On 20 August 1992, there was gunfire in Bosnia. In Heidelberg, there was rain. It was probably raining in Oslo too, somewhere else I might have ended up. Home is happenstance. You’re born in one place, displaced to another, and leave your body to medical science somewhere else entirely. Luck means having the chance to influence fate. It means leaving home because you want to, not because you have to.
For me, Heidelberg began as happenstance. It was supposed to be temporary – a refuge from the unreality of war that was now my reality. On 20 August 1992, sunshine followed the rain. My mother wanted to do something nice for her war-traumatised son. But her cash only stretched to a single scoop of ice cream. The second was a gift from the ice cream seller. With our cones in our hands, we strolled along a river whose name – like everything else: streets, buildings, colours – was a mystery to us. We had no idea what people were saying. The only words I knew in German were Lothar Matthäus.
My first experience of safety as a refugee
Pale red ruins of a palace looming over the old city, Japanese people plodding up the hill, taking photos … everything was so normal: a tourist attraction, tourists, the taste of a chocolate ice cream. And suddenly, we seemed normal as well – a mother and her son in a little public square which, soon, would no longer be nameless but called Karlsplatz. Just like other mothers and sons in other squares. We escaped, then we arrived, and then we paused to admire an imposing building, its architecture foreign to our eyes.
To me, the sight of the palace will always have the flavour of chocolate ice cream. And of safety, my first experience of that as a refugee. Here, we were strangers, but much more important, this strange place posed no threat to our lives. We were the lucky ones, unlike many of the others. There was no happenstance to save them. Cruelty and hatred deprived them of life. 2015 was the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered. And death is still claiming thousands of victims: in Syria, in Yemen, in Libya, in the drug wars in Mexico.
Many refugees don’t survive the journey – but not always because of happenstance. Often, it’s because there is no political will to save them. The people drowning and freezing to death in the Mediterranean, and those who make it to the borders of the EU but are held back or sent back … they reveal the reality of EU refugee policy. They show that its humanitarian values are, in reality, a farce made up of discord, passivity and ignorance. Instead of safe legal channels for migration to the EU with decent accommodation and support in individual countries, help is withheld. A humanitarian disaster is being averted (for now) solely thanks to the efforts of volunteers.
Historical experience of refugees and expulsion
Despite Germany’s own historical experience of refugees and expulsion, the public and political debate about these issues is very limited, at least in some quarters, and I find that very disappointing. Barely a night goes by without an attack on an asylum-seekers’ hostel. The social media are full of people who want to help, but they are also full of hatred and malice.
I have lived in Germany for 23 years. In the early days – the most difficult time – I met people in my neighbourhood and in the public authorities who were willing to help. They didn’t make a fuss about it. I walked into their lives by chance and they stretched out a hand. Without them, I would have been deported and other people would be writing this article. They enhanced our random encounters with their acts of deliberate kindness. Just like the ice cream seller in Heidelberg, who showed me, with his simple act of generosity, that we are not only responsible for our own good fortune, but also for the stranger we meet by chance.
Profile: Saša Stanišić and his parents fled to Heidelberg from the Yugoslav Wars in 1992. The author won the Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2014.