Hassan, a 30-year old IT engineer from Syria, was still shaken from having been forced by smugglers to drive an overloaded boat full of fellow migrants to Greece from Turkey.
Standing in a queue for a bus inside Hungary, he had his young nephew on his back, the boy’s head bandaged after being cut by razor wire as he and his family tried to cross into the visa-free part of the European Union from Serbia.
The three-year-old had stood up as they crawled through a triple-cylinder razor wire erected by Hungary on its southern border to try to keep out the streams of migrants trying to reach western Europe.
They turned back, but, like thousands of others, found another way in, defying the growing odds stacked against them by European states who say they are being overrun.
Hassan made the risky and arduous journey from Hama, Syria with his sister and brother-in-law and their three and five-year old sons to seek safety and a living in Germany.
“It’s raining bombs there. ISIS, the Syrian Army … death is free in Syria,” Hassan said.
“We came at night and surrendered to the Hungarian border police. But there were too many people, and the police did not want to allow us to cross the border … so we tried to jump the fence.”
When the smaller boy hurt his head, they mopped up the blood and bandaged it but were not able to treat the two-inch-cut and were worried it would get infected.
So they found an opening in the fence where a nearly defunct railway line crosses the border, and walked through, joining a crowd of migrants on the Hungarian side who were waiting to be taken in a police bus to a nearby reception centre. While waiting for the bus, Hassan told their story.
SHOTS IN THE AIR
“We took the normal way. A smuggler took us to Turkey, where we paid for hotels along the way. Then we took the death boat,” he said, referring to the large numbers of migrants who drown when rickety and overloaded vessels capsize.
Somewhere near Izmir in Turkey, about 50 people were told to get onto a boat that could carry no more than 40, Hassan said, to take them to Militini on the Greek island of Lesbos.
“When the ten who were left there said they didn’t fit, the smuggler fired a round of shots in the air from his machine gun and yelled at us to go and get on the boat,” he said.
“We thought they would give us someone to drive the boat but they did not. They told me to drive it. I drove the boat. It was very scary.”
Hassan said they paid $1,150 each for the boat trip, and half of that for the children. A record 50,000 migrants hit Greece by boat from Turkey in July alone.
After spending three days in Greece, where they were given food and tents, they crossed into Macedonia just as security forces began a bid to close the southern frontier.
“The police beat us and gassed us,” Hassan said. Finally, on Sunday more than 5,000 migrants entered Serbia after being let through by Macedonia, which had they crossed into from Greece.
This wave of migrants, bigger than ever so far this year, has now reached Hungary and the numbers are bound to grow as the smugglers’ network has become highly sophisticated.
“Everything is on the internet. There are Facebook pages, in Arabic, where you can find all the information. Phone numbers for smugglers in every country, even reviews on whether they are a good smuggler or a bad smuggler,” Hassan said.
“A good smuggler is one that will take you across. A bad one may take your money or kidnap people. Smugglers are like a mafia.”