Before the next grenade falls

Alen Mešković would never have become a Danish author if it weren't for one chance encounter. The Bosnian refugee arrived in Denmark as a 17-year-old and has just released his second novel 'Enmandstelt' about life in a Danish refugee centre. He reflects on identity, war and learning to settle down after a life of permanent temporariness

In 1992, Serbian soldiers occupied Alen Mešković’s town and gave his family twenty-four hours to pack and leave.

“They took the young men to the concentration camp. I was only fourteen, and my dad was too old, but they took my older brother. It was a very dark period – they were close to killing us a few times. It was an experience that does something to you. Maybe it’s why I feel a sadness seeing people trapped in conflict.”

He and his parents packed a few belongings and ended up in Croatia, where they found shelter in a refugee camp on the Adriatic coast. He used these experiences in his first novel, Ukulele Jam, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story featuring a young man, Miki, who finds escape from life as a refugee in girls and rock music.

In May, Mešković released a stand-alone sequel, Enmandstelt, in which Miki steals jewellery from his parents to pay for his illegal journey to Sweden to join his brother. On his way through Denmark, he is stopped and forced to lodge an asylum application. The novel captures the boredom, insecurity and loneliness of living in a foreign country that doesn’t allow you to learn the language, pursue an education or work – just like when Mešković arrived in Denmark in 1994.

“If you’re told by someone you trust, ‘the next five years are going to suck, but stick it out because you will end up somewhere better’, you can think, ‘that’s fine, I’ll just read some books or walk around and pass the time’. But that’s not how it is in a refugee centre – you don’t know how long you will be there, or even if you’re going to be sent back. The law kept us from learning Danish and I met Bosnians who had been in the country for years but couldn’t speak any Danish. The Danes hadn’t had much experience with refugees and were overwhelmed by 20,000 of us arriving in such a short period of time. They just gave us six-month residency permits that we had to keep reapplying for. I only had to wait in that limbo for a year, but it took others three years or more – the waiting destroyed some people. The educated ones applied for work visas in the US and Australia and left.”

For Miki – and Mešković – the battle was to find a way into the Danish society without knowing any Danish, while carrying the emotional baggage of the conflict in Bosnia.

“It’s a darker book then its prequel, in a way. It’s about finding your own place in life, your new personal narrative, and your own people. He is asking, ‘what fellowship do I belong to?’ and trying to find a home with people based on shared experiences and relationships, rather than ethnicity.”

A lucky start
Mešković pauses and pulls the dark curls away from his sunken eyes. I can see how tired he is – a week of interviews, book talks and childcare has taken its toll on the 38-year-old writer.

“It’s going to be a time I look back on with happiness, but right now I’m physically destroyed. I’m wasting away,” he says. I detect his deadpan humour only by the slight smile he pulls.

Despite being the worse for wear, Mešković speaks with intensity, often ignoring my attempts to interject and guide the conversation. He has things to say and he will say them, only occasionally stopping to ask, “Wait, did that make sense?”

Wars and migration have been the focus of Mešković’s writing since first being published in a poetry anthology in 2007. A book of poetry, Første gang tilbage (2009), was next, with Ukulele Jam following in 2011. The novel was a critical success – on sale in nine countries with an English-language translation out next spring – and secured him a three-year grant from the Danish Arts Foundation that resulted in Enmandstelt.

His career wouldn’t have been possible, however, if it hadn’t been for the help of one person. In August 1995 he was 17, living in an asylum centre, and bored, but he was too old for elementary school and didn’t know enough Danish to go to high school. After speaking to some charities and local politicians, a meeting was arranged with the headmistress of a local school in Nyborg, Funen.

She offered him a place at a boarding school on the condition that he first learned enough Danish to follow lectures at the high school. The following December he received asylum, and the month after started at the boarding school. He would later go on to study comparative literature at university in Odense, and graduate with an MA in Modern Culture and Cultural Communication from the University of Copenhagen in 2006.

“I feel lucky that I walked into her office that day in 1995 and she saw something in me – a will not to drown, I guess. She gave me a chance. It’s weird, I could have met someone who dismissed me and I would probably be doing something else today.”

Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Photo: Rasmus Degnbol

Syrians the new Bosnians
In September, the refugee flow from the Middle East and North Africa finally reached Denmark in earnest. Thousands of new arrivals were forced off trains and made to walk along motorways as they made their way north to their hoped-for final destination in Sweden.

Many were stopped and made to register in Denmark, like Mešković more than 20 years earlier. But many other refugees were helped on their way by Danes who illegally drove them onward to Sweden.

“I saw the events in Rødby as a good sign. But I also saw how divided Danes are on this issue. There was also the guy who was photographed spitting on the refugees, and right-wing politicians who kept saying that terrorists might be among them. The thing is, politicians may have the power to set agendas in the public debate and speak from positions of power, but in real life, eyeball-to-eyeball, when Danes invite Syrians into their cars, in that sphere a politician doesn’t have power. It comes down to us, the citizens, deciding what the right way to treat each other is. That’s important to emphasise.”

In Danish politics and media, ethnicity and culture are often subjects of debate. Many, particularly on the right wing, are afraid of immigration and fear that conflict will inevitably arise when different cultures live side by side. In an interview on the DR2 programme Debatten in May, immigration spokesperson for the Danish People’s Party, Martin Henriksen, declared that there were “too many Muslims in Denmark” and that Islam presented one of the greatest threats to Danish society.

