Scenes from a Quiet Hungarian Border Town

Battonya, Hungary, Sept. 5, 2015

Heavy rains before dawn broke what has been the fourth heat wave of the summer here, where temperatures stayed above 90 and often 100 degrees for seven days or more at a time.

When the weather is that hot and humid — eastern Hungary, in particular, is a large plain surrounded by mountains, and tends to trap the worst of the dog days of summer — the best one can do is stay indoors with the lights off and the shutters drawn. The worst one could do was be out working in the blistering sun.

That was until this summer, when summer, Hungarian-style, took on a new meaning, as thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa — mostly Syrians fleeing the bloody civil war — found themselves caught up in a web of east European nationalist politics, camped out in Budapest’s Keleti Railway Station waiting for trains to the west that the government unilaterally decided to cancel.

The news this morning in the national media is what may be the end to a crisis that has stretched out for several weeks, as buses pulled up to the station at 1 a.m. Sunday, filled up with refugees, and took them to the Austrian border. Cheers, jubilation, cries of “Thank you, Austria,” came from the buses as they crossed over and made their way to Germany, where they also received a similarly warm welcome.

All while the masses waited in immigration limbo in Hungary, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been making the rounds in Brussels decrying the Muslim hordes who would overrun Christian Europe, just as the Ottomans did 500 years ago. Because somehow, that’s still relevant in the mind of a modern European nationalist, even if the rest of the world considers it to be unadulterated bullshit.

The government, led by Orbán’s nationalist right-wing party Fidesz, meanwhile has constructed a razor-wire fence along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, imposed jail times for anyone caught climbing or breaking the fence or otherwise entering the country except at the border crossing, and otherwise trying to make life as hard and miserable on the migrants as possible, as if that would make them think twice about entering the country.

The supreme irony is that for all Orbán’s posturing about keeping the refugees out, he and his party have done everything they could to make sure the refugees, once they were in the country, couldn’t leave.

And then there’s the fact that the migrants had no desire to remain in Hungary, either. Their destination was Germany, where they have such strange things called “jobs,” “civil society,” and  “a future.” Indeed trainloads of migrants arriving in Munich have been welcomed with food, water, smiles, efficient processing of their status by officials and, most important, hope that things will now get better. How can it not, when they’ve come from a civil war zone that’s been raging for five years, or if not straight from the conflict, then from one of many refugee camps around the Middle East that are likely to turn into permanent settlements.

The roots of the crisis have been long in coming, and while the rules of the Schengen agreement that governs passport-free travel in Europe require all migrants to be registered in the country they first arrive in — namely Hungary — the fact is that Hungary’s poverty and its indifferent and corrupt bureaucracy left it unprepared for the waves of migrants arriving on its borders this summer.

Not that the crisis couldn’t be seen. Most of the domestic criticism of Orbán’s government has been their refusal to prepare for the inevitable as the migrants started showing up in the Balkans earlier in the year. Orbán and Co. would like to blame the effete liberals in Berlin and Paris for enticing all these dangerous foreigners to come into their territory. But finger-pointing at the EU for having convoluted immigration policies pales in comparison to the malign neglect shown by the government in Budapest.

The crisis least has abated for the moment, but thousands more refugees are getting ready to enter Hungary in hopes of reaching the west, and the government has threatened to detain them again.

Maybe Orbán hopes to continue to milk this humanitarian crisis for political points, to show the nation that he can be just as reactionary and thuggish as the unapologetic neo-fascists in the Jobbik party.

For the past nine days I’ve been in Battonya, a village in southeastern Hungary on the Romanian border where my in-laws live. Here, the drama played out on television. The migration route lies a few kilometers west of here, from Serbia up through Hungary to Austria. What we get is a mix of news from state-owned media, reporting nonstop about the “illegal migrants” causing chaos in Budapest — indeed, they used the word “illegal” no less than four times in five minutes during the height of the refugee standoff, to emphasize the fact that nothing good will come from their presence in Hungary, even as the government was trying to prevent them from leaving.

Cut away to one of the few independent TV networks left, and there you can see the minority opposition delivering firebrand speeches from Parliament, strong words that belie their ability to have any influence over policy in Orbán’s nascent dictatorship.

The construction of a fence across the Serbian border did cause some folks in the southeast to wonder if the refugees wouldn’t simply walk around to Romania and cross the border here. But the Romanians have thus far kept their border shut to the migrants, and that hasn’t come to pass.

Instead this town has remained its normal sleepy self, the tribulations in Budapest far away and at most subject for discussion across the breakfast table.

In another irony — there are multiple levels of irony at work in this region, where borders have a history of shifting back and forth, depending on who is in power in Budapest, Moscow or Berlin — the scene of hundreds of Syrians walking from Budapest to the Austrian border called to mind other crossings, most recently in 1989, when the Hungarian government decided to open the border to let hundreds of East Germans cross over into Austria, an action that led directly to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact.

Then there was the summer of 1956, when Hungarians rose up against their Soviet occupiers in an outbreak of violence, hoping that the West would come to their aid. When the revolution failed, thousands of Hungarians fled to the west, across the border into Austria.

Indeed, most Hungarians are more charitable than their government has been, providing water and food for the refugees even while the police refused to let them board the trains to their eventual destination.

If the western border of Hungary has symbolized a gateway to freedom and prosperity, the eastern border has long held a different meaning. For Hungarians, it was the metaphorical edge of civilization (although some living west of the Danube would argue that the river, which neatly bisects the country, marks the real edge of the known world, as it did for the Roman Empire and its successor states). In 1541, the Ottoman Empire rose out of the Balkans and overran the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, starting 150 years of foreign rule. When the Habsburgs expelled the Turks, they took over, replacing Islam with Christianity but nonetheless still calling the shots from a foreign capital. When Hungary finally became independent from Austria in 1920, it was at the expense of two-thirds of its territory, and the eastern border had moved several hundred kilometers west to where it now lies about ten minutes from my in-laws’ front door.

It was the changeable nature of this border, among others that had moved over the years, that gave the Hungarians a sense of self-righteousness, and which turned out to be easily exploited by the forces of xenophobia originating in Nazi Germany. The borders moved again during the war, the spoils of collaboration, and then back again afterward. On Sept. 22, 1944, the Soviet Union crossed into Hungary here, in Battonya, to begin pushing the retreating Germans back west.

There’s still a monument to the”liberation” in town, as there are in many others across Hungary. These monuments still stir conflicting emotions here. They’re a reminder of the bad times of years past, and the worse times that came before. The war, the deportations of the Jews and German occupation was replaced by Soviet occupation and 700,000 Hungarians sent to the gulags of Siberia.

Hungarians have long internalized and gotten used to this dichotomy in their identity. It gives them a rich sense of irony and dark humor. Hungarians in general are wistful for reclaiming their lost history, whether in the form of territory redistributed to neighboring states after World War I, or the influence that came from being joined to one of the last European monarchies, or the “greatness” of the medieval kingdom that stretched from the Adriatic to the Baltic, and which ceased to exist nearly 500 years ago.

But those same Hungarians are all too aware of the law of unintended consequences. Like the current crisis, where in trying to keep the Syrians out, Viktor Orbán succeeded only in keeping them in. Despite the government’s ham-handed attempt to characterize the displaced men, women and children escaping an even worse hell back in the Middle East as Islamist sleeper agents come to undermine western civilization, average Hungarians came forward with water and food for the refugees, doing their best to make a bad situation better. It’s more the pity that their own government refuses to rise to the occasion.


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