A stroll along the Danube

The sun was shining and the weather in Belgrade was humid and sultry – I was surprised by the heat, but in summer it can reach 40°C and the humidity is stifling. I headed down to the Sava riverfront in the hope that there might be a breeze. There wasn’t much but, as I walked to where the Sava and the Danube rivers meet, there was wind enough to power some sailing boats.

The old wharf area along this stretch of the Sava sits under the immense bulk of the Kalemegdan Fortress, it’s a commanding presence. Until a few years ago this was a rundown industrial area with a row of warehouses looking for a new purpose in life. Today, they’ve been transformed into a number of restaurants serving delicious food that comes with river views.

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

The Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

In a city as hilly as Belgrade the riverfront is pleasantly flat. No surprise then that this is one of the more popular cycle routes in the city. It makes for easy walking as well, so I continued on my way past where the Sava and Danube meet along the banks of one of the world’s great rivers.

The Danube is redolent of history. The river has been the central character in the social, political, economic and cultural evolution of this entire region. It is a mystical, magical river which begins life as little more than a trickle in the Black Forest of Germany. By the time it reaches Belgrade it is a majestic sight. It’s no surprise that it has been immortalised in music and literature over the centuries.

Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz might be the most famous example of the influence the Danube has had on art, but it is just one example. As well as featuring prominently in the Bulgarian national anthemn and in a Jules Verne novel, the Danube can boast its own ‘school’ of painting. Not many rivers can make that claim.

I had a wonderful walk along the river, lots of people were out enjoying the weather and there was a holiday feeling in the air. I’d only seen the Danube once before, that was years ago in Bratislava when it was still part of Czechoslovakia rather than modern day Slovakia. I remember the thrill of seeing the river, seeing it again was like visiting an old friend.

I reached Marina Dorcol na Dunavu, a small port for leisure craft, beyond which it was difficult to go further. The area suddenly became run down, industrial and a bit unpleasant, so steering inland I made my way back into Belgrade. Just beyond the marina is the port of Belgrade where hundreds of cargo ships dock each year, coming either from the Black Sea or from the river to the north.

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

Parliament building, Belgrade, Serbia

It doesn’t take long to reach the centre of Belgrade, and I spent the rest of the day wandering its atmospheric streets, which literally teem with life. I made a a stop or two at a couple of the city’s many ice cream parlours. I visited churches with beautifully ornate interiors (no photos allowed), one even had a wedding going on, no one seemed to mind another onlooker. I found myself in the shopping district and walking past the parliament until the heat got the better of me.

I made one last sweep through the lovely old Skadarlija area, had lunch at a  pavement cafe, washed down with a local microbrew, and then it was back to the hotel and a taxi to Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport. My time in Belgrade was all too short, but I’m glad I had time to explore the city. It’s made me want to go back.

Belgrade’s war scars

What do fictional human being Donald Trump and the capital city of Serbia have in common? Had I not been in Belgrade and heard it for myself I doubt I would have believed it, but the preposterously haired Trump has a ‘special’ relationship with the city. Trump (which, for anyone of my generation and British, is another word for ‘fart’), intends to build a five-star hotel in the heart of Belgrade.

It’s not just any hotel that Fart, sorry Trump, wants to build, he intends to raise a hotel phoenix-like from the ashes, or in this case rubble, of the former headquarters of the Federal Ministry of Defence. The buildings were destroyed by NATO warplanes on May 7, 1999, and have been left in their current condition ever since.

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

The attacks on the Ministry of Defence were just one of many that NATO carried out in Belgrade and the rest of Serbia, as part of attempts to end the war in Kosovo. A war started when the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević tried to tighten Serb control over Kosovo. It escalated into a one-sided battle between the Yugoslav military, supported by Serbian militias and police, and Kosovar Albanian forces.

