Fifty young men line up in a Belgrade park where aid workers hand them supplies for the journey ahead – a backpack each, containing a torch, phone and blanket.
But the aid organisations can do little more for the migrants, since the Balkan route to western Europe was officially closed. To reach their destinations, they must now rely on their wits, determination and shadowy people-smugglers.
Esan Ahmadzia, an IT manager from Afghanistan, says he ran into trouble with the Taliban and is heading for Germany to join his family. Javid from Pakistan wants to go to Italy.
Balkan states have tried to seal their borders, but for many migrants, Serbia still offers a risky path to a better future.
The smugglers can charge thousands of dollars and expose the migrants to grave danger – anything from armed robbery to drowning.
More than 650,000 people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa trudged through Serbia last year on their way to the European Union, but in March the borders closed, leaving thousands trapped on the Macedonian frontier.
A deal between the European Union and Turkey has stemmed the armada of rubber boats reaching Greece and several other countries in the region have closed their borders to migrants.
But people are still reaching Serbia via Macedonia or Bulgaria – a steady influx of around 200 a day, according to the Belgrade Asylum Information Centre.
Smaller numbers are arriving in Serbia via a new route from Greece via Albania and Kosovo, refugee experts say.
Most migrants use smugglers to get into Serbia and will use them to reach EU member state Hungary. Before borders closed, refugees had free passage on this last leg of the route to western Europe.
A few dozen a day are allowed into Hungary, families with children having priority. Those refused often try to cross the border fence illegally. Migrant support groups report some are beaten and robbed.
“It’s absolutely impossible to stop migration. They say they don’t have any alternative,” Rados Djurovic of Serbia’s Asylum Protection Centre told Reuters.
“People are using more risky ways and they are coming.”
Refugees gather in central Belgrade to meet the smugglers. One open space near the bus station is known as the Syrian park, while over the road is the Afghan park. A bed for the night is on offer at an asylum centre just outside the city.
At the Krnjaca centre, Shekib Daqiq, 35, said he left Afghanistan because he was threatened after working as an interpreter for the French army. His journey with his family via Baluchistan and Turkey was fraught with danger.
He became separated from his wife, Nilo, and two of his children after walking for five hours through a forest in Bulgaria. The three were later deported to Turkey, he said.
In Serbia, the vehicle smugglers were using to transport him crashed and caught fire. Daqiq then walked for hours, his face covered in blood and six-year-old son Sadi on his shoulders.
Daqiq hopes to reach France: “If the government of France helps me, it’s not difficult.”
Also at the Krnjaca centre is Rezan Ibrahim, 44, a Kurdish teacher who said she had fled murders, kidnappings and threats in Iraq. Serbia is “very good”, but asked if she wants to go to Germany, she replies: “Of course.”
She said the journey so far had cost nearly 22,000 euros (17,163 pounds) for her and her three children, in payments to smugglers. For the next leg she will have to pay again, with smugglers charging up to 1,500 euros to travel through Serbia into Hungary.
Saman Ali Vjestica of the Asylum Information Centre said smugglers demanded 7,000 euros to get people from Greece to western Europe, or 15,000 from their country of origin. The route into Serbia via Bulgaria is cheaper but migrants say they suffer more there at the hands of smugglers and security forces.
Routes through Serbia are often controlled by smugglers from Pakistan or Afghanistan, with locals providing transport and accommodation, Asylum Centre officials said.
Serbia’s people-smugglers are looking for a share of a business worth more than $5 billion in southern Europe last year, according to international police agencies.
Police have this year charged 187 suspects with trying to smuggle 1,323 people across Serbia’s borders.
Those working with refugees say that by the time they reach Serbia, they will not be stopped by closed borders.
