The Long Night

by Rastko Močnik


They were anxious times. Recollections of them come in fragments, like focused slow-motions upon frozen backgrounds: A policeman in an anti-riot helmet sneaking 20 Deutsche marks out of my passport. A child turning her distant gaze on me – another stranger who is about to yell at her mother. A sharp bang shattering the border guards’ container – they are beating a traveler.

Curiously, it is always dark in those memories: as if the night went on for ten years. Limpid Belgrade night: the wind blows out the candles we have been arranging in the little park across the Assembly – under Milošević’s window, we imagine. “For all the victims of the war”: “And for the Ustaša as well?” hisses a White Eagle: I can feel the nervous spasms of his body. “I’ll be slaying your woman – defend her!” –

We are changing busses on the beautiful empty city square in Baja: in the livid dusk of the small hours, the cohort from Ljubljana grazes the travelers from Belgrade. Occasionally, we shake hands, like conspirators of a lost cause.

It is as if we were continuously crossing borders in those nocturnal years – crossing borders we did not recognize in our hearts, showing passports we never wanted, our family names suddenly suspect, our first names now treacherous. We already felt slightly illegal. Consequently, it did not make much difference whether we crossed the line of the law while crossing the border-line.

– We arrive at the border at the arranged time. The PEN, the writers’ association, and who knows who else had promised their assistance in enabling my friend to enter the country: she has the wrong passport for such a venture. It is raining from the low grey sky, and nobody is there: the police take her inside. After minutes of suspense, she reappears in the company of a customs officer – and off we go: Zagreb is ours! “He liked my texts in Naša Borba,” my friend explains.

Later in the evening, it is getting really cold in the klisura. We wait, half frozen, in front of the border police station. A handsome policewoman had spotted us even before we showed our passports: her colleagues searched the car, found our educational material on human rights, Rechtsstaat, civil disobedience, and similar topics. They did not seize the documents: instead, they are now photocopying the whole stack in their tiny container. “I hope they won’t charge us for the copies,” I remark to my friend from Priština. “I hope they will read them,” he replies.

When the Brotherhood And Unity Highway was reopened, I rented a car and hurried to the metropolis. The closer I was getting to the border, the emptier the road got: even the Turkish trucks and the Greek heavy-loads seemed to have vanished. “Mines”, warned hand-written signs on both sides of the road. With an offended, hateful eye, the Croatian policeman hand-signals me to drive on: he does not even want to inspect a guy who is about to join the enemy. The Serbian police come running out of their makeshift booth, waving and smiling: they compliment me on the car I am driving, and yes, they have been to Ljubljana in the past, “do not worry, we will take care of the roadtoll for you” – and really: a Serbian policeman hurries to another booth to pay the tax and get the receipt for me: they are so happy that someone wants to come to Serbia.

– We have learned to accept the borders, and we have gotten used to the passports. But I have also learned to distinguish between a house that had been shelled and one that had been blown up: and I know the difference indicates the heritage of the people who had been living there before it became a ruin.

 

RASTKO MOČNIK  Sociologist, literary theorist, translator, and political activist; co-founded the Ljubljana School of Psychoanalysis; professor of sociology at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Ljubljana; served on the board of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights.