Madina Hussiny’s family say they were put in harm’s way after crossing from Serbia, then had to fight for the return of her body
Madina’s grave. ‘I will carry it in my heart for ever, that I did not give her a proper ceremony.’ Photograph: Emma Graham-Harrison for the Guardian
When the train hit six-year-old Madina Hussiny, her family stumbled to the watching Croatian border police begging for help, her body limp in their arms.
The same officers had ordered the exhausted Afghan family down railway tracks towards Serbia in the dark without warning them there might still be trains running, said Madina’s mother, Muslima Hussiny. But desperate and terrified, they had nowhere else to turn.
Madina was a casualty of a slow-burning crisis along Europe’s borders that aid groups and activists say is causing untold suffering.
Thousands of migrants and refugees trapped in Serbia, where they have almost no chance of successfully claiming asylum and little hope of moving on legally, are resorting to increasingly desperate means to try to cross into the European Union.
The border police of Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria have responded by forcing any people they catch back over the frontier, often violently, according to groups ranging from Human Rights Watch to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
The tragedy of the Hussiny family, who tried to reach Croatia after spending nearly a year in Serbia hoping for legal passage into Hungary, was the latest in a string of deaths and injuries to children and adults across the Balkans.
“What we continue to witness is the negative consequences of the EU policies at the external EU borders,” said MSF’s humanitarian affairs adviser for Serbia, Andrea Contenta. “These policies continue to put people in danger. There is no safe way to travel.”
The day that ended in tragedy had begun in hope. Muslima Hussiny decided to set off with six of her 10 children on 21 November after hearing that the border with Croatia was less tightly sealed than it had been in recent months.
Muslima said the group, with four children under 10, made it into Croatia by scrambling across fields and over and under fences, but they were picked up by police a few hours later as they rested in a park under blankets.
She was happy to see the officers at first, expecting to be taken to a police station to formally claim asylum, their right under European law. Instead, Muslima said, they were driven to the railway line and ordered to walk back towards Serbia.
“I begged: ‘If you won’t accept us, please let us stay here tonight. In this weather we are already tired and cold, the children are little,’” she said. “But they were inhuman.”
Madina’s family. Photograph: Emma Graham-Harrison for the Guardian
Croatian authorities denied that Madina and her family had set foot in their country before her death, or that border police played any role in putting the six-year-old in the path of the train. They said the family were crossing from Serbia and were on the far side of the border when the train hit, but the death was recorded in Croatia because the family ran that way for help.
“We emphasise that treatment of the Croatian border police had not contributed in any way or caused the accident and the death of a child,” the interior ministry said in a statement, adding that its treatment of all migrants and refugees followed EU law.
But multiple aid and human rights groups have documented hundreds of cases of people with a legal right to claim asylum being forced back over EU borders in Croatia, Hungary and Bulgaria, frequently with the use of violence.
At the start of this year, Médecins du Monde raised warnings about tactics including beatings, pepper spray and dog attacks in these “forced pushbacks”.
There have been many reports of people being ordered back along the train tracks where Madina died. “Many of our patients tell us that the [Croatian] police allegedly brought them to the train line and ordered them to cross back. It’s a recurrent pattern that we hear,” said MSF’s Contenta.
For a moment after the train screeched to a halt, Muslima’s focus was on Madina’s older sister, who tumbled to the ground as the train rushed past. Then she realised that the chubby chatterbox who was everyone’s favourite was missing.
There was a frantic scramble with phone flashlights in the dark, and then Madina’s older brother spotted her lying on the ground. Muslima hoped she was just concussed, but it quickly became clear she was terribly hurt. “Rashid took off her hat and there was blood everywhere. I picked her up and saw there was no sign of life.”
When they stumbled back to the police, she said, the officers ignored Rashid’s desperate pleas for medical help and ordered the family into a van, taking time to check that everyone they wanted to deport was accounted for.
So she hugged her daughter’s battered body during a journey that stretched on for eternity and was over too soon. At some point on the road, the van stopped and nurses transferred Madina to an ambulance where they worked on her for a while. Then they drove away, ignoring Muslima’s pleas to stay with her daughter.
“I told them: ‘I want to go with my child, wherever you are taking her,’” she wept. “I asked: ‘Why are you sending her alone, I want to be with her, it’s my right to be together.’”
The next time she saw Madina was days later, when the body was icy cold and blood and mud were still smeared on her face.
Madina Hussiny. ‘She was always smiling, always the one everybody liked.’ Photograph: Family handout
The family had left their home after threats against their father, Rahmat Shah, for his work with the police. They moved first to the Afghan capital, Kabul, but danger followed them, so they left for Europe at the start of 2016 and reached Serbia around a year later.
Madina, at six, was a dimpled clown, kind and silly, inspiration for the whole family on the long journey. “She was always smiling, always the one everybody liked,” said her oldest sister, Nilab, 17. “She talked a lot but always so sweet. My mum asked her: ‘Why do you talk so much,’ but she just smiled.”
Nilab cannot shake the memories of the body as it was returned to the family, battered and muddied. “They just treated her like an animal, like a dog. Such a small body and they didn’t treat it like a human,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
In the days that followed the accident, the family had to fight for news of Madina’s fate, information about her body and the right to bury her according to Muslim tradition.
They were sent back to Serbia the night she died, without confirmation of where she had been taken or whether she was dead, and not even a number to contact.
They met with little more compassion on the other side of the border, held overnight in a police room with only a table and chairs, still covered in Madina’s blood, cold, hungry and desperate with grief.
It took them days to confirm she had been killed and to reclaim her body, and only then with the support of groups including MSF and HelpRefugees.
When Madina was returned to them on 24 November, the family were ordered to bury her immediately. There was no paperwork, and four bottles of water to perform the washing of the body that is a vital part of Muslim funeral rites.
They spent more than six hours in a tense standoff at the municipal cemetery with officials, her father said. “I told them I would rather you bury us all here than make me bury her like this.”
But Serbian authorities threatened the whole family with deportation if they continued to resist, he said. Then UN officials arrived and warned the family that if they did not agree to the burial, Serbian authorities could go ahead without their consent.
So, unwillingly, they agreed to the burial. “I was shouting and crying when my wife and daughter took the body to wash,” said Rahmat Shah. Because winter was setting in, it was already getting dark when she was laid into the ground. “I will carry it in my heart for ever, that I did not give her a proper ceremony.”
Madina’s grave lies at the edge of a municipal graveyard, on the bleak outskirts of the border town where she spent her last afternoon, on the edge of a vast, flat expanse of fields. There is no marker, but her family pray she will not be forgotten.
“Please spread our message as much as you can, because she came here with all her hopes,” said her father. He is still waiting for her death certificate.