10 November 2006

another day in the story...

Day Three

missed the earlier episodes? click here to go to the beginning

Scott Ellsworth awoke from a long deep sleep. He looked at his watch, it was just before six in the morning. It took a minute for him to realize where he was. He heard activity in the next room and got up, washed his face, dressed and packed his few belongings. Again, his phone was nearly dead, he had forgotten to charge it last night. It was not holding a charge well due to disuse in the states the last five months. He decided not to worry about it too much and plugged it into the wall in the bathroom to see if there were any messages. There was only a welcome from the local mobile company. He turned it off and put it on his belt, put the adapter away and made a mental note to charge it when he knew his first step.
There was a knock at the door. Sara was waiting outside to take him to breakfast the guard told him. Scott walked with him to the front entrance and there he met Sara again.
“Good morning” she offered, “how did you sleep?”
“Like a log, as we say in America.”
“Good, hungry, are you?”
“Yes, indeed.”
“Then we’ll be off to get some breakfast, I hope you like the traditional Hungarian style.”
“Oh, yes, that’ll be a treat.”
“Well, don’t get your hopes up too high…”
As they walked to the administration building Scott was thinking of fresh Hungarian bread, slices of cold cuts and tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes with yogurt, peach juice and strong coffee. When they went into her office, what he got was stale bread and margarine, fairly dried cucumbers and coffee.
“Not so hungry after all?” Sara asked with a bit of a smile.
“Well, this reminds me of the food we feed kids who live on the streets of Kiev. I was expecting a bit better.”
“Well, this is actually a pretty good breakfast for these folks, there are many days that we are glad the Serbs let us get fresh bread and margarine. Sometimes we don’t have sugar for the coffee, today you got milk and sugar.
There was a knock at the door, and then the door opened. A tall man in his thirties with graying light brown hair and a trim build walked in.
“This is Gabor. He will be translating for you today as you get to know the camp and the people. Gabor this is the American we have told you about, Scott.”
Scott stood and shook hands with the tall man.
“I am glad to meet you Mr. Ellsworth.” Gabor said, smiling.
“Please, call me Scott, I am glad to meet you also.” Scott replied.
“Gabor,” Sara interrupted the niceties, “please tell Scott about some of the history of the situation. You are feeling like a bit of a history lesson aren’t you Scott?”
“Of course, I love history and I especially appreciate the stories behind the history” he replied. Scott turned a chair for Gabor to sit and then picked up his cup.
“Have you heard of what the Serb-led government did in the early 90s?” Gabor began, Scott shook his head. “They brought in Bosnian refugees and showed them the houses and told them they would be empty soon. The rumor was that they had busses waiting to take us and our single piece of allowed luggage to Hungary or Slovakia, wherever our ethnic background suited us best. On the bus we would be given one or two sandwiches, one sandwich for Hungary, two for Slovakia.”
Scott considered his attitude about the breakfast and regretted his lack of thankfulness.
“I noticed you said a prayer before you ate, you’re religious, a Christian, are you?” Sara asked.
“You know religion is a big part of what has torn this country up.” She continued.
“Yes, I’m well aware of that;” Scott was aware from the paltry coverage in the United States media and had heard stories when in the region. “Muslims being killed by Catholics who are killed by Orthodox. They were all kept quiet under Tito and let loose after his death. I’ve heard about the plight here, and that’s why I have felt led to come here to try to help this group before they become the next victims.”
Gabor poured Scott more tea while saying, “You know what it will take to get people out of here don’t you?”
“Yes, money” Scott replied.
“And lots of it, do you have that much?” Gabor asked.
“I don’t but I know someone who does.” Scott said, smiling.
“Oh, this is the ‘God of a cattle on a thousand hills’ thing, isn’t it?” Sara said with an unpleasant look on her face. ”I’ve heard it before; my father was an Anglican missionary who was in the relief business. He spent himself in Africa with the same type of efforts as you apparently are pursuing.”
“Well, you seem to have me pegged.” Scott replied, a little defensive.
