Early dawn, when fog hung low, soldiers of the Republic of Las Flores were alerted by a rattletrap donkey cart with tyre wheels coming up their hilly border outpost. The guard at the watch tower shone a powerful beam of light at the approaching people. There was a man, a woman and three kids.
“Stay where you are!” The soldiers pointed their Kalashnikovs.
The donkey cart halted.
“We’re from the State of Alcazar,” said the man. “There is fighting in our land and we’re fleeing.”
The soldiers informed the border lieutenant who stomped into the scene, looking rattled. Having to come just when his shift was ending and another officer was to relieve him was galling.
“Alright, you,” the lieutenant glared at the man, “state your business.”
The meek-looking man gaped at the scowling lieutenant.
“Sir,” he replied timidly, “we’re from the State of Alcazar. There is fighting in our land and we’re fleeing.”
The lieutenant squinted at the man who appeared to be in his forties and lean and thinly bearded. He must have been travelling unshaved for days. Fatigue and torment were all over his long face. The lieutenant next studied the woman. She could have been quite a looker in her good days, but the elements and wretched situation had transformed her into a pale and emaciated dame. Their kids, two girls and a boy, were grubby, hair messy, and looking scared. The lieutenant glanced around at the rolling hills looking blue in the light of the dawn and the fog hanging over the barren patches of land. Things were in perfect slumber. The land across didn’t seem troubled.
“What do you want us to do?” said the lieutenant.
“We want refuge in your country, sir,” pleaded the man. “Our village people were massacred by government soldiers. We somehow managed to escape with whatever we could.”
The lieutenant saw three old luggage on the cart and a tin chest. A polythene bag contained several water bottles. The man himself walked with a backpack. The children had small school bags. And there was something else on the cart which appeared to be clearly an artist’s easel.
The man produced his passport. Geoffrey Garcia, State of Alcazar.
The lieutenant strode to his bunker behind the razor wire barricade and telephoned his senior officer. There was a family of five— foreign refugees at the border waiting to cross over to their nation. His senior promptly got in touch with the official hierarchy and by the time it reached the President of the Republic of Las Flores, more than a day had passed.
The President assembled his cabinet and his decorated army chief, a veteran of three wars. They were briefed about the situation across the border, about the civil war in the State of Alcazar. The unrest had driven a family of five to their border, who sought sanctuary.
Among those assembled ministers were men and women of diverse backgrounds. Some retired academics, some prosperous businesspersons, some decorated soldiers and some who had politics flowing in their veins right from the start.
The minister, who had made a fortune in cocoa, was opposed to foreign settlers.
“A family of five,” he began harshly, “is no small family for a tiny nation like ours.”
“But just five extra people…” said a lady minister, an academic at one time.
“Dear ma’am,” said her ministerial colleague, “can you imagine how much the migrants will multiply? Suppose we allow them to live in our country, allot them a plot of land. Suppose the master of the family marries a local woman. Won’t he beget more children? Won’t it drain our resources in the name of foreigners? Suppose the master doesn’t marry again. Still, he has three kids. Will those kids not have children of their own, too? Who is going to feed those children? Will this not be a strain on our fragile economy? Already we’ve army worms destroying hectares of paddy fields. Our farmers are ruined. And to accommodate and feed extra people …”
Heads nodded. The President tapped his fingers on the table in thought.
“These foreign migrants might not follow our way of life,” continued the minister, inwardly jubilant that he had already managed to sway the others. “They might go against our constitution, our laws that define us as citizens of Las Flores. Their loyalty might still lie with the State of Alcazar with whom we already have damaging relations. Their government might even use them as spies and saboteurs. Can we allow such a situation? Should we endanger our citizens?”
“Alarming, I say!” remarked the army chief.
“Plain hypothesis, I say!” The lady minister wagged her index finger. “You cannot tell for sure that the migrants will actually be a danger to our Republic.”
“We can grant them political asylum,” said another, “but no citizenship status. Then, no foreigner can influence our elections. No foreigner can hope to rule over us.”
