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The Women of the Balkan Route

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Ever since 2018, when the Balkan route was diverted towards the Bosnian-Croatian border, most migrants have been living in the so-called jungle camps, makeshift camps in abandoned buildings, often far from inhabited centres. Many of them are men in their 20s or 30s. Yet women are rarely mentioned. And what about the children? Q Code Magazine reports from Bosnia.

The image of refugees fleeing along the Balkan route is often rendered this way. A bunch of men moving, packs of lone wolves coming together to achieve the ultimate goal: to win the 'game', which means, crossing the border.

Men are indeed the most visible subjects in the villages and towns of the Una-Sana Canton, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a few kilometres from the border with Croatia. Since 2018 the majority have been living in the so called 'jungle camps', makeshift camps in abandoned buildings, often far from inhabited centres.

Others live in the military camp in Lipa, on a plateau thirty kilometres from the city of Bihac, where IOM, the International Organization for Migration, will soon reopen a temporary reception centre. They are stuck in Bosnia as a result of the Croatian police removals.

On the whole, these removals are violent and abusive. Frequently, policemen seize migrants' phones, shoes and bags; they also hit them, lock them up with no food or water for days before deporting them to Bosnia on an empty stomach without clothes. But it's not only men who try the 'game' and experience these brutal pushbacks.

Boina, Bosnia. A small girl in a camp near the border © Alessandra Fuccillo

The Balkan route women exist, they are many and they are exhausted

The Balkan route women exist, they are many and they are exhausted: they are often left in the background for cultural or health reasons. Until a few months ago, the testimonies of the refugees who had been removed agreed on one point: the women, those ‘few’ who try the 'game', were not subject to police harassment. Today we know for sure that this is no longer true: the women we met have been robbed, hit, humiliated and repeatedly insulted by the Croatian policemen and policewomen.

Until last year, many of them lived in the Borici and Sedra camps coordinated by IOM, which are for families and unaccompanied minors. In June 2021 Sedra closed and many families moved out of the cities. Now they live in abandoned buildings and ruined houses in Šturlić and Bojna, where we met dozens of them. Almost all were Afghans.

Bojna, Bosnia. Camps © Alessandra Fuccillo

“When I can I try to take care of myself. If I didn't I'd be colluding with the policemen, who treat us like animals”

Kala is an 18-year-old Afghan girl. She comes out of the camp to greet us along with some of her peers: she has long, filed electric pink nails, her eyelashes are painted black and her eyebrows are groomed. Her style clashes dramatically with the drab poverty of the camp, and it's clear this is a way for to maintain some dignity.

“They treat us like animals.” This is an expression we hear frequently from the refugees who have tried the game over and over again. Some say they would accept being deported or robbed, but they cannot tolerate being humiliated and deprived of clothes in the cold Balkan weather.

Kala got to Bosnia with her older brother, younger sister and their mother, who is fifty, although time is marking her much more deeply. She's been living with another three families for five months, in the rubble of an abandoned house in the village of Bojina. She tells us that when the Croatian policemen captured her in the last 'game', they didn't miss the opportunity to comment on her nails; they told her she had grown claws, and that made her think she was a kind of witch.

Bojna, Bosnia. A recently abandoned camp populated by groups with children © Alessandra Fuccillo

She tells us that she suffers from chronic back pain and that it has gotten worse due to months of sleeping on the ground, in the woods or on wet and hard floors. Without her painkillers and anti-inflammatories, she will struggle to try the 'game' again or even to survive long in wet and dirty camps, with the Bosnian autumn around the corner.

During the 'games', women's bodies suffer all kinds of violence. Samìa, also Afghan, tells us that she had just been removed and robbed of her medicine: “I've tried the game dozens of times, always in a group at night, but this time the dogs found us and they let them bite my hands, my back and my legs. There were about ten of us and also a little girl. It was terrible. I had never been attacked by a dog before. I got bites and wounds all over my body. When the police approached I was grabbed and hit on the thigh and on the neck with a taser. I also had my asthma inhaler in my bag. I tried to ask for it back and they replied with a punch. They collected all our things and burnt them in front of us. The Croatian police are so violent, they have no mercy, not even the policewomen.”

Bojna, Bosnia. A mother and her teenage daughter cooking a meal © Alessandra Fuccillo

For some time we have been hearing stories about a Croatian policewoman who is notorious for her ferocity and cruelty towards women: she has short black hair and a massive body and she frequently uses the taser. The migrants call her Leila.

Women and men left for up to three days with no water or food

The migrants also talk often about Korenica, Croatia, where there is a police barracks. Their descriptions are similar: people are transported in trucks with tinted windows that are driven by plain-clothes policemen (or in uniforms). The migrants are taken straight to the back, where there is a sort of warehouse, which is repeatedly called the 'garage' in these stories.

Those who have been there describe an empty room with white tiles and a cold floor, where women and men are cramped together, left for up to three days with no water or food.

When we get to Korenica, we sit at a bar right in front of the police barracks, with no specific purpose. Maybe just to see with our own eyes that the origin of all this violence could seem as banal as a work shift starting. As we follow the comings and goings in front of the barracks we can only focus on the policewomen: which one is Leila? Is she the tallest one with straightened and jet black hair? Or the shortest one with really short hair? Is she the one who patrols the chemical toilet letting in one migrant in at a time once they exit from the 'garage'?

Suddenly Leila is all these women, we can no longer distinguish them. All we can imagine through these stories is an even more unpalatable image: of a woman hitting another defenceless, foreign, scared-to-death woman, lost at the gates of Europe, seeking asylum.

Bojna, Bosnia - grown-up teenage girl while traveling the Balkan route © Alessandra Fuccillo

This article is published in partnership with the news organisation QCodeMag. The piece, re-edited by Cafébabel, was written by Benedetta Zocchi, with photos by Alessandra Fuccillo. The full version was originally published on QCodeMag.


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Translated from Vite sulla Rotta