Sunday, 27 March 2011

Without Illusions, Chapter 4, Refugee Camps in Yugoslavia


The trip to this place, called Melence, was quite long. It was near the Rumanian border, far from Hungary and it normally served as a summer resort for coalminers. There were already some two hundred Hungarian beds, six to a room. Communal bathrooms were at the end of the corridor. They ate in large communal dining rooms with Yugoslavian civilians serving them. But they could not leave the compound and there were no visitors of any kind.
Life in the camp had assumed a routine while every day, newly escaped Hungarians were quickly filling up the remaining empty rooms. Towards the end of November the compound was full. None of the service personnel spoke Hungarian so there was no communication between them and the refugees.
What everybody was anxious to find out: how were things back in Hungary, and what will be their fate. No one could be sure what the future held for these refugees. Inevitably, the rumor had started that when the Soviets had finished squashing the uprising, they would make sure that communist Tito would hand over all these "refugee-hooligans" and repatriate them to their just fate. All hoped that these remained just rumors!
Thus the mood in the camp was not altogether positive, until a day late in November when Peter had been called, as it was his turn, for a session of interrogation with a Yugoslav intelligence officer.
This was a young, bilingual officer, with a decent demeanor and attitude toward this young Hungarian. On that day he was smiling and pleased with himself as he put the usual questions to Peter for the umpteenth time: how many Russian tanks were on the highway to Yugoslavia, how did the Russian soldiers behave in Baja, did they talked about plans for Yugoslavia, did they see any Russian soldiers in the villages near the border, did the Hungarian revolutionary leaders talk about plans or desires to retake the formerly Hungarian territory that now belonged to Yugoslavia? What did they hear in the radio, what parties were in the making to change the one-party system?
On and on with same questions for hours on end.
When he had enough of the obviously negative answers he paused for a moment, offered Peter an unknown brand of extremely pleasant, luxury cigarette and said:
"You are a bunch of lucky bastards . " and seeing, even expecting the puzzled look on Peter’s face, he continued" Comrade Tito had decided to let all of you go to the West, wherever you wish, whatever country will take you, America, West Germany whatever. "
Peter just sat there, speechless, and could not understand the enormity of what had just transpired. Why, all the refugees had been certain they would go on to Western nations, who had been taking refugees via Austria for some day now, certainly since the Soviet started their counter-offensive against Budapest on November 4th.
Why did this intelligence officer say what Tito had decided to do?Just now? Why? The officer explained:
"Your Prime Minister, the revolution's Imre Nagy had sought refuge in the Yugoslavian Embassy just after the Soviet offensive on Nov4th. On the 22nd he and his cabinet members were given safe conduct out of the Embassy.. Only to be immediately..., arrested and whisked out of the country. despite an agreement and promise of safe conduct ... this is what this new Hungarian government did and Comrade Tito will now let all of you go to the West."
Peter had returned to his room and sat on his bunk, relieved, but stunned by the realization that, apparently when the events had quieted down they were to be returned to the Hungarian authorities and no doubt severely punished for their escape attempt! And now, Tito would allow them to go on to the West!
Only through the next several months and years did these refugees comprehend the international drama that took place in Budapest on November 22, 1956.
The legitimate prime minister of Hungary, his closest aides and advisors, their families were promised safe conducts to their homes in Budapest from the diplomatic protection of the Yugoslavian Embassy and all of them were arrested as soon as they left the Embassy!
The Hungarian refugees in Melence and by then in many other places in Yugoslavia as their numbers have eventually grown to 16,000, owed their free passage to the West to Marshal Tito, who had been affronted by the unprecedented action of the Soviet and their Hungarian collaborators!
The Hungarian refugee camp in Melence these days had still managed to look after the swelling numbers of the inmates. While the food and shelter was quite adequate, soon other needs became apparent. Most refugees had come without any luggage, so they were lacking any change of clothing. They received one towel each on arrival and they made do with washing and, drying and wearing the same clothing over and over again. It seemed that camp management was not planning for the long term with these refugees, and neither did the “guests” plan to stay!
In the meantime, as became apparent later, tens of thousands of refugees kept on arriving mostly in Austria, but a few thousand in Yugoslavia, too. The camp in Melence became full in no time at all.
Within days all the refugees from camp were put on trains and Peter and his compatriots soon had achieved their first “visit” to a European capitol: Belgrade. Their train had stopped for an hour in the capitol of Yugoslavia, they were not allowed to get off and the rather disheveled group of Hungarians did not raise any curiosity in the station as they were hanging out the train windows. Then the train took off and their guards would only say that they were going to the “mountains”.
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