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The horror of Vučjak

How those who have fled to the Bosnia-Croatia border survive among mines, wolves, scabies and beatings

Magazine > Feature > The horror of Vučjak

Everyone in Bihać has an opinion on them – the refugees. The one you hear will depend on where you ask and, above all, who you ask.

If, for instance, you ask 54-year-old florist Snježana at the main square, the first thing she says is: Ka – tas – trofa, catastrophe. Then she pauses, looks concerned, and begins to talk: They are sick, they stink and they’re dirty. And one of them recently chased me through the streets when he saw my purse in my hand. As Snježana talks, she reaches under the white counter of her flower shop and retrieves two small objects. In her right hand, she holds a black can of pepper spray with “KO” written on it in yellow. In her left hand, she holds hand sanitiser gel from the German brand Balea.

She says she knows that she’s not actually allowed to own the spray, but she’s scared and the spray alleviates some of the fear. It promises safety, at least a little bit, in a town that feels dangerous to Snježana now that young, foreign men gather in groups outside her shop, begging for money or asking her to charge their mobile phones. Sometimes – and she says this quite frankly – she feels like they will take over everything here, and that it’s just a matter of time before they do. There’s no one but the refugees on the streets. Our people are either hiding at home or leaving the country.

© PIXSELL / EXPA / picturedesk.com
Vučjak is located in a forest and a former landfill site that presents significant health risks and is surrounded by mines left over from the war. Photo: © PIXSELL / EXPA / picturedesk.com

The refugees that Snježana is talking about are mostly young men from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. A few come from Morocco. They wander around the main square in Bihać in groups, many of them wrapped up in old blankets. They sleep under eaves or seek shelter in the many ruined houses left over from the Yugoslav Wars. Some of them carry their belongings in plastic bags, their freezing hands clutching the handles wherever they go. Desperate, they ask the sellers at the open shops on the main square if they can charge their mobile phones. One of the tobacconists is happy to help.

A shop selling tickets for the lutrija, the city lottery, is a few hundred metres away. Ramo, a lutrija employee, wears a light-blue Adidas cap and square glasses. His voice is as smoky as the small, darkened shop where he sits filling out lottery slips. I actually wish more of them would come, he says. I don’t have any problem with them – in fact, they’re my friends. Ramo does have problems with the man who lives directly above the lottery shop, though. He recently reported Ramo to the police in secret because he doesn’t like the fact that Ramo invites the Pakistani and Afghan refugees into his shop every day to give them food and coffee. I haven’t committed any crime! He says that no one can tell him who he’s allowed to give food to – not even the police.

He spends most of his time sitting on his bar stool, alternating between looking at the TV on the wall opposite and at the lottery slips on the table. Now and again, he stands up and comes closer. He does this when something is especially important – always when he wants to convince the other person of how harmless they are, these refugees who everyone says stink and are sick. I’d stink too if I couldn’t take a shower, he says. They live like animals up there!

Up there – the term is a synonym for Vučjak, a place that is 15 minutes’ drive from Bihać. Global media outlets often refer to Vučjak as a “horrific camp” for refugees. It was set up in early summer 2019, on an old landfill site. The mayor of Bihać, Šuhret Fazlić, did so in the hope that the EU would later help turn it into a proper camp. But it didn’t. Currently, four or five workers from the local Red Cross look after the refugees – between 700 and 1,000 of them – who live in the most appalling conditions there. Small meals are served twice a day.

Following a meeting of interior ministers in early November in Vienna, Bosnian security minister Dragan Mektić publicly announced the closure of the “camp” and suggested opening two new camps in former military barracks in order to relieve Bihać. And while almost all media reports are now talking about the closure of Vučjak, DATUM found that people in Bihać don’t really believe that it will happen.

While this might be partly due to a lack of credibility among some of the country’s politicians, the primary reason is that making political decisions is perhaps more difficult in Bosnia than anywhere else in the world. The country is made up of two entities, ten cantons and an independent district. It has three heads of state, 14 parliaments and almost 150 ministers. Experts often refer to it as the most complicated political system in the world. On top of this, although Bosnia held elections in 2018, it still doesn’t have a new government, meaning that politically it is in a transitional phase. These are all just a few of many reasons why Bosnia still has not been able to organise a new location for the Vučjak refugees. Another, more compelling reason is that most of the land in Bosnia belongs to local municipalities or private individuals who are generally against the idea of a refugee camp being set up on their land.

