An hour’s drive from Karlovac, Croatia, there is a side road lined with ruins from the times of former Yugoslavia and exposed concrete blocks dotted with bullet holes, which leads to a desolate-looking border crossing point between Croatia and Bosnia. After passing the border checks, one enters the town of Velika Kladuša. This is one of those places that most people only know about from the map, except for the fact that between 1993 and 1995 it became the capital of the Republic of Western Bosnia, an Islam political entity opposed to the Bosnian government in Sarajevo and allied with the Serbian and Croatian militias. Recently, the town has come back into the news for the alleged presence in the surrounding area of ISIS-sympathizing Salafi communities.
Beside that old conflict, still fresh in the memories of the town’s inhabitants, and traces of which remain in the signs at the entrance of coffee shops that say explicitly that firearms are prohibited, Velika Kladuša has become the destination for thousands of migrants, who are trying in vain to pass from here through the “Balkan route” to Croatia, hoping to end up in Italy or Germany.
The tent city has been set up not far from the town and the cultivated fields, and some of the nearly 1,200 refugees who are arriving each day at the northern Bosnian border have become stuck here. It is the same with those who are kicked out brutally by the Croatian and Slovenian police when crossing their borders. Others are sleeping in the woods, in parks, in abandoned buildings, or are hosted by the locals.
The hospitality and solidarity of the locals is in fact the most extraordinary aspect in Velika Kladuša, and what distinguishes it from other similar places affected by the migrant crisis that started in 2015. Restaurants offer free meals and drinks, supermarkets and hardware stores sell affordable materials, companies in the area are offering work to the migrants here, and even the police—in the opinion of many of those we spoke to—are more tolerant than those of the neighboring states.
For instance, the Kod Latana Restaurant in the town center has become a social kitchen that distributes two free meals a day, served at tables with ceramic plates and steel cutlery. “We too have been displaced,” says Halil, the restaurant’s owner. “What we are doing is not charity. Our history and our belonging to a common humanity require us to aid and respect every human being, especially when they are in difficulty.” Even though the city is in one of the most conservative and poor regions of Bosnia, it has been able to develop thanks to remittances from locals who emigrated to Slovenia, Austria or Northern Europe in the past.
Apart from the presence of Doctors Without Borders and the UNHCR, which recently went into the field to assess the situation, the greatest support for the refugees in this area is offered by a few independent volunteers, coordinated primarily by Adis, a former veteran of the Bosnian war and a man with a big heart, who for years has been present in the main refugee camps in the Balkans. Everyone in town knows him and praises him.
In just a few days, this small group, composed of young people from across Europe and flying the banner “SOS Team Kladuša,” has set up a few showers, has put up—together with people from the town—toilets and lighting in the area, and has obtained a warehouse from a former abattoir for the distribution of used clothing. “It’s the first time I find myself doing such work, but somebody’s got to do it,” says Adis, busying himself, with the help of the migrants, with setting up tents from planks of wood and eco-friendly plastic sheeting. The tents are becoming more and more numerous, and in demand, by the hour. We also see him taking up the role of physician and disinfecting and bandaging the insect bites that are tormenting those who sleep among the weeds and mud.
However, there are also wounds much harder to heal, the results of unfortunate encounters with the Croatian police: in the camp we often come across people with broken arms and with legs in casts, or with cigarette burns on their bodies. The police is patrolling the other side of the border with helicopters, dogs and a large deployment of forces.
In addition to beatings, all mention that the border guards destroy their mobile phones, in order to eliminate photos and GPS traces which would prove their expulsion; some claim their money and personal items were stolen as well. “I understand that if someone enters their country without documents they are sent back, but I have to go back to Italy, I have my 15-year-old daughter there, my wife has now remarried but I don’t care, I just want to work, live and provide for my daughter,” says Iflah, a 42-year-old Moroccan, who, like others of his countrymen, reached Turkey by plane, and then, by any number of different means of transport, arrived in northern Bosnia.
With rejection likely and dangerous voyages when attempting to cross the Mediterranean, more refugees from Africa are trying the Balkan route. This is what we hear from Libyans, Algerians, Tunisians and from five young Nigerian men, one of whom, Moses, wears a beautiful cross around his neck.
In the camp, the different religions coexist peacefully. Christians from Pakistan and Iran are especially numerous—like Babak, who has just arrived here with his wife and three children: “We already tried twice to cross through the woods, but we were rejected. We want to reach Germany, where my brother lives.” Among the Muslims from Punjab, we also find Nanak, a Sikh whose head is adorned with a large black turban. “I have a license to drive buses, I want to go to Rome, how is the situation in Italy now?” he asks us.
Petra, a 26-year-old Austrian girl who has been spending her university breaks helping refugees for the past three years, goes among the tents to make a list of everyone’s needs: plastic sheeting to shelter from the rain, blankets, mattresses to sleep on, but especially strong shoes, in order to try again to escape over the border, through the woods and meadows. Then, together with Dean (a German young man aged 23 who has just arrived and wants to stay in Velika for the coming months), she gets in her car and goes to the local mall to buy everything necessary. Donations, both by private individuals and local associations, have made this possible: “Everything we buy for the refugees is properly invoiced and shown to the donors,” Adis explains.
From time to time, cars arrive at the camp with Bosnian or German license plates, from which boxes of food and bags of clothes are delivered. Children and adults circle around, then arrange themselves orderly in single file.
“These are the best people I have ever known in my life,” says Javed, an Afghan young man who studied political science and worked with an international organization in Sweden, and then, after the expiration of his visa, was sent back. Now, in addition to his own months-long attempts to get back to Europe, he is helping the other refugees and volunteers at the camp. Those who have fled their countries have done so for various reasons: for instance Omran, who lost his parents to bombs in Mosul, or Farzad, who left Iranian Kurdistan due to political persecution: “I was collaborating with the Kurdish Democratic Party, and as an IT guy I was involved in managing a network to communicate with other Kurdish groups.”
In order to manage to cross the border—Usman, another Kurd, tells us—some entrust themselves to local traffickers, who for €3,000 will hide them in the trunks of their cars, but without any guarantee of getting them to their destination. Uros, a Slovenian journalist, explains that in recent months the number of requests for asylum in Slovenia has drastically diminished, despite the fact that the number of arrivals has continuously increased, proving that expulsions are taking place without evaluating individual cases and in the absence of any official explanations from the authorities.
Night falls over the camp in Velika Kladuša. While the muezzin’s calls to prayer ring out from the town, Adis and other volunteers are collecting the materials they have been working with during the day, a Bosnian flag flies among the tents, and the municipal officer guarding the generator at the entrance drives back home on his scooter. Some Pakistani boys have built an improvised fishing contraption from a rope and a plastic tray, and are trying to catch some fish from the bridge over the muddy river next to the camp. Iflah is looking for a bigger backpack: “We are trying again tonight, this time there are five of us, last time we were able to get to just 20 km from the Italian border before we were stopped by police.”
Earlier this month, the European Commission had announced a funding package of €1.5 million for Bosnia in order to help them handle the growing influx of refugees into the country. With these funds, the government in Sarajevo had planned, among other projects, the construction of an official reception center in Velika Kladuša. However, as reported by the Bosnian Security Minister, Dragan Mektic, the Commission has decided to reexamine the aid plan, since the construction of such a center would be, according to Brussels, too close to the EU’s southern borders.
Leaving Velika Kladuša, with its Ottoman castle and its minarets that rise towards the sky, and returning to Croatia, is as easy as the way we came. One only needs a European passport, nothing more.