By Alexandra Cheney
BELGRADE, After a week of cold and rain, the sunny Saturday afternoon in Belgrade was a welcome relief. The park buzzed with locals relaxing on benches, or walking around the puddles dotting the sidewalk. Yet, the missing patches of grass, the large white tent, and the constantly roving groups of young men make this scene different than most parks in Belgrade.
Located on Karađorđeva Street, roughly a block from Belgrade’s main train station, this small park has been a main stage for the current European refugee crisis. Starting in early 2015, refugees hoping to reach western Europe began arriving en masse in Belgrade, usually staying for only a few days, and then moving on. This mass migration has mostly involved refugees from Syria, but also encompasses other Middle Eastern countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and even a few from Somalia.
Yet today, the park no longer gives the sense of bustling activity that has occupied the space for these past months. It has reached full circle in many ways. At the beginning refugees were predominately young men. At the peak of summer it was common to see women and children traveling. Now again in the park zero women are to be seen, with only one young boy visible, who dashes across the square to tap his friend on the shoulder – handing him a cup of coffee.
This assumption of age can be rushed and wrong. Eeljeh, who chooses to only give his first name, looks like a young man. His stunning hazel eyes are set in a handsome and intelligent tanned face. He is dressed in a plain black t-shirt, dusty jeans, yet his brilliantly clean black, green, and white Reeboks visible from across the square. Eeljeh spoke English in a quiet, reserved manner, carefully choosing each word. While bashful at first, he speaks proudly of his three younger siblings back home in Afghanistan, emphasizing that he is the oldest. But now he is traveling alone.
“[It was a] bad journey… especially in Bulgaria… no shelter no place to sleep… nothing… everybody all shaking.” Eeljeh says without emotion. While young, Eeljeh has aged much beyond his years. Called away by friends he has made on the journey, Eeljeh reluctantly bid farewell.
Eeljeh plans to stay in Belgrade for two days, before leaving for Germany. This mirrors the plans of many refugees. Given this temporary presence, along with the general slowing of new arrivals, the park and other spaces used by refuges are slowly being reclaimed by locals.