Human silhouettes are traced against the horizon, climbing up the steep forest track towards the border with Croatia. They are men mainly from the Comoro Islands, but also from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Strange travel companions with the same destination: the European Union.
The day comes to an end when a van reaches them, the window is rolled down and someone from the inside, supposedly Bosnian border police, says: “What do you want? To play the game or do you want us to take you back?” Silence is the answer, then the migrants speed up and get lost in the darkness.
Dozens more do the same from the nearby town of Bihac in north-western Bosnia, 10 kilometres from Croatia. They call it the game, a euphemism used to define the desperate flight they are forced to take to have a better life in the European Union. They are easily recognised, groups of 10 or 15 people with rucksacks packed with clothes, food and water. They have put all their efforts into their journey to the EU’s frontier and now it is time to find out who the winner will be.
The mountain belongs to a chain called Pljesevica, which acts as a natural border between Bosnia and Croatia - and the EU. The border line runs through this mountain chain along its highest point, which reaches 1,800 metres high.
The final part of the journey into Croatia is arduous. The migrants have to climb through the dense forest to avoid being seen and face an array of dangers from wild animals and anti-personnel mines, remnants of the Balkan war. In the winter, they also have to battle plummeting temperatures, snow and a steep slope.
Asef, a 29-year-old Pakistani, is one of those embarking on the journey.
“I left my country one year ago to go to Italy. I miss my parents and my sister, who is younger than me. I am very tired but I am still hopeful,” he says.
Abdul is walking by his side; he is 28 and has tried to cross the border 13 times in only a few months. “I am always caught by Croatian police and they bring me back here. I cry every time I am deported. I have already lost a lot of money and sometimes I lose my mind too, I feel depressed and sad,” says the former salesman from Pakistan, who still has a bullet in his arm after being shot by the Croatian police the last time he tried to cross.
For most migrants the dream turns into a nightmare after arriving in the EU via a border that is relatively easy to sneak over. They can be easily identified because of their appearance and skin colour and handed over to the authorities often by locals. Sometimes locals tell the authorities about their whereabouts.
The migrants say they are beaten by the Croatian police; their belongings, mobile phones, money and, sometimes, even the clothes they wear are stolen before being expelled.
In response to accusations from human rights groups about police abuses against migrants, the Croatian Ministry of Interior says the allegations do not have sufficient evidence to open criminal investigations.
This alleged procedure in Croatia, known as “push-back”, violates the EU’s laws and the right to apply for asylum. Since the borders of Serbia and Hungary were closed with fences and barbed wire in 2015, more than 43,000 migrants have tried this alternative to the Balkan route.
The situation has become worse in Bihac this winter. Temperatures around -15 degrees Celsius forced the camp of Vucjak to close. Here, hundreds of people stayed in tents and without basic medical provisions.
“This is too much, we try to give everyone what they need, food, doctors, basic services but political negotiations about new locations are taking almost two years and we do not know what is going to happen”, says Amira Hadzimehmedovic, manager of camp Bira, which is located in Bihac.
The camp is located inside a disused refrigerator factory donated by a local businessman. Some 2,184 migrants live here, all of them single men or minors from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran or Syria.
Those who are not so lucky to get permanent accommodation live in empty buildings near here in the same industrial zone. Mohamed is from Kandahar, the second biggest city in Afghanistan. He is 29 and knows nothing but war.
“I left my country because the Taliban threatened to kill me. I was a shepherd and they used to come to get my sheep, as if they were taxes to be paid, so I reported Taliban to the police”, he says sadly, while poking the campfire where he and some fellow countrymen are getting warm.
“We have been waiting for 43 days to play the game but we need good weather conditions. Moreover, we must pay a smuggler about €400 or €500 euros to be helped, and if we want to reach Italy about €5,000. At least people help us here and we are happy because we are healthy”.
Empathy for migrants is common on nearby Bosnian streets because Bihac was once under siege by Serbian forces for three years, during the bloody civil war between 1992 and 1995 that turned 1.8 million citizens into refugees.
Yousef, 27, left for Croatia from the Bira camp. He is a young man from the north-western Syrian province of Idlib that is currently besieged by the Russian-backed Syrian military. Slowly but surely, the group ascends a 1,800-metre high mountain as if it was an everyday act, until they reach a group of cabins where they will spend the night. Graffiti on a facade shows a faded flag of ISIS.
Yousef lights the stove while he smokes. “I fought alongside Jabhat Al Nusra to defend my town, Saraqeb, but I don’t belong to that group,” he says, in reference to the former affiliate of Al Qaeda in Syria, a rival of ISIS.
“I am ready to die but not to leave our land to the Syrian regime. My brother died fighting 5 months ago and I have three bullet wounds, one of them in my leg so I can’t walk well,” he laments bitterly while pointing to his wounds. “I am exhausted, the war affects our lives and it made us leave our country, nobody cares about us. I want to arrive in Germany where one of my brothers has been living for seven years. We do not want to cause problems, we just want to live in peace”.
Not all migrants flee their own countries because of war and famine.
Fakhraddin, an Iranian Kurdish man, recounts how he and his family had to flee Iran to Turkey because he was a political activist.
“As I didn’t want to die I had to leave my wife and three kids to try to reach Europe on my own. My father is retired and every now and then he sends them money, but it is not enough”, he says while he is queuing to receive some food.
On the mountain of Bihac, a group of Afghans have joined the rest at night. Among them is Ehsan, an 11-year-old boy. His face shows the innocence of that age as he plays with a sand timer.
“My mother is in Germany and I want to go with her. I have tried to cross 5 times, I hate the game; I have already tried any option: by car, walking,… but nothing has worked”.
His father, Hossein, nods and adds, “we are Hazaras, a minority in Afghanistan, so we had many problems there and we had to flee to Iran, where Ehsan was born as a refugee. My wife left from Greece with a forged passport and now we are trying to join her. I feel terrible, no father would ever want their children to be in this situation, but we don’t have any other chance”.
The following morning Yousef decides not to go on, his leg hurts and the worst is yet to come, the advance will get worse because of the freezing weather.
Red signs with painted skulls and placed by the road remind these migrants that the field is strewn with mines of the old war in Yugoslavia.
“I regret being born”, says Rahim, a 33-year-old man from Afghanistan. “My life has been suffering and pain, what is the reason to live? I like making jokes and making people laugh, I do it because I suffer a lot”, he says sincerely. “You must tell my story, our politicians must see what we are going through. Afghanistan is a mineral-rich country so nobody should be obligated to flee”.
The silence of the beautiful landscape is interrupted only by the noise of the drones used by police to detect migrants. These devices have also been equipped with thermal sensors. The last stretch ahead to the border will be through the forest to avoid being seen.
Ehsan and his group were arrested in Slovenia, near the border with Italy, after 10 days of walking. They were then taken to Croatia by car and to the Bosnian border.
For them, and for more than 8,000 migrants wallowing in Bosnian camps, abandoned factories and squatting houses, the game goes on.