Maintaining humanity in Bihac

When I walked through Bosnia 3 years ago, I was warned against coming to Bihac. It’s full of refugees, they said. It’s out of control, you will get attacked, raped.

I went, of course. And nothing happened, of course. I was safe, I wasn’t touched, I only had to witness the shocking sequence of hundreds of people drifting through the town centre, unkempt, in ill fitting clothes, carrying packs with all they own. It felt chaotic and dangerous, thousands of desperate humans camped out on the borders of the EU. I couldn’t work out what was happening back then, why this had come to pass, such a concentration in such a place.

I didn’t have time to stay and learn more, I was too tired, it was too intimidating, I had my own journey to make. So three years later, to help me write the book I feel is necessary, I have come back to Bihac, and it just so happens that I am visiting a local refugee charity when there is the latest manufactured outrage over asylum seekers in the UK created by a government seeking to inflate right wing emotions and distract from its failing policies. 4000 people crammed into a centre meant to hold 1600 is not an invasion, it is really a crisis caused by deliberately bad management of migrant and asylum claims in the UK, which is actually a country with some of the lowest asylum application numbers in Europe.

Here I am in Bosnia, at the gate of Europe, where refugees are brutally repelled from crossing borders and EU money is being focused to keep people out. The refugees call it The Game, an ironic twist on their sneaking through the woods of the borderlands, trying to avoid patrols. It’s level up if you make it into the Schengen area where you can travel to your destination country, or game over when you get caught in a pushback. The patrols will not just put you in a van and kick you out back in Bosnia again, they’ll strip you naked, brutalise you, steal your money, snap your SIM card and smash your phone. They take shoes, sleeping bags, blankets; all those carefully shepherded donations packed and driven across borders, counted, accounted for, handed out, only to be stripped away and discarded on the forest floor, sometimes burnt, by border police.

‘The Commission takes strong action to prevent irregular migration through ensuring that each EU country controls its own portion of EU’s external borders. Commission actions also aim to reinforce the effectiveness of EU’s migration management system and to ensure that fundamental rights of migrants are respected.’

There are safeguards and policies written on paper, available on the internet, but nobody is in the forest to bear witness when humans are swept back with gusts of pepper spray, like leaves from a lawn.

Zlatan, the charity director, rages against the injustice of this situation, a mercurial man, carrying his own war trauma as all Bosnians do, sometimes crazed by the suffering around him. He didn’t choose this job, it happened to him, in his town. He was a local humanitarian worker, seeking to make his county better, and then suddenly, in increasing numbers, the refugees were funneled here without proper provision of care; the locals were protesting, the people were on the streets and he couldn’t stand aside and watch it happen. He is deep in the politics of refugee action in Bosnia, which is enormously complicated by the post-war governance of the conflict-shattered country. Bosnia is not allowed to control its own refugee budget, an external agency does it, which means that aidwork comes with all the faceless, corporate, dissasociated decisions of an international organisation that are anaethma to a typical anti-authoritarian Balkan spirit (expensive sleeping bags sourced in Switzerland, bread bought in from Sarajevo 150 miles away).

He names the agencies in a non stop reel of confusing acronyms as he speaks bluntly about the organisations who get millions in official funding only to skim it away on international salaries and corporate policymaking, leaving the remnants to trickle down to the people in need.

Zlatan is not a person who can bear the glossing over of individual pain in the broad brush approach of mass people management. He rejects the unfocused overview of mass migration percentages and reports; no death is acceptable to him, no proportion of harm.
Each person in need matters to him immensely, he is a true humanitarian.
Part of what he has created here is a paramedic service which scrapes up the people who are falling through the cracks in a place where where aid services won’t provide more than the bare minimum. He goes to bandage open wounds on a building site while, just across the road, the doors of the hospital are closed to refugees. He collects the struggling and injured from the forest, where nobody else will do it.


