Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
BORISLAV (BOBO) MARKOVIĆ (# 41)
Borislav (Bobo ) Markovoć
Age: late thirties ?
Born in Lagos, Nigeria
Father born in Yugoslavia / Mother in Nigeria
Ethnic heritage / Father: Serbian / Mother: Fulani
Borislav, a handsome boy from early childhood, was always called ‘Bobo’, a name that somehow suited him very well; he was a gentle creature, born to charismatic parents at an interesting time in Nigeria’s post-colonial history. His father, Bogumil, was ethnically Serbian but had grown up in the old Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia & Hercegovina, in a provincial town called Banja Luka, a town that, from 1580, had gained commercial, cultural and political significance under the Ottoman Empire. Despite its being located in the western part of Bosnia, very close to the border with Croatia, Banja Luka had always been perceived by the Serbs as being very much a part of ‘Greater Serbia’, and this was the prime reason for its becoming a bloody battleground once more in recent history. Bobo’s father was a civil engineer, big in stature and with a big personality; he was someone who held strong opinions on most things too.
Tito’s Yugoslavia was a non-allied country which traded with most of the world and, unlike the Soviet satellite states, its people were free to travel wherever they wished without restriction. Yugoslav architects, engineers and construction firms built and managed major projects all over the world and this is how Bobo’s father came to be in Lagos, to build the new International Exhibition Centre there. Bobo’s mother, Diallo, came from the Fulani people, large numbers of whom had given up their original nomadic existence to settle in Northern Nigeria, where they were instrumental in spreading Islam across West Africa. Diallo was a graceful woman, with a complexion that was unusually dark amongst her generally lighter skinned people. She was also unusual in having been allowed to go to college in Lagos, very much the exception in her very traditional community, where it was not unusual for girls to marry at the age of 14, where women were basically brought up to be housewives and mothers, and where men were allowed to have up to four wives. Though Diallo was Muslim and respectful of her people’s roots and traditions, in Lagos, she enjoyed exploring her newfound freedom, temporarily released from the chains of the traditional woman’s role, and she came to long for a better, more fulfilling life for herself. When Bogumil and Diallo met, it was a match of two extraordinary personalities; they both had good looks and sharp intellects and both were deeply rooted in their respective traditions, despite their diverse cultural backgrounds.
Baby Bobo was born in Lagos into a happy, prosperous home in a city where life seemed to pulsate in the very brightest colours; it was a city full of vitality and contrast. While he attended a local school where English was the lingua franca, his father spoke to him in what was then still called Serbo-Croat and his mother in Hausa. With his very unusual ethnic heritage, Bobo stood out even in what was a very mixed school and he had to learn how to manage his unique status, a status that would not always be to his advantage, as his later life would demonstrate. And, though Bobo had inherited his father’s strength and stature, unlike the fiercely masculine Bogumil, the boy radiated a gentler nature, with a huge smile that charmed almost everyone. From the very outset, Bobo was thus an outsider in a number of different ways, but he was too attractive to be the sort of outsider of whom others disapproved - in Lagos, it seemed that there was space for everyone.
When Bobo was seven, his father’s contract came to an end and the family moved back to Yugoslavia and to Bogumil’s home town, Banja Luka. While this was a homecoming for Bogumil, for Diallo and her little boy, the change for them was staggering. Arriving from a sub-tropically lush, noisy, vibrant Lagos to the cold winter of a provincial Balkan town was a shock not easily overcome or forgotten. Even Bogumil discovered that he had returned to a Yugoslavia much changed from the familiar one he had left: President Tito was ailing and long-forgotten nationalistic and religious anxieties seemed to be surfacing once again. But Banja Luka was not without its charms: the town was cradled amongst its surrounding hills; the roofs of its numerous minarets and church towers glistened in the sunshine; and the River Vrbas snaked its way through the town’s ancient streets. It was a proud place where Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims lived alongside Croats in commendable harmony - intermarriage was common. The schools were secular as, in practice, was most of the population; to most of the residents, religion remained very much in the background, being seen almost as something that hearkened more to the past.
Although Bobo spoke the colloquial Serbo-Croat his father had taught him, he had never been educated in that language, so getting used to a new education system was not an easy task: with inferior language skills and with being required to read and write in what seemed to him the arcane Cyrillic alphabet, Bobo certainly struggled. Not only that; he was also the only non-white, indeed the only foreign-looking face in the entire school. Yugoslavs are immensely hospitable but in those days their experience of black people was very slight, so both Bobo and his mother had to endure discrimination just because of the colour of their skin. Bobo was called “Crnac” (nigger) despite the fact that his complexion was not that much darker than the often deeply sun-tanned local boys. Bobo might have been half-Serbian, living in his father’s homeland, but despite all his efforts to fit, to blend with his peers, to adopt their mores, to master the local accent, and to take part in everything he was invited to, there passed hardly a day when he wasn’t reminded that he was an outsider. With her darker complexion, his mother had some hard times too, though she tended to receive a warmer welcome from her Muslim neighbours; even if Muslim observance in Bosnia was rather superficial, Diallo could respond to the shared values of their faith, values that were woven deeply into her own way of life. Bosnian Muslims observed the teachings of the Qur’an but loosely, with only small numbers in regular attendance at the mosque; the practice of daily prayers was restricted mainly to older people. Pork was eaten by all and alcohol, in the form of Šlivovica (plum brandy) was very much a part of daily life too. Intermarriage into Christian families was frequent and for generations, Bosnia & Hercegovina had been a true melting pot of peoples and traditions.
