Neither good nor bad

17 April 2024|Roberta Nikšić

Neither good nor bad

It was in the church that I saw them for the first time. There was a certain uneasiness and their way to receive Holy Communion got longer uder people’s gaze. He walks first. She follows.  He clears the path for her with invisible tools. They reminded me of two storks. Last summer, they took a break on a nearby power pole, shielding each other from the heat. Thirsty. The two of them have a wide wingspan too. This which I see before my eyes is just a short stop before they soar up into the air again. They will rest, refresh themselves and move on. He is wearing trousers which were clearly tight once. That, too, reminds me of something. My parents would suddeny lose weight overnight, in those times long past when their flesh was torn by hopelessness. It’s completely different with her. Her sadness turns into kilojoules, evenly distributed in her body. She is a beautiful woman. Next, his shoes, heavy and ugly, are waterproof, which by far is the most important part. Warm, comfortable, although heavy. They squeak in a way one cannot help but notice you. Sometimes they are like weights. It would be difficult for a person to fly wearing them. And yet they want to fly.

Often, even today, when we are years away from that time, we bless those who, for three years, put us in our shoes and clothes, and fed us with manna. We ate like sparrows, but still we ate. Now I can smell on them the same stale odor of donated second-hand items which protect them from the cold, stares and despair. Her hair is bleached for she knows well what is most important. To look like a European. That could open doors for them. She is always well prepared, adaptable. She simply flows. His wind at her back. It will move them when things get rough. After Mass, introductions and immediacy of the southern regions. Soon, those Sunday hugs will become life jackets, keeping our heads above water for a while. We are travellers as well, only fifty minutes away from the Church. She is worried, it is snowing, and we are coming back right away in this weather. If she had a house, she would immediately invite us over. Her name means songbird. Bita. And his name is Akbar. It means “greatest”. He chose a safe and stable profession, which is engineering. Now he, whether he liked it or not, returned to his first love, painting.

One room in Borići reception centre is both his studio and his house. A blue donated foam mattress, leaned against the wall behind the back, is an imitation of comfort. His paintings are the hope of domesticity. The paintings are on the floor, against the wall, arranged in a way I build towers of books around me in order escape reality. Small anchors everywhere. With the help of those paintings and Bita’s strength, they will sail away one day. One day is written on every painting. ONE DAY…. The sails are powerful, and three dots are a symbol of the time to come. Imminent. That is why he paints quickly; there is no point in hesitating. Landscapes, portraits, and/or everything you can imagine, is custom-made. They will be finished soon. The money thus earned is a favourable wind. At first he sold them in Sedra, a temporary reception centre, the beautiful somnolent Sedra, a sanatorium above the river Una. Everything seemed so peaceful there, and peaceful is not good. They needed to run fast. If they could run faster than Una. That is why he painted in quick strokes for employees, their relatives, and acquaintances. Birthday gifts, so many portraits, a whole gallery of merciful people. They all have something in common, something beautiful inside. A gift always finds its own way to multiply. When Sedra was closed, they were transferred to Borići. This is good progress because now they are closer to the hub of events, closer to information, and closer to the person who interviews them on one occasion. That is why they visit it regularly, and on the coldest Sundays they do not miss Holy Mass. Their hands are as cold as ice. Still they come. Akbar is a bit old-fashioned, and he likes to show off a neatly pressed shirt under a thin windbreaker. A scarf around the neck is more of an artistic accessory than a cover from the cold. The cold here is bone-chilling no clothes can keep you warm. He simply lets go. Bita is wearing a discreet make-up because there are no conditions that would prevent her from waking up in the morning and continuing to fight. A combination of dreams and pride. A nurse by profession, she volunteers at the Red Cross. Maybe they dont have a house, but she knows very well what it is like to constantly raise, strengthen, and build their inner house, otherwise it would fall apart.

