An Afternoon in Obrenovac

by Theresa Wong (Canada)

Making a local connection Serbia


I waited in the shade of the scraggly tree, cross-legged on a musty blanket, feeling the stiffness of the once-soft material. I’d been in Serbia only a week and in Obrenovac less than that, but already I withered from the 40 degree heat, and the fabric of my loose trousers stuck to my skin. They’d waved me over— the group of young men with dark hair and an eroding sort of homesickness, and they sat with me now and we chatted a little. Presently, a watermelon which others had carried from somewhere in town arrived and Zeya sliced it into glistening pieces. I watched him take a pinch of salt from a little container Yosep had produced from a pocket somewhere and sprinkle it over the piece of watermelon, methodically, in a practiced way that suggested he’d done it many times before. He’d worked for the Americans once, in another place, far away but just as hot. “I was one of only six hackers in the country,” he’d said proudly, a thumb stuck to his chest, a little below the Nike logo. I wondered where the other five were now. Perhaps the Taliban had forced them to leave, too. I watched the salt crystals melt into the flesh of the watermelon, and wondered if he’d ever see Afghanistan again. I glanced at the men sitting around me—the 19 and 20 year old's with their legs crossed and their shoulders dampened underneath the heavy leaden sunlight and the fatigue of a night spent trying to sneak across borders. I thought of Saheb Shah playing basketball behind me, and Ali napping somewhere in one of the whitewashed buildings that had once been barracks for soldiers and was now his residence but would never be his home. Would any of them ever see their countries again? The watermelon would be succulent and fresh in this stifling heat which packed us in and made the dusty field feel like a box of cotton wool. Zeya plucked the pieces from the rind with two fingers and extended us each a piece in turn. I’d never had watermelon with salt before. When I took a bite, it tasted wrong. It tasted weird. It was two different worlds meshing on my tongue, and my taste buds didn’t know quite what to make of it. I suppose it was appropriate for the situation: strange and not quite right. I was, after all, sitting in a refugee camp. But I did not want them —the men sitting with me— to know how I recoiled at the idea, so I smiled and nodded and finished my watermelon, and each of us licked the juice from our fingers as we sat together in silence, sweating in the heat.