As I look at my reflection in the window of the bus that is taking me to Rijeka, I am being reminded of the huge black eye that I received in Rome. But it is not only my brown skin or my black eye that make me wonder, if I will be interrogated at the borders. More decisively, the temporary passport that I received in Rome could seem suspicious to them, albeit apart from doing some research and concluding that this passport is valid worldwide, I also double-checked this issue with the German embassy in Rome. "So this passport will not cause any problems at the Croatian-Serbian border, right?", I asked, and I was told with certainty that everything should be fine.
A few minutes after arriving at the Slovenian-Croatian border, I hand in my green passport that is normally supposed to be red, and my prediction comes true: The officials want me to get off the bus. But instead of asking me questions about my new passport, they want to find out if I posess any drugs.
"If you tell us the truth now, you don't have to worry, but if you lie and we find something, you will have big problems, and we will search everywhere", they say at least five times during our conversation, but eventually realize that I am telling the truth. "What happened to your eye?", one of them asks me, and I quickly sum up what happened in Rome, after which they let me go. Upon my arrival in Rijeka I briefly take a look around, for a moment regretting that there is no time left to explore this beautiful city, because the next bus will finally take me to Belgrade.... if everything goes as planned.
Already last year, when I was mistaken for a refugee and ended up at the illegal border for refugees between Macedonia and Greece, I learnt that for people like me traveling in Europe is no longer the way it used to be. But even before the refugee crisis started and before Daesh started wreaking Havoc in Paris, it has not always been easy for certain travelers in certain countries, and of all the former Yugoslav Republics, this holds nowhere more true than in Serbia.
Many Serbian people are prone to demonstrate how the dangerously generalized depiction of "the Serbs" in international media during the Yugoslav wars stands in stark contrast with who the Serbian people really are, as many newly arrived refugees have learnt when they met the locals. At the same time, few people in Serbia will deny how the religious end ethnic hatred that was fueled during the Yugoslav wars has coined the country. Apart from a vocal minority among the rightwingers in particular, for Muslims (or people who are mistaken for Muslims because of their skin color or other physical features) this is perhaps most perceivable at the Serbian borders in particular.
I recall how a few years ago some people who are close to me were denied entry in a discriminating way. Darker skinned people are routinely being picked out and inspected at the border, I have been told by a Serbian local as well. Also from my personal experience I know that racial profiling is a common phenomenon at the Serbian borders. It never surprised me, considering all the religious hatred that was fueled here not long ago. Since the first time that I entered Serbia, I got used to the fact that usually I get picked out, inspected and interrogated. It never bothered me, as long as I am not treated unprofessionally. Like in many other countries, the officials at the border have not always been friendly, but I have so far never had any serious issues while traveling to this country, and in retrospect it was never the border officials that I remembered, but the moments that I shared with the locals that I met and the friends that I made in Serbia.
This evening, however, I begin to feel a little bit uneasy, as almost two hours pass without the police returning with our passports, and I have a feeling that the reason is me. At some point of time I realize that I was correct with my premonition. The bus driver looks at me and says in a loud and annoyed tone: "We have big problems because of you." - "I haven't even done anything.", I reply. He looks at me, and in a lower tone he mistrustfully says: "I don't know", analyzing my face and pondering for a while, before he turns around. Why is there so much tension in the air? One woman is angry and thinks that I am an "Islamist" from Saudi-Arabia, while the woman who sits next to me seems to be a little bit nervous.
Shortly thereafter, the bus driver informs me that the police wants me to get out and to take my luggage with me. This is not a good sign. Never in my journeys have I been denied entry to any country, and Serbia - along with Bosnia i Herzegovina - is the country that I have visited more often than any other country in the world. Will I now be denied entry in Serbia of all places? It does not matter if I have a black eye and a green passport, my documents are legal and there is no legitimate reason to deny me entry, although I know that from a legal standpoint they can deny my entry even if they do not have a proper reason. But whatever will happen, there is no way that I will head back to Germany just now.
The Interrogation Room
In the first moments I thought that I could explain to them everything in one minute, but once I get off the bus, I can feel that for some reason the situation is more serious than I thought. The border officials are so alerted that they watch the slightest move I make. I knew that crossing the border can be more exhausting than usual because of the circumstances, but their reaction still surprises me. They almost act like I am on Interpol's wanted list.
In a very tenseful atmosphere they take me into this intimidating interrogation room. So far they have not harmed me, but this room looks like a room where they could harm me and no one would ever find out. The police men keep a lot of distance, not only physically but also in terms of communication. I spend the next hour in this room without anyone speaking to me, without anyone telling me what's up, without anyone even asking me questions, and I am just waiting for them to get started with the interrogation so all the unnecessary drama ends and we can move on.
