One year after my Kosovo adventure, I was traveling again for Christmas holidays. This time I came home from Brussels, where I had moved recently. Days of intensive overeating almost left permanent consequences on my body, but luckily, soon came the time to return to my new home.
Before I went to the airport, I stopped by the Copy Centre, since printing is much cheaper in Serbia. There were two more hours till the take-off. Their printer broke down with my papers inside; the only printer with which they could print what I needed. Half an hour later, while waiting for them to repair the machine, I was tapping my foot on the floor and thinking that the day could have started better.
I arrived at the airport one hour before the take-off. I checked-in my backpack, passed the security checks and was the first to step into the airplane, thanks to the bizarre way of boarding the passengers to Wizzair plane in Belgrade.
Two and a half hours later, we landed at Charleroi airport. I was the first one at the passport control.
- Bonjour – I greeted the border policeman and put my passport on the counter. He ignored me for a few seconds, and then looked at me with reproach.
- Bonjour – with the tone of his voice he let me know that I should have greeted him first.
- Bonjour… - I repeated.
He turned a few pages of my passport.
- Do you have an invitation letter?
- Here it is, from the immigration department. I have an appointment on the 18th of January, to submit the rest of the documents.
He carefully studied the paper stamped in the Ixelles municipality.
- Come with me.
In the back room, chief of the unit and another policeman were sitting at the table. Border policeman approached them and explained my “case”, handing them my passport and the letter from the municipality.
- What’s this? – asked the chief.
- The invitation letter from the municipality to come on the 18th of January and submit the rest of the documents for the residence permit. I asked them if I could go home for holidays, and they said no problem. They said that, with this paper, I had the right to move freely.
- They were wrong.
- Excuse me?
- Well, they were wrong. Where on earth did you get that idea? You cannot enter the country. You don’t have enough days left to enter without a visa.
- What do you mean I cannot? In the immigration department…
- No, no, it’s not true. Wait outside.
I sat outside and wondered why the hell I’d went home for holidays. The small room was soon crowded with people from Serbia, whom the other officers brought in for questioning. An elderly couple entered the room, then left somewhere with a policeman. A few more people came in and out.
- Hey bro’, do you know what this is all about? – a guy asked me.
- I am wondering the same. What did they tell you?
- I’ve no idea; I came here because the Charleroi football club invited me for a trial. I have all the papers they sent me. Could you come inside with me, to translate, since I don’t speak English?
- Why did you come to Belgium? – the chief asked.
- I… I play football. I came for a trial. Her… here are the papers they sent me, the ticket and everything – he handed them the papers, his hand shaking.
- What’s the name of your agent? Is anyone waiting for you at the airport?
- Yes, they are here. Here is their phone number.
- Hmm – he looked at the papers again, then dialed a number and asked if anyone had ever heard of that agent. – I’ve never heard of him. On which position do you play?
- Midfield, forward.
- Are you good at least?
- I hope so.
- You’d better be, I'm a Charleroi fan. Do you have money?
- Yes, I do, here – he opened his wallet and showed 450 euros.
- Hmm. Okay, you can go, but if you intend to stay longer than ninety days, you have to get a resident permit, understood?
I went back to the waiting room. A few more people came in and out. Finally, a policeman came and told me to come with him. Not towards the exit, but towards elevator, and then into the office of the border police. He ushered me into a small room, separated from the office by a large glass wall and a door with a lock.
Inside was the elderly couple I saw before, both in their seventies, and a woman in her fifties.
I asked the elderly couple why they’d been held.
- They said we didn’t have enough money. If we wanted to stay here for ten days visiting our family, we must have at least 750 euros on us. And we just came to visit our family – said the grandma, her voice trembling – They won’t let us in. They said we had to get the return tickets, or they would deport us.
- Unbelievable. I am shocked that they harass people who have nothing to do with illegal immigration. And what did they tell you? – I turned to the woman.
- Oh… I’ve been set up by Olja Bećković 1
- Wh... what?
- That woman, that junkie bitch – yes, she is using drugs, if you didn’t know – she set me up.
I listened, blinking, in disbelief.
- Yeees. That woman is haunting me, she's sick! – she continued whispering – And she has complete control over the police, that’s how powerful she is.
- Oh really?
- You know, I am a journalist, and a divorced woman. She is jelaous of me because of a man. I had received a tip-off in Belgrade, before I came here, that this would happen. You don’t understand the secret language of media, but to me it was clear.
- And what did the police here tell you?
- They told me I didn't have any credit cards. And I didn’t want to have Visa... My daughter lives here. I came to write about Magritte’s museum and return a week later, but they wont let me in. All because of Olja Bećković.
The unit chief entered and gave me a paper and pen to sign. The document was entitled "Administrative arrest". It was written there that they had the right to keep me in custody for 24 hours, and that I had the right to receive food, drink etc. I signed and asked what happened next.
- Now we shall send your file to the Ministry. They will make the final decision whether to let you enter or not. I wouldn’t get too optimistic if I were you.
- How long will I wait for their decision?
- I don’t know. Depends on how busy they are. We’ll probably have the answer in a few hours.
