BUDAPEST (Reuters) - It was an unlikely end to a journey from Syria marked by death threats and constant fear - an ice cold beer in a first class train seat with a view of the German countryside.
When Rabie Hajouk fled his country’s civil war he had not set out for the country he now calls home, and when he related the first part of his journey last week while waiting in Hungary, he had not expected the final bit to be so easy.
In Saudi Arabia, where he had headed first, to join his brothers after his house in Syria’s Homs was destroyed, Hajouk worked for a year and a half as an electrical engineer but said he then fell foul of the religious police.
“I wasn’t safe,” he had said while waiting on the border between Serbia and Hungary, inside the European Union’s border-free Schengen zone, explaining why he decided find his sister in Germany instead.
It was not an easy decision: among hundreds of thousands of people who have sought refuge and better lives in the European Union this year from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, thousands have died, in overturned boats or sealed trucks.
Hajouk had already endured a month of hardship and there was more to come, he told Reuters on Tuesday from the German mobile phone he bought when he reached his destination.
He and his travel companions, five women and six men, decided to sneak through newly built razor wire Hungary has erected on its border with Serbia, so they could avoid being fingerprinted by Hungarian officials.
“Then we ran through the cornfields and tried to dodge the police cars. We found two smugglers, a woman with her teenage brother, who promised to take us to Budapest for 200 euros each. They told us to wait and they went to get taxis.”
“We waited for half an hour. When the taxis arrived we ran to them but someone in a car passing by saw us and alerted the police, who came and caught us.”
After registration, the police took Hajouk, 29, and his friends to a holding camp near Szeged, still near the southern border. Their two days there were the lowest point of the trip.
“It was a very crowded place. Dirty. We were not allowed out. Almost like prison. No place to sleep, cold at night, burnt by the sun all day, no shade. Food portions were little, water portions were little, and we were not allowed to buy more.”
It was there that they saw news on their phones about 71 migrants dying in a van that was found in Austria.
“It was really scary for us.,” he said. “But we had been through so much, you know, I was used to hearing scary stuff and then nothing happening to us.”
Eventually police buses took them to the train station in Szeged, a city near the border, and they were escorted by train to Budapest. At the Keleti railway terminus, they were led to a makeshift transit zone and told to wait.
At Keleti, hundreds of migrants slept on the pavement in plain view of commuters. Hajouk’s group found a hotel that let them rent a couple of rooms without checking their papers.
“We got our energy back, slept for a long time, drew hot baths, changed our clothes,” he said. “It was heavenly.”
Then they began to plot their final trip to Germany. They were not issued train tickets. They wanted to buy bus tickets but were asked to show a Schengen visa. “That was a ‘no’ again.”
Having been registered in Hungary, they were not supposed to leave under European Union (EU) rules, so eventually they paid a smuggler 500 euros each for a ride to Germany.
The man came with a small jeep-like van and drove them to Grossgmain, a village half in Austria and half in Germany, where they were left by the roadside.
The rest was like a dream. They crossed the village bridge into Germany and said their goodbyes. Hajouk, alone for the first time in more than a month, bought a ticket and boarded a train to Munich. Then one to Stuttgart. Then Karlsruhe, then finally Heidelberg, to meet his sister.
“I went first class, to make up for what I went through,” he said. “I had a beer. It was a nice trip, the view from the window... I took videos. Germany is the most beautiful country I have ever seen.”
He has yet to make contact with the authorities but is optimistic they will let him stay despite the EU rules.
“I will rest for a day or two at my sister’s, then find a good camp where they process my papers quickly. Germany won’t send me back to any other country. This is my new country now. I’m home.”
Editing by Philippa Fletcher