• Branko the Bodyguard

    I see myself as a protector. I always need to protect someone, somewhere, says Branko, a former bodyguard from Serbia currently seeking a better life in Austria. But who can protect him?

    Branko (his name has been changed here to protect his true identity) is a good example of the many migrants who lie in the grey area between involuntary refugee and an economic opportunist. He and his second wife are both native Serbians who now reside in Austria, where they struggle to find work without having the required permits. He is not, strictly speaking, a refugee from war or political repression, but his reasons for leaving his homeland are no less valid and existential – yet they are unlikely to win him official asylum within the EU.

    Taking hits for the team

    Like many compatriots of his generation, Branko (52) doesn’t want to talk about the horrors of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but he is proud of his accomplishments while living in Serbia. While simultaneously studying telecommunications at university, competing as a professional full-contact karate fighter (“I was European champion and second in the world in 1986”), and playing ice hockey (“the only Serb on the Yugoslav team at the Sarajevo olympics in 1984”), Branko became a professional bodyguard for the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

    I need a new vision. The past is too heavy, too difficult to remember. My power was taken away from me.

    Branko recalls, “I protected many powerful Serbs like Slobodan Milošević and [his opponent/successor] Zoran Đinđić.” After the latter’s assassination in 2003, Branko wouldn’t work for politicians anymore. In his 20 years as a bodyguard, he was shot three times – once in the leg and twice in his back.

    A hard worker

    But Branko isn’t just brawn – he also has decades of work experience, first for Telekom Srbija and then as a manager of operations for DHL. In the 1990’s, he even opened his own state-of-the-art music recording studio, but “the political structure in Serbia confiscated it all,” he claims. The stresses of his life brought on health problems – he’s had two heart attacks and a stroke.

    Too young to retire

    At his age, Branko is not exactly a prime candidate to be sponsored for a work permit by an Austrian employer, despite his decades of diverse experience, especially in the logistics sector. He won’t be eligible for his Serbian pension for another 13 years and even then, it won’t be enough for him to live on. “My father was a college professor for 45 years, but his pension is 250 euros a month. It’s embarrassing.”

    Maybe God will protect me. He gave me hope three times. I’ve recovered from two heart attacks and stroke and I still look like a fit, strong man.

    Now Branko must sell off all of his worldly possessions to survive and to support his 6-year-old daughter, who remained in Serbia with his ex-wife. “I just had to sell my car and motorbike and soon I’ll have to sell my apartment in Serbia. After that, I’ll have to sell the clothes off my back or my kidney. I don’t know what happens tomorrow. We must find a job, get working permits, but how? I don’t know.”

    No going back

    If it doesn’t work out for him in Austria, Branko has no Plan B. He won’t return to Serbia, because  “There are too many problems there,” he says. “The politicians are corrupt; society is in decline; people don’t have money; they steal, lie and cheat. I’m afraid civil war is coming to Serbia soon, something like in the Ukraine.”