Nowhere to Run Anymore
The everyday life of my predecessors was never remote from history.
A place of shadow, pain and defeat. Wars, famine and pandemics, fragments of extremes in human inhumanity.
Emigrating to the safety of the north,
a woman in rags lay dying on the side of a muddy road.
Unnoticed or ignored by passing coaches and soldiers on horses,
holding her weakened baby to her bony cold chest.
She was just one of hundreds running from the Turks
who burnt their village, rounding up the young boys for their army
and young girls for their sultan’s harem.
When I visited Istanbul last year, I ran my finger over the name of the village of my great great great grandmother, one of many insignificant places in Croatia that a great Ottoman army had conquered, entering their golden age.
“The progress of a few always brings ruin to many” my Syrian guide, who I had met there, smiled sadly: “I tried to reach your country while running from burning Aleppo with my pregnant wife. Your soldiers chased me away from your border.
I came back here to bury her and hide among the thousands of misplaced like me.
"You know that I was a professor of history in the Syria that does not exist anymore?”
“My ancestor was lucky,” I patted him on his arm: “The world would be a much better place, if we only remembered that which is done to others now, was done once to us.”
“Are you going back to Croatia?” my Syrian friend asked.
“I am going back to Slovakia where my surviving ancestors were allowed to settle. That is my home.”
“Do Slovaks still welcome refugees running from war?” he asked hopefully.
I shook my head sadly: “Eastern Europeans hate refugees more than anyone these days. I think fifty years of Russian communist rule has made them suspicious of everyone. There is no place there now for empathy or trust.”
I ran my finger over the ancient cross in the overgrown part of the old cemetery.
The mother had died at the age of seventeen while giving birth to her daughter.
The daughter died in the pandemic at the age of twenty five but her daughter survived, living through world wars one and two. She saw her own sister being raped and then shot. She then gave birth to a product of rape by a soldier. This child was my mother.
I looked up from the cemetery gates near the run down communist blocks of flats, at an abandoned factory, and the rusted train lines that went nowhere.
I remember the look on my grandmother’s face when the Communists came with bulldozers to flatten her organic farm and the nearby forest to a pile of dust.
I ran my fingers over the knitted piece of embroidery that my mother had been making since the age of ten. The ancient pattern came from the Croatian village that our ancestors had fled.
I had found her sitting in the shade of the ugly abandoned steel factory that her family had been forced to work in by the Communists.
She could not walk anymore as her legs had given up, but her eyes were still sharp. Her clever rheumatic fingers kept busy with the cross stitch that was still in demand by the city souvenir shops nearby.
“Why are you sitting here?” I shuddered, looking at the rusty pieces of iron hanging dangerously over the graffiti covered concrete wall. Needles lay on the floor and the place stunk of urine.
“There are no more trees left here. It's hot in that one room flat with not even a balcony to sit on” she sighed, continuing in her work while sitting in her rickety plastic chair. She looked up crossly: “Don’t waste your breath. I'll die in that flat. Just like your mad grandmother. It's all we have left.” I kissed her on her withered cheek.
“Are you going to visit my grand daughter in Canada? Ask her, when can I expect my own grand grand daughter to hold in my arms? “
The dead heart of Canada they call it - a burnt black nothingness where life was no more.
Around it, a little oasis of dwellings where they pretended to have a good life.
“Welcome to the money making centre of Canada. This is what makes our country prosperous.” My daughter’s husband came to pick me up in his new Ford pickup, driving us to their new two storey house - identical to the other houses with their big garages with motorbikes and trucks.
We sat with my daughter out the back, on a simple wooden verandah that looked over the fence at identical houses left and right. The sky was grey and the air humid. At the end of the road, I could spot the remnants of a boreal forest with blackened skeletons of trees.
“We have had unprecedented wildfires for the whole of last summer. Even the mines were destroyed. Many of the streets are in ruins.” My daughter sighed, pouring me a glass of water: “Even at the school that I teach at, you know, the kids are depressed. This place stinks of money and despair.”
“Let’s go for a walk,” I suggested: “You don't walk here Mum. Everyone just drives. You say: let’s go for a ride.” She smiled sadly.
“That's why people are so fat here,” I nodded.
“Yes, I know. The mines built big ovals with fake grass and a gym with a pool. But no one really goes there. The kids sit in their rooms alone with their devices.”
We passed a few oldies driving their little carts on the golf course with it's fake grass. My daughter looked at them and sighed: “I miss Australia. I don't want to end up like them.”
She stopped at the banks of the black Athabasca River with it's remnants of dead fish, floating belly up. There was a rickety raft nearby. An old native sat at the front, smoking: “Hey, Charlie! Do you want to come again and talk to my students about the good old days of the Boreal forest when you were young?”
He stood up shyly and waved to us. My daughter waved back: “I was sad, when he showed us how alive and thriving this forest with thousands of lakes once looked.
“I don’t want my students to grow up like that,” my daughter said: “You know, Charlie’s dad used to sail up and down this river delivering provisions."
Now the river is dead and the tribes are long gone. He is one of the last survivors.”
“Your grandmother sends you lots of love and…” I sighed as my daughter stopped in front of a fast food window, paying for some plastic containers filled with greasy food. She grabbed the two plastic cups of watery coffee and we moved on.
“Mum, do you think I want to bring a child into this world?” My daughter looked at me seriously while sipping coffee and gorging on chips.
“Then come back to Australia to our farm. Your husband can find work up north in an iron ore mine.”
“Is it any better there Mum, with never ending droughts and crop failure? Your wildfires are out of control and worse than here. In fifty years time, Australia will be on top of the list of the places no longer suitable for human habitation - with warming of 2C and above pre-industrial levels.”
“Humans are inventive. We are slowly learning to rely less on fossil fuels and to reduce global warming.”
She started to laugh so hard that she nearly chocked on her greasy chip: “Mum, we're just passing the mining headquarter’s skyscraper. We should tell them, yeah?” Then she looked at me seriously: “It's not only them and their greed, but peoples’ comfort. Just look around you. They pollute just for their amusement. They only care about their money, that can buy them anything that they want.”
We passed Charlie's lonely figure again, on his rickety raft, as we returned home: “It seems to me that Charlie is not the only one who has nowhere else to run, anymore.”
Back in Australia, I walked around the abandoned orchard of the organic avocado trees that had disappeared due to dieback.
There were five water reservoirs on the property, nearly empty now.
And yet, planes from the nearby amateur flying club were cheerfully buzzing above my head. A herd of cattle on the right were stamping the dead ground of a neighbouring farm. Galloping horses were swirling dust on the dead earth to my left. The busy road carrying the cargo of mined sand from the nearby quarry, never stopped choking the air with dust and noise.
I cycled five km down the road to a new development site where new suburbs grew like mushrooms overnight. The farms that used to be there have been sold off to developers, then bulldozed down just like my grandmother’s green paradise was. It's then covered with sand and identical brick houses, glued next to each other like the rabbit cages in my grandmother's yard where I used to feed them, are built.
In a nearby coffee shop, there's a new sign: ‘My Brother and Me.' I met a newcomer from England who came, according to his own words, to bring progress to my corner of the world.
“This is my coffee shop. Order any take away coffee you want, served in a plastic cup with my logo.” He smiled at me broadly: “I have big plans for that land of yours you know - an amusement park for kids, with pony rides and a pub and restaurant.”
I took my hand back, smiling politely: “I make my own coffee and I don't use plastic cups. I'm sorry, but I don't believe that another amusement place for kids or adults is what will save us all.”
“Lady, it seems to me that you don’t know what progress is.”