‘If Anyone had Told Me Where We Were Going’ by Elvis Bego

Elvis Bego’s story is a recollection of his experience as a twelve-year-old from Bosnia in a refugee camp in the Czech Republic. He’s there with his father and an “entertaining” assortment of other refugees, having been separated from his mother and sister when they left their home country. Neither part of the family knows if the other is alive. In this strange new place he shows all the bravado of a young adolescent, acting cool with his friends and eager to impress an older girl, Ema:

“My hair was a little longer, my tongue looser, worldlier, and more daring than the other guys had to offer. I was as wise as Socrates and cool as Johnny Depp. One of the first things Ema said to me was that I looked like the actor. I wasn’t impressed, or I didn’t show it.”

But they’re all still kids really, playing at war in the forest, whooping like ghosts in corridors when the power fails, excited but scared by sex. The story is a headlong encounter with new experiences, but with a backdrop of grim reality that is always waiting to trip the youngsters up. As the narrator says, “Memories are minefields”. Memories like this:

“Nobody talked about what they had seen in the war. Or rather, the less you’d seen the more you talked about it. I said nothing about the man in the cherry tree, who’d been shot by a sniper and hung like a scarecrow, his body blackening in the sun.”

There is good news in the end, but it’s tempered by the writer’s knowledge of how much he and everyone else has been changed by their experiences, even in the short span of the narrative. I read this story online when Elvis Bego tweeted about it a few months ago, and I was immediately drawn in by one of the most engrossing descriptions of life in exile I’ve ever read. It’s funny and painful and real in a way that gets right under your skin.

Published in Agni No 81, 2015, and available to read here