Where Wars Collide: Inside a Serbian Center Home to Refugees Old and New
By Sara Elizabeth Williams
November 23, 2015 | 10:41 am
Afghani teenager Khalil squinted in the winter Balkan sunshine and winced as he flexed his left bicep, red and inflamed where a police dog bit him a few days back, in Bulgaria. Across a muddy field, an older woman in a bandana watched warily as she swept a porch. She had seen his kind come and go, and today would be no different.
Like most of the other hundred or so young men re-tying shoes and adjusting bandages, coats and rucksacks at the refugee transit center on the outskirts of the Serbian capital, Khalil was bound for Europe.
Few people on the refugee highway running through Belgrade want to stay: of the 335,000 who have registered with the UN refugee agency in Serbia on their way through the country this year, just 30 have filed claims for asylum.
Bulgaria had been brutal and Khalil had no wish to stay in eastern Europe. “The police robbed me,” he told VICE News. “They took 70 Euros and my smartphone. I have no money now and no phone.”
smail, a 26-year-old father of three girls, worked as a translator with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. He was determined not to leave, but after militants came to his house and threatened to kill him, he had no choice.
“It’s not true that there is no war in Afghanistan,” he told VICE News. “It’s not only the Taliban but also American bombs. There are 100 groups.”
Ismail hoped to set up in Europe and send for his wife and daughters in future. After seeing his country torn apart and endangering himself and his family by working with Westerners, he believes they all deserve a new start.
“If the US and NATO will not bring peace to the country, what should we do?” he asked.
Khalil and Ismail have dreams of a better life. For other residents at the center in Krnjaca, about half an hour from Belgrade, it’s a little different: this collection of spartan barracks-style dormitory blocks is home.
More than eighty people forced from their homes from the 1990s Balkan conflicts still live at Krnjaca, sleeping in its bunk beds, dining in its stale-smelling canteen, and raising their Serbia-born children as perpetual refugees.
The current migration epidemic, in which more than 650,000 people have flooded into Europe fleeing war in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, or poverty and brutal regimes in countries such as Eritrea and Congo, is not the continent’s first refugee crisis.
More than two million people were displaced during the Balkan conflicts, a series of wars and insurgencies between 1991 and 2002 that saw the former Yugoslavia broken up and parts of eastern Europe ravaged by ethnic cleansing, genocide and other war crimes.
The Krnjaca facility was one of 700 so-called “collective centers” built in Serbia at the height of the crisis to house refugees and internally displaced people. Most have been closed down, but a handful remain, and are now seeing past and present humanitarian crises become entangled.
The Serbian government, a poor country plagued by accusations of corruption and committed to an austerity budget, is proving as unable to help its new refugees as it was the old.It can stretch to just 60 euros per person per month in welfare, and doesn’t have the money to build new housing for its oldest refugees, let alone the new arrivals.
The Krnjaca center feels like it has been forgotten by the world, surrounded by a scrubby wood, with rubbish and discarded masonry piled on either side of the road by which the refugees arrive.
Separate accommodation blocks for men, women, and families each follow a cookie-cutter design: bunk beds, a communal room tacked over with art, ageing bathrooms with wet floors, and dripping faucets.
The Serbian government opened the center to international refugees in August 2014. According to Marija Bojic, a government employee who works at Krnjaca, “Since it opened, asylum seekers are coming in different waves constantly.”
Managers say 6,000 refugees and migrants have passed through Krnjaca so far this year. With the rarest of exceptions, they stay just 24 hours. And so in ever-repeating cycles, the refugees from the past and the present come into the same orbit, sharing a canteen, an ageing collection of playground equipment, and a wifi network named “Asylum.”
After 20 years at Krnjaca, those displaced by old wars are adapting to a new routine: twice-daily buses dropping off foreign strangers and stragglers coming up the approach road, shouts and laughter in different languages.
Beyond language and cultural differences, Krnjaca’s two groups of residents are on the opposite sides of hope and it’s this that separates them as much as anything else. The possibilities of an endless search for refuge, of a life stopped and never restarted, of joblessness and economic failure, of children born stateless and forever remaining that way – these are the elephants in the room at Krnjaca.
Officials say Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration is working provide build houses for its long-displaced families in a village nearby, and people are gradually being moved on — at one time the center housed hundreds of Balkans conflicts refugees and IDPs — but at a snail’s pace. And so the 85 longterm residents remain at Krnjaca, living in a limbo that threatens to stretch to two decades: on 14 December 2015, it will have been 20 years since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement that put an end to the Bosnian War.
Across a sludgy creek and a stand of trees is the canteen, nearly empty between the rush of young men grabbing a breakfast before leaving, and the usual lunch crowd of long-term residents. A trio of blond Kosovar children, some of the center’s youngest residents, have breakfast as canteen staff and some older residents look on. The children were born in Serbia to refugee parents. Without the jobs and social mobility to become self-sufficient, they have remained at Krnjaca.
Nearby, 57-year-old Dragiša waited for a meal in the lull time between shifts of internationals. An ethnic Serb from Croatia, he has been at Krnjaca for 20 years. He says he doesn’t hold the newcomers’ circumstances against them.
“What can you do about politics?” he shrugged. “I can’t say anything. I’ve seen it all. Everyone is running from troubles.”
At the center’s entrance the bus is being loaded, taking Khalil and his companions to Belgrade and then north to the Croatian border and the promised land: Europe. For the lucky ones, there will be welfare, jobs, and a future as European citizens.
For others, like Dragiša and other long-displaced citizens of a country that no longer exists, there will likely be disappointment as jobs fail to materialize, social exclusion limits opportunities, and the money to build a life long dreamed of proves elusive.
As the bus rolls away from Krnjaca, the cycle begins again.
Follow Sara Elizabeth Williams on Twitter: @saraewilliams