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The Golden Trailer Collective - Into Serbia

The Golden Trailer Collective - Into Serbia

The Golden Trailer Collective is a group of six mechanics and nurses based in Scotland. Recently, we found an old box trailer by the side of the road and turned it into a mobile foot care clinic/cinema. In the winter of 2017 we set off across Europe in attempt to bring people together and show practical solidarity with people making difficult journeys. What follows is our postcard from Serbia.

It was late March 2017 when we first arrived in Belgrade with our mobile foot care clinic. We arrived in the run up to the presidential elections in Serbia, and on 2nd April, former Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić was elected president. The electoral process was marred by a series of controversies, and in the weeks immediately following the election a remarkably wide spectrum of Serbians took to the streets to protest. Turnout was particularly impressive on weekends, when a four-lane motorway over the River Sava was closed to traffic in order to accommodate the heaving masses.

We parked the truck and set ourselves up in a sleepy boatyard by the River Sava on the outskirts of Belgrade. The boatyard's night-watchman was helpful and friendly and didn't seem to mind our presence. We felt welcomed by a host of well -fed stray dogs with good manners.

Around that time, it was estimated that there were between 1,000 and 1,500 migrants squatting in a squalid, disused army barracks behind the main railway station in the heart of Belgrade. The vast majority of the folk we encountered in the barracks were young men under 25 from Afghanistan. 

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had established a clinic in the city centre and an autonomous group of seven independent medics and nurses, a mixture of Afghan refugees and Westerners, had set up their own tent in the barracks. We took the decision to work alongside this autonomous group and parked our trailer next to their tent, on the edge of the barracks. Glad to be out-skilled in the first aid department, we stuck to our foot care niche: strains and sprains, fungal feet, infected wounds. (Equally importantly: good music, pillow fights, honey lemons, cinema nights, cups of tea). 

If that all sounds a bit twee, it wasn't really. The circumstances in Belgrade were far more grim than in Ventimiglia. There was a real sense of stagnancy. Lots of young people suffering from trauma, stuck together in close and squalid confines, aware of their unwantedness, with nowhere to go. In Ventimiglia we drank wine after closing the clinic. In Belgrade we drank vodka. 

The most difficult thing to stomach were the injuries inflicted on migrants by police. These would come in waves. In the morning a bus of people who had attempted to cross from Serbia to Hungary would be returned to Subotica, and in the afternoon a spate of people would appear in the trailer with dog bites and heavy bruising. Some of these people were minors. We re-directed them to MSF who were, and still are, documenting injuries related to police brutality. 

It is the memory of a kid appearing in the trailer with heavy bruising inflicted by police that I am unable, or unwilling, to shake off. I do not feel particularly naive to the moral hypocrisies of liberal values. But there's got to be a line. 

Frazzled, Jakob, Ella and I left Belgrade at the end of that month. It was partly my unresolved feelings on the issue of police brutality that drew me back to Serbia in August. That and a 13-year old boy called Amir.

Things had changed. In June 2017 the barracks were evicted and demolished. This was in part to make way for Vučić's own 'Belgrade Waterfront' development project, subsidised by an Abu-Dhabi- based firm called Eagle Hills. From what I understand, the demolition of the barracks was accompanied by a change in legislation that made it illegal for migrants to sleep rough. People in transit were to be registered in government-sanctioned camps scattered around the country. 

I first met Amir in the barracks. He used to come in to the trailer to get some minor cuts on his feet seen to. Always a bit cheeky, he made everyone laugh. He came in one morning with a massive scrape up his leg. I asked him what happened, fearing the worst. “Football,” he said. Of course. 

One morning I was walking on my way back to the trailer and he called me over. 
“Come see my house,” he said. 

I went over. Amir’s ‘house’ was a burnt out car that he shared with two other boys. But I think he was genuinely proud of it. I ran my finger along the body of the vehicle and told him, cheekily, that he needed to clean it. He asked for a packet of detergent wipes. I handed him a pack of 200. 

When I walked by later he had used every single one of the wipes and had cleaned the car completely. I was impressed. 

I didn't know much about Amir except that he was 13 and from a village in Afghanistan between Jalalabad and Kabul. His father was killed by Daesh and his mum told him to leave home. At the time we met, he was travelling with a cousin from the same village. 

After I left we kept in touch via video chats on Messenger.

