Behind bars

behind bars image

She’s counted them, the bars: the desolate corridors of this place are so long that there are well over a hundred of them. The glass of many of the windows is broken, and she sleeps on a rusty bed in a small inner room with faded yellow walls. In winter, the metal doors that don’t close properly, the ones that need oiling, bang as the winds blow. In summer, they hang from their hinges, as though they cannot bear the heat, even.

Home is a long way away from this detention compound. She thinks of the miles of land between here and there: the fields of green, the stretches of gold, the waves of blue, thinks how young she was when she left, thinks how new and big the world seemed then, how endless the opportunities, how truly green and golden and blue.

It’s different now: she feels old. Maybe, she thinks wistfully, when you lose too much, the colours fade more quickly. She thinks of her past often here: she was the eldest of several siblings, all infinitely more fortunate than her. They attended school: she left home instead, when her father passed, in search of ways to support them from far. She’d wanted an education too – desperately – but such has not been promised to everyone.

She also thinks about her future, though that’s harder to do: she wonders what it will look like. Some days, her vision is clouded. On others, she is determined to make something of herself once she leaves this place, and she hangs for dear life, in the midst of her uncertainty, onto these thoughts, lets them sustain her, and finds herself, then, grateful to be alive.




The nights are long here, and cold, and the days are even longer. He flits like a butterfly from one precarious job to another, but they are not flowers, nor are they rosy. The winter was harsh: the sun absent, almost as though he left it back in his country, back there with his happiness and his identity. His chest is heavy like clouds threatening rain that never comes.

He is well-read: he knows English. He watches from the shadows as the word ‘refugee’ is thrown around like a deflated football, carelessly, in Europe’s political courts. He hears it whispered in the streets, hears it declared on the old television in his rented apartment, watches as it echoes around the walls that desperately need a redoing: you’re better off here, what more do you want.

He cries, alone at night, when there is no one to see, when the room is bare of derision and pity, because how to make them see it all: how to make them understand that he never wanted to flee, never wanted to be a refugee, that what he wants is his old life back, or a new one where he truly belongs.

The winning hand


Keep a blank face, her father always said when they played cards. She complained, at the beginning, when he’d started teaching her, that he always dealt the best hand for himself, and he told her it was the luck of the draw, but that there was also a choice and that she had to choose carefully.

She thinks about choices now. Her daughter is only three: she’s worn the same pretty earrings since they left, but her clothes are old and tattered. The little one should start school soon, but like her parents, she doesn’t speak the language of this strange new place.

It was long-drawn out, the war. Blood dripped and gushed and spurted down the pavements of her hometown: still, it stains them. Her father is gone, and here, in this new country, even the cards are foreign: she does not recognise them, doesn’t know what they stand for. There is no winning hand. Choose carefully, her father would say, nonetheless, and she would sigh, I’m trying.


… you’re a refugee. 


He walks by the sea in this new country, early in the morning before the sun starts to sizzle, and thinks that war is like fog. War is treacherous: it creeps on people suddenly and cloaks their vision. He thinks about gunshots in the distance, how looking back, it’s hard to remember exactly what happened when; how, in the midst of uncertainty, the brain fumbles and forfeits logic, how primal instinct takes over.

Life changes, quickly. He was a professor in his country, before the war: he lectured at one of the top universities there. He was treated like royalty. Here, people stare at him: he often wonders what they see when they do, but he doesn’t blame them. These days, he has trouble recognising himself too.

A fleeting concept.


… you’re a refugee.

He doesn’t speak the language yet. He is trying to learn, but at his age, he prefers familiar words to new ones. They sound strange, these new ones; foreign, as though they belong exclusively to someone else, as though they are not made for him really. He tries to think in these new words, but struggles: it is too difficult.

He thinks of home instead, in his own language: thinks of what his country was. He thinks of trees and how their roots dig deep, how they grow into the ground and into each other, how earthquakes and tsunamis happen anyway. He thinks of birds that migrate in spring and autumn, of nomads, and of heartbreak.

Home is a fleeting concept, after all.



… you’re a refugee.

