Bruised and battered, refugees and migrants wait for their chance in a field in northwestern Bosnia.
An hour’s drive from the Croatian town of Karlovac, down a side road lined with tombstones and houses pocked with bullet holes, there is a desolate border crossing between Croatia and Bosnia. Beyond lays Velika Kladusa, a place that seems to exist only on the map.
Between 1993 and 1995 it was the capital of the self-declared Autonomous Republic of Western Bosnia, the fiefdom of Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) businessman Fikret Abdic, known for the pacts he made with the Serbs and Croats against his fellow Bosniaks in Sarajevo during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
In a field not far from the town a tent city has sprung up as temporary home to some of the 1,200 migrants and refugees who find their way forward blocked by heavy-handed Croatian police.
Some nurse wounds from their attempts to cross the border and slip past the police. Some sleep in the woods, others in parking lots or abandoned buildings.
The lucky ones are put up by generous locals, of which there are many. Restaurants offer free meals and drinks, supermarkets offer discounts, local firms offer casual work.
The town-centre restaurant ‘Kod Latana’ has turned into a soup kitchen, offering two free sit-down meals a day.
“We too were refugees,” said 64-year-old the manager who only gave the first name, Asim.
“What we’re doing is not charity, it is a requirement of our history and our humanity that we help and respect every human being, especially those in difficulty.”
The numbers passing through Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia have doubled this year compared to 2017, with Bosnia struggling to accommodate some 5,000.
In Velika Kladusa, Doctors Without Borders is present, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has passed through, but the greatest support comes from local volunteers such as Adis, a veteran of the Bosnian war and a regular presence in the refugee camps along the so-called Balkan route.
Organised under the banner SOS Ljuta Krajina Team Kladusa, 39-years-old Adis, and his colleagues from all over Europe set up showers, baths and lighting with the help of the local municipality. The owner of a warehouse allowed them to use it for the distribution of used clothes.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever done this job, but someone has to do it,” said Adis.
“I understand that someone enters their country without documents is sent back, but I have to go back to Italy where my 15 year-old daughter is.”
Slimane, a 42-year-old Morocca
With the help of migrants and refugees, Adis erects wooden planks and hangs eco-friendly plastic sheeting as curtains. Insect bites torment those sleeping in the weeds and mud, but the most difficult wounds to heal are those inflicted by Croatian police – broken limbs, cigarette burns.
Croatian authorities deny using violence towards those trying to enter, but international rights watchdogs such the evidence is overwhelming.
Migrants and refugees frequently return with their mobile phones crushed, money and personal belongings seized.
“I understand that someone enters their country without documents is sent back, but I have to go back to Italy where my 15 year-old daughter is,” said Slimane, a 42-year-old Moroccan who had flown to Turkey be plane before embarking on the long trip up the Balkan peninsula.
“My wife has now remarried but I don’t care. I just want to work, live and keep my daughter safe.”
Petra, a 26-year-old Austrian who has spent time off from study over the last three years to help migrants and refugees, goes from tent to tent asking each person to tell her what they need – towels, blankets, mattresses, but above all shoes, water-resistant if possible.
Only donations from private individuals and local associations make this possible.
“Everything we buy for the refugees is regularly invoiced and shown to donors,” said Adis.
“Tonight we try”
From time to time, cars with Bosnian or German licence plates approach and unload food and clothing to adults and children who wait in line. Some of the aid is funded by local or international Islamic organisations, which nevertheless do not differentiate between recipients.
“I’ve never known better people than this in my life” said Javed, an Afghan who, while also trying to reach Western Europe, helps with the aid work.
The motivations of those who have fled are many and various, from Omran, who said his parents were killed by bombs dropped on Mosul in Iraq to Aaresh, who cited political reasons for leaving Kurdish northwestern Iran having worked with the banned Kurdistan Democratic Party.
To enter Croatia, some pay local traffickers 3,000 euros, climb into the boot of a car and hope for the best.
As evening falls and the call to prayer can be heard from the town, Adis and other volunteers collect the materials used during the day. A Bosnian flag stands in the middle of the campsite; a municipal clerk guarding the generator at the entrance makes his way home by scooter.
A group of Pakistani boys, armed with an improvised fishing rod of rope and a plastic tray, try to catch fish from the bridge over the muddy river that runs next to the field. Slimanie searches for a bigger backpack.
“Tonight we try,” he said. “This time we are five; the other time we managed to get 20 kilometers from Italy before the police stopped us.”
Leaving Velika Kladusa, with its Ottoman castle and minarets, and crossing the border into Croatia is as simple as it was arriving. All you need is a European passport.