Reportage. Nationalist thugs attacked the volunteers and set fire to a nylon tent. When the police arrived, the NGO workers were arrested and ordered to leave the country after a summary trial.

Italian volunteers attacked and expelled from Serbia for helping migrants

In Serbia, anyone who helps migrants is not welcome. That’s what three activists from the No Name Kitchen NGO, which has been working since 2017 along the Balkan route, found out at their own expense. 

On Feb. 1, the three, including the Italian Adalberto Parenti, were attacked by a group of ethnic nationalists and then detained by the police, who accused them of disturbing the public peace as well as not having the right papers. Parenti, a 37-year-old from Bologna who has been in Serbia since October, and his colleague Leonie Sofia Neumann were both sentenced to pay fines of almost €200, while another German activist, Marina Bottke, was acquitted of all charges. In addition, all of them were served by the Serbian police with expulsion orders saying they had to leave the country by Feb. 10.

The NGO members were working in Šid, in south-western Serbia, near the border with Croatia. Parenti said the incident occurred when the volunteers were giving supplies to the migrants who are outside the official reception camps and sleeping in tents near the abandoned Grafosrem factory. 

“On the previous Saturday [Jan. 25], these people had already arrived, dressed in military uniforms, for the official reason of cleaning up the bushes. They set fire to the piles of clothes they found,” he explains, “and when we tried to save what we could, some of the activists were shoved around.”

After they contacted the police the following day, the latter reassured the volunteers and told them to let them know if they encountered similar situations. Last Saturday morning, the same group, which had raised a Serbian and a Chetnik flag on the roof of the factory, came back. 

“They had come to continue the ‘cleansing’—a term that is historically appropriate,” the activist told us. One of the men set fire to a nylon covering and to a tent, from which Bottke, one of the activists, miraculously escaped unscathed. The three went away, Parenti tells us, but Neumann, the other German girl who was filming the scene, was hit with a firecracker and her phone was destroyed with a truncheon.

However, once the police arrived, they took the activists to the police station, from which they were only allowed to leave at 1 a.m., with orders to leave the country. In a summary trial, the three were confronted with just as many members of the group of nationalists, and the authorities chose to believe the version of the latter. 

“The expulsion order is a clearly political decision, and it is based on falsehoods,” says Parenti. “Now, we are fighting to declare it void. The lawyer says it will take at least a week to get a decision.” What will he do in the meantime? “I’ll stay here in Šid, helping the others, as long as this is legally possible for me. Then, I’ll leave the country, but I’ll stay close by, hoping to return soon.”

Parenti tells us he is not surprised by the behavior of the Serbian police, and says that they are not the first No Name Kitchen activists to have had problems. “Anyone who helps migrants here runs into ‘obstacles’ sooner or later, to use a euphemism,” he says. Just as Croatia, on the EU payroll, is illegally sending people back to Bosnia, the Serbian authorities must also show that they are uncompromising towards migrants if they want to have any hope of joining the EU.

Meanwhile, Parenti says he has received a lot of solidarity from Italy. “I have also received reassurances from Italian institutions and some politicians,” the activist tells us. “Let’s hope something gets moving. In the meantime, seguimos luchando! (We’ll keep fighting!)”

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