Essay: Dženana Vucicon Living Between

Migratory Flights 

In Germany they joke that Slavs live in poverty so they can drive home in a Mercedes. I hadn’t heard this stereotype growing up in so-called Australia. From there, we had to fly.  

Bosnia is a long way away, and it’s an expensive journey. During my childhood, we only flew back once. I was eleven and I don’t remember much except my mother’s constant anxiety, her fear of landmines and strange men. Our migration to Australia had been an escape: from the genocidal war that had been waged against Bosnian Muslims between 1992 and 1995, and from its aftermath. Our return forced us to confront what we had left behind, what we had done in leaving everyone behind.

When I went back to Bosnia a second time, as an adult and alone, I stayed for three weeks. It wasn’t enough so I returned for six months, intending it to be forever. This is the kind of decision you can make at twenty-five. Impulsive, reckless. My mother was the same age when she made the decision to leave her husband and parents, her five siblings and all her friends, to escape Bosnia and migrate to Australia with my younger sister and me. My reverse journey baffled her but I was determined. I wanted to know where I had come from, and whom.  

In Bosnia, I learned to speak my mother tongue, albeit haltingly; to drink coffee short and strong and sweet; to cook grah with Vegemite in place of suho meso. I learned, too, that I had been gone too long, that I could not stay.  

Migratory birds fly to so-called Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand primarily via the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) – one of eight major flyways for birds travelling from breeding to overwintering grounds. They come from a north that stretches from the Taimyr Peninsula on the arctic edge of Russia, across the Bering and Chukchi Seas, to Alaska. Fifty million waterbirds fly this route and of them, two million travel all the way to Australia. As they travel south, they skim through east Asia: past Japan and along the Korean Peninsula, through China and over Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Some peel away to the west, going on to India and Bangladesh.  

Thirty-five species make the journey to Australia each year – the greater sand plover from the deserts of central Asia; eastern curlews from the wet grasslands and swamps of far-east Russia; Asian dowitchers, black-tailed godwits, and broad-billed sandpipers from Siberian marshlands; great knots from the mountain slopes of Anadyr; bar-tailed godwits from the Alaskan coast and tundra.

I don’t remember much of my village during the war and nothing at all of it before the gunfire and makeshift sniper nests. My father tells me it used to be bigger, all the houses full and whole, and there were shops too – cafes and a bakery and, in the next village (where my mother grew up), even a cinema. After the war everything was different, everyone dead or gone. The land wears this loss in ruins and abandoned homes with gaping windows, in exposed brick and plastic UN sheeting which, thirty years later, still replaces glass in our poorest neighbours’ homes. Trees erupt from broken walls; blackberry and nettle swarm the hollow bellies of houses across the street. Yet few fields have been left fallow, since without employment people have had to grow their own food. Now it is mostly the old who tend the rows of tomato and cucumber. The villages are empty of young people; they’ve gone to look for work.  

For years Bosnia has had one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world. My cousins, graduates from well-respected Bosnian universities with useful degrees, spend years looking for an ‘in’, but without knowing the right people or having the money for a bribe, there’s little left for them to do. Eventually, they take jobs doing whatever they can: operating heavy machinery; cooking meat in a ćevabdžinca; waiting tables at the local hotel; telemarketing dodgy investments to rich Americans; online customer service for German multinational white goods companies; assembly-line work in the munitions factory next to Tito’s bunker. Even those lucky enough to get a job in the field they studied often can’t get the hours they want and many times jobs are split part-time between people who’d prefer to have a full-time wage. 

I had intended to stay in Bosnia when I moved there, though in hindsight this was a childish fantasy. It was not only that I couldn’t work with my cratered language; it was deeper than that: I was – am – too much the hyphen. But I couldn’t go home to Australia either, not if I wanted to visit Bosnia every year and make up for all the years of absence. So I took a scholarship to study in Glasgow. I met my partner and moved to Berlin to live with him. I stayed close.

My relationship to Berlin is one of necessity and convenience. Islamophobia curls through conversations – even on the left, sometimes especially on the left – and my name makes bureaucrats grit their teeth. Eastern Europe is not Europe and Muslims are not Europeans. A certain kind of German wants us Kanaken to remember that. Still. A Bosnian living in Germany is no unusual thing. We have been Gastarbeiter here for years, ever since the end of World War Two when the German industrial machine needed cheap labour to make possible its Wirtschaftswunder, its economic miracle. Thirty years ago my grandfather was a Gastarbeiter in a factory in Frankfurt and today my cousins apply for jobs in Amazon warehouses by the highways of regional German towns. They get the job, but not the visa. This is how it goes.

