Every now and then a news story comes along that makes me angry.
They aren’t all massive, sensational stories about genocides, child murders, ignorant racist thugs or institutional human rights abuses either.
Some of them are about the small horrors, the ones which fall through the gaps in our busy attention spans, the stories that barely register on the radar of a society more interested in the dalliances of pop stars and the contents of Fat Cats’ bonus packages.
In other words, the very personal tales of everyday neglect and insensitivity that quietly chip away at my faith in human nature.
Born in Maribor, Slovenia in 1928, Alois Dvorzac was not a prize winning scientist or famous war hero, he wouldn’t go on to invent a cure for cancer or discover a new galaxy, he was just an ordinary man with a commitment to his country who wished to live an ordinary life.
Alois’ father died when he was two years old, but despite this he had a reasonably happy childhood, even allowing for the German occupation, growing up in a large house with his mother and three sisters. He did well at school, receiving glowing plaudits from his teachers in every subject (his report cards all stamped “sehr gut” by the Nazi authorities) and going on to teach himself English in his own time whilst at university in the capital, Ljubljana. His mother and sisters were very proud as he was the first in his family to attend higher education.
So far, so normal. But as the war was ending he joined the Slovenian partisans, marking him out to the occupying forces as someone for them to keep an eye on.
When the Germans withdrew after the war, Dvorzac became increasingly disillusioned with the ruling communist system and made the difficult decision to relocate to the West, planning on escaping the oppressive dictatorship that had replaced the old regime by travelling across Europe and attempting to make a life for himself in the far off promised land of Canada.
One of his few surviving relatives, his cousin Zlatka Hoceevar who still lives in Alois’ childhood home, said recently that;
“…the political system crushed talented people. Those that stayed here, had their wings clipped.”
By this time Alois had met and married Dana, the woman who would become his one constant companion and love of his life, the one who would accompany him on his long journey to freedom and happiness on a strange new continent, so far from everything they had previously known.
They traveled overland, spent a short time in Austria (the one and only time in his life that Alois Dvorzac could be even remotely considered an “illegal alien”) eventually arriving in Canada, where he and his bride soon became naturalized citizens and settled down to make a new life for themselves.
Alois used his love of science and mathematics to help him make a successful career as an engineer, carving out a comfortable existence for himself and his beloved Dana in the self-imposed exile they had chosen, sadly losing contact with family and friends in his homeland, something which he would later come to regret, but tragically never manage to reconcile.
They never had children of their own, but you only have to see the look of devotion on their faces in this photo, taken shortly before Dana died a few years ago, to see how happy they had become in their life together.
Now alone in his adopted country and beginning to suffer the onset of Alzheimer’s, Alois finally decided last year that he would make the long trip back to Slovenia, to reconnect with his family there and possibly settle in his native country for the remainder of his life.
So he got on a plane in Canada, bound for the home he left so long ago, no doubt dreaming of an emotional reunion with those he’d left behind.
On landing at Gatwick airport for a connecting flight however, he found himself detained by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) on some sort of technicality.
We still don’t know what prompted the bureaucracy-bound officials to single him out. Was it the fact that he hadn’t got the right documentation? Was it simply that, suffering from an episode of confusion brought on by his illness, he wasn’t able to explain his situation to airport authorities’ satisfaction?
What we do know is that this quietly dignified man, having survived the wartime Nazi occupation, the communist rule of his beloved Slovenia and a life-changing journey of thousands of miles across the globe, ended up incarcerated at the UKBA Immigration Removal Centre at Harmondsworth in London on January 23rd 2013.
Examined by an independent doctor whilst at the facility, 84 year-old Dvorzac was declared “Vulnerable, frail and unfit for detention” and despite that doctor’s evaluation, the UKBA refused to release him, giving no adequate explanation as to why he was being held.
Indeed, when the doctor requested her supervisor to intervene on his behalf, they were told by the Border Agency that they “would not make that information available as it is none of your business”
Alois Dvorzac was kept in a lonely government holding cell, for much of the time handcuffed and chained to his bed until, alone and frightened two weeks later, struggling to breathe and without even the comfort of his loved ones around him, his heart finally gave out and he died, never to complete his final journey home.
The Canadian High Commission, contacted by the doctor who examined him, had only this to say on hearing of his tragic demise;
“We take the well-being of our citizens very seriously and look forward to the outcome of the investigation of the prisons and probation ombudsman into the circumstances surrounding Mr Dvorzac’s death. To protect the privacy of the individual concerned, further comments on this case cannot be provided.”
The UK Border Agency have released a weasel-worded statement that reads;
“The recent report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons on Harmondsworth made it clear that performance by the contractor running the centre has been below the high standard expected.
“It made a number of recommendations that we are taking forward and we are scrutinising our contractor’s performance closely. Clear instructions have been issued to staff making clear that restraint should only happen where absolutely necessary.”
When I saw this story on the news this week, I could only think of what I would feel if this had been one of my relatives, how enraged I would be at the brutal treatment of a man whose only crime was to dream of a better life, somewhere a world away from all that he had known.
If this is how we treat those in society who merely strive to enrich their lives, no matter what the odds stacked against them, whether they live in foreign lands under the yoke of oppression or are simply passing through our own supposedly free country, then I think it’s about time we looked long and hard at the way our society determines who benefits from that freedom.
Because until we do, tragic cases like that of Alois Dvorzac will continue to appear in quickly-forgotten corners of the news media, a sign that we are unwilling to learn the lessons from history that we should have learnt many years ago.