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"Belief is All We Have:" Dispatch from Bosnian Migrant Centres

Updated: Mar 6, 2019

By Elizabeth Pennington

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina, February 2019 | There are an estimated 5,000 migrants and refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) currently. Though some reports suggest that the figure could be as high as 10,000. Last year, 22,400 migrants crossed into the country. Over the coming year, 25,000 more are expected, the first wave in just a couple of months as the warmer weather arrives in Europe.

The numbers seem endless and it is somewhat easy to become apathetic to the situation. But I don’t want that to happen. I guess it’s a feeling of loving a country, a city, so much,... then suddenly, you realise that the migrant crisis is the same in other cities, other countries around the World. And it’s getting more and more intense, to the point where I cannot sit and do nothing. In fact, I reached that point a long time ago. This is the reality of the refugee crisis.

After all, in a country still recovering from a four year war in the 1990’s, and unemployment on the rise, the increase in migrant numbers is putting even more pressure on the country's resources. Adding to this, local organisations estimate that “85% of migrants in BiH are “economic.” However, in a country were the average monthly salary is around 300 EUR per month, it is difficult to know for certain how the increase in migrant numbers, will impact the country.

I recently travelled back to Sarajevo, almost two years after my first visit, to continue workshops for the art/research project “Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow” (YTT) with team members Bryan McCormack, Claire de Chassey and Laurent Friquet. It would be my third official YTT trip visiting camps, after Serbia in February 2018 and Morocco October 2018.

It was around 10 am when I arrived in an icy Sarajevo. Driving from the airport into the Old Town, I passed buildings, homes, scarred with bullet holes from the four year war from 1992-1995. The white gravestones in the cemeteries lined the hills. 12,000 people died in this city alone. It is an ever present reminder of the past. Though, for a country where many of the population were once refugees themselves, there are increasing tensions….

“Bosnian people struggle to support themselves. How can we support refugees and migrants also?” This seemed to be a general feeling amongst some of the local Sarajevo people I spoke with, trying to get an understanding of the situation. It is complex. Never black and white… You can’t forget that.

We would be spending the week working with a local Non-profit AidBrigade at two locations, a Community Centre in Sarajevo. The other, Ušivak camp, an old Army Barracks, about a 40 minute drive from Sarajevo, home to around 550 migrants, mainly men, but also women children and unaccompanied minors. It was only meant for approximately 400 people. To accommodate everyone, tents have been set up in the hills that surround the Ušivak Camp.

Last Saturday, about 100 migrants were brought from the Northern town of Bihać, close to the Croatian border and found residence in the camp. In the North, migrants face another challenge. Mines. They trek across fields littered with undiscovered, unexploded mines, often at night so as not to be detected by Border police or drones. For many, it's worth the risk. Some make it, others try many times, before finally being brought back to Sarajevo. It is a vicious cycle.

Below are several stories that I collected from migrants in the centres. Their names have not been disclosed to protect their identity.


1) “K” - 26 years old, Moroccan. Male: “I have been travelling since 2015.” He tells us. “I spent two, three years in Turkey, one year in Greece, I was in prison because I did not have papers. I plan to leave for Croatia tomorrow and try to cross the border. In Sarajevo, I live in a squat with 20 other people. It is very cold. We have no bathroom. No heating.” *K hopes to go to Valencia, Spain.

2) “H” - 19, Moroccan. Male: “I have no family with me, only my friend from Marrakesh is with me. Later this week, we will go try to cross Croatian border at night as the police do not see us.”

"H” tells me. “It is very bad here. We have nothing.” I stupidly ask how he plans to travel to Croatia but I knew the answer… “We will walk. Because without papers, without passport, we can do nothing. We have to walk. Belief is all we have.”

3) "R" - 26, Iranian-Kurdistan. Female: "I want to go to The Netherlands and attend art school so that I can be a painter. In Kurdistan, it was very difficult. Very hard for women there. I had to leave.... Do you know somewhere that I could sleep tonight because I don't have anywhere to sleep?"

