by Vlasta Paulić
26-27 October 2015, nighttime
Rigonce, Slovenia, and what I saw there will never, never leave my mind. The smell of burning plastic and my scarf wrapped around my mouth so I don’t breathe in the poison they are keeping themselves warm with. Lost dignity of people I saw shitting next to the road in the dark. The dark road from the bridge next to the Croatian side, foggy as if I were entering a horror movie.
And then the misty light in front of me. Bumps sitting around improvised fires in the middle of nowhere. Jelena running around and wrapping kids up into emergency blankets. We took some with us so we at least have an explanation of what we’re doing if the Slovenian police stops us. The volunteers on the Croatian side warned us that we should be careful as we’re entering Slovenia illegally and could be arrested.
Still, some of them kept going back and forth, carrying children, bringing blankets. I didn’t know if I was nervous or pissed: I was probably both. So you walk in that fog, next to the river, to finally see where you sent those people. And then you see it…and realize there was nothing, nothing that could have prepared you for this. Not Bapska, not Bregana a month ago, not Berkasovo.
I am walking around with four UNHCR blankets that we got god knows from where and trying to find a family that we moved onto the somewhat empty part of the field, and cleaned some trash so they can lie down. They, however, have nothing: not a sleeping bag, not a blanket. Nothing. Three children. I come to the biggest one, she must have been around five, pat her on the head, am I pissed or crying? No crying. Wojo taught me that a month ago in Bregana: “We will cry at home.”
Bregana suddenly feels like Disneyland to me. The little girl comes closer to me and gives me the most gentle kiss on the cheek. And smiles. I remember what Nicole told me on our way to Zagreb from Berkasovo two days ago: “I asked a Syrian family with three children what they told them, where were they going. And do you know what they told me?”
“‘We told them we are going on vacation.’”
We open two emergency blankets to put them on the ground. We touch the ground: it feels frozen. Dead cold. The children are looking at me. Their mom says, “Please, miss, blankets…” and points towards them. Now I am pissed. I am so pissed. I march back. Fuck this shit. Fuck it. I would like to see them arrest me for bringing the fucking blankets for those kids.
We put some on the wheelbarrow. We know we won’t have enough, but volunteers on the Slovenian side seem to have permission to share some. Still, none of this is enough. We leave some on the Croatian side. It sucks, but that’s one of the first things I learned on the field: you have to prioritize. And one more train is coming in a couple of hours to the Croatian side. We need to have some blankets for them as well.
How do you prioritize a child over a child? Don’t ask me, I have no clue how I learned to do it. I just concentrate on the individual person I find and learn to be satisfied that I helped one. One is more than none. We will cry at home.
People are coming to me and begging for those blankets. I never want anyone to call me “miss” ever again in my life. They pull, I stay firm and keep saying no. Babies, babies… “Baby!!” he tells me and drags me to his bump where people are lying. Indeed, one baby without a blanket. I am finally convinced. “For the baby!”
“For baby, miss, thank you thank you!” I swallow my tears. They repeat everything twice, sometimes we joke about it to survive: we offer each other chai chai! Baby family miss blanket blanket! It has to be funny later, when they are gone and you are left to deal with what you have seen. Jacket jacket. I can’t find my family anymore.
All groups look the same: depressed, overtired, those who have something to burn are around the fires. I keep coughing and am literally afraid of what I am breathing in. Someone pulls me again: baby baby blanket blanket!! “Show me the baby!” I say. He takes me to his group. Baby is a common denominator for everyone from newborns to twelve years old. His eight-year-old is sleeping on the ground covered by an emergency blanket, his mom sitting next to him and covering his feet every minute. She looks at me, worried.
Another guy approaches me. “Miss, do you have spoon?” He seems to have gotten a goulash and a fork and is confused about how to eat it. It’s the first hot meal that he has gotten in god knows how long, and now he’s staring at his plate, confused. It’s a comical situation in the chaos of the hell on Earth that is the wild camp Rigonce.
I say, “Sorry, no spoon,” look at the baby again, see that it has one blanket, say “sorry, no blanket,” and walk away. I hear, “Miss, but cold, baby, baby, blanket!” My heart doesn’t break anymore. What has become of me? No time to think. I need to find a baby.