In early 2023, representatives from the Munich airport come to Sarajevo to interview Bosnians: women for customer service jobs for which they would need a modicum of English; men for jobs in luggage handling and waste disposal for which they would need only their desperation. Visas are not offered with these jobs; if they were, the workers would need to be paid a liveable minimum. But without work, there is hardly any hope for a visa except through marriage or the visa lottery. My cousin’s fiancé won his visa this way and I helped him with his resume. Both of them had degrees in traffic engineering from the University of Sarajevo but the only job he was offered was operating machinery in a factory near Ulm. His fiancée, he was told, could not be given a job there because they did not hire women. Only one cousin has made it to a job in the West, working as a nurse aide in a hospital in Wiesbaden, central-west Germany. She commutes five hours every day, is paid very little and poorly treated, but she is also pragmatic: better turning wealthy Germans in hospital beds than turning ćevapi on the grill.  

Before the war, the Bosnian population was 4.5 million people; today it is 3.2 million. It is predicted that in the next fifty years, the population will drop to under 1.6 million. In Bosnia, everyone is looking for a way out. Not forever, but for long enough.  

Migratory birds begin their flights at almost the same time every year, some showing startling, unfathomable consistency. One bar-tailed godwit has begun its flight north from Aotearoa on almost exactly the 25th day of March for the past thirteen years. It’s the angle of the sunlight, the crispness of the air, but it’s something else too: a compulsion written into their bones. Young birds that have never migrated before know, somehow, where to go, how to get there. If they are unable to make their journey – if, for example, they are domesticated or caged – they display signs of anxiety: changes in their sleep behaviour, frantic jumping and wing-fluttering in the direction of migration. Scientists call it Zugunruhe. Migration anxiety.  

When I haven’t been home for a while, I feel the absence welling in the pit of my stomach, a hollow with the gravitation pull of a black hole. Time passes and a mass rises into my chest, my throat, becomes a thing with texture, edges. I grow restless, pick fights with my partner. Cry. Around then I start seeing reminders of home everywhere – I don’t know if they’ve always been there, made urgent by some metastasis of time and distance and Baader-Meinhof, or if they arise fresh and new each time, a sign (if only of my phone’s listening to me). A Twitter debate over keške, of all things. Snippets of conversation. Nisam to rekla. Pusti! A jar of Vegemite inexplicably shelved between the doenjang and gochujang at the Asian grocery store on Hauptstraβe. Advertisements for flights. Always, advertisements for flights.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman said that there were two classes of people in the world: those who move freely and those who are forced to move – by war, climate change, lack of resources. ‘Tourists’ and ‘vagabonds’ he called them. With an Australian passport I am the former, slipping past borders with shameful ease. Certainly, in Germany, passport control officers still linger on my documents, still bark rhetorical questions (You travel a lot, no?! You’re in Bosnia a lot, I see! Your visa will expire in October, okay?!) while flicking through my passport page by page, even after I show my residency card. But they let me through.

It is possible to track bird migrations along the EAAF just as you might track flights. A small number have been tagged and their location made visible via Bird 4BBRW 1002074282, a male bar-tailed godwit, and Bird 4BWWB 1002077911, a female of the same species, are, at the time of writing, in the North Island of Aotearoa. Ah Nam 2060545083, a male black-tailed Godwit, is near Surabaya, on the island of Java, Indonesia. Q2 2490437633 is north of Bangkok, Thailand. Enam 2006891525 is on the coast of Bangladesh. 

Most birds stop somewhere along their migration path, at a staging site where they can rest and recuperate. Others fly their entire journey in a single leg. The bar-tailed godwit, for example, undertakes the longest non-stop migration of any bird and the longest journey without stopping for food made by any animal, flying eight days and 11,000km from Alaska to Australia and Aotearoa. In 2021, bird 4BBRW set a record, flying approximately 13,035km from Alaska to New South Wales in ten days before heading on to Aotearoa. In 2022 another bird set a new record, flying 13,550km in eleven days from Alaska to Tasmania, the first time a tagged bird has flown this route. They call this bird B6 and at the time he was four months old.  

When they start arriving at their southern homes in August, bar-tailed godwits are in the process of becoming different birds. In the north, they are in breeding plumage: their heads and breasts are a rusty red, their wing feathers tawny and edged in white. In the south, white creeps into their heads, breasts and under-carriages, their colour fades to grey. Their calls are the same, sweet and yipping, and so are their shrewd black eyes, their long, straight, almost proboscis-like beaks. In April, they begin the long journey back, this time stopping at staging sites on the Korean Peninsula and around the Yellow Sea.  