After Tito’s death, in May 1980, things began to change in Yugoslavia. Since the end of World War II, Marshall Tito had held together, in what was a primarily secular union, the remarkably heterogeneous Federation of the Southern Slav Republics, republics variously attached to Orthodox Christianity, to Roman Catholicism and to Islam. He managed to contain the nationalist tendencies that might perhaps have been seen as inherent in these faiths and succeeded in containing such disputes as occasionally arose between conflicting interest groups. Following his death, dark clouds began to gather: the Serbs, who saw themselves as the ‘senior republic’, wanted to dominate the union, with some Serb nationalists succumbing to the ominous and pernicious pipe dream of a ‘Greater Serbia’ - they curried favour with what was by then a rather neglected Orthodox Church so as to give a seeming sanctity to their cause. The Croats, as the other major ethnic bloc, reacted to these trends by reviving their own dormant nationalism, while the Slovenians began to entertain hopes of breaking away altogether from their increasingly bellicose former confederates, considering themselves somehow nearer to the old heart of Austria-Hungary and therefore more European, more advanced and hardly Balkan at all.
Bosnia & Hercegovina began to manifest, with increasing regularity and alarming intensity, the symptoms of a deep-seated and ancient malady; this country was the remarkable, historic melting pot of the whole region, perhaps of Europe, the place where the Ottoman Empire had collided with Christendom, where Roman Catholics had mixed with their fellows of Orthodox and Muslim faith, and where Serbs had mixed with Croats - it was a powder keg of pent-up nationalism, xenophobia, and burgeoning religious zeal and Tito’s death had left the fuse dangerously exposed. It was following a football match, in a town near to Banja Luka, that the first sectarian fights took place between youngsters. A few months later, in plainly suspicious circumstances, a Muslim youth was killed. Communities started to polarise and the rhetoric from political leaders became progressively more acrimonious and inflammatory. Banja Luka itself, and indeed the whole of Bosnia & Hercegovina, started to change, decidedly for the worse. Bobo felt disengaged - he was an outsider in all of this too - although he had conflicts much nearer home to cope with: during what were increasingly troubled times, he was forced to witness the rancorous divorce of his parents, the disintegration of whose heterogeneous union was perhaps emblematic of the flight of tolerance and harmony from the whole of the region. For purely practical reasons, Bobo continued to live with his father but he saw his mother as often he could.
In spite of all the disadvantages he’d had to suffer, Bobo was growing up into a handsome young man and he had easily learned how to use to his advantage his good looks, his charm, his knowledge of English, and his difference from everyone else. He was now doing well at school and, as he stood out easily from the crowd, he had soon begun to be noticed by some of the prettiest girls in town; he had, in fact, struck up a liaison with one of these local beauties. His father was proud of his son’s growing prowess, and relieved too, for he had often criticised his son for not looking masculine enough; Bobo, who took great pride in his appearance, was always immaculately dressed and found this criticism from his father both unjust and annoying.
The growing tensions in Yugoslavia tipped over into war as Serbia decided to deploy the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) a great many of whose officers were Serbs, in ten days of vicious fighting, designed to obstruct Slovenia’s intended withdrawal from the Yugoslav Federation. The Croats joined in; indeed, the Serbian tanks rolled across Croatia heading north, and bomb-laden aircraft flew across Croatia to the north-western front. Bosnia was not directly involved but JNA bases in that country were used nonetheless. All of the Yugoslav peoples watched the new conflict with dread, for now there was no Tito, no father of the nation, to contain the brawling republics, to keep the union together, and to cool the growing flames of nationalism and religious zealotry.
Bobo had the strange but distinct feeling that this conflict was not something that involved him - by then, he had embraced ‘otherness’ as a part of himself. He had also paid dearly for his temerity in daring to go courting the local beauties. One evening, on the way home from college, he was brutally attacked by a group of angry youths who gave him a serious beating, to ‘teach him a lesson’. During this ordeal of kicks and punches, all he could hear were the angry cries of “musliman” and “crnac” (nigger). He survived - this was a warning, not attempted murder - but he had several cracked ribs, a broken jaw, and two black eyes, together with some truly shocking bruises. For the first time, he had suffered a real threat to his life and wellbeing; in this bitter, painful lesson, he had been taught the price to be paid for being an outsider of a different colour, a different culture and apparently the wrong faith. He had had the impertinence to date a girl who was the object of others’, more legitimate, affections and as an outsider, this was something he had no right to do. It took Bobo many weeks to recover from his injuries, while his father seemed strangely unconcerned, preoccupied as he was now with local politics.
Bobo was shocked to discover that his father, who had formerly been a proud Yugoslav, had turned almost overnight into a Serbian patriot and had started to display racial hatred, not only towards Croats, but also towards the ‘Bosniaks’ (Muslim Bosnians) too. When his mother visited him during his recovery, she herself seemed full of fear and foreboding, and her apprehensions drove her even closer to the local Muslim community. On occasions, she even talked about possibly going back to Nigeria. Bobo had a good friend, Halid, who happened to be a ‘Musliman’ too but who, like most of his generation, had little concern for his religious background - he was very much a modern, liberal young Yugoslav. Halid spent a lot of his time comforting Bobo after his vicious attack, helping him spiritually to regain the confidence he would need to face the world again.
