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Photograph: Catarina Fernandes Martins

While searching for refugees, I found heartache in Croatia

Zagreb and Harmica, CROATIA — Roughly two decades ago, Mario Mazar arrived in Zagreb as a refugee fleeing Vukovar during the Balkan War. That’s why he knows the recent refugee crisis in Europe is neither a European nor a Croatian problem.

“It’s a world problem,” he says as he drives his cab through the streets of Zagreb, adding there’s nothing the Croatian Government alone can do to stop the situation. “We can give them water and food. We must do that. But how will that change their future?”

In the last few days, the refugees arriving in Croatia after they saw their path into Hungary blocked by a razor wire fence, were welcomed in the Hotel Porin and the Velesajam building in Zagreb where Red Cross volunteers, doctors and nurses worked around-the-clock to support them, handing out cookies, bottles of water and sugary juices.

When I arrived there, on Friday night, both buildings were surrounded by the police. I wasn’t allowed to enter the hotel but was told by the authorities there wasn’t a single refugee there.

“Where are they?” Mazar asked, intrigued. The police said they had no idea. Inside Velesajam, aside from the Red Cross volunteers — mostly college students training to work as doctors, journalists or international relations experts — only a dozen refugees remained.

In the center of the room, women caressed their children, men tried to get some sleep. Dirty mattresses covered the entire area. The remains of destroyed cardboard shipping boxes, once filled with donated food, piled up to the ceiling.

“They were late,” said one of the volunteers, who refused to give his name. Another explained: “Every two hours there were three buses here ready to take them to Slovenia and Hungary. Those who weren’t here because they were walking around the city missed them.”

On Friday, Croatian authorities announced that for the last three days about 17,000 migrants have entered the country and Croatia was struggling with the influx. The official decision was to move them in buses toward Slovenia and Hungary.

“The prime minister said they would be welcome here. But they had a Plan B all along. There will be an election next month. So, the refugees are gone,” says Mazar, who grew interested in the story and wouldn’t rest until he found out where the refugees have been taken.

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said Friday that Croatians “have hearts, but also have heads,” when describing the country’s response to the wave of migrants crossing the border.

Some of the refugees that left Zagreb Friday ended up on a narrow road between the Croatian town of Harmica and the Serbian town of Rigonce. Others moved to Hungary, whose government said that more than 4,400 people had crossed from Croatia on the same day. The Slovenian riot police in Rigonce pepper sprayed the refugees to stop them from reaching their country.

A dozen of these agents remained at the border by the time I got there, fully equipped with helmets, batons and shields. Adjacent to them, looking like they’ve been standing for hours, a group of demonstrators held a huge sign asking police to let the refugees go. One Slovenian woman who refused to give her name drove to the border to protest as soon as she heard what was happening at the border.

“We need to support those who are trying to cross the border. It doesn’t matter where they were born,” she told me. She was exhausted and had some trouble speaking. “I don’t know what I’m doing here anymore,” she laughed. “These robocops,” she said, turning her angry face at the police, “they teargassed them. They even used it on the children who were standing here.”

Later in the evening, the small road was transformed into an open-air refugee camp. Some families slept in tents. Most tried to sleep on the asphalt, twisting and turning, their eyes closed. The cold night and the poppy orange lights from the border patrol made resting an effort.

Men and women tried to cover their faces with blankets or plastic bags. They squeezed around their children, their toys and small shoes scattered all over the road, abandoned. It looked like a human jigsaw puzzle.

“I can’t look at them,” said Mazar as he scanned the scene, reminiscing. “Seeing children like this is really hard for me.”

This article was published on Mashable.

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