The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What it feels like to have hundreds of refugees in your front yard at the Croatian border

BREGANA, Croatia — The leading edge of refugees, the first of thousands behind them, arrived here like a change in the weather, a wind in the trees, like summer to fall.

One minute there was an empty crossroads with high grass and wildflowers. Total nowheresville. In an hour it became the center of the European refugee crisis — beamed around the world via Sky News.

A middle-class family of four from Syria spread out their blanket; he’s a lawyer, his kids were polite, ate ice cream, even their knees were clean.

“Some complain, but we have been treated with kindness,” said Bassam, 38, the attorney.

[Asylum seekers confront rejection as Europe puts up roadblocks]

Under a nearby tree, another picnic, with cigarettes and coffee. “There are many beautiful people here. They really help, they are very kind, we thank them,” said Hassan, 43, a veterinarian from Baghdad.

Yes, he said, I treated cats and dogs in Baghdad. When a reporter wondered how many pets were left in Baghdad, he said, “More than you think!”

At the crossroads, just a few hundred yards from the Slovenia border, six young guys from Iraq, extroverts in new jeans, arrived. They were upset that their smartphones weren’t getting data, just phone. “Come on, man,” said one, in English.

[And more refugees come ashore in Greece]

There was a clan of wary Afghans, spooked by the arrival of journalists. And some Africans.

The migrants arrived here, at the very forward edge of the mass migration into Europe, by bus and taxi. They walked from Zagreb. Others were delivered to the border by friendly Croats, who said they remembered the old days when their people were refugees from the Balkan Wars in the 1990s.

Maria Cvitash lives in an apartment facing the little park where the refugees began to gather. She was a physical education coach but confessed that she had spent the morning ferrying asylum seekers to the border.

“I watched them wade across the stream, into Slovenia, but then the police pushed them back,” Cvitash said.

She said she couldn’t care less what the authorities thought, she would help these refugees down the road. Cvitash let women and children bathe in her apartment and brought out kettles of herbal tea for the newcomers to drink.

[Germany’s enthusiasm for refugees might not last. These maps explain why.]

Out on the roadway, a parade of cars roared by, waving Croatian flags, giving a thumbs-up to the refugees. They were followed by a few vehicles whose passengers gave them the middle finger.

After a few hours of milling around — with no news, no direction, no authorities — the asylum seekers marched down a bucolic path to a bridge over a stream that was an informal border to Slovenia. A homeowner watched them pass by, mowing his lawn. He kept mowing.

At the end of a bridge, the Slovenian police formed a line of blue and told the refugees they could not enter.

“Not here?” one of the migrants asked.

They moved down the river to the next bridge. The Croatian police gave them directions.

Marica Rakicevic also contributed to this report.

Read more:

Hungarian mayor stokes xenophobic fears

Refugees get a chance to wash and rest their weary soles in Budapest

Read The Post’s coverage on the global surge in migration