At least 400,000 Kosovar Albanians became refugees during the war; while thousands more died at the hands of Serb troops and militias, who unleashed a wave of ethnic cleansing against Kosovars.  Milošević’s government did nothing to prevent the killing, and quite a lot to facilitate it, one of the many reasons he died in a prison cell belonging to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Despite the mass graves found in Kosovo, victims of war crimes, Serbia feels wronged by the NATO attacks. Serbia has some support, Amnesty International has called NATO’s attack on the Serbian TV headquarters in which 16 people died, a war crime. Yet it’s striking that the destroyed Ministry of Defence buildings are next to the largest military recruiting poster I’ve ever seen. Hardly a signal that lessons have been learned.

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Bombed Federal Ministry of Defence buildings, Belgrade, Serbia

Maybe transforming these bombed out monuments to some of the darkest moments in recent European history, will provide psychological closure for Belgraders. Maybe not. After all, even if he does like to build hotels, Trump hardly seems like the sort of man interested in building bridges.

Kalemegdan Fortress, home of Serbian Despots

Despots are very misunderstood people. Mainly, it turns out, because modern usage of the word has been corrupted from its former meaning. During the Byzantine Empire it meant ‘Lord’ and was an official title used. Serbia was part of Byzantium and Serb rulers became known as despots.

I looked this up after visiting the Despot Stefan Tower in Belgrade’s magnificent Kalemegdan Fortress. Despot Stefan was a model despot, regarded as one of finest military leaders of his time, he was a political and economic moderniser who was also a prolific patron of the arts and a highly regarded writer. Despot Stefan made Belgrade Serbia’s capital in 1403 and rebuilt much of the Kalemegdan Fortress.

Situated high above the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, the Kalemegdan Fortress literally dominates the the city of Belgrade. It is a massive structure, with layer upon layer of defensive walls and ditches, its huge size hinting Belgrade’s former importance. The history of Kalemegdan is the history of Belgrade and Serbia.

As well as being one of Serbia’s most historic sites, and providing impressive views over the Danube and Sava Rivers, Kalemegdan Fortress has the distinction of being the largest park in Belgrade. Serbs would also add that it’s free. I walked around the walls, taking in the dramatic views and enjoying the holiday atmosphere as Serbs in their hundreds visited the park.

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

The confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

The confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

The confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

The confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

It’s a great place to spend a morning wandering around and, while it’s full of interesting things to see, it’s the spectacular views over the confluence of the Danube and Sava that steal the show. From high up in the Kalemegdan Fortress, a place that has been fortified for over 2000 years, you can see that the Danube is a mighty river.

Sail south and you arrive at the Back Sea with access to the Mediterranean. Sail north and Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, The Netherlands and the North Sea await. Rivers connected Belgrade with trade routes north, south, east and west. No wonder it’s been fought over and destroyed so many times throughout history.

It’s a history with more plot twists than a Raymond Chandler novel. Prehistoric tribes lived here before a flourishing Celtic culture took root around 300BC; the Roman Empire conquered the region; when that split in two it was replaced by Byzantium, the Eastern Roman Empire. Attila the Hun dropped by and ravaged the region in the 5th Century.

The first written record of the name Belgrade came in 878AD. Armies of Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land stopped here. By the time the Third Crusade passed by, Belgrade was in ruins and Byzantium was in chronic decline. The arrival of the Middle Ages saw the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which would come to dominate Serbia and Belgrade for over 400 years.

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Ottoman rule was occasionally swapped for Austrian as the Ottomans and Austro-Hungarian Empire fought for dominance. When Serbia gained independence in 1882, Belgrade became its capital. Austro-Hungary’s attack on Serbia in 1914 kick-started the First World War, and Belgrade was destroyed by the fighting. Yet in 1918, it became capital of a united Yugoslavia.

Things calmed down until 1941 when Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite Pact, entering into a defensive agreement with Germany, Italy and Japan. This sparked a revolt against the government and Germany invaded. Once again Belgrade was destroyed. The Allies destroyed the city again in 1944. It was eventually captured by the Red Army, never a good thing to happen to a city.