These birds can live for thirty years, spending their time in the northern hemisphere breeding, raising chicks, and fattening up; and their months in the southern hemisphere recovering from the labour of parental care, and from their flight. Preparing for the next one. When the young hatch, they are fully developed and, like B6, will join their flock for the migration south. Though they won’t reach reproductive maturity until they’re two years old, many young birds make the long migration back between one home and the other, compelled to take flight. 

Bar-tailed godwits do not glide. They are ‘active flyers’, their wings moving the entire time they’re airborne. 

Bosnia, March 2022: jeans and light jacket weather. Blue skies. Some rain. Every day, my partner and I went for walks in the hills around my village, taking my dog to swim in the creeks that criss-cross the flat bottom of what used to be an artificial lake. I had never seen the water so low, the bones of the lake so bared.  

My Bosnian family and I do not believe in a lot of the same things, but the climate is not a question of belief, rather one of intimacy. Much of my family works the soil and so we are people of the seasons, watchful of mild winters and late frost, early behara and the crisp edge of leaves in summer. My father has lived in our village his whole life and has seen the lake in its many moods, but for him, too, this was unusual. There was no snow, he explained, and so there was nothing to flow into the lake and fill it. I have never known my village without the lake and cannot imagine a summer without it. My father is more ambivalent: the lake was created in 1953 as part of a dam project. Entire villages and what used to be the region’s biggest town were demolished to make way for it. Last year the water was low enough that you could see the town’s old graveyard, its tombstones rising from the muddy shallows. There are few elders who remember what it was like before the dam, when the river Neretva flowed unimpeded down the valley. Even those who don’t have felt the slow changes the lake has wrought across our hills: some kind of disease to the plum trees, exacerbated by the mists that roll off the lake every morning; the displacement of native river fish, Strugač and Glavatica and others, by invasive species like pike-perch; the unstoppable reeds, which first grew in charming clusters along the banks before spreading deeper into the water; the insects brought with them.  

The farmers in my family tell me that traditional remedies no longer work: they’ve started using powerful insecticides and painting the bottoms of their trees white to protect against cold and insects. 

The bar-tailed godwit is not a threatened species, only ‘near-threatened’. It is a shore and wetlands bird, and so it is vulnerable to the habitat loss brought on by humans who love to build where there is water as well as by climate change and the rising seas. Its numbers are decreasing, but it could be worse.

The spoon-billed Sandpiper, another species flying along the EAAF, is one of seven critically endangered species endemic to it, with the more optimistic estimates suggesting there are around 700 left. Sharing a similar colouring with the bar-tailed godwit, they are about half the size of their distant cousins, with shorter beaks, splayed at the end. These small birds do not migrate to Australia; they move between the northeast coast of Russia, from the Chukotsk and Kamchtka Peninsulas along the Bering Sea, stopping at staging sites on the Korean Peninsula and in the Jiangsu Province of China, wintering in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, and Southern China. They, too, are waders, threatened by loss of their wading grounds, particularly those which have been ‘reclaimed’ for human use. In 2020, scientists predicted that they would become extinct within ten to twenty years. There are breeding programs, of course, but they are slow. And questions remain: how well can these birds survive without necessary stops along their migration route? Will they be able to migrate in the future? If not, how well can they survive in one half of a world? How can they unlearn the tides in their blood? 

Berlin is not home, but it is near a home. From here, it is only 1050km to my village and cheap – if you fly, you can get there in under four hours for as little as $30. Few of us drive anymore (neither a Mercedes nor anything else) and fewer still get the bus, which takes twenty-four hours and costs around $100. In 2018, I stayed in Bosnia for six months; in 2019 for three; in 2020, well, things became stretched.  

From Berlin to Naarm/Melbourne it is 15,963km and two or three consecutive flights, taking somewhere between twenty-three and forty-two hours and costing between $2000 and $3000 AUD return. It used to be cheaper to fly, or rather: we paid less to do it. If you booked early, a trip to Europe could cost $1200 to $1500 AUD return. For a while I worked as a travel agent and sent people on these trips every day. In February 2023, a November flight home cost $2046. When I check in June, that same flight is over $3000. It will be like this from now on, only worse. It is not the kind of trip you can take multiple times a year, and when the ticket alone is seven per cent of my yearly income, it must be skrimped and pinched for. The journey is labour-intensive: labour is what makes it possible, although not always. Since mid-2018, I have been back just once, at the end of 2022. At first, I couldn’t afford to go, and then – Na ja. We all know what happened. 