© PIXSELL / EXPA / picturedesk.com
Close to where the refugees sleep are the "suspected areas" with landmines, not far from a small water tank with a thin garden hose that people use to “shower” outside in the cold. Photo: © PIXSELL / EXPA / picturedesk.com

Vučjak is reached via a steep, winding road that snakes up the mountain and eventually gives way to a rocky track full of potholes. At the end of the track is a small container with two police officers standing outside, strictly controlling who is allowed into the “camp”. They’ve had bad experiences with the foreign journalists who’ve been coming here over the past few weeks.

The inhumanity of Vučjak is clear even at first sight: Draughty tents riddled with holes (donated by a Turkish NGO when the “camp” was being set up) now serve as homes. They are surrounded by rubbish and, much worse, landmines – even a quarter of a century after the war, Bosnia is still littered with them. At the entrance, a small map that looks as if it dates from the war alerts people to the landmines. It shows the “suspected areas”, as these are situated close to where the refugees sleep, not far from a small water tank with a thin garden hose that people use to “shower” outside in the cold. Are the residents aware of the danger? They have other things to worry about, says a young Red Cross worker.

The refugees wear tattered shoes and wade ankle-deep through the mud. The mud is everywhere – between the tents, in the tents, on people’s beds. Here again, the term “bed” just plays down the situation, as the refugees are actually sleeping on plastic sheeting that is full of holes. Some of the lucky ones still have their own sleeping bag, which they brought on the journey and now offers a bit of protection from the cold.

Poor sanitation in the “camp” means that many refugees suffer from scabies, a highly contagious skin disease. Sometimes staff from Doctors Without Borders visit, but no one is here on a Saturday. When the organisation does come, the doctors prefer to treat the people outside the “camp” because they don’t want to legitimise Vučjak as an official camp with their presence. Up here, in a place with no heating, the temperatures are on average 5°C colder than in Bihać, which sits at a lower altitude.

The cold Bosnian winter, which will sweep the country over the next few weeks, is sure to trigger a humanitarian crisis if an alternative to Vučjak isn’t found soon. This is perhaps also why hardly anyone wants to use the terms refugee camp or provisional reception centre when talking about Vučjak. Ramo from the lottery shop doesn’t want to, and neither does Peter Van der Auweraert, the Western Balkans Coordinator for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). And this is probably one of the few opinions that everyone here in Bihać shares: Vučjak is a place that shouldn’t exist.

In 2015, most refugees, after arriving in Greece, would travel through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary to reach Austria and Germany. Today, though, they take a route that leads through Bosnia to Croatia, the EU’s newest member state. Many refugees fail at the Bosnia-Croatia border. They are apprehended by the Croatian police and beaten back to Bosnia. Before that, though, the police take their mobile phones and destroy them. They burn the refugees’ sleeping bags, take their shoes and then send them back through the woods to Bosnia. These brutal removals are known as “pushbacks”. The various NGOs, such as Amnesty International and NoNameKitchen, have been documenting them for over a year with reports and photographs of wounded refugees.

One volunteer, who did not wish to be named, seems weary as she talks about it. She is among those who document the violence that the Croatian police use against the refugees. Slowly, and through numerous conversations, she tries to win the trust of the affected refugees so that they will tell her about how they were beaten up at the Croatian border. She takes photos of the injuries, some of which are serious, without showing the refugees’ faces. She then publishes the pictures and the accounts as “violence reports” on the Border Violence Monitoring  website.

If you live in Bihać, though, you don’t need to read the reports. Everyone here knows about the brutal tactics deployed by the Croatian police. That includes Ramo, who regularly has battered and sometimes seriously injured refugees limping into his shop. Croatia is on the cusp of becoming part of the EU Schengen area, so it seems likely that the Croatian government wants to prove that it can effectively protect the EU’s external border that now runs along its own border. This is not going unnoticed at the EU level – including in Austria, where Karoline Edtstadler, head of the Austrian People’s Party delegation in the European Parliament, recently spoke to the Austria Press Agency, praising the Croatian police’s effective border protection and calling for the EU’s newest member state to be welcomed into the Schengen area with open arms.

