This is a neglected corner of Europe with a turbulent history.
The Ottoman Empire (one of the most powerful empires in the 15th and 16th centuries) occupied this area for over 500 years. During this time, it fought multiple wars with the nearby Austro-Hungarian Empire creating regular flows of refugees.
Later, being at the heart of two world wars complicated the dynamic.
The Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s left two million people across Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Kosovo as either refugees or internally displaced persons.
Now, 14 years after the last conflict in the region ended, communities that once fled are helping others to flee.
“This is the road I walked on to Macedonia from Presevo, when I was a refugee,” Agon Ajeti, 28, a volunteer from Serbia who was waiting in August heat to guide refugees along the dusty road from Macedonia, told me recently.
Ajeti’s efforts are not unique. At the end of the road he is talking about, there are many local volunteers just like him.
This year, nearly half a million migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen have traveled thousands of miles in search of safe harbor in Western Europe.
For most, taking the Balkan land route through Greece and the former Yugoslav nations Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia is their only hope of reaching those ports in places such as Germany and Sweden.
In Belgrade, one student is reported to be buying 100 meat pies each morning on his way to school to feed some of the thousands sleeping outside in the park near the city’s bus station.
In Croatia, people stay up all night to greet people with hot tea and sandwiches as they make the 6-mile hike from the country’s border with Serbia to the nearest camp.
While the generosity of spirit displayed by the citizens of these countries echoes events of previous decades, sadly so does the response of their governments. When Slovenian police pepper-sprayed people Friday as they tried to walk across their border with Croatia, it was reminiscent of Slovenia’s initial refusal to accept refugees from the Bosnian war in 1992.
A friend of mine from Kosovo told me that as a young boy 16 years ago he had to wait for days without shelter before being granted admittance to Macedonia. Today’s migrants report similar treatment in places.
On Tuesday, after weeks of squabbling, the European Union finally reached an agreement on a plan to equitably distribute 120,000 people across the political bloc.
That’s about a quarter of the number of people who have passed through the Balkans this year.
Originally published on USA Today here.