Then, in 1992, the growing conflict engulfed Bosnia & Hercegovina too, with Serb and Croat nationalists talking about partitioning the republic between themselves, with scant regard for the sizeable Muslim community. Inevitably, sides were taken and blood was soon spilled; Bobo’s father energetically embraced the cause of Republika Srpska and the nationalists’ dream of a ‘Greater Serbia’. Still not fully recovered from his injuries, Bobo watched with horror as these events unfolded around him. His closeness to Halid turned into a genuine affection and another confusion entered his life: he began to have doubts about his sexuality, wondering, perhaps, if he might be gay. Like many young men of his time, he associated homosexuality with perversion, with odd-looking men hanging around railway stations and the dimly-lit corners of parks. Surely he wasn’t one of them? But when his affection for Halid manifested itself as a physical relationship, what they shared together felt like the most natural thing in the world. In the very macho world of the now disintegrating Yugoslavia, Bobo had added yet another dangerous dimension to his being an outsider.
The ‘Siege of Sarajevo’ was already well under way and Banja Luka itself became a sort of command centre for Republika Srpska. In these increasingly alarming circumstances for anyone with the double misfortune to be Muslim and gay, both Halid and Bobo began to contemplate escape, without yet knowing where they might go; for the time being, they still felt safe together. Their little cocoon of security soon disintegrated, however: one evening, Bobo’s father returned home unexpectedly from a political meeting, only to discover his son and his son’s best friend in an intimate embrace, an embrace that could have only one explanation. What both boys then witnessed was an unimaginable explosion of rage, of a ferocity that Bobo had never in his life witnessed before. Bogumil had always been a man of strong opinions; he also had the very firmest, most traditional, Balkan view of what constituted manhood. He hated anything which threatened his notion of masculinity and his detestation of homosexuals was vehement; he would have been happy to see every last one exterminated. Discovering that his only son was the thing he perhaps most loathed in all the world, Bogumil raged like a man possessed. Perhaps the last vestiges of paternal affection stayed his hand from blows, but he threw Bobo and his lover out of the house, telling them that he never wanted to see them again, and that he wished they were dead: “From this day on, you have no father and I have no son; you are worse than scum.” Halid had no choice but to flee for his life too, terrified that his own parents would soon hear of their son’s shameful secret.
Once on the street, the boys separated: Halid went home to get some money and a few basic things for their flight and Bobo went in search of his mother. Alas, that very evening, the first Muslim homesteads had been torched and, like the suffocating smoke from those flames, an almost tangible fear was spreading through the community. Bobo’s mother had already gone into hiding and she was not to be found. Serbian flags had been draped from the balconies, making the town look like the sinister set for a film about fascism. Bobo heard about some buses that were being operated by several international humanitarian charities; they were leaving from the University campus and were taking women, children and young people out of what was turning very rapidly into a civil war zone. He thought they might possibly be taking people abroad. Suspecting that his father would be out on the streets somewhere, no doubt making his very own contribution to the mayhem, Bobo returned home to collect a travel bag, a few essentials and his passport. Now ready to flee, he went out in search of Halid, only to discover from friends that he too had heard about the buses and was already heading for the University. The campus was in chaos, with a desperate throng of terrified people all trying to board the buses. There was apparently some kind of selection process taking place but no-one understood how it worked. Still searching for his lost friend, Bobo found out that Halid had been selected and put on to one of the buses that had already left; thankful to know that Halid was safe, Bobo’s heart sank nevertheless.
Separated from his friend and lover, Bobo was despondent. Distraught by a terrible mixture of grief and fear, he remembered afterwards, but only vaguely, answering someone’s questions in English, and that someone, whom he half recognised from the past, had helped him on to one of the other buses, though he had no idea where it was going, or whether its destination might be the same as Halid’s bus. Everyone seemed to be in shock, numbed by the conflict that had erupted so quickly; no-one spoke; the landscape flickered past, with the occasional smouldering shells of burnt-out houses suggesting that they might have crossed into war-torn Croatia. This nightmare landscape was in turn replaced by forests of spruce lining the motorway - they had probably passed into what was now the independent republic of Slovenia. The uniformed guards on the Austrian border looked a bit like soldiers from an old black and white film with subtitles, but they seemed kind enough, willing to wave them through the border checkpoints. So Bobo left Yugoslavia, a state that now existed only in memory but a country he had come to love; now it was a land at war with itself. Bobo, the habitual outsider, was now surrounded with other outsiders - the bus was crammed full of them - all heading with him into the unknown. He longed to be with Halid but throughout the length of their journey, they never saw a single other buse from Banja Luka. Someone said that their bus was destined for the United Kingdom whereas some of the others had headed for Germany, and one or two for Sweden. Without Halid, Bobo was miserable, totally bereft. Though he had never even heard of the song about the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’, when they came into view from the Channel ferry, they looked distinctly grey in any case, the grey of a cold, drizzly English day, with the sky barely distinguishable from the sea.
