Torn between hope and despair, refugees board buses for Austria

  • AFP, Budapest
  • Updated: Sep 09, 2015 11:10 IST
Migrant people sleep on a bus as they are transported from Budapest to the Hungarian border village of Hegyeshalom, early on September 5, 2015. The first buses carrying migrants who have been stranded in the Hungarian capital set off for Austria and Germany early after they agreed to receive thousands of refugees desperate to start new lives in Western Europe (AFP Photo)

"According to the Hungarian government, there will be free buses to take you to the last town before the border," shouts a man in hurried, stern Arabic through a megaphone.

"You don't have to go if you don't want to."

He moves quickly through the "Transit Zone," the chaotic dirty labyrinth below Budapest's Keleti train station that has been home to thousands of refugees and migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and 50 other countries.

Some have been there days, some weeks. The man with the megaphone urges them to "pack now": "Take any food or water you have, there will be none on the bus."

But 26-year-old Syrian Mohammed from Damascus is wary of the Hungarian authorities after having suffered from their broken promises.

"I don't trust this government," he tells AFP.

"I spent all my money on a train ticket to Munich last week when the police said I could go, but ripped it up in anger when they stopped me getting on the train."

Still he rushes to pack -- a small rucksack with two T-shirts, a book, a spare pair of trainers and his phone.

"I couldn't keep anything clean here, when I went to a shop. I could see in their eyes they were thinking I'm just another dirty Arab."

"I had more luggage but the smuggler in Turkey told me I couldn't get on the dinghy unless I left it behind on the shore," he says.

Around 60 "special transit" Ikarus buses are lined up outside Keleti station, and quickly fill up.

"Excuse me, we go to camp? Do you know if the bus is taking us to the camp?" several passengers ask, most of them Syrians, among them young and old men, some women and a two-year-old child.

The engine runs for a long 20 minutes, then the bell rings suddenly and the door closes. "Go! Go!" cries a jumpy passenger.

'Goodbye, my friend.'

At 0137AM (1137 GMT Friday), the strange convoy and its police escort moves off through the dark streets.

Many who see the buses smile, wave, take pictures. Others look on bemused. A group of football fans show their middle fingers and shout "Gypsies! Gypsies! Go! Go!".

"Most Hungarians are OK, some have helped me so much. Those are the ones I care about, the ones I will remember, not the other ones," says Yaman, a language student from Aleppo.

"Goodbye my friend!" he shouts out the window to a waving well-wisher.

It's the first he has seen of Budapest outside Keleti. As the bus crosses the dark river Danube, he recalls taking a taxi once and the driver talking of the river Danube.

"The Duna he called it. He was right, it is beautiful."

The bus is completely silent. Most people fall asleep soon after the convoy leaves the city, bodies strewn across the floor, bags, bottles for pillows, the air strong with the smell of unwashed bodies. Those awake stare silently out the window.

"It was impossible to sleep well in Keleti," says Houman, a 65-year-old man covering himself with a thin IKEA blanket, a donation he was given by an aid worker.

"The lights, the police cars, the men talking, the babies crying, the cold ground. This was all I had to sleep on, nothing to cover me."

Suddenly, an hour outside Budapest, the flashing lights of dozens of police cars appear, the bus grinds to a halt and the passengers sit up sharply to peer out of the window.

It is the camp of the 1,200-strong group who set out from Keleti at noon to walk to Austria. Several dozen buses are parked in a layby, people packing up and stepping on to the buses.

Word has reached them that the first convoy of buses has already crossed into Austria. The marchers have decided that only now is it safe to get on the buses.

The bus sets off again. On board, faintest of smiles adorns Yaman's face as he joins the rest of the bus, fast asleep.

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