“There are 20 buses,” barked the police officer in English, as hundreds of travelers pushed forward towards the only buses they could see.
Most in the crowd didn’t speak English, and they hurtled forward over the shouts of the police.
Many had been standing in the sun for hours, after walking into Croatia from Serbia. The crowd was starving for information, and some who spoke Arabic peppered me with questions. My language skills in Arabic are poor, but for them it was better than nothing.
“Where are we going?” asked one Syrian man.
“From here, to the camp,” I told him. “After that, another bus to the Hungarian border. But that’s just what I heard.”
Information changes daily on the road from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, and the travelers weren’t bothered that I didn’t really know. But tempers were flaring not just at the doors of the bus, but among the people holding back, maintaining an orderly queue.
Syrians said people from Iraq and Afghanistan were claiming to be Syrian to get better treatment from authorities. Iraqis, Afghans and people of other nationalities claimed Syrians were getting preferential treatment. Authorities admit being overwhelmed by the flood of people, but say they don’t distinguish between nationalities.
“Those people are lying,” said Sally, a young woman from Damascus, referring to the crowds pushing towards the buses. “They say they're Syrian."
By Wednesday, Croatia had been flooded with travelers for several days.
Straight through Croatia
My information was wrong.
Later that night, at the Hungarian border, refugees said rather than registering at the camp, the buses took them right to the border, where Hungarian officials let them through in small groups of five or ten.
As he waited in line to cross the border, 18-year-old Ahmed watched Hungarian tanks get in place across the gates. Like so many others, he just wanted to know if Hungary would take his fingerprints, legally obliging him to stay.
“I don’t think so,” I said. For at least a week, refugees had been shuttled across Hungary to Austria without being registered.
“Thank God,” he replied, touching his hand to his heart. “I want to go to Finland where it is not crowded and I can live.”
Nations trying to cope
In recent weeks, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia have been whisking travelers from border to border after they land on Greek islands in flimsy rubber boats.
Since Hungary has closed its border with Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia are now in the mix, with thousands of people trying to pass through. On Tuesday, Croatia was carefully registering everyone, creating a bottleneck aid workers said they were not prepared to handle.
There were too many people, all tired and hungry - and many who said they were in need of medical care. By Wednesday afternoon, as people continued to trudge into Croatia, authorities apparently abandoned their efforts to keep careful records of new arrivals.
At a temporary camp that had been built only a few days before, the lines were long, the sun was hot, and the people were getting impatient.
Begging for freedom
“This place is not good,” said 16-year-old Imran from Afghanistan after waiting to register for several hours. But for him, the only direction to go was towards the front of the line.
“No, no,” he said, when I asked if he would consider going home. “The situation in Afghanistan is bad. The Taliban is killing everybody.”
A few minutes later, the lines began to move rapidly, and soon, all the people had moved into the camp. Buses in the back of the camp were being loaded with travelers.
Tents outside the camp that had housed an overflow of people overnight were abandoned, and activists and aid workers began preparing for a new crowd expected later in the day.
“Why does it have to be that only westerners are able to move across the globe,” said Topoke Bongola, an Austrian-Congolese activist. “Why is it that people of the so-called Third World have to beg to find freedom?”