“Indeed!” One minister backed the proposal. “We deny their children education, too. This will ensure foreigners don’t snatch local jobs.”
“Deny education?” The lady minister spoke tartly. “That’s moronic! The children will only take to crime. This will worsen things. Only education completes a person, tells him right from wrong.”
She had spoken her mind. None countered her.
“Then, what’s the solution?” said the frustrated businessman-turned-minister. “Put them up in our country, give them education, and have our peoples’ jobs taken away?”
“I think we order the migrants to go back to where they belong,” said the army chief. “No citizen loses his job. No citizen gets harmed by foreigners. End of business.”
“Listen!” The lady minister raised her pitch. “A civil war is going on there! We’re facing a humanitarian crisis! We can’t simply tell somebody to go back to his country just because we can’t accommodate him. Imagine yourself as a refugee. Will you like it if somebody closes the door on your face?”
They took swipes at one another. The President, to end the bickering in his cabinet, gave his last word. The migrants shall be granted asylum till peace returns to the State of Alcazar.
“Your Excellency,” said the army chief, “civil wars can last for years. The longer we keep them here, the easier it’ll be for the migrants to mingle with our compatriots. They’ll disappear without a trace. Heaven knows what they might commit against our people, our honest tax payers.”
Hours of deliberation passed. A single migrant family of five was taking a nation of half a million people hostage by the uncertainties of the future.
“Our nation is dependant on foreign aid,” said the businessman-turned-minister. “Let’s ask ourselves how much we stand to gain from the foreigners. Will our nation prosper by their presence?”
This was a good question. They should spend a dime only if they get a dollar in return.
The government passed orders to the last officer down the line to find out more about the migrants. The lieutenant manning the border outpost met the Garcia family when they were having supper. Already, they had spent two days in the spot where they had been detained. Geoffrey revealed that he was an artist. He used to run a shop.
The government was informed. The cabinet met again. A harmless fellow, all agreed. But he was no good for them, all were also unanimous about it. The Republic of Las Flores, whose economy was reliant primarily on fruit exports, actually needed scientists, doctors, engineers and industrialists. They had no use for artists. The Garcia family would only be a liability. They needed every inch of their land for agriculture, industries, schools and colleges. Ordinary settlers had no place in their nation. Already, the crime rate was obnoxious.
“Ordinary, maybe,” said the lady minister, “but we can’t turn them away from a humanitarian view. They need protection, shelter, food. Why not build a camp for them till everything blows over?”
This was what the President had suggested earlier. Keep them for now, deport them at the right time. No more protests arose.
After the official papers were signed, the Garcia family was checked for drugs and guns before allowed inside the boundary of the Republic of Las Flores. A one room house of tin and timber and an open sky lavatory was built. They were provided the basic human needs. Clothes, towels, soaps, medicines and two beds. Don’t stray more than fifty feet from the camp, they were told.
The Garcia family took to their new home gleefully. The grub was modest, but at least they had a place to call home. Even better, they felt safe. The children played checkers. The mother knitted handkerchiefs and Geoffrey would take out his pencil to sketch something. He didn’t care about the political situation in their country. His art kept him in his spirits. Soldiers kept an eye on their activities. Every hour an officer would enter the camp to make sure nobody was missing, while the press had no knowledge of the entry of the foreign migrants.
The soldiers noticed how obsessed Geoffrey was with his painting. Often, they came to watch him create beautiful images. One day an officer newly posted in that sector also saw his talent. He asked Geoffrey jocularly if he could also draw his face. Geoffrey answered nothing could be more easier.
The officer posed before him, trimming his moustache, straightening his uniform and smiling. Geoffrey took out a new sheet of drawing paper and began sketching him slowly and cautiously as a dentist works on a patient’s tooth. Then, he showed his sketch.
The officer viewed it only once before saying, “Maybe you can slightly darken my eyebrows.”
“Shall I also paint it, sir?”
“Um, no, don’t bother!” The officer didn’t want to trouble him. “I like it in black and white.”
