by Alma A. Hromic

May 14, 2001

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"They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea."

The words of Horace have far outlasted the Empire to which he belonged. Almost a millennium after it fell, Rome is memory and ashes—and yet many, many people are still driven to change their sky. There have always been refugees, but it's only now, with the eyes of the world on them through an assault and battery of cameras, that their tragedy has become in-your-face news fodder.

Every day we see them, the exiled, the dispossessed, walking across borders, carrying children and old people with distant, terrified eyes, wrapped in threadbare blankets, barefoot in the snow. Some of them are taken into more blessed lands, deloused, debriefed, debugged, declared free of disease, and then often left to fend for themselves (once their initial newsworthiness and photographic cachet have faded) in a hostile environment whose language they often do not speak. And these are the lucky ones. The rest frequently spend the remainder of their lives in mud and misery, learning to call tents or barracks or empty basketball halls home, bathing in barrels, often getting vaccinated with expired medications far more likely to give them the actual disease they are trying to prevent, drinking slop, eating tinned food ten years past its sell-by date sent by countries eager to slap a Band-Aid on their conscience. And meanwhile many of the world's people, those lucky enough to be born in a family home and live their lives in the towns of their childhood, lose interest and change channels on TV to watch Oprah interviewing Madonna—a dose of glitz and glamour instead of anger and agony. Agony is glamorous only in small doses. After watching just enough of it to have time to think "Oh those poor people" and "There but for the grace of God…." and maybe "I wonder if there is anything I can do that would actually help....well maybe not…"—people seek less demanding fare. The sky over THEIR heads is, was, always will be... (WON'T it?)....their own.

But people run from many things, and refugees are found in many different guises; sometimes the same family, the same kindred, will harbor more than one kind.

The guerre du jour that shadows our television news in the closing months of the last year of the twentieth century has vomited thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of refugees. Many are not yet even aware that this is what they are, but soon it will be made clear to them. Those that are considered as worthy to be shown on the evening news get copious, often intrusive, coverage, followed around by hungry cameras and guaranteed their place in whatever version of history is currently being accepted as holy writ by reports that break the heart and not so much tease open the purse strings as cut the purses loose, whole and entire, from the belts of the unsuspecting audiences. In the meantime, others, perhaps fleeing the same war and chaos, are not only not seen and not heard, but they are often denied even the status of being a refugee—which means that they will never even know of the existence of the purses flung into the other, if I may be forgiven the word, camp.

I have family who have tasted refugee bread. Their story is probably far from unique; there are thousands like them. But theirs is the story I know. Theirs is the story which will be the light that I can shine into the dark places of the world.

Theirs, and my own.

I have a cousin. Our mothers are sisters. She and I never refer to each other as anything other than sisters, either, confusing outsiders with this for years. We were both born in Novi Sad, the city on the Danube river; provincial capital but, despite that, a quiet sleepy place on a rich and fertile Wheatland plain - where the light has a special glow on hot harvest Sundays in July and where the snow glitters thick on the ground on remembered childhood New Year's Eves when we wandered past the street stalls selling tinsel and Christmas cards. Then, in the year I turned ten and she was still only nine years old, we parted - I moved away, to spend the next twenty-odd years living far from home; she stayed behind.

Growing up in two very different worlds took its toll, and from two very similar little girls who seemed to spend their waking lives living in each other's back pockets we gradually turned into adults. For a few years we simply lost touch; our teens were times of change and metamorphosis, and the influences shaping our twin chrysalises were disparate enough for each to find it hard to recognize that small familiar kernel in the other with which we remained - would always remain - familiar and which we loved. We drifted apart, inevitably. And then we met up again on a different plane, as adults, and discovered in our older selves other things that we could love, respect and admire. As urgently as we were being pulled apart when we were teenagers, so now we were drawn together. Although we still live in different countries we are as close today as we have ever been. Maybe closer than we would have been had we both grown up a street apart from each other.

She married, and in due time produced two lovely little girls—who knew the name of their auntie in distant parts of the world almost before they knew their own. On March 24 1999, my older niece was four months shy of four years old. The younger was days away from her second birthday. They had known only love and liberty until that date. They lived in a house lovingly built for them, and earned in bitter labor; they had a garden and four dogs and a cat and plenty of toys, and they lived in a peaceful town whose history had flowing blood in it but where, in their day, none were harmed and none harming. They had no way of knowing what was happening when they were warmly wrapped and, together with their mother and two small suitcases, put on a bus heading for the Hungarian border. As this bus with this precious cargo—and other mothers, with other children—drove into the night, the first airplanes with their deadly payloads were already only hours away from Novi Sad. Waiting on the Hungarian border to cross into a foreign land, this young mother and her children heard that their city had been bombed. The children, that is, knew nothing. Their mother, alone and afraid and anguished for the safety of the family she had left behind, knew exactly what that meant. She and her daughters had escaped with a negligible margin of error. And it was already inevitable that whatever they might one day come back to would never be the place they had just left. The hand of war has a cold, cold touch, and my sister shivered from the touch of its fingers as it reached out for her.

They were among the lucky ones, if luck it can be called. I would live to see the numbers of fleeing women and children climb to tens of thousands; I would also live to see those tens of thousands ignored and sidelined by the media, denied even the protecting status of being called "refugees," because they were the wrong nation, the wrong faith, the wrong tribe of Israel. These were Serb refugees fleeing the bombardment of a country whose sin was to stand up to the world's great powers and deny them their will. And these women and children were paying the price for that country's pride.

Because of close kin living in yet a third country, the small family of my story—after being forced to spend hours, days, in queues outside embassies who (because they were not properly "refugees") were seemingly taking pleasure in demanding unobtainable documentation before the relevant visas could be issued, the three of them obtained permission to stay with that kin. For three months.

