‘We lost trust’: Fed up with waiting, refugees begin trek to Austria

After days of limbo at Budapest’s main station, refugees decide to go on foot to continue journeys west

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BICSKE and BUDAPEST, Hungary — For much of the nearly 1,800-mile journey that has seen Hamid travel from his strife-torn home in Syria to the relative safety of Budapest’s main train station, he has been on foot. So trekking 120 miles to the Hungary-Austria border doesn’t seem insurmountable.

“We have come from Syria, walking most of the way, so this is possible for us,” he said as he strode across the Budapest’s Erzsebet Bridge, the Danube River beneath him.

Hamid, a computer programmer from Damascus who declined to give his full name out of legal concerns and fear of reprisals against him or his family, wasn’t alone. Hundreds of fellow refugees were with him, forming a half-mile column destined, they hoped, for Austria, a springboard to the wealthier nations of Western and Northern Europe.

They set out earlier that day from Keleti station, the central Budapest terminal that has become the latest focal point of Europe’s refugee crisis. For days, hundreds of people were holed up there while conditions deteriorated. Refugees told Al Jazeera of garbage bins overflowing, cold nights, hot days and a lack of running water.

Having been prevented from boarding international trains and fearing removal to a asylum-processing camp, many of the refugees took to the streets Friday.

“We said we wanted to go farther, to Austria and Germany and other places where we are welcome. We don’t want to stay in Hungary. Why stay here when they treat us not like humans, when they want to put us into camps? This is not freedom,” said Hamid.

Police, who closely watched the refugees at the station as their numbers swelled in recent days, watched powerless as the group walked through central Budapest, across the Danube and west down the side of the major M1 highway toward Austria.

Traffic ground to a halt as the refugees — some with small children by their sides or on their shoulders or pushing strollers with babies — spilled off the pavement and onto the road.

Refugees in the column said they knew they may not be allowed to complete the long journey, but many said they felt they had no other option, given what they observed at Keleti this week.

After a two-day standoff with Hungarian police, in which refugees were blocked from entering the station ended on Thursday, asylum seekers poured onto trains. Most went nowhere, and crowded trains that were allowed to leave were stopped well shy of the border with Austria.

At the town of Bicske, about 20 miles west of Budapest, the train was halted, and the passengers ordered off, with the intention of being ushered to a nearby asylum seekers’ processing center.

Hundreds refused to disembark. And on Friday, frustration prompted more drastic action: Refugees who refused to leave a train that took them to a state-run camp burst from the train cars and ran down the rail line.

Minutes earlier, men called out from behind a fence separating the train from the rest of the station and vowed to set off walking to Austria unless police allowed the train to continue its journey.

“This is the last day here,” Mohammed, who is from Syria, shouted across the tracks to journalists, whom police prevented from approaching the train.

“I spoke to my friend in the camp. He said it is very bad there. The police use dogs there. If the police don’t let the train go, we will start walking tomorrow. Come with us, please, so the police don’t touch us.”

They did not wait to spend another night on the train — on which they daubed “No Hungary. Freedom Train” in shaving cream — and they set off within the hour.

At Budapest’s main train station, there was popular support among refugees for the idea of setting off on foot.

At lunchtime on Friday, two men and a woman stood on a pillar at the station entrance and, using a megaphone, told well over 1,000 refugees in the square outside that they should prepare to start walking to Austria in two hours.

“If we stay here, they will put us in camps. We know all about refugee camps where we come from,” he said in Arabic.

Gazi, 17, from Hama, Syria, translated into English as the crowd cheered and clapped. “People support this,” he said. “They are tired and frustrated. When the train left yesterday, we thought we could go to Austria and Germany, but when they took those people to a camp, we lost trust in Hungary.”

Gazi’s 16-year-old friend Nizar, also from Hama, said people traffickers were trying to profit from the refugees’ desperation to leave the station and travel west.

“They charge 1,800 euros to get to Austria. Taxi drivers are asking for 500 euros to the border. It is too expensive, and lots of people bought train tickets that they can’t use now. People want to move on. We all want to move on.”

As the man with the megaphone finished his rallying cry, the crowd chanted, “Yes, yes, yes!”

And just a few hours later, they were on the move again, toward Austria.

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