“Allow me to finish it off with ink, sir, for satisfaction’s sake.”
Geoffrey inked over the traces left by the pencil, darkening the dry areas till it was picture perfect.
“Lovely!” gushed the officer. “I must show this to my wife. I’ll have it framed, too.” He noticed something amiss. “Your name— why haven’t you signed your name on it?”
“I never do, sir. Is it necessary?”
“Of course! People must know the artist’s name.”
Geoffrey gave only his initials in the right hand corner of the picture.
“Thank you, my good man!” The officer took the portrait and pushed off.
A border guard next approached Geoffrey, asking him to sketch him too, not just his face but his full body right down to his combat boots. Geoffrey was delighted. This was keeping him busy. He unrolled another sheet of watercolor paper, pinned them on the masonite board propped up on the easel and asked the guard to stand very still for at least ten minutes. The guard posed with his right arm holding the carbine over his right shoulder. Geoffrey began with a pencil sketch of his face, then the helmet, followed by the collar and the body. He drew an exact likeness of the assault rifle and asked what he would like as the background image. The guard wanted him to show the ocean with a ship and gulls flying over the evening horizon. And he want it in colour.
Geoffrey filled a glass bowl with clean water, took out the paint tubes and daubed the acrylic colors of his choice on the palette— olive color for the guard’s skin, bottle green for his uniform and helmet, a blend of black and brown for his spiky hair and ocean blue for his eyes. He used different brushes for different strokes. After he was fully finished and the paint had dried, he flaunted his piece. The guard didn’t have blue eyes and his hair was actually reddish gold. But it was an artist’s impression. It thrilled him.
“Here, take this!” The guard gifted him a chocolate bar.
Word spun around the barracks about this extraordinary migrant. More soldiers streamed in to have their faces drawn. They came with different ideas. Some wanted him to include a pretty woman clasping them. Some wanted to be shown travelling to exotic places and wearing luxury outfits. Geoffrey used his imagination as much as he could. They pampered him with goodies. Noodles, potato chips, cookies, tea bags, even soap and hair oil. It was inconsequential that they never paid in cash. A home with regular meals and the liberty to practice his beloved profession were satisfaction enough.
One day, the Republic of Las Flores decided to put the Garcia family to work to make each penny count. Geoffrey would paint the doors and windows of the barracks while his wife and children worked in the army canteen. But not every day there were doors and windows to paint. To fight off the idle days, he would get back to his art work. The soldiers, glad to have him back, would line up to have their faces drawn and laugh just looking at it. They ensured he was never short of art paper, pencils and colour.
In this way three years passed. The civil war in the State of Alcazar had ended. A new civilian government was sworn in. The Republic of Las Flores ordered the Garcia family to pack up. In the meantime, Geoffrey had lost his important documents. His passport, ration card, land documents, marriage registration certificate, everything had been chewed up by rodents in the camp while he had been blissfully occupied with his art and the soldiers’ goodwill. Geoffrey had nothing to prove his nationality. The new government of the State of Alcazar refused to accept them as their citizens.
Geoffrey and his family had become Stateless.
Neither country on either side would take them. First, the war had destroyed their home. Now, the rodents had eliminated their very identity. They had no government to rule them or make them follow rules. They were free. Oh yes, they were free. Free to live their own life.
Denied a home by both nations, Geoffrey would build his own little home. His son had grown up sufficiently enough to provide the extra muscle for cutting wood and hammering nails. Between the border outposts of the two nations, a tract of barren land extended as far as the eye could see. This was no man’s land. It belonged to neither country. This was the paradise where they selected a spot to build a pretty house of wood and stone. Geoffrey’s woman and two girls grew cabbages and potatoes and eggplant. Geoffrey, deciding to get professional, installed a banner in front of his home: Geoffrey the Artist. Come and Have Your Faces Drawn. The Garcia family was renounced, laid off by governments, but not forgotten by the soldiers. They continued to cross over the razor wire fence to have their faces drawn again and again.