Dark Danube – by Agnès Villette

I have decided to open a space to other photographers and writers on my blog. Agnès Villette is my first guest. She wrote Dark Danube last Autumn about a place in Vojvodina which is very close to our hearts.

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“The border crossing has just reopened at Tovarnik” says the car rental assistant, peering at me with a hint of curiosity. “The Batina crossing is still closed?” My words hesitate, not really a question. Before I left London on the Ryanair flight from Stansted to Osijek, in Croatia, a friend on the Serbian side of the border had updated me, the border had not reopened for the past 3 days. “That’s all I know, but it can change very suddenly” said the car assistant. Around me the airport hall was emptying at a strange speed, the passengers of a whole plane disappearing swiftly, except for one English couple and me hanging at the car rental desk. Osijek airport, at the northern corner of Croatia, is stuck between Hungary to the north and Serbia to the east. The regional airport is one of the typical Ryanair hideaways which started operating last May for the summer months. When I stepped out of the hall, the flatness of the landscape, the emptiness of the fields surprised me; it looked so different under that low grey September sky, night closing in brutally. Behind me, the return flight to London takes off in a violent dissonance of sucked air. 

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I had gotten to know this untrodden corner of the Balkans fairly well after reading about the existence of Liberland last May. A pocket of 7km2 unclaimed land stuck on the Croatian bank of the Danube, which a Czech politician, Vít Jedlicka had declared the first Libertarian state while proclaiming himself the president. Since early July, I had visited regularly with another journalist, to shoot a documentary about the creation of Liberland, filming the relentless struggle the Liberlanders faced to settle on the land in opposition to the Croatian authorities. The round heart-shaped enclave with its white sand beach is a nature reserve, unbuilt on except for a hunting house in ruins at its centre. It is considered a ‘terra nullius’, unclaimed by Croatia and Serbia. The oldest cadastral registries found in the archives of both countries state that Gornja Siga, the wider park on which Liberland lays, was a hunting ground belonging to a private company named Vojvodina Sume during the Austrian Hungarian empire. In the XIX century, the course of the Danube was modified to accommodate the growing commercial traffic on the second longest European river, so parts of Croatia ended up on the Serbian side, and pockets of Serbia were stuck on the Croatian banks.
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Nowadays, the old Danube unwraps its sleepy and shallow waters, ornamental loops of snaky shapes, which have mainly become the preserve of fishermen and hidden villages scattered on its banks. Borders did not matter when it was all part of Yugoslavia, but when the war erupted in 1991 the Danube came to assume its role as a natural border separating the two nations which fought each other relentlessly. It seems incredible, knowing the level of nationalist resentment and hate that Serbia and Croatia hold for each other up to this day, that the borders were not properly defined in 1999 at the partition of Yugoslavia. The enclaves remain a disputed topic, difficult to settle, though, as the pockets of land are not evenly distributed, Croatia claims back more of its territory stuck on the Serbian side than its neighbour. On Croatia’s entry to the EU in 2003 it still had not defined borders. It is hard to believe that this same country has been waiting to enter the Schengen zone since 2011. 
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In the empty car park two flags beat sternly in the wind. The harsh whip sound is striking in the overwhelming silence. I can’t stop noticing the irony of the European flag next to the Croatian one, both fringed and damaged, floating in a mechanical and detached way. European politics have disintegrated at such an astonishing speed in these last few days of September, as European countries were incapable of agreeing on a coordinated position and therefore incapable of offering a coherent logistic response to the refugee crisis. The Batina border crossing, established on an elongated red bridge over the Danube between Croatia and Serbia, being the latest casualty of the chaotic European collapse. After months of regrouping in Subotica to cross the Serbian Hungarian border illegally by night, the refugees had suddenly changed tactics when Hungary, having just achieved its 170 km fence, had passed anti migration laws early in September. These allowed the army to use rubber bullets and teargas against migrants, criminalising illegal entry to the country and the damaging of state property, carrying a 5 year jail sentence. On 15th September Hungary, declaring a state of emergency, closed its border on the Serbian side and refused to process asylum requests made under the new border regime. The migrants swiftly moved west to the Croatian-Serbian border, eager to enter the Schengen zone to reach Austria, Sweden and mainly Germany, which had offered asylum seekers visa status.