“You’re sort are pretty easy to figure out aren’t they?” Sara continued. “I mean, you are God’s man, here to save the world, or as you put it, a small piece that you can reach.”
The room was silent for a moment. Sara seemed to want to catch her breath, Scott wondered what to say to her. He said a prayer asking for words. After that brief silence he replied, “I don’t know what to say to that. I just do as I believe I should and try to follow the leading I am given.”
“Well,” Sara said, now more composed. “I hope that philosophy doesn’t get you in the same boat it got my father.”
“May I ask what that is?”
“Dead, in a prison in Congo.” Sara said, looking out the window.
Scott looked at his cup. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be, he is in glory now, as he would say to us if he could, he lived the life he wanted.” Sara replied still looking out the window.
“But you don’t sound as proud of that life.” Scott prodded carefully.
“Proud? No. Resolute? Sure.” At this she turned again to face the men. Gabor seemed to have heard this before and avoided looking at Sara as she looked at Scott. “Disappointed is the better word, he doesn’t have to be dead; he could’ve been smarter.”
Scott spoke quickly. “Smarter? Is that why you are here in the latest Balkan crisis?” He immediately regretted the words.
“I guess, you are finished with that coffee aren’t you? Gabor and I will show you around the camp and meet the camp leadership to see how you think you can help them. Just do us all a favor.” She said, clearly upset by the conversation.
“What’s that?” Scott asked, realizing that this conversation did not go as well as it could have.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep!” She rose, they with her.
“Okay, point taken.” Scott said as he began to put his cup on the tray. Sara led the way, Gabor, extending his hand for Scott to follow Sara, brought up the rear and brought the tray of dishes and uneaten food. He left them and took the tray to the dining hall.
Sara led Scott on a quick tour of the facility. Scott had seen worse, much worse. He remembered the conditions of the refugees he had seen in Western Hungary at a permanent UN refugee camp. In fact he was surprised at how good the conditions were. The buildings turned out to be quite adequate for the inhabitants. Everyone he met seemed to be in decent spirits, hopeful in fact. She left him with Gabor, who had caught up with them and the leaders while she left to attend a meeting. She gave him directions to the administration building and left him in the capable hands of Gabor who would serve as translator.
Gabor took him to the community’s school and introduced him to the head teacher and to some of the classes. The children, who ranged from kindergarten to eighth grade were hard at work. The teachers seemed in good spirits. In each class the students were asked to give a demonstration of their English skills. The classes were crowded, there seemed to be between thirty and forty students in each classroom. The rooms had been swept clean, the windows were clean but the paint was chipped and peeling all around. The children sat at tables in small chairs and had a variety of different kinds of papers and writing utensils. There were no blackboards, only the occasional bowed piece of plywood that had been painted green and leaned up against a wall. Teachers used large crumbling pieces of chalk. But no one seemed to notice these things but Scott. In fact, as Gabor showed him the school, he described it with great pride. Scott made some mental notes of some simple things that he could do to improve the conditions in these classrooms. But then he remembered that his task was to help these people leave this place, not fix it up.
One teacher asked Scott to have a conversation with one class of older students. Their ability to converse was good. Scott caught himself and did not spend too much time here. He wanted to stay longer but knew he and Gabor must move on. What one girl told him during the brief conversation stuck with him. “I want to go to high school and I want to be able to practice my faith in freedom.” He noticed the cross around her neck and that several boys near her laughed cynically. He remembered the hope that she had. He remembered what Paul said about suffering, perseverance, character and hope in his letter to Rome.
In another class, small children sang a song for the visitors. Scott was moved by the experience of the school and wondered what would happen to these children.
After the school they visited the place where food was distributed, Gabor took lunch rations for seven and they walked to a building in the center of the camp. The leaders he met earlier sat outside this building. They entered the building, it became obvious to Scott that this was the meeting he came to have. They all sat down to a lunch of bread and soup. Scott noted that two of the men crossed themselves and prayed before their meal. He likewise asked a blessing from God for this meal. Gabor ate when he could, but his translating duties kept him busy.
