Desperate scenes of refugees arriving by the thousands, crossing oceans, deserts, fields and forests carrying little beyond the weight of their terrible stories in search of safety and life, remind me of an encounter I had 23 years ago a few months after I began working with the UN in Croatia.
Yvetta and I replayed the highlights of our weekend as we sped through Zagreb on our way back to Knin, the dusty, sanction-bound town in the Serb held part of Croatia where we both lived and worked. Yvetta headed the UNHCR office responsible for relief and refugees. I was assistant to the civilian chief of Peacekeeping of Sector South in Krajina. Yvetta always ran a bit behind schedule but today she was late because she’d picked up a Satellite phone. It was August in 1992, pre-cell phone days and this new equipment would allow her to make phone calls from her car. It was worth waiting for.
Now it was Sunday and time to go back to work, back to what was for now, our home. We’d enjoyed our two nights at the Intercontinental Hotel – luxurious hot baths, television, busy streets and even Chinese food. We were heading back to our UN jobs in dusty, desolate Knin where electricity and water were intermittent.
We knew that after 5:30 we might be refused at the Croatian-Karlovac checkpoint so Yvetta stepped on the gas of her little UNHCR issued Honda. A few days earlier, we’d had to sweet talk our way through the checkpoints to get out and now we might have to do the same to get back in to the UN Protected Areas so we could make the three hour drive back before dark.
On Friday, we’d had to charm Serb soldiers, Kalishnokovs slung over their shoulders, red faced and rheumy-eyed from drink, to let us pass. “Nema problema” they said. As far as they were concerned, they’d move the mines blocking the road but we needed to ask the Croatians to move the ones on their side. Yvetta unfurled the UN flag from her car and stretching the cloth between us, we marched down the deserted road, lone marchers in a surreal parade past ghosts in burnt-out buildings, once shops, past houses once filled with normal life. Stepping carefully between and over the anti-tank mines, we walked the equivalent of a city block through no-man’s-land, giggling nervously at this weird spectacle no one could see, glancing at broken windows, into the dark rooms.
Two Croatian soldiers stepped out of the small hut, looked at us like we were crazy, gave a cursory glance at our blue UN Passports and agreed to move the mines. We flinched as they kicked the heavy green metal out of the way while we jogged back to the car. Yvetta navigated us over the pitted road and through our now hysterical laughter, we called “Hvala!” to the soldiers, giddy with the insanity of our lives in this war zone.
Two days later and we were late again. Jokingly we wondered if we’d have to make that march through no-man’s-land but the Croatian soldiers let us pass with barely a glance. About half way to the Serb checkpoint, we were met by a cloud of dust and another car with flapping UN flag followed by 3 civilian cars and a UN truck driven by two Peacekeeping soldiers from Nigeria. In that strange landscape of the time, civilian cars were more of a surprise than the Africans on this road, since sanctions meant there was no fuel for the local population. Paolo, Yvetta’s colleague from UNHCR Sector North pulled his SUV up beside us.
“Can you help?” he asked. “One Bosnian family has no papers. The Serbs let us through but I’m not sure the Croatian side will.” Paolo, a soft spoken Italian with thinning hair, wiped the sweat from his face with a handkerchief.
We looked at the clobbered looking car behind him – a muddy Yugo with a worried looking father driving, his wife beside him and two little girls in the back. The man’s knuckles like white marbles, clutched the top of the steering wheel. Paolo told us, they were Moslems fleeing Bosnia and he was determined to get them through to Zagreb – they could not be protected in this Serb-held area.
Yvetta, swiftly turned us around and led the way back to the Croatian police we’d just left.
Our little convoy pulled up close to the checkpoint and all of us UN staff gathered to give the impression of greater authority. I glanced at the little girls in the back of the Yugo – they looked between 6 and 10. One had such thick glasses her eyes appeared larger through the lenses. They sat quietly. The mother, hair pulled back in a scarf, stared straight ahead through the windshield towards Zagreb as if it might disappear if she looked away. The father looked like an accountant with his business style slacks and button up shirt, too big over his slight frame. He opened the car door and stood there, not taking his eyes off Paolo and Yvetta as they spoke with the authorities who held his families fate in their hands.
“Without papers? No guarantee, no enter Zagreb.” the soldiers shook their heads and shrugged almost sheepishly.
“Wait! I have a phone!” Yvetta surprised herself with the memory. “Can he call someone? What if he calls and you can talk to them and they tell you they will come get him?”
The police shrugged again. She waved the father over to her car and all of us gathered around, our UN badges dangling against the hood of Yvetta’s car.
“Is there someone you can call? Do you have a number?”
The man nodded and said in English, “I think.”
The phone shook in his hands as he dialed the number. We all watched him carefully, collectively willing someone to pick up at the other end. We heard ringing. “Halo?”
“Damir! I’m in Croatia!” he exclaimed, “We are here! We are here!” Through sobs, he spoke with his relative then passed the receiver to one of the soldiers who asked a few questions then handed the phone back to the man.
“Hvala, hvala! We are here!” the man said through tears. His guarantor would come to Karlovac and they would be allowed to pass. The father burst into tears and embraced his little girls who’d climbed out of the car and now stood beside him. The mother collapsed on the dashboard in sobs. Yvetta and I dissolved in tears.
I wept for miles, overwhelmed by relief, by sadness. I wept at the desperation of that family, their lives packed into a car. What had they left behind? What had been taken from them? And they were lucky ones.
Multiplying by numbers and gravity the glimpse I had of that family’s story by thousands now fleeing their homes, saddens me. Watching barbed wire fences erected to block their movement as they stand at the border, enrages me. I think of this family – just one family – and the relatively tame drama of their simple crossing back in 1992 when things in Bosnia were just beginning to simmer into what would become an explosion of violence, harassment, of war crimes, massacres. I think of that one family as I watch the current scenes of families, fleeing the rubble of their lives, trying only to get across to safety however they can. Mostly, they seem to carry nothing but their children. No one takes to unknown roads with infants unless they are desperate.
I conjure the face of that mother staring at the horizon imagining a better life, willing it to be. The father, ill equipped to navigate a war, only knowing one thing: to get his daughters to a place they could safely sleep. I recall the bewilderment magnified in the glasses of the little girl in the backseat of the car. And how we all wept with relief when word was given that they could pass. That’s all they wanted to do – to pass, to join the caring friends, relatives, who waited. I think of them now, 23 years later, while watching thousands of refugees trying to cross borders to a better life. They do this because there is nothing left to leave behind. I would do this too. I would not take my eyes off the place I needed to get to. I know better than to think such a fate is impossible for any of us.
- There are so many organizations that do great work but I send my donations to MSF (Doctors Without Borders) as I remember the great work they did in the field and also, most of their budget goes towards programs – not administrative costs. Check out Charity Navigator to see how the NGO of your choice rates.