We go to the bus station, me in the back of the ambulance while the two paramedics smoke cigarettes in the front, very Balkan. The back of the bus station is a place I wouldn’t go after dark, the scrubby rubble and wasteground blurring into a building site, unfenced. Rubbish is littered in the straggly grass and humans are scattered in unexpected places, squatted on piles of gravel or against walls. Each has a bag or two, all they own. Heels are hanging out of ill fitting shoes or toes poking from the end of too small sandals. Some are sleeping, slumped down on the ground. A man squats and washes his face in water trickling from a long pipe against the building.

These are Afghans, mostly young men in their late teens and early twenties, coming crowding against the vehicle, each with a problem to be seen, scabies, open wounds, bites, blisters, missing toenails, tooth abscess. They are sleeping there, in a hidden place among the bushes, staying independent from the refugee camp which is high up in the hills, surrounded by minefields uncleared from the Balkan conflict, 25km from the town. It’s a collection of shipping containers crowded with bunkbeds under a 24 hour floodlit glare where refugees can get their basic needs met – allotted enough food to keep them alive, doled out at strict times of day. The camp is a days walk or a €20 taxi ride from town, wasted money and energy for those who have little of either.

The system of help does not want to see people safely home, it just wants them to disappear, or never come at all, and it makes conditions unbearable to facilitate that. No country can truly open its borders to all those in need, especially those who are using the markets and resources of other countries to make themselves rich.

The charity judges nobody who needs help. It is just there to aid those who are only partway through a long, arduous journey made through desperation. These people are exhausted, wearing ill-fitting donated clothes and they have nothing to do but continue. There is nothing for them here or back home, and only the hope of asylum or illegal living in the future.

I feel useless in the face of this. I came here for my book research, I didn’t come to officially help, but as I accompany the team out to an intervention at night, I find myself doing what I can. What I can do is cook and clean and care. I am sleeping in the headquarters of the charity, the base which also functions as a safe house for those who need extra help. A shower, a bed, a meal, to give them respite, a small breath in and out to gather their strength and go again.

We collect 3 boys from the road at night, a few hours walk from Bihac, where someone local has stopped their car and called the charity to help them. They made their first attempt to cross to Croatia and got discovered in the forest. The border patrol was easy on them, no violence, gave their phones back unbroken. These are three fifteen/sixteen year olds alone, smooth skinned, bright eyed, and the Croatian police are not completely without humanity, not quite. We offer them a night in the safe house before they return to the camp and I make them rice and eggs, chop some tomatoes and beef salami, ask them questions about why they are alone. Two of them travelled from Afghanistan alone, meeting in Turkey, and the other one came with his family but was separated in a pushback on the crossing from Serbia, he doesn’t know where his parents are, the Red Cross are contacting camps in Serbia to try and find them. We give the boys towels for showers, new shoes from the box of donations. They have wounds on their heels from layers of blisters, from walking months in worn out shoes. They show me their feet, the blisters between their toes. It has taken them 7 months to make the journey, including two months in Turkish internment camps.

“Where are you going?”


“Why Germany?”

“We want to make our futures.”

This simple, sad statement hangs in the air a moment.

They have left sisters behind who can no longer go to school, they have made a journey costing several thousand pounds that their families have scraped together to push their teenage children out into the great unknown because it’s the only hope for change they have. Why shouldn’t they have this? All the opportunities of Germany, why should this be denied to them?

I am in admiration of their strength, in awe of what they are enduring, the difficulty of their challenge. The ones who arrive at the end of this journey to claim asylum are the best, the strongest, the brightest, the ones who didn’t give up; they should be welcomed, they have much to offer.

It has cost them thousands of pounds to make this journey, and if you think to yourself that if they have that much money then why didn’t they stay, look around and think about how much money you could get to send your child abroad if you liquidated your possessions, your TV, laptop, your car, your furniture. Think about how much you could get if you begged friends and family. Think about how much you could get from a loan shark, a quick payday loan. I bet it’s more than a few thousand pounds. Imagine if life was unbearable for you in this country, how would you leave? How would you feel when people told you you weren’t accepted elsewhere? What makes your life worth more than theirs? What makes you different to them?

Their heads are drooping to the table at 8pm and I give them out of date chocolate Christmas decorations to take to bed. They take their plates to the sink like good boys.  We wave goodbye in the morning. I wish them luck. It’s all I can do.

