Windows to a larger world

17 April 2024|Roberta Nikšić

On August 9, we climb up the Ripač Pass, and the further we are from Bihać, the fog is denser. A little more, and the summer will remain behind us as a warm memory. We turn off the main road onto a macadam, poorly maintained, just as if someone had already made an effort at dawn, and dug fresh holes, so that the road to Lipa would be even more difficult. Along the way, nature arranged itself, stripped of all ugliness, as if there was not a single pain in this world known to her. Every flower has its own purpose, and it heals. They promote seas of yarrow, sage, St. John’s wort. They act like tea, comforting. Around us is an oasis of greenery. There are no houses, except for one holiday home. And there are no intending passengers, except for camp employees, volunteers, and the police. I am in the company of volunteers from Italy and the Jesuit service for refugees. It’s not the first time for them. They are wearing winter jackets. And we’re getting there. The eyes need to get used to all that amount of aluminum, tin, concrete and sand in the middle of a mountain clearing. Metallic flare, the milky way of the European Union. White containers in the middle of white fog and a gray fence, as if surrounding the prison, and prohibition signs. No taking pictures. Seeing with your own eyes is not yet forbidden. And the eyes are looking at the metal glove thrown to the face. Containers arranged in sectors, main roads concreted, and between them gravel paths, no trees, no leaves, no grass, no shade. Haze pours from the dusty sky, as if a reservoir of sadness has been emptied. Oh god, am I in the desert. Old Testament travelers come out of the fog wrapped in blankets and sheets, as if they were walking out of an illustrated Bible. They don’t heat their containers because it’s not even the heating season. I crawl into the thickness of the down jacket, like a turtle under a shell, I would prefer not to raise my head, but my eyes still have to take pictures because “once this was just a meadow, and now it is a sophisticated camp, that’s what the Minister of Security said during the official opening. I carefully photograph that sophistication with my inner eye: a tin box, the size of three bunk beds, and the mattresses are of the cheapest quality, the most common sponges. Sophisticated accommodation for ascetics. It is forbidden to enter the residential containers, but they have windows. Two windows, from which the sardines look out at the world. Someone explained to me that they are better off here, they are safe, they are better off here than where they came from… Does it mean that if we came from a bad place, we don’t deserve anything better…  The eyes look and the ears listen to nonsense. So I turn off and watch. We have come from a time where there is no time to a time where there is time. Every temporality flows more slowly. The hours drag on like stray dogs, they come out of the fog, good-natured, and beg only from those from whom they will get food. At the very first meeting, we question those who are still in the mood for conversation: where are you from, how far have you been, how many times have you tried, because we don’t know how to approach a person differently, we poke our curious and tactless fingers over unhealed wounds, we are stupid and ignorant. Curiosity is not the same thing as empathy. Next to a neat little cardboard box, lined with newspaper, three kittens carefully tucked into the fur of the mother cat. A sleepy family idyll out of this world, sufficient for itself. One man, watching over them, like a guardian angel of sleepy wanderers. And when we bore him with our questions, he simply evaporates and leaves us and the cats alone. He has been in Bosnia for four years, and we are surprised. But we don’t know how to stay in that wonderment for long, but rather move on, with the same questions. Let’s move on, because we have satisfied a curiosity. As soon as he saw the empty space around the cats, because we are already in the container of the Jesuit service hair salon, he returned to them. And looks at them. Where are his kittens now? At which part of the road did he realize that maybe it was too late, and that the solitude was going on for too long. Loneliness here is secret and permanent, and it is difficult to express. It drains slowly, for some it is like a lake, not at all. He may be looking in that box at a dream gone by. Young men go in and out of the barbershop, get their own haircuts or shaves, and come out shiny, fresh, washed, even though there is no running water. There’s no better place to talk than a barbershop. At one point in the barber shop, Shiraz and the great Persian poet names are mentioned, and in an instant we are in a wider and more comfortable space, displaced somewhere else. And one small container flies through the endless sky. A young man from Shiraz quotes Simin Behbahani to me, who is raising the pillars of her homeland again with her bones, and rebuilding it with the bricks of her soul. And we laugh at Europe, which is still a small baby in diapers compared to a Persian civilization. But he is rushing to that Europe, because he has the idea that humanism is the most important religion in it, and he is looking for that. And it seems to me that this humanism is only an apparition, and it only exists while he talks about it.

On leaving the camp, as well as on entering, we are again authenticated, and they look into our bags. And they also leave their camp ID cards on their way out, so when they don’t succeed in the Game, they get them on their way back. On my way out, I carry an unanswered question in my head, because the answer is as precise as a notch with a sharp knife, that’s why I don’t answer anything to the young man from Burundi:“ Why have they put us here so far from everything. Twenty kilometers until the first houses“. The answer would be: Because. That’s why you walk twenty kilometers to the first houses, and fall and falter several times on the way. Because that was the goal and because the Minister of Security, Selmo Cikotić, on the occasion of the ceremonial opening of this milky white waiting room, a twisted parallel universe, said this in front of the head of the European Union delegation: “we will continue to make the Bosnian route as difficult as possible for migrants. We are aware that we cannot stop all of them.” Thus, as not exactly a champion student, but a solid student, he submitted a report before the delegate of the European Union, who criticized the authorities for the ineffective management of the migrant crisis. Were they satisfied with his schoolwork?

The numbers tell their story, the German government invested about one million euros in the camp, for the clinic, kitchen and consulting services, 1.7 million euros were invested by the European Union, also in the camp, and 2.8 million euros were donated by the German federal government to IOM for the promotion of voluntary return of refugees and migrants.

As I wander through that forest of numbers, I can’t get out of my head those thin sponges on bunk beds, and how “even though they live in a small house their windows look out on a very big world“ (Konfucije).