‘She traded one war zone for another, for the sake of family’

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 Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

In 2006, I spent Christmas Eve in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, a stone’s throw away from the Church of the Nativity, the purported location of Jesus Christ’s birth. This, in itself, was not particularly unusual. My rather unconventional family has a history of picking unconventional holiday locations. Once, my war correspondent father dragged my younger sister and me on a tour of the minefields, mass grave sites and muddy mountain roads of Bosnia and Herzegovina: a ‘front-line tour’ of what was part of our homeland until the bitter wars of the 1990s turned Yugoslavia into Europe’s biggest battleground since World War II.

Anyway, this first visit to the Middle East made me fall in love with the region. The warmth of its people, the bustling markets of Old Jerusalem, and the frenetic energy of Ramallah contrasting with the stale political deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem that Christmas Eve was not a particularly long one. And with a couple of hours to spare, we decided to drop by, unannounced, to the home of a Palestinian acquaintance in the Deheishe refugee camp. Three decades after the establishment of the camp, temporary tents had given way to a mismatch of stucco-and-brick houses facing every which way. With no clearly delineated streets, we had to rely on memory and an outstretched palm to find our way around. Finally, a door swung open and a friendly male face beckoned us inside. A minute or two later, his wife smiled from the direction of the kitchen. I squeezed between the couple’s children on the couch. The conversation quickly drifted to politics. That’s when fact melted into fiction, and it had both nothing and everything to do with war and conflict. At some point, the man mentioned that he had met his wife in Yugoslavia.

“Yugoslavia?” My father asked.

“Yes,” the husband said. “My wife is from Bosnia.”

“Which part of Bosnia are you from?” my father asked.

“A small village you’ve probably never heard of,” she said.

“Tell me,” he asked.

“Novoselci.”

My grandmother had also grown up in Novoselci, a predominantly Orthodox Christian village that was burned to the ground during World War II. And soon it became apparent that she had lived just two doors down from the house that my grandmother was born in. She explained that her Palestinian husband’s Yugoslav student visa was revoked at the outbreak of the war in former Yugoslavia, prompting her to resettle permanently in Palestine. Because Yugoslavia was shredded into six distinct countries in the midst of the secessionist chaos of the 1990s, the expiration of her now meaningless Yugoslav passport left her paperless and unable to leave Palestine. Since no Bosnian embassy existed in Palestine, she was unable to claim her new Bosnian citizenship, effectively becoming stateless in the process. In a refugee camp far from home, a coincidence led me to discover my grandmother’s childhood neighbour. This woman traded ‘temporary’ housing from World War II in Bosnia, for ‘temporary’ housing in a Palestinian refugee camp, exchanging one war zone for another. She had lost her nationality and her freedom of movement for the sake of her family. In a bizarre twist of fate, she converted to Islam in Palestine, in the very city where her religion, Christianity, had originated. At a time when, back home, the Orthodox Christian political leaders in Bosnia were orchestrating a genocide against the Muslim population.

At that moment, seeing her hum lullabies in Arabic to her daughter and fret over her husband, I realised, more than ever, the sheer adaptability of human beings to all circumstances, no matter how absurd or tragic.

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