Bobo was too distraught to remember much of his actual arrival to the UK; though the English people he met were kind, they also seemed strangely cold. The holding centre in Kent that he was taken to was full of Bosniak refugees. Though they were safe now, everyone was traumatised; no-one spoke of anything apart from the homes and the lives in Bosnia that they had been forced to flee. They watched the television in silence, flinching at the images of war and destruction in their home country; occasionally, someone would cry out in pain as they recognised their own town, the street where they’d lived, or even their very own home, or the homes of their family, all in flames. They were granted leave to stay for six months but were not permitted to work, and no-one could tell them what was going to happen after these six months had passed.
Amongst the arrivals were many well-educated people, people whose profession was a key part of the identity they had lost and, without the prospect of work, any hope of rebuilding that identity was dashed. Bobo fared better than many of the others, insofar as his English was almost fluent and having spent his early years in a former British colony, albeit an African one, he was more familiar with, and thus more open to, the new influences that now surrounded them. He soon realised that he would have to get out of this place as quickly as possible, this place full of lost souls, where written on everyone’s face were the same forlorn questions: “What will happen to us now? Where is it we belong?” Bobo longed to hear from Halid too; he even managed to phone his home, hoping he might get news from his parents about where his friend had gone, but the line was dead. Later on, Bobo managed to get news of his mother, the first family news he’d had since fleeing from Banja Luka - she was safe for now but still in hiding.
Some weeks into his English sojourn, Bobo ventured into a near-by town, exploring the streets, listening to people, and observing the bustling street life of a busy English Saturday. He understood the words he overheard but inevitably people’s habits seemed foreign and strange. No-one appeared to notice him at all and no-one ever spoke to him; it was so very different from Banja Luka, where everyone knew everyone else, except of course that all the people he’d known there had now turned against each other. Supplied with some modest pocket money, Bobo decided to have a coffee in what looked like a traditional tea shop. The coffee was pleasant enough but was so weak in comparison with the potent Turkish coffee he was used to in Bosnia. In the tea shop, he struck up a conversation with a pleasant-looking man in his 30‘s, the very first English person he’d ever spoken to outside the refugee centre. This was David, a head teacher at a school in South East London. The conversation flowed easily but Bobo could not decide whether to say anything more than that he had fled from the war in Bosnia. He wasn’t sure how others would react. He was a guest in these people’s country but up until now, he had felt invisible. They chatted for some time, with David coming across as kind, very modest but easy in his skin. To Bobo’s astonishment, he referred to himself as gay, something he just dropped into the conversation, without so much as a hint of embarrassment, as if this were completely normal. His openness took Bobo aback but while it gave him the courage to mention his separation from Halid, he described his lover only as a schoolfriend. David offered to take Bobo for lunch the following weekend and to show him around historic Greenwich.
The following week, Bobo and David shared a view of the vast London panorama that is to be seen from the Greenwich Observatory. As a youngster, Bobo had once travelled to Sarajevo, a substantial city and the capital of his home state, but London was of a different order of magnitude altogether; whilst it looked inviting, its sheer scale evoked fear too. They spent a long weekend together and Bobo felt relaxed enough to talk a little about his past; above all, he astonished himself by mastering the courage to speak about his special relationship with Halid. David reacted as if this were nothing the least bit extraordinary and he talked freely and candidly about his own life as a gay man in London. That evening, he took Bobo up to the West End, to Soho’s famous Old Compton Street, the ‘pink heart‘ of the capital. It was a pleasant, warm evening and the street was completely thronged with gay men; of every age, shape, colour and size, they all seemed to be enjoying themselves, drinking and socialising. For Bobo, this was an almost overwhelmingly reassuring experience, though the outrageous extravagance of some men’s attire (and gestures) did make him wonder whether he really was ‘one of them’ after all. Coming from a small, provincial Balkan town, where most young people just longed for uniformity, he was now confronted with a world where individuality appeared almost to be the norm. Back in Greenwich, Bobo felt excited but confused too, with David possibly failing to comprehend just how enormous was the obstacle that stood before his young Balkan friend.
Returning to the refugee centre was painful after an exhilarating weekend of freedom; the same old forlorn faces still watched the depressing events in Bosnia unfolding on the television, though some inmates seemed to have given up on the TV and just stared at the blank walls instead. Bobo knew that he absolutely had to get out and that he wouldn’t be able to do this without breaking the rules, so he broke them. Gathering up his few possessions, he ran away from the centre and turned up on David’s doorstep, begging to be allowed to stay. In the circumstances, David could hardly have refused. As it turned out, they would share the house for almost five years.
Two significant events occurred in the meantime: in August 1992, during the Siege of Sarajevo, the National Library was burned down deliberately. The Library was the treasure chest of Balkan written history; a collection of over three million volumes and countless other historical artefacts were destroyed. To Bobo’s shock and horror, he found his father’s name mentioned in news coverage as one of the nationalists connected with this act of unalloyed cultural vandalism. Bobo was appalled and incensed, consumed with sudden hatred for his father. Now ashamed to hear any mention of his own family name, he spoke to no-one of his family connection but wondered to himself how, in such a short space of time, his pro-Yugoslav patriot father could have turned into such a virulent Serb Nationalist, and not even just a dyed-in-the-wool nationalist but someone actively bent on destroying the noble dream of an interdependent federation that Yugoslavia had once been. The longer the conflict continued, the more deeply Bobo felt ashamed of half of his ethnic make-up. In front of strangers, he now emphasised his Nigerian roots even though he still held a Yugoslav passport, the passport of a country that no longer existed, together with a UK permit to stay for six months, a permit now long since expired.
