Prologue: The Girl From Belgrade

Die Last

The first thing they took was her passport.

The man jumped down from the cab of the lorry and snapped his fingers at her.

Click-click.

She already had her passport in her hands, ready for her first encounter with authority, and as she held it out to the man she saw, in the weak glow of the Belgrade streetlights, that he had a small stack of passports. They were not all burgundy red like her Serbian passport. These passports were green and blue and bright red – passports from everywhere. The man slipped her passport under the rubber band that held the passports together and he slipped them into the pocket of his thick winter coat. She had expected to keep her passport.

She looked at him and caught a breath. Old scars ran down one side of his face making the torn flesh looked as though it had once melted. Then the man clicked his fingers a second time.

Click-click.

She stared at her kid brother with confusion. The boy indicated her suitcase. The man wanted the suitcase. Then the man with the melted face spoke in English, although it was not the first language of either of them.

“No room,” he said, gesturing towards the lorry.

But she gripped her suitcase stubbornly and she saw the sudden flare of pure anger in the man’s eyes.

Click-click, went his fingers. She let go.

The suitcase was the second thing he took. It was bewildering. In less than a minute she had surrendered her passport and abandoned her possessions. She could smell sweat and cigarettes on the man and she wondered, for the first time, if she was making a terrible mistake.

She looked at her brother.

The boy was shivering. Belgrade is bitterly cold in January with an average temperature of just above freezing.

She hugged him. The boy, a gangly sixteen year old in glasses that were held together with tape on one side, bit his lower lip, struggling to control his emotions. He hugged her back and he would not let her go and when she gently pulled away he still held her, a shy smile on his face as he held his phone up at head height. They smiled at the tiny red light shining in the dark as he took their picture.

Then the man with the melted face took her arm just above the elbow and pulled her towards the lorry. He was not gentle.

“No time,” he said.

In the back of the lorry there were two lines of women facing each other. They all turned their heads to look at her. Black faces. Asian faces. Three young women, who might have been sisters, in Hijab headscarves. They all looked at her but she was staring at her brother standing on the empty Belgrade street, her suitcase in his hand. She raised her hand in farewell and the boy opened his mouth to say something but the back doors suddenly slammed shut and her brother was gone. She struggled to stay on her feet as the lorry lurched away, heading north for the border.

There were boxes in the back of the lorry. Many boxes, all the same.

Birnen – Arnen – Nashi – Peren, it said on the boxes. Grushi – Pere – Peras – Poires.

“Kruske,” she thought, and then in English, as if in preparation for her new life. “Pears.”

The women were still staring at her. One of them, nearest to the doors, shuffled along to find her space. She was some kind of African girl, not yet out of her teens, her skin so dark it seemed to shine.

The African gave her a wide, white smile of encouragement, and graciously held her hand by her side, inviting the girl from Belgrade to sit down.

She nodded her thanks, taking her seat, and thinking of the African as the kind girl.

The kind girl would be the first to die.