The life of a refugee is counted in moments. Never knowing what tomorrow will bring. In the above photo are my people – the refugees – at the front of the factory that was our home for years before bidding it farewell on a morning bus that took us to Australia, April 1999.
I found this grainy photo in my mother’s old photo album recently stuck between sticky yellowing pages that made a crackling sound when I flipped through them. The photo says so much, but it does not encompass most of the reality to which it refers.
It was taken on 23 April 1999, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. In the dying days of a broken country about to become extinct.
We are about to board a UNHCR charted bus to take us to Budapest for a flight to South Korea and then on to Sydney and finally Adelaide, our new home.
When we boarded this bus no one spoke English. We knew no one in Australia. The entire contents of our lives were stuffed in one duffle bag between the four of us: a mother and three sons.
My mother cloaked in her usual black, in chronic bereavement for all our loss, clutches our Australian humanitarian visa in her purse along with some faded photographs so we don’t forget the lives we left behind.
We should be rejoicing. We just won the refugee lottery: a chance at resettlement. But everyone looks solemn and tired after so much loss: of a home, of possessions, of property, of land, of livestock, of a childhood, of a father, of a husband, of a country and therefore an identity.
Despite our dire circumstances, my Mama refused to appear like someone coming undone.
An experienced victim of war, she rose up from the floor of the refugee camp that morning, washed her hair with a bar of laundry soap, packed the detritus of our lives into this duffle bag and planted herself like a rock in front of us, and only then did all appear bearable.
Our sister cannot come with us because immigration laws separate families with a stroke of a pen. We left her in a war zone – heavily pregnant. I pressed my face against the back window of the bus and watched as she grew smaller and smaller until she faded, then disappeared as the bus turned the corner.
Against the morning fog, I saw acrid smoke plumes curling in the air from skeletons of charred buildings as the bus rumbled away taking us towards a new life to come.
A decade after our arrival, I remember taking a course on international human rights law at Adelaide Law School. A decade after the last of our wars finished.
By now, English spilled out of my mouth. I finished High School, got my Australian certificate of naturalisation and enrolled to study law.
My home country was on trial: a case study on which to test limitations of international law. A case study on the nebulosity of the international community. The first such trial in Europe since the Nuremberg trials.
In a world first, I learned how Justice Florence Mumba from Zambia made legal precedent when she declared war rape a crime against humanity in my country.
But when the lecturer showed images of mass graves and refugees sitting on mats in factories, I silently left the lecture theatre and vomited the contents of my stomach in a bed of plants abutting the building, fearing I would see myself in the images or someone I knew exhumed from the mass graves.
Returning back once the hour had passed, putting my invisible mask back on concealing my experience of a war I had lived through and these law students now studied in the narrow abstract; the death of my people perfectly packaged, sanitised and made to fit into a neat narrative for them.
I thought how lucky must these students be; educated at prestigious private schools of Adelaide, intellectually musing over my war with their sharp brains.
And here I was: a refugee with a missed primary school education, raised in a refugee camp, educated at one of the poorest schools in Australia, missing a parent – a casualty of war buried in an unmarked mass grave on the other side of the word in a country that no longer exists, identifying with war dead shown to us in the slides, studying about a war that had tried to reduce me to nothing, using a tired brain tormented by conflict, displacement and fear.
I thought about revealing my identity to the lecturer so that he would ask me to front the class in some morbid version of show and tell:
“Class, here we have international law in operation: Danijel – a product of the war we are studying. A benefactor of the legal rights afforded to him under the 1951 Refugee Convention we covered last week”.
But the peasant goat herding refugee boy of pitiable beginnings from remote wilderness of Croatia inside me was trampled in my rush to belong trying in vain to scrub Yugoslavia off my skin and distance myself from indicted war criminals tugging at my hands. So I remained silent. Trying to slither into this unburdened Australian identity.
I remained silent when the discussion turned to siege of Sarajevo, ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, genocide in Srebrenica, the legalities concerning the setup of the international criminal court in The Hague to try all our genocidaires.
I was silent still when the curriculum conveniently left out the war that made me a refugee – the Croatian War of Independence. Just another form of erasure. When they forget like this, it is as if they kill us a second time.
I went to the law library instead borrowed books on the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda – writing a comparative paper on two other genocides continents away from mine.
I often hear people refer to me as a ‘former refugee’. Former? I think to myself. As if one’s refugee identity is transient and ceases to exist once they attain resettlement and a certificate of naturalisation.
When I hear this word ‘former’, I am reminded of the question American-Palestinian writer Edward Said asks in his book Reflections on Exile: “… what is it like to be born in a place, to stay and live there, to know that you are of it, more or less forever?”
This is a question we – the refugees – can never answer. Because this is something we will never get to experience.
This Refugee Week is our call for dignity. A call for visibility. A demand for a chance to live in peace. A chance at resettlement when peace is unattainable within the borders of our broken homelands.
Cover photo: courtesy of the author