By Aida Ghajar
January 22, 2019
Pedram put on his backpack, said goodbye to his friends at Adasevci, a camp in Serbia only 15 kilometers from the Croatian border, and set off to try his luck reaching the West one more time. It was the last night of November and the temperature was -8°C.
He walked toward the border, where he hoped truck drivers might pick him up. However, the cold weather made the roads too dangerous and there were no trucks that night. He had to walk 13km back to camp, but the guards did not let him. It was past nine pm and the doors were closed.
He died later that night next to a small bonfire he hoped would keep him warm until morning.
Police found his frozen body at 8am.
Pedram Safari was one of the hundreds of Iranians struggling to reach Western Europe from Serbia. The refugees endure extremely tough living conditions in the camps, which often resemble military detention centers. Many make multiple attempts to escape. Pedram had been in the camp for two years.
Iranians from all walks of life choose to leave their country for Europe. Emigration is no longer limited to political refugees or students. Unemployed graduates, bankrupt businessmen, victims of domestic abuse, and even those accused of criminal offenses now leave Iran in hope of a better future.
However, many get caught up in terrible situations they never could have imagined.
Pedram was an aspiring musician. One month after divorcing his wife, he left the country for Europe. When I called his ex-wife for an interview, she responded with a single statement: “Pedram took on the journey to prove that he could do it.”
In Iran, Pedram was passionate about music and singing, and occasionally performed in his birthplace Bandar Abbas. In the video clips sent to IranWire by his friends from the camp, he seemed much younger than in his photos. According to these friends, he had previously worked with a few famous Iranian singers and songwriters, including Naser Abdollahi. Pedram used to sing for them at night at the camp, and they loved his voice.
Pedram tried the “game” — slang for trying to leave countries secretly and illegally — 40 times, according to his friend Mehrdad.
“Everyone was exhausted from the situation, including Pedram,” Mehrdad said. “So he tried to go to the border and hide beneath a trailer to smuggle himself out. But after hiding for a few hours, he discovered the roads were closed and no one was going out that night. So he decided to return to camp.
“Like all of us, Pedram was beaten by the border patrol agents multiple times. Last time I saw him, he had injuries on his face, nose, and jaw. My question to international human rights organizations is: is this the human rights you are advocating for? Is this what we must endure in Serbia?”
According to Pedram’s friends, he returned to the camp around 2am. He was therefore exposed to the sub-zero temperatures for six hours.
Every night at 9pm, refugees are ordered to leave their tents and stand outside for 45 minutes so the guards can count them. “Entering the camp is not so easy,” Mehrdad said. “When you come back, they take your ID and food card and send you to the clinic to be checked for any diseases. After the medical examination, they let you in.”
Chasing Dreams Away From Home
When speaking about Pedram, his friends concluded each sentence with the phrase “Death to the Islamic Republic.” The Khamenei regime has forced many educated young people to leave their hometowns and endure terrible hardship, they said. In their eyes, it is therefore chiefly responsible for Pedram’s death.
“If the Islamic Republic allowed young people to chase their dreams in their own country, Pedram would be alive today,” his friends told me.
Pedram left Iran two years ago and reached Serbia after passing through Turkey, Greece, and Bosnia. His camp was close to the border and he went there after a human trafficker stole all his money and disappeared.
“A few nights before his death, he told me, ‘let’s game together’,” Mehrdad said. “He said his mother had had a stroke and he needed to reach his destination as soon as possible. He was very nervous. This morning I found out what happened to him.”
Mehrdad described the situation in Serbian camps. According to him, the majority of residents are Iranian and they do not even receive basic living requirements. The quality of the food is terrible, he said, but nobody has the opportunity to complain. When they voice their concerns, the answer is always the same: “Go back to your own countries if you don’t like it here. Or go to the next stop. What do you think is waiting for you after this? A red carpet? This is your life and you have to get used to it.”
The main complaint among refugees is the lack of warm clothes and adequate shelter. Inside the tents the heaters are only turned on for three hours each night. Camp officials provided men with only one hat to survive the winter months, Mehrdad said, though women and children were given some extra clothing.
