Frozen Christmas: The teenage migrants trapped in Bosnia's bleak forests

Frozen Christmas: The teenage migrants trapped in Bosnia's bleak forests
Frozen Christmas: The teenage migrants trapped in Bosnia's bleak forests
Frozen Christmas The teenage migrants trapped in Bosnia's bleak forests
Frozen Christmas The teenage migrants trapped in Bosnia's bleak forests

As Europe basks in the glow of festive lights, migrants at a refugee camp in Bosnia endure sub-zero temperatures. Sarah Newey reports from Bihać. Pictures by Simon Townsley.

This article has an estimated read time of seven minutes

A hard frost coats piles of human detritus in Bosnia's northern forests. Annexed by the Nazis in the Second World War and starved during the Balkans conflict, these bleak woodlands are once again stage to a grim drama.

Less than 10 miles from Croatia’s border, thousands of migrants are playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the authorities as they try to break out of Bosnia to enter the European Union.

“At least in hell it is warm,” says Ahmed Mian, a softly-spoken 48-year-old refugee from Kashmir. “We are living like animals in the jungle. Look around, how can humans live like this?”

It’s a good question. While most of Europe’s high streets and town squares are aglow with fairy lights in preparation for the festive season, hundreds of bedraggled men and boys are freezing here amid the landmine-strewn forest five miles above the small city of Bihać.

They include Raaz and Nijab, two 14-year-olds who fled Afghanistan in search of a better future. The boisterous pair, who became firm friends after meeting in a makeshift migrant camp two months ago, already have a lifetime of experience between them.

Teenage migrants Nijab (left) and Raaz – both aged 14 and from Afghanistan – are travelling alone

Since leaving home last year, they have traversed six countries by foot, bus and boat – Iran, Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia and now Bosnia. They dream of getting to the bright lights of Germany, France or Britain.

“My father died fighting the Taliban and I was living in fear,” says Raaz, hugging himself to stay warm in the cold. “My mother said I had to leave, she said I must save myself and find a real future.”

The teenager is sitting with Nijab on the flat roof of an abandoned building in the heart of Vučjak camp, a squalid quagmire without electricity, running water or toilets.

“I have only spoken to my mother once since I left home,” Raaz says. “She doesn’t know I am here in the jungle, I don’t want her to worry.”

Nijab nods his head in agreement. Originally from Khost in western Afghanistan, his family relocated to Kabul three years ago, but his father urged him to flee the country amid continued conflict and instability.

“My mother didn’t want me to leave, she was really upset, but I couldn’t see a future at home,” Nijab explains. “I spoke to her two days ago, but I sent a photo of myself in town, not in the jungle. My family, they don’t need to see this.”

Raaz, whose father died fighting the Taliban, has only spoken to his mother once since leaving Afghanistan

Nijab says his father urged him to flee the country amid continued conflict and instability

Vučjak is the last place the boys expected to get stuck in during their steady march west, but they are now are among thousands of migrants and refugees trapped in Bosnia’s Una-Sana canton as Croatia cracks down on undocumented immigration.

“I’ve tried to cross the border six times,” Raaz says, pointing to the mountains behind Vučjak which separate the camp from the border. “We hike up on the steep paths, and then try to walk through Croatia and Slovenia to Italy. But every time I’ve tried I’ve been caught and deported.”

Nijab adds that on several of their attempts, the Croatian police confiscated the teenagers’ backpacks, smashed their phones and beat them with batons.

According to doctors at the local Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic, who have treated bruises, broken ribs and infected lips, Croatian police brutality is a story nearly every migrant stuck in the region tells – though MSF cannot verify the assertions and the authorities in Croatia categorically deny all claims.

But while the alleged behaviour might make it harder and more expensive for migrants to regroup and try again, it does little to dampen their determination to reach Europe’s borderless Schengen zone, which begins in Italy.

Migrants endure squalid conditions at the camp

Hundreds are living in a muddy quagmire with no water or sanitation

The camp has been described as ‘inhumane’ and ‘shameful’

“Every time we leave we are playing with our lives, and so we call it ‘the game’,” says Kamran Khan, a 33-year-old from Pakistan who speaks perfect English. He’s attempted to leave Bosnia and travel north five times. “We are going, coming back, starting again. It’s a cycle, it’s a game.”

Nijab and Raaz are among the latest group leaving Vučjak to play another round. Excitement about the trip has been building in the camp all morning, reaching a climax as some 100 hyped-up people emerge from their thin canvas tents in the forest with backpacks full of provisions for a fortnight of travel.

The migrants set off full of bravado in dribs and drabs, but 200 metres outside the camp they pause to reflect. Gathered together, kneeling in the mud, they pray for safe passage.