Some here have already tried three, four, five times, others more, to cross the Croatian border but are caught and sent back. A number of men showed us their phones, the screens smashed and sim-cards missing. One man told me that he does not have the money to get another one just yet. People here are desperate to share their stories. They are in survival mode. There is little more to say.

Later that evening, we talk. Compare. Analyse. Discuss. Passionately discuss, the vision, re-emphasising even the motivation of YTT, until we are on the verge of tears. It’s real life here. It is not fiction. Not distant. But the weight of what we have seen, here and elsewhere, is clear. YTT is simply: The hope. The light. The voice.

Ušivak CAMP:

About 20 km outside of Sarajevo is the small town of Ušivak. The camp lies nestled amongst the trees and hills. In theory, it is picturesque. There are around 500 Iraqi, Iraqi-Kurdistan, Afghan and Pakistani men, women, and young children aged from just a few months old to around 12 years old, living there. We saw others with their rucksacks, walking, leaving for the border with Croatia to continue their journey. Some, only had the clothes they were wearing. No sooner after we arrived, we were shaking hands and wishing luck to a group of seven or eight people, including a young baby strapped to their mother. They to were leaving, walking.

It doesn't hit you until you see it for yourself.

As the sun shone down over the hills, I looked around the camp at the men playing cricket, the mothers at times pacing around the site, their eyes filled with sadness, the children playing. Four young Iraqi brothers aged from three to seven were continually trying to teach me to count in Arabic and laughed hysterically when I got it wrong... A moment of normality in an otherwise unnatural situation. As we finished our tour of the camp facilities and were waiting for the lunch time to end, a mother approaches us:

“I have five children, we walked from Iraq. No money, no food, nothing. I prayed and asked God to provide. Daesh killed my husband in front of my children’s eyes. We have nothing left. What I am going to do now? Who will help us? Please help us. Please help. Inshallah." She explains to us in Arabic, as tears filled her eyes and ours.

She ushers her young child forward, their eyes filled with an equal amount of pain to their mother. I doubt he was not older than four. The woman pulled up her child’s sleeves, revealing their skinny, malnourished arm which she emphasised by wrapping her thumb and index finger around. His arm circumference was that of a toddler. It's one of those moments I will never forget.

Inside, I broke but I used all my strength not to cry. Not to turn away. She didn’t need my tears, only words of comfort in what I could muster from the basic level of Arabic that I knew. But, the weight of the week hit me in that moment as the mother slowly walked away. I hate to admit it, but in that moment, I honestly felt empty. There were few doctors there to help - many go into the town.

A father comes to one of the volunteers, asking for baby food - but it is a long process of signing and approval before it can be given. It can take days.

I also met “M,” a five year old Syrian girl from Damascus. She had been in Ušivak for around 4 days with her parents, uncle and six month old little brother, who was born in a Greek refugee camp. "M" had a bright, beaming smile and brown curly hair. She was a complete beacon of light and hope. When I asked her in Arabic if she wanted to draw, she jumped up and down excitedly, holding her teddy bear, Dima. By contrast, her "Yesterday" detailed her house that was bombed, people crying and many dying because Daesh (ISIS). Her erratic hand gestures and facial expressions suggested to me that they had been violently killed, and she had seen it. Her age protected her from the full reality of the horrors. I was glad about that. "M" taught me more about human resilience in the few hours that I spent with her, than I had learnt in my lifetime.

The drawing workshops overall were filled with laughter. A hub of activity. Children whispering to one another in Arabic, others in Kurdish. Their drawings filled with colour, many happy, joyful but some painful. One of the young Iraqi brothers I had met drew a boat, then spent the next hour or so colouring over it in thick black crayon. It was the only way he knew how to express his feelings.

It’s the moments of normality that keep you present, keep you sane. You have to hold onto that. Many volunteers and people we spoke with told us that we came to Bosnia at “just the right time.” The level of the crisis makes it feel as though the country would descend into chaos at any moment. It’s fragile.

But through education, through the work that we are doing with YTT in BiH, we can have impact. Focusing on that, is the most important thing.

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