Then, finally, they begin to speak with me. First, one of them asks me to slowly open my luggage and to take out everything. After doing so, two police men enter. "Be professional", the one man tells his colleague, who seems to be convinced that I am a real threat. He inspects me carefully, before the first round of interrogation begins, where I have to answer the typical series of questions like where I come from, why I am heading to Serbia, if I have been here before and why I have been here before.
Since Serbia is one of my most frequently visited countries, they conclude that I must know some people in Belgrade and note down every name that I mention. To see if they can find contradictions in my words, they repeat certain questions from time to time. The Serbian officials ask me even more questions than the Israeli border officials did when I sought to visit Palestine and they saw a Lebanese entry stamp, a Pakistani visa and an Iranian visa in my passport.
The Turkish Couple
Too much time has passed already. The bus to Belgrade must have left. How am I supposed to get to Belgrade now? Or does it now mean that I will be denied entry for sure? Every minute feels like an eternity. Dozens of eternities later I am being told to sit outside of the interrogation room. "Are you hungry? Do you want to eat some cake?", one man asks me and then points at the younger police man whom I intuitively consider to be the most trustworthy one: "We celebrate his birthday.", he says.
Meanwhile, a Turkish couple enters the interrogation room. „Selamu aleykum“, I say to them after I finish eating the piece of cake, longing to bring some positivity in this tenseful atmosphere. They delightedly return my greeting. The woman, who is wearing a headscarf, looks at me and smiles. But her smile fades away quickly, and she apparently begins to feel concerned. I wonder why she is getting so nervous while looking at me. Then I remember that I still have a huge black eye and I just went out from the intimidating interrogation room with the Serbian police men, the same room that the Turkish couple has just entered.
Considering the strong suspicion that the police men have towards me, I walk over to them not too hastily, but still with urgency, warning the police man who is celebrating his birthday that a misunderstanding could lead to escalation: "Listen, the Turkish woman probably thinks that you are responsible for my black eye and she may think that they are now next in line to get beaten up and tortured. Do not wonder if they may overreact.", I say, after picturing how this story could unfold, how the Turkish couple believes that they may suffer the same fate like me, being tortured by 'evil and sadistic Serbs who hate muslims', while some of the police men hope to expose these two "evil descendants of Ottoman barbarians" as terrorists who hate infidels. Despite the serious situation, both the police man and I have to chuckle, and the police man apparently takes my words into consideration, before the interrogation begins.
As I look at the Turkish couple again, I conclude that they do not look like they could be a threat to anyone at all. Too curious to stay quiet, I ask the young police man what the Turkish couple has done exactly. Although he is still careful with making a final conclusion on whether I could be a dangerous person or not, he slowly begins to be more relaxed and speaks more openly. "You know, right now many people come from Turkey and have a green passport, but normally they have a red passport. They can legally get such a passport, but they found a gap in the system and use it to illegally enter Europe." So that's why the border police reacted towards me the way they did, because now they have this German muslim solo traveler who also has a green passport instead of a red one. As I point this out, the police man looks like he wants to explain something to me, but decides to stay quiet.
The Good Cop
Although things start to make more sense, I still do not understand their exaggerated reaction. It is not only my brown skin, my black eye or my green passport that makes it difficult for me to head to the White city. There is something else. First I thought that the man who is in charge here probably has a radical political stance and therefore I am being treated accordingly. Maybe I am now experiencing the same discrimination that the people who are close to me have experienced here before. But the police men tonight do not really act like racists, I realize all the more after they allow me to have a smoke with them and we talk a little bit more about random things such as movies.
Because I cannot see any reason why they should regard me as such a serious threat, I begin to wonder if some of the Serbian police men want to believe that I am a threat. This common phenomenon in the police world is arguably a result of officials seeking higher ranks, sometimes wishing deep inside that they have finally found the big fish to climb up the career ladder.
The younger police man is the one who at some point of time almost sounds like he wants to believe what I am saying, albeit he still keeps enough distance from me, never neglecting his duty. Eventually he lets me know more about what they know. "We know all the places where you have been.", he says, after we briefly talk about my stay in Venezuela. "We know that you were in Serbia last year, you came from Bosnia and later again from Macedonia. You then went to Budapest and to Germany.".He goes on to explain to me that my itinerary this time is quite popular among drug smugglers, and I begin to recall how even at the Slovenian-Croatian border I was asked a dozen times if I posess any drugs. That I was in Colombia and Venezuela last year, must appear all the more fishy to them. They certainly know how ridiculously cheap the drugs in those countries are.
