Life with migrants
published by polis.ba, Bosnia and Herzegovina
1: Life with Migrants
Snow is falling over Lipa. It snowed last night and it’s snowing again tonight. It’s not falling in my neighbourhood yet, maybe just a snowflake or two, and I’ve never looked forward to it less. After Lipa, snow will never look the same again. So I’m walking through the city, trying to make sense of our becoming so cold-hearted.
It was not so long ago that the first group of migrants began to arrive. People came together to help the brothers who have been forgotten by the whole world – that’s how we talked, Krajina was ready to give the whole world a lesson in humanity. And they did: the restaurants cooked and passed out food, individuals offered accommodation, the media dutifully followed all of this; many proudly read of their heroism on the portals.
Over time, the news of help decreased and the number of arriving migrants increased. I can’t precisely determine the moment in which the dissatisfaction with migrants began. What used to be a driver of solidarity, because these people were at the end of the world, left and forgotten by everyone, just like Krajina from Sarajevo, became a factor of objection. Now I’m seeing how that old wound of the lack of care of Sarajevo for Krajina actually gave birth to a certain hostility in citizens who watch, without remorse, the freezing of at least a thousand people. There were summers when full buses came every day. At a certain point, Krajina decided it didn’t have enough room. It cannot and will not feed an army of the unloved from its resources.
Perhaps the beginning of this negative feeling was the moment when they started to be called migrants. As long as they were refugees, we could have identified with them: we all remembered the refugee blankets and everything that came with them. When they accurately named them and determined the geographic coordinates of countries that were at war and those that were not, things changed. Solidarity began to melt. It seems that certain words lead to limited rights. They determine to what extent you have the right to dream and what and how much you will be given in life. If you are a migrant, according to that classification, you will get less than a refugee.
Maybe it was the moment when someone complained: they steal our crops. They were hungry. Do we remember the last time we were so hungry? We did not always have it easy, we gave, so if some saw that we had more, they would steal from us during the night. But that’s the risk of being good. It just means we have a surplus to give and to take from us, but they don’t have anything.
Perhaps it was the moment when parents became frightened for their children who were unable to play outside because they were afraid of migrants. Even though migrants clashed only with each other. We have forgotten about our world of violence, we forgot how kids blackmail businessmen, how school children not only participate in bullying but also record it. We are not afraid of our kids, but we are afraid of the migrants. We have underestimated the intelligence of people who have come so far and decided, so close to their goal, to plant fear and violence in our neighbourhoods.
Maybe it was the moment when someone exclaimed: what about keeping our streets clean and safe? And what happened was what happens in all cities that are proud of being clean. First, the stray dogs come, then the migrants. When stray dogs occupy the city park: scruffy, dirty, stinking and hungry, they breed like crazy, it’s no longer their place to keep sniffing in the park, ask for money and scare the good people away. So, you open a shelter for them, an asylum for dogs, put them into concrete cages. On the outskirts of the city, far from our eyes. Where no one can smell them, and where their population can decrease in controlled conditions. Likewise, this needs to be done to migrants, move them out of the city centre.
However, when you have travelled so far, your legs will not let you remain in the security of the reception centre: they wander around, seek, scout, and are restless until they reach the air of the European Union. Only the air of the Union will set you free. Especially if that air is just a kilometre away from you.
And as I walk, I see and hear stuff. Sometimes this hurts, but sometimes it heals. I look at their scouts peering over the edge of the border. Their eyes assess the density of our forest. And our forests are not as dense as they used to be. They were cut down mercilessly. I don’t know if they know that Croatian police received ‘equipment for effective oversight and protection of European borders,’ a donation by the Union. In some cases, the cruelty is very obvious, like in the protests by our citizens these days, or the herding of the migrants into tents; in other cases, it is more sophisticated, just like the border control equipment. They have given us money to bear the weight of the migrant crisis; they gave us money to take them in and not cause too much of a stir. Now, from a distance, they judge that we are inhumane because we don’t want them. They did the maths and calculated that it’s better to pay us to handle them than to have to deal with them in their countries.
