Hundreds of migrants, including young children, babies and the elderly, camped out in northwestern Bosnia, braving worsening weather and tough Croatian border police for a chance to head to Western Europe.
With some of the shelters no more than sticks covered in nylon sheeting, the settlement sprawls over a muddy field near the town of Velika Kladusa, a few kilometers from the Croatian border.
Locals say the camp has sprouted in recent weeks. There is no running water, toilets, showers or electricity, and a frigid Bosnian winter is fast approaching.
The migrants do the best they can. They bring water in plastic containers, light fires to warm themselves, and try to keep their tents neat inside. Some men could be seen washing or shaving, hoping to stay clean in a sea of mud and dirt around them.
Nearby, others were chopping firewood while young children used sticks to draw on the ground. Some children played with stuffed animals or dolls, while a group of children crouched over a set of marbles.
Aid workers say the migrants are refusing to move to official organized camps so they can stay as close to the Croatian border as possible. Many of the children are already sick, they said.
Some of the people have tried to enter Croatia illegally dozens of times and have been returned by the Croatian police, who were recently filmed beating migrants with batons and returning them to Bosnia.
Last week, Croatia admitted that its police were in the video images taken under a joint effort spearheaded by the nonprofit group Lighthouse Reports. Three officers have been suspended for what officers insist was an isolated incident. Croatia had repeatedly denied similar allegations in the past.
Camp resident Mohammad Romal from Afghanistan said he too was beaten by police when he was caught with a group of other migrants deep in Croatia, heading for Italy and ultimately France. He said the police took his belongings and brought them back to Bosnia.
“You can’t talk to them, you can’t say ‘why are you hitting us, what’s the reason,'” he said.
Romal’s determination to build a better life is shared by many others who fled violence and poverty in the Middle East, Africa or Asia. Thousands remain trapped in the Balkans, desperate to advance towards the prosperous heart of Europe, while many more risk their lives daily crossing the Mediterranean.
People camping near Velika Kladusa say they moved there because the official camps are not close enough to the border and they do not have enough money to pay for transportation each time they try to enter Croatia. Migrants often pay small fortunes to human smugglers to cross borders.
Enver Hafuric of the SOS aid group, which distributed medical supplies and hot meals, said calls for parents living in the countryside to take their children to official camps have failed.
“They want to be closer to the border, they want to go (far) from here, they want to go to the countries of the European Union,” he said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism