“Between us and the cabin of the truck there was a woman we knew, with her little baby. My mam remembers that she and her husband had struggled for a long time to have children. The baby was starting to lose consciousness in the heat. I remember the mother starting to faint as well.”
Smajos Story: Refugees forced onto cattle trucks
In August 2015, in the back of an abandoned truck parked on the hard shoulder of the A4 motorway in eastern Austria, 59 men, eight women and four children were found suffocated to death.
It is impossible to imagine how horrific their last moments must have been.
Not only would there have been the terrible realisation that death was coming, that even though they screamed and banged on the side of the truck, no help would come; but there was also the horror of watching friends and family members enduring the same cruel end.
The news reports referred to the people in the truck as ‘migrants’, but of course that is only a very small part of their life stories.
Some of the people on the truck loved football. Some had a great sense of humour, and some loved to dance. There were loving husbands on that truck, young men who liked horror films, brave sisters and loyal friends who would always help if they could.
There were children on that truck who could light up a room just with their smile.
The people on that truck had lives that were as rich, complex and valuable as any person you know.
None of them ever imagined that they would die by the side of a motorway, unable to breathe, crushed together with seventy other doomed human beings.
What if we could zoom in on the people in those trucks, sit down and speak with them a year or two before they died, and ask them about their lives?
What if we could see them not as decomposed bodies by the side of a motorway far from home, but as they were on their first day of school?
What if we could see the way they smiled on their wedding day, or experience the way they felt the first time they kissed the person they loved most in the world?
How would we be changed if we could hear their story?
By 4 August 1993, Smajo Bešo had been living in a war zone for over a year.
He was only eight years old, and already he had witnessed his village being destroyed by a fire storm, had seen his father taken away to a prison camp, and had experienced more fear than any human being should ever have to endure.
Smajo’s only crime was to be a Bosnian Muslim in a place where Bosnian Muslims were the target of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
After being harassed and robbed by Bosnian-Croat soldiers in a ‘collection centre’ housed in the factory where his father used to work, Smajo, his mum and two siblings were taken outside and forced onto cattle trucks:
“The trucks were all lined up outside. There were hundreds of people, bags piled up on the floor, families waiting to get on.
We waited to get on a truck with people from our neighbourhood.
I remember being scared, there was so much panic. People were crying, nobody knew what was happening.
There was a soldier striking people randomly as they were getting onto the trucks.
I remember him well. He was bald and tanned. He was wearing a camouflage uniform, black boots. His top was unbuttoned and he had a big cross around his neck, as if he was emphasising the fact that he was a Christian and we were not, emphasising that we were different.
Before the war it wasn’t like that. I never thought of myself as being different from our Serb and Croat neighbours.
We saw him strike an old man. My mam remembers the old man was just carrying a blanket, he had no bags. What stays with me is his grandad appearance.
I remember seeing him just falling to the ground.
My sister got on the truck first. My mam gave her the bags, but the soldier grabbed a bag from her and she managed to grab a blanket back from him.
He said, “Majku vam jebem! - Mother fuckers! You’re coming as if you’ve been on a holiday to Turkey, with bags of presents, but our people are coming here empty handed!”
This was how Croatian nationalists talked about us, calling us Turks as if we were foreigners, invaders. But we weren’t Turks, we were Bosnians.
That was our home.
It’s the same ideology used by people like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and the Christchurch terrorist: the idea that Christian Europe must be protected from Islamic invasion.
It’s the same ideology that was used by convicted war criminals like Ratko Mladic, who spoke about getting revenge on Muslims for the battle of Kosovo in 1389 as he came into Srebrenica on the day that he led the first act of genocide in Europe since the Holocaust.
They wouldn’t let us bring more than one bag each onto the truck.
My mam had to make a decision - to take a bag of food or a bag of clothes. She thought wherever we went we would find clothes, but we didn’t know when we would eat again.
We all got off the truck and started layering clothes - jumpers, coats. It was August, so it was 35 - 45 degrees. We left whatever we couldn’t wear.
Then we were all on the truck, rammed in on top of each other. We were on the left towards the back. We could hear the noise and commotion outside and that made it worse.
There’s this show on Netflix called The Haunting of Hill House, it’s one of my favourite TV shows. You don’t see the monster all the way through, and that makes it even more scary.
Up until you see the monster I was shitting myself and then in the final episode you see it and it’s such a letdown!
That’s how it was in the truck, you hear all this screaming and shouting outside, and it makes it even more scary. It was so intense, there was every emotion going on - fear, anger, hunger, thirst.
People are trying to stay positive, some are comforting each other.
I remember one woman was worried about her daughter’s university index card, which had all her grades written on it. They had had to leave it behind.
Between us and the cabin of the truck there was a woman we knew, with her little baby. My mam remembers that she and her husband had struggled for a long time to have children.
The baby was starting to lose consciousness in the heat. I remember the mother starting to faint as well.
We had two bottles of water in a sack. My mam got one out, she started to wash the baby’s face, and gave it some water. Eventually the baby started to come round again.
We were so tightly rammed on the truck that I couldn’t get my jacket off.
We were gasping for air. It’s a claustrophobic feeling, you can’t breathe.
I was light-headed, dizzy. I remember that nervous, scared feeling. The dry feeling when you open your mouth and your mouth just gets dryer, I can’t describe it.
It’s like, the more you try to breathe the harder it gets.
Sometimes something simple like needing a drink after football will trigger the memory, it’s always with you.
It’s so dehumanising: it’s a cattle truck. People aren’t supposed to travel in cattle trucks. We had been equated to vermin by the Croatians. You wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
I had a dream about it a few months ago, since we started telling my story. I don’t dream about the sequence of events, just the feeling. It’s like I get teleported back, and I’m there again, trapped in there, it’s so, so hot, you can’t breathe.
I remember the fear too - what was going to happen? Were we going to be killed? When would we be able to eat again, when would we have water to drink?
That day was a turning point.
We had no control any more. We were herded like animals onto those trucks. There was no more choice.
Nobody gets onto a truck because they want to. You get onto a truck because all of your choices have been taken from you. You do it because you have to.”