One day, out of the blue, Bobo heard from Halid: he’d been on the bus that had headed for Sweden which is where he was now living. But the letter he received from his dearest friend bore news as chilling as the northern climes it came from, though ‘news’ was no longer an accurate description for the events described had occurred some years before. It seemed that the place where Halid’s parents and a number of their neighbours had been hiding had been discovered: the womenfolk were raped before being killed along with their husbands; then their houses had been burned down. Amongst these unfortunate women was Bobo’s mother. It was at the time when the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia had been well under way and Halid was clearly minded to point a finger of blame at Bobo’s father, now a proud Serb, and thus indirectly to put blame on Bobo too. Of the time they had shared in Banja Luka, of the affection that had grown to love between them, there was no mention; it had been so short a time but it was the most precious in Bobo’s short life. The pain of being abandoned, of being forsaken by Halid and vilified, bore heavily on his heart. Bobo felt a deep need to confront the cause of this pain but without any travel documents, the very idea of going to Sweden was impossible, even if he had managed to find the cash to pay for such a journey. With his last hope gone, Bobo now felt entirely alone in the world; something long treasured had died within him; he felt numb.
In Greenwich, David continued to give Bobo a home and to help him financially but Bobo was now in Britain illegally. He tried the Croatian Consulate in the hope of having his Yugoslav passport converted to a Croatian one but he was refused. He could not countenance making application to the comparable Serb Representation in London, though that might well have been more fruitful, because he did not wish to have anything to do with the nation that he blamed for the destruction of Yugoslavia and for the murder of his own mother. The war had effectively made Bobo stateless and being now an illegal immigrant, he feared making any approach to the British authorities; he knew that some overstayers had been forced to return back home, except that it was no longer any kind of home to most of them.
Not wishing to be a burden on David, who had been so generous to him, Bobo managed to get a job behind the scenes in a Balkan restaurant in Lewisham. No-one asked to see his papers and no-one asked him any questions; most people working there were in the same boat as him. Amongst them was an enterprising, larger-than-life young Nigerian man who, having learned that Bobo’s mother hailed from his own home country, treated him with great affection. He had himself been in Britain as an illegal immigrant for many years, though not any longer, for now he had a passport with the prized residency stamp in it. What’s more, he knew where such documents could be acquired - at a price, of course. What he thought would be helpful in Bobo’s case was that Bobo had a Nigerian Birth Certificate. The cost of a new passport would be £3,000 but his Nigerian friend offered him a deal: this cost would be reduced to £500 if Bobo agreed to collect and deliver five lots of parcels - these were to be picked up from lorry parks at selected service stations, and delivered to certain addresses in London over a period of three months. This was all to be undertaken discreetly and with no questions asked - Bobo just had to look respectable and inconspicuous and do what he was told. He knew that what he was getting involved in must be illegal and probably dangerous and he felt he had to hide it from David, who had his professional job to think about. He also knew that if he got caught, pleading ignorance wouldn’t do him any good, but he needed the ID, he needed a passport (even if it was forged) and the right to stay in Britain; as far as he could see, this was his only chance of getting it.
So, one day he met his contact and duly handed over his photographs, taken in a local photo booth, together with a copy of his Birth Certificate and the £500 he had managed to save from his work. Many sleepless nights followed, with David becoming more and more concerned about Bobo’s strange behaviour. Bobo continued in his determination to keep what he was doing a secret, not wishing David to be involved in any way that might put his reputation, perhaps even his job, in jeopardy. Two weeks later, Bobo was handed an envelope; it contained a Nigerian Passport with the all-important stamp in it, confirming his leave to remain in the UK. Bobo felt very strange, very conflicted. Nigeria was undoubtedly part of his heritage, a look in the mirror told him that, but he had left it when he was just a kid; Yugoslavia was his real home, but it no longer existed; his father, who had rejected him for being gay, had become a loathsome fanatic; and his mother had lost her life, a victim of a terrible, racist war promoted by fanatical nationalists like his father. He was now in England with a fake identity; his Serbian surname was inscribed on a false Nigerian Passport; he was gay but still had the feeling that perhaps he might not be. He came to the awkward realisation that everyone’s identity must be largely a construct, something others create around us, but it’s also an idea that we create within ourselves, something that helps us feel at home within our own skins.
Bobo felt that he could no longer accept David’s kind hospitality. Strains had begun to emerge too, with David having come to the conclusion that Bobo was engaged in some sort of activity that was at best shady and at worst, illegal and dangerous. Bobo also knew that if David found out how he had obtained a forged passport, he would be alarmed and angry. It is never easy to predict how other people will respond to acts of desperation committed by those who feel they have no choice, who take desperate measures in desperate circumstances, just in order to survive, whose unpalatable actions are dictated by the situations they find themselves in. Though they would remain friends for many years to come, Bobo moved out and went to live in a flat-share in Clapham.
