CONFLICT remains a vivid memory for the inhabitants of the town of Velika Kladuša, which was declared the capital of the Republic of Western Bosnia during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Signs at the entrances to cafés forbid those entering to carry firearms. But what distinguishes the city today from many other transit points on the migration trail is the welcome that it has extended to some of the thousands of migrants attempting the Balkan route into Europe.
Supermarkets and ironmongers sell them materials at discounted prices; companies in the area give work to the migrants; and even the police, many of the interviewees say, are more tolerant than those of neighbouring states. Restaurants offer them free meals and drinks; one, Kod Latana, distributes two free meals a day to each, served at the tables with ceramic plates and steel cutlery “We, too, have been refugees,” says the manager, Asim, who denies that what they are doing is charity. “Our history and our belonging to humanity require us to help and respect every human being, especially if in difficulty.”
A tent city has grown up there. Apart from the presence in the area of Doctors Without Borders, and of the UNHCR, which recently arrived to verify the situation, the greatest support for refugees is carried out by volunteers such as Adis, a former veteran of the Bosnian War, and well known in the city.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever done this job, but someone has to do it,” he says. The work includes treating the insect bites that torment those who sleep between the weeds and the mud. The hardest wounds to heal, however, are those that follow encounters with the Croatian police. In the field, there are people with broken arms and legs, or cigarette burns on their bodies.
The volunteers, made up of people from all over Europe, and named the SOS Ljuta Krajina Team Kladuša, have been busy. They have set up showers, and worked with the municipality to install lighting. A warehouse has been obtained from a former slaughterhouse for the distribution of used clothes.
So far this year, 77,324 people have attempted to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, and 1642 have been declared dead or missing. Ships are being turned back, and migrants are being returned to their crossing-point. Many are attempting the Balkan route, travelling from Bosnia to Croatia and beyond. Libyans, Algerians, Tunisians, and five Nigerian boys testify to this.
“I have to go back to Italy,” says Slimanie, a 42-year-old Moroccan man, who reached Turkey before travelling to Bosnia. “There, I have my 15-year-old daughter. . . I just want to work, live, and keep my daughter safe.”
Christians, especially from Pakistan and Iran, are among those living in Velika Kladuša. One of them is Babak, who recently arrived here with his wife and three children, and who says: “We have already tried twice to cross the ‘jungle’ [the name given by the refugees to the forests on the border between Croatia and Bosnia], but [the border guards] rejected us. We would like to reach Germany, where my brother lives.”
Nanak, a Sikh who wears a black turban, explains: “I have a licence to drive buses. I want to go to Rome; how is the situation in Italy now?”
From time to time, cars labelled with Bosnian and German plates enter the field: from there, boxes of food and clothes emerge; children and adults surround the car, and then arrange themselves in single file. Some of the help is financed by local or international Islamic organisations.
“I’ve never known better people than this in my life,” Javed, an Afghan boy, says. He studied political science, and worked with an international organisation in Sweden; he has been trying for months to return to Europe.
The motivations of those who have fled their country are various, from those such as Omran, whose parents were killed by bombs in Mosul, to Aaresh, who left Iranian Kurdistan for political reasons.
As evening falls, Slimanie can be found looking for a bigger backpack. “Tonight, we try,” he explains. “This time, we are five. The other time, we managed to get 20 kilometres from Italy before the police stopped us.”
Last month, the European Commission announced a €1.5-million package to help Bosnia to manage the growing influx of refugees in the country — about 4500 have arrived since January, according to UNHCR, which is a clear increase over last year.
Leaving Velika Kladuša, with its Ottoman castle and its minarets, and returning to Croatia, is simple: all you need is a European passport.