Not having much shared language our chats consistently followed the template below:
- Hello! (Smiling and waving)
- Hello! (Smiling and waving)
- How are you?
- Good. 
- How are you?
- Good. 
- Where are you?
- (Person A says where they are and does a 360 panorama, smiling and waving)
- (Person B says where they are and does a 360 panorama, smiling and waving)
- Cool!
- Okay. Good bye!
- Good bye!

One day I got a phone call from him in the back of a police van.
- Where are you?
- I don’t know!
His tone was the same. Smiling and waving. I smiled and waved back. It was strange.

I later worked out that he had been picked up sleeping rough in an abandoned factory in Šid, and was being taken to a government-sanctioned refugee camp in Presevo, near the Macedonian border. I started to worry about him when he was in Presevo. 
- How are you?
- No good. My friends are gone. There is nothing here. I don't know.

I booked my travel back to Serbia before I let myself think any of it through rationally. I only had a week before I started a new nursing post. I knew full well that (at best) the whole trip would be a painful exercise in futility. Perhaps sensing my unease, Matt made a last minute decision to join me. 

By the time we got there Amir had ‘escaped’ from Presevo and was back in Šid. 

So we headed to Šid. When we arrived we met some folks with No Name Kitchen (NNK), a collective of mainly Spanish volunteers that had set up an autonomous kitchen in Belgrade and had re-located to Šid following the eviction of the barracks. We dropped some medical supplies that we had bought online with our bar takings from a party. As a collective, NNK rents a house in Šid and currently serves two meals per day (providing a total of around 500 meals per day) along a back road on the outskirts of town. They have a threadbare first aid/wellness team, which could really use more support. If you are interested to help out with this, get in touch or contact NNK directly. 

Anyhow, back to Amir. It was nice to see him. 

Every time I look at him I see all the kids we teach kung fu to in Edinburgh. He’s a kid. When I asked him why he left Presevo he said it was because there was nothing to do except sleep and eat when you were told to and that you weren't allowed to go anywhere. “There was no football.”

I wonder what this whole crisis looks like through Amir's eyes. He's growing up inside of it. I think he misses the ‘rootedness’ of being a street kid in the Belgrade barracks. 

Matt and I sleep out under the stars with Amir and a few other Afghans in a hidden enclave of trees near the Croatian border. Chatting and cooking, it breaks my heart to watch Amir’s eyes light up. His eyes widen the same way any kids eyes widen on a camping trip with family and friends.

But we're not on a camping trip. 

We spend a few afternoons in the park, playing games and chatting nonsense. One day we headed into town. Amir needed some new shoes and clothes and his phone had been stolen. A motley crew, the three of us hit the Šid high street, attracting stares. Tensions were high between the locals and migrants: a government camp in Šid had recently been shut down due to local opposition. 

We spot a shoe shop and Amir strides in ahead of us. The shopkeeper steps into the open doorway to block his entry. 
“We’re closed,” she says, blatantly lying. 
“Oh. When do you re-open?” I ask. 
“Oh. I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow.”
I'm furious. Perhaps sensing this, Amir leads me away by the elbow.
“It's no problem,” he says. “Some people are no good. We’ll go to the next one.”

I can’t get this shopkeeper out of my mind. We walked by later and they were definitely open. Could she not spare a child from all the crap of our grown-up world of prejudice and hatred, this collateral baggage of world affairs?

We resume our mission. A hodge-podge of a family going ‘back to school’ shopping. Except for Amir, ‘school’ was incursions into border territories riddled with violent cops and mafia. And ‘back’ for us meant back to Scotland. 

On the morning we're due to set off, Amir accompanies us to the train station at 5am. Nothing like an old-school railway station for a gut-wrenching goodbye. The train sets off, and our worlds divide. 

I scroll aimlessly through my phone on the journey home. Trump sending more troops to Afghanistan. What does this mean? 

Messenger flashes. It's Amir.

- Hello! (Smiling and waving)
- Hello! (Smiling and waving)
- How are you?
- Good. 
- How are you?
- Good. 
-Where are you?
- (Amir does a 360 panorama of the petrol station in Šid, smiling and waving)
- (We do a 360 panorama from the back of a city bus in London, smiling and waving)
- Cool!
- Okay. Good bye!
-Good bye!

I'm not really sure what to do.

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