- What about my backpack? I had checked in a bag.
- My colleague will go get it.
- I cannot breathe – said the grandma, with tears in her eyes – I'm getting no air in this room, I’m suffocating! – she squeezed the grandpa’s hand.
I ran out and asked a policemen to take her out for some fresh air. They did. I asked them why they harassed the old people. They said they didn’t meet all the conditions for entry.
A little while later, the grandma came back. Someone from their family had come, and under the supervision of the police, they bought tickets for them to return on the next flight. After that they released them.
I texted my girlfriend not to expect me soon. The haunted woman asked me to use my phone to call her daughter.
- Kitty, they held me at the border. I didn’t do anything! They don’t want to let me in because I don’t have a credit card with me. What do you mean why am I doing this to you? Well, it’s not my fault, you know as well who did this to me, that crazy bitch, you know she is jealous of me. Kitty, please, talk to them here and explain to them I will stay at your place, and that you have money. I know you cannot get out of work, talk to them and explain.
She gave my phone to the policeman, who then spent ten minutes on it. On my account.
An hour later, the situation of the haunted woman has been resolved, since she bought a ticket for the next flight. They let her go as well. I was alone again.
The chief of the unit entered and gave me more papers to sign. I used the opportunity to ask him a few things.
- Why did you hold that elderly couple?
- Because they didn’t meet the conditions for entry.
- But wait, is your goal to prevent illegal immigration, or to harass people who just came to visit their relatives for a few days, and then return home? Do you think that those grandma and grandpa would make problems?
- That’s the rules. It’s like that at every border.
- No, it’s not. You’ve probably just shortened that grandma’s life by a few years. Nowhere are people harassed as much as at this airport.
- It’s not true. It’s the same everywhere.
- It’s not. You don’t know it because nobody controls you. I travel a lot, so I know. Even at your neighboring airport in Brussels, it is different.
- Such are the rules. You must have 38 euros per day if you are visiting family, or 50 if you are staying in a hotel.
- Ok, I know the rules. But both you and I know that these rules are more of a guideline in order to prevent illegal immigration, and not something to be blindly observed.
- We have to. Since visas for Serbs have been abolished, we had a lot of troubles in Belgium with people who wanted to stay.
- I know. But in case you didn’t notice, those people don’t come here through this airport, but via the land border with Hungary, where they bribe the border police, in case they had been banned from entering Schengen.
- It’s clear to me that you have nothing to do with it, but you are a victim because of that. We have to respect the rules here.
- All right, rules, I know. I just wanted to tell you that, at different borders, rules are not enforced in the same way.
- The rules say that…
- All right, all right. Could you tell me another thing - how come they told me one thing in the immigration department, and you told me something completely different?
- Ah, it’s not the first time. They often create us problems because they tell people wrong things.
- Don’t you ever communicate? Since all of you are civil servants?
- It’s not that simple. What can I do?
- To send a memo, a complaint, make uniform rules?
- But I am just a small policeman.
- Then the small policeman can talk to a big policeman. Just don’t tell me that this is normal.
- Belgium is a complicated country.
- So I see. Since you’re here, I’d like to ask you one more thing…
I used the opportunity to ask him how exactly they calculated the six month period and allowed stays up to ninety days, since there’d been a lot of confusion about it. He sketched something on a sheet of paper, showed me the official manual, and then again drew on paper. Fifteen minutes later, I hoped to have finally understood.
It’d been four hours since I had landed. Policemen brought in a new case. A middle-aged Romanian guy has also been held. I was looking in slight disbelief, since they are part of the EU, so I wondered how come he was also apprehended. A policeman came and warned me to keep an eye my personal belongings, because the Romanian might steal something. To steal my things in front of me, in front of them, while he had been arrested under the suspicion of being a thief? I thought of xenophobia, stereotypes, and above all, human stupidity. The Romanian took his phone and called his wife, who was waiting in front, to tell her that he had been held. A policeman yelled at him for calling her.
A few more hours passed by. The chief of unit came in.
- We got the final answer from the ministry. The final decision is to deport you. I am sorry.
- And now what?
- Now you will be detained until Friday, and then we will send you back on the next Wizzair flight to Belgrade.
- But it’s Monday! I cannot be imprisoned till Friday, I have to work! Do you have Internet access in that detention center, since I work online?
- Umm, I am not sure.
- Can’t I return on another flight? There is a flight to Belgrade from the Brussels airport.
- It has to be from this airport, and with the same company. They will pay for your ticket.
- But I cannot be detained for five days; I’ve got urgent work to do!
- I’m sorry, there’s nothing to be done.
- Wait a minute. There is a flight from here, with Wizzair, to Romania and Bulgaria. Can I go there?
- We don’t know if you need a visa for those countries.
- I don’t.
- Well we cannot take your word for it.
- Just check it, for God’s sake…
He dialed a number and asked if they could release me to buy myself a ticket for a flight to Bucharest.
- Sofia, Sofia – I added. What on earth would I do in Bucharest, it’s too far…
He hung up.
- You can go to Sofia. There’s a flight tomorrow morning. Do you have a credit card on you to buy the ticket?
