Note: This is the final part of our series describing our journey to Serbia to work with refugees this past October. If you haven’t already, please take a look at the earlier parts to get more of the story! (Miki and Charlie)
After the conference, we drove over to Montenegro to visit friends there and to spend a couple of days resting before setting out for our 6 day journey back through the Balkan refugee route on our way to Estonia.
The journey from Montenegro to Serbia was beautiful – through the mountains filled with autumn colors. But the terrain was often rough, and was a reminder of why the refugees were choosing the route through the more flat land going through Macedonia and Serbia.
After several hours of winding mountain roads, we were quite road-weary as we pulled into the hotel in Belgrade at around 8pm that evening. We decided to find some late dinner and then shortly after headed off to bed.
The following morning, on our way back to the central train station in Belgrade, we stopped off at a large market and filled our van again with socks for adults and children, blankets, water, cereal bars, and any other supplies we could find. Once again, we were discouraged by the lack of sturdy children’s shoes available.
Upon arrival at the train station, we drove straight to the park we had first visited a week prior. As we parked, it was clear that we were arriving during a “lull” time. There were less than 100 refugees sitting around – almost all of them men. By now we knew that this likely meant that the morning buses to Croatia had already left with the women and children, and these men were likely staying back to wait for the next available seats on buses that would hopefully come that evening.
As we walked up to the charity tent, we were immediately recognized by one of the younger volunteers there. She walked up to us and said, “You are the ones who brought the tents last week, aren’t you?”
After shaking hands and introducing ourselves, she told us that Andrei had stepped away from the tent for a few minutes, but would be back shortly.
While we waited, we watched several city workers who were in the park, cleaning up debris and trash – taking down old camping tents that had been left behind. It was difficult to watch them throw all of those tents into the dumpster, but it was easy to understand why they had to do it.
Many of the tents had apparently been used several times over many weeks, and had naturally become filthy. Inside many of the tents were old blankets covered in black clay that had crusted over, obviously over the course of many days. In these moments, watching as the workers picked up piles of blackened, crusty socks and sweaters – all filled with holes and wreaking of filth and body odor – we received a glimpse of yet another complication in the facilitation of the mass migration of thousands of refugees – sanitation.
My first thought was, “Why can’t they just wash these things and reuse them?” But then I tried to imagine the type of location and effort that would be needed to properly clean and sanitize camping tents, and realized that such a facility likely did not exist in Belgrade, Serbia.
About this time, Andrei walked up to us smiling, and greeted Charlie with a hug. After a few minutes of catching up, we learned that this was indeed a “lull” time, and that they were expecting several thousand refugees to come into Belgrade that evening. Charlie told him that we had brought more supplies to leave with them, and that we had some funds with us if he could tell us what additional supplies we could go look for in Belgrade that day.
Andrei told us they no longer needed a generator, as one had been donated just a couple of days prior. An older Serbian women happened to own one – and said she wanted the people working with the refugees to have it.
“But what we do need now is heaters,” Andrei said. He explained that the dropping temperatures were beginning to complicate the situation even further, especially at night.
“A few nights ago, a lady walked up to one of our volunteers holding a large bag,” he began. “Without speaking, she just handed the bag over to the volunteer.” Tears came into his eyes as he said, “We opened it up. Inside, there was a child.”
I also began blinking back tears, and just stared at him, totally stunned. Finally, I asked him, “What did she want you to do?”
“We didn’t know what to do,” Andrei said. “We took the child out of the bag, tried to clean him up, dressed him in some dry clothes, and then gave him back to the lady.”
I didn’t know what else to say. Andrei was called into the tent. I just stood silently, watching our kids run in circles and play freely in the sunshine.
As Andrei walked back into tent, Charlie said he was going to pull the van around to unload the supplies. I told him the kids and I were fine to wait and play a few minutes by the tent.
While we waited, the volunteers began serving sandwiches. Several refugee men who were in the park walked into the tent to get some food.
As they were walking back out of the tent, a small group of men seemed to be talking about me and the children. They were not aggressive at all, just appeared to be curious.
After a moment, our daughter whispered, “Mom, they are coming back.”
I turned around to see two of those same men walking towards us, smiling and holding out their sandwiches to us. They wanted to give us their food.
I wished at that moment to have known at least some basic Arabic. But I just smiled and said in English, “No, thank you. That is very kind.”
They seemed to understand, nodded quietly, and walked back to their group.
A couple of minutes later, Charlie pulled up beside the tent. When we opened the back of the van to unload the supplies, a few of the men waiting for food came over and began carrying cases of water and large bags of clothing into the tent, before returning to the cue.