Bobo went from job to job, always steering clear of any positions with higher visibility, feeling he should keep as far under the radar as possible. He even managed to travel to Sweden for an extended weekend, to meet up with Halid again, hoping to reconnect, to rediscover some tenderness perhaps, to share the pain of loss, to reminisce about Bosnia, and to lament the Yugoslavia that was no more. But he found Halid as cold as the North and engaged to a Muslim girl; after an awkward half day together, they parted with a handshake. Halid had refused even to discuss the relationship they had had in Banja Luka, dismissing it as adolescent foolishness. The coldness of Halid’s letter of years before had been made brutally tangible, a last, feeble hope was now extinguished, and Bobo returned to a grey and rainy London with no remedy for the coldness in his heart.
As time went by, so his flatmates changed too. Having little in common, they didn’t socialise much; some were students, others young professionals with their first London jobs, striving to get places of their own in the capital. Over the years, Bobo had come to accept a little more the gayness within himself and he sometimes even ventured to gay bars and clubs to socialise, though never felt comfortable bringing anyone back to his room. At one point, he tried making contact with other Yugoslavs living in London but found, to his immense dismay, that this refugee community had fractured along sectarian lines, with Croats refusing to associate with Serbs, and Slovenians almost pretending that they had never belonged to the federation at all. Given the confusion in his own background and allegiances, he felt like an outsider in all of these groups and was treated as one too. But at least he was in England, he was far away from the war-ravaged Balkans and, while he had to keep a low profile, life was gradually getting better.
In 1998, in an ominous fatwa, Osama bin Laden condemned American foreign policy. Three years later, on 11 September 2001, Bobo watched aghast at the television as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre came crashing down. To be honest, he had some reason to detest what these towers had represented: they were almost like symbols of US arrogance, of the imperialism of US trade, and of the impunity with which the US financial markets could create havoc throughout the rest of the world. So a part of him almost rejoiced to see these symbols brought down, but Bobo was worldly enough to understand that this New York tragedy would become the cause for much more blood to be spilled, and that probably quite soon. Indeed, the attack on Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan commenced soon after. The rhetoric in the UK changed too and, almost overnight, all Muslims came to be suspect; in London, with close to a million Muslims living there, there was much unease in the air.
Many Nigerians were Muslim too so Bobo began to feel the need to decide where he stood: he had a Nigerian Passport and his mother had been a Muslim. On 15th February 2003, with the war on Iraq imminent, Bobo took part in the great ‘Stop the War’ protest, described as the largest protest event in human history, held in London and over 600 other cities around the globe. It felt good to be part of a protest movement of almost a million people, marching united against another unjust war. It made no difference, of course, and US and British forces attacked Iraq on 20th March, as planned. Though Bobo felt impotent and deeply dismayed, he was reluctant to share these feelings, knowing only too well that many of the citizens in his host country had supported the attack on Iraq, believing what the politicians had said and fearing that the threat to Britain was real.
Bobo was, however, able to vent his frustrations in the company of three lads who had moved in with him some weeks before; one was Bangladeshi and two were Somali, by ethnicity, though all three had been born in Bradford and Leeds and were now working or studying in London. They differed from all his previous flatmates too: while they were much younger than Bobo, they treated him with great courtesy. All three of them were practising Muslims and, while they acknowledged Bobo’s avowed atheism, they shared moral values and mutual respect. They also implied that they sensed within him the roots that went back through his mother to Muslim Nigeria. It was the first time that Bobo had felt surrounded by a company that seemed caring, loving almost. Despite their faith, the lads from ‘Up North’ even accepted that Bobo was gay, though they encouraged him to think that perhaps this might change at some later stage in his life. In other words, they appeared to be typical modern British Muslims, with what appeared to be a liberal and accepting outlook; they were tolerant of others while respectful of their own traditions and Muslim roots. And they did all agree on one thing: the increasing polarisation that was taking place between the Muslim and nominally Christian worlds would end in tragedy. Even the domestic arrangements in the flat changed too, with each one of them taking turns to cook for the others and an effort made to share the use of each other’s possessions. Bobo ate with them and even taught them how to make the delicious Bosnian speciality, Burek. Bobo had a better internet connection on his Apple PowerBook, so they used his machine occasionally, for chatting to friends, checking emails and downloading some straight porn just to tease Bobo, endeavouring to show him what he was missing and convince him that this was what he really wanted. Three of them prayed regularly and Ramadan meant that food was plentiful, but only after sunset and the end of the fast.
One day, on the 7th of July 2005, the bombs came home: Muslim terrorists struck at the heart of central London, detonating three bombs in the Underground and one on a double decker bus. The grainy images of these terrible outrages were watched on the television in Bobo’s flat in almost total silence. Every Muslim would now be a suspect and as all three lads wore the distinctive, traditional Muslim dress, they decided it might be safer for them to stay indoors for a few days. There was clearly unease in the air and for the first time, Bobo felt he was being kept at a distance. He witnessed some discussion and argument about returning back to Yorkshire but Bobo tried to reassure his flatmates that staying in London was the best strategy. His counsels went unheeded, however, and about a week later he returned home one day to an empty flat. An envelope on his desk contained two months’ rent for for all of them, together with a little note of thanks - but no address. He tried to phone them on their mobiles but got no answer. Bobo felt concern for their wellbeing but was also sad for himself too; the bond between the four of them had been a strong one, so in many ways he now felt abandoned, regretting that they had been unable to share with him the reasons for their sudden departure. The thought of finding new flatmates filled him with dread too so, with two months’ rent in his pocket, he felt able to postpone this task until the following month, even hoping, perhaps, that they might change their minds and return - it could be that they had left London only to escape the immediate aftermath of hysteria and mistrust of anything Muslim.
