“I know what it means to feel invisible,” Lejla, 42, told me when we met in a cafe near the river Una, in the town of Bihać, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The course of the Una river marks different border sections with Croatia before joining the river Sava, which eventually flows into the Danube.
That same border has been leaving thousands of people stuck in the country as they try to reach Europe across the Balkans. In 1992, at the beginning of the Bosnian war, a then 12-year-old Lejla had to flee with her family. When they left their home in Stolac, in Herzegovina, Lejla recollects taking only one Barbie doll with her.
But what was supposed to be just two weeks away from home turned into years of life as refugees, in Montenegro and then Germany. After the war, they returned to their home country; they found their flat looted and eventually they settled in Bihać. “I always make eye contact when I meet a migrant,” explains Lejla, who now works as a German teacher, “they feel the same as me back then, although I know that most of them have a heavier past.”
The people Lejla refers to, roaming the streets of Bihać in temporary limbo, mostly come from Afghanistan and Pakistan, although many are from other countries, such as Iran, Iraq, or Syria. They have fled wars, persecution, or hardship, and they are hoping for a dignified life. But they are faced with another challenge right on the doorstep of Europe. In order to enter, they need to try multiple times, in what is referred to as the “game”, due to the repeated and often violent pushbacks by the Croatian police.
Lejla poses for a portrait in Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
At first, the attitude towards the migrants’ presence was relatively warm when the Balkan route of migration started to pass through Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2018, but things have partially deteriorated over time. Reactions are mixed, in a country with a very complex recent history, where the memories of the war from the ‘90s are still vivid.
Azra, a 62-year-old Bosniak* woman who fought in the war, now helps migrant people in transit through Sarajevo. It was under the airport runway, not far from her home, that an 840-metre-long tunnel was dug in 1993 to connect her neighbourhood to the outside world. The tunnel provided Sarajevo, which was under siege for almost four years, with crucial supplies.
When the war broke out Azra and her family left their home and escaped to the mountains. They originally thought it would only be for a short time. “We were wrong,” says Azra, explaining how the bad news of friends and their family being injured or losing their lives kept coming day after day. She decided to join the army and a year later she left her shelter in the mountains, walked for five days alone and came back to Sarajevo, through the tunnel that had been built in the meantime. She recollects that after the war many felt lost and turned to alcohol, drugs or even took their own lives. Azra wondered for a long time why she survived. She started rebuilding her family home, which had been bombed, and turned to religion, deciding to devote her life to helping others.
Since 2018, Azra has been supporting migrant people transiting through Sarajevo. She collects donations from the locals and distributes food and clothes to those needing support. Originally she was taking her donations to various locations around the city, but she had problems with the police so she now does it from her home, which means a bus journey or a two-hour-long walk for people to get there. Azra has become an important presence for many.
During a recent holiday to the same mountains that she left during the war, she couldn’t stop thinking that someone might need her help in Sarajevo and chose to end the trip early. “Sometimes I think I’m strong and that I can deal with all these emotions,” she says, “sometimes I just cry.”
Azra chats with a man who came to her house to get food and clothes for himself and his family.
Sarajevo is a transit point for the majority of migrant people entering Bosnia and Herzegovina. They sometimes spend a short period or the whole winter here, before continuing their journey to Europe. Those arriving from Serbia normally transit through Tuzla, where a local migrant community has formed.
Among them is Hassan, who is 20 years old and comes from Pakistan. He left his country and family when he was 15, and lived for one year in Turkey and three years in Greece. Now he has been stuck in Bosnia for two years. After 20 failed attempts to cross into Europe, always being pushed back, he doesn’t want to try the “game” anymore. “I miss my mother but I have no papers to go back home even if I wanted to,” he explains. “My life is finished, I think too much,” he says.
Hassan spends most of his time in a little cafe near the station, run by a young Bosniak woman, Azra [a different person from the previously described Azra]. He helps her set up in the morning and tidy up at the end of the day. With the last big eviction, when 500 migrants were transferred to the camps in Sarajevo, Azra lost many friends. “It was heartbreaking,” she says.
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. Some locals told her that they wouldn’t go to her cafe anymore because they don’t want to drink from the same glasses that migrants drink from. She even had problems with some members of the police. “It was very hard to restart in this atmosphere after the closure due to the pandemic.” [Azra has since had to close her shop due to lack of business.]
A group of young men from Morocco, temporarily living in Tuzla, chat in Azra’s cafe. Outside, other migrant men buy clothes from an improvised street vendor.
Next stop: Ključ
When people leave Tuzla and Sarajevo to continue their journey towards Europe, they need to reach the Una-Sana canton, in the North-West of the country. An agreement with the central government established that migrants are not allowed to use public transport within the canton, meaning all buses are stopped at the border and those found without documents are asked to get off [this restriction has recently been lifted, as of late summer 2022].
In the town of Ključ, where people are stopped by the police enforcing the agreement, locals have gone the extra mile to help by building a small wooden shelter managed by volunteers of the Red Cross. Here people can spend a few hours or a night, before starting the next leg of their journey, approximately 100 km to the Croatian border, via private taxi or on foot.
