I had never imagined that I would be doing a refugee story practically on my own doorstep. I had been following reports for quite a while on what was happening in Syria and the tragedies in the Mediterranean where hundreds of refugees drowned after their boats sank. The wave of Syrian refugees, however, quickly took a different course—across the Balkans, through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and now Slovenia, my homeland.
As early as September 2015, I decided to spend a week documenting the situation on the Croatian-Serbian border. I simply felt that I had to see and understand the situation with my own eyes. After a four-hour drive, the first scene I witnessed was a shock. A visibly exhausted pregnant woman, with her husband and child, were hurrying alongside a train calling for help. However, the police merely instructed them to keep calm and get on a train to continue their journey towards Hungary.
I began to realize the horrible reality and scale of it all. Every day, hundreds of buses arrived at the border, full of people from different countries—from Syria to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. I saw increasing numbers of young men and boys, wishing to find a better life in Northern Europe—Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.
Then a new wave of refugees hit Slovenia after Hungary closed its borders—a flood of people the likes of which Slovenia had never encountered before. In a single day, over 13,000 people would enter the country.
A colleague and I arrived at the eastern village of Rigonce, where most of the refugees arrived in the late evening. We received quite a shock. At the end of the village, on a meadow next to the Sotla River, a group of at least 1,000 people were waiting. They had entered Slovenia on foot, crossed a bridge from the Croatian side where they had arrived by train, and walked for about 15 minutes to reach the meadow. The scenes were startling, as if from another planet. The village that was once declared the most beautiful village in the Brežice municipality—the village where people tend to their farms, raise livestock, and lead peaceful lives—was suddenly faced with an incoming exodus. In the cold night, people were lying on the ground, trying to catch a few hours of sleep. They kept asking me: Where are we? When would we be allowed to proceed towards Northern Europe?
Mothers asked me for food and blankets, when they would be able to continue their journey, and where the camps were located. They made fires with whatever was at hand—from trash, plastic, and trees, to clothes discarded by previous groups. I walked around the families, sat down at the fire, and watched these faces from faraway lands now gathered in the tiny country beneath the Alps. The fire colored and warmed their faces, and brought to my mind scenes from Bethlehem.
In the first two weeks, 120,000 refugees and migrants crossed Slovenia, most of whom passed through the village of Rigonce in the first ten days. One night, I was traveling with a group of 3,000-4,000 migrants. Many of them were whole families; they were tired and trying to cope with the cold. In such moments, it's hard to come up with words.
The wave of migrants flooding Europe is certainly huge. One wonders where all of these people are going to end up and what the future holds for them.
By far, the most touching moment for me occurred early one morning. A limping mother and son, who didn't speak English, were unable to keep the pace of the group and fell behind. The expression on the woman's face was full of fear and despair. Her son, whose boots were too big, struggled to carry a heavy backpack and at one moment he collapsed. I had no choice but to help him and carry his backpack for a while. Fortunately, a volunteer came along with a car and picked them up.
As of the beginning of 2016, the situation has improved. Croatia has begun to bring refugees to Slovenia by trains so that they don't have to cross the fields and villages on the border on foot. The Schengen border rules have finally changed, and European leaders decided at a crisis meeting that the refugees would be taken into Slovenia by train. They wouldn't have to walk through Rigonce and wait for hours anymore. From just September through December, over 450,000 refugees and migrants crossed Slovenia. The number is still rising.
It's difficult to understand the refugee crisis from the safety of one's home—the images seem so foreign and distant. When you find yourself, as a reporter, among the freezing, exhausted people with children, you're simply a human being touched by the suffering. Children's and human rights come first—nobody deserves to be left without food and a roof over their head. I can't imagine what it must be like to pack your life in a suitcase or backpack and leave on such a long and arduous journey.