But that does not get us off the hook. I love my people, so I want to justify the actions of our generation, but there is no justification for this. That’s why I walk: until I can find a good man.
And goodness always finds us instead. For example, yesterday, my small neighbour, a widow, who lives alone, was returning from the city with two pillows that were bigger than her. The promotion is back in town, I already know. They called her and offered her a welcome gift and a presentation without obligation. She explained to them nicely that she is retired with a minimum pension of three hundred and eighty DEM. Now, to be fair, she makes it work, pays her bills, and wants for nothing. But she has no money to throw away. Anyway, she did not refuse them but went to the presentation. And then when she came to that presentation, they worked on her, welcomed her with juice and chocolates, and she did not have the heart to refuse them. And she bought those two pillows. The retired have special discounts, they can pay in instalments; all of this she is telling me to ease her conscience. Like, it’s not for her, it’s for when her son comes from America, and she has not seen him for two years, he should have them, no one uses those old feather pillows anymore. And so, little by little, we are coming closer to home, when a familiar face jumps in front of us, one that has been ‘around’ for the past couple of months. She looks at him with a worried look and asks: son, are you OK? How are you doing? Here, take it, she says, starting to rummage through her pocket, while he’s uncomfortable and shakes his hand, like, no – I don’t need it. Take it, she repeats, but he’s already leaving. Now she’s shouting after him, and gesturing with her hand for him to come back. And he did come back, put his hand on his heart and tells her with that hand ‘thank you and no need.’ I’m guessing he felt that he’s already taken too much from his parents, all in his quest to reach the promised German land, but now he’s here and doesn’t have the heart to take something from a small, dear old lady. But she doesn’t give up, she asks, ‘Where do you live? Is it in the big house under the road?’, and she draws the house and the path with her hand. He nods his head, and gestures that it is indeed in the house under the road, but on the left rather than the right side. Now I also know the house he’s thinking of, one of those old ones, on ‘four waters.’ It’s abandoned, some owners allow them to be there, some don’t. He is there, he’s not alone, there’s more of them, and she knows it, so she’s asking him further, ‘Where is that tall, black guy that was always with you?’ He doesn’t understand her. She shows with her hand how tall he is and that he has a lot of hair – and he gets it. He shakes his head, it’s obvious that the tall dark guy is no longer there.
How could he explain to her that he passed through the mouse hole and that we will not see him anymore – if he was lucky. There are some well-known faces in the city, we get used to them, they learn a bit of our language, and then one day they are just gone. It takes a few months, sometimes a lot of futile attempts. Now that we had this nice conversation, each of them goes on their way, and I think maybe in this world there are enough windows to look upon someone else’s child as their own. Only then do I realize that this child is walking around in a red t-shirt, my mobile phone is showing two degrees outside, and almost a thousand of someone else’s children are accompanied by snowflakes outside their tents. There is no justification for our behaviour. It is true that Bosnia, compared to the other, richer countries, is short on cash, just like my tiny widow, but still – this just does not justify our behaviour.
2: On Easter, borders and a cosy ‘isolator’ in Bosanka
Last Easter I was in Bosanka, today a picturesque village, and before that an ancient place where medieval caravans from Bosnia and Serbia would rest before their departure down a steep path, today called the ‘donkey’s path,’ into Dubrovnik. Sometimes up to three hundred horses and donkeys loaded with goods would rest here and then move on, through yellow asphodels and wild olives, to the city. During the immediate danger of the plague, the donkeys and their goods would be kept in Lazareti, just outside the entrance to the city, waiting for the prescribed time for quarantine to pass. From Bosanka you can see far: to the islands around Cavtat, Bobar and Supetar, once the first ‘isolators’ (i.e. isolation locations) in the Dubrovnik Republic. The unfortunates would face difficult conditions of life on these severed islands, fighting disease and imminent death. Alone, surrounded by the sea.
