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Lessons from Sarajevo for Tamil refugees

[The Globe and Mail, Saturday, 21 August 2010 07:43 No Comment]

goran_simic_jpg_834122gm-a Back in my hometown to wash the family gravestone and meet friends, mostly writers, who never left Sarajevo, I heard a joke from the time of the siege, when the famous tunnel under the airport runway was the only way to escape the embattled city.

In the middle of the tunnel, two brothers heading in opposite directions bump into one another. They immediately begin shouting the same words: “Where the hell are you going? There is nothing there.”

I still feel the weight of that question mark.

As I watch the news about the Tamil refugee claimants touching shore in Vancouver, I think of the Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted longer than the Siege of Leningrad. Though every survivor has the right to tell his own stories, I published some on behalf of the 10,000 who were killed – by the daily barrages of sniper bullets, by grenades, by hunger. Even I was killed once – when the newspaper published my name on the list of victims of the 1992 bombing of the city.

Three years of suffering

That day I felt like a ghost walking the streets, trying to persuade my neighbours and friends that I was still alive. My two children got their own portion of horror – learning to catch rainwater dripping from our ceiling holes, facing an empty fridge after the city’s food supply was cut off, listening to the horrible silence of the telephone receiver after the central Tele-Post Building had its power cut. Not to mention that now, after the war, innocent fireworks still cause a sudden nausea in the stomachs of all of us who ever heard a real bomb exploding.

To talk about my three years of suffering, I need three years, with additional time for the list of family and friends I lost, but I am not a masochist.

During the Siege of Sarajevo, I began to feel a strange duality about my writing: As a poet, I want to capture reality dressed in the witness outfit; and on the other hand, I try to forget that whole part of my life.

I am in the middle again. At a poetry reading in Montreal, I was asked by a grim-looking woman in the audience whether I had ever talked to a psychiatrist after I came to Canada and I answered that I didn’t, “because it’s cheaper to talk to my readers.” Later, speaking privately with the woman, I felt ashamed when she showed me the scars on her arm, from a bomb blast in some Pakistani city I never heard of – the city she came from.

I apologized for making a joke of her question. She apologized for asking me that question. Suddenly we became polite Canadians, but members of a club that most Canadians have nothing to do with. Especially the Canadians blind to the news from other countries, the ones who don’t realize that once you deny the problems in your neighbourhood, there’s a good chance that same problem will knock on your door.

“ Do you have a credit history? ”— a Toronto bank clerk asks Mr. Simic

I arrived in Toronto from Sarajevo with two children and a broken former life. It didn’t take me long to realize that my published books were worth nothing. I knew I would never get a loan from the bank by offering my work as collateral, as Canadian poet Gwendolyn MacEwen once attempted. Especially books written in the Serbo-Croatian language, which officially ceased to exist after my old country broke into six parts.

“Do you have a credit history?” I was asked by the bank clerk, who appeared to believe she had a mentally-ill person or just-released bank robber standing in front of her. That moment the pain in my stomach became my guide.

Instead of a loan, I was forced to find work as a labourer, loading and unloading trucks. That adventure lasted several years, till doctors advised me to give it up.

Then I became a full-time Canadian. I waited in long queues at food banks with my first-generation fellow Canadians. I waited for welfare cheques and listened to welfare clerks asking me to get a job ASAP. The humanitarian aid we received during the siege had more variety. At least there, after waiting hours for food, you might find a few bullets in your shopping bag on the way home, and surprise your kid who collects war trophies.

If I had missed becoming a Canadian, I would never have heard Ana from Poland telling me, while waiting in front of the food bank kitchen, that she worked as a cleaning lady for three restaurants to pay for her kids going to flute lessons.

‘Us’ and ‘Them’

Or the story of the young Mexican man Rulfo, who earned his wage as a boxing partner in matches that people bet on in a private club somewhere in Mississauga. He didn’t know the address because he was always blindfolded. Five hundred if he won the match. Sometimes double if he lost.

If I hadn’t come to Canada, I would never have learned about the huge, invisible distinction between “us” and “them.” As a Canadian still romanticizing my new beginning, I published some books that hurt me as much as my readers. Judging by the letters I received from recent immigrants, I had infected them with the old terrible illness inherent in the question: “Why do they want me if they do not love me?”

As an immigrant, I feel like I belong to the most fragile category of people. It doesn’t make it any better to hear that a third of the world’s population carries a passport different from their place of origin. I didn’t renew my Bosnian passport after it expired. What do statisticians know about the soul?

This summer, as the Sarajevo Film Festival welcomed film stars from around the world, the city also served as a red carpet for Bosnians who live elsewhere. A third of the pre-war population now lives in other countries like Australia, Canada or Sweden. They carry a simple, mocking label: diaspora.

They are like seasonal farm workers, returning to harvest some memories, while wondering why their children would rather communicate in English than Bosnian. They think of the sharp message in the words of my friend, the poet Asim Brka: “Peace kills those who believe they survived the war.”

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