Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
From Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Serbia
(All photos courtesy Tim Hyde)
My colleague, Tim Hyde, and I decided to come to Hungary to look at, photograph (Tim) and write about (me) the migrant/refugee situation at the Hungarian borders.
This is not a funny story, although there were many times we howled with laughter. Nor, is it a sad story, although there were heart wrenching moments. After two full days and nights at the borders, I have developed no sweeping theory of whether the migration is a good or bad thing; nor whether the migrants are good or bad people.
It was, however, worth the price of admission to be - most of the time - the only civilians documenting what is going on and who is involved, the heroes and the villains.
It is important to remember the dangers of parachuting in on an on-going event like this rush of migrants. I only know what I've read or seen in the popular press before I got here. And I will only know what I seen or read after I'm gone.
For two days I got to see the situation for myself, but it is like looking through a straw: I can only see what I am looking at on the ground. While that leads to a high degree of granularity, it is also fraught with the dangers of not being able to see the entire sweep of the battlefield. So, I write with, and you should read, with caution that I might be focusing on something too small to really matter, while missing the bigger story.
I'm not certain how many Parts this story will take to tell, but I promise not to wear you out with it. I understand there is a Presidential campaign still going on and, because the water canons and riot police are not in the news any more, it has been reduced to one tab in the talking-points memos the candidates get to be able to respond to the questions they are most likely to be asked by the media.
Stay with me, though. I think you'll enjoy the journey as much as I have.
I don't know who these people are that show up to help when catastrophes happen. You see them helping fill sandbags in the face of an oncoming flood. We saw them manning the water bottles and sandwich supplies to help with the flood of migrants.
One young man, Marc, came from Germany. He is 21 years old. He dropped out of college some time ago and has been on a personal walkabout trying to decide what to do with his life. He found a Twitter handle, #Zakany, that got his interest and decided to come to this small summer resort community and help with the migrants who come across the border into Hungary; there to board trains to take them on.
The basic route of travel for migrants is: Cross the border from Croatia or Serbia into Hungary. Be taken by train or bus to a central train station. Be packed into trains 12 - 18 cars long for the 8 hour trip to the western border where they cross into Austria and are then free to go wherever they want.
Marc told us in almost idiomatic English, that the police here in this small Hungarian town were not at all helpful, and often tried to obstruct the aid workers' activities or were just cruel for the sake of it.
"After the migrants are gathered up, we get 10 minutes to check them for their health, give them water, sandwiches, bananas - whatever we have. Then we help them move toward the train. If we don't do what the cops say," he tells us, "they punish the people by cutting down our 10 minutes to six or seven. We often can't get to everyone in that time, so it increases the tension for no good reason."
It is a beautiful early autumn afternoon in Zakany, about 300 km south of Budapest. There are no migrants coming now, so the police are gathered up the platform, eyeing us. The half-dozen or so aid workers are sitting and chatting, waiting for the next wave.
Another volunteer, a middle-aged woman named Erica, tells us the migrants show up at about 1,500 people at a time. No one could help me understand how they found each other to form into travelling groups, or where this happened. There might be secret hashtags and websites that tell them where to go.
"We are about 2 kilometers from the border," Erica tells us. "They walk through the forest from the Croatian border to get here."
The Hungarians are busily erecting razor wire fencing at crossings like this to seal the border, and tell the workers it will be done in a matter of days so they can go home. But Marc tells us they see a lot of heavy equipment "too much to be the final stages," he says. He thinks the Hungarians are saying the border is about to be closed to dissuade migrants from trying to cross there.
How to they know when a group of migrants is approaching? "The Croatians send us Twitter messages to alert us to get ready, Erica tells us. She shows us an example on her smartphone:
"40th special train left Tovarnik at 12:03 pm and is due to arrive in Botovo in 4,5 hours. #Refugees are currently boarding 41st train"
Welcome to the brave new world.
These volunteers remind me of the Tom Joad speech from "The Grapes of Wrath:"
"I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too."
Back in the car, I said that I didn't think, when I was 21, I would have ever thought about coming to a place like this to live in a small, shared apartment, and help people get on trains with some food and water. Maybe, if I were in my prime in the age of social media when these crises popped up on the "Trending" lists, I might have tried to help fill a need.
Probably, though, I would have thought about going, but never quite have figured out how to get here. My noon-day sun was too many days ago.
I've missed my chance.