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On a Balkan border: A Swedish chef and, perhaps, a foretaste of home

Publisher: Reuters
Author: BY IVANA SEKULARAC
Story date: 20/09/2015
Language: English

HARMICA, CROATIA |
Swedish chef Henrik Johannessen prides himself on his mushroom risotto, but these days he's cooking potato stew, with a sprinkling of cumin, for the migrants queuing to enter Slovenia.

And it's not just the hot meals; for many migrants, the welcome is getting warmer the closer they get to their goal of western Europe.

"We cook a stew with chickpeas, potatoes, tomato and we put cumin in it because that's a flavor they're used to," said Johannessen, 33, who drove with seven friends from Sweden to the hilly village of Harmica on Croatia's border with Slovenia to offer help, their cars loaded with food.

From smugglers in Turkey, to stun grenades in Macedonia and a metal fence in Hungary, thousands of migrants streaming through the Balkans have had a torrid time crossing borders, many of them having fled war in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

They still face riot police and a long wait at the entrance to Slovenia, over a bridge spanning the River Sutla. But, while the Harmica border crossing has yet to face the full force of the migrant influx others in the region are struggling to cope with, the scene is a far cry from the hostility, squalor and chaos seen elsewhere.

Twenty-five years ago, there was no border at the Sutla: Slovenia was one of six Yugoslav republics, led for 35 years by Josip Broz Tito, who hailed from the Zagorje region of which Harmica is part.

Johannessen's food stall gives many a taste of the home they might make one day in Sweden, the second most popular destination for the migrants and refugees surging through Europe, most of whom want to reach Germany.

Slovenian police briefly fired pepper spray late on Friday as some in the crowd began pushing and shoving, egged on in part by a group of Slovenians who had arrived shouting "Welcome, refugees!"

Stung by some media coverage of the incident, the government of this sleepy, small and mountainous state, home to 2 million people, issued a statement saying the spray had been used by one officer against a single "protester".

ARMY MEALS

Earlier in the day, Dolores del Jesus, head of a local charity working with former drug addicts, had seen from her house the migrants emerging from a train, en route to the border.

So she gave them blankets and spoke to the local authorities to get tents, mattresses, toilets and garbage bins. Word spread via Facebook, and residents of Harmica and nearby villages collected diapers, toilet paper, candy, water and toys to amuse the children.

"We were thinking on Friday evening what to cook for dinner and then the guys from Sweden came," said del Jesus.

"We feel better that we are here actually doing something rather than watching the news," said Joakim, one of the seven friends accompanying Johannessen.

Slovenia has yet to face the kind of influx the likes of its less prosperous ex-Yugoslav peers Macedonia and Serbia are confronting, upwards of five, six or seven thousand every day. Some 2,000 have so far entered, in smalls groups periodically let through by police, while Croatia is sending many more north to Hungary.

Srecko Sestan, head of Slovenia's national Civil Protection, said the army had cooked just over 1,000 meals for migrants on Saturday. In Hungary, soldiers are busy building a fence along parts of its border with Croatia to keep them out, having successfully sealed off its southern frontier with Serbia.

Hungary has seen almost 200,000 pass through its territory, representing a threat, the government says, to the prosperity, identity and "Christian values" of Europe.

In Slovenia, Sandra Tusar, state secretary at the health ministry, said some 60 doctors and 30 nurses had volunteered for help and translators had been deployed to address any problems in communication.

While grateful for the support, some migrants said they just wished to continue their journey.

"People here are really nice, but we need to move on, to go to Germany," said a 35-year-old Syrian man from Damascus who gave his name as George. "We're grateful for the food, but I wish they would open the border."

(Additional reporting by Marja Novak in Ljubljana; writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Ralph Boulton)
 

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