Hladno by Marina Alagić-Bowder


The March sunshine is clear as a bell, but there’s a bitter edge to the glassy Adriatic waters. Matt and I follow the children down to the shore to watch them dip their toes and scream, “Hladno-o-o!” The initial H adds to the shivering. I’m still at the stage where I’m clutching a Serbo-Croatian dictionary (for a language deleted from official existence), and I snatch hungrily at new words.

“Hladno,” I say, penciling it into a curling notebook. Got it cold.

You can walk round the entire Croatian island of Mrvić in half a day. It used to be the site of a holiday youth camp, but that was before war broke out in former Yugoslavia. Now the camp – a large, airy, unheated hostel – holds sick children and their mothers and a number of lone teenagers. All are refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina. All are clad in tracksuits, regardless of age – as if some donor, somewhere, believes tracksuits are perfect refugee-wear.

Some of the children are fine – they’re here because of a sibling’s illness. This camp offers a visiting pediatric nurse. The pent-up energy of the healthy children drives the mothers insane, and they welcome volunteers: currently myself and Matt, both aged twenty-four, both of us would-be aid workers from London, untrained. We’re supposed to represent the psycho-social program. Our chief task is babysitting.

The mothers are all about a decade older than we are. To us they seem middle-aged. To them we must seem runny-nosed. Our chief interlocutor is auburn-haired Azra, who at forty is the oldest of all. Azra is a senior nurse by profession, calm and tall as a goddess. Her four children are the best behaved in the place. She speaks English and acts as informal camp leader.

“She-him-sleep,” whispers my teenaged roommate, Selma, pointing over our bedroom balcony at Azra and the mayor of Mrvić. The mayor is ostensibly here to have a word with Pero, the tall, dark camp commandant who mostly keeps the door of his office locked. We watch the mayor’s stout and genial backview departing, followed by his graceful red setter. Azra stands in the porch, smiling faintly.

“You’re only saying that because his dog’s the same color as her hair,” I want to whisper back to Selma. But language restricts me.

“Mah, Azra je hladna (Azra is cold),” says blonde Minka, mother of three, who’s dropped by for some of Selma’s coffee. I know for a fact that Minka’s having an affair with a black-haired fisherman. I nearly stepped on them once, twined lusciously together in the undergrowth, when I was out walking the coastline.

Every woman is the subject of camp gossip, though some, like Azra, refuse to take part. Ana, an ethnic Croat, is one of the isolates. She likes my company because she sees me in church sometimes, but she only speaks in a whisper. She won’t mix with the other refugee women, who are ethnic Muslims – in theory, at least. The oldest of Ana’s three daughters, aged eight and heartachingly perfect, draws me a picture of their destroyed farm. In the picture, the only smoke rises from the chimney, and the butchered dog has been resurrected and is guarding the gate.

Plump Berina, whose only visible difference from the other women is that she never wears cosmetics or dyes her hair, is even lonelier than Ana. “Mah, Berina je seljanka (Berina is a peasant),” says Minka, who comes from Sarajevo.

One day, with tears running down her face, Berina starts miming to me with the help of broken words – the few she knows I understand. I sit on her only chair and gaze back at her, trying to appear receptive. But it still takes days for me to learn what everybody else already knows – that Serb soldiers raped her and shot her husband.

Berina often beats her older child, aged four, with a belt, while he squats and screams with his hands over his head. Nobody in the camp interferes. Matt and I fail to interfere. We become statues that can only gaze at the floor and listen to the cracks and screams.

My special charge is Nedim, a seventeen-year-old from the Bosnian town of Bihać with three hairs on his upper lip and the face of a miserable child. The same shell that killed his mother and little sisters removed his left arm and his left leg. His father is still alive but doesn’t seem too interested. When I push Nedim’s wheelchair over the cobbles to the only callbox in town, the conversation consists of “Tata, molim te (Daddy, please)!” followed by gruff barks from the receiver. When I wheel Nedim home, he’s almost in tears. It’s not until suppertime that he starts grabbing at my breasts again.

