Edit: Iliana Papangeli
Proofreading: Gigi Papoulias
Edit: Iliana Papangeli
Proofreading: Gigi Papoulias
“I joke 24/7, how can you live here otherwise?” Sohail Khan, a 23-year-old man from the Paktia province of Afghanistan, says. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the corridors of the abandoned buildings and in the shelters where people on the move are living, time has frozen.
This photo-story was created in the Una-Sana canton, in the northwest of the country, at the border with Croatia, during February and March 2021. Each year, thousands of migrant people try to reach Europe along the Balkan route. The majority come from Afghanistan and Pakistan, although it’s not uncommon to meet people from Iran, Iraq and Syria, as well as other countries. Young men represent the majority of those following this route; however, there are also families with young children, and elderly. They flee war, persecution or poverty, looking for a dignified life. After the formal closure of the Balkan route in March 2016, people were left with no other choice than to pursue irregular ways of entry. Whilst originally most went through Serbia, the tightening of the borders along this route meant that since 2018, more people started to transit from Bosnia and Herzegovina instead.
The country has become a forced stop for them. In fact, people regularly report being victims of pushbacks when they try to cross the border into Croatia – what is referred to as the “game”.
The journey normally involves walking in the woods, across mountains and rivers, for two to three weeks, through Croatia and Slovenia to Italy. People mostly walk at night, to limit the risk of being detected. Winters in this region are quite tough. Moreover, bare trees and the terrain being covered in snow highly increase the chance of being spotted. Fewer people decide to face winter conditions and those who do are encouraged by the hope of fewer police controls. The majority, however, spend the winter in Bosnia and Herzegovina, sometimes moving back from the border area to other parts of the country. At the time these photos were shot, as the snow was melting and temperatures started to rise, more people were attempting to play the border crossing “game”.
Men normally travel in groups, relying on the help of a guide who leads the way, through arrangements with smuggling networks. According to testimonies of people attempting to cross the border, the “walking game” comes at a price – around €1,000 each. Those who cannot afford it, have no other choice than to attempt the whole journey on foot by themselves, in small groups, relying on their phones, battery packs and sense of direction only. A minority of people instead pay three to four times this price to go for a “taxi game”, where they are driven for most of the journey.
When people are detected by the police or special forces in Croatia, who also rely on drones for their searches, they are brought back to the border. According to the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), an international humanitarian displacement organisation active in the country, 23,853 people have reported pushbacks to Bosnia and Herzegovina from May 2019 to February 2021. This number gives an idea of the scale of the phenomenon. While this number is probably underestimated, as not all episodes are reported, the same person can be, and normally is, pushed back multiple times, each instance being counted as one.
Since 2018, the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a watchdog hub collecting testimonies through several organisations on the ground, has reported the use of physical and psychological violence during pushbacks.
The situation has not improved in recent years, also due to a lack of an independent investigation on this practice, as a result of which law enforcement officers continue to enjoy impunity, as denounced by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, in December 2020.
The pushbacks usually take place using vans that are driven very fast and without any care for the passengers who are packed inside. Money, phones and personal belongings are normally taken away. It is not uncommon to hear that people are deprived of their shoes too, thus having to walk back barefoot for hours until they find shelter, sometimes in the unbearably cold Bosnian winter. In an alarming recent report, the BVMN also refers to “disturbing trends […] regarding the use of police dogs and sexual violence by officers.”
As stated by the DRC, “the beginning of 2021 did not give much hope to people stranded at the EU’s external borders that protection of their rights would take priority over protection of borders”.
Families with young children cannot face the same lengthy and dangerous journey as single men in groups. They normally cross the border and present themselves directly to the Croatian police in order to request asylum, most of the time to no avail. As the number of families from camps in Greece who reach and then get stuck in Bosnia have increased, so have their pushback reports at the beginning of 2021. And “while very young children are rarely themselves the subjects of physical violence, they are often witness to very brutal and humiliating acts carried out against their parents,” as reported by the BVMN, raising concerns about “the lasting impact of these traumatic events.”
Most people report trying several times, even dozens of times, before being able to reach a European country where they can apply for international protection. This means months, or even years, stuck in limbo, which cannot but exacerbate the trauma of what people had to endure.
They come back, each time, to these corridors, suspended in space and time, where dreams are on hold.
