This is my riskiest step so far. Jogging over the Drava river on the border with Hungary to catch up with the crowd, I begin to question my sanity. I have left Nikos behind, taking photographs. The warnings of some volunteers we just met about armed and aggressive Hungarian police, and the threatening replies sent to Nikos’ emails, inviting him to film but promising to shoot him if he does, ring through my ears.
I catch up with the last of the crowd, now slowing as people pause to go to the loo in the bushes. Pressing on to lose myself well and truly in the throng, I squelch yet again through a muddy soup, watched – but never helped – by hundreds of vulture-like police, all carrying rifles. Desperate to find and attach myself to a family before reaching the train, where I fear these armed guards may be checking documents, I finally recognise a beautiful Afghan woman I chatted to through the window, and she beckons me over excitedly.
This new partnership is short-lived, however, as a gratuitously forceful elbow to the ribs stops me in my tracks, without warning. “Stop! Now! Back, back!” the policeman shouts, circling the group and shoving every person standing on the edge of it. I hold my breath and put my head down, paranoid once again that I carry my nationality tattooed across my forehead. (But, of course, I don’t. When people look at me, what they see is A Refugee – just one more in the sea of faces. I look no different. I am no different.) Finally, we are allowed to pass.
My panic at this point is so blinding that I decide to take drastic action. Not one but two reverse dives into the thick, sticky mud in the name of a sympathy vote, plus an arty streak across the face for good measure, prove not only unnecessary as no documents were demanded, but also cripplingly short-sighted, as I am now wet, cold and a leper – unable to touch anything or sit anywhere.
Forgetting even to breathe as I get roughly shoved up into the carriage, I am then quite literally carried forwards by the people rushing to claim a seat for themselves and their family. Moved on once, and leaving my muddy mark as evidence, I find myself in the joint between two carriages, the onward door locked and people still pressing in behind me.
The police here give zero importance to keeping families together – the most sacred principle of humanitarian response conduct. Practically throwing people onto the train and stopping the flow at their whim, they bellow that families should find each other onboard the train -which they then stuff so full that the corridors are congested with bodies, and they lock the doors between the carriages. So a parent may end up taking the (supposedly) 5-hour journey alone with three young children while their partner sits alone, worried and isolated, for the duration. And a fairytale reunion at the other end is far from straightforward.
Doing my best – and failing with every move – not to stand in anyone’s way, I am pinned, flattened and trodden as people squeeze past to use the loo, already smelling strongly. It takes over an hour to cram the train to well beyond twice its safe capacity — no opportunity to shout at someone or bang something violently spared. All this time, I am convinced that the guards have been made aware of my presence and will be storming the train at any second and brutally arresting me.
I am greatly, if not totally, relieved when the train creaks into motion, straining under its excessive load. The atmosphere calms slightly as people settle into whatever space they have managed to find, and I try again to accommodate myself slightly less antisocially, politely but decidedly refusing the seat offered by some Afghan boys who have just laughed lightheartedly at my muddy figure. Soon, this group stands up to switch places with a young Syrian family that has set up camp on the floor outside the loo. They spread out a blanket and invite me to join them. I get out my almonds, dates and chocolate – my best chat-up lines at this point – and try to make friends.
They are travelling with a big family group – 18 in total, although this number varies as the group expands with friends made along the way. Within minutes of our meeting, the number changes again: “18 no; 19,” I am welcomed with a warm, cheeky smile. As far as I can make out, the group profile is thus: two parents in their mid-40s – 50s; their seven children (five girls, two boys) between 27 and 16; two children of the eldest sister (a boy, 12, who is blind, and a 4-year old girl); an uncle; a cousin – the son of a different uncle – and assorted friends. I am soon introduced to the parents and sisters as they come through to use the loo. When the little girl appears, a couple of hours after boarding the train, one of the boys points me out to her. “Maudie is aunty. Say hello you your aunty. Maudie is our sister, ok?” The group speaks little more English than my last family, but immediately we understand each other a thousand times better, very soon laughing and singing our native music to each other. The boys instantly assume the mantle of Bodyguard, exerting themselves to make me as comfortable as possible in this cramped and smelly hallway.
The train, chugging along slowly at the best of times, keeps simply stopping for prolonged periods. Needless to say, no intel is given regarding our fate. Only because I asked the police at Botovo do I know that this journey should take five hours. As the pauses drag on, the embers of my nerves about being discovered begin to glow stronger.
Four hours after departure, having been stationary for over an hour, a message comes down the line that there is a problem and we are going back to the camp in Croatia. With this, the train starts moving again, in the opposite direction. I am nearly sick. Not to mention a two-day regression, this means back to Opatovac, from where I was rejected two nights ago. Most worryingly, though, is the feeling that I cannot shake – illogical, I tell myself – that the problem is me; I am the reason the train has stopped, and they are sending us back to arrest me on arrival. I dedicate a long while to convincing myself that this is not only totally ludicrous, but also inexcusably egotistical. A police force overwhelmed daily by the volumes of people passing through its jurisdiction surely has far greater problems to worry about than one insignificant EU citizen aboard a refugee train. Still, the fear burns on.
“No problem, relax, family. Brother, brother, sister,” one of the boys gestures. I have rarely felt so well protected and could not feel safer in their company, but the warnings I have received about the Hungarian police are circling in my brain like a cheesy pop song – a sinister one. The atmosphere inside the train is reaching fever pitch: children are wailing, frustrations and confusion are rising, the stench from the loo is threatening our sanity, we are all exhausted, and everyone else has been cooped up on the last train, in similar conditions, for the whole of the previous day. Concluding that what will be will be and that stewing in my self-centred panic will achieve nothing, I relaunch myself out of my reverie and back into the conversation, and my resumed Persian classes – this time the Dari dialect spoken in Afghanistan. Although the train has now stopped again and chaos is threatening once more, rounds of afghan song soothe my nerves and fill me with warmth. At my turn to sing, presumably the unfamiliar tones catch people’s attention. The narrow doorway fills with curious, quiet faces and the mayhem hushes a few degrees. I get goosebumps as I finish my song, cross-legged on the train floor, to almost total calm.
Darkness has now fallen and my sleepless few nights are catching up with me. I double over onto the rolled-up sleeping bag in my lap and doze for a while. When the temporary paralysis is total from my buttocks down, I wake to shift position. Whereupon, the boys clear half of our minuscule squatting area, moving themselves to the edge, and insist that I lie down and sleep. With my head on my sleeping bag, my new guardians tenderly tuck the blankets they have brought from the last camp over my body and resume their positions around me. A couple of times I stir, and I feel the blanket be tightened around me again. This sensation of utter security and unconditional protection from these recent strangers is overwhelming.
I have perhaps never been as frightened in my life as I am right now of the Hungarian police, but I would gladly make this smelly, uncomfortable, cramped journey again, in an instant, for this moment.