While this is a plausible reason for them to inspect me, their reaction is very different from the border officials at the Slovenian-Croatian border. It is probably not only my brown skin color, my black eye, my green passport and the drug smuggler itinerary that I have chosen less than a year after having been to the drug oasis South America, which is right now making it so difficult for me to reach the White city. And indeed, the young police man indicates that there is another reason. „There is something about you, but I cannot tell you more.".
Soon the police officer has some news for me and I listen to him in anticipation: "Look, it's not like we will arrest you. You are 'free', but we cannot let you go yet. The German embassy is closed and we can reach them only tomorrow. We must be sure and we must know more about you. After that, you will never ever have problems again when you come to Serbia.", he assures me and explains to me what will happen next. "You will not have to stay in this place, but we will take you to another place. It will be more comfortable, do not worry.". This sounds good to me, because not only does it mean that we finally cross the border, but I will additionally receive free accomodation and free food. I wonder if they have WiFi in that place. More importantly, I wonder just where exactly they will take me now.
Custody in a Police Office in Novi Sad
As I bid farewell to the young police man, some colleagues of his ask me to enter their car, and I am being informed that we head to Novi Sad. "Do you know the Exit Festival?", one of them asks me after we briefly talk about the issues at the border. "I think I have heard of it, but that's it.". He explains to me that it is a popular event that takes place annually. Probably he is wondering how a traveler like me, who has been to Serbia several times, cannot know about such an event in a city that is perhaps Serbia's most famous tourist destination. But it is true that I have never even been to Novi Sad so far.
As we arrive, I get out of the car and quickly take a look around. "Well, this is not really how I pictured my first stay in Novi Sad", I say ironically, before we head into the office. At least I am not handcuffed, and most of the tenseful atmopshere is gone. The next hours I can move more freely and talk more openly. The police men provide me with good food, after which we have a friendly conversation. They listen to me amused, as I share some travel stories. I also get to practice a little bit Serbian with those police men who do not speak English.
While it is true that being able to speak a local language even on the most basic level can be very beneficial, in certain situations it can also increase the suspicion towards me. On the same night the boss who interrogated me at the border arrives and talks to the other police men. One of the police men summarizes what I have said: "He said that he usually never has problems entering any former Yugoslav Republic, but he always gets inspected when he comes to Serbia.", is one of my remarks that he translates. "Of course he gets inspected! The terrorists come from his place!", the boss insists exculpatorily. "He can understand a little bit Serbian", the translator notes, probably thinking that such comments would hurt my feelings or cause emotional reactions. The boss hesitates for a few seconds, before he says: "So what? It is true, or do we not have terrorists coming from there?". At least he realized earlier tonight that I could very well be telling the truth, which is why he decided to send me here in the first place.
The Serbian Police Woman
After a comfortable but very unique couchsurfing experience in a police headquarter, the next morning I am being taken to an office in the same building, where I meet a Serbian police woman. For a moment I fantasize about flirting with her, until the interrogation begins and I am being reminded that it is time to be serious. It has become obvious just how much they believed that I am a terrorist. The question is why. And finally I begin to fully understand what is going on, as the police woman tells me what the younger police man wanted to tell me last night, but was not allowed to. They thought that I am a terrorist not only because of my brown skin, my black eye, my green passport, or the unusual itinerary, but because there is a terrorist on their list who has the same name like me. And they are still not sure if I am telling the truth. "You know, since the Paris terror attacks a lot of things have changed." , she says. Therefore, her colleague continues to ask me some questions:
"When have you been to Belgrade the first time?"
"29th of July, 2011". The police officers seem surprised that I remember the exact date.
"You must have some contact details of your friends in Belgrade on your phone."
"I don't have a phone."
"You have traveled to 61 countries but you don't have a phone?!", the police man asks in disbelief.
"62 countries", I reply, and reiterate that I do not use any mobile phones. Then there is this awkward moment of silence.
They go on to ask me why I travel alone, as if I was the only singler traveler, and I explain to them that on many occasions I traveled with friends as well, but I travel for the sake of traveling, and I do not really focus on whether I am alone or traveling with a group of friends, not to mention that as a solo traveler you usually meet fellow travelers or locals, so a solo traveler is barely alone if he does not want to be alone.
Of course they also ask me how I finance all the traveling, and the more I explain, the more they begin to realize that I am just a regular guy who found a way to live his passion. The police woman curiously listens to me with eyes wide open and I enjoy to see more of her human nature, receiving her undivided attention. "I really envy you.", she says. "Well it's not always easy as you can see", I reply smiling, pointing at my black eye and alluding to the fact that I first got robbed and now I have been taken into custody for almost 20 hours, because I have the same name like a terrorist that they search. Her comment may sound weird from this angle. But if I look back at all the travel projects in the last six years, it becomes obvious how marginal the undesirable situations have been compared to all the beautiful moments, so she is absolutely right when she says that I have been lucky.