A person on the move points at the border with Croatia. Some of the forest has been cleared to help police spot those trying to cross. / © Chiara Fabbro
A group of men prepare for the “game”. If they are not caught and pushed back, their journey will entail a two to three week trek, walking at night, across mountains and rivers, carrying backpacks as heavy as 20-25 kg. / © Chiara Fabbro
The blackened walls are reminders of fires that ravaged the abandoned buildings where the people on the move live. Nisar Alì comes from Pakistan. “Now it’s not the time for dreaming,” he says. First, he needs to reach Europe, get his papers and a job, to help his family./ © Chiara Fabbro
Amir had to flee Iran for political reasons. As he attempted to reach safety in Europe, in the darkness of the night, he fell into a precipice in Croatia and broke his back. The police removed him from the hospital and deported him to Bosnia, despite his condition. “I witnessed while the others were severely beaten, in the melancholy of my eyes.” Everyone fled. The police took all his belongings, phone, inhaler and clothes and left him alone in the forest. / © Chiara Fabbro
Qaisar, from Pakistan, lives in a small tent settlement near the border. He has recently returned from a pushback during which they took his phone. Now he needs to borrow a phone every time he wants to call his family back home. / © Chiara Fabbro
“When I was a kid, in school, they taught me that in Europe human rights are respected. But where are they?” These are Fadi’s words, as he tells me how once again the Croatian police have deported his family. Fadi and Maha are from Palestine, and they were living in Syria. This time Saif, their 10 year old son, fainted in front of the police, but they refused to help, hurrying them to go instead. / © Chiara Fabbro
Maha, from Palestine, is walking back with two of her three children, after being pushed back by the police once again. Providing a serene atmosphere for the little ones during these hard times presents an extra challenge. / © Chiara Fabbro
A young man from Pakistan looks towards the border he has already tried to cross 13 times. / © Chiara Fabbro
“The Croatian police searched my and the kids’ underwear,” says Shakila, from Afghanistan. Her husband adds, “My wife is so scared to try the game again, this is having a big toll on her mental health.” / © Chiara Fabbro
“In my country, when you die, you die once,” says Mohammed from Afghanistan, “here we die every day.” Together with his wife and children, they have been violently pushed back by the Croatian border police twice yesterday. He is worried that his wrist might be broken. “’You’re illegal,’ the police said. But why? We fled from war, we are not here for luxury. We cannot go back to our country as our lives would be in great danger. There is no place for us in the whole world.” / © Chiara Fabbro
“They burnt all our belongings, including the Quran, even if we begged them to spare it. For us it’s sacred.” Ali’s family comes from Iraq. His mum sewed a little Quran for him and his sisters to keep under their clothes for the next attempt. / © Chiara Fabbro
Shakila comes from Afghanistan. During the last pushback she felt sick in the police van as they were driving very fast. She’s been pulled by a policeman so violently that they dislocated her shoulder. It took over two months for it to heal. / © Chiara Fabbro
Eaama is 21 years old and comes from Bangladesh. During the last pushback he was beaten up so badly that he spent a month in hospital. Now he is alone and he worries about the big loan his family took to send him here. His mental health is deteriorating. / © Chiara Fabbro
Samiullah, from Afghanistan, has just come back to the squat after a pushback, they had walked for 13 days before being caught and deported. This was his fifth attempt. “Once, a policewoman took our shoes, then she told us to lay down on the ground and hit us with sticks,” he says. / © Chiara Fabbro
Abdul Samad, from Morocco, shows the signs of the violence he received from the police during a pushback several months ago. He still bears some scars on his skin. / © Chiara Fabbro
The Croatian woodland is full of unexploded landmines, leftover from the war in the ’90s, making it even more dangerous for people trying to cross this border. In March of 2021 a man was killed by a landmine and several others were injured, as they were trying to avoid the police. / © Chiara Fabbro
Mazhar, from Pakistan, is exhausted and his feet hurt. Along with 14 others he is returning to a squat in the town of Velika Kladusa, after being pushed back by the police in Croatia. They walked for several days and the police took all their belongings. / © Chiara Fabbro
Kako comes from Afghanistan. He cannot afford to pay for a smuggler, so he keeps trying the “game” without the help of a guide. He has been in Bosnia for over a year and has been pushed back 17 times. “I am very unlucky,” he says. / © Chiara Fabbro
Qaisar, from Pakistan, lives in a tent settlement with 14 others. They have decided to try the “game” again, in the coming days. He is still unsure if he’ll join them or stay behind this time. / © Chiara Fabbro
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