- I do.
- Come to the computer.
I bought my ticket to Sofia and signed a bunch of papers that I will be self-deported.
- Tonight you’ll have to go to the detention centre, and from there you’ll come back to the airport. Soon someone will come to transport you.
Shortly after, four members of the transport unit came in. The Romanian was already ready to go.
- Where is my backpack? Do I take it with me?
- Ops… we forgot to take it.
- We’ll find it now. Just a moment.
A few policemen went to get my backpack. Fifteen minutes later, they came back.
- We couldn’t find it.
- What do you mean you couldn’t find it?!
- We couldn’t. It’s not in the “lost & found”, nor anywhere else. We’ll check again.
Fifteen minutes more passed by.
- We still can’t find it. You have to go to the detention centre now, since it’s late. We’ll find your backpack overnight. We’ll do everything within our power.
I went out of the airport and entered straight into a blizzard. The Romanian entered the transport vehicle first. Separated with a double acrylic glass from the rest of the vehicle, we sat there, freezing. The heating couldn’t reach us at the back.
An hour and a half later, we passed through a double-barbed high fence and stopped at the third gate. We got into an elevator, then passed through a few locked doors, and arrived to a reception desk. It was past midnight.
I signed a paper saying I had been detained, that I had the right to a lawyer, and that everything had been explained to me in my “mother tongue” – English.
- And what if I didn’t speak English? – I asked.
- We would find you a translator.
- At this hour?
- Probably some of the other detainees speak Serbian, so they would help us.
I regretted not having pretended that I didn’t speak English, just for fun. They took my personal belongings and took a photo of me.
First they took the Romanian to his room. Then they came for me. The circled corridor had a view of the building complex. There, a courtyard with a basketball court was surrounded by a high fence. Everything was completely white. We passed a few more locked doors.
- How many people are inside?
- At the moment, about a hundred. Now everyone is asleep.
- And how long they stay here?
- It depends. At most, four months, after which we deport them.
- Where are they from?
- From everywhere. Morocco, Albania, Serbia…
We came to my room. I entered a room lit by faint green light. Inside there were four empty beds. Then I heard a “clack” sound. Empty walls. In a corner, a table with a couple of chairs, and a big double glass window with alarm inside, with a view of the fenced courtyard.
The door opened again and the ward entered with a bag in his hands.
- Here you have a toothbrush, toothpaste, sheets and everything else you’ll need. We’ll wake you up at 03:30 to transport you back to the airport.
- Jesus… Can I turn on the light? I can’t see anything, where’s the switch?
- You can’t, there’s no switch. The lights are automatic. It’s time to sleep.
I made my bed and lay down. I felt exhausted. Just as I closed my eyes, or so it felt, someone was waking me up. Next to me, lit by green light, two wards were standing. Through the window, I saw white darkness. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming.
- You have ten minutes, and then we have to go. We’ll be outside.
I brushed my teeth, and then put the comb, toothbrush and liquid soap into my pocket. Souvenirs from the prison.
- I’m ready – I said.
They gave me a sandwich with three slices of bread, with butter, jam and “choco”. So much about good food in prison. Then they took me to the transport vehicle.
An hour and a half later, I came back to the familiar room. A new unit chief was on duty.
- Bonjour. Did you find my backpack?
- No. It was nowhere to be found.
- What do you mean nowhere?!
- It’s just gone. Here, sign this form, so if they find it, they will send it to your home address.
- I really cannot believe this…
Then I waited a few more hours till the take-off. Finally, two policemen came for me. We passed through staff corridor and then onto the runway. The Wizzair flight to Sofia was parked in front of us. The policemen took me inside first, before other passengers. They handed my documents in a sealed envelope to the captain. It was addressed to Bulgarian immigration police. Then they left.
Two and a half hours later we landed in Sofia. Police told me to wait until all passengers went through the security. Then they came to me.
- Hey bro’, what’s this about? – they asked in a language similar to Serbian.
- That’s what I’ve been asking myself.
- Where are you going now?
- To Serbia
- All right then.
I took a city bus from the airport, and then walked across half the city to find a bus which would take me to the hitchhiking spot. An hour later, I realized that the bus line I was waiting for had been cancelled. I took another one. I asked the bus driver if he was going to the crossroads with the ring road. He lied that he wasn’t. Luckily, I could see it on his face that he lied, so I stayed on the bus.
At the traffic light next to the ring road, five minutes after I arrived there, a truck with Serbian license plates stopped.
- Excuse me. Could you give me a lift to the border?
- Where are you coming from? – he asked suspiciously.
- From Brussels, using a detour… I just need a lift to the border, to reach Serbia.
- Get in.
I crossed the border on foot. A Bulgarian policeman looked at my deportation stamp and asked me what had happened.
- Will you create me problems if I let you go? – he asked.
- No, why would I?
- Are you sure?
- All right.
I reached the Serbian side.
- What was this about? – the Serbian custom officer looked at my deportation stamp.
- I don’t know.
- What did you do?
- I didn’t do anything.
- Heh… all right. Go through.
1) Olja Bećković is a famous political talk show host in Serbia. Go back