SUMMARY OF CONVOY TO CROATIA / SERBIA FROM EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND
This is just a general overview. I can provide more details and specifics as required.
Firstly I would like to congratulate and thank all supporters, well wishers, donors, volunteers, packers, loaders, individuals and other organisations/ groups that came together in an extremely short period of time to make this happen. The response was unprecedented and incredible; the whole thing was planned and executed in a matter of a few days. This shows the concern and willingness to help. This would not have been possible without your support and efforts guys. SPECIAL THANKS AND MUCH RESPECT TO THOSE THAT TRAVELED ON THE CONVOY.
First key matter for us to recognise and comprehend was that our efforts were in response to an emergency situation with constantly changing circumstances spread across thousands of miles and half a dozen geographical locations. This was further complicated by lack of credible information.
It all started approx 3 weeks ago, our volunteer Selim had an opportunity to witness despicable treatment refugees and poor conditions at Roszki/Szeged border crossing area between Hungary and Serbia. Hungarian police’s behavior was aggressive and not considerate, rather it was dismissive and inhumane. (I am sure by now you would have seen the documentary by Panorama and the news reports about using pepper spray and using physical force against helpless stranded refugees leading to injuries etc).
Naturally, our reaction was that of shock and planned to provide help, but before launching an appeal to gather support and volunteers to travel to Roszki/Szeged we decided to explore the situation in depth to obtain additional information. For nearly two weeks we contacted 70 odd different sources of information ranging from Selim‘s contacts in Hungary mainly consisting of individual volunteers working on the ground, general contacts, various charity organisations by assessing their plans and locations of focus, various charity/Islamic centres in Croatia etc as well as newspapers and numerous facebook groups in different languages (thank you Google translator). Our first aim was to identify a UK known charity that is already working in Szeged area so we contacted various charities but couldn’t find anyone who was working at Roszki or Szeged. RedCross were there but didn’t provide much information or interest.
We didn’t want to risk a journey of 1000s of miles to find that the Police won’t allow any aid to be given to the refugees (this was indeed the case on certain days) or even that the refugees had decided to move to a different route considering the Hungarian treatment. The reports indicated that the setup of the camp and border conditions kept changing every hour. The situation was very fluid, no one exactly knew what was going on for definite, as Governments clashed refugees kept looking for different options. Hungarians in the end closed the border and deemed anyone crossing as illegal unless they would apply for an asylum, which they would decline anyway! plus the time to process the paperwork was very long. We always corroborated information between different sources, but there was no clear cut trend as to what the refugees or even governments are going to do.
In any case, with further investigations, in summary we concluded that due to the closure of Hungarian/Serbian border the flow of refugees will shift towards Croatia. The most reliable piece of news that we could gather was that refugees will eventually but inevitably end up at BAPSKA (Croatian/Serbian border) but; how many? When? and in what conditions? It was all very sketchy. Some of this information was given by a few volunteers that had relocated to Croatia.
We also kept contacting various large charities (no names mentioned) to encourage and enquire if they are looking to go to BAPSKA. But after exhausting this exercise with no real result and having gathered enough information we planned to travel to Croatia (BAPSKA). This in the end was a correct decision as the refugees did indeed started pouring into Croatia through the only border, ie BAPSKA.
Whilst the arrangements were being made for donations, drivers, vans etc the situation in Croatia kept changing, we kept monitoring the situation very closely. I and few of our volunteers constantly kept contacting various points of information including embassies and consulates of Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and Serbia. We also came to know of 3 other locations in Croatia and other places in Hungary as well as Hungarian/Austrian border as areas in need of attention but the need at BAPSKA was greater so we continued our plans to travel to BAPSKA.
Nevertheless, as the information was very sketchy we decided to split the group and 3 vans left 2 days before the remaining 5 vans, with the view to having someone from our own group reach the destination and provide most up to date and more reliable information.
We kept a close eye on other places with the possibility/ flexibility to shift our focus/journey to another location if needed. We knew that we were responding to an emergency situation with constantly changing circumstances and had to be prepared to react as the conditions determined.