Bosanka also looks out on Gruž and Elafite, where the rich would go to seek wellness in their private summer houses, far from the infected city walls.
I look at all of this at the time of last year’s ‘strict lockdown.’ My days are passing in the same privileged manner, as though I am a very happy donkey on the donkey’s path, looking at nature’s bloom. During Easter, I look at the islands, and as faith would have it, they too were created by death – the death of the sea. There are fewer and fewer visitors. I talk mainly with lizards. I’m losing myself in the fields of sage, immortelle and horehound, while others are trapped in far tighter spaces. I have quite enough opportunity to escape from all the social communication and apps: I’m too old and thin-nerved for all that. When they tell me to ‘wash my hands with warm water and soap,’ I escape from there and count ladybirds on the open road.
Occasionally in Bosanka, when strong winds are blowing, a message from BH Telecom arrives: Welcome to Bosnia and Herzegovina. For a while, I entertain a comforting thought: that the borders are just provisional, the wind erases them all. But the borders are hermetically closed at those moments. I know, at one point, the economy will open them, that’s how things worked in the Republic, people had to work and think of recovery even after the plague. This pleasant isolation in the world of wild grasses and animals will last seventy two days. That’s how long I have not seen my family or Bosnia. These days, since the borders have been closed, the migrants have been taking our people from Kladuša over the border. This confirms what we all know: for some people the borders will remain closed, and there is no wind and no economy that could move them. They will remain separated, lepers at the door of Europe.
They are not angels
These people, and they ARE people, call their attempts to cross our borders from their distant islands and into a better world The Game. What else would you call it – it reminds you of a virtual game, in which a player has several lives, maybe three, six, or nine. The more money they have, the more lives they get. When they are turned away from the border, when the intervention police ‘makes them feel welcome,’ or when they take their mobile phones with pictures of their families, they know they have more lives in that game. Maybe next time they will beat that level. Maybe they will find a better go-between. When they are spat on in the street, when they are accused of stinking, that they are the cause of diseases… no, it’s not them, it’s only their avatars. They still have lives left. Perhaps on the next level, they will not talk to them as though they have syphilis, AIDS, scabies, that they are vagrants, vagabonds, thieves, rapists, children of ISIL. On the next level, maybe they won’t have to pay for the sins of their fathers. Maybe they won’t be so conspicuously black, but beautiful white westerners. They might grow wings, and then at the border they will tell them: welcome, angels.
After seventy-two days, I crossed the border and saw Bosnia and my folks again. For the migrants, the borders did not move.
On this year’s Lent
This year, I’m making up for everything I missed in Bosnia last year. The border remained equally impassable for the migrants. Somehow, before Lent, on the eleventh of February, in an attempt to cross the state border, the body of one migrant disappeared into the river Glina. They found him, a young Turkish citizen, on the fourteenth of February on the Croatian side. In death, he made it to the European Union. That night, when the snow fell, the seven of them believed that they were able, or knew how, to cross Glina. In the summer, the river is almost shallow. But in the winter, it is filled with snow and becomes a torrent. When do not know what really happened. If we could feel what makes a man jump into a cold river with no one waiting for him on the other side, our hearts would freeze. And who could live with such a heart? It is far easier and more comfortable to take shallow and superficial breaths. We’d rather say: who made them do it, there was no war in their country. Only males are coming, their children and women are not here, so we’ll wash our hands of them. They all have mobile phones, where did they get the money for them, what will be left for our children when these guys run us over, they are all thieves…. yes, we wash our hands thoroughly, with hot water and soap. When we see them begging, and passing their money on to a third party, we will not wonder why and how they fall into debt on their journey, or how they can buy back their freedom. We will say, all of them are druggies, they spend their money on prostitutes, and we’ll wash our innocent hands again.
