Welcome to England

At the age of 16, Vesna Maric fled the war in her native Bosnia. Here she recalls her arrival as a r

On the fourth day of our journey we stood on a large ferry that bobbed along the waves of the Channel. The peeling paint of the rails stuck to our sweaty palms as we stared at the foam below. Johnny the driver had parked the bus downstairs alongside the other vehicles stacked up in the ferry's belly and came upstairs, stretching and shaking off a mild shiver. "Welcome to England!" he said. "It's bloody freezing!" And he smoothed his frayed moustache over a smile.

We stood next to each other like pigeons trying to warm up, ruffled by the gusts of wind. All I could think of was the Vera Lynn song: "There'll be bluebirds over/The white cliffs of Dover/Tomorrow, just you wait and see . . ." I'd heard the song on Yugoslav radio some years before and I loved the melody. I taped it on an old cassette player, listened to it obsessively (as was my habit with songs in English), weeding out words I didn't understand and tracking them down in my thick English-Serbo-Croat dictionary. Though I couldn't see bluebirds anywhere, the white cliffs of Dover were becoming visible on the other side, brooding above the grey water and greeting us as if we were Dunkirk evacuees. I watched the outline of the white rocks blend with the sky.

We flooded into the drab, cold waiting room of Dover immigration office, with its tiled walls and bleak lighting. There were orange plastic chairs and a poster reminding us what not to do. A man with a face like a closed fist emerged out of an office. He squinted at his clipboard through thick glasses and gave us forms to fill in. Our English hosts helped us, and those who knew some English translated for those who had none.

My sister went into a room that had "Interviews" written on the door in black letters and answered questions about being my guardian (she was 19 years old), what she was planning to do in the UK, what nationality we were. Mug­shots were taken and stapled on to a document called "IND" (which stood for Immigration and Nationality Department), one for each of us. Underneath our photos stood our names, already foreign and bald without the diacritics, places of birth, followed by the name of a country that had ceased to exist. The IND document was our only proof of ID for years to come; it was something that either identified us to weary or indifferent social service officials as more work, or denoted us as potential black holes for any bank's funds. We were told we were not to leave the UK if we wanted our asylum claims to remain intact and our invalid Yugoslav passports were taken away. No one told us how long it would take to process the claims. In my case, it turned out to be four years.

Each person went in for his or her own interview, except for those who were minors, like me. And after they came out, we hurled thousands of questions at them - "What did they ask you?" and "What did you say?" - as if there were a right or a wrong answer. The old people in the crowd prayed and the children ran around; parents dragged them back to their laps absent-mindedly, hypnotised by anxious chatter.

Several hours later we rolled on towards London. Everything felt different now that we were in Britain. A hollow sense of anticlimax blew through our collective heart. What now? We drove through bleak suburbs. Concrete blocks and identical, small, terraced houses stretched left and right for miles. The bus stopped in front of a grand white building with pillars and steps and "Red Cross" neatly engraved on a plaque. The women looked depressed. The reality of our journey suddenly hit home: the Red Cross was all about "aid", "disaster", "war" and "tragedy". And we were a product of all those things. This was not a prolonged excursion.

The elegant building, though housing an organisation synonymous with all things sad, was far removed from our warring Balkan brutality. When I tried to imagine anything to do with our war there, I could only conjure up images from black-and-white Second World War films: nurses in dresses and square white headgear; soldiers with bandages, watching the ceiling. That's what I thought might greet us when we entered. We would be ushered into a black-and-white room with folding camp beds and no one would sleep through the grey night.

Instead, we found small, knitted flower-patterned blankets on the floor, with more knitted blankets on top, the sum of which formed our beds. Everyone looked around, slightly lost, the dignity of the middle-class émigrés melting away like ice cream down a cone. Some women sat on the floor, children asleep in their arms. Some wandered around, trying to look as if they knew what we were supposed to be doing. A Bosnian woman found a cardboard box full of soap and picked up a piece shaped like an orange. An Englishwoman saw her and jumped, grabbing the soap from her hand: "No! Not to eat!" Everyone was aghast. How dare she, the bitch, doesn't she know we had VCRs and cars and soap? Our English hosts were embarrassed at their colleague's odd behaviour, but we understood: they thought we were savages.

Some of the Bosnian women were desperate to convince them otherwise. They spent hours explaining that we used to have everything: beds, sheets, extra linen in the cupboards, embroidered and starched; crystal glasses, memories, china, passports, vacuum cleaners, pets, tastes, holidays, smells, sounds, and most of all that we loved, loved each other, that we hadn't spent the past 50 years secretly hating each other's guts, waiting for the first opportunity to rip each other open in the most savage of ways. They wanted to explain that the war was a mistake, a ploy of evil politicians. It had nothing to do with us, the people sitting before them.

In the meantime, I had found a small patch on the floor, among the blankets' woolly flowers on the grey office carpet, and decided to go to sleep. There was nothing better to do. I was permanently burdened with a ball in my stomach, a burning feeling that pressed my throat. As I was getting ready for bed, I saw one of the Englishwomen stepping carefully through the blankets as if the floor were laden with mines. "There is an extra bed here," I told her. "Oh, thank you," she smiled and settled among the flowers. Months later, I lived with this woman and her family in a countryside vicarage, feeling my socialist atheism pulsate as they prayed before each meal. They often prayed for me and my family, for which I was secretly grateful.

Vesna Maric's "Bluebird: a Memoir" is published by Granta Books (£12.99)