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By 18th September Croatia could no longer cope with the massive arrival of thousands of migrants and had abruptly decided to close seven out of its eight border crossings, leaving Serbia to deal with a humanitarian crisis. The chaotic backlog of refugees was moved further south. Not only could they not enter Croatia at a legal border crossing to travel west, they were also stuck by the natural frontier of the Danube. The river is known for its complex and unpredictable currents, being one of the speediest European rivers it is impossible to cross even for a very experienced swimmer. My Serbian friends in Bezdan, the closest town to the Batina crossing, had told me about the brutal arrival of thousands of refugees in a continuous ballet of buses from the Subotica area. The refugees slept one night by the Danube, at the bottom of the bridge, clustering around and invading the local auberges which lie idly along the river banks. They came as they left, suddenly. When the Batina border closed, more buses came and moved them south, towards Tovarnik. I was later told by a Liberlander that one night, following the surreal pronouncement of both Serbian and Croatian authorities, hundreds of migrants were stuck on a bridge between the two borders, unwilling prisoners of absurd decisions which were unravelling by the hour. 
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Earlier in July, one late afternoon after visiting a spa dating from the Tito era in Subotica, we had driven among them. They were walking north toward the Hungarian border, lines of them, women, young men, kids, no bags. Just walking, as if pushed by an uncontrollable force. I had never seen anything like it before. The banality of this backroad driving could not in any way invite the surreal dimension of the refugees’ flight. In the August light of a late afternoon, I remember being drawn into an irreparable feeling of deep sorrow. Of a piercing uselessness. The walking lines of humans reminded me more of biblical paintings, of epic narratives of catastrophic dimensions. Seeing the plight of those fleeing humans from the comfortable habitat of the car, I was aware of a radical shift, of geo-politics in full gear; far away war zones becoming tangible in the middle of Europe. For some reason they reminded me of primitives tribes set in motion, like the ones who transformed Europe in the IX century. Nothing was to stop the exodus or the colonisation. 
The car was waiting. I could not waste time, as I had to cross two borders before reaching my destination, driving north to enter Hungary to catch a river crossing before heading back south towards Serbia. I had been told to expect a two-hour drive before reaching Bezdan, where the Headquarter of Liberland Settlement Association was located on Kanalska street. There in the huge and kitsch house built with mafia money after the war, the last few Liberland activists were packing before suspending activities during winter.
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All depended on reaching the last Danube ferry, leaving Mohács at 7.30pm. The night had come, though on the horizon the orange glow of Osijek was still visible. I fiddled with the radio and ended up on radio Osijek which was playing the Stranglers Always the sun. Strangely enough, I had played that specific song, among other Stranglers classics at the Liberland summer parties, a forceful attempt to escape the overwhelming balkan techno that played constantly. The second song was even more surprising considering the open road of middle Europa unwinding in front of my car lights, it was an old Morrissey. Darkness had set in. The straight road was claustrophobically narrowed by expanses of dark forests. It would open surreptitiously on flat land scarcely visible in the headlights of crossing cars. The road was saturated with lorries, their number plates signalling the absurd situation of commercial routes being redirected at the last minute because of the borders closing and opening randomly. Trucks from Germany, Hungary, Austria, making it barely possible to overtake them on those narrow roads. I was stuck behind a Mercedes Benz lorry for kilometres.
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When I hit the first border, a tense and fearful atmosphere pervaded the passport control. Hungarian army Special Forces were manning the border, cars had to swerve between metallic high fences with lorries parked in every single free space; next to my car, a coach was unloading dozen of tired passengers. The Schengen zone started here, and it was palpable that things had changed, that the border was physically and symbolically under tension. The Croatian radio played Love will tear us apart by Joy Division before resuming to crackling drizzle sounds that prompted me to search for a Hungarian radio station. The driving to Mohács was slow, lines of lorries were dangerously parked along the main road. In a less than subtle way, the Croatian stubborn attitude to keep the borders closed was punishing the Serbian foreign trade, to which Serbia briefly reacted by an embargo on Croatian goods. Serbia was reminded again of its ostracism outside of the EU borders. The previous day, Bruxelles had given Croatia 48 hours to reopen its borders or face massive penalties. The borders were still closed. 