WWI statue to France, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

WWI statue to France, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

WWI statue to France, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

WWI statue to France, Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Statue in Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Statue in Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Tito’s communists took control for the next 46 years until the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. This sparked a regional conflict throughout the 1990s, culminating in the Bosnian War, widespread human rights abuses and genocide against Bosnian muslims. Most war crimes were carried out by ethnic Serbs. Renewed fighting in 1999 over Kosovo resulted in NATO bombing Belgrade, the scars of which still remain.

Selfie in front of the Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Selfie in front of the Kalemegdan Fortress, Belgrade, Serbia

Serb history is a roller coaster ride, and you can feel the weight of that history when stood in the Kalemegdan Fortress.

Belgrade, a giant canvass for street art

Belgrade can appear like a vast open-air gallery. Walking around, it seems like every building and wall has been converted into a makeshift canvass. Apparently, street art is a relatively new phenomena, but as a form of expression it has swept through the city like wildfire. Today street artists from around the world come here to create works, and Serbian artists travel abroad to reciprocate.

One of Belgrade’s most famous murals is by Italian street artist, Blu. Taking up the whole side of a building, it’s a little faded but it’s definitely a city devouring a forest. Painted in 2009 as a critique of contemporary consumerist society destroying nature, it epitomises the political commentary of much of Belgrade’s street artists, who are often critical of the government, media and corruption.

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

That said, I arrived at Blu’s Cities vs. Nature mural via a stairway beneath an underpass that was home to far less political works: a naked woman with large exaggerated breasts is just one of several dozen paintings on an exit from a highway. I’m surprised more accidents don’t happen on this stretch of road.

Cities v Nature, Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Cities v Nature, Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Later that same day, as I wandered back to my hotel, I spotted an alleyway that had graffiti everywhere, including a Banksy-like rat with machine gun. I always loved the Banksy rats. There was one I passed most days on my way to work in London, just a single rat defiantly holding a placard which read, “Go back to bed”. There were mornings when I could have joined the protest.

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

A few years back, Belgrade’s street art made it into the pages of that flag bearer of neo-liberal economics, The Economist. One of the interesting points of the article is that graffiti was once the preserve of ultra nationalists and right wing football hooligans (in which Serbia specialises ); but the modern street art scene is far more cosmopolitan, international and tolerant.

This anguished artistic flourishing amongst a post-war generation seems like something worth celebrating.

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade’s street art scene

There is graffiti everywhere in Belgrade. It’s a city that would keep former New York Mayor, Rudolph ‘Zero Tolerance’ Giuliani, awake at night. Although the theory that graffiti and broken windows in neighbourhoods leads inexorably to an increase in serious crime, seems to be debunked in Belgrade. It’s a city that feels safer than a lot I’ve visited.

The majority of Belgrade’s graffiti is of the usual ‘tagging’ sort that I neither find interesting or aesthetically appealing. A number of areas around the city have fabulous collections of thought-provoking street art though. The Ghost People of Savamala are just one example.

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Savamala is a run-down district that has become a vibrant artistic and cultural hub, as well as a nightlife hotspot. The Ghost People are the work of artists Tijana Tripkovic and Barbara Dimic, who use them to highlight the plight of local people being pushed out of the area by a planned redevelopment: the Belgrade Waterfront Project.

Financed by a Dubai-based firm, Eagle Hills, the project will ‘transform’ Savamala from an atmospheric neighbourhood in need of some love and a lick of paint, into Dubai by the Danube. Savamala’s culture and traditions will be erased by towers of glass and steel housing shopping malls, over-priced ‘luxury’ apartments and office space the city won’t be able to fill.

