Hundreds of migrants – including young children, infants and the elderly – have camped in northwestern Bosnia, defying worsening weather and tough Croatian border police for a chance to continue towards Western Europe.
With some of the shelters no more than sticks covered with nylon sheet metal, the settlement is located over a muddy field near the town of Velika Kladusa, a few kilometers from the border with Croatia.
Locals say the camp has sprouted in recent weeks. There is no running water, toilets, showers or electricity, and a freezing Bosnian winter is fast approaching.
Migrants manage as best they can. They bring water in plastic containers, light fires for heat and try to keep their tents clean inside. Some men could be seen washing or shaving in the hope of staying clean in a sea of mud and dirt around them.
Nearby, other wood was cut when toddlers used sticks to draw on the ground. Some children played with plush animals or dolls, while a group of boys crouched over a game of marble.
Aid workers say the migrants refuse to move to official, organized camps so that they can stay as close to the Croatian border as possible. Many of the children are already ill, they said.
Some of the people there have tried to enter Croatia illegally dozens of times just to get back the Croatian police, who were recently filmed beating migrants with batons and sending them back to Bosnia.
Last week, Croatia acknowledged that the police were involved in the videos, which were taken during a joint operation led by the non-profit group Lighthouse Reports. Three officials have been suspended because of what officials insist was an isolated incident. Croatia had previously repeatedly denied similar allegations.
The camp’s resident Mohammad Romal, from Afghanistan, said he was also beaten by police when he was caught with a group of other migrants deep inside Croatia – on his way to Italy and eventually France. He said police took their belongings and drove them back to Bosnia.
“You can not talk to them, you can not say” why you hit us, what is the reason? “” He said.
Romal’s determination to build a better life for himself is shared by many others who fled violence and poverty in the Middle East, Africa or Asia. Thousands remain in the Balkans, desperate to move on to Europe’s prosperous heartland, while many more risk their lives daily by crossing the Mediterranean.
People camping near Velika Kladusa say they moved there because official camps are not close enough to the border and that they do not have enough money to pay for transport every time they try to enter Croatia. Migrants often pay small fortunes to human traffickers to make a living across borders.
Enver Hafuric, from the aid group SOS – which distributed medical supplies and hot meals – said that appeals to parents living in the field to take their children to official camps have failed.
“They want to be closer to the border, they want to (away) from here, they want to go to the countries of the European Union,” he said.