06 / 12 / 2022

“Somewhere, a mother is crying for them”

The memories of the Bosnian war from the ‘90s are still vivid and many people in Bosnia and Herzegovina remember what it means to flee your home and leave it all behind. Today, war traumas influence Bosnians’ compassion for the migrants who attempt to reach Europe.





Men from Afghanistan and Iran, among other countries, travelling along the Balkan route, use these hot springs in Sarajevo to shower and shave. This is due to the lack of adequate facilities at the reception centres or squats where they are staying. They live here temporarily, waiting for the right time to continue their journey to Europe.
Azra, a 61-year-old Bosniak woman, has been helping migrant people in Sarajevo since 2018. She collects donations from the locals and distributes food and clothes to those in need, and she has soon become an important point of reference for many. “Sometimes I think I’m strong and that I can deal with all these emotions,” she says, “sometimes I just cry.”
Azra points to herself in an old photo, from when she fought during the Bosnian war, in the 1990s. They were very hard times, she recollects. She lost many friends, whilst others suffered the mental health consequences of what they endured.
Azra chats with a man who came to her door to find support in the form of food and clothes for himself and his family.
Azra, a 36-year-old Bosniak woman, runs a small cafe near the station, in Tuzla. Other shops don’t let migrant people in, but she has always served everybody, even if it meant facing problems with those who didn’t agree.
Hassan, 20, from Pakistan, stands outside Azra’s cafe to smoke a cigarette. He has been stuck in Bosnia and Herzegovina for two years, with 20 failed attempts to cross into Europe.
A bus coming from the south of the country stops at the border of the Una-Sana canton, while a policeman goes onboard and checks all the passengers one by one. Following an agreement with the central government, those found without documents are asked to get off the bus as migrants are not allowed to use public transport within the canton [this restriction has recently been lifted, as of late summer 2022].
Zainab and Ali, from Iraqi Kurdistan, light a fire to cook lunch, outside the Red Cross shelter where they are staying with their children, in the town of Ključ. They will need to continue their journey towards the border via private taxi or on foot.
A man looks outside one of the openings of a big abandoned building, an unfinished retirement home from socialist Yugoslavia just outside Bihać centre, where hundreds of migrant men are staying. A residential area along the river Una can be seen in the background.
Two men from Pakistan walk outside the camp of Lipa, near the town of Bihać. They complain about the condition inside this reception centre, the lack of hot showers and the insufficient food. At this time they were receiving only tea for breakfast, a decent lunch but no dinner. They also mention not having been officially registered in the centre. People staying in the squats and the tent camps near residential areas are often evicted and transferred here by the police, knowing that they will soon find their way back.
Elena comes from Ukraine. After living for over 20 years in the Netherlands, undocumented, she was deported to her home country, which once again she left to try and reach Europe. She then got stuck in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, Elena made it her mission to help the people who have found shelter in one of the big squats in Bihać, by arranging the distribution with the NGOs operating on the ground and making sure people get what they need.
A young man from Afghanistan walks by a portrait of Tito on the wall of an abandoned factory in Bihać where hundreds are living. The red blanket covers one entrance to keep some of the warmth inside. The writing reads: “Comrade Tito, we swear we won’t deviate from your path” (“Druže Tito, mi ti se kunemo da sa tvoga puta ne skrenemo”).
Mara, a 68-year-old Bosnian Serb woman, who lives in a border area with Croatia, returns home, after bringing what she could offer to the migrant families living in this area, some bread, fruit, coffee and sugar. “I feel so sorry for them. It hurts me when I see small children, a lot of them are ill and I have to give them something. I am sorry that I cannot help everybody.”
Mara lights the fire in her cooker, a traditional šporet. She explains how she has always got on well with Muslims. “I love all the people in the world who are good. I am not interested in nationality [or religion].”
“In this world, we are all the same”, says Asim, a 57-year-old Bosniak, “there are some rotten apples, but the majority of the people are good,” he adds, as he points to the apples on display in his shop. Asim was held in an internment camp during the war, from which his wife Gordana managed to free him through a prisoner exchange. He now runs a small shop with Gordana near one of the squats in Bihać, “Baba shop” as migrant people affectionately call it. He devotes himself to helping the migrants living in Bihać, charging their phones, filling bottles with drinking water and distributing material from the aid organisation SOS Balkanroute.
Asim and his wife Gordana in their little shop in Bihać, along with Mahesh, a young man from Nepal, add a Nepalese banknote to the collection gifted to them by all the migrant people they have met.
On the wall of Asim and Gordana’s shop an old calendar from 2020 is on display, with a portrait of Tito, former communist president of Yugoslavia. Many people in the Balkans are nostalgic of the now dissolved Socialist Federal Republic.
Esada, a 55-year-old Bosniak, cooks dinner in her kitchen, on a Bosnian šporet. She helps the migrant people living nearby and lets them use her washing machine and shower for a small fee to help cover the bills. ”These are poor people. I just do what I would want someone to do if I was in the same situation. I do what I can afford, we don’t have much,” she comments.
The men living in an abandoned factory in Bihać take their share of wood after a distribution organised by Zemira, a Bosniak woman who provides much-needed support on the ground. Having enough wood for cooking and staying warm is vital for those living in unofficial shelters, especially during the cold Bosnian winters.
Men from Pakistan and Afghanistan pray alongside locals, inside Fethija Mosque in Bihać. The mosques haven’t closed their doors to the people on the move temporarily living in the city, most of whom are Muslim.

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