HORGOS, Serbia — “Go that way,” the Serbian police officer told them. Rumor had it that a hole in a fence might lead migrants to an open border in Hungary, so a pastor and his friend brought five Syrians to test it out.
“Isn’t this kind of sketchy?” the pastor, Jeremy Bair, 33, said as the pavement turned into a patch of soft mud and crunchy grass.
“We are the first group to do?” said Odai Tele, 28, who came from Damascus. “That’s good. We will show the way.”
The border closed early Tuesday and when the sun rose, hundreds of migrants were in a netherworld where two countries meet. With no one providing instructions on what to do next, they were left to rely on ingenuity and faith to get to the other side.
Navigating the treacherous Aegean Sea in a tiny boat was supposed to have been the most perilous part of the journey, but the Hungarian barricade provided an unexpected, practically insurmountable test.
Those left behind lamented how they missed an easy route to Western Europe by minutes. Streams of migrants coming along the train tracks used to come in one direction, but now families were meeting in the middle, and turning around, once they found the way forward barred. They questioned themselves with a new set of “what-ifs,” and they tried to find a way to handle the turn of events.
“Cope,” Tele said. “We carry on.”
In the morning, some women who still had extra clothes folded them into piles. Children played with squeaky toys. Others tried coming up with any way possible to get Hungary to reopen its gate, or to sneak through. When someone suggested going through Croatia, a volunteer insisted, “No.” Land mines.
Tele walked. He went with the pastor, a Hungarian Roma activist and five other migrant men. He was a little scared because he had no idea where this would lead, unlike seemingly more treacherous paths before. Still, in minutes the grass became soft and muddy and he could see the “Welcome to Hungary” sign up a small hill.
But the police were locking in a barricade right behind it.
Others were already there. Migrants sat in the blazing sun and were asked to wait for an official to process their requests for asylum. The first three people to request asylum were denied. No one knew whom to trust.
“They don’t have water or services here yet,” Bair said. “This is even worse from where they started. Let’s go back to Serbia.”
Two men started back, but a Hungarian police officer intervened.
“No crossing,” the officer said. Tele was stuck again, on the edge of a country that didn’t want him to come in but wouldn’t let him leave.
By afternoon, service workers began delivering bread, water and coffee. Another group had an idea and sat down for a hunger strike.
“No food, no water! Open the border!” one chanted, and then others began doing the same. One small girl poured a carton of milk onto the street. “No milk!” they chanted. They wrote their chants on paper so children could hold makeshift signs in front of TV cameras.
They had used their cellphones to keep track of information on the journey. Now they were hoping someone would snap a picture that would go viral.
“If the world sees this, maybe they will help,” said Abbas Mandegar, a 17-year-old from Afghanistan. “If we don’t eat, they have to do something, or else we will all die.”
On one side were men and women from the Middle East and Africa, some in T-shirts and some in thick sweaters, chanting under the sun on the hottest day all week. On the other side were stoic police officers in blue uniforms with batons. But the more one side chanted for opening the border, the more the police — through an Arabic interpreter on a megaphone — told them, “No.”
Eventually, parents gave their children bread and water to prevent dehydration. Hours later, a toddler climbing his father’s arms giggled and said: “The border! The border!” His parents spoke no English.
“It’s just one big playtime; that’s what we have to tell the children,” said Alaa Yousef, 32, as his niece played around him. “When they are happy, we are happy.”
He and his family were wearing the only clothes they had. The rest were thrown into the sea when the boat carrying 71 migrants began to sink because of excess weight. Now his wife, Hayat, 23, rubbed analgesic on her feet and he dealt with sunburn.
He heard the police interpreter say something along the lines of, “We’ll never let you in until you stop acting crazy.” He is an interior designer. His wife is studying to be a mechanical engineer.
“Now we’re in the cage like we are animals,” he said. “The Hungarians, we don’t get to see them. Maybe if we saw them, face to face, they would understand that we just want to pass through so we can go about our lives in places that want us. When you hear that, it makes you feel like you don’t have hope because they don’t respect you.”
Nearby, a group of men from Afghanistan played cards. Others lay in the middle of the street with rags covering their faces. Two small children played by themselves, scooping dirt with an empty tuna fish can.
“We still have to have hope, because hope is all we can have,” Yousef said. “We can’t turn back. We have to stay here until someone finds a way for us to leave. We just want to walk out of here.”
As he spoke, a group of migrants began staking more tents in front of the “Welcome to Hungary” sign.
“At least we’re not in Serbia anymore,” he said. “We’re getting closer.”