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Refugees stuck at Serbian border meet new challenge: The cold

A look at refugee flows into Europe as political leaders struggle to ease the burden. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

SID, Serbia — As they got off the buses onto the dusty path, the refugees and migrants were elated. Just down this path, past the volunteers offering juice and apples, past the piles of donated shoes, around the corner and a straight mile-long shot through the cornfields. Then, they would be in Croatia. Another border crossed.

Well, that was the plan, anyway.

A steady convoy of buses deposited refugees and migrants fleeing conflict in the Middle East at the edge of this well-trodden path between cornfields outside the dreary Serbian city of Sid all day Monday. After months of this migration, capitalism has kicked in and there are now plenty of bus companies offering rides to here — at a premium.

Men carrying toddlers on their shoulders, women looking surprisingly well-made-up given the journey they had been on, children with mud caked onto their jeans.

There was Mohammed, the 20-day-old baby, cradled in a portable crib; Samer, the 6-year-old trailing a furry cat; and Ahmed, a 20-something who looked as if he had just stepped out of "American Idol," with his carefully coiffed hair and his pinstriped jacket over jeans.

And there was Waseem Gnid, a 35-year-old economist, with wife Maysa, a vet, and 8-month-old son Murad. They came from Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria.

“It’s a very historic place, but now there is nothing left because the Islamic State bombed it all,” Waseem told me as we sat on the grass at the end of the path. Maysa mixed up some formula in a bottle for Murad.

They left Deir al-Zour a year ago, while Maysa was pregnant, and went to Turkey so she could give birth. When they were strong enough to travel, they set off for Europe. They had been on the road for five days when The Washington Post caught up with them on Serbia's border with Croatia.

“It’s been a very dangerous and difficult journey,” Waseem said, recounting how they were crammed with 40 other people on a boat made for only half that number.

But now, Europe — and Germany or Sweden, their preferred destinations — are in sight.

In the past few days, as the Balkans and central European countries have become fed up trying to stem the never-ending flow of refugees and migrants, a system has been put in place.

Croatia, a country of 4.4 million people that has seen more than 35,000 arrivals since the refugee crisis began, the vast majority of them in the past week, has started putting them on buses and sending most of them to the Hungarian border, forcing Hungary to do something with them.

Hungary, which has made it perfectly clear that it doesn’t want the migrants, is putting them on buses and sending them straight to Austria, a walk over the border.

Austria is none too happy about this — its interior minister has called it “opportunism” for the refugees to be trying to pick which countries they go to — but is letting them through.

This system broke down, however, on Monday night, when Croatia set up a camp to receive the arrivals.

Refugees and migrants had been sleeping near the train station at Tovarnik, the first town over the border in Croatia, for weeks on end, but the Croatian government on Monday opened a reception center at Opatovac, six miles from Tovarnik, with capacity for 4,000 people.

They could have hot showers and food, get medical attention, and then be on their way to Hungary within a day.

But things went awry in Sid, on the Serbian side of the border, on Monday night as Croatian authorities for the first time blocked refugees and migrants from walking across, as they had been doing every day.

People were told to form groups of 40. They sat on their small bags on the road and waited. And waited. And waited. There were no buses to be seen.

As the sun faded, there were more than 4,000 people — 100-plus groups of 40 people, including 20-day-old Mohammed and 8-month-old Murad — sitting on the road, shivering in the cold.

People started wondering whether they were going to have to spend the night out here. Mothers with little babies asked a reporter whether she could help get them through. People were getting desperate, people were getting antsy.

A volunteer with a megaphone stood up and warned in Arabic that people should not walk in the fields on either side of the road as they were peppered with land mines left over from the Balkan wars. But he also said that everyone would make it to Croatia that night, eliciting whoops of joy from the crowd.

In the end, they did not. Eight thousand people had been through the Croatian camp that first day, and it was still bursting. Anyway, there were not enough buses to transport everyone there.

A few made it to Croatia on Monday night, but most were forced to spend the night out in the cold, building fires to keep warm and fighting over a limited number of blankets.

At either end, Serbian and Croatian police kept them hemmed in. So close, but not close enough.

Read more:

Refugees face tear gas, water cannons as they cut new paths through Europe

8 reasons Europe’s refu­gee crisis is happening now

New threat on the refu­gee trail: land mines