The Game (Serbia)

To get around the wall erected by the government of Hungarian President Viktor Orban, exiles wishing to join Europe are trying their luck by now passing through Romania. “Make the game” as we say here. Every night, small groups try to slip through the cracks set up by the Romanian authorities. The journeys range from 2 to 15 kilometers depending on the path taken, through woods and elds. The exiles living in abandoned houses in the village of Majdan tirelessly try to cross the border. Some of them have tried more than 50 times but hope remains high.

After a two and a half hour drive from Belgrade, it is three o’clo- ck when I arrive in the small village of Majdan in northern Ser- bia. I have just crossed the northern part of the country with its shimmering green agricultural lands and electric blue skies. I do not stop, I cross the village in one go to reach the next hamlet, Rabé, the last place of life before the Hungarian border, which re- presents a dead end now that the border is closed. I turn around when I see a policeman coming out of an alley in the rearview mir- ror. Quick check of papers, everything is in order. The policeman who speaks English even wishes me good luck for my report.
This area of northern Serbia is a strategic location on the new mi- gratory route. The Balkan Triangle as it is called: Hungary, Serbia and Romania share common borders, which make it possible to bypass the wall erected by Viktor Orban’s government along the Serbian border. It is in these two villages of barely fty inhabitants, that the candidates for exile nd themselves.
The atmosphere is special, a few people roam the streets. A man with a plastic bag in his hand and a bag on his back does not seem to me to be a local. He has the marked faces of men on the road: a distant and vague gaze and yet always on the lookout. I call out to him by throwing him a «Salam» to which he responds naturally. I explain to him that I am a journalist and he indicates to me where the people are installed while waiting to try the «game». Apparently the squatted houses are a little further on the right. I go up the street and notice several signs with messages in Arabic hanging on the portals of some houses. Without being able to decipher it, I understand that this is a word intended for the exiles who have found refuge in the village. A google trad image swipe and the message appears. It is written, «Do not enter,» a way of indicating that the house is occupied. I walk over for a photo and a dog (which I guess is huge) starts barking. The stage is set.
Quickly I came across two young Syrians, Abdelaziz and Elyaas. Once again I introduce myself quickly. The two companions offer to show me where they live by inviting me for a coffee. I enter through the backyard of an abandoned house. The oor has been swept in the hallway that we are crossing, but on either side the rooms are lled with rubbish and pieces of torn wall. Abdelaziz apologizes for the conditions and informs me that the broom is passed every day. The small room where they welcome me is lined with old wallpaper that turns brown. Everything is decrepit, time has enveloped the houses, making them look like horror lms. There are holes all over each wall. Humidity invades the place. Even dogs are better treated, Abdelaziz tells me, seeing me
look at the ceiling which threatens to fall in places. The young (el- derly) Syrian was studying international law in Damascus. He ed Syria to avoid doing his compulsory military service. Glasses over his eyes and a small sweater, he looks like the top of the class. I imagine him as a model student. Besides, he only has one wish, to nish his studies. It is with a trembling voice that he answers my questions when we talk about his siblings who remained in Syria with his parents. To change the mood, I suggest that she take a walk. He shows me around the houses and explains to me in very good English, which is the population passing through Ma- jdan. Arrived here 2 months ago, he has already tried the passage many times with his comrades, also Syrians. He wants to go to Germany where he has family.
Iraqis, Gazans, Kurds, Libyans, Algerians, Moroccans, Eritreans, nurses, students, mechanics, teachers, journalists, on their way to Europe, they nd themselves stranded on the road in these two villages. Their number varies from sixty to three hundred and fty people. A ow more or less managed by the authorities for whom the principle is simple. From three hundred registered exiles, the police and buses take everyone to o cial camps. One way to reas- sure the few residents who are coping with the situation as best they can. When some farmers sell milk to exiles, others accuse them of stealing vegetables. Cohabitation is not always easy.
One thing is certain, the exiles are not here to stay, at least in the idea. If they nd themselves in Majdan, it is in order to cross the border with Romania and then join Hungary, the entrance to the Schengen area. If statistics cannot be obtained on the number of illegal crossings, people here no longer count the number of attempts. Twenty, thirty, sixty times. The story is the same, every night small groups try their luck but the vast majority are caught by the Romanian police. Several scenarios follow. According to several people, the police who catch them can simply take them back by bus to the Serbian border. Other testimonies are more damning and I am told of stories of thefts of cellphones, money, clothes, and ratons. The stories are many, often murky, but hope remains alive. We continue the tour of the houses with Elyaas. I am invited to come and eat at eight o’clock to break the Rama- dan fast with a group who squat a house down the road. Elyaas asks me why Romania and Hungary don’t let them pass, nobody wants to stay here, I answer me before I open my mouth. Waiting is the worst thing on the road, it’s when the brain is asking too many questions. When we advance, we have a goal. An observa- tion that I had already made, in particular in the Lesbos or Calais camps. Here, in this dead end, «it is di cult to keep up the morale» Ahmed con des to me, «to be with several encourages». So they try again and again.
During the day, monotony wins everyone. It must be said that there is not much going on in the village consisting of three streets, a post o ce and a small grocery store. In any case, the exiles spend their days resting from the last attempts at passage.
It is eight o’clock, I join Mohammed for the meal: rice, vegetables marinated with some spices, bread, rice pudding for dessert, all accompanied by the drink in «tang». I’m told to eat, I might of- fend the cooks if I don’t eat enough. Everyone talks about their attempts to cross, of the camps in Greece or of the passage of Edirne. When the meal is over, they are all back again with a ci- garette in their mouths. Card games come out when some are already starting to rest. Tonight, there are several groups to try «The game». I thank everyone and I join Elyaas and Abdelaziz with whom I will travel.
The departure is xed at two in the morning. As everyone settles into the room, I notice Elyaas balancing bricks in front of the door. He explains to me that this is to alert them if the police arrive or if someone tries to come and steal something. Everyone is excited and it’s with eyes wide open that we are waiting for the start. The acceptance of my coming this evening was debated at length du- ring the day. Two groups nally agreed that I would go with them, but I should stop at the Romanian border. Everyone is afraid of reprisals if they are caught with a journalist. The exiles and the police are starting to know each other because some have been trying to cross for 6 months. I fully understand and it is out of the question to endanger people for an image.
Two o’clock in the morning is displayed on the watches. The bags, always ready, are quickly grabbed and everyone heads outside to ll their water bottle and get started. «It’s cold,» Elyaas points out to me, blowing steam. This is perhaps the hundredth time looking at the route he has chosen for tonight. To entice him to others, call «the guide». Two hours and ten minutes, everyone is ready and we go deep into the night. The chosen route is 10 kilome- ters. We cross elds and small woods, the tall grass reaches us above our knees. The step is decided, even if Elyaas is reassured by looking at his cell phone. I feel that the way is known. The other phones are off, a request from the group not to be detected. We are soaked in humidity, and the shoes are heavy with the accu- mulated soft earth. The cigarettes are lit one after the other more for warmth than for the urge to smoke. From time to time Elyaas stops the column that we are forming. In the distance, lights seem to sweep the horizon. We wait, then leave. A process that we will repeat all night long until we get to the border around ve in the morning. The sun has just risen. Elyaas returns from an observa- tion tour. It’s time, the police car he spotted in the distance has just
left. Everyone takes their bag. We exchange quick good-byes. The «Game» continues for them.
I turn back. Two hours later, I got a message from Abdelaziz, they got caught. I try to reach him but the cell is turned off until the eve- ning. With his companions they will be taken back to the border. I feel the blow is hard to take but he assures me it’s okay. Sooner or later it will pass.