Prologue: Three years ago today I was in Budapest and I experienced this situation first hand. It remains the single most horrific thing I have ever witnessed when travelling. That night I wrote this piece. It’s as relevant today as it was then, if not more so.
Rewind 36 months…
Like the anal traveller that I am, when I was planning my trip to Budapest I made a list of all the things I wanted to see and do. After much reading and deliberation my list included, but was not limited to – Parliament, St Stephen’s Basilica, Fisherman’s Bastion, Ruin Bars, Spa Baths and a boat trip on the Danube.
I got to see and do all these things. And they didn’t disappoint. The Parliament building was every bit as grand as I expected, the Basilica was ornate and the view from its tower far-reaching. The view of Pest from the Fisherman’s Bastion was even better. I indulged in too much wine in the Ruin Bars and loved my evening cruise on the Danube when I took some beautiful photos of the city in all its illuminated glory.
But there was one sight that I saw which wasn’t on my list. I stumbled upon it quite by accident. And yet this was the experience which had the most profound effect on me during my most recent trip. Indeed, I will remember it in every minute detail for the rest of my life. More so than the beautiful architecture and bridges of Budapest, more than basking in the sun at Szeycheni baths. And even more than the wonderful day trip I took to Lake Balaton.
So what is this unexpected spectacle which affected me so deeply?
Thousands of refugees camped in Keleti station.
I was staying in the east of the city and my second morning I needed to be by the river early so rather than walking, I decided to take the metro. According to my map, the nearest station was Keleti so off I set to catch my train. The forecast for the day was 35 degrees and despite it being early, the heat was already getting close to uncomfortable.
On reaching the station, it was necessary to enter the building via an underpass and as I descended the steps to it, at the foot of them I was alarmed to see a few people sitting with their belongings. Somehow I gathered that they had been there for some time.
Then as I reached the bottom of the steps I could see more people, a family with young children, then a small gap, a group of young men, a man next to them lying on the floor covered only by a towel. There were probably 30 or 40 people in the passageway in total. In my naivety I thought how terrible it was that in the 21st Century in a developed country people were living this way.
Not wishing to stare, I carried on through the subway passage to the station. When I reached the end of the passageway, I turned a corner and it was only then that the penny dropped and the full scale of the horror hit me.
Some awake, some asleep, some sitting staring into space.
Tents, sheets, piles of belongings.
Mothers trying to console their crying children.
Older ones drawing on the ground with chalks.
A little girl sitting quietly playing with her doll.
People talking, people coughing, people clearly already having lost hope.
People for as far as I could see in every direction.
Thousands of them.
My stomach turned over and tears immediately sprang into my eyes, my heart beating fast. It was a truly horrifying scene and in an effort to describe it to you, I can only use a cliché and liken it to a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie.
I had read on the news a few weeks prior to my visit that Hungary was building a fence on its border with Serbia to stem the flow of people into its country. And it had appalled me. In my opinion, there was no place for such a division, even if this now right-wing country did not wish to offer these people homes, they were transient, not wishing to become resident in Hungary itself. But despite an awareness of the construction, and the reports of people drowning trying cross seas to reach Italy and Greece, and risking life and limb clinging to lorries crossing the Channel, I had no inkling whatsoever that this was what was actually going on in Hungary.
I think what horrified me most was the sheer number of people involved. I reckoned that morning there were about three thousand people. The following day, when the police shut the station, the news reports said ‘hundreds’. Later it was ‘thousands’. I suppose the situation was changing all the time.
Back in the station, I didn’t know what to do. There was nothing I could do except continue through the throngs of people to buy my ticket for the Metro and head on my way to continue my day. I could make no difference to the plight of so many people in such a desperate situation.
But I will tell you this. In all my travelling days, I have never seen anything like it and I hope to Almighty God that I never have to witness it again. There is huge debate in our country and the rest of Europe at the moment about what is to be done about the scale of this human catastrophe. But I guarantee that anyone who had seen what I saw that day, no matter how hard or uncaring, could not have failed to have been moved and could not have failed to have wanted to help.
Of course, we now know the full story. The following day I got a message from home to ask if I affected by the closure of the station. I found it hard to believe that such inhumane treatment of people who were only seeking safety for themselves and their families could be going on only minutes from where I was staying on jolliday.
I make no apology for the fact that this blog isn’t my usual lighthearted nonsense.
I can’t even begin to try formulate a beginning, middle and end as I normally would.
I don’t want to try find a suitable photograph to go with my words.
And I certainly didn’t take any photos myself.
I like to think of myself as a someone who can tell it how it is, warts and all. But on this occasion I am sadly lacking. I can’t explain to you the full effect of the horror and heartbreak I witnessed this morning. I can’t tell you how deeply it affected me. I can’t find the words. But I know that recalling it now brings me to tears.
Cameron’s pledge to take 20,000 refugees over the next five years is pitiful. It’s a fucking excuse. These people need our help and they need it now. They shouldn’t be having to risk their lives holed up in lorries, walking on motorways, rowing across seas in dinghies, living in railway stations – or worse still, in fields, surrounded by police, rounded up like animals.
Call them what you will, refugees, migrants, a swarm for f*ck’s sake.
These people are none of these things.
They’re human beings.
We’re all human beings.
And none of us would do anything less than everything we possibly could to protect ourselves and the ones we love.