The first rule of crossing the border: "Abandon every nonessential sign of individuality before the border, because the closer you are to average, the more harmless you will seem!" They did that. "Please take a number." They did that. "You'll have to file an application." They did that, too. And then, the numbers began waiting. Waiting for a long time.
One after the other, they stand up and approach the microphone: "It is May 27, 1992. I do not make the decision myself. I am 14. The army has cut off all the roads and paths. We leave the country separately." Number 1 returns to his seat. Number 2 comes forward: "That day has no date. I do not make the decision myself. A watchman comes to me and says, 'Hey! You! Today you're being moved to another jail.'… After a long drive, we are transferred into a pick-up … We're blindfolded and they still want us to walk straight. At any moment, I'm expecting a gunshot from behind ..." Number 3 always looks like she's running. She says: "It is September 6, 2003. I do not make the decision myself. I am 27 years old. I am hiding in a monastery in Rangoon. Before that I had demonstrated against the military government. I don't wish to say more than that." Number 4 follows … Number 5 … Number 6 … Number 7 …
They stand on the stage at the Theater Essen. Everyone listens to their voices. They tell of their respective homelands and how they came to Germany, of their lives as refugees and how they felt over a long period of years. And then of course, there is today. They simply carry on speaking; they allow their listeners to think, feel and sometimes even laugh along with them; the numbers become people – self-confident, vivid personalities: Sejla Kartal from Bosnia, Clément Matweta from Congo, Myo Min Htet from Burma, Eustache Nkerinka from Rwanda, Volker Laube from the former GDR, Nita Wachtel from India and Artjom Schröder from Russia.
They regain their individuality
Miriam Strunk's play is called "Flüchtlinge im Ruhestand" (Retired Refugees). Perhaps it should more aptly be called a "reality play." That's because each of the actors appears as him or herself; seven people from seven different countries. Onstage, their individual destinies merge into a single story centering on war, oppression and hope. Yet each one of them returns to his border and picks something back up off the ground: their individuality.
Clément moves very close to the audience; he stands almost amongst them: "You live on the fringes of society because you have no identity," he says. "And if you have no identity," he moves another step closer, "you can have no work permit, no telephone, no bank account, no train ticket …" What can one do in such a situation? "Wait." What for? "For a letter from the government – telling you if they will deport you." He moves to a small mailbox. Each day, from seven to ten a.m., fear would overtake him. He opens the mailbox. "If there is no letter inside, you can breathe a sigh of relief." But the next thought is: "Maybe the letter will arrive tomorrow." Clément checked the mail with this feeling for seven years; seven years passed before he was issued a residence permit. He regularly received letters stating "Exceptional leave to remain in federal territory … Sincerely yours, by proxy." How does one endure such a thing? "It's best if you stand."
The element that connects the audience with the refugees is Uwe Pfromm. Pfromm is a refugee counselor, both in the play and in reality. The viewer is put in the position of the asylum seeker and Pfromm is there to explain the stages of the asylum process to him. "You must apply for political asylum … But not here, not today. You have to go to Düsseldorf." He speaks quickly, everything sounds complicated. "Once you arrive at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Düsseldorf ... you'll receive the sum of 9.48 Euros and of course toilet articles …" At this point, the viewer feels like crawling underneath his chair. "Your accommodation is aboard the ship called 'La Siesta' in the Düsseldorf industrial harbor." A ship? "No, don't worry, the ship isn't going anywhere."
Myo still remembers each stage exactly: "I arrive in Germany, go to Agency for Foreigners in Giessen." He sits cross-legged atop a wall, as if he were meditating. "From window, I see snow for first time..." It makes him happy, but only briefly. He then holds up a large cardboard sign in front of him: "Ship more stable than boat." On the ship, there are always "two beds on top of each other" and there is "hard bread" to eat. "After ten days, on to Düren, in a camp, room number 114." Another sign: "Camp more stable than ship." The final sign reads: "Home more stable than camp."
is my hometown"
You look at him and become aware of your own prejudices: Asylum seekers don't look like Eustache Nkerinka – a smartly dressed man in a violet shirt, suit and tie. Asylum seekers don't study International Affairs in Belgium and English in England. This man of the world, an intellectual, from a good background, who enjoys listening to Haydn, Händel and Beethoven – surely he cannot be an asylum seeker. Eustache is seated on a pink baroque couch. He shows the audience photos from his past: "This is Jimmy Carter. I met him in 1978." The picture appears on the wall. "This is the dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi." He says he met him nine times. We then see photos of Bill Clinton, Idi Amin, the former Ugandan dictator, and of dictator Robert Gabriel Mugabe … from back then. At the time, Eustache was Rwandan ambassador. He tells of civil war, where people were killed like "flies." "You won't die today. So we'll kill you next time," is what his enemies told him.
Now he is standing here. "Essen City is my hometown," he says with a charming smile. The Germans – he had already heard from his grandfather – are an honest people with a tendency to be categorical. "The police here are very proper, too. To this day, no one has asked to see my papers." The charming smile reappears. The only difficulty is his inability to find work, because he is "too old and overqualified." So he's on welfare.
Someday, Eustache, like all of the others onstage, would like to return home. It has been a long and tiresome journey. They want to go home, even if by now, they would feel like strangers there. They'd rather feel like foreigners in their homeland than feel at home in a foreign land. "Today I feel like I am settling down," says Clément thoughtfully. But there are always doubts about if fleeing was the right thing to do. "Would I do it again?" He doesn't know. Myo is still sitting on the wall: "I would like to die in my village." He closes his eyes, inhales and exhales deeply, and smiles. "All the people of my village carry me to the graveyard … After a year, there is a memorial ceremony …"
Naima El Moussaoui
Translated from the German by Mark Rossman
© Qantara.de 2008