And what is happening. This winter temperatures in Europe were – again – at historic highs. In January, in some central European cities, they reached almost twenty degrees. In Bosnia there were floods in May, as there were in December last year, in November the year before, and June the year before that. In so-called Australia, the country’s most devastating bushfires precipitate a La Niña that last three years. It feels pointless now to track the idiosyncrasies of climate; everything is broken and keeps breaking and everybody knows it. The flowers bloom early, the leaves burn on the trees, for a few days it’s colder in Victoria in January than it is in parts of Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands.  

Flights have something to do with this. 

The International Labour Organisation estimates that five per cent of the global labour force is made up of migrant workers. 169 million people, including 99 million men and 70 million women. Most of these people will work in service industry jobs in their country of migration, although many will also work in industry and agriculture. Their ‘host’ will most likely be a high-income or upper-middle income country, and they will make up almost twenty per cent of that country’s workforce. Migrant workers are attractive because they are exploitable. Australia, for example, allows in migrant workers to serve coffee and pick fruit, while at the same time tightening restrictions around who can stay, for how long and when, and whether or not they can return or permanently settle. In Europe, migrant workers from eastern countries return year after year to harvest crops but are allowed only a short-term stay and no government support. For many Gastarbeiter, to live in the West is not cheap. Even so, migrant workers typically send money home or save it to spend at home, often living in cramped, dormitory-like shareflats, subsisting off rice and bread with pavlaka. Some have been able to make rich European countries their permanent residence and return home every year, sharing their surplus income with their loved ones.  

My movement is not generous in this way. I am here on a renewable ‘freelance visa’, earning less than $30,000AUD a year and supporting no one but myself. I could not live in Bosnia, but equally, I could not live in Australia – not off fellowships and writing alone. For me, it is cheaper to live here, and doing so makes possible my migrations. Berlin becomes the staging site between homes which are each inhospitable to my long-term stay – one devastated by war and its ongoing repercussions, the other made unaffordable by what settler-colonialist governments have allowed greed to do.  

This kind of movement – whereby people from wealthy nations move to places where they can live well and cheaply – is not uncommon. In Europe people from the north can earn the wages of their wealthier homelands while living in the south – in Greece, Italy, Croatia. Portugal has a new program to make this even easier by allowing non-European citizens to live and work in the country for up to five years if they earn 2,800€ per month – four times Portugal’s minimum wage. Australians, too, take up these opportunities, moving to Spain and Sardinia, or even more affordable destinations closer to home. Bali is a popular choice.   

Over espresso tonics, an Australian friend living in Prague and I discuss the possibilities of our lives in central Europe, a place we never expected to find ourselves but somehow, bizarrely, the place where we can sustain ourselves as writers. Later, I read the newsletter of a writer I admire, who used to split her time between Australia and Greece, who now splits her time between the UK and Greece. Another writer splits hers between Berlin and New York. I cannot split my time in this way. But from money saved on rent and bills alone, I can afford a return to Australia almost every year,  to Bosnia even twice a year. Such things are possible, depending on the strength of your passport and how far in your favour the salary-to-cost-of-living ratio leans. Such things are possible for us.  

When I visit Bosnia in April 2023, the lake is already almost full though my father tells me there has been little snowmelt this year; the snow didn’t come until late in winter. But there has been rain, and a lot of it. Before my flight, I had checked my weather app and anticipated warm weather. I packed lightly but the day I arrive, the weather turns and it begins to snow every morning. This time I have come alone and my father has taken the week off work and so we take walks together, climbing the forested hills which have only recently been de-mined. My father points out juniper bushes, a watering hole and shiny-trunked trees used by wildpigs, the dugout sniper points held by Croat forces during the war, the dark bark of pines that had burned last summer. On the sides of the hills and between them, our neighbours have planted orchards and my father quizzes me on the identity of the trees. He is a lumberjack, he is good at this game. I am not. He tries to help, pointing to differences in the bark, in the leaves which are only now erupting from their scrawny twigs. When he can, he points out differences between the blossoms. This year, many of the trees do not have flowers. The fruit trees bloomed early and then the mraz fell and took with it the early behara. Because of this, we will not be harvesting pears this summer, or apples or cherries or peaches.  

It is cold now, cold enough that we must stack wood next to the stove again, and keep the fire burning through the day. Outside the trees tremble their new blossoms in the wind.