Finally, baby with no blanket, she’s sleeping and shivering, around seven years old. She’s on the ground. Nothing beneath her. I take out the last emergency blanket from my bag. Gesture to the mother to wake her up so we can put something underneath. The father helps me to unwrap it. We put it underneath. And then I wrap her up like a tortilla, from all sides, we even roll her on the ground in it so she is covered from all sides. She is laughing. Is this family on vacation as well…?
On my way back, I slowly walk to the tank positioned next to the fence that is encircling the people. I stare at it. For a long, long time. Eons ago, there was this term I learned at the university: ostranenie. It was very important to me to learn it. It was very important to me to read books. To analyze Master and Margarita. To try to understand postmodernism and Pynchon. I thought writing my PhD was important. I am (was) writing about the early separation trauma of a mother and a child and its importance for the development of the subject.
On the example of Antigone. She was a brave one, little Antigone. Did you know she was only thirteen? Or was it fourteen? I forgot. Ostranenie. I am thinking about that as I observe that tank. Like in slow motion, I see there are several. There is a spider web on one of them: it hasn’t been used for a long time. There is something so odd about that spider web on that tank. I would love to take a photo of it, but I decide not to be foolish and get myself arrested over a spider web. I don’t even know if anyone would arrest me; seems stupid and like an unnecessary panic. Over taking a photo of a spider web? Seriously?
There is a guy standing next to me. He sees me looking at the tank. Our eyes meet. His eyes point towards the tank and he shakes his head in disbelief. I shake mine as well. We understood each other without having said anything. No Refugee Phrasebook would help here. They are meant for civilization. This is cold, cold hell.
A few steps across the meadow, and suddenly two soldiers are standing in front of me with guns. For a split second, my legs freeze, but then I just nod my head in recognition and they nod back. I have my volunteer vest on, I suppose they think I am one of their volunteers. Slowly I walk across the meadow and wonder if they will realize that I’m walking back to Croatia. Are they enemy now or can I simply explain the most normal reason in the world for my being there? Will they listen? It seems crazy that they wouldn’t. Is crossing a border really more important than blankets? At the moment, nothing seems more important than blankets to me.
Except for tents. I walk and think. Tents. We need hundreds and hundreds of tents. Maybe we could set up a little family area with tents? So at least they get them. But where do I get tents? Ask Facebook again? I seem to go to Facebook for help whenever anything crosses my mind the last few weeks. But we are not even allowed to enter, how will we bring the tents over? Should we share them on our side? Just press it into their hands.
Earlier, while we were sharing food and water and chai on the Croatian side, some guy looked at me and made the universal sign for sleeping. “Miss, camp?” I swallow. “No camp, so sorry. Sandwich?” But he doesn’t want a sandwich, that one. “Miss, but sleep?” “I am so sorry,” I say. “I wish I could help you. So sorry. Sorry.” He shakes his head. “Thank you miss, you been very kind miss. God bless you miss.”
No camp. No sleep.
Before having gone to the tanks, I was approached by two men and a girl. We talk. The girl says, “Miss, how long we stay here?”
“Around five hours,” I say.
She has beautiful, huge eyes, and her body resembles that of a little bird. “But miss, they said two!”
“I am sorry. So sorry. It will not be two.” “But miss, we no sleep for five days!” “Five days?” “No, miss,” smiles one of the guys sadly. “Greece no sleep, Macedonia no sleep, Serbia no sleep and Croatia no sleep, train and they send us here immediately.”
I look at the ground. I don’t know where to look. I am so ashamed. So ashamed. I change the subject, there is nothing else left to do. “Tomorrow you are in Austria and safe. Just this one more night. Where are you going?” “Germany,” says the guy, and the other one nods as well: “Germany.”
“Why not Austria? Austria beautiful country. Close to Croatia, you can go to sea!” They smile at me. “How is Austria? Austria good?” The other one says, “I heard Austria doesn’t give asylum.” “Not true,” I say.
