on the Hungarian-Austrian border
The view Marwan had through the bus window was mainly of drizzle. His “seat” was just a few inches of the step next to the bus door. He had walked for much of Friday in the rain and hadn’t slept all night.
Yet when dawn broke on Saturday he had significant cause to be cheerful. “I’m happy,” smiled the 19-year-old Syrian electrical engineering student. “Finally I’m getting out of Hungary.”
Marwan was not the only one. After months of arresting refugees as they tried to cross the country, and days of blocking them from boarding trains to northern Europe, the Hungarian government finally agreed late on Friday night to take thousands of them in a convoy to the Austrian border.
The first arrived at about 3am, but by 9am there were still dozens of co-opted blue commuter buses snaking their way through western Hungary, some still 60km from Austria.
The Hungarians were shamed into action after about 1,000 people, frustrated at being banned from the trains, suddenly began marching on Friday from Budapest towards Austria.
It was dubbed the “march of hope”. But it ended in a more forlorn fashion, with a large crowd of refugees camped near a motorway in heavy rain. A group of stragglers – including babies in buggies and a man on crutches – were stranded 10km further back.
“Some of them were vomiting,” said Gabor, a 39-year-old Hungarian engineer, who tied a blanket between a tree and his car to shelter the refugees. “They are women and children – I’m amazed they got this far.”
Embarrassed by the squalid scenes, or frustrated at the effect it had on traffic, officials finally caved in and sent municipal buses to take the sodden walkers the rest of the way to the border.
But at the stragglers’ makeshift camp, the buses did not arrive until 4.45am, leaving its members shivering in the drizzle and darkness for more than six hours. Some of them in only shorts and T-shirts.
“I just don’t understand,” said Marwan, who is travelling with an Iraqi called Ahmad, who fled Isis-held Mosul last month. “We come from a country that has been torn apart by war. We’re not criminals and we don’t want to sabotage anything.”
Despite the presence of volunteers, a less friendly sort of Hungarian regularly drives past. “I hope you die,” comes a familiar refrain from a passing car. “And your mother too.”
Just as the 100 shivering in the lay-by began to lose hope, a trio of coaches creaked to a halt. Earlier, some had said they wouldn’t get on board, suspicious of a Hungarian administration that earlier this week took refugees to camps despite promising to take them to the border. “Who’s organising it, the Hungarians?” asked Ali, another Syrian, earlier in the night. “Forget it, I’m walking.”
But several hours later, almost everyone was too sodden and too tired to care. They squeezed into every available space in the buses, standing in the aisles, sitting on the steps, and crushed against the doors. Within minutes a silence hung over the coach as most of the passengers fell asleep.
For the Afghans, this would be their eighth border crossing since leaving home; for the Syrians, their sixth. They were already shattered. But the tipping point has been Hungary, where they were neither welcomed, nor wanted to settle, yet where they were inexplicably forced to spend most of the time dealing with police and bureaucracy.
When dawn breaks, the mood brightens slightly. In the daylight, people can see the land they’re passing, and Austria seems a tangible possibility.
At every toilet break, the passengers disembark to see that their bus is just one part of a blue line of coaches that stretches into the distance. After days of limbo in camps and train stations in Hungary, this is visible proof that their departure is now an inevitability.
Even a temporary engine failure does not dampen their spirits. They use the time to take selfies outside the bus. Ahmad, who earlier was grumbling about the Hungarian police, now only has thoughts for the future. “The only thing that matters,” he says, is “that I’m going to Austria”.