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Foreign Desk
by Paul Polansky
from the book To UNHCR With Love
(2003) Jejune Ultima and Divus publications
Czech Republic

Camp Regulations

No sitting in the shade.

No laughing, singing, dancing.
No smoking, eating, drinking.
No cooking, washing, grooming.

No spitting, shitting, fucking.
No moaning, crying, howling.
No praying, begging, stealing.

No running to the other side of the border.

Seeking freedom is absolutely forbidden.

Help and Thank You

Since UNHCR refused to help
the Roma on the border

we drove around to their Kosovo relatives
and collected food and blankets.

The relatives always asked us
the same question:

Why won’t UNHCR let our
cousins come back to Kosovo

and build a new home
next to us?

We have land, we would help them
build a new home.

I said UNHCR would only allow
Roma to rebuild in their original villages.

But that’s a death sentence
everyone yelled.

When we got back to the border
the refugees wrote thank you notes

on cigarette packs
or scraps of paper

they found in
the police garbage cans.

Private Housing

I asked several Romani men
why they refused the private housing
UNHCR and Macedonia
were offering them.

The Roma said it wasn’t housing.
It was always one room
for seven or eight people
or a garage, or a garden shed.

All the Gypsies from the Shutka camp
who had gone into UNHCR “private housing”
had experienced a disaster.

Many Gypsies had been put in basements
with no windows or toilets.
Within a week the Macedonian owner
was always putting up the rent
to drive them out.

Then we looked at the digital photos
I had taken earlier in the morning
of their old camp in Shutka.
There was nothing left.
All the barracks where they
had lived for three years
were completely destroyed.

Everyone in the camp
clustered around my camera
to see the photos
then walked away
shaking their heads and muttering.

UNHCR had burned another bridge
behind them.


Midnight Sounds

After everyone had gone to sleep
I just lay there listening
to the midnight sounds.

Inside the tents
men were snoring
women moaning
children softly crying.

Outside the tents
I heard dogs barking
policemen laughing.

Then there was a loud rumble
for a second I thought
was a NATO fighter
coming to bomb us again.

But it was only a truck
roaring up to the border

going where
we all wanted to go.

Teaching English

The parents in the camp
are so convinced
they are going to a third country
they asked me to teach them
some English phrases
they would need to get by.

I taught them these:

“My name is....”

“My wife’s name is...”

“My children’s names are...”

“We have escaped from Kosovo.”

“The Albanians burnt down our home
and chased us out. NATO troops refused
to protect us.”

“The Serbs won’t let us build new homes
in their villages where other Roma live.”

“UNHCR won’t let us build new homes
where our relatives live. They say we
have to go back to our own villages
where our neighbors want to kill us.”

“Please help us. We have no money.”

“Please help us, your skinheads are chasing us.”

“Please help us, your football hooligans are chasing us.”

“Please help us, we want to go back to Kosovo.”

Her New Kitchen

Azima is a 38-year-old wife,
a mother of four
who wanders from tent to tent
showing everyone
the photos
of her new kitchen.

She no longer remembers
how the black-uniformed soldiers
chased them out of their house
four years ago.

The only things she was able to save
before the soldiers burned it down
were the photos
of her new kitchen.

That’s why she’s the only one
who wants to go back
to Kosovo.

She thinks her new kitchen
is still there
waiting for her.


Some journalists came to visit us today.
They didn’t want to come to my tent
because it is next to the toilets.
I know it smells
and there are lots of flies
and sitting inside under the plastic sheets
it is like an oven.
But they wanted to see my photos
of our demonstrations in Skopje
back before we left for the border
so they suffered for a few minutes
like we suffer all day.

I showed them the photos
of the Macedonian police
beating us up
as we pleaded for help
in front of the American embassy.

No one ever came out to speak
to us. The ambassador came out
at the German embassy
but he offered us no solution.

I asked the journalists why
they didn’t visit us in Shutka
in Skopje.

They said we weren’t
in danger
of dying

Summer Camp

During the day
life is hard in the camp

with no shade
and a hundred flies
in every tent

but the Gypsy mothers
still beam with pride
as they watch their children
playing games
as if they were in
a summer camp.

It’s only at night, after 2 a.m.
when you hear the children moaning
from the cold
the mothers sniffling

and the fathers gritting their teeth.

All Poetry & Nothing ButClash of CivilizationsEC ChairFeatured PoetsForeign DeskGalleryStage
Hedonism: Theory & PracticeLetters & GlossolaliaArt of MarriageMoney TalkPets & BeastsZounds

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