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“There is no going back”: in northern Bosnia, Croatia as the only horizon for migrants

In the town of Velika Kledusa, migrants have only one goal: to enter Croatia to continue their journey to Western Europe. Some have already tried the passage more than twenty times. With each attempt, they have to endure the cold and police violence.

On a dirt road that goes up to Velika Kledusa, a border town in northern Bosnia, Hejrat Allah pushes his white bicycle. The fatigue and the enormous backpack that this Afghan carries slow down his walk.

Hejrat Allah is heading for the Croatian border. His wife just called him, she was deported from Croatia with their two daughters aged three and five. The father of the family will collect them. It is a new attempt of passage which fails but it is not the last. Between them, Hejrat Allah and his wife attempted 45 times to cross into Croatia.

They agreed that it would be better if the wife attempted to cross the border with her daughters and then, once in Zagreb, applied for family reunification so that Hejrat Allah would join them. The family moved to Velika Kledusa to be as close as possible to the border.

>> To read: Bosnia-Croatia border: migrant killed after stepping on anti-personnel mine

From the heights of this small town, we see the Croatian and European flags flying over the border posts.

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In the squats and improvised camps of Velika Kledusa, as in the Miral accommodation center, managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the minds of migrants are occupied only by the “game”, the “game”. “of the passage in Croatia. For some, after months, even years, of presence in Bosnia, the attempts number by dozens.

Bengali jungle

In the wood where about fifty Bangladeshis have formed a small camp nicknamed the “Bengali jungle”, some migrants regain some strength before leaving. Under a shelter made of pieces of wood and plastic sheeting, Atik is spreading small balls of dough with a piece of plastic pipe to make patties.

This young Bangladeshi from the town of Sylhet was expelled from Croatia four days ago. He is already planning to try his luck again the day after we meet.

A little higher up from the muddy camp, Ahmad is crouching near a pot. While his rice is cooking on the fire, he says that he, too, tries tirelessly to cross into Croatia. “This winter, when there was too much snow, we went to the Lipa camp, near Bihac, for a few days and came back,” he recalls.

Ahmad spent a few days in Lipa camp in the coldest winter. Credit: InfoMigrants
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The ropes stretched between the trees recall those rainy or snowy days when you had to pull yourself up to reach the top of the sloping camp without slipping. Now that the temperatures are a bit warmer, they are used to hang out the laundry.

“We’re going to pass, inch’allah”

The time to leave has come in the squat of the old factory. “Several young Algerians have taken up residence in this large shed on the dirt floor. In the center, they have set up two small tents and old shabby sofas around it. ‘a fire.

Three of them are leaving this afternoon to try their luck again in Croatia. At the time of departure, the young people embrace, wish each other good luck. “We’re going to pass, inch’allah,” repeats one of them, a tight smile on his face.

“They will walk to a Croatian village 18 kilometers from here. From there they will take a bus to Zagreb, then another to the Slovenian border. Then you have to walk 25 kilometers to the Italian border.” , explains Mohammed who remains in Velika Kledusa for the moment. And after ? “Afterwards, we don’t know, we have never gone so far”, exclaims the young man of 30, laughing.

That afternoon, around the fire, the atmosphere is joyful. Yet everyone knows the risks of crossing the border illegally and being arrested by the Croatian police.

“We’ll let you go if you hit him”

All of the migrants interviewed described the brutality of the Croatian police in the same way: “They undress us”, “steal our phones and our money”, “beat us”, “we come back to Bosnia in boxers”.

The conversation lasts and Mohammed ends up recounting even more shocking episodes of some of the arrests.

“Two policemen each held an arm and during that time, a third, behind me, beat me with his baton,” he describes. The young man claims to have kept bruises on his legs and back for more than two weeks. Another time, the Algerian was forced to hit the friend who was accompanying him. “The police were telling me, ‘We only let you go if you hit him'”. Around the fire, there is silence. Mohammed won’t say if he hit his friend.

To prove that he had suffered violence, Abdul Rhamane took pictures of his body covered in bruises after his expulsion by the Croatian police. The 17-year-old Bangladeshi has been in Bosnia for eight months. Despite five unsuccessful attempts to cross the border, he is not discouraged. “Right now it’s too cold but I’ll try again in five days,” he said.

Abdul Rahmane, 17, was beaten by Croatian police after crossing the border from Bosnia.  Credit: InfoMigrants.
Abdul Rahmane, 17, was beaten by Croatian police after crossing the border from Bosnia. Credit: InfoMigrants.

In Velika Kledusa, as in Bihac, the No Name Kitchen association documents police violence at the Croatian border and participates in the Border violence monitoring network. In October 2020, this organization published a damning report on the violence perpetrated by the Croatian police on the exiles. Several cases of sexual violence had in particular been identified.

>> To read: Migrants: what is the EU doing about border violence in the Balkans?

In reaction, the European Commissioner for Internal Affairs Ylva Johansson had declared “to take very seriously” these accusations. She had already called in Zagreb for a “thorough investigation” into this violence after the publication of an Amnesty International report in June 2020. For its part, Zagreb continue to reject any accusation of police violence at the border.

Clothing and footwear

This violence is accompanied by the systematic theft of the clothes and sleeping bags of the exiles. In an attempt to protect them from the cold, the No Name Kitchen association distributes warm clothes, shoes and sleeping bags. The precious material is stored on the floors of the house which serves as headquarters for the members of the association.

In Velika Kledusa, the No Name Kitchen association distributes clothes and shoes to migrants. "We are also seeing more and more families", says Merit Kohlstedt.  Credit: InfoMigrants.
In Velika Kledusa, the No Name Kitchen association distributes clothes and shoes to migrants. “We are also seeing more and more families,” says Merit Kohlstedt. Credit: InfoMigrants.

“Refugees especially need pants and shoes because they are constantly on the move,” explains Merit Kohlstedt, a volunteer with the association. “Recently, we have also received more children’s clothing as we see more and more families.”

The shelf where the sleeping bags are stored is partly empty. Only the thickest remain. “These are warmer but they are also much heavier. These are the smallest that we distribute the most because they are light,” said the young woman from Germany.

For the exiles of Velika Kledusa, almost as many sleeping bags are needed as there are attempts to cross. That is to say a lot. Because, here, the question of giving up does not arise. “We spent so much to get here. Our fathers sold their cows, their houses. Going back would not make sense,” said a group of three Afghans met in the “Bengali jungle”.

In the squat of the old factory, an Algerian with glasses abounds, smiling: “When you are there, there is no going back possible”.

Julia Dumont, special correspondent at Velika Kledusa.

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