On Today’s Refugee Road

Syrian refugees resting at an aid center on the Serbian side of the border before attempting to cross into Hungary, August 2015
Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos
Syrian refugees resting at an aid center on the Serbian side of the border before attempting to cross into Hungary, August 2015

Srjdan, our Serbian innkeeper, is a perfect host. Knowing that we are bound to lose ourselves in the streets of Sombor, a Serbian town near the Hungarian border where the night before we had checked into his bed and breakfast with its opulent furnishings and paintings of lush Italianate beauties, he leads us to a dusty crossroads and points in the direction of Rastina, a tiny village where the road peters into a dusty track by a rickety watchtower. From here we can see the sparkling fence built by Hungary as it marches across vast acres of newly harvested fields of corn. We make our way toward the fence—a formidable ten-foot-high structure with double coils of razor wire affixed to metal posts sunk deep in the ground—and follow it for half a mile or more in the direction of a ruined farmhouse surrounded by bushes.

There are signs of activity on the Hungarian side—diggers and tractors creating clouds of dust as a second layer of fence is prepared. A police car draws up on the other side, and seeing our camera and tripod, an officer asks—in English, the lingua franca—what we are doing. “We are taking pictures for an exhibition,” we tell him. “We have permission from the Serbian police.” “You do not have permission,” he says, “because you are standing on Hungarian soil.” He points through the wire to a small white post that marks the official border, five feet on our side of the fence. International law requires that both countries must agree to the construction of border barriers. The Hungarians did not ask the Serbians for permission to build their fence. Instead they erected it more than three feet inside Hungary, ceding a de facto ribbon of territory to their Balkan neighbor.

We retreat a couple of paces and head for the abandoned farmhouse where we won’t be seen from a Hungarian watchtower; the bushes and outbuildings provide cover for the special shot we are seeking: a wayside crucifix viewed through a diadem of metal thorns. A male guard in the watchtower sees us, picks up his weapon, and slings it over his shoulder with ostentatious deliberation. Now that we are inside Serbia, we ignore him: we doubt if, for all Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s bluster, he would welcome an international crisis resulting from the shooting of European citizens on Serbian territory. Someone in the watchtower switches on music and the tension subsides: another guard—this time a woman—leans from the tower and waves us a cheery goodbye. There were no refugees by the farm buildings, but we…

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