It’s sad and intense and emotional and the next day comes the same again. My sadness comes at the shock of this situation, how truly terrible these conditions are. This charity cannot fix problems, only practice temporary healing for people in transit. There are barely any familiar faces, no permanence of relationships, only the daily presentation of new bodies in need.

We get a call about a refugee with broken bones at the bus station so the ambulance bounces over the stone track to as near as they are allowed to give treatment. A cluster of Afghans come to the vehicle with scabies rashes, inflamed groins and leg sores and while they are treated, Zlatan asks me to walk around the area and try to find anyone more seriously injured. I can’t, there isn’t anyone, only an African guy struggling to walk but who won’t leave his group because he’s paid €500 to a trafficker to take him across the border and that’s all the money he has. They are more reticent, many of the Africans, I don’t even know which countries they are from, they don’t talk much or come forward for help.

There is nobody with a broken leg, it’s another mystery in a place where very little is certain, so I go back and take details of who needs clothing, we can bring back donations later.

The crowd of young men gather around me, too close for my British sense of personal space, arms around shoulders, speaking over each other. “Why doesn’t Europe open the borders?” one asks, it’s a challenge to me, now they know I’m British not Bosnian. “Because Europe is selfish” I say, in the best way I know to communicate responsibility, “and if they let everyone in they won’t be rich anymore.” It’s a hurdle jumped, every interaction in this situation is breaking down barriers of mistrust. We talk a little more, make small jokes, share smiles. One says he was a commando in the Afghan Army, another shows me photos of certificates, commendations from the US Army during operations of 2010. These two are older. These things would get them killed immediately by the Taliban. They had to leave Afghanistan or die, and yet nobody is offering them safety, they have to go through all this struggle and seek it for themselves.

We take a group of four back to the safe house, one has missing toenails on his right foot, waving away hungry flies as he shows it to us at the building site. They have travelled together from Istanbul, walking almost 900 miles in 40 days. They have one working phone between them and show me pictures of smashed phones, of baton injuries from border police. They show me pictures of themselves taken in Turkey and I am shocked at how much weight they’ve lost, they are haggard now in comparison, and my prejudice is brought home. This is not Afghan normality, to be so wild eyed and unkempt, this is the state of people in crisis. One, a police officer, speaks of his fiance left behind, his best friend shot in front of him, the gun battles during the war. He would be shot on sight by the Taliban. “If they know you are a soldier, they just kill you, they don’t even ask questions.”

There is nothing I can say that isn’t useless, nothing at all. Their country has been destroyed, repeatedly, in international invasions and interventions, and finally abandoned to the Taliban in a total dereliction. I feel ashamed that they have travelled here in such desperation and face such total rejection.

I plonk down a huge saucepan of chicken stew and a loaf of bread, tell them that they can eat as much as they want, and busy myself making cups of tea.

This situation, on the borders of Europe, is a mess. An inhumane, ugly, suffering mess. And it is created by design. Refugees are funnelled to different countries at different times, sometimes there are more border patrols, sometimes there are less. Camp conditions are never improved beyond the bare minimum. The easier you make this journey the more will arrive. Because we are living on a planet where some countries have wealth at the expense of others and in the forest frontline, away from aid packages and press conferences, lies the truth of how that wealth is protected.

3 thoughts on “Maintaining humanity in Bihac

  • November 10, 2022 at 6:32 pm

    Thank you for writing this, bearing witness. I just finished reading the Bee Keeper of Aleppo. Pages I had to turn fast so I didn’t read them, didn’t have those images in my mind.
    Do you know about the fbk group Phone Credit for Refugees and Asylum Seekers? The opposite of the faceless money grabbing so called aid organisations. All donations go to putting credit on peoples phones. Anyway thanks Ursula.

  • November 10, 2022 at 6:40 pm

    Unimaginable conditions brought to us by your honest and trustworthy words.
    The world is a mess, a mess created by humans.
    What future is there from disregarding lessons from the past.

  • Pingback: SOS Bihać in the eyes of a random passerby – SOS Bihac

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