World Refugee Day, 20 June 2019

The Pyrenees, February 1939

They were crossing the border by the thousands, men, women, children, an endless stream shuffling forwards, their feet so tired they could hardly lift them, but they had to go on, no time to stop, and if you did the person behind you would bump up against you, so you stumbled upon the person in front of you and propelled him forwards, go, go, go, the dust on the ground mustn’t have time to settle, they had to get out of there before death caught up with them, either in the form of gangrene or starvation or dressed in the uniform of a Fascist. Women carried babies in their arms and what they had left of their belongings they carried on their heads, some undergarments, their wedding picture, the lace christening gown that had been in the family since god knows when and was supposed to be worn by the children to come but would more likely be used as a shroud, all bundled up, trundled along. Older children carried their younger siblings or held their hands, muttering to shut up, that everyone was hungry, that they weren’t there yet and still had to keep on going, that, no, they couldn’t have any water, that they’d just had a sip and now had to wait and how could they be so heavy if they hadn’t eaten for days and their bones by now must be hollow, their skin taut, the stretch gone out of it.Most of the men were wounded soldiers who fought till the end, never giving up, they could see their Republic glowing in the distance, just behind the next hill, a fair and just society on the other side of the river or in the ruins of the bombarded streets and apartments, the rubble construction material to build up a new city, a new life. Now they had nothing, just their crutches to hold onto. They hobbled onwards, their eyes on the ground, avoiding stones and bumps on the path. There were grandmothers herding their grandchildren, having lost their sons in battle, their daughters in the air raids, their black mourning dresses grey from dust and dirt, grandfathers refusing to be carried, who needed to lean on their walking sticks every few steps, maybe they should stay behind, unburden the others, but then who would look after the little ones, who would tell them about their fathers and their mothers, the dreams they had of them growing up in a new Spain, dreams they were certain would turn into reality until it was too late. There they all went, winding up the paths of the Pyrenees, the women with their bundles on their heads, the toddlers with their faces stained by snot and tears, the soldiers with dirty bandages covering wounds that wouldn’t heal, the old men and women who had turned their backs on the future but could now no longer spend their days looking back, having to move forward with the little time they had left, they followed each other up the climbing paths.

De maan danst op het erf van de doden (The Moon Dances in the Courtyard of the Dead), page 121

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