They Just Keep Coming—Inside Refugee Camp Opatovac

“Is this really Croatia?” I thought as my friend and I stumbled into the night, arms full of blankets. As our first assignment in our night shift in the refugee camp Opatovac, we had been told by a police officer to go ‘over to the white tent and down the hill to find some families who were really cold.’

Adrenalin had given way to temporary disorientation as we picked our way through the hundreds of people scattered on the ground, waiting to register and get into the camp itself.

Surrounded by Arabic with the occasional directive shouted in Croatian—trash, people, tents, police, riot police—all of a sudden I felt the chill of goosebumps and a flash of insight.

This is an extraordinary moment in history.

This is how it was for me all night—I would get used to the situation and it would begin to feel normal—and then I would be struck anew by everything around me.

This is not normal, but might become our ‘new normal.’

Opatovac is organized into several way-lay stations  before people are actually admitted into the tent city itself. First they wait, outside the gates, in lines organized by nationality to try to avoid conflicts between peoples. But even here, many had just collapsed on the ground and were sleeping, without standing in the lines.  After they are admitted pass the first gates, they sit in benches awaiting photo registration and a medical check.  Finally, they are ushered through the next gate into the tent city that can accommodate around 5,000, set down in a kind of basin, with police patrolling the earth—mounds that are raised up above the tents.  Here, they wait to get on one of the ever-flowing buses to Hungary.

My 8 hour shift stretched long into the cold night, and for most of it my friend and I stood just outside the final barrier into the tent city, handing out sleeping mats to exhausted exhausted people.  Fathers and mothers carrying blanket-swaddled babies in their arms, grandparents, people with disabilities, groups of young men who looked like they were still teenagers—everyone you could possibly imagine filed past us.

Unfortunately, they all thought they were immediately getting on a bus, as the information flow in the front of the camp is being tightly restricted.

To how many hundreds of people did we say, “I’m sorry, you are not getting on a bus right away, you are sleeping here”?

Disappointment, resignation, frustration, exhaustion, fear and uncertainty, doubt…

So many emotions flickered across their faces—so much confusing information on their journeys of 10 days-3 weeks.

But still, everyone  courteously thanked us, and most still had smiles for us.

For most of the night, we did not have enough blankets to hand out to everyone and we were told to give them only to small children.

“Please, I am so cold, ” one young man pleaded with me.

Some of them had blankets in the front before registering, but thinking they were just getting on a bus, had abandoned clothes and blankets.

In the morning, one woman writhed in her husband’s arms with horrible abdominal pain.  I took her past the initial barrier into the doctor.  She couldn’t speak English, but the severity of her pain broke down all barriers between us and she clung to me as I first took her to the toilet and then to the Arabic speaking doctor.

“We will take only her to the hospital,” the medical staff informed me.

Medical staff and police are doing their absolute best to try to  control the situation, but I blanched at the thought of her alone in the hospital.

“Please, I think her husband needs to go with her!” I begged.  I went back out to look for him in the hundreds still in line,  and when I brought him, he wrapped her in his arms as they huddled together in the medical tent.

He looks so young, I thought.  20? Doing his best to help his wife.

Doing his best: that is what many people are doing in the camp—police, Red Cross, volunteers, many of them also exhausted and working long shifts.

But the people just keep coming, with no pause, no gaps.  Hundreds and thousands of people coming over the border—an illusive hope of safety, a new home, and new possibilities  driving them forward despite all the hardships and setbacks.

For more news on the Christian response in Croatia, click here:

The Waiting

Waiting, waiting, boarding buses going somewhere, and then more waiting…


Yesterday I briefly visited the newly erected tent city  in Eastern Croatia that acts as a temporary holding place for 5,000 refugees until they are bused off to Hungary.

The line of people waiting to be processed was much shorter than the border town Tovarnik where two days ago hundreds were waiting in a single line—as far as the eye could see.  IMG_1188

Yesterday I was again struck by how powerless and out-of-control people must feel.  Some are not even sure what country they are in or where in the country they are.  Where are the buses going?  Should they believe the authorities if they tell them anything? What is happening next?

My friends working at the Slovenian/Croatian border said that yesterday when they were trying to move the entire camp back 1 km, more refugees showed up.  When they were encouraged to go back to Zagreb with the idea that from Zagreb they would be transported across the border, the people did not believe them.  IMG_1185

I can’t say I blame them.  How many times have they been given false information or no information?

I understand why so many times they just set off on foot despite the fact that they may not know where they are going or that the hoped-for destination is miles away.  For a moment you have control over your destiny—to start moving yourself rather than just waiting at the mercy of others.

I tried to imagine what it would feel like to be that out of control and powerless—but really nothing in my life can compare to their experience.

As this crisis continues to unfold, I feel like we are already in phase three of how things are changing.  We struggle to keep up with the questions and ideas for answers—but by the time you respond to one thing, something else changes. My friend Teanna is doing some great writing on the questions and challenges as this crisis continues:

As I see the dynamics changing, my question for ‘we the Church’ here in Croatia, is this: Can we work together to have a consistent and long-term ministry of presence and service to the refugees? One person, one group, one church cannot do everything.  Together, our shared power multiplies our witness and ministry rather than trying to forge your own path.