OPATOVAC, CROATIA - Despite the glaring sun, several men in the crowd wore sweaters on their heads to avoid being photographed outside the temporary camp on Tuesday.
They had escaped Islamic State territories in Syria and Iraq, and feared for their families if they were caught on video in the news.
“I’m afraid if they see my picture, my family and friends will be killed,” said 24-year-old Mohammed as he gazed at the camp through a fence. Inside, behind closed gates, there were olive green military-style tents and neat rows of benches where aid workers scurried around, and refugees waited quietly. Mohammed was hoping to find food and shelter there but he had already been waiting all day to get in.
Hundreds of people crowded the gate, where after registering and resting, they hoped buses would bring them to the border with Hungary. Police say since the camp opened two days ago, more than 1,000 people have been delivered to the border.
But the camp was completely overwhelmed, with some refugees pushing and shoving, competing to get in. Later in the day, others fought to get out, occupying the buses they hoped would deliver them one step closer to their destinations in Western Europe.
One aid worker was confused by the refugees' rush to get inside. She said the camp wasn’t prepared for so many people; inside people were complaining they felt like they were in prison. “Some one should tell people they shouldn’t come here,” she said.
Other officials were more upbeat, saying they were preparing for the onslaught of refugees as thousands more entered Croatia. “The aim is to double the capability,” said Mathieu Baunin from the U.N.’s refugee agency.
Waiting to move on
Refugees waiting outside said while they wanted a rest, they would prefer to move on to Hungary, where they hope to pass through on their way to Austria, Germany, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and other countries seen as refugee-friendly.
They would all walk the 20 to 30 kilometers to the border, said Yasser, a Syrian father of 4-year-old Fatima outside the camp, rather than waiting out all night in the cold and during the day in the hot sun.
However, Croatia is strewn with landmines left over from the Bosnian War, he said, and the refugees don’t know exactly where to cross. “Everyone knows Croatia has a lot of bombs,” he said, adding confidently, “Buses will come and take us.”
But Yasser’s optimism was not shared by many of the other people waiting outside the camp. Police stood among groups that sorted themselves by nationality. Most were from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, but there were also Iranians, Indians and others. People from each nationality blamed others for the fact that they were outside with barely any water or food.
“They are supposed to take ten at a time inside from each group,” said 24-year-old Hisham, a civil engineer from Iraq. Officials said no decisions about who gets help and who does not were based on nationality.
“We haven’t slept in three days,” added Hisham. “We haven’t changed our clothes. We just want to go quickly.” As he described the situation in Arabic, other refugees joined in. Most of the police and local officials in the area spoke Croatian, so their complaints were not heard.
“All the people going to Austria will be sick,” said Haidar, a former construction worker from Baghdad.
“We want to know how many hours we will have to wait,” added his friend Bassem, a question many people were asking. Getting into the camp and onto a bus, he said was a step towards Western Europe, which to him was a step closer to freedom.
“In truth,” he said, “We will wait 100 hours if we have to.”