She and her colleague both seem to gradually show more of their human side. Soon it no longer feels like I am talking to police officers, but to regular locals, as if they have taken off the 'mask of strictness' that their job requires them to wear, albeit every now and then they ask some random questions that they have asked before, to see if my words are contradictive, and sometimes they compare my answers with the typical profile of a criminal..
"Do you have a girlfriend?", the police man asks me.
"No. My focus is just on traveling right now"
"Is it not difficult without a girl? Does it not make you aggressive?", he asks jokingly and maybe with components of seriousness. I ask him why I should be aggressive, jokingly alluding to the fact that sometimes having a girlfriend can make you more aggressive.
"Have you ever been discriminated against for being a muslim?"
"It happens.", I reply shortly, without even elaborating any further, because this will not change anything.
The Final Test
Later I am being informed that they have reached the embassy to get more certainty on whether I am a terrorist or not. Now the only thing that they ask for is to get the phone numbers of some people I know in Belgrade. In a Café we order something to drink, while I switch on my laptop, waiting to log into Facebook. In the meantime, they ask me some more questions.
The next round of talks revolves around my stay in Palestine and the confrontation with an Israeli border official, my view on the Palestinian issue and my reasons for traveling to Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Lebanon. They also want to know why I visited the United States of America. That I studied American Studies maybe even added up to their suspicion, given that not long ago Serbia has experienced what US intervention means.
"Why did you study American studies?"
"I have always been good in English. I have always been surrounded by American culture, especially popular culture. At the same time you can see that I have always been interested in the other side, and in knowing more about the other side", I say, alluding to how I keep coming back to Serbia despite of the tensions between Non-Muslim Serbs and Muslims that found their peak in the Yugoslav wars.
As expected, they want to know my view on US foreign policy, and I do not embellish anything, telling them crystal clearly how I condemn the worldwide military operations of the US government. "Why exactly do you criticize US involvement in other countries?", they want to know. "Because whereever they interfere, things usually get much much worse", I reply, and they laugh in agreement.
"What about your parents?", they ask me and hope to learn more about the way I was raised and about my religious beliefs. So I explain to them how I was raised, what Islam means to me, why it means what it means to me, while stressing that I am far from being an ideal Muslim. We then go on to talk about the political issues related to ideologies based on Islam, about the misperception of Islam in the West, about the problems in the Islamic world, and what my opinion on the situation in the Middle East is.
"Have you ever wanted to go to Syria?", a question that I was sure he would eventually ask. "Yes. I also wanted to go to Iraq, but my parents probably would have killed me before Daesh would be able to kill me", I reply, prompting them to laugh, before I explain to them exactly why I thought about visiting Syria and Iraq.
Subsequently I try to reach my.friends and acquaintance from Begrade on Facebook. They all express their concern once I tell them that the Serbian police asked me to contact them. I stress that everything is fine and that I only need their phone numbers, so the police can check that I am telling the truth.
The police man is about to call one of the people I know. "When you call her, just tell her that Master Splinter is in trouble and the Ninja Turtles must rescue him.", I tell him. He then smiles curiously and insists that he has to know what I am talking about, so I briefly describe how on one night I met those intoxicated girls, who creatively described themselves as the Ninja Turtles and me as Master Splinter. "They compared you with a rat?!", he asks in disbelief, probably wondering if I did not feel discriminated against, but as long as I am their master, it's fine with me!
Exit from Novi Sad
Back in the office the police man and woman disappear for a while: In the meantime I chat with friends and people I know in Belgrade, and they quickly summarize what the police man asked them on the phone. "Have you ever felt that he could be dangerous?", "Has he blogged or commented on Facebook or anywhere else on the terror attacks in Paris?", were two of several questions. Once the questions were all answered, the police man told them not to think wrong of me or treat me differently because of this, explaining how they had reasons to believe that I could be somebody else, but were wrong.
Finally, the police woman arrives again and has some news for me. "Look, you are free and you can go now. You will be taken to the bus station. We have to sincerely apologize to you for all the inconvenience.", she says regretfully, wishing me all the best and letting me know how much she appreciated meeting and talking to me. Now I almost regret that the interrogation is over. One of her colleagues drives me to the bus station and buys a ticket to Belgrade for me. "Just do us one favor: Do not tell people that we did this", he says with a smile, pointing with his finger on my black eye. So finally, after all that I have been through in the last days,the black sheep gets ready to return to the White City to celebrate New Year's Eve like there is no tomorrow.