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Getting Caught in the Budapest Anniversary Riots

“Well, you see, 50 years ago today there was a revolution….” The man at the train station travel agency looks embarassed with his explanation.

“So, what, they decided to have another one?” I ask, incredulous.

The man shrugs. “Be careful. It is very dangerous.”

Fifty years ago, spontanous student demonstrations against the USSR and the communist rule turned ugly when Soviets brought in tanks and killed more than 2,600 people, later executing many more, including the Prime Minister. Since the fall of communism, the anniversary has been marked with memorials, rallys and events.

Last month, more then 10,000 people, upon hearing that their prime minister had lied about the nation’s finances in order to be reelected (the conversation was secretly taped) rioted and stormed the broadcast building. Tensions still simmered, but not much else happened…until yesterday.

Of course, me, unknowing that it was the anniversary of the 1956 event, and having forgotten about the troubles a month prior, was just thankful to have gotten out of Romania and away from pickpocketing brats and 35-year-old deceitful psychatrist roommate (no joke).

On the train, I sat with two volunteers from Germany who were working outside of Budapest. Their friend lived in Timosara and they were returning from a weekend with her. Annis and Hannes had been warned that Monday might be a good day to stay away from the capital.

As we neared the city around 8:30 p.m., Hannes received a text message. “Rioting in streets. Public transportation shut down. Be careful when you make your way home.”

Shit. We looked at each other. Now what? They both lived outside of the city and separate trains and buses to catch. Nervous, I pulled out my money belt and placed my passport, 100 dollars cash, my plane ticket and my credit cards inside, just as the train pulled into the station. I made the decision that I would go to the closest hostel I could find, proximity to the city center be damned.

As I made my way through the crowd of people returning from a weekend holiday in Romania, I saw the Mellow Mood Hostel booking agency and went inside, where I met a man wearing a shirt with the Union Jack on it.

“Please, can you tell me, can I make it to the city center?” The man shook his head. “All the public transport is closed and we cannot drive into there. Anywhere you want to go, you must walk.”

“So, what is the closest hostel.” He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I only know our hostels.”

I pulled out my LP and pointed to one that did not look that far away. “Ah, yes!” He took out a map and drew the route. Before I left, I asked him why all this was happening and upon hearing his urging to be careful, nodded grimly.

I walked toward the front door, noticing that most of the people had left and swallowed hard. I walked purposefully in what I hoped was the right direction, stopping to ask two girls just to be sure.

I was surprised at the number of people out on the streets. Many were walking toward the center, like I was, girls done up in makeup and holding onto the arms of their boyfriends, smoking cigarettes, and youths dressed in black, looking like they wanted to fight.

As I neared my turn, two younger men walked toward me, carrying the flag. Behind them, a group was singing patriotic songs. Shit. I put my head down and avoided eye contact, knowing that Americans would not be appreciated in a time such as this. They gave me a suspicious look, but let me pass without incident. I let out the breath I did not realize I had been holding.

After a few wrong turns and poorly lit signage, I made it to the Aquarium Hostel. I had not stopped to get money, figuring that any hostel with any common sense would understand why I arrived empty handed.

Finding my spot in the dorm with three other people, all of whom were absent, I wandered out to ask the hostel worker where the problems were taking place. He pointed at the tv and down the street. “There are two spots – one is half a kilometer down the street. This is the most dangerous road in the city. The other is right underneath our other hostel. People are watching from the windows.” I thanked him and asked for directions to a nearby bank and food.

I headed out, walking toward the crowds. At an intersection, I could see smoke rising up from 200 meters away. I turned back, and went to the hostel to grab my camera.

At the hostel, I met my three rommates, one guy from Japan who showed us a fierce picture of tear gas and fire and two from Canada. I convinced Justin, who looked every bit the part of the disillusioned youth with a long goatee, black jeans and metal t-shirt and tall frame, to come with me.

We walked toward the crowd. As we entered them, thinly disparsed, Justin commented that if no one knew any better, it would look like a giant street party.

Most people were just milling about. Some sat at streetside bars and restaurants, watching the coverage on the screen and in front of them. Every once and awhile, an inspired person would shout for the Prime Minister to get out, and others would join him. The chants would last for about 15 seconds, and my heart seized as you could feel people become frenzied. But, they would soon die out and people returned to talking with their friends.

As we neared the stand off spots, we could feel the stinging of tear gas and see the garbage cans that had been set alight. When we got as close as we dared, we saw young men throwing things and taunting police 100 meters away. Everyone else just watched. The tear gas was too strong now, and, eyes watering, we walked quickly back to the hostel where I called home to say that I was all right, just in case someone had been up on the news and my blog.

I went in to watch television with the hostel worker and he translated that there were about 5,000 people now and that they were not doing much of anything. An hour after I got back, the crowds near us had been dispersed through the use of teargas and rubber bullets. The smaller group by the bridge yelled, screamed and drank until morning.

On the internet: Hungarians hijack tank on key anniversary and Riot against Hungarian leader on 1956 anniversary


0 responses to “Getting Caught in the Budapest Anniversary Riots”

  1. Judi says:

    Courtney — how terribly scary — call when you get back … take care of yourself

  2. chris-in-sf says:

    Now that’s some excitement! wow you’re brave. i’ve been enjoying your blog.

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