Even such a temporary life continues. That is what I see when I look at them. Their son is the first high school student among migrants in the city. Again, they know what is best. His growth cannot be stopped just because it is currently facing windward. Rather, not to give up. To move forward every day. Connected to everyone, they find out as soon as border restrictions relax a bit, and it is a season of heavy snow. They are on the move as well. It means they have sold enough portraits of Jesus, they have enough money for bus tickets to the nearest border crossing point. Their friends with children, whom I have noticed at Midnight Mass, and for whom I thought they would stay, are leaving too. They are on their way. Everyone is leaving this place just as the locals have been moving out of the country for years.

They know there is a remote house, forgotten by people and roads. It can only be found on Google Maps. Such houses are still hospitable to snails without a shell. In a photograph, she is standing next to a wood burning stove with a ladle in her hand. An inhertitance from a previous humanitarian aid, a drum into which logs are inserted. After the war, such stoves were moved to city parks. They became the first chestnut roasters. Smoke was coming out of them, dispersing the October fog. And thanks to chestnuts, people slowly got back on their feet. They no longer had to ask for other peoples help. Now others have to do that. They are tough, and they also know about local non-governmental organisations, which quickly bring them firewood. They have already been pushed back at the border with Croatia. They need to warm up and be on the way again. Bare floors, curtains and blankets, windows covered with tarpaulins. A common place we can remember. Our memory is a strange reservoir, and if we allow it, the whole world and everything that happens to it far will be managed by it. Of course, that is not enough. It would be quite enough if it was there for sympathy. It is just that the suffering we endured didnt necessarily make us better people. On the contrary. Somewhere we are more insensitive. Clothes are drying, waterproof shoes. Snow is falling. In the morning, start all over again. A photograph of familiar hills. They call them mountains. And they are mountains in such cold. A picturesque landscape could be showing a ski resort. Bright and festive whiteness. Untrodden snow. The well-dressed children I noticed at Midnight Mass. They were still singing at that time. Here they are covered with scarves, only eyes alive. Trudging through snow. Boys at the foot of the hill. A house in the distance. And then everyone on a higher ground. An announcement from Croatian Radiotelevision on the number of Croats in European ski resorts could easily accompany this image. It is as if a tacit and pompous testimony to the nations progress is given if enough of them go skiing. They seek asylum in the same place, and with the same police. Yesterday they were told that all of them would be put into a van and transferred to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.Some were happy, others changed their minds. They are taken away again. The only things she tells me: one police officer is good, the other is not. The church is nearby. She just prayed.

They call me at the crack of dawn. Good news, sister. Quarantine is next. After a couple of days I receive photographs of the temporary reception centre. Poorly maintained waiting room, the temporary situation continues. Still, they do not rest. They think Zagreb is beautiful. A photograph of him visiting the Jesuit Refugee Service. With a picture of the Miracle Worker who multiplied their tickets. His unzipped windbreaker. He is pale; he is cold again.

They call after some time from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Shortly afterwards from Italy, at the border with France. In Oulx, a priest called Luigi Chiampo runs the NGO Talita Kum and a shelter for migrants. They have everything they need there, medical assistance, and medicine. They are crossing the border soon. Good news again, sister. They send the Google location of a centre in Germany. By simply zooming in, I can see how far they are from everything.

One of those motels along the motorway, which were not profitable, have now become temporary shelters. One of those that you stop by once, and never again. They wait there for a while. And then another camp, similarly positioned, abandoned, and cut off. A temporary situation. And it looks like a cardboard box in which the most necessary things are placed. Home. Noise barrier walls surrounding it. In Germany, too, there is quite a good number of wastelands. Reserved for the uninvited.

They are waiting again. For a house. They are interviewed, talked to. Her voice message:„people in Bosnia are good, like angels, it is not like that here. But she hopes to see us andall other friends at her house in Germany“. I do not what is worse, that people like us are compared to angels, or that they were met by another waiting room. Nobody calls it probation, and I have no reason to be subtle. Although there is a shortage in their professions, they are still waiting. I ask stupidly how they are. She answers: neither good nor bad. I wonder what is in between. An endless limbo.