That same stubborn attitude had singled Croatia out all last summer in its dealings with Liberland. At the announcement of the creation of the new nation on the 13rd April 2015, Croatian authorities declared it “a joke” whereas Serbia labelled it “a frivolous action”. In May, for a few weeks the activists had established a camp on the actual territory, living in Danish army tents, reenacting the ancient pioneer spirit, sleeping rough on hard soil, burning fires at night, travelling constantly back and forth on a long bumpy road to bring food and goods. A short exhilarating period. The excitement was still noticeable in the stories and memories of the last activists hanging at LSA HQ in these last days of September. As it would in any narrative of a grand and mad project, wrapped as they were in that elitist feeling of the elected few battling for an ideal of liberty, for the flag, which during those summer months remained the visible and powerful symbol of a country not yet in existence. When I talked to them later on, it felt as if those who had been present from the very beginning were recalling far away events, when it was just a couple of months old. The initial struggle in Liberland was more with mosquitoes and the constant energy required to live without water or electricity, in the middle of a foreign language country, far out in nature. For a short time, it seemed that the Croatian authorities would leave them alone, but they radically changed tactics and as the camp was resettled in a proper house on the Serbian side, able to accommodate a few dozen activists at a time, the Croatian border police hardened its line.
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From then on the Danube border was permanently patrolled by two boats, border police were stationed along the river banks day and night. Each attempt to cross to Liberland either by land or river was intercepted, activists were arrested, increasing bails had to be paid, lawyers were hired and a few Liberlanders were jailed. When they came out of the Osijek prison tired and haggard, they would recount prison conditions inappropriate for a European country. Yoshi Livo, a 28 years old Dutch activist, stands smiling in the photos I saw on the Liberland Facebook page, taken on the day of his release, having lost 7 kilos. I remember Ulrik Haagensen, a tall and confident Dane talking of the two weeks spent in prison, answering our questions and being so assertive when we asked if he would let himself be arrested again. “No way!” was his reply. Crom, a Brazilian activist in his thirties, remained in prison for 58 days as he refused to be bailed out on the principle that he had not entered Croatian territory illegally. Furthermore, Croatia itself acknowledged that Liberland territory was unclear and not part of Croatia borders… The Liberland motto “Leave and let leave” seems like an impossible dream.
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I knew by now that I would miss the last ferry. The traffic had quietened, and the road was eerily quiet, I was speeding across empty villages where no one ventured outside. Missing the ferry meant a much longer detour, up north to hit the first bridge on the Danube at Baja. Tiredness and the strange feelings of the last days were closing on me. The humanist and trade principles on which the EU had been built were crumbling dangerously after the economic battle of the Greek debt early in July. Now the whole moral and philosophical principles which the European Union had stood for were being swept away. Unsurprisingly, it was happening exactly around the same territories as the Yugoslavian wars. History replays itself: three decades earlier the Balkan wars had themselves revived religious and political hatred that Europe thought would never happen again after WWII. While driving on Hungarian roads, I felt a hostile atmosphere reminiscent of the Bela Tarr films I had seen a few years ago. It seemed to emanate from the darkness and stillness of the towns. The austere loneliness of the place was overwhelming. The aggressive political stance of Hungary towards the refugees echoing in the solemn silence of the night. When I reached Mohács it was already 7.39, there was no point taking the small road to the ferry station, so I kept driving, knowing I was adding a good two hours to the journey. 
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Heading to Baja seemed like a dream, the road had swerved east running in parallel to the Danube, I could not see it, but I could feel its dark profound presence. The night was deep, the driving tedious, I had not remembered such darkness for so long. It seemed uniquely bound to that feeling of being surrounded in all directions by thousand of kilometres of infinite lands. I was born by the sea. In Normandy, there was always an end to the land, whereas here in a sort of hypnotic and vertiginous appeal nothing interrupted the night and the ride except for the river. From time to time, as carvings out of the darkness, industrial mass of metallic estates imposed their verticality before being swallowed by the night. Floating clouds of chemically bound vapours blended with the sharp and humid smell emanating from the nearby river.
