It is supposed to protect the EU external frontier, instead it exacerbates the refugees’ drama on the Balkans route and also separates people in Serbia and Hungary: The 174 kilometres long Hungarian border fence is almost ready and ends in Sombor.
It is a rainy day at the end of a long summer in Sombor. Today, my friend Tibor and I want to take a look at the lately much-reported Hungarian border fence from the Serbian side. Did it arrive in Sombor at all? How does it look like? What do people in town think about it?
We drive to Rastina for that reason. The little village is part of the municipality of Sombor and is situated about 20 kilometres away from the city, right next to the Serbian-Hungarian border. My research on Google Maps tells me that the gardens of the last houses are situated just ahead of the fence.
The route to Rastina is long. The road gets narrower and narrower. We have to avoid the approaching traffic driving on the grass verge. Half the way we pass Gakovo. There we see three people on the main street. In Rastina only one boy looks after the car from the football ground.
We drive the village road to the end. A narrow path goes to the cemetery, which is only separated from the fence by some bushes. We encounter a small group of mourners, who say farewell to their relatives at the open grave.
A couple of steps away we see the fence shimmering metallically. We walk through the wet grass and then we stand right before it. Although the German news reported that the fence has already been finished, here it is still under construction.
Right before us, there are four layers of razor barbed wires, which is an especially unpleasant variety of the conventional barbed wire. Behind, there are already the poles for the four metres high fence.
Behind the next bend we hear noise and there encounter a construction unit of the Hungarian army. Soldiers pull the wire, which is supposed to hold up the chain-link fence, along the poles.
Besides Serbian, English and German, my friend Tibor also speaks Hungarian, which additionally predestines him for this research. It facilitates contacting with the soldiers. Nevertheless, the commander of the unit makes clear that he does not want us to talk to the soldiers. He also does not like photographs. Well, I think that his power of command ends halfway between us.
Moreover, a young pioneer on the truck bed does not seem to be impressed of having been banned to speak. Having heard that I am German, he tells me of his job in Germany in fluent German. Until recently, he worked in a Greek restaurant in Aachen. However, his boss defrauded him of his wage. In an ice cream parlour in Eschweiler, things were not better. Now he is back in the army in Hungary. However, concerning the fence, he prefers to say nothing.
Two civil workers, whom we meet about 200 meters further away, are more willing to speak. They work for a private company, which supports the army with the construction. The men come from eastern Hungary near the Ukrainian border and are only here to work. They think the fence is pointless. It only exacerbates the problem and won’t stop anybody who really wants to get into the EU. However, at least they have work. They are pragmatic.
They don’t want to satisfy my curiosity concerning the fence anymore and prefer talking about wages in Serbia and prices of different used cars with Tibor.
Time for me to take a closer look at the fence: the razor barb wire rolls lie on top of each other and are fixed with thin wires. The lowest layer is not grounded and you can already lift it with your foot. Some media reports showed how refugees had squeezed themselves through it protected by blankets or had dug a pan.
However, it will become more difficult as soon as the about four metres high fence behind the razor barbed wire will be finished. Without facilities like ladders it will hardly be possible to negotiate it. On top of it there will be another razor barbed wire roll.
You can already feel how unpleasant the razor barbed wire is when you touch it carefully with your hand. The blades on top are sharp like razors and unpleasantly spiky. You only have to graze it lightly in order to start bleeding. Whereas conventional barbed wire appears harmless in comparison to it.
While taking photographs, the famous scene from the „Wende” in 1989 crosses my mind, when Hungarian soldiers cut the border fence to Austria. They made it possible for Germans who fled from the GDR to Hungary, to get to West Germany via Austria. Today the Hungarians build up a fence. How many years will it probably be erected?
In order to get an overview, I climb on an old guard tower on the Serbian side, which has become useless since the breakup of Yugoslavia. The aerial view shows even clearer how the fence cuts the landscape. Even the haunt of wild animals is separated. The Hungarian village Bácsszentgyörgy, which is situated only about 500 metres away from the fence, directly opposite of Rastina, can also be clearly seen.
Until recently, this border was hardly noticed. Today I feel reminded of a school trip to West Berlin from the beginning of the 80s where we climbed on top of wooden platforms in order to look at the eastern part of the city like over the wall in the zoo.
After Tibor exchanged views about all common used cars, we walk back in direction of the village. The workers continue to shoot clips for the fence wire with Hilti machines into the poles. You can also see that the fence is completely open to the South. The workers said that everything would be ready as recently as October. To the end of the Hungarian border at the tri-border area with Croatia there are still about 20 kilometres.
In the village we meet Slobodan and Ranko, who are just having coffee and schnaps in the yard. They take the whole thing easy. There is little contact to Hungary and the farmers do not have farmland or pastures on the other side, so that there won’t be any problems. „Business as usual“, says Slobodan.
In those days, when the construction works began, they talked a lot about it in the village, but now the topic is almost over. Yet, Ranko and Slobodan agree: „The fence makes no sense.“ After all, there are few refugees here. A couple of weeks before, there once were four of them in the village. However, the police had accidentally been there and took them along.
A couple of houses further we meet Živko, who is just harvesting plums in front of his house. He has a clear opinion about the fence and tells us that he once was a refugee, too, when he had fled from the war in Croatia in 1995: „I can put myself in the shoes of those people who now come from Syria or other countries. Nobody leaves his home country deliberately, there have to be good reasons and a lot of hopelessness for that.“
He thinks that Hungary follows the pressure of the EU to block the external frontier of the European Union with the fence. He also thinks that the fence is pointless as there have only been a handful of refugees on the territory of Rastina and Sombor so far. „They all take the motorway, come from Belgrade and want to Subotica in the North”, he says.
Moreover, considering his life story it is almost absurd: Once he fled from the war in Croatia, which is now part of the EU. Now he lives in Serbia right in front of the barbed wire fence of the EU, which he can see at the end of his garden. That really is kind of an unpleasant feeling.
While hens and kitties rub his legs, we also want to know from Živko if contact to the people from the Hungarian village Bácsszentgyörgy on the other side is indeed cut off. „Yes, unfortunately“, he says. They visited each other to the annual village fairs in summer and therefor they just walked over. That’s over. Now they inconveniently have to drive to the next checkpoint in Bački Breg about 20 kilometres away and make a curve through Hungary in order to get to Bácsszentgyörgy. Almost an hour’s drive. Before, it has been only 500 metres across the field. Bad times for Serbian-Hungarian romantic relationships after the village fair.
Although he can’t approve the fence, at least it is a little attraction in Rastina. Normally not a lot is going on here and nowhere in Serbia a village is as close to the Hungarian border fence as here. „When somebody is visiting, everybody immediately wants to take a look at the fence“, Živko laughs.
Well, perhaps they will make a tourist attraction out of it in Rastina after all and build a wooden platform from which visitors may take a look into the EU and wave at the people in Bácsszentgyörgy. Or they charge the old Yugoslav guard tower. Serbian pragmatism after all.
Note: The Serbian-Hungarian border (rather a horizontal line) runs – unlike it is shown in maps – to the Danube. The Croatian-Serbian border (a wavy line downwards) in Google Maps is not up-to-date. The course of the border between the two countries is disputed. De facto the middle of the river forms the border between Serbia and Croatia. That is why the Serbian-Hungarian border ends at Danube riverside.
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Read more english reports from Sombor and Serbia here.
Translation: Aleksandra Davidović, Belgrade