks are barely visible under a river of rubbish. The vein that runs between two big buildings is now the main dumping site for everyone's rubbish. Human faeces lines the paths everywhere, as does rotting food and other waste, including what looks like a dropped bag of drugs. A few metres away, a man shoots something from a syringe into his pelvis. Instead of the suffocating smell of smoke, the outside air is tinged with other rancid scents.
The conditions have been likened to France's now disassembled Calais Jungle Camp. There, thousands of migrants lived in a ramshackle shanty town, full of violence and despair for years, until it was destroyed by French authorities last October. Though this warehouse is a fraction of the size, at least in Calais there were basic services like toilets and showers. In many ways, this warehouse is so much worse.
One reason things here are so bad is because the Serbian government does not want it to turn into another Calais. It does not want it to become permanent. It doesn't even want it to be temporary. Serbia has 17 official camps around the country, including the newest at Obrenovac, which are supervised and attended to in some capacity. It is accused of discouraging NGOs from coming here to provide migrants and refugees with the facilities to stay.
"I repeat, these people are absolutely staying in the station of their own accord. Completely of their own decision,” Ivan Miskovic, a spokesperson for Serbia's Commissariate of Refugees and Migrants, told TRT World. “We have been trying to promote to them the idea of going to a proper camp, [and] many have accepted. But those still there, they refuse."
On the face of it, it's difficult to imagine why anyone would prefer this place. It is akin to life under Kabul's notorious Pol-e Sokhta. There under the bridge, in plain sight, hundreds of heroin addicts linger daily between life and death. Shooting up, living in their own filth and hoping not to fall into the tepid sludge of the Kabul River.
But most of the refugees here say they have good reason for staying. Fereydoon, a 13-year-old from the eastern city of Jalalabad, says he does not want to be locked in anywhere.
"They close the camps and don't let you move around," he explains, as he heats water in a plastic Coke bottle over an open fire. "I didn't come all the way here to be in a camp."
Another young boy, Shahid from Logar, says the guards are violent and hit people. He said that's what he was faced with when he tried to stay there. The Serbian government rejects such claims. Though curfews are imposed, buses for occupants run daily to and from the nearest camp into Belgrade.
The fact is, everyone here is distrustful of assurances from the government. These refugees and migrants have travelled halfway across the world. Many were beaten, robbed and taken advantage of even before they entered Europe. Others have faced this dilemma over and over again since, bounced back to starting from zero.
Underneath it all, they say they are afraid that if they go into the camps, they will be prevented from trying to cross the border into the European Union. They simply don't want to stay here.
"I want to go to school in Belgium," Fereydoon explains.
Abdullah has been stuck in Serbia for two months, having fled Afghanistan at his father’s request.
"I worked for ISAF [International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan]," he begins, "and it was only after the Taliban took my brother, because I worked for the Americans, my father said I should go. We thought if I leave, they might release him. This is the only thing I can do to save him."
Here in this smokey, dark warehouse, the Kabul native still has no news of his brother’s whereabouts.
It's a miserable place. People who live here know it full well, but they feel they have no other choice. They've come so far and can envision new lives across the border. They all say they are determined to reach their goals anyway they can, but it's clear they are running out of patience. The news that Europe won’t reopen its borders any time soon has added to the strain.
On the walls outside someone has graffitied slogans. One reads, "Refugees are not terrorists." "We are human too," another person has sprayed.
There is also a request. Perhaps the simplest of them all, from people who seem to want the simplest of things. Very clearly, someone asks in black paint: "please don't forget about us".
REFUGEES IN LIMBO
Story Description: As the journey over land to Western Europe becomes ever harder, a growing number of refugees are staying on in Serbia, unable to make it into the European Union. READ MORE
TRT World's Soraya Lennie reports from the Calais refugee camp, known as 'The Jungle', as French authorities prepare to completely demolish it. READ MORE