Rarely mentioned aid workers provide critical services that for a refugee could mean life or death.
The sky has begun to darken. The Serbian-Hungarian border has been closed for two days. On the Serbian side of the crossing, thousands of refugees have set up camp – some in tents, others on plastic tarps or blankets on the ground. Their trip north has been cut short; their last attempt to get to Hungary ended in violent clashes between the refugees and the Hungarian Magyar police. Just three or four hours have passed since then.
At the entrance of the improvised camp, Serbian police are trying to maintain order among the hordes of people attempting to get to the buses. Passengers exchange confused glances as they file into the vehicles. No one knows for sure where they are going, but most believe they are heading towards the Croatian border.
The lack of oversight and proper instruction is obvious. The larger state institutions and aid organisations continue to be absent, and most, if not all, of the aid comes from volunteers. A few local young men and women distribute food and water from the back of a truck. Some refugees shove each other to reach a bottle of water or a meagre ration of food.
As night falls, a tense calm settles after the afternoon riots. Next to the spot where television stations set up their cameras are ambulances tending to the injured. There are dozens of refugees, most of them young, bruised and draped in bandages.
The living quarters of the camp are located in the fields next to the highway. There, on the prairie, the campfires draw silhouettes of people and tents. The murmur of a thousand conversations in a thousand languages are heard.
Behind the camp, a stark fence crowned with barbed wire blocks the way forward for the thousands of refugees.
Groups of young Syrians stroll along the fence, searching for weak points through which they might be able to cross. Some stop and look towards the Hungarian patrols.
On top of the barbed wire, someone has placed baby clothes. The words “No food. No water. Open this border,” are written boldly across the front of the garment.
Not far from the fence, a young Syrian child, perhaps no older than six, plays with a stick and a plastic bottle, seemingly unaware of the tragedy that surrounds him. His parents watch intently, sitting around a campfire with other Syrian refugees.
His clothes are worn, his feet protected only by a pair of pink slippers that are a few sizes too small. His innocent face, his disheveled form, his small size, his young age, his tiny toes poking over his slippers … and then a smile in spite of it all.
It is terrible to think that this is the closest thing to freedom he knows. It is tough to imagine that the tragedy that surrounds him is nothing compared to the four years of war he lived through as an infant. It is embarrassing to realise that the tear gas, the smugglers, the rough sea, the disdain with which he is received in every country through which he passes are quite possibly the best things that have ever happened to him.
Every refugee that arrives in Europe, every child wearing small pink slippers, highlights the overt failure of our society to embody any sort of social justice. The longer his path, the deeper our shame should be – at least that’s how I felt that day.