Speech Delivered at Improvmasters Club, Friday 28th March 2014

What If?

What if you made your way home from work one day, or from shopping in your local supermarket or, like 11 year old Merima, you were walking home from school and, just as you do everyday, you turn the corner to enter your street… But…what if…where your street used to be there is a huge, gaping crater…and, further up the road, past the scarred buildings, the rubble and the debris….is the crumbling, smouldering shell of your home. Everything you once owned is gone….But worse….everyone you once shared your house with has vanished.. perhaps missing, perhaps injured, perhaps even dead…..What if this happened to you….? 

This is exactly what did happen to Merima. And her crime? Being an ethnic Muslim in a country divided by civil war…I found her, alone, frightened and withdrawn in an illegal refugee camp at Culineca on the outskirts of Zagreb , the capital of Croatia. The conditions there were among the worst I had seen in any camp. There were over 6500 people living there with no clean water, no electricity, no cooking, no sanitation and no medical facilities.

Slowly, with the aid of an interpreter, I managed to coax Merima’s story from her:

I was naughty that day,” she began, dabbing her eyes with her sleeve, “I was wrong….and I shall  never be able to tell my mother I’m sorry….I came home from school so late…I stayed behind to play with my friends…I arrived home about dinner time…..It was winter. It was dark..I couldn’t see anything…But then suddenly someone grabbed me, told me to run with them….told me there were trucks leaving, we had to get on them….they told me the mosque had received a direct hit…the mosque was right next to my house..there was no time to look for my family..

Merima had not seen her mother, father or younger sister since that day 2 weeks earlier. She had no idea whether they had survived, whether they were in another camp somewhere or whether the three of them had perished together in their house.

I was determined to find out for her. Merima lent me the only mementos she possessed – some small faded family photographs she kept in her purse. It was not much to go on. I contacted all the main aid agencies in Croatia. I showed them Merima’s photographs and, one by one, they all shook their heads. 

On my return to England some weeks later I looked up a Muslim organization who I knew had been arranging mercy flights for severely injured Bosnian Muslims to receive medical treatment in England. It was a long shot, I know.  But God or Allah must have been on my side that day. Someone there recognized the family name. The person was fairly convinced that Merima’s father had been flown on a medivac flight to the UK. I couldn’t breathe…The excitement was almost too much.  I mean, what if he was actually here?….What if I could meet him? Speak to him?

Files were scrutinized and names and photographs were cross-checked. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, confirmation was made and I found myself ferried by chauffeur-driven car to the General Hospital in High Wycombe. There I found Merima’s father, still a very sick man, her mother and her younger sister at his bedside. Then came the problem. How was I to break the news to them? In the back of the car on the way to the hospital I had rehearsed what I was going to say but now the time had come I was totally tongue-tied.

In the end I couldn’t find the right words so I simply hugged Merima’s mother and pressed photographs I had taken of her lost daughter into her hand. With tears in my eyes I made a rash promise, a promise I knew I would instantly regret. I promised her I would return to the camp and bring Merima back to the UK with me.

Eight weeks later I arrived back at Culineca.  I was shocked by what I saw. The camp now resembled a bomb-site. I was told it had been declared a health hazard by the government, and just days before I arrived, had been razed to the ground by bulldozers. The refugees, I was informed, had all been rounded up, loaded onto trucks again and transported to various other camps around Croatia.

Oh,  my god, what if Merima was lost? What if I couldn’t find her…? What would I tell her parents? I couldn’t bear to think about it…Amid the rubble, I sat down and shed tears of bitter disappointment.    

But, suddenly, like some mirage, there she was standing in front of me, a young girl but one of the few refugees who had stubbornly refused to leave.  I rushed towards her shouting the good news as though she could understand. She threw her arms around me sobbing. I handed her a letter from her parents and a postcard of a bright red London bus from her sister. Through an interpreter I explained that, in order to be reunited with them, she would have to travel with me through seven countries and seven borders. I told her there could be very serious problems, we might well be turned back at any one of the borders and, at the last minute, she could even be denied entry into the UK. 

Merima had never travelled before in her life. She was very car sick, terribly frightened and eerily silent the whole way. She knew so little about me and I realized it must have crossed her mind more than once that I could be kidnapping her.

We had no interpreter on the journey home so all I could do was hug her, squeeze her hand and smile reassuringly despite my dreadful lingering fear we would not succeed.

The British border was the one I feared most and, by the time we reached there, I had decided the only thing to do was to smuggle Merima through. At this final stage I could not risk her being interrogated by some unfriendly immigration officer and turned away because of her lack of papers.  So, as we climbed back into our truck after crossing the English Channel, I hid Merima under a pile of sleeping bags in the back. In sign language I told her to keep utterly still, completely silent. I then held my breath as we approached the immigration.

Fortune again was on our side. The officers on duty asked a few simple questions but failed to look in the back of the truck and waved us through. Again, I hardly dared breathe. All I could think of was what if we both got caught. Merima would have been returned immediately to Croatia and I probably would have ended in prison for kidnapping and smuggling a minor. 

But we had made it, the final hurdle. A few miles down the road, when the coast was clear, I called Merima to emerge from her hiding place. “We are going to find your Mummy now,” I said, hugging her as she clambered over the seat and joined me in the front. I think she understood me for this was the very first time I had ever seen her smile.

Finally, two hours later, on the concrete steps outside number 48 Dersingham Road in High Wycombe Merima and her family had a tearful reunion. Merima’s first words to her mother were: “I’m sorry”.

Merima and I had both been incredibly lucky. On an illegal operation such as this any amount of things could have gone disastrously wrong. But it helped that she was a very trusting and very brave little girl.

Even so, ever since then, neither of us can stop asking ourselves questions….all of them beginning with what if?      

Caroline Kennedy

February 1994

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