The Fortress

By Peter Schwendele

Translation Cornelius Partsch

 

Dialo gazed at the red and yellow flag that hung just above his head flapping lazily in the evening breeze. The metal rod to which it was attached did not move when he pushed against it. It was anchored firmly with mortar between the stones. He liked the colors of the flag and the picture with the two columns and the crown. Spain, his father had proclaimed, when they stepped out of the water, and pointed at the flag in the middle of the island, we’re in Spain, and Spain is Europe, we are almost there. Dialo looked all around the island, as he had done many times throughout the day. Off in the distance, he saw the lights on the beach of Sfiha, in the other directions only the sea, as far as the eye could see. Dialo wished that he could see more of Europe.

He moved back a few steps, dropped to his knees, and began to push his bus through the coarse-grained sand, always in a circle. He accompanied this activity with the low sounds of a roaring engine. The bus was not just the only toy he owned but also his only possession altogether, aside from the clothes he had on his body. Dialo did not know how far away the real Europe was but he knew that there wasn’t a road leading there, and that annoyed him, because otherwise they could perhaps take a bus to get to Europe. Dialo loved riding the bus, it was the most amazing thing he had ever experienced.

He had been on a big bus only once before, shortly after they had fled from Mali. They had been forced to give the driver all their remaining belongings just so that he would take them to Morocco. His father had spent the journey with his face buried in his hands, because they had been left with virtually nothing, but the bus had gone so fast, causing it to shake wildly, that Dialo felt a sense of elation he had not had in a long time, in spite of being exhausted and starving. He almost started laughing when the draft blew sharply through his hair, he almost forgot how much he missed his mother and his siblings.

In the refugee camp food was almost as scarce as in Mali. Dialo and his father were shoved into a small, thin tent that was occupied by several others already. During the day it was sweltering in the tent and during the night it was cold. Dialo begged his father to build him a bus. Using pieces of the trash that was all lying all around the camp, his father punched holes into cans and fastened them to each other. He used sticks as axles and small, round pieces of rubber as tires. When the bus was finished Dialo flung his arms around his father’s neck and didn’t let go for a long time. Until the other men came by, the ones his father often talked with softly and secretively.

It had been really easy to get onto the island, just as the man who had led them out of the camp had promised. In the middle of the night, they had climbed over the fence, along with the others who did not want to stay any longer, and they had reached the beach of Sfiha without any problems a few hours later, when the sun was already high up in the sky. There were nearly-naked white people there who took no notice of them at all. His father told Dialo not to look, but he had taken a quick peek, in secret, just for a second. Dialo had been a bit scared of the swim but his father said it was only fifty meters to the island, to the place where Europe began. And if Dialo became tired he could get on his father’s back. But Dialo managed the entire distance without needing help.

On the Island that was known as Tierra and was kind of in Europe, as the guide had put it, there was only one boy his age. This boy had been looking at Dialo all day long but Dialo did not want to play with him, afraid that he would break his bus. Most of the people in the group were adult men, a few women with small children were there, too. All in all there were 83 people. Dialo had attended the village school at home in Mali and had proudly counted all the way up to 83, twice, just to be sure.

Dialo was hungry but there was nothing for them to eat, not even a drink of water. The island was so small that you could walk from one end to the other in just a few minutes. It consisted of nothing but rocks and gray, prickly bushes, sitting in a tangle of narrow strips of sand. Nothing else. Except for the flag.

He walked over to his father and lay down beside him, although his empty stomach would surely keep him from sleeping. His father said, soon we’ll be in the real Europe, and ran his hand through Dialo’s hair. We’ve come too far for them to send us back now. Dialo did not know what Europe was like, neither did his father, but he knew that there was no war there and that the people always had enough to eat and that they lived in large houses. He remembered the guide saying that the borders were closed because Europe didn’t want any more blacks. But once you were actually there, standing on European ground, the people would be happy to take you in. They are kind and will take care of you, he had repeated that over and over.

Dialo jumped to his feet, startled by the sound of an engine droning in the sky above him. He must have fallen asleep in spite of being famished. He realized right away that these were helicopters hovering above them and pointing their searchlights at the island. He knew what helicopters were. He also saw several boats on the water. Men in black uniforms were approaching, some were carrying rifles, others batons. Dialo pressed himself against his father’s hip, with his free hand he clutched his bus. When they came closer he could see the men’s faces in the flickering lights. They looked foreign but he didn’t think that these men came from Europe. No matter how hard he tried he could not detect any sign of kindness in their eyes.

 

Uwe Beyer, Hrsg., Europa im Wort. Eine literarische Seismographie in 16 Aufzeichnungen. Bonn: Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, 2016.