Being a refugee does not necessarily mean living in a tent with no running water. Being a refugee means enduring sleepless nights; waves of guilt at the people, the responsibilities, and the lives that had to be left behind; a complete inability to show your true feelings because your children think the whole thing is a pleasant holiday and you cannot bring yourself to let the innocent 4-year-old know that she may have just lost every future her parents may once have planned for her; the frantic worry about where the next penny is coming from; the fear of a reaction to you by any given member of your "host" nation who happens to have a private political agenda; the terror of a future which looms like a storm cloud; the irrational feelings of self-blame for being relatively "safe" while you watch the bombs rain down on your country from afar. Out on the streets, except for the fact that the adult of the group may have a strange mad light in her eyes and that they speak a strange language amongst themselves, they could be mistaken for a family who lives up the street, or visiting from the town from the other side of the hill.

But even if they were not the closest of kin and I knew who they were because of the photos in the family albums... the bitter gift of these last years of the 20th century is that I would know them. Because 1999 and what followed it has brought the idea of "refugees" home.

Because, after all is said and done, I too am a refugee—a refugee of the heart.

I left the town of my birth when I was ten years old. Old enough for memory. Old enough for regret.

All of us have one place on this planet that is ours, ours alone; often, although not always, the place where we were born. Some of us know where that place is, others spend years or maybe even lifetimes drifting from one strange spot to another seeking it. Some of us never find it at all, but only know of it through an insatiate longing which glimmers deep within the heart of us like a half-dead ember from a long-forgotten fire. I may have loved many a place where I have lived over the years; but nowhere was "home." Perhaps it was by virtue of the fact that we stayed in no place long enough for me to put down real roots contributed to the fact that I grew up to be a professional tumbleweed, rolling around the world whither the wind blew me and making nests on precipices, waiting for the next wind to take me away again. But I did have a place that was mine alone. I held on to a quiet love for the old river that had flowed through my childhood—never quite the blue of song, the Danube, not this far down on its silt-laden and mud-churned journey, carrying the memory of Vienna and Budapest past my city on its way to the sea. It smelled of damp compacted leaves and wet sand and sometimes a whiff of diesel from the tugs that plied it; its banks were brown mud of the color and consistency of fudge, overgrown with reeds and young willows; white cruise ships and old, peeling, workaday barges all touched this river city's welcoming quays. He talked to me, old man river, in the whispered lapping of the water on the shore; it was in memory of these childish conversations that I would almost invariably burst into tears every time we went back for a visit and the family car that had come to pick us up at the main airport in Belgrade trundled across the old bridge on its way home to the remembered warmth of the family circle...

The bridges are gone now, all of them. For long bitter months the river flowed naked through the city of my childhood, crossed by crowded ferries, as in the days of yore. The bridges remained only in memory and in the vivid pictures of love I carry in my heart. Then they built a pontoon bridge to link again the severed banks of the river; and then they started rebuilding the bridges that had died. They are utilitarian, but they are there now, two out of the three, with the last and the newest still in pieces in the river, haunting and haunted. This is a place of ghosts now. My nieces will never live in the same town that I spent my own childhood in.

My sister and her children returned to this shattered place after the bombs stopped falling. It is home. They are refugees no more.

As for myself—I am what many may call not so much a refugee but rather an exile. I left a place I loved and I found there was no going back - not even before the land of my childhood was changed by war, and even more so after. Both my country and I are changed, utterly; and yet...

Once, talking with a friend who himself immigrated here from a different country, I asked him, What color is your sky? It stumped him for a while, before he thought about it and understood: every one of us has a morning in our memory where a sky has etched itself into our soul—a certain light of dawn, a certain shade of blue, a certain golden wash to the clouds. This sky is yours, unique, a once-in-a-lifetime sight that connects you to a time and a place which otherwise would vanish like so many memories into the vast shadowy storehouse where memories are stored, perhaps never to be looked at again. This sky is your soul, a glimpse of the soul you carry within you, and that is the color of the sky which you will always think of as "home."

My skies are a cerulean blue over golden fields. I haven't seen them for years. But Horace had the right of it—"They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea."

I am a refugee. But I am a refugee who carries her home with her like a stone from beside her old hearth, a vial of holy water from her river, a piece of blue from her sky. I am very far across the sea from where I began... but despite the changing skies that I have lived my life underneath I have never let go of that piece of my soul in which I carry my home. I have a new sky now, one which I share with a mate. I have a home where my heart is. Sometimes, even, I can recognize a sky as seeded with the colors of my childhood; it is a journey of discovery. But although I may find contentment and even happiness underneath it, that sky will still be something that I may grow to love, and not something the love for which I was born carrying within me.

All of us, all the refugees on this tired and beaten and churned-up world, share that characteristic. We may run, for a million different reasons—but the gift in that is to know, because we are preternaturally aware of our world and our surroundings far more than the watchers of the news in comfortable suburban houses across the planet, exactly what color the sky should be when we lift our eyes to it. The price of being aware of one's unchanging soul is the eternal longing to return, even when that return ceases to be practically possible, to the place where the exiled soul belongs, knowing that there is a Promised Land and, like Moses, to only be able to glimpse it from across a river with no fords.



       Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her next novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, is due out in September 2001 with Harper Collins. Recently, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.

         Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Alma A. Hromic 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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Alma Hromic's Commentaries on Swans

Year Two, P.K. (March 2001)

Letter to my Unborn Child (February 2001)

On the Anniversary (September 2000)

Subject: Into Myth (September 2000)

Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia (April 2000)


Published May 14, 2001
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