The driving seemed to take ages, the danger of combining tiredness and speed even more present. Something was meant to happen. It came in the shape of a deer lying in the middle of road which I managed to avoid at the last minute. There was something totally wrong with the vision which stayed with me for a long time. Was it the angle of its neck, obviously broken, which made its head dangle, or was it the fear in his eyes which shone briefly in the car lights? It was probably more that helplessness feeling again. Just before Baja, the radio played one of the summer hits which I had come to like. The bridge at Baja is a low rise metallic one, devoid of the elegance some of the danubian bridges offer. During the Balkan war it was one of the only remaining ways to cross after the destruction of the bridges of Vukovar in Croatia and Novi Sad in Serbia. The narratives of bridges, their powerful role, was all too meaningful for me that night. In the clinging and shaky mix of metal and wood, the bridge crossing felt like a relief. 
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Heading south towards Serbia felt different. The landscape had changed as well. The road had distanced itself from the Danube, the villages became more scattered, replaced by forests and flat arable lands. Incapable of finding decent music, I had switched off the radio. High fences were erected along the forest. I had heard of the large nature reserves in the area. And I wondered how deep in them one would need to wander to hit the primitive forest not far from Bezdan. Since Tivadar, a journalist from Sombor, had mentioned its existence to me, my imagination was often taken to that imaginary place. I had read a lot about Bialowieza in Poland. In the Danube delta, in Romania, on a previous trip, I had wandered among the trees. Forests and rivers. This specific corner of Central Europe, named Mura Drava Danube was meant to be listed by the UNESCO as the World Heritage. It was the largest floodplain of the continent. It resonated so much with the concept of Liberland, of a country where liberty would be the core principle. The anecdote of the president Jedlicka recalling he had found this specific ‘terra nullius’ after a quick Wikipedia search, had older and deeper resonances. The Serbian region of Voivodine was composed of marshes and swamps until the massive effort during the XIX to dry the land and populate it. It’s nowadays one of the most diverse ethnic and linguistic area of Central Europe. For centuries, the hidden and protected territories were difficult to access, in a geography complicated by numerous rivers and repetitive floods. Therefore it had often been the chosen destination of persecuted groups or of adventurous individuals who wanted to settle on new land. The Danish activists of LSA and the cosmopolitan crowd gathered by Jedlicka seemed like the last incarnation of colons and hordes familiar to these territories. 
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The last communiqué published mid September on the LSA Facebook page was ambiguous. The mission was suspended for the winter and will kick back in action next spring. Without directly admitting it, one could decipher that the summer missions to control the land had failed. The faith and the energy of the LSA activists had always stunned me, an enthusiasm fed by the continuous arrival of new activists. They were drawn by that pure decision to create a new nation and to never look back. I was told by the LSA chief of operation Kenneth Lillieholm that around 400 persons had turned up at HQ during the five months, some of them staying a few hours, posing for a selfie with the flag behind them, some willing to get arrested by the Croatian police. Others, mainly young American guys, turned up without a return flight ticket. All moved by the power of the word freedom and by a common rejection of the societies they felt alienated from. Such was also the refugees’ dream to be able to live normal lives away from war zones. Early in May, when the president advertised the conditions required to request Liberland citizenship on the Liberland website, thousands of demands came from Syria, Lybia, Tunisia, and mainly Egypt. 
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The last border crossing at Backi Breg to enter Serbia seemed familiar. On the Hungarian side, the massive metallic fence was still there, but the place was empty and eerie. “How long to reach Bezdan?” I asked a Serbian border patrol. The woman in her tight dark green uniform smiled faintly, “Ten minutes.” I needed to hear some words. When I parked outside HQ, the light was on in the house, the flag still hanging off the balcony. But all seemed very quiet. So different from the previous arrivals when people were hanging around on the canal banks, cars blocking the way, music playing loud. The door opened and someone stepped out. Behind him in the doorway I could see boxes, tents, and parabolic antennas piled high. They were leaving soon. A few kilometres from HQ, across the Danube, Liberland remained a secluded and secret entity, uncolonised and unpopulated.
See more of Liberland: Summer of Liberland
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