She sits and cries, as though the weight of the world was on her chest, but isn’t anymore. It’s evening: relief fills the room like the last rays of the sun. She hugs her young child tightly. I can’t believe it, she says quietly. Tears stream down her face, and she lets them: finally, I can go back to school.

Her parents sold her when she was ten, to a man three times her age. He kept her locked up, sold her to other men. She cries now because finally someone has not taken from her. Finally, it is over. Finally, someone has believed in her: someone has promised her another chance.

I am not who you think I am.

… someone who flees persecution because of their political opinion, or their sexual orientation, for instance, says the young man at the office, somewhat hurriedly because there is a queue. He hands them a form full of personal questions.

She thinks of her children, and wonders how much they’ve grown since she’s been away. He thinks of his lover; perhaps he has found someone else to love, and betray.

It doesn’t take long, the process. Three weeks later, they’re called back to the office, and handed a sealed envelope. They open it and read: congratulations, you’re a refugee. 


Et tu, Brute?

And you, Brutus? ~ Shakespeare

He loves a man. It happened suddenly, like an earthquake, or a tsunami. Like the rest of his family, he is a farmer. He knows the wind, when the sky will bring rain. He met his lover, and the earth, brimming with crops, burst into flowers.

Out here, when he is working the fields and tending the cattle, he forgets that it is a crime punishable by death, he dreams of a life together. Back home, he hides it, keeps it all a secret: he is strong-willed, but his lover is not. The police arrive unexpectedly. His mother pales and begins to cry hysterically; his father stands firm and silent, and watches them escort him out of the house. At the station, he faces his interrogators squarely, and lies.

People will say anything about you if they are jealous of you, he tells them calmly. After many hours of questioning, they let him go. It’s not over yet, they promise, as they remove his handcuffs. He returns home, and finds a packed bag outside the front door. His father doesn’t say goodbye.

Much later, on the plane, he leans his head against the window and studies the clouds. They are kneaded thick like dough beneath him, but he knows they would offer no support. If he jumped, he would fall right through. Middle-aged parents sit next to him, laughing and chatting with their young children: holiday-goers, returning home. He presses his eyes shut: he cannot think of what he left behind, nor of ever going back.


All is fair in love and war

From John Lyly’s Euphues

She’s seen the soldiers on her way to the market, in the distance, in the village square. She covers her face carefully every time she leaves the house, and she keeps her gaze downwards. Outside, she always wishes her husband is with her. He wouldn’t stand a chance against a group of them, but it would be better than facing them on her own.

They come one night, and take her husband away. Whether to kill him or make him work for them, she doesn’t know. They return shortly. Her children are sleeping in the inner room, with their grandmother. She tries not to scream, and soon passes out, with fear and the pain. When she wakes up, much later, it’s still night. Blood drenches her clothes, and the men have disappeared.

Two weeks later, she’s recovered enough to be able to walk. Word has spread around the village, and her mother confronts her. You’re on your own, she says, avoiding her eyes, out of shame, or guilt, or perhaps because she, too, is helpless: I’ll keep the children. It’s an offer, not an order.

The desert is hot and barren, uninviting and merciless: a merciless killer. They’re far too many people in the truck. It ploughs along the sand with great difficulty, and then suddenly, it’s a boat, riding dark blue waves with edges of white foam, threatening death. 


Festina lente

Make haste slowly; orig. classical Greece

The room basks in the half-light. It is calm, quiet, as though there is no war beyond the curtained windows. The bed is made, the sheets are clean: she changed them yesterday.

Now, she throws a few belongings into a bag. It isn’t her favourite one, she thinks, but it will have to do. Her hands shake as she zips it closed. Her husband calls her: he is waiting by the front door. He tells her to hurry, to make haste, they haven’t got much time. Slowly, she thinks: I can’t go fast, I don’t want to go fast. Her heart beats unevenly, as though a piece of it has been carved out cleanly with a knife. At the door, she pauses, and rests her forehead against the wooden frame.

In the distance there is an explosion. The windows rattle. She stands frozen, barely able to breathe. Her husband calls her name again, more urgently this time, and then suddenly he is near her, putting his arm around her, coaxing her to move.

Take me back, she says softly, later, in the car, as he holds her hand and a tear escapes down her cheek. Take me back, I’m not ready to leave. I don’t want to go.