We are on the edge. We entered the category of third countries, but when we look over their edge, we could discover that the edge is even steeper there and lose ourselves in the chasm.
On Easter and one lost bullet
The news of the drowned migrant faded completely, quite silent and insignificant, as though it never happened. Lent passed and we entered the week before Easter. On Holy Saturday, we entered a dark church. A candle illuminated our way, the light grew bigger, until all was clear as day. God spoke to us at length about Himself, the bells chimed and announced the last border has been crossed: we are no longer with one foot in the grave but in eternity. Like every year, it’s nice. Once we returned from the vigil, in the field, at the entrance to Kladuša, the police vehicle’s lights spookily illuminated the night, casting a blue glow. This always announced that something had happened that shouldn’t have. The news on the local radio confirmed it: one stray bullet was stopped by the chest of a boy from Iraq. It was evening, the sun had not yet set. Father and son were walking. He’s in serious condition. That much we know. That news is in second place, the first place belongs to the conflict of the migrants. If someone else but an Iraqi boy bit that bullet there would have been a lynching. As it happened, that child saved many.
I’m thinking of how much time it takes one to get from Kladuša to Bihać, following ever shorter roads to the cantonal hospital. Along the road, everything flourished: the mayflower bloomed, the fields were ploughed, chopped, the dandelions were like small suns on the ground. The first aid vehicle rushes through landscapes full of hope. Even with optimal road conditions, it should take fifty minutes. And time also has an eternity.
One halo and removing a rock from the border
On Easter morning, in the nearby bakery, it smells of fresh bread rolls, radio Velkaton is on. Everyone is following the news but nothing is said about the boy. When you do not know someone’s name, and you have a feeling you know them, for some reason you call them ‘boy.’
On Easter morning, in front of the department store, the centre of the universe in Kladuša, there are no small mobile migrant stores, no parents with children selling raisins of Iranian sultanas, dates and hazelnuts. What kind of destiny is it to get to a city that lives from the local store due to the throughput of people moving through the border? To try to sell stuff there yourself and wait for the opportunity to cross the border? On the faces of the migrant parents, you can see that they deliberately deleted their biographies. All they were, all that they have achieved in life: they will give all that up, just to reach the promised land of Germany. And once there, they’ll start all over again. This is the time of unimportant, erased biographies. The migrant children sit in front of their ‘children’s trade carts:’ their faces are flush, cheerful, smiling, they are make-believe shopping. Children always find reasons for being happy. On Easter morning, not one of them was there.
Only one of the parents is selling at another location in Kladuša, on Menđuši Square, but he doesn’t know anything. His family is OK.
The Easter mass is nice, as it is every year. He fed on his body, crunched him with incisors, chopped him, fragmented him to the last atom, the protons sailed around the core and formed the perfect halo. The halo is too heavy for our heads, so sometimes we take it off in front of certain people and in certain situations because if we wore it, things would be even more difficult for us. The halo knows borders, too. It doesn’t enter certain places. The halo is removed every time it’s not comfortable. When it sees a migrant, it moves into the closet. It hides in the deepest corner of the closet because if it would allow itself to be around lepers, it too would catch the disease.
During the day, we hear on the radio that the boy is in stable condition. In some films, this bullet would have made a great man out of him and would take his family to the promised land.
I wonder who is in his hospital room, who is comforting his parents, is there such a thing here for migrants wounded at the edge of a third world country? Where do child migrants recover from mental and corporal ails and where do they go after their hospital stay? I’m imagining the hospital staff bowing to him, and his small black halo lighting the children’s surgery ward. Who knows, maybe someone will push that border stone for them?
It’s been known to happen that the border stone is moved aside, but only for women and children, while the husbands and other children remain in Kladuša or Bojana, the Croatian police separating them. Their days are spent in private lodgings or in local forests. At this moment, father Perica is contacting various people in an attempt to bring them together.