“Europe is there,” said Djurovic. “You can grab it already.” (REUTERS)
(Writing by Giles Elgood; editing by Andrew Roche)
There was once a girl from the rural areas of Pakistan, South Asia. At the young age of 16, she was forcibly married off by her parents. Her husband turned out to be an inebriated womanizer. She tried to live with him, producing a son, and tried to put up with his infractions. When it became too much to ignore, she would complain. He then silenced her by using brute force, punches and kicks. Unable to bear the toll her marriage was taking on her mental and physical well-being, she deserted her man and her child, and left the village. Arriving in the metropolis of Lahore, she decided to make it big in the entertainment industry. To her mind, the simplest way to achieve this was to use a pseudonym and social media as the medium of exposure. So she went on the offensive with her frequent uploads which soon went viral; dressing provocatively, gyrating and singing sensuously; recording video messages for Pakistani male celebrities; and even proposing marriage to cricketer turned
politician Imran Khan. People began to notice her. Gradually this woman, once a victim of domestic abuse, evolved into Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian. Employing a ruse as a whistleblower in one instance, she inadvertently exposed a Mufti and created a furore in the wake of the incident. But everyone watching her videos, was not a fan. There was something dark lurking beyond the pale of adulation, that she was finally able to sense and wake up to. Calling an urgent press conference one day, she begged for the media to leave her alone or to provide her with protection. They had had the temerity to fish out her passport details and her birth name and hold it up for the world to see. It was the last time the public saw her speak. Weeks later, on the 15th of July 2016, she was found dead
in the home she had bought for her parents and siblings; strangled to death in her sleep, by her own brother who had grown irate by reading the lecherous comments of her fans and thought that she had brought dishonour to her family.
Only, this is not the script of a film. It is the biography of Pakistani internet celebrity Qandeel Baloch. Now, her life has been immortalized into a television drama named ‘Baaghi’, or ‘Rebel’. Qandeel’s homicidal brother Waseem Azeem, confessed to the crime, saying that his sister’s licentious moves, had brought disrepute to their clan. The shocking incident was condemned by a number of Paki public figures who bear a liberal image among the masses. Two of these were the late human rights activist Ms. Asma Jahangir, and chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Mr. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Qandeel’s tragedy is not an exception. She joins a long list of victims in Pakistan, who have paid with their lives for either dishonouring filial ties, or for committing Blasphemy, a crime punishable by death. As far as the latter goes, there have been at least two famous cases of women who were accused of blaspheming; Asia Bibi, and more recently, Rimsha Masih.
Asia Bibi, during a private conversation in a fruit orchard, seemingly made certain deprecatory comments about Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Someone – in all probability one of the women participants in the said conversation – then reported her to the authorities. She was arrested for the alleged crime, that had occurred on the 14th of June 2009. Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, carries the death penalty for blasphemy. Merely being reported on the flimsiest instance of supposedly speaking ill about Muhammad, can earn someone the noose in that country.
In order to indict her, the prosecution from its end, had brought forth seven witnesses, two of whom were women; Mafia Bibi, and Asma Bibi. The women claimed that after they refused to drink the water Asia had brought for them – on the grounds that she was a Christian – Asia had proceeded to lampoon Islam’s prophet. As the Pakistani media has pointed out, it is not improbable, that Afia and Asma were in a dispute over potable water with the accused, and may have used the opportunity to get rid of her. In the end, following an infirmed defence, Asia Bibi was sentenced to be hanged. The year was 2010.
Rimsha Maasih, another Christian, was accused of Blasphemy at the mere age of 14. Khalid Jadoon, a Muslim cleric, had complained to law enforcement, that Rimsha had burnt pages from the Holy Quran. Rimsha, who suffers from learning disabilities, was framed by Jadoon, but even after the courts had established this, Jadoon was let off the hook, lightly, with all charges against him being dropped. Rimsha fled to Canada with her family in tow, after she was released from gaol. The year was 2012.
Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws are unforgiving of its minorities, who face arraignment and a death sentence upon being convicted.