Sulejman is also seventeen. Minka says he’s in love with me, though he never speaks to anyone. He watched his father beat his mother to death when he was a toddler and has lived in an asylum ever since. Evacuated to this camp, he seems more at home than anybody. He walks with his shoulders rounded and his feet turned out like a duck, wears a blue cotton coat down to his knees, does all the weeding and trimming in the grounds, and serves as general handyman. At night ghostly one-note songs emanate from his box-like room under the stairs.

“Mrvić is luuuud (craaaa-azy)!” announces my roommate, Selma. A relative latecomer and yet another seventeen-year-old, she despises every inmate of the camp. Her ear was trimmed by a sniper while she was out cycling; otherwise, she doesn’t seem to qualify for either medical or psycho-social assistance. She lets her curly brown hair hang forward, framing round cheeks and a wide, scornful mouth. Despite having arrived from Sarajevo with only the tracksuit she stands up in, her resourcefulness is unlimited. Thanks to her, we make coffee every morning in a plastic jug with an electric coil at the bottom. Selma also bums cigarettes whenever she can, though she can’t overtake Matt.

“Tell him … we not pay for him,” murmurs Azra. Much as they love Matt and his ability to play football with the testosterone-laden teenagers – and his lingering passion for a refugee woman he met in London but who fled back to Sarajevo – the mothers resent his consumption of cigarettes. It exacts a heavy toll on their minuscule allowances. They’re all chain-smokers themselves. But I quietly adore the unattainable Matt, so I say nothing. Instead, I wonder what these women think of us – the two petrified Londoners who can’t get beyond good manners (apart from Matt’s cigarette-bumming), even with each other.

Money is a sore topic here. Pero, the camp commandant with the black goatee and chilly eyes, doles out local wine to the teenaged refugee boys. In return they help him sell the camp supplies to the islanders, out of the back door. The islanders have come to expect this – and more. One morning, after I’ve attended the tiny local church, a hobbling, black-clad crone takes me to her dank stone cottage and tries to converse with me in Italian: a memory of the World War II occupation. She explains which clothes she wants from the camp stores – woolly vests, if memory serves. Maybe she thinks the vests will be fairly paid for by the coffee her cramped, arthritic hands are milling from an old brass grinder. But I haven’t yet caught on to the notion of coffee as a luxury. I’m used to my roommate Selma’s lavishness.

“Why did you come to Mrvić?” asks Selma one night. We’re having one of our conversations aided by my dictionary and her mimetic powers.

“Because I didn’t have real problems. Except inside my head.”

“So you came here for problems.”

“To see if I could help people with real problems,” I say. I’m linguistically excused from going into details: the failed loves and nameless despair; the gruesome news photos that depicted true misery; the magazine ad published by an aid agency eager for volunteers.

“Then go to Sarajevo.”

“I will, one day.”

“Girl,” Selma says, “you are craaaa-zy.”

Finally, nearing the end of our eight weeks in Mrvić, Matt and I report Pero’s black market to the camp donors. We don’t expect results.

And suddenly it’s Easter Day. The island celebrates. The flag of Croatia has been painted in crude bright colors behind the altar in the tiny medieval church: white, red, and blue. And a huge Croatian flag hangs from the biggest balcony of the refugee camp – the room that Matt and I share with Selma. Returning from church, Ana freezes dead at the sight of the flag, then looks at me, smiles ruefully and shrugs. I have no idea what’s wrong.

About an hour after that, Matt, Selma, and I sit in our room with assorted children. He’s playing guitar and I’m drawing portraits on request, when the mothers come crowding in. Ana is there, looking frozen again. Berina is waving her hands and yelling. Minka, her arch-enemy, joins in. Everybody’s there except Azra.

“What’s happening?” I say, the first moment I can be heard.

Selma starts waving her hands and yelling back at the other women. They crowd to the balcony and look over. So do we. Four uniformed policemen are staring back up at us. A police launch waits in the harbor below.