“We are happy that you have come and that your organization is willing to help us.” The man who was the apparent leader and spokesman of the group began. He was introduced as Attila; Scott thought that it was an appropriate name for a Hungarian leader. “Our situation is, to us, quite strange. None of us lived in the northern province and when things began to look bad for ethnic Hungarians many of us began to pack up and try to immigrate to Hungary, some through Vojvodina others through Romania. As you know there are thousands of ethnic Hungarian families in Romania who understand our plight and were willing to help us. As some of our people left, it drew attention to the rest of us and then as others of us began to make the necessary preparations, the government began to threaten us. The leaders feared that we would take too many resources with us.
“They told us that if we left we would forfeit our property rights. Then they upped the ante by threatening our citizenship and then some were arrested on false charges. Finally those who were in route were being detained and eventually everyone who left was detained. None of us at our towns knew what was happening. Finally those who have not yet left have learned that the borders are closed to Hungarians in either direction…”
“Wait, please” Scott interrupted “do you mean that Hungarians cannot come here?” He asked, wondering if this is the answer to what happened to Marton two nights previously at the border. But it would not answer why Marton hadn’t awakened him and told him what was going on. Scott wondered if this would be a place to ask about that but he didn’t think these people would have that kind of information.
“Yes, the border is closed both ways now. The Hungarian government is working to get us passage, but without certain payments to the Serbs we cannot leave. We are treated as well as we might hope for. But these payments, the government would not make. They consider it a kind of ransom. We see it as a form of exit visa fee. The price is high by any standard and is two hundred and fifty of your dollars for an adult and six hundred dollars for a family with children. We have used up the funds that we had on transportation and to pay for the food we are eating here.
“You are paying for the food?” Scott again interrupted.
“We were, but now that the UN has stepped in and made this an official camp, they are taking care of things. The foreign administrators have assured us that we will be fed and cared for. We believe them because they have taken care of us so far, but we want to go home or on to Hungary. The local merchants help us as well. Serbs are not out enemy, they were our neighbors. It is the government. The uncertainty of the politics in this country has gone on so long that many of us want a fresh start. Tito kept peace, at a price, but there was peace and safety. Since his death there has been everything but peace and safety and so we want to move on. And so, Mr. Ellsworth that is how you can help us, we need funds to buy our freedom.”
Scott was quiet for a thoughtful moment after he heard the translation, then he asked a few questions.
“You say that they want two hundred and fifty dollars per adult and six hundred dollars per family with children?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“Can you break the population down for me? Families and individuals, I mean.”
“Yes, we can.”
“How long will it take to compile these numbers?”
“Not long at all, in fact before the end of our meeting I can have it for you.” Attila looked to one of the younger men and spoke to him in Hungarian and the younger man departed. As he left, a woman entered with a bottle of clear liquid and some small glasses. “Palinka toast” Scott thought. Sure enough the glasses were distributed and the bottle opened and the clear and very strong apricot brandy was poured and traditional Hungarian toast was made.
Scott knew that here these men were genuine in their need and appeared genuine in their trust of him. “six thousand people,” he thought “that’s a lot of people.”
In less than an hour the young man returned and gave a sheet of paper to Attila; it was the figures Scott had asked for. The page was handed to him with a small bit of explanation. Scott looked this over quietly and then looked up, around to each man, then looking Attila in the eye he said.
“I will make no promise today other than this, I will help in whatever way I can, but I cannot promise anything yet. I will not raise hopes above what I know I can do.”
“This I appreciate.” Was Attila’s reply, with this he raised a toast to this new friend who had come to help, “egéségedre!”
Scott red their greetings to the assembled men and he and Gabor took their leave of the group. Gabor walked him to the administration building. Inside, he spoke privately with Sara and then left.