The girl looks at me with her huge eyes. “Miss, I go to France.” “France!” I say. “Where to?”
“Miss, I would like to go to Paris and study art.”
I stare at her. The fire from all sides brings the toxic smell towards us; all four of us, one at that moment, breathe it in and cough. “Paris is very expensive,” I say in between coughs. “Do you have someone with you?” “No, miss,” she smiles gently, “I am all alone in this world.” “Do you know somebody in Paris?” “Nobody, miss. But I will still go and study art. That is my dream. I will find a way.”
I look at her. I don’t have any more blankets. I cannot stop the toxic smoke. I cannot make her warm. We all look around ourselves. The kids are crying, some are sleeping, some people are standing at the fence and looking at the other side. I am so sorry… I say. I am so so so sorry… And then I can’t hold it anymore. Tears start rolling down my face. I look at them in silence and let them roll. I wasn’t strong enough this time to cry at home—but to be honest, I haven’t cried since Bregana at all. Not even when I saw people sleeping in the trash on the cement in Berkasovo, one next to the other like sardines. But this is too much. Too fucking much.
All three approach me and stroke me. Their eyes full of empathy. “Thank you, miss, thank you. Thank you for your feelings.”
That brings me back. It lasted thirty seconds, my tears. I swallow them. “I am so sorry, so sorry!” I tell them. “Look at you, going through all this, you shouldn’t have to console me!”
But it feels good to share sadness. I feel like we are one.
I give my name to the big-eyed girl and tell her to find me on Facebook. She gives me her email address. “Write to me miss, if you find time,” says the Little Bird politely. “I will. I promise.” Both men shake my hand. “Thank you, miss. Have a nice life.”
“Consider Austria!” I say. “This could all be over tomorrow! Imagine that! Promise me you will think about it…!” “Yes miss, we will definitely think about it,” one of them says and smiles.
I go back to my side of the border. There, volunteers are preparing for another train that is coming. They are afraid they might not have enough food for the one that arrives in the morning. It’s a constant battle with money and resources.
Good luck, little art student.
Someone once told me they had nightmares for a week after Röszke. Another friend who volunteered in Berkasovo told me he keeps having a dream that he finds a dead baby among the trash in Berkasovo, among dirty blankets. I understand the dream: while there, I had a constant, eerie feeling that some of the blanket bumps on the road were dead children as well. I don’t know where that comes from.
A volunteer that came back with us from Berkasovo recognized a mom and a baby in Ključ while we were sharing food. I see them hugging. Later she tells me, “I drove that woman to a hospital to give birth two days ago!” “Wait, that baby is two days old?” “Yes. Two days.”
They crossed over to Rigonce then. Many volunteers around them, giving them everything they can. All worried. All know where they are heading. They know nothing yet. In 200 meters, all will be clear.
I tried to sleep tonight and it all came back to me. I hugged a volunteer friend. He said, “It’s okay to cry.” “I can’t sleep,” I say. I keep seeing Rigonce. And I thought nothing could shock me anymore. He hugs me and holds me and tells me about his nightmares. When we meet again on the field, we will function. We will work. We will help. It’s as simple as that.
It’s the we will cry at home that’s happening now. Hugging helps so much. Must be that “group healing” that some psychologist suggested on Facebook when I posted about the possibilities of free psychological help for independent volunteers. She said that it wasn’t possible because all of their staff is in the field already, providing help to the Red Cross people and some other NGO, I think.
I didn’t see any Red Cross that night. Actually, in the spots where I’ve spent most of my time in the last month, I rarely saw the Red Cross. But that’s an old story.
How does one finish a story about Rigonce, though? Oh, yes, I know: We need a hospital in Zagreb to wash some blankets we collected. And we need tents. Many tents. ASAP. Baby baby family.
Oh, fuck this shit. There was a spider web on the tank. There was a tank. A tank. Kids are going on vacation, say the parents. All-inclusive was too expensive so they were offered the destination Rigonce instead. It was an offer they could not refuse.
It’s two a.m. and I just got a message that it was forbidden to share water in Rigonce today.
Slovenia, I hope you are ashamed.
All images: Are You Syrious (Facebook)