Hold my head under water
Take a breath for the Father
Learn to love. Lessons repeating
The Chronicles are so misleading
This is your baptism
And you can’t forgive them
– Baptism, Crystal Castles.
I went to Presevo last weekend. I am returning there this weekend. These are the words and tears that pool in between.
Everybody’s got a harrowing Balkans bus story, don’t they? It’s practically a trope. I have plenty of my own, but most of my bus frustration comes out whenever I try to stretch the next day and find that my muscles have shortened by what feels like a mile. Any bus ride longer than four hours and I become a flaily, whiny mess. So watching flocks of people, clutching the sacred “papers”, ebuliantly trot across the dusty (then muddy, then dusty again) street to the rows of purring (or maybe growling) busses began to shift my perspective.
A necessary evil becomes the promised land. Our end goal, get them to the busses, even though one of the busses crashed, a woman was killed and her husband now lies in critical condition with severe brain trauma as their young children wait now, somewhere in Bujanovac.
So here it is. After going down to volunteer for one day, maybe two, I returned to Nis five days later—grimy and disconsolate. I’ve wept more in the last three days than I did in the previous six months. They say that periods of intense emotion or disruption can leave effects across time, one of the explanations for experiences of paranormal phenomena. If this is even remotely the case, the road formed by this migration will echo with howls for decades to come.
Ambient sadness, humming in the background of everything, I’m fragmented and scattered over somewhere. I was just there for five days. New friends and respected humanitarian workers, working for months now must be ground into sand, each granule a reality as we chop ourselves into bits to work. Emotional needs here. Logistics there. Regular life there. Eating. Pretending to be normal again. Let’s not even speak of the dust these many thousands we are trying to assist have been pounded into. Witnessing and experiencing remain two distinct domains.
Everything is both nerves and numb after seeing so many children locking eyes with you and screaming in terror as they are pushed to the ground, mashed into the steel bars. We reach in, and a man, another refugee who previously was flirting up a storm with you, pulls her out.
Feeding data and money into our phones to Google translate through another discussion. This time, with an eleven year old girl. She’s Kurdish, Yazidi. Her mom is somewhere in that press of crowd, but she’ll sit politely perched on the chair and smile shyly at everyone as we figure out what to do next. Drink this bottle of water, by the end of it we’ll…not have a plan but hope that we do. Lie and make her feel safe, that we all know the next step, when the next step is mostly “wait and pray.”
One particularly cold night, we distributed some blankets, and were swarmed by desperate individuals clamoring for blankets for their families and themselves. It took a violent chaotic turn, but eventually, the blankets disappeared to their new owners, the clamor misting away into the fog. We were left alone along with those who didn’t or couldn’t fight hard enough, softly sniffling as they padded off. Ahmad approached me with tears in his eyes. “Miss, Please….please…I’m just so sorry that they were like that—“ He began other sentences, all of which were choked off by tears as we clutched each other’s arms, sobbing quietly. We know, we understand why. We both look down and mourn in silence.
I later learn about his heroism. After getting separated from his family when they crossed to Greece, he decided to follow them once he heard they were safe in Austria via social media. Although he was one of the first to obtain the coveted 72 hour transit permit in Serbia, he then decided to stay as long as he could in order to advocate for women and children who lacked protection, securing warmer housing for them at night. And yet when I first meet him, he is ashamed.
Why are they bearing the burden of guilt for being dehumanized and traumatized? There remains no justice. I hope he gets a taste of it now that he is reunited with his family in Austria.
It’s best not to think in these terms when working, I’m finding. Another shard of your mind you’ll return to at another time. When you’re immersed in the surreal, you rely on your instincts more. Code switching between one life and another. This skill and/or need sticks with you even after you are physically removed from the situation. I can barely focus as I ought to any more. My soul remains 2.5 hours south, somewhere in a crowd of people.
The work is ongoing. If you’d like to support the aid efforts in Presevo, please consider donating to this campaign. We have already provided 600l of water, 200 loaves of bread, 1,050 rain coats, 100kg of peaches with the money we’ve raised, but we need more to provide adequate cold/wet weather wear for the folks moving north.