“This is the situation in every camp in Serbia. They told me they are sending us fuel. In this country everything works with diesel, from heaters to cars. I saw with my own eyes that the guards and managers poured the diesel that was sent for us into their own cars.”
The bathroom situation is no better. They are only allowed to take showers from 8am to 11am, and the water is only warm for the first half hour. “Everyone is sick here,” Mehrdad said, coughing as he spoke.
The camp managers have promised the residents several times that they would receive prepaid debit cards, but nobody has seen any financial benefit or support so far. If they enquire about the delay, the guards mock them, Mehrdad said. “They tell us: ’Come back at Christmas, when maybe Santa will bring you some.’”
Among asylum seekers, regardless of where they are – a camp, a trafficker’s house, or in tents in the middle of the woods – there are always conflicts. People exhausted by long journeys and dehumanized by camp guards or border patrols can start a fight for any reason, or inadvertently find themselves in the middle of one.
Mehrdad has experienced many fights since he started his journey. “Most people have broken smartphones. New phones get stolen fast, along with power banks, chargers, etc. Here, every night you see a knife fight. Iranians are involved in many of these altercations. Sometimes I wish I could find a place to live with no Iranians around.”
Mehrdad’s camp is 25km away from the closest city. A taxi there and back costs €20 (US$23). Many of the people living there did not wish to be there, but had no alternative. According to Mehrdad, the majority of them lost their money to traffickers who abandoned them in the middle of winter.
“Worse Than Iran”
Iranians need a passport in order to enter and live in the camp. But following new emigration laws that require Iranians to have a visa, the number of Iranian asylum seekers in Serbia has declined. Most do not wish to apply for refugee status in Serbia, however, and view the country only as a bridge to reach other parts of Europe.
“Officials from the United Nations and other organizations come every now and then and advise us to apply for refugee status in this country,’ Mehrdad said. “But Serbia is even poorer than Iran. Serbian people and their officials look at us, asylum seekers, as enemies.
“A while ago they stabbed an asylum seeker and the poor guy is still in the hospital. Another friend fell from the bottom of a trailer while it was moving, but he was lucky since it wasn’t going very fast and he only ended up with a broken jaw and some head injuries. He is also hospitalized at the moment.
“The only medication for flu or cold here is a vitamin C pill and nothing else. We hope for a better life, but it is far worse here than Iran and we can’t do anything about it.”
Stories about the violent behavior and hostility of Serbian camp and border officials are common among asylum seekers. Serbia is not a member of the European Union and there are no international regulations governing the treatment of refugees.
Many people experience maltreatment from the first moment they set foot in the country. Soheil, a 21-year-old metallurgy engineering student, is one of them. He left Iran in September on a pilgrimage to Iraq. But instead of going back, he flew to Turkey and then to Belgrade. After passing through airport security, he and several other Iranians were detained and questioned. A few days later a police officer told them they had to return to Iran.
“We told him that we’d be in trouble if we went back, but he responded: ‘My father fought and died for his freedom, so you should go back to your country and fight for your freedom as well,’” Soheil said.
“The next day, five huge prison guards entered our cell and began beating everyone with their feet and batons. Yusef, a Turkish boy, ended up with an injured head, and Saber, an Iranian refugee, with a broken hand. One guy’s attorney told the Foreign Ministry in Iran about the incident, and the next day the Iranian ambassador arrived and promised he would take care of the issue.
“A few days later they fingerprinted us and gave us camp residency cards. Fifteen of us had been detained, but only seven of us were released that day. Yusef was released a month later, but I never heard again from Saber.”
As winter continues, living conditions for refugees are becoming worse not only in Serbia, but along the whole migration route from Iran to Europe. Many people are homeless, either living on the streets or in woodland. Others are housed in camps or in traffickers’ homes. All share the same aspiration: making it to the West to pursue a better future.
Any other name could replace “Pedram” in this story. His suffering was far from unique. Yet Iranians continue to risk their lives to flee the Islamic Republic and search for a happier life – a life stolen from Pedram forever, simply because he wasn’t allowed in from the cold and the snow.