“In 12 days, I could be in Italy, it is maybe 280km to Trieste,” Nijab says, his eyes sparkling with anticipation. “Maybe I will make it by Christmas!”

While the migrant crisis in Greece and Italy has been well-documented, Bihać is at the forefront of a poorly reported emergency in Bosnia

While the migrant crisis in Greece and Italy has been well-documented, Bihać is at the forefront of a poorly reported crisis in Bosnia. The nation is struggling to cope with an influx of people after Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary (which has built an anti-migrant wall admired by Donald Trump) closed their borders to undocumented immigration.

So far this year, Bosnia and Herzegovina has registered 28,000 migrants entering the country, a 40 per cent increase compared to 2018. Of almost 8,000 still present, roughly three quarters are thought to be staying in the region surrounding Bihać – a city with a population of 60,000 people which is seen as an ideal launchpad for efforts to reach the Schengen zone.

But as more and more people arrive in the region, the nations north of Bosnia – mainly Croatia and Slovenia – are cracking down, deporting migrants and refugees back to the small Balkan nation and thus contributing to a bottleneck of people.

Although the European Union has given Bosnia more than €36 million to tackle the crisis, experts say the absence of a consistent approach to migration among member countries does not help the Una-Sana canton’s overwhelmed authorities.

As temperatures drop below zero, migrants huddle around a fire to keep warm

Flimsy canvas tents are the only shelter for those at the camp

Neither does Bosnia’s own complicated and devolved political system, which was created to keep the peace following years of brutal ethnic conflict in the 1990s. As well as three presidents – a Serb, a Croat and a Bosniak – the country has two entities (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska) and 10 cantons, each with its own administrative government and relative autonomy.

“There have been tensions between Bihać and Sarajevo [the capital city],” says Hannu-Pekka Laiho, a spokesperson for the International Federation of the Red Cross based in Bosnia.

“There’s a feeling in Bihać that the whole burden of migration has been left to this corner of the country and continent, while the complex constitutional and political system means that it is very hard to create a consensus to do anything.”

It’s a situation the human traffickers controlling ‘the games’ are exploiting, according to a local policeman who does not want to be named.

“Whatever the politicians say, there’s big money in the influx of migrants, it’s a golden egg,” he says. “Migrants pay thousands of euros to people smugglers to help them over the border, and the Bosnian government gets money from the European Union to provide services. The people with power are making big money.”

As more arrive in the region, nations north of Bosnia are deporting migrants and refugees back to the small Balkan nation

Vučjak migrant camp in the leafless woodlands above Bihać is perhaps the best example of over-stretched local authorities and inconsistent national policy-making.

A surge in arrivals over the summer left the city’s existing camps – including Borici, a family-focused centre in a restored school dormitory and Bira, an old factory now home to 2,000 men – bursting at the seams.

With nowhere to stay, growing numbers of migrants and refugees began sleeping rough in Bihać’s abandoned buildings and public parks. The camp at Vučjak was a temporary measure to quell locals’ rising discontent, but humanitarian organisations warned from the off that the camp – based in a former landfill site with no water and sanitation – was not fit for purpose.

And as Bosnia’s bleak midwinter descended, the dangers of housing people in tents in sub-zero conditions became ever clearer. Visiting amid several inches of snow last week, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, described the camp as “inhumane” and “shameful”.

“That camp should have never been opened in the first place,” she added.

But, in spite of months of international pressure and assurances from the Bosnian national government that the camp would be closed, it was not until Tuesday that some 500 people living in Vučjak were finally relocated.

Raaz prepares for the next leg of his long journey to Europe

Refugees head to the border for the latest round of 'the game'

Nijab shortly before his attempt to cross into Croatia

And despite the squalid conditions, many of the migrants and refugees in the notorious “jungle camp” were unimpressed at the move – Bosnia’s police transported the men by the bus-load to Sarajevo, some 300km south of the Croatian border.

The swirling rumours ahead of the shut-down pushed many to make a last-ditch attempt to play ‘the game’ before Christmas, including Nijab and Raaz.

“It’s only 280km to Italy, but it’s over 300km to Sarajevo,” explains Raaz. “So it’s better to try now.”

Abdul Wali, a 28-year-old with a politics and law degree who also fled Afghanistan, adds: “I’ve paid smugglers maybe €8,000 getting this far, I can’t give up. Other people have made it to the European Union, I will too – my family expect it, they need me to get my papers and to bring them over, to safety.”

This logic and desperate determination means that while Vučjak has now shut, the solution deployed is really only another in a long line of stop-gaps.

“I am really happy that it's gone, it was my dream to get it closed,” says Mr Laiho. “But while most of the men and boys might now be safely in Sarajevo, that doesn’t mean the crisis is over.

“They will come back and thousands more will come too. Next summer there could easily be another Vučjak – let’s just hope it’s not so bad.”

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