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Everyone I spoke to said the Waterfront Project got permission because a corrupt government had been influenced by money. Most people were blunter than that. Rudolph Giuliani would probably be in favour, but what price the loss of culture and tradition when local people are displaced? After visiting this wonderful area, it would be a terrible shame to lose such a vibrant place to international blandness.

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

In other parts of the city are more street art hotspots, but Savamala is unique in attracting some of the most creative street artists. The Brankov Most bridge, connecting old Belgrade with New Belgrade, cuts through the district, giving it an even grittier urban feel. Wander under the bridge and you find the giant La Santa de Beograd covering the side of a four storied building.

Symbolising the constant destruction and rebirth of Belgrade over the centuries, La Santa de Beograd by artist Giom Olbi Remed is a dramatic sight, whether viewed from the road below or from the Brankov Most. It’s become an iconic feature of Belgrade’s cityscape.

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Ghost People of Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

Nearby are stairs leading up to the top of the bridge, the whole side covered in yet more street art. This area feels similar to the Hoxton area in London – well the Hoxton area of 15 years ago when Banksy was still a street artist rather than an international celebrity. I like that about it but, just like Hoxton, it seems Savamala is going to get gentrified.

La Santa de Beograd, street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

La Santa de Beograd, street art, Savamala, Belgrade, Serbia

The crumbling glory of Belgrade

I doubt many people visit Belgrade for the architecture. That’s a shame. A bizarre mix of elegant 18th and 19th Century neoclassical, early 20th Century modernism, post-Second World War communist brutalism and a scattering of more ancient buildings, give Belgrade an intriguing cityscape. One  found only in a formerly magnificent capital that survived a half century of communist didactic.

I loved walking around Belgrade’s vibrant streets, but it would be hard to describe the city as ‘beautiful’. Fascinating, yes. Welcoming, definitely. Beautiful, not conventionally. Buildings have crumbling facades, paint is peeling, graffiti is ubiquitous. It feels almost like a place suspended in time, decaying grandeur slowly turning to dust. First impressions can be misleading though, and Belgrade turned out to be full of surprises.

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade train station, Serbia

Belgrade train station, Serbia

It’s a city in need of a facelift, but probably not the one planned for the historic but neglected Savamala neighbourhood. Everyone I talked to objected to its planned redevelopment. Beautiful old buildings would be replaced by steel and glass towers of overpriced apartments most Serbs can’t afford. Everyone said government corruption was to blame.

People may not come for the architecture but they do come for the lively atmosphere. Careworn Belgrade may be, but it’s a captivating city with immense spirit. It’s gained a reputation as the hedonistic nightlife capital of the Balkans, symbolised by boats converted into nightclubs on the Sava river. Attracting a party crowd, these floating bacchanals close only when the sun comes up.

More traditional, and sedate, nightlife can be found around the Skadarlija area, known locally as the Bohemian Quarter – the traditional home of writers and artists, now joined by digital developers and graphic artists. Tucked in behind the ancient Kalemegdan fortress this is the historic heart of Belgrade and is pure pleasure to explore.

Along with more edgy Savamala, Skadarlija forms Belgrade’s contemporary artistic and cultural centre. Trendy, youthful bars mingle with traditional coffee houses, boutique clothes shops share space with street food stalls; the atmosphere is relaxed and fun. Pull up a pavement chair at one of the cafes or bars and watch the world go by.

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Serbia

In the heart of Skadarlija, pedestrianised and cobbled Skadar Street is a little piece of history. Lined with bars and restaurants serving up Serbian staples it is about as touristy (not very) as Belgrade gets. I came here one night with some Serb colleagues and, while eating my own body weight in traditional dishes, had the pleasure of Serbian folk music played live by roving bands of musicians.

Serbian folk songs are full of the pain of Serbia’s history. Never ask a Serb to explain a folk song, not unless you’ve got time to spare to be brought up to speed on centuries of woe. Serbia was a victim of geography long before the destruction of World War II, the Iron Curtain and the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia that saw it become a pariah state.

