Tales from the Balkans
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
The port of Split is teaming with ferries, tourist boats full of cheering holidaymakers, and cruisers as high as the cliffs of Dover. The air is hot and shimmering as the sun is setting. Cars are disappearing or emerging from the bellies of those ferries, and people are patiently waiting to get on or off, dragging their suitcases or their children or both.
It’s the height of the tourist season in this Croatian city on the Adriatic Sea and everyone seems to be fine, happy with the slow pace that still keeps moving them towards their destination. Ferries and boats will take you from this port to the various islands off the Croatian mainland.
I was watching it all perched high above the docks, under the tall trees, which are themselves somehow in the shadow of Diocletian’s old palace; having disembarked earlier on from one of those ferries that brought me to the mainland from the island of Hvar and its town of Stari Grad. I had two hours to wait for an overnight bus that will take me further north, along the Croatian coast to the town of Rijeka. Both, the bus and the train station are conveniently placed on the opposite side of the docks. When I eventually start making my way towards the bus terminals, the air and the crowds are still thick. My hopes of snoozing through the eight hours long journey are quickly vanishing as the supporters of the local football team are also boarding the bus. They are surprisingly well behaved and subdued despite the fact that their team won. I feared the worst thinking of football supporters back in London. Still, at the last minute before departure, the seat next to mine, that I was hoping to stretch across, gets taken by a man who I immediately identify as an immigrant, transiting through this part of Europe towards more developed countries in the West. I have seen scores of people like him a week before whilst visiting my mother in the town of Tuzla in Bosnia. He is a Middle Eastern young man voyaging through the Western Balkans towards affluent Europe. Simply dressed, in his late twenties, early thirties with only a small handbag that he clutches to his chest. I watch him sideways as the bus pulls off from the station, somewhat upset about loosing that additional seat, and at the same time wandering how did he make it from Bosnia into Croatia.
I’ve heard tales of immigrants crossing into Croatia only to be picked up by their police and dumped back into Western Bosnia, where they congregate. These tales have it they are often maltreated, even beaten and their mobile phones taken by the Croatian police. The man sitting next to me is as calm as a man after a long journey who’s found a place to rest, could be.
I ask him where he is from. ‘Farance’ - he says. It took me some time before I was able to process what was he trying to say. ‘You are not from France, - I said through laughter. He smiles back.
‘Que est votre nom?’ - I ask again. He shrugs his shoulders - ‘Not understand’.
‘So, where are you really from?’, I ask again. After a while, he finally said, ‘Iran’.
A bus conductor approached, collecting tickets, or charging those who boarded without, stopping by our row of seats. And the man sitting in a seat behind mine leans forward and said to the conductor – ‘We’ll pay for his ticket’- pointing to the Iranian. ‘We are from Bulgaria’ - he said to me. I didn’t notice him boarding the bus, nor a boy, sitting next to him, about ten. ‘This man is not from Bulgaria’ - I reply in a half voice.
The Bulgarian pulls out a wedge of Croatian notes and starts counting them. I’ve seen men counting money in such a way before. I remembered it well ever since I had been cheated on a black money exchange market, many years ago, in Budapest, during my student travels. Men, used to handling large quantities of cash, holding notes folded over the index finger of one hand, flipping them fast with the other. And the penny drops. He is a people smuggler.
I turn towards the Iranian man, somewhat disturbed. Almost 30 years ago I journeyed across Europe, running away from the looming Yugoslavian war. I wasn’t escorted by people smugglers; still there were borders to cross.
‘Where did you cross into Croatia from Bosnia?’ – I ask him. ‘In Metkovic’, - he replies. Metkovic is a town in Herzegovina, some 50 miles inland from Split.
‘You want to get to Slovenia?’ – I ask again. He nods.
‘And then?’- I keep asking, ‘To Europe, other Europe?’
He nods again. ‘But why, you don’t really speak any language of Europe?’
‘I speak Iranian’, he said in whatever English he could muster, ‘It is dictatorship there’.
As the night wore off and tiredness crept in, I found myself fighting sleep, almost leaning onto the immigrant next to me, who was sleeping untroubled. This new immigrant, next to an old immigrant, myself, on the run for half of my life, a stranger even in a country that once was mine. What have I achieved in that Promised Land?
Over a quarter of a century ago, I was running away from the Yugoslavian war that had its own first foretelling in the very same town of Split. This man wants to get to that Other Europe for whatever reason and he has all the rights to do so.
I was returning back to London, where I had never put my roots in earnest. No city gladly welcomes those who want to be Citizens of the World. And what does it mean anyway in a world where barriers and walls, that divide us, are built quicker than bridges that connect us.
In such a world, people smugglers thrive. I watched the Bulgarian smuggler and his boy fast asleep, head to head.
What could I tell the immigrant sleeping next to me about that world he was so eager to get to? What can anyone tell anyone else in terms of their own life?
Still, there are many things humans can tell each other as we, blindfolded, stumble through our destinies. True, by running away from the war in my old country I somehow managed to forge another life, which might have not be assigned to me at the very first place. And I can’t know what is it for real that this man next to me is running away from or towards.
But I could tell him that two incomplete and interrupted lifetimes do not add up to one happy life.
He might fall straight into a “hostile environment”. He might be mistreated and abused; he might need to accept whatever work he can find. He might discover that the very same things he was running away from will be happening in his adoptive land – nationalism, intolerance, and discrimination. Still, he might be lucky. Hi might build a house and have children. And his children might be citizens of a world he thought of as free.
And what about the Bulgarian man and his boy? Will the boy become a people smuggler like his father? Gone are the days of the “Silk route” through the Balkans, when passing trade allowed development of different kinds of services and infrastructure. Inns and guesthouses, local food and provisions at caravanserais, are no longer needed for passing caravans. In the age of economies based on massive profit making and the old trading routes being replaced by shipping containers, humans trekking across those ancient routes, in search of meaningful, dignified life, are the only commodities left to exploit.
Men and the boys, the sons of their forefathers, who once themselves might have been involved in spinning silk, grinding spices and mixing ink pigments.
Copyright Edin Suljic 2020.