In fact throughout my own journey from Edinburgh up until Zagreb I was prepared to divert the convoy to a new location and had similar plans for the first group, if required.
When the first group arrived on Thursday 24 September, there were a handful of refugees and whilst the discussion was taking place to stay there or go to a new location, hundreds and soon thousands of refugees started crossing over from Serbia. They were brought by buses arranged by Serbians and left on the Croatian border at BAPSKA from there they would be required to go to the processing centre at OPATOVOC (approx 8 miles from BAPSKA). The influx was huge and the local authorities at BAPSKA were caught unprepared, there was no real structure in place and it would appear that the local authorities at BAPSKA/OPATOVOC were not aware of the volume of the influx of refugees.
The Croatian police even asked our volunteers’ help (due to their lack of planning and low resources) to work with them and help managing the incoming refugees. The plan/understanding was that refugees crossing over from Serbia will be registered and will be kept in camps at OPATAVOC until they will be escorted via buses to the nearest train station (Tovarnik) where the trains will take them to a place called Zakany at the Hungarian border. The Hungarians will then take them from Zakany to the Austrian border.
Our volunteers helped the police and escorted refugees in their vans from the Serbian border to the processing centre, distributed various clothing and other items, helped inside the camps with translations and other general logistical tasks as well as bought food from local stores in VUKAVOR which was then distributed at the camp and at the train station before the refugees left for Hungary. Our volunteers were assisted and guided by other local volunteer contacts that we had established before travelling to Croatia. They had setup tents which were used for storing the donated items.
When the 2nd group arrived on Saturday 25 September by this time the Croatian authorities had become more organised and introduced various new procedures. The refugees were brought over to the processing centre via buses and no volunteer was allowed to go inside the camps. However, refugees could be helped at the point of entrance to the Croatian border before getting on the buses and also whilst they queued outside the processing centre waiting for their turn. Once processed the refugees would then go inside the camp where they would stay for a few hours and then be shifted to the Tovarnik station via buses. At least 5000 refugees came to the camp between Saturday night and Sunday afternoon which we witnessed. As volunteers were not allowed to go inside the camps we learnt that Red Cross were leading camp’s overall welfare management aspects and management of other NGO’s such as UNHCR etc therefore we persuaded the camp manager from Red Cross to work with us also and let us provide food at least considering our journey etc. He accepted our proposal and as a result we were able to provide food and water directly to the camp’s food centre. The Manager came to the shopping centre to view our purchases for health and safety aspects.
Food items included anything that can be eaten instantly such as tinned tuna, chick peas etc with ring pullers, long life baby milk, water, crisps, healthy bars, chocolate, croissants, cakes, small juice cartoons etc
As for other items we stored these at the volunteer camps and as per the advice given to us other items that we took based on the actual needs was blankets, jackets, rain coats, winter clothing, shoes, gloves, hats, small tents, nappies, sanitary items.
We opted to take vans full of the said items and used cash donations to buy food items from the local Lidl store and a similar large shopping centre Kauffman from the neighbouring town. We then left on Sunday.
I hope above gives a general idea, if anyone wishes to go to BAPSKA or other similar places in East Europe it is advisable to establish contacts before departure, as when you arrive you will need local knowledge and help with distribution of items, it may be that when you arrive there are only a handful of refugees present at that time but there are local camps of volunteers where donations can be left or stored until the refugees start arriving.
I am happy to provide contacts and names of local volunteers as well as other information to anyone who is “definitely looking to go” as these volunteers on the ground are best only called when one is definitely going. They are very busy and receive a large number of general calls from people only looking to get info which is very disruptive and time consuming.
Moreover, we are now establishing a UK wide (Scottish at least in the first instance) working group/alliance of various groups and organisations that are looking to travel/ support refugees. This alliance is being formed in order to share knowledge, remain updated on live news, share resources, avoid duplication of work and also to avoid everyone turning up at the same time with a view to staggered delivery plans so that our coverage is over a long period of time. This will also help in ensuring that aid is reaching to all parts and where mostly needed. Please contact me if you are planning to travel I will be happy to offer my full support.
We are also planning to travel again to Croatia, please contact us if you wish to join or support our 2nd convoy.