It’s four a.m. I rub my eyes and get up with effort. I’m listening – for a while, I thought I could hear the heavy rattle of an old bus within the incessant murmur of the nearby motorway. That would mean waking up the rest of the team, dividing up our tasks, and going out. This time around, all is quiet. I nod to my shift-partner Ziky to show that I’m going on my “round”, forty steps long, in the huge heated tent. There are about one hundred and fifty people – men, women, and children – breathing heavily around me.
I’m blinking into the dark and yawning. We are halfway through our shift. Welcome to the Adaševci refugee centre in Serbia.
…and then suddenly, you are in Serbia.
None of us who are here in Serbia as volunteers, is a professional humanitarian aid worker. The original group of three female activists and social workers, who’d had their fill of sitting on their hands and helplessly watching endless TV debates about refugees, soon evolved into an almost gender-balanced set of nine people from all walks of life. One January evening, sitting around a table in the Brno BajkAzyl centre, we agreed to go – literally – beyond the borders of everyday life. We packed our head torches, sleeping bags, and muesli bars, asked for leave from our jobs, arranged travel insurance, got into our two cars, and headed out for less than a week to the Balkans.
Coffee, cigarettes, and hard work
Eight hours spent together in a car can test the cohesion of your team like few other things could. However, except for getting lost once before we even got out of Brno, everything went smoothly.
We were picked up at a petrol station in the little town of Šid close to the border between Croatia and Serbia by Honza, the lead coordinator of the Czech Team – a nearby volunteer base of People in Need (a Czech non-profit organisation) and People in Peril (a Slovak non-profit organisation) – who rushed to meet us in an incredibly dirty Volvo. While we were lighting our first cigarette together, Honza said that after we got some sleep, he’d tell us how the team works, and then we can go on our first shift. We later found out that he had not had a good nights’ sleep since November. One day, he set out from his hometown of Plzeň and headed south. Honza is a professional photographer and IT guy as well as the most insane driver I have ever experienced. Occasionally, I still have dreams in which I ride in Honza’s car on the “pig road” – a dirt road along the motorway where half-wild pigs seem to have founded their own country on a landfill site halfway down the road – even though it’s only some twenty minutes’ ride from the volunteer house to the refugee centre.
One of the best things about humanitarian aid is that you meet people who are just as crazy as you are. Take, for example, a guy who studied product design in the UK before deciding that this life wasn’t for him and he left for Ukraine to teach English, and after eight months, he moved to Serbia for an indefinite period of time; Tereza, our mercurial coordinator with lots of tattoos, a ringing laugh, and an apparently limitless store of positive energy; Naďa from Slovakia, who fell in love with a Serbian last year, moved to Serbia to be with him, and now they help organise humanitarian aid in Belgrade; a forty-year-old guy from Congo; a Dutch married couple in their sixties who came to help together with their 22-year-old son; Doctors without Borders; and a lot of other people from Europe and all over the world, who left their homes for a place where no compensation is the only certainty you have. And yet, none of the people I had the chance to speak to for at least a while felt that they’re doing something that should earn them admiration. They felt this was the right thing to do and so they did it. A comforting discovery in an otherwise comfortless situation.
The volunteers in Adaševci work in three eight-hour shifts. The morning one, between eight in the morning and four in the afternoon, is often very busy and occasionally hectic: this is when the Czech Team hands out clothes, nappies, and sanitary pads. Mostly, you have no time to think because there’s always something going on. The same holds true for the shift between four in the afternoon and midnight. The real wave of self-reflection and pondering over the future of humanity comes during the night shift. Occasionally, a child’s cry, somebody snoring, or a coughing fit cut through the stuffy air (there is only a tank with drinking water available, no showers). A Thermos with coffee and a shift partner are priceless: this is not a place where you want to be alone.
Life in the volunteer house has its unique rhythm. You come back from your shift, you have a shot (“for medicinal purposes”) of Czech homemade fruit brandy, Slovak juniper brandy or the local rakija, chat with the others for a bit, smoke a cigarette, get a few hours of sleep, and then the cycle starts anew. Usually, there is none of the usual initial embarrassment at meeting new people: the volunteers cook, eat, and sleep together. Your body somehow makes a switch to accommodate to the new regime, as does your sense of humour, which turns black. Gallows jokes are the local – international – vernacular.
It really is quite easy to become a refugee. All it takes is for your home, your country, to become a place of such horror that even the uncertainty of a journey somewhere to Europe is less scary than staying put. You only have a very vague idea of what’s ahead of you. You probably don’t speak much English and you don’t have a lot of money. You’ve hardly ever heard the names of half of the countries that you are going to see in the next few weeks. The people you meet on the road are confused about what to do with you, and that’s if you’re lucky – in the worse-case scenario, they use you as a target for venting their frustration. The rose-coloured view of a leftist dreamer? Let’s take a different approach, then.
An eleven-year-old Afghan girl drew us a picture with three little bleeding figures, a school in ruins, a tank, and a soldier with a giant gun. This is how she lost her school friends. Her parents decided to leave the country not long afterwards. Sára, a woman about seventy years old, holds my hand tightly for the whole time it takes us to reach the toilet, which is about three minutes’ walk from the sleeping tent. She knows about as much English as the woman who is nine months pregnant and who slept next to her that night – nothing.
I am a natural cynic, but I couldn’t help felling shivers down my spine, as I probably never had before, when a fellow volunteer told me about a massacre in a mountain village where half of the inhabitants had their heads cut off by soldiers. Even traces of empathy are enough for you to realise that the children who were screaming in their sleep at your last night shift probably saw things whose significantly downplayed version you might have only seen in a horror movie. The sort of children that, in the Czech Republic, would sit in their classrooms and count down the minutes until the school bell rings, here spend their days in the muddy surroundings of a disused motel and just like their parents and other family members, they have no idea when they’ll be able to move on. They can spend hours, days or even weeks waiting for the bus that will take them a bit closer to their “American dream”.
After two days in Adaševci, I realised that however naive the hopes that a multitude of people have for an idyllic life in Germany might be, you do, regardless of your nationality, tend to believe in the happy ending until the very last moment. What else is there to do, after all, when your house is in ruins, half of your family is dead, and your future can be summed up in one big question mark. After weeks of trudging through a continent that has become stuck in a mire of endless political debates with more and more radical groups in the background, you hold on to any hope, clutching at straws.
Being an aid volunteer, even just for a few days, is an experience that you can’t acquire by having it described to you. An intense experience that will shatter your values and force you to ask yourself questions that you had previously been able to stamp down by your everyday routine. Maybe you will find out who you are and what you want while you’re helping others. And maybe not, maybe you’ll “just” do a good thing and widen your horizons.
Whichever the case may be, it will all be worth it.
The author is a student of journalism and social work at the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University.