About two weeks later, Bobo returned home exhausted; it had been a long day at work and the fridge was almost empty, so he had some toast, sent a few eMails and retired to bed early. But his well-earned repose was savagely interrupted: at some unearthly hour of the night, he was awoken by a terrible splintering noise. His door went crashing down, torn off its hinges, and a powerful torch blinded him; all at once, he saw he was surrounded by a bunch of paramilitary officers in balaclavas. Some were screaming at him unintelligibly while others set about ransacking the whole flat, searching for what? Dazed and frightened, Bobo was thrown on to the floor, his hands were tied behind his back, and his head was crushed against the floorboards. It was a living nightmare, the sort of scene usually portrayed in films, or written about in the newspapers, not something you expect to experience yourself. They wanted to know where the others were and refused to accept that the flat was now empty, that it was just him and his beloved teddy bear, a sweet present from David and the only other creature keeping him company. Bobo was kicked, punched and shoved out of his flat, thrown half-naked into a windowless van, and driven away. Naturally, he felt completely disorientated; he couldn’t understand why these people kept screaming at him, why they didn’t stop. He was barely half-dressed, unable to move his arms at all, in terrible pain, bleeding from his nose, and fearing for his life. He didn’t know who’d taken him, where he was going to, or why. Perhaps it was a genuine nightmare and he would wake up in the morning, with the light streaming through his bedroom window, and Teddy there on the pillow next to him, as usual, waiting for his first cuddle of the day.
But in the morning there was no sunlight, no windows, and no Teddy, just a hard padded bench and a bucket. A fluorescent light illuminated the small cell. After the day broke that morning, he was questioned almost continuously: they wanted to know everything about his flatmates but whatever he told them, they seemed determined not to believe. Mind you, it soon dawned on him that he had actually known very little about any of them; they had shared their daily lives, discussed politics, war, religion and sex but they had revealed very little about their respective past lives; they were still not close enough for that and they were quite English anyway, very private. Bobo was never told explicitly but he soon felt pretty sure they must be holding him under some anti-terrorism statute.
During the second day, it transpired that things had been discovered on his computer, in a folder that he’d been completely unaware of. They never told him exactly what they had found but there was mention of plans for further attacks on London. He knew absolutely nothing of this but he was simply not believed. He asked to see a lawyer but was informed that he was not permitted to see one - part of the special anti-terrorism provisions, seemingly.
On the third day, they discovered that his passport was a forgery and that he was living in Britain illegally. Having also discovered that he was gay, they made a great point of humiliating him, a twisted pervert half-caste who had been giving succour to Britain’s enemies.
Bobo wasn’t ‘Bobo Marković’ any more, he was just a number now; no-one knew that he had been arrested and taken away, that he was being held in detention where no-one knew his name. He was one of a number of such individuals who were now only numbers, except that most of the others did at least have families, friends or loved ones who would miss them and report their disappearance. Bobo had only had his teddy and who knows where he was by now, possibly at the bottom of some black bin bag containing Bobo’s few possessions, with his number stuck on it. It was no longer clear to Bobo how long he had been detained: he was blindfolded and transported from the first place to another place, and then after that, to some other place again, but all the places he was taken to seemed just like the places he had left - they all appeared to have no names and no identity. He was interrogated over and over again and always about the same things; it was almost hypnotic. To break the monotony, he tried to answer the questions in a different way but they saw through that and he got punched for his pains; his hands were tied so tightly that they almost bled. He was often spat on and called a ‘little Muslim queer’.
By way of contrast to this monotonous routine, one day he had a surprise visitor who was introduced as a Nigerian Representative. This large, besuited personage turned out to be thoroughly objectionable, accusing Bobo of bringing his country into disrepute, of bringing shame on his mother’s tribe and, worst of all, of being a homosexual and thus less deserving of respect than the lowliest animal. Indeed, the personage took pains to make it abundantly clear to Bobo that Nigeria now had laws in place “to get rid of scum, of people like you!” Mr Nigerian Representative informed Bobo officially that if the UK repatriated him to Nigeria, he would not be allowed to pollute its sacred soil.
During the months of his detention, Bobo attempted to explain things to the security services officers and to his guards, to tell something of the story of his life; he apologised for obtaining a forged passport; he tried to explain his circumstances and to reason with them. While they listened, it was as if they heard nothing. After all, Bobo had only tried to live the life he’d been given and to be as good as he could, not to harm anyone or to offend anyone intentionally. Of course, he had knowingly broken the rules, but only to survive, only to keep out of the war in Bosnia. But no-one wanted to listen or to try to understand. It was as if no-one cared; now he was just a number, and no-one knew his name, it was almost as if he had ceased to exist. Bobo lost track of how long he had been held, or of how many times he had been interrogated; he never met another proper human being, only those same faces who came to ask the same questions over and over again, the faces that never heard anything he said to them, or believed it if they did.