“You have made quite an impression on the leaders” Sara told him as he was shown into her office. “I am about to take tea, will you join me?” She kept the British custom as often as she could. The tea was awful in this part of the world and there was rarely milk but there was usually sugar. She had begun to drink it plain. Cakes and sandwiches were out of the question but the solitary cookie could often be found. Scott had developed an appreciation for the late afternoon ritual because when in Europe he was generally fighting jet lag and this trip was no different. He was tired.
Looking at his watch he noted that back home near Washington it was ten in the morning and he wished he could call home. He thought of his wife. Susan would be at her desk in the office right now. Probably reading emails from all over the world as Christian leaders sent reports of what was going on. These reports would then be sorted and used to inform financial supporters of the needs around the world. From here a call was impractical. But it would be good to hear her voice.
“You’re in luck, you may have milk and sugar again, quite the unusual treat.” He accepted both gratefully and stirred his tea while watching some children play on a basketball court. In its day, Yugoslavia had produced some great basketball teams for the Olympics. Perhaps even some from soldiers who practiced in this very camp, but those days are long gone. Today, the soldiers were fortunate to be paid, but their situation was better than their old friends the Russians, whose Army was still begging for food. The old had certainly passed away. He noticed that one of the kids had on an old Chicago Bulls jersey; again, the old had passed away.
“Biscuit?” Sara asked.
“Yes, thank you” Scott was gratefully enjoying his tea.
“When will you leave?” She asked.
“As soon as I can verify these numbers with your administrative people.” He replied as he handed the paper Attila had given him.
“It will be morning” She replied without looking up. “But I can tell you right now that these numbers are accurate. You will want something official I presume.”
“Yes” He replied simply, still glancing at the kids. He now realized that he recognized these kids as some of the boys in the oldest class he had visited earlier. Sara looked out the window and smiled.
“These students play basketball all the time, they seem quite good to me, am I right?”
“Yes they do seem to enjoy themselves and could match-up against typical Americans of their age. You know several years ago I brought groups over and teaching basketball was one of the camps we held. That was a different time.” He mused, half talking to Sara and half to himself.
“Yes a different time indeed. How’s the tea?”
“Wonderful, a treat for me that I would have never expected.” He made a mental note that when he came back he would bring her some proper tea. And then thought about a question. “How long will you be here?”
“Unknown, I anticipate as long as it takes to get these people out of here. And that depends of course on the political situation.”
“What do you think about paying the high prices for the visas?” he asked.
“You mean the ransom, don’t you?” she responded flatly. There was some residual tension from the morning conversation that Scott didn’t quite know what to do with. So he didn’t respond but looked carefully at her expression for the first time since he had rejoined her company this afternoon, finally he asked. “Do you think it wrong to buy their freedom if people are willing to pay?”
“Wrong? No. Foolish? Yes! Waste? Probably. Because you don’t know what will happen after you have paid the ‘fees’.” This reply was made with a clear sarcastic emphasis.
“What would you do?” He asked.
“I have no idea, I make neither big decisions nor policy, I just work here in the real world, trying to make the lives of people like these as comfortable as possible in the situation we find ourselves in, excuse me.” She picked up her phone and said something in what sounded like French. You will have your verified numbers with our official credentials attached at nine in the morning. Until then, I would suggest you get as much rest as possible. I will have someone show you to your sleeping quarters tonight. Are you ready?” She asked, standing up. He finished his tea and stood. Thanked her and was led to a different building with a room with five sets of bunk beds.
The room was deserted. Sitting on the bed, he thought about all the conversations he had been in today. They had drained him. But he felt that he had a much clearer picture of the situation. He washed his face and wondered about dinner. There was a knock at the door and the boy in the Bulls uniform handed him his bag. Scott said thank you in English, the boy smiled and responded “Don’t mention it!” He turned and walked away from the building. It was then that Scott realized that he hadn’t seen the car for over 24 hours. Where could they have taken it? He opened his bag and plugged his phone in to the outlet in the washroom; he noticed that he had a new SMS. “Will come south tomorrow. See you in Beograd, Sergei” Scott just looked at the message for a moment when he heard a knock on the door.

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