43 hours in a Serbian airport

Euroviews reporter Jiri Haanen was denied access to Serbia by the authorities and spends his time awaiting deportation. Get a personal insight into his adventures in the twilight zone of Nikola Tesla airport. 

On the evening of March 25, team member Tomas van der Heijden and I flew from the Swedish city Mälmo to the Serbian capital Belgrade. In my pocket I felt my wallet pressing against my thigh, bearing that one important document I needed to enter this fascinating country: my Dutch national identity card.

After leaving the plane, we walked through a long hallway that started out with an explicitly grey East bloc atmosphere. This turned out to be quite deceptive. After a couple of hundred meters the hallway abruptly transformed into a modern, well-lit world filled with shops like Hugo Boss, Victoria’s Secret, a duty-free story mainly focusing on chocolate and booze and a tourist store named Serbian House.

We arrived at the passport control just before the entrance to the luggage halls. It was almost midnight and I had no idea what was about to happen.

The old Eastern European hallway.
The old Eastern European hallway.
Versus the modern  hallway.
Versus the modern hallway.

“Interpol is looking for you” A small, young woman with black glasses and a strict gaze looked frowning from her computer screen to my ID. She said: “Interpol is looking for you. I don’t know why, but you are on the list. You can’t enter Serbia.”

I couldn’t believe it. In my perception of the world, Interpol only searched for big criminals who attempt to flee into the warm embrace of countries with strong protective legislature. It turns out that Interpol also deals with small criminals and people with a tendency to forget important identification matters.

However – and this is where an awful amount of stupidity comes into play – a small but very important detail slipped my mind. Tomas reminded me about it and it hit me as a slap in the face. “You dumbass,” I mumbled to myself.

The passport control where I was refused entrance to Serbia.
The passport control where I was refused entrance to Serbia.

Many months ago, in November 2014, I lost my wallet in the Netherlands and reported it missing. The police blocked my identity card and put it on an Interpol list for lost objects to protect me against identity fraud. Although I found the wallet a few days later I never notified the police and, thus, never left the list.

Captured in the twilight zone

The first night at Nikola Tesla airport was filled with waking the Dutch ambassadors in Belgrade from their sleep. They all said more or less the same thing but none of them could do anything for me.

The transfer desk of AirSerbia, an expensive airline, helped us out with our back-up plan: flying back to Amsterdam, request an emergency passport and fly back to Belgrade as soon as possible. I wasn’t allowed to enter the hall where they sold tickets, so Tomas helped me out before he had to go to our Airbnb. I only realized my fellow Dutchman was gone, when a guy from AirSerbia handed me a handwritten note that assured me he was alright.

People are not meant to stay here but I did. At 06.15 in the morning, one of the security guys mumbled something in his phone and hung up. I asked and he shook his head: “Bad news, no Amsterdam for you.” He told me I could fly back to where I came from.

The next flight to Mälmo is March 27 at 7 pm and I sincerely hope this bureaucratic foxhole won’t play me another trick. The money for the Amsterdam ticket will not be returned, but my deportation will be free: I guess that is normal for a deportation.

Now it may seem the people at this airport are all a bunch of sadists who keep extending my stay in this ‘wonderful’ hotel here. I felt that way sometimes, but it is not true. The people here mean well but the communication between them is almost non-existent. The cancellation by security of my Amsterdam flight is the best example of that.

Airport art

After the disappointment of my cancelled flight, I took ten minutes to lay down in self pity and dramatize this tragic event in my life. At a certain point I rose up, got a double espresso and big sandwich at one of the two exact same cafes here and started to make a plan to fill my time with. The sandwich was good and life did not seem so bad after all.

I have entertained myself with the following activities: an hour of physical training with my 13 kilo backpack while being laughed at by two security guys (I guess it looked funny to see me squat and doing push-ups with a big lump on my back), writing and taking pictures and reading articles on my laptop without being able to concentrate due to lack of sleep.

Oh yeah, one more thing: I tried to appreciate the art they exhibited. You read it right: in the waiting rooms for the gates the airport exhibited extremely good copies of famous art works. Very soothing for the weary mind.

Peasant and Cow, Marc Chagall (1926/27).
Peasant and Cow, Marc Chagall (1926/27).
Art exhibition at one of the waiting rooms at the gates. There were exhibitions in three areas.
Art exhibition in one of the waiting rooms at the gates. There were exhibitions in three areas.

Lonely and sleep deprived

Thus, having lived in an airport for 43 hours wasn’t the worst thing. The food they sold me was quite good and it’s relatively safe to fall asleep with your bags without waking up in your underwear. There were a shitload of security people and they all wore guns and carried nasty looking batons.

My reporting spot.
My reporting spot.

There is another side of the coin though. It was very depressing and lonely to not be able to inhale some fresh air. There was no balcony in the whole zone, so the best way to get some fresh air was to wait at a gate when an arrived plane was connected. Another depressing thing is that all the people I saw were just quick passers in the twilight zone.

Views from the windows.
Views from the windows.

But what got to me the most is the enormous lack of sleep over the last 43 hours. I couldn’t really go to sleep for longer than an hour at once for numerous reasons: there were no beds but hard and uncomfortable benches, there were always people talking or walking and I didn’t trust people enough to leave my bags out of sight for longer than a couple of hours plus it got quite cold in the nights. Every time I tried to read a book, my mind shifted away and I fell asleep for five minutes.

So to summarise: sometimes I got lonely and sleep deprived and walked through Nikola Tesla’s dream panorama feeling just plain weird and longing for a good ten hours of sleep. A lot of people slept here during my time in there, though most were just awaiting their next flight and arrived late in the evening.

At 5.30 pm a grumpy security guy motioned me to follow him. While waiting at the gate, I thought of some beautiful parting words to say to the man with the gun. When the moment came I looked at him and swallowed my final words. Instead of “I really enjoyed your country”, I said: “Thank you, goodbye?” Sometimes it is better to let those frustrations go.

Couldn't help but laugh a bit bitter about this.
Couldn’t help but laugh a bit bitter about this.