Skadar Street, Belgrade, Serbia

Skadar Street, Belgrade, Serbia

Skadar Street, Belgrade, Serbia

Skadar Street, Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

Belgrade architecture, Skadarlija district, Serbia

Caught between east and west, it was subjugated by the Ottoman Empire for 500 years, occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and ransacked by its neighbours. Situated at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, Belgrade had strategic importance, and was occupied and razed to the ground dozens of times.

Serbs rebelled more times than you can count, on each occasion the dream of an independent Serb kingdom was crushed. At one point an Ottoman army of 300,000 descended upon Belgrade, destroyed all opposition and forcibly deported the entire population to Turkey. There is a mournful song for each of these occasions.

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Even when Serbs managed to beat the Turks, it ended in disaster. One folk song recounts Serbia’s great victory at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The Turkish army was beaten, the Sultan killed and Europe rejoiced at being saved from Ottoman conquest. The only problem? The Serb army and its leaders had been decimated.

This ‘victory’ opened the way for Hungary to take control of the country. The Turks were back again in 1459, and this time they would stay for more than four centuries. Serbia would have to wait until 1882 for its independence. Serbs have long memories, and ironically this history is one reason they find it so hard to accept Kosovan independence.

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade, Serbia

As I said, only ask a Serb about their folk songs if you haven’t made plans for the weekend.

Face to face with Europe’s refugee crisis

I’m not predisposed to emotional outbursts, a result of an upbringing under the dour grey skies of Northern England. So I thought twice about writing this blog. Not because I’m afraid of showing emotion, or of expressing my opinion; it’s more that, in the face of overwhelming suffering, whatever I write might sound trite or, worse, self righteous.

“Sitting here in my safe European home”, as The Clash song goes, I feel a profound shame at our collective failure to respond to the humanitarian crisis unfolding between Europe and Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria…on and on the list goes. My writing about it isn’t going to help. Yet warm, dry, safe in my Dutch home, I feel compelled to write.

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

It’s a different story for the thousands of refugees I witnessed recently in Belgrade. People torn from their homes, separated from their families, throwing themselves into a terrifying world to escape an even more terrifying fate. To many, these people are migrants, a  term now loaded with loathing. A term that seems interchangeable with ‘non-person’ or ‘sub-human’ in the minds of some.

I find that attitude repugnant. I’ve never seen more humanity, however desperate, however impoverished by circumstance. The people – mainly from Syria and Iraq – sleeping rough or in tents in the parks of Belgrade, contrast sharply with the lack of humanity shown to them by Europe’s political class.

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

I found myself staying in a hotel overlooking a refugee transit camp in central Belgrade – irony doesn’t get much more ironic than that. It was raining hard when I first arrived and conditions in the park deteriorated quickly amongst the temporary shelters and inadequate tents. There were no international agencies, no EU, just local (inadequate) services, and the kindness of ordinary Serbs.

After walking through the camp and meeting a few people – a remarkable number of whom speak English – my conclusion is that it is, and our politicians are, profoundly immoral to do next to nothing to help each and every refugee fleeing war and terror.

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

As an individual, it’s overwhelming to witness so many men, women and children, young and old, trying to find safety. It made me feel helpless. Surely though, it’s not beyond the ability of the wealthiest continent on the planet to do better than this?

I’ll leave off the moralising, the political commentary, after all there are acres of newsprint and hours of TV broadcasts to fill that gap. I won’t even point the finger of blame at those who are ultimately responsible for this crisis…you know who you are.

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

Refugee transit camp, Belgrade, Serbia

I’ll say only this. It’s easy to dehumanise the vulnerable, the weak, those in desperate need; and, because it’s easy, we must all keep reminding ourselves and our politicians that the people in the parks of Belgrade, lost at sea in the Mediterranean, and scrambling to cross a border in the hope of living a life of dignity, are just that, people. If we value our own dignity, we must value theirs also.