I could not know for sure, but I had a strong impression that these men were just tired of sitting and waiting. They wanted to be helpful. They wanted to be appreciated. Just like my husband and all of the other men that I know. It seemed as simple as that.
Before we left, Charlie and Andrei discussed the heaters a bit more, and Charlie said he knew where he could find them in Belgrade. We knew there would not be room in the van for all of us along with the heaters, so the children and I said one more goodbye before getting into the van, as we would not be seeing Andrei or those volunteers on this trip again.
Charlie dropped us off back at our hotel, and went to a hardware store he knew, where he managed to find 4 large industrial heaters. That same night, Andrei sent photos of the heaters brightly lit with refugees standing around each of them. Two heaters had been placed in the tent in Belgrade, and two had been sent down to the volunteers serving in Preshevo.
Back on our first day in Belgrade, as we were driving through the busy streets looking for the central train station, we came upon a building that had huge, violent, gaping holes, which began from the roof and moved down. The image was so grotesque that even our children noticed it. Our oldest pointed and asked, “What happened to that building?”
Then we noticed that it appeared to have been a government building before it was condemned, and realized we were looking at remnants of the NATO bombings of Belgrade in the spring of 1999.
We now know it was the Yugoslav Defense Ministry building – which was bombed on April 30, 1999.
I don’t know why it had not occurred to me until that moment that barely a generation ago, there was a massive refugee migration out of Kosovo and Albania in the late 90’s, during the tragic Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign against them. I thought about where I was during those years, and specifically during those airstrikes that spring no long ago.
I was a university student, and that was about the time that I met Charlie.
I remembered hearing on the news about the atrocities and violence that were happening in Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and other locations throughout that region. I remembered President Clinton’s televised statement declaring that NATO forces had begun airstrikes in Serbia. I recalled the stories he shared of the homes and villages of Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo being burned to the ground – of Kosovar men being pulled from their homes, lined up and shot by Serbian military.
But at that moment, looking up at that blown out government building in Belgrade, instantly all of the nameless faces and stories on the television from sixteen years ago transformed into the men and women who were walking beside our car, taking their kids to school and going into the office for work.
In the next several days, as we drove through Kosovo and into Albania, this humbling, life-changing transformation continued. Along the way, we saw bombed-out remains of farms and villages about which we had only heard of on NPR or NBC Nightly News. We met local people who’d lost their entire families, and heard personal accounts of both Albanian and Serbian individuals who’d been forced to take other human lives for the safety of their own loved ones.
In the months and years before coming to Belgrade, I had heard similar news stories of drought, civil war and terrorism – all of which was driving people from their Middle Eastern and Northern African homes into refugee camps in places like Turkey and Jordan, and then into Europe. But, as with the Balkan conflict of the 90s, I had barely given those people a second thought – except to say to myself, “I am so glad that place is far away from me and my family.”
But through a series of circumstances, one day our family turned off the news reports. We left our comfortable living room. We climbed into our car and drove down through Serbia. And we found ourselves standing in the very scenes that had felt so far away just a few days prior.
I looked into the faces of these men, women and children who had seemed so strange before. And the most haunting moment was the point of discovering that in real life – outside of the television screen and scrolling news reports – the women look a lot like me. The men look a lot like my husband. The boys and girls walking barefoot through the rain and mud look a lot like my children.
I have been continually convicted in these days since our trip with the offensiveness of my apathy – my disregard toward the suffering and grief which plagues my brothers and sisters in other parts of this little world.
A thousand times I have asked myself, “How could I have been so blatantly unconcerned? Did I not recognize them as brothers and sisters? Did I doubt their worth as human beings? Doubt that they were also created by the hands of the God Whom I claim to love? Why? Was it racism? Was it fear?”
As I was considering these questions recently, I stumbled upon a particular passage in the story of Sarah and Hagar from the 16th chapter of the book of Genesis. In verse 13, the author writes about the name that Hagar gave to the Lord after an angel rescued her from the desert:
“She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.'”
And then I heard the voice of my Father, in gentle conviction and love say, “Miki, you have not seen these people, but I have. They are my children, and I see them.”
Entirely because of His grace in those couple of days in Serbia, God began to heal my blindness, to restore to me new vision, opening my eyes so that I could begin to truly see what I had never been willing to see before.
I now believe this to be one of the greatest gifts of life for the children of God – that we may be able to see one another.
Even more, that we may recognize one another as brother and sister, through the eyes and grace of Him Who made us, Who saved us, and Who is forever our Father.