There are three of us. We are not from the east and we are not wise either. If only we were wise, maybe we could do something. Now we are walking like unsuccessful Santa Clauses with two shoe boxes with brand new mountain hikers and a bag with chicken, pasta and rice to a god-deserted factory on the Una River in northern Bosnia.
When no one is looking, we sneak up the stairs, wade through the stinking water and make our way up. Six Egyptians and one Syrian are waiting for us there. We said we would come back. Hopefully they don't get as scared as the first time.
We already smell the smoke from the fire and look forward to the warmth. It is freezing cold here, the tower room is a hopeless nativity scene, the youngest child is not a baby, but 17 years old and we are the three fools from the west. A journalist, a filmmaker and a pastor. It is the start of a joke, but there is still no laughter.
It used to be. Then Ali (23) had his wife and his two children with him. Mohammad still had his friends. Until they had to flee. With hope in the heart and lead in the shoes. Broken shoes meanwhile. Fortunately we have new footwear with us, shoes for The Game.
The Christmas game of the Balkans
They have all played The Game, the Christmas game of the Balkans. The start is here in northern Bosnia, half a day's walk from the EU border. It is an exciting game, because you face a force majeure of opponents. What do you take with you? A sleeping bag, some compressed bread, home-mixed energy drink and a routemap. But beware: there are border guards on the path to the border that can seize you. If you want to go through the forest, you have to watch out for the mines from the Yugoslav civil war. Border guards will catch you on the path for sure, maybe those old mines won’t go off.
So they chose the forest just like the previous times. Men, women, children, young people: walk! Day and night, across the border, uphill, downhill. Crying out for the top. And again. Last energy drink and of you go.
This time they looked like the winning hand, but on day twelve it still happened: dogs, searchlights, blows with batons. They were dragged to a building, had to take off their pants and shoes and hand them in despite the cold. The border guard had to piss and did it over them. It was warm, but so, so filthy. Their telephones were taken, crushed under the boot of a border guard. Too bad.
They already knew what would happen next. This was already the fourth time. Without shoes and pants, they were brought back to the border they had crossed. Level not finished, would they start again?
We are three fools from the west and they serve us tea. So from a filthy pan in a filthy cup, heated on a fire of burning plastic and wet wood. It is not just the smoke that makes our eyes tear.
Stable where people hide
Earlier this day, we had made our way into this factory. No star had shown us the way, just follow the stench. This was the stable where people hid themselves before they tried The Game again. Everything was dirty and gray. No one to be seen downstairs. So we walked up the stairs. Soon we stood on the rooftop. The sun shot its last rays over the horizon, would there be light on our path then after all?
We notice the smell of fire again. There’s a small way up, narrow stairs. The three foolish ones go up and stick their head around the corner of the tower room. Six Egyptians and one Syrian are scared to death. 'Police?' "No. No police." 'Then come in. "
Men from the East, whose wisdom has grown through trials and harships, serve tea to us, rich Westerners. And they share the stories about the European Christmas game. We didn't bring any gifts, we had no idea. So we asked about their shoe size and hurried to the store. Mountain shoes for The Game and chicken, pasta, rice, plastic cups for the next round of tea. Maybe these cups will protect us against typhus, scabies and cholera.
Not much has changed
We hear that last night a dad, mommy and a baby in buggy were taken from the mountains by the border police. They had arrived just in time, because the three were stuck in the snow, cold and desperate.
Perhaps not much has changed since the escape of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus from the rabid dictator Herod. The donkey has made way for a buggy, but that is a bad trade in these circumstances. However, border policy has changed. If Egypt could have installed a European Union-subsidized surveillance in early Jesus-times, with 6,500 border guards who humiliate refugees, we would not have had to protect a so-called Christian tradition against so-called Islamic danger here in Europe. Then both traditions were never born. They were then - subsidized by the EU - stranded on the Egyptian border, like the Afghan buggy baby in the Bosnian mountains.
When my fingers are slightly warmed by the tea, I type on my phone in Google Translate: thanks for your warm hospitality. The cheerful 17-year-old Egyptian next to me, with the fresh bites of Croatian border dogs in his legs, reads the translation and a broad grin appears on his face. Delighted, he shows it to his friends. They get up, grab our hands, give a hug. For a moment the tower room seems to change into the parental home in Cairo, the smoky fire in a wide fireplace and the dust on the floor in warm Arabic carpets. For a moment the men are no longer hunted game, but castle lords in their own tower room. And we, the three fools from the West, drink tea and are grateful that we may be at their home for a while.
Stop helping, please sit down
"You know what the worst is," the Egyptian Christmas child on duty confides to me, "when they come to bring you food, put it down, don't say a word, and leave." Then rather hungry. Really.'
It is not the blankets, the shoes, the bag of the Red Cross. We are it ourselves. And if you are not there yourself, then don’t come at all. "Stop helping anyway. Sit down, drink tea, and show the photos of your children. Then I’ll show mine. "
We do not bring gold, incense and myrrh. Here, a warm handshake is worth more than the purest gold, the burning plastic and wet wood smells better than the papal incense in the corridors of the Vatican, and the tea from the filthy pan and filthy cups is more healing than the most expensive myrrh.
Peace on earth to all the people of his favor. Also on the river Una, in northern Bosnia, within walking distance of the borders of the promised land.