Speak to the men who have to queue up for food in Vučjak, though, and it becomes clear what this effective border protection really means. Almost everyone here has a story to tell about the brutal Croatian police. Our shoes, sleeping bags, food, money – they take it all. Even our mobile phones, says Subhan, a 24-year-old refugee from Afghanistan. But this doesn’t stop the young men from trying again and again to cross the border into Croatia. They mockingly call these attempts the game.

They mockingly call these attempts “the game”.

Another young man, this time from Pakistan, also has a story about the violence. He says that he has attempted the game at the border 25 times, and that the Croatian police beat him back to Bosnia 25 times. But I’ll try again, he says, laughing, a black shirt hanging from his thin frame. How can a person still have so much spirit after experiencing all of that? They have to do it. Otherwise they wouldn’t survive, says the volunteer. It’s a kind of protective mechanism for them. It keeps them alive because they can’t give up, she says. It seems as if she herself has become numb from all the suffering she’s witnessed while writing her violence reports.

Some refugees actually do manage to illegally cross the mountainous border to Croatia, picking their way through the forests and past mines, bears and wolves. Then they save their route on Google Maps and send it via their mobile phones to those who are still suffering back in Vučjak. Most, however, return barefoot and seriously injured to northern Bosnia, either to Bihać or neighbouring Velika Kladuša.
Whichever it is, there is usually no space left in the overflowing official UN refugee camps. So they either spend their days wandering the streets and find shelter in bombed-out houses from the war, or the police pick them up and take them back to the horrific conditions at Vučjak.

Both towns, Bihać and Velika Kladuša, feel as if they have been left to deal with this situation on their own – abandoned by the EU, Bosnia’s central government in Sarajevo, and the United Nations. Bihać’s government estimates that the town, which is home to 60,000 people, now accommodates between 4,000 and 6,000 migrants. That’s ten percent of our population says the mayor’s press spokesman. And they keep coming.

In recent days and weeks, Elmedin Mehadžić’s office has become a magnet for journalists from all over the world. He has just finished an interview with Russian television, and the next press appointment will start shortly. He smiles tiredly as he says this. It’s clear that, as a spokesman for a small town like Bihać, Mehadžić is not used to this level of interest. During the conversation, his mobile phone keeps lighting up and vibrating – but he ignores most of the calls and doesn’t let it distract him from answering the questions.

And for weeks, every one of those questions has been about the same thing: Vučjak. Mayor Fazlić decided to set up the “camp” in May 2019, and now Mehadžić has to defend the decision to the world. We had to choose between housing the refugees actually in the town, which would have made us the focus of resentment among our residents, or housing them outside town in Vučjak, he explains. We chose the second option, in the hope that the International Organization for Migration, which receives money from the EU, would get behind us and set up a proper camp there.

When asked about the situation, the IOM gives a harsh reply: The very first time that Mayor Fazlić suggested Vučjak as a possible camp, we made it very clear that the IOM will not accept this location because we cannot guarantee the refugees’ safety there, says the IOM’s Peter Van der Auweraert. He says it as if the words are a mantra that he has uttered countless times before. Vučjak, he continues, is a former landfill site that presents significant health risks and is surrounded by mines left over from the war. There is no electricity and not even a proper road leading to it. These are all reasons why the IOM didn’t want to set up a camp there, and the mayor was well aware of that. Despite our objections, he decided to set up the camp and that’s why we’re now in this situation, says Van der Auweraert, adding that Vučjak was never and will never be the solution.

“Despite our objections, he decided to set up the camp and that’s why we’re now in this situation.”

– Van der Auweraert, Head of the International Organization for Migration in BiH

To understand why financial support from international organisations like the IOM is so important for Bosnia, you only need to visit a camp run by the IOM. One such camp is located in Velika Kladuša and is called Camp Miral. Before the some 470 residents could even be admitted into the camp, they had to be registered by the Service for Foreign Affairs, an administrative unit in the security ministry that is responsible for foreigners entering and staying in Bosnia. After registration, the IOM gives the refugees a form of photo ID. Without it, they cannot enter the camp; security guards strictly demand that everyone shows their ID. Those who are most in need are registered here, explains an IOM employee, meaning: people who are seriously ill or injured, or people fleeing countries at war.

