Anna (4) and Hamlet (3) spent 15 straight days hiding in the back of a truck to escape a death threat in Armenia.
photo: Zuzana Habšudová
The children's' father, 30 year-old Geno, said he had seen "something I should not have seen" in their native Armenia. When the people committing the crime he had witnessed threatened to kill him, Geno scraped up $10,000 to pay a local ring of so-called body smugglers to take him and his family to Slovakia. The journey meant hiding in the back of a truck with a group of others fleeing the country.
"They drove us up here through Turkey - we were in the truck for 15 days," Geno said at the Brezová pod Bradlom camp on July 25. "Armenia has many political problems, it's better here in Slovakia."
Geno said that he would like to gain refugee status, which would entitle him to every right Slovaks have except the right to vote, serve in the army, and purchase real estate. The main reason he wants the status, he said, was so that he could find work and a real home outside the refugee camp.
"Coming here was worth it," he said. "I'm happy now, but not as happy as the bird who can finally leave his nest."
Geno's story is an increasingly common one in Slovakia, where the number of refugees applying for asylum has climbed sharply over the past two years. According to information provided by Ján Šikuta, the legal officer for the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bratislava, 775 people applied for refugee status in Slovakia during the first six months of the year, compared to 1,320 during all of 1999 and only 506 in 1998.
But although the data note a gradual yearly increase in people seeking refugee status in this country (rising from 96 cases in 1993 to 359 in 1995 and 645 in 1997), Slovakia is still viewed as a transitional state for refugees heading towards western Europe.
Štefan Kovačech, the director of the Brezová pod Bradlom refugee camp, said that the refugees he had worked with tended to stay in the camps for "one, two, three months, and up to a year. But most of them treat Slovakia as a transitional country."
Since 1992, just over 4,300 potential refugees have begun the asylum process in Slovakia. Of those cases, 2,949 have been "terminated," mainly because those seeking refugee status leave the camps and the country, presumably continuing their trek westward.
Electing to stay
Kovačech said that although Slovakia was mainly a way-station for the fleeing refugees, those who did end up in the country were usually surprised by the aid they received. "From my experience, the refugees are very happy here in the camps," he said. "They think that we live as luxuriously as Americans here."
The Brezová camp refugees seemed to agree with Kovačech's assessment. A 17 year-old refugee from Afghanistan named Khairolla, who recently underwent ear surgery in Slovakia and still wore bandages around his skull from the operation, said that he wanted to stay in Slovakia even though the rest of his family had fled the camp and moved on just the week before.
As an Afghan, Khairolla is a typical refugee in Slovakia's camps - approximately half of all currently seeking refugee status in Slovakia are Afghan natives. Under the rule of the Taliban, Afghanistan's militant Islamic government, many nationals say they were politically and religiously persecuted. With women being prohibited by law from holding employment, with an average life expectancy of 47, a literacy rate of around 30% and constant accusations of human rights violations, Afghanistan has contributed a significant number of the world's refugees since the Taliban took power in 1989.
"The Taliban set fire to my village and forced me to flee," said Khairolla, who is 17 but looks perhaps 30. "In Afghanistan, when women walk in public their skin must be covered and if they make any noise they [the Taliban] beat them. When I was there I had to grow a long beard... and if it wasn't long enough they would beat me."
To get to Slovakia, Khairolla also had to pay the body smugglers. They arranged for him a ride - lasting 20 days - in a truck which would only drive during the nights in order to evade police detection. "We hid during the days," he said. As to why he had chosen Slovakia as his final destination, Khairolla said: "I don't need a visa here and the country offers a better life for me."
Not all agree, however, as some non-white refugees accuse the Slovak citizenry of racism. On May 1, 33 year-old Angolan refugee Lambardo Mabu was knifed on a bus by two skinheads. Later that week, three Afghan refugees were attacked on Bratislava's Main Square during a refugee concert promoted by the UNHCR.
"I left Angola because of war, we were not safe," said Mabu, who is married with two daughters, after the attack. "But I think it is more dangerous for me and my family here in Slovakia."
As more and more people around the world become displaced, and as people-smuggling tragedies such as the suffocation of 56 Chinese refugees in a refrigerated truck in Dover become more frequent, people's attention is increasingly drawn to the privations that refugees suffer.
In Brezová, this suffering is all too evident. As Anna and Hamlet played a scaled-down game of football, their teacher at the camp, Anna Valihorová, spoke of the hardships child refugees suffer.
"When children come here and see the toys we have in the children's centre, they don't know what to do with them because they've never seen toys before," she said. "Once they've seen them, they want to take the toys to their rooms. It's hard to explain to them that they [the toys] will still all be here tomorrow."
Valihorová said that the children were also affected psychologically. During art sessions, she said, the kids tended to paint images of planes, guns and bombs. "Also, they don't know how to share and they don't trust anyone when they arrive," she said.
The same seems true of their parents. Although Geno's 27 year-old wife Sveta was still visibly shy and timid - and still longing for the days when she didn't have to be a refugee - she said in a quiet voice: "It's far from my family and it's not my house. But although it's not home... we like it here very much."
Additional reporting by Zuzana Habšudová
31. Jul 2000 at 0:00 | Chris Togneri