The refugees eventually managed to wrench open a gate on the border of Hungary and Serbia, leaving only a thin metal grating standing between ranks of riot police and a mass of asylum-seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
Before long, Hungarian riot police pepper-sprayed the refugees’ faces and the air was thick with tear gas as tensions finally boiled over.
Serbian doctors said two people had been seriously hurt and between 200 and 300 had sought medical help for cuts, bruises, burns and eye problems caused by tear gas. Hungary said it had detained 29 people and described one of them as an “identified terrorist”. Officials said 20 police officers had been injured.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, said: “I was shocked to see how these refugees and migrants were treated, it’s not acceptable.”
In an apparent criticism of the response of Hungary’s virulently anti-immigration Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, Mr Ban added: “All the countries have their domestic problems, but since these people are fleeing wars and persecution, then we must show our compassionate leadership.
“First and foremost we have to provide life-saving assistance and shelter and… sanitation, then we can discuss how they should be treated, accommodated. They must be treated with human dignity and human rights. That’s my consistent message to European and Asian leaders.”
In the middle of tense negotiations between the refugees and Hungarian police, Ahmed Hamou held a loudspeaker and tried to reason with the ranks of glowering police clutching gas canisters. “Please, we talk with you in a nice way,” he said. “Just open the door. We don’t want to fight with you. You are our brothers.”
Cries of “please” rippled through the crowd. A boy shouted at one policeman: “Do you speak English?” The policeman opened his mouth, about to reply, before shutting it again. An old man clasped his hands together, waving them at another officer who looked him in the eye and gave a brief nod. A cuddly toy bear thrown from behind the crowd landed at the feet of the sturdy policeman and was kicked quickly into the undergrowth.
Ahmed, 40, from Idlib, exhausted after imploring the Hungarian forces to grant them free passage, leaned on the metal fence. He told The Independent: “We want to come in a peaceful way but these people will be hard to control. We already died once in our country, we don’t want to die again. If they saw Syria they would open the whole country for us. We want to know freedom.”
Another self-appointed leader of the crowd, Ali Efte Khari, a political science student from Bamyan in Afghanistan, was similarly adamant. “My family has been living as refugees in Iran,” he said. “My people cannot go back home, and we cannot go back from here either.”
Until a few weeks ago, Walid, a travel agent also from Idlib, had been working in Turkey but found the working conditions intolerable. On 2 September he was travelling to the Turkish port of Bodrum to arrange a boat to smuggle him to Greece but then the photo of three-year-old Aylan al-Kurdi lying lifeless on the beach was beamed around the world and all the boats stopped. “I had to work in the black market,” he said. “I don’t want to impose on Europe but I cannot return to Syria.”
As Walid spoke some men at the front line began to squabble between themselves as a few began to rattle the gate violently. A gas canister fired from the Hungarian police sailed into the crowd scattering everyone. Children wandered through the mist screaming and choking. The air was filled with the sound of spluttering and spitting, while people doused their eyes with water. Many vomited where they stood.
What had begun as an ultimately doomed hope that Hungary would allow the refugees to pass became a scene of turbulent aggression. Young men pulled up their shirts around their mouths and sprinted towards the border picking up rocks and bottles and hurled them at the police. For the next hour, tear gas rained down from the sky, burning the skin and temporarily blinding onlookers. Pellets of tear gas were landing 100 metres into Serbian territory as Hungarian police helicopters buzzed overhead.
Police were beaten back 50 metres, giving the mistaken belief to refugees that the border was open. Families rushed forward clutching children and luggage, only for the Hungarians to launch a new charge against them.
Batons rained down on men, women, children and all other onlookers as the police officers’ tension exploded. The street was full of walking wounded, some bleeding from gashes in the head. Some were arrested.
Some refugees panicked, believing that their family had been snatched by the police. Further down the road, refugees sat on the asphalt, panting and drinking water. Some who had not taken part were heard muttering “Croatia” and “Slovenia” – the only countries that can now be open for them.
Serbia has said it will send additional police to its border.
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