Honour Killing is by no means peculiar to Pakistan. It is a pan Afro-Asian epidemic, that affects women and girls who are defenceless. Sometimes, powerless men become victims too, if the perpetrators are wealthy, and connected, as India witnessed in the case of Nitish Katara’s murder. In Jordan, the parliament has long been trying to pass laws to counterbalance its record of the honour killing of girls. In the African continent, the practice is rampant, as it is in India, where caste concerns and family dictates tend to govern the lives of couples who wish to turn their relationships into a lifelong commitment.
However, even if honour killing is not restricted to Pakistan, Blasphemy is the most pronounced there, out of the entire swathe of the Indian sub-continent, which includes Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. For the committing of blasphemy, the necessary requirement is of a religion that has a founding father, whose words are written in stone. Islam is not the only religion with a founding father. So are Judaism and Christianity. However, blaspheming does not appear to scar societies with a majority Christian or Jewish population. The reason is not these religions, but the watering down of their original ethics at the hands of the European Enlightenment and the Renaissance. Islam on the other hand, did not experience any internal change on the scale of the two, and continues to remain unrepentant of its Blasphemy pogroms.
Nor is this to say, that there are no freethinkers within the Paki establishment and larger society who condemn the Blasphemy Law and are highly critical of it. Prominent humanist the late Salman Taseer, who was a long time beau of Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and the father of their son, the author Aatish Taseer, was gunned down outside his home, due to his defence of Asia Bibi, against the court’s verdict. He had been appealing for mercy on Asia’s behalf.
As case after case has revealed, inflicting a prison term or a death sentence on unsuspecting members of Pakistan’s minorities, coupled with instances where the opportunity is used for settling personal scores, have become the hallmark of the implementation of its Blasphemy Law.
Perhaps the most infamous instance of this law being in flagrant violation of basic human rights, is in the case of Mashal Khan. Mashal Khan was a medical student at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. He had been a journalist previously and had spend many years working and studying in Russia. Mashal had Leftist leanings, and took great pains to describe himself as a Humanist, above everything else. His twitter and facebook accounts, frequently dropped bombs about how the Pakistani military establishment was responsible for mind control and collateral damage and how its propaganda tactics were causing more harm to its people than good. Mashal has spoken on several occasions, about the persecution of the minorities of his country, with special focus on its Hindus. Time and again, he had advocated that his country’s problems were its own, and that it was a fruitless exercise to pin the blame on
India and its Hindus.
It is not difficult to surmise as to why he was targeted for assassination. On the fateful day of the 13th of April 2017, a large group of students from the Abdul Wali Khan University who were Mashal’s own peers, attacked him furiously inside the campus. He was lynched and shot at, being left mortally wounded. When the ambulance was called, it was already too late. Mashal’s mother later recounted, that when she kissed his hand for the last time before his burial, she found that even the bones of his fingers, were broken.
Just as there are regressive forces within Pakistan that are preventing the nation from thinking along humanist lines by riding on the coattails of its Blasphemy Laws and its ethics over Honour Killing, there is also a handful of right-minded activists, students, and leaders there, who are straining to make themselves heard. One of them had been the late Mashal.
Is there any lesson for India to learn from the occurrence and fallouts of cases related to Honour Killings and Blasphemy in Pakistan?
Let us not emulate. Blasphemy will never be a popular idea among the majority Hindus of this country, since Hinduism does not have a founding father, the religion being a conglomeration of branches of varying lengths and sizes. But freethinkers have faced the heat in recent times in this country. The murder of a Gauri Lankesh, a Narendra Dabholkar, or an M.M. Kalburgi, are proof enough, that sections of Hindus are no longer tolerant of dissent.
This is tragic. Hinduism’s many schools of philosophy, include one that deals exclusively with Atheism. Known as the Charvaka reservoir of critical analysis, this system of beliefs relies entirely on rationalism and empirical evaluation.
One can only hope, that Charvaka’s unhindered existence in the millennia of Hinduism’s history, will
prove a point to Hindus, and prevent them from going Pakistan’s way, in the realm of Blasphemy.
Tania is a freelance writer with a Masters in Defence and Strategic Studies who has a wide range of interests.