Ordinary Danes, too, question the viability of multiculturalism. Mešković says he sometimes meets Danes who wonder how he can still be friends with Serbians after the way the Serbian soldiers treated him and his family.

“I shake my head and say, ‘listen, war is business’. Where there is war, there is someone earning a lot of money, and that also goes for Syria now. War is about the interests of the political, military or religious elites, not the civilians, the ordinary people. We lived for hundreds of years completely mixed together in Bosnia and then suddenly neighbours started shooting each other – why?” he asks, throwing his hands in the air.

“The war in Bosnia was never actually about an ‘us and them’ between civilians. The fear and the ethnic hatred were gradually fabricated by the political and religious elite and their media in order to create new borders and earn a lot of money. Which they did. If we look at radical groups around the world, where do they get their money and infrastructure? And what about those huge corporations and their interests around the world? It’s all about money. I guarantee that behind every single conflict in the world today is someone who benefits. Otherwise, the conflicts would be stopped very quickly.”

Solidarity and inequality
In Mešković’s experience, community and fellowship are more closely linked to class than ethnicity – the man spitting off the bridge is as Danish as the Dane who ferried refugees to Sweden. He argues for more solidarity among ordinary working and middle class people, who are manipulated by the political and religious elites that pit people against each other to shore up support for their own agendas. The Syrian civilans fleeing from the grenades of war, and European civilians under terrorist attacks, are victims of the same madness. Both are losers in the global conflict today and they shouldn’t fear each other.

“I am Bosnian, but I don’t feel fellowship with the owner of a huge media house in Bosnia who has been aligned with the nationalistic party since the beginning of the conflict, who is a criminal that exploited people during the war when people lost houses, friends and family, everything. How can I say ‘We Bosnians’? I don’t feel any connection there or any common interest.”

Mešković also worries about rising inequality and our fading memories of the reality of war. He describes himself as a left-wing internationalist, though he doesn’t really seem settled on the best term. At any rate, he sees the increasing concentration of capital and the breakdown of international solidarity as the main threats to global peace.

“From 1945 until the 1990s, we lived in a time of economic growth and integration. There was a will in Europe to say no more conflicts, war and genocide. We saw the rise of human rights, the end of war, and the protection of borders and states through rule of law and the UN. But with the invasion of Kosovo, the UN’s power was first questioned in earnest. And since the invasion of Iraq, the big powers just ignore the UN. This means we are moving away from the age of human rights, integration and security. The EU countries are looking after their own interests again, which is also why we don’t have a common refugee policy in the EU. And then the Syrians caught us last year in that moment of not knowing what to do. It’s really sad that we have these huge powers fighting over resources and geopolitical domination in the area, and there’s nothing the UN, the international society, can do.”

Added to this are the fading voices of the survivors of the Second World War. Those making decisions about refugees and warfare have no experience of its horrors.

“The right wing claim that Syrian civilians were coming to Denmark for the welfare. It’s a crazy idea! But some voters believe it because they have no empirical experience of war, it exists as an image on a screen to them,” he says, adding later that he has no love for political games.

“When I hear politicians try and humiliate each other, I just think, life’s too short. As Woody Allen said, most of life is bullshit, full of pain anyway, and it’s all over far too quickly. By the time you settle down and figure out what you want, you’re almost forty. Why waste time listening to these debates – soldiers in political parties, the small fish in the hierarchy, put on a TV programme to say something they don’t even believe? They just stick to the party’s programme.”

Death, loss and love
I suspect Mešković’s dry humour and self-deprecation are hallmarks of his Bosnian heritage – they are certainly not very Danish. He has now lived longer in Denmark than in Bosnia, but he has not left the Balkans behind. His two small children will visit their Bosnian family this summer. They have a Danish mother, but speak enough Bosnian to watch cartoons in their father’s native tongue.

Knowing your history is important, says Mešković, who argues that you can’t meet the world without knowing who you are first. Although he’s an internationalist, he thinks multiculturalism can often be misguided.

“I’m against this idea of a melting pot, the cliché of being a world citizen and the exoticism that goes with it. People need to know what their narrative is. I haven’t participated in a Bosnian context for many years, but I really like to learn about Bosnian culture and know what my grandparents were a part of. When you know that, you can meet other cultures, learn from them and question your own. I know how the Bosnian mentality sucks in some ways, but I also know the good things about it compared to other cultures.”

Our identities are also formed by the reality of the lives we live. For Mešković, this meant a sense of constantly being on the move. When he finally decided to settle down in his 30s, he realised that  he had adopted an identity of eternal transition. Giving it up was harder than he expected.

“I always lived with someone, sharing flats, that’s part of my identity as a refugee. I love hotels – having my own room, but sharing facilities with other people. I adapted to functioning in a state of permanent immediacy. The refugee experience is full of disasters – grenades falling and people dying and disappearing. Things are constantly being taken from you and you think ‘that’s life’, especially when you’re young. So you try and make the most out of life before the next grenade falls. I have lost so many friends and girlfriends. But that’s life – you have to enjoy and love and appreciate it and each other while you have it.” M

Features, Culture

By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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