This can be a big challenge, as is the case for a family of four, coming from Iraqi Kurdistan. After leaving their country, they spent three years in Greece, where their asylum application was eventually rejected, so they are now trying to reach another European country. Like everyone else, they were stopped when the bus arrived in Ključ. They cannot afford the price of a private taxi and Ali, the father, suffers from a leg deformity that makes it hard for him to walk. They are worried about how to continue from here.
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.
At the border
Once they reach the border area, the majority of migrant people concentrate in and around the towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša. Part of the local community is not happy with the management of the situation, since several of the places where men and families have been finding shelter are near residential areas. This discontent has resulted in several demonstrations over the years and the administration has enforced regular evictions transferring people to official reception centres. However, these often offer very poor living conditions, especially as far as camps for men are concerned, and are far from the border, meaning people would eventually find their way back.
In one of these abandoned buildings, a half-finished retirement home dating back to socialist Yugoslavia, the presence of a blonde-haired lady stands out amongst hundreds of men from Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s Elena, who comes from Ukraine. Her name bounces quickly along the corridors, making it easy to find her, as even those who have just arrived know who she is.
After living for over 20 years undocumented in the Netherlands, Elena was deported back to her home country. In late 2019 she once again left Ukraine to try and reach Europe through Hungary, from where she was deported to Serbia by the police. She then got stuck in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, Elena made it her mission to assist those who have found shelter in Bihać, by helping arrange the distributions with the NGOs operating on the ground and making sure people get what they need.
The lack of government support for those outside the official reception system means that aid is provided by local and international organisations and spontaneous volunteers. However, the availability of funds and donations varies and doesn’t always match needs, resulting sometimes in difficulties and a psychological burden for those having to rely on the generosity of strangers.
Elena, from Ukraine, communicates with one of the aid organisations operating in town, in order to arrange the distribution of food and blankets for the newly-arrived people in this big abandoned building.
Families, despite having access to better facilities than men within the official reception system, are also left with no other choice than to live in makeshift shelters near the border to be able to try the “game”.
Mara is a 68-year-old Bosnian Serb woman, who lives in a border area with Croatia. She does what she can to help the many families living in abandoned houses nearby. “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.” 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].”
Mara, poses for a portrait in her village near the border with Croatia.
Scars, past and present
From the Una-Sana canton the journey to Croatia, Slovenia and then Italy or Austria, requires walking for two to three weeks in the woods, all the while trying to avoid being caught.
Maria is a young Bosnian Croat woman living in Bihać. She works in a local bakery and knows when a group of migrants is preparing for the “game”, as they buy a lot of bread all at once. Maria recollects finding a man from Pakistan laying on the street in Bihać, stabbed and robbed by another migrant person. Passers-by had just ignored him, only she stopped to check on him and call an ambulance.
She also shares a video showing a local vigilante group attacking two migrants, who are begging to be spared. At least five people are seen beating the two men with their fists, legs and batons. Some of the footage is graphic and so brutal that she cannot bear to look at the screen. The video was recorded by the aggressors and later posted on social media, with the message “Those who defend migrants in public should see this.”
Negative reactions have been triggered elsewhere too. A notice on the door of a petrol station shop out of town in Velika Kladuša forbids migrants to enter the shop or even stand on the premises of the petrol station. “There are mixed reactions from the locals and the reason is complex,” explains Elvir, a local restaurant owner. Elvir’s family has roots in North Macedonia: “My family knows the struggle of leaving home and we welcome everyone in our restaurant,” he says.
“The situation with the migrants was manageable at the beginning, but it has become increasingly hard, especially with the pushbacks.” Migrants keep coming back and their condition gets worse as the police take their money and destroy their phones, which leads to more problems. “It isn’t easy for anyone,” Elvir stresses how this is not always due to racism tout court. “You can’t generalise, some people are scared, often it’s due to a lack of education, and some people still suffer from PTSD from the war.”
Asim distributes material from the aid organisation SOS Balkanroute, and often gives some of his own food too. After bringing jackets and sleeping bags to a group of men from Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan, he hands out some ibuprofen tablets.
The way the wounds from the past impact the response to the current situation varies. Asim, who is a 57-year-old Bosniak, was held in an internment camp during the war, from which his wife Gordana managed to free him through a prisoner exchange. Now he devotes himself to helping the migrants living in Bihać, where he has a little shop. “In this world, we are all the same,” says Asim, “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.
Gordana is a Bosnian Serb – mixed marriages were common before the war. She recalls the hard times when Bihać was under siege and people were starving. “On our street, we were sharing everything between Serbs, Muslims and Croats, while in the mountains nearby they were killing each other.” She plans, after retirement, to write a book about the war titled “The tears of the third religion”.
Despite the complexity of the situation in a country still dealing with its own scars, examples of solidarity towards those who are now fleeing their home are not hard to come by. Jelena, a 67-year-old Bosnian Serb woman, has a little shop in Bihać whose door is always open for migrant people. She couldn’t do otherwise since, she says, “somewhere, there is a mother crying for them”.
Read more: “Somewhere, a mother is crying for them”
*In Bosnia and Herzegovina there are three major groups of people: Bosniaks or Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs/Christian Orthodox and Bosnian Croats/Christian Catholics.
Some of the names have been changed to protect people’s identity.