You don’t have to spend much time in Camp Miral to recognise that it has nothing in common with Vučjak. Here, the refugees sleep in a heated hall and can cook at sheltered fires outside or in a small kitchen inside. They cut each other’s hair or sell each other small items like shoes or clothing.

Homeless refugees, for whom there is no space, stand outside the camp. They are freezing. They plead with the IOM security guards to at least let them see one of the camp’s doctors because they are sick and need treatment. An iron gate is all that separates them from the assistance of IOM staff, who almost can’t bear to look at them.

Volunteer organisations try to at least give them food and clothing, and they do so as inconspicuously as possible. We have to be careful, says a volunteer who wants to remain anonymous because almost no one is granted a working visa as a volunteer in Bosnia. It’s probably partly because we document the violence at the Croatian border, she says. Like her colleagues, this volunteer works with a “white card”, a 30-day tourist visa that can only be extended to a total of 90 days. When they are seen “working” and are asked to show their passports, they lie and say they are tourists.

No one knows how these homeless people and the residents of Vučjak are going to survive the winter. Speaking in his small office in Bihać, mayoral spokesman Mehadžić says: Vučjak won’t close, definitely not. Not until we’ve found somewhere else where we can house the refugees instead. When asked about security minister Mektić’s announcement that the “camp” will close, he almost smiles: You shouldn’t believe too much of what Mektić says, he says. I for one don’t believe it. And Mehadžić is not the only one who thinks this. When we ask an older employee of the local Red Cross if he believes that Vučjak will close, he starts laughing: What politicians in Bosnia say and what they do are very different things, he says, clearly amused.

What politicians in Bosnia say and what they do are very different things.” 

– local Red Cross employee

Last week, Mayor Fazlić suggested Lipa as an alternative for Vučjak. Bihać owns a field there, about 22 kilometres outside of town. But it is entirely without infrastructure. And although Fazlić and his spokesman are convinced that, with money from the EU and management by IOM, they would quickly be able to build an official refugee camp on the field in Lipa and supply it with water, electricity and tents, Van der Auweraert sees things differently: Lipa is a field with no water and no electricity, in the middle of nowhere. Even if the EU delegation accepted it as an alternative to Vučjak, it would take a long time to set up proper refugee accommodation there. So it’s not a solution in the short term.

But the EU delegation in Bosnia won’t accept Lipa as an alternative. And the delegation needed less than a day to communicate this in an email from its press office, saying that Lipa cannot be the answer, and that while the EU is willing to support Bosnia in planning a long-term solution, the main priority for now is to find a quick solution before winter arrives.

In light of this, it is unclear why Mehadžić now says that he and Fazlić are hoping to get the green light for Lipa from the EU. Sometimes it seems as if all the parties here in Bihać who keep stressing how important it is to finally close Vučjak down – the EU delegation, the IOM, the town of Bihać itself – either aren’t communicating with each other at all, or simply aren’t listening to each other.

And while the discord at the political level shows no signs of ending, temperatures in Bosnia are dropping every day and workers at the local Red Cross are becoming increasingly impatient. A 19-year-old who has been helping out at Vučjak ever since the “camp” was set up says that no one can imagine the things he has seen here. For months, he and the four other workers have driven up the bumpy mountain road at 7:30 every day to distribute breakfast to the residents of Vučjak. Today the refugees, many of whom he knows by name, get three slices of bread and some meat paste. As is so often the case, there isn’t enough for everyone. The young worker says that he sometimes wants to give up, but then he remembers that, without him and his four colleagues, the people here would be completely on their own.

Original in German. First published in December 2019 on DATUM.
Translation into English by Jen Metcalf.

This text is protected by copyright: © DATUM / Marija Barišić und Allegra Mercedes Pirker. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: A plant in Vučjak. Photo: Manu Brabo / AP / picturedesk.com