One night, Bobo found himself being transported yet again, but this time he managed to glance at the side of the van and what he guessed was the logo of a security company, some strange name made up of letters and numbers. On this occasion, there were two men in uniform bearing the same logo - they were rough and unpleasant and called him a black queer and other offensive names too. Bobo thought this was strange, even funny; having not seen daylight for months, his skin was actually paler than his guards - what an irony, to be called ‘black’. Bobo guessed that he was about to be deported to Nigeria because the uniformed officers assured him that the Nigerians knew how to deal with “queer scum” like him. The thought of being repatriated to Nigeria seemed absurd to him; he had never had Nigerian citizenship, he had left Lagos as a little boy, and he hardly remembered anything much about the country. After so many years, he could no longer speak the language that his mother had taught him in his infancy; he knew no-one in that country. But in his ears rang the words of the Nigerian Representative: “We will not allow any queer to pollute our sacred Nigerian soil!”
Bobo was still harbouring the hope of seeing someone, however briefly, before they took him away, to let someone know who he was and what had happened to him. But this was not to be. With his hands firmly tied behind his back, he was dragged up the steps and into the plane. Three uniformed officers were with him. When they pushed him through the door and into the aircraft, the plane was already full; inside, there was a sea of faces, all seated with their seat-belts fastened, all waiting nervously for take off; they were going home, home to their families, to their loved ones, and they were now all looking at him. He was pushed into a front seat with one officer on each side of him and one behind, all firmly holding him down.
Bobo knew that this was the only chance he might now have, his last chance, to speak up and perhaps be heard by someone. Perhaps someone might hear him, might come to his rescue, stop the plane taking off, call the Press, or might at least just remember his name. He marshalled almost superhuman strength, managed to free himself just enough to stand up and, turning quickly towards a sea of bewildered faces, he shouted out: “I am Borislav Marković and I am innocent! I only tried to live!” Though he saw expressions of horror spread across people’s faces, no-one stood up, no-one came to his rescue, and no-one called the Press; there was just stunned silence. Bobo then felt a sharp pain as his arms were twisted; he was pushed back down into his seat and he felt a belt around his neck, pulling his head back towards the headrest. The belt got tighter and Bobo fought back with all his strength; the belt got tighter still and then he couldn’t breathe; he was gasping for air but now he couldn’t breathe at all. He wanted to stand up again, to beg for justice, for mercy, for forgiveness, but the belt across his throat just got tighter still. Then, in an instant, Bobo found himself in Halid’s tender embrace; he felt the childhood caresses of his mother’s long, elegant fingers; he could smell the almond blossom on the hills around Banja Luka; he saw the magnificent vista of London spread out below the Observatory in Greenwich Park; he tasted the sweet darkness of Turkish coffee; and he felt once more against his cheek the soft golden fur of his beloved Teddy. And after that, only darkness and peace, no more struggle, no more pain, no more tears, no more ....
The flight to Lagos was delayed by almost an hour while a man’s body was removed from the front seat and deposited in a body bag that was waiting outside. All the passengers remained in their seats; no-one stood up; no-one protested; no-one asked any questions. They had watched in horror as the life of another human being was taken from him; some of them had heard his plea, heard him call out his name, but by the end of the flight, no-one could recall it. Officially, Bobo was only a number after all. That evening, a small entry in the local newspaper mentioned an incident that had occurred at the airport, with some pundit or other quoted as saying that there should be an enquiry into the methods being used by security agencies when deporting illegal immigrants, but not even this modest article once mentioned his name. Bobo was no more than a number now, and his was a number that just didn’t count.
Bobo’s story is the story of one outsider who could never have been a part of this project; he certainly had a name but people have long since forgotten it; in the end, he was only a number, another statistic. He tried so hard all his life to belong but, as a ‘multiple outsider’, he was always swimming against the tide, having to grow stronger simply to survive. Bobo always lived in hope that one day he might belong, that he might eventually find his niche, and that one day he might be allowed to come ‘inside’; but this hope would never be realised, the tide against him was always too strong and, merciless, it finally swept him away.
This story, the story of the ‘unknown outsider’, is dedicated not only to all those outsiders who could not take part in the project and who may no longer be amongst us, but also to those are with us still but who could not find within themselves the strength to take part. This is the place where we can remember them.
While the events in this story are real events, events experienced by real people, the characters are wholly fictional; their names are not the names of real people and they have no existence outside of this narrative - any likeness which they are perceived as having to those living or deceased is entirely coincidental and unintended. However, it should go without saying that they are offered as archetypes; it is thus inevitable that they will bear some resemblance to people we know, or to people we have met at some point in our own lives.
Updated: 5th May 2014
‘The Unknown Outsider’ is a tribute to all the outsiders who could not join us, who may no longer be amongst us, or who may be with us still but who lacked the strength to take part. This is where we can remember them. Bobo’s story is of one outsider who could never have been a part of this project. All his life he tried so hard to belong but, as a ‘multiple outsider’, he always swam against the tide, growing stronger just to survive. Bobo’s constant hope was that one day he might belong, might eventually find his niche, that one day he might be allowed ‘inside’. But this forlorn hope was never realised: the tide of events was far too strong and, mercilessly, it finally swept him away.