Just over a month ago, on September 14, I arrived at the city of Roszke in southeast Hungary, where I joined a team from Doctors Without Borders Spain (MSFE) as a medical coordinator. MSFE installed a medical center with four tents to treat the refugees arriving from Serbia via the Roszke-Horgos border.
Most of the people crossing the border came from Syria, but there were also refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and even from the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, fleeing devastating wars in their countries. Entire families, worn out from walking so much, arrived with visible exhaustion. Although most of them were men, there were also many women, children and quite a few elderly people. Each case was different: There was a Pakistani family who had brought the grandmother over in a wheelchair and boys who carried their paraplegic brother in a stretcher from Kabul. Entire families arrived, looking for a new, safer life in Europe.
At the Roszke refugee camp, volunteers distribute water and food to the arriving refugees. On open land one kilometer from the border, a refugee camp gradually developed. Between 2,000 and 3,000 new people arrive each day. Carrying nothing but backpacks, they set up in inflatable tents (the kind you find in sports shops) donated by organizations and volunteers, who also brought food and water.
News on this large settlement has spread through the media. On Wednesday, September 16, there were more than 12,000 refugees in the camp, along with hundreds of journalists and members of humanitarian organizations and NGOs.
The refugee camp in Roszke on September 22, hours before it was evacuated. The authorities made two decisions: The first was to install a wire fence along the entire border, with the objective of closing off entry, which ended up directing the entire flow to this small path in Roszke. And the second was to negotiate with neighboring countries about evacuating the refugees and migrants; according to Hungarian television, the incoming population was inconvenient, since it seriously damaged the country's economy and welfare. The Hungarian government then decided to permanently close its borders with Serbia.
The camp was completely emptied out in eight hours. The refugees were transported in buses (they had to sit on the buses for more than three hours and couldn't get off) towards the train station in Roszke (where they also had to wait inside the cars for almost four hours until they opened the doors) to be taken to the Austrian border. The population in the camp went from more than 10,000 to a few hundred. At 5 p.m. on Wednesday, September 23, the border was completely closed.
The Roszke train station.
Because the number of refugees suddenly dropped, the media and the teams of volunteers disappeared within a few hours. However, the MSFE team kept the medical center they had set up at the camp, and with the permission and collaboration of the police, we built a clinic with six beds, and organized seven mobile medical teams at the train station. Thanks to an agreement with the authorities in charge, the refugees who needed medical assistance were allowed to get off the buses and the train to be treated by the mobile teams or, when necessary, moved to the makeshift clinic.
Around 9 p.m, a police officer told us there was a person lying perfectly still on the train tracks. One of our teams moved quickly and found an elderly man who was too exhausted to walk or talk. He was moved to the clinic.
It's all over. The last train leaves the station at 7 a.m. on September 23. Sitting next to me at the time was Hussein, the protagonist of my story. He is a 28-year-old Afghan who was being treated by the MSFE team. He spoke very good English and helped us to translate information for patients from his country. He also told us his harrowing story. As a teenager, he left his hometown, Kabul, to make a better living in Sweden, where he had a relative. When he was 27, and had saved up some money, he went back to to his country, only to discover that his entire family (his parents and both of his sisters) had been killed in a Taliban attack. Hussein told us that the reason was that someone had claimed his father had been collaborating with the "invasion forces." The allegation was based on the fact that he owned a shop selling high-quality traditional homemade yogurts, and had a lot of western clients. (One of life's coincidences: during my work in Kabul in 2011, I was one of those clients).
Completely alone in a country where he could be considered "non grata," Hussein decided to return to Sweden. He used up all his savings to pay smugglers to get himself and three of his friends to Sweden.
Hussein saw the elderly man on the train tracks and thought he had recognized a countryman. He went to speak to him, but it was initially difficult to have a conversation with him; the man was completely absent, his eyes only half-open. Shortly after, they started to talk. And that's how we learned of Ibrahim's story.
He was 82 years old and from a town near Zaranj (on the border with Iran) where he lived with his family: his son, daughter in law and two grandchildren. Ongoing conflict in the area made it necessary to leave.
Ibrahim and Hussein. His son, a fur trader and a buzkashi (a traditional sport in Afghanistan) player, saved enough money to pay for the migration of the whole family to Europe. Two days before they were scheduled to leave, his son (Ibrahim's grandson) was killed. His killer tried to steal the money they had saved for the trip, but couldn't. That's when Ibrahim decided to head to Europe with his daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.
After being on the road for three months, during which his family was assaulted and his daughter-in-law was raped, they crossed the Horgos border on September 22, and they set up camp in one tent, waiting to be moved to the station. That's when the massive move to empty the camp started. The refugees lined up to fill the buses and be moved to the train station. As this happened, Ibrahim was waiting for a turn to use the latrines. When he went back to the tent, his family had disappeared, and nobody could help because he only speaks Farsi. Finally, a police officer, with the help of an interpreter, told him that he might be able to find his family aboard the buses or on the train platforms.
Almost six hours later, he got on a bus and arrived at the train station. But once he got there, he was not allowed to get off the bus to look for them. Nobody could understand him, and nobody paid him any attention. After he banged on the windows for several minutes attempting to gesture that he wanted to use the bathroom, the police officer guarding the door took pity on him and let him get off.
Ibrahim used the opportunity to escape, and looked for his family on every bus and train car, in vain. All the while, he hid from the police. Four hours later, physically exhausted and frustrated, he collapsed on the train tracks.
Ibrahim, Hussein and Jota Echevarría. The clinic was still busy as Ibrahim chatted with Hussein in the corner where his bed was. In a moment of calm, I approached the pair to see how they were and to ask them how we could be of help. Hussein told me (as always, with a hopeful smile and sincere gratitude) that his friends had walked around the train looking for the elderly man's family, also in vain.
Hussein told Ibrahim: "I'm going to take care of you. You have a son, until we find your family." Hussein and his friends adopted the elderly man as a father, and did not and would not stop taking care of him and comforting him.
I would like to think that Ibrahim eventually found his family. And if he didn't, I hope he found a new one that would give him a reason to live. I cannot even begin to think about Hussein and his friends being sent back to Afghanistan (which may happen, because Kabul is not considered a war zone) and Ibrahim being left alone again.
I need to believe that Hussein's humanity, solidarity and generosity are like a virus that could spread. I need to believe that one day, those in power, who make decisions about other people's lives (from their big offices or extravagant dinners) will be "infected" by Hussein's virus. Maybe then things would be a little better.
I've been working in humanitarian aid, as a doctor, for more than 25 years. And I thank you, Hussein, wherever you are, because in just a few hours, with your humility and your unforgettable smile, you showed me, without trying to, that people like you are the ones who really know the meaning of words like solidarity, humanitarianism, generosity, selflessness, dedication, and so many others.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Spain and was translated into English.