“You … come … down,” Selma says to us. “Police … come … for … you.”

This is the only time I ever get to hold Matt’s hand. Normally he’s off limits thanks to his lost Sarajevo love, and I fantasize about him in silence. But now his face is white, smile gone, brown eyes far darker than usual. He puts down the guitar without a sound.

The police are waiting for us in the dining hall with its framed Croatian flag. I get a glimpse of Pero scowling, but he vanishes, leaving us to the police and Azra. She’s been summoned to act as interpreter. The police are measured, cool, and reasonable, despite their big pistols (holstered). Azra’s translation is measured, cool, and reasonable. But her eyes are worried.

“Why you hang flag upside down?”

“What? We didn’t hang any flag.”

“Do you know it is crime in Croatia to hang flag upside down?”

“We didn’t hang any flag.”

“The flag is hang from your balcony.”

“Uh – we don’t know how it got there.”

Then the other women interrupt, vociferously. I realize they’re defending us. But they’re no good for our credibility: a bunch of Bosnian refugees. Their word in Croatia, land of a fierce new nationalism, does not stand high. Ana, our sole Croat, says nothing, but she’s shoulder to shoulder with Berina and Minka, both of whom are shaking their fists and competing to shout loudest. Thankfully, somebody is keeping the children away. Only Nedim joins us and sits beside me in his wheelchair, very quiet, glancing at the police.

Pero returns and talks to the police, keeping his back to us. The refugee women hiss. The truth comes home, and I nearly grab Matt’s hand again. Pero reported us as the violators of the flag.

The end is unexpected. Sulejman comes in with his toe-turned walk, half strut, half waddle, his blue cotton coat swinging out behind him. He strides right up to the police. I can see his thin face twitching. His shoulders seem straighter than usual. But his voice – this solitary time I hear him speak – is a whispering sigh, barely more articulate than the wind blowing grass. I can’t figure out a single word.

The police, however, listen carefully. Then they turn to the women. Afterwards they come up to me and Matt.

“We … sorry,” they say. “You … not do this.” Suddenly, at least one of them knows English. “It was … mistake. We go.”

They say polite farewells. The refugees are surprisingly cordial. There is a general wave of good feeling as they walk out of the room.

“Wh … what?” I stammer to Azra.

“Sulejman come,” she answers. “He say he hang flag. They know he is crazy.”

As simple as that.

We don’t see Pero again during the remainder of our stay. But I’m sure he’s lurking in his commandant’s office, figuring out how to raise more profit from donations.

On our last day, the mayor of Mrvić invites me, Matt, and Azra for dinner: octopus in red wine. He toasts Azra, who looks at her lap, while his wife stands at the stove with her back turned. Matt and I buy the mayor’s wine for our farewell party, having put the children to bed with painted faces (charcoal and crayon, plus lipstick borrowed from Minka).

Sulejman doesn’t come to the party, but his wordless, breathless songs from under the staircase are the saddest yet. Nedim drinks so much that he cries, and Selma falls asleep with her head on my knees after vomiting into my lap. Ana whispers goodbye, clutching a picture I drew of her oldest daughter. Minka hurls herself into Matt’s lap. Azra makes a little speech. But only Berina, who doesn’t drink, is awake the following morning to see us on to the six-o’-clock ferry. She stands on the quay, a woman from nowhere, with the wind ruffling her short hair and flapping the legs of the inevitable tracksuit. The sea is glassy, the April air shrill.

“Hladno,” I say to Berina, miming a shiver. She nods and looks round at the bright island and its girdle of sunlit waves.

“Hladno,” she says. Her eyes fill with tears. “Hladno.”


Photographic response by Nerma Sofić


Marina Alagić-Bowder studied English at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating the year the war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She worked at a refugee camp and several international organizations, taught at Sarajevo University, and now manages programs for an investigative journalism organization. 

Nerma Sofić was born in 1985. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo and works as a photographer and designer. 


Published on July 6, 2017.

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**Names of people and place have been changed.


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