WHEN WE FIRST MET
I met her one night during distribution. Along with a couple of volunteers, we went to make sure that the people who were living in that abandoned school were doing alright. We usually went at night, as it was right in the center of town and there was a risk that the neighbours might call the police.
When we went in I found her next to a group of four moroccan guys. She spoke perfect frent. She asked me if we could please give them sleeping bags and a change of underwear.
“We’re going on Game tomorrow”
They had almost everything ready; an endless number of Google maps locations saved down on their phones and their backpacks with some food, clothes and a fully charged battery pack.
We came back around an hour later with the things they’d asked for. I gave her my phone number and asked her to contact me in case anything happened to them. She was one of the few women in transit in Sarajevo living in the street, since most of the ones that lived there were in the transit center.
I lost touch with her for a while.
In Sarajevo, we continued with our work; new arrivals, departures, sports activities, showers, distributions, laundry services, looking out for new arrivals at the train station, etc.
On the thirteenth of March, I received a voice message where she told me that the police had caught them.
“Good morning sister, as soon as we crossed the border into Croatia, they caughts us. They are thieves. They took everyone’s phones and hit the guys. I’m not sure if they would also be capable of hitting me because they were hitting all these guys, who are good. They stole our money and threatened us, saying they would kill us”
I didn’t hear back from her until another 24 hours passed. She sent me a number of pictures and videos, where a group of people of arabic and afghani origin can be seen. I can recognise some faces. Among the material she sends me there is a guy, holding a one and a half litre bottle full of urine.
“Our bathroom” she told me, describing the situation in a sarcastic tone. In the video, it’s clear that she was trying to hide her phone in her jacket while she was sneakily filming the situation.
After several failed attempts at trying to contact HER, I got more news the next day.
She told me that they were again back in Bosnian territory, in one of the border villages from which people in transit try to cross into Croatia. They gave up on trying to go to the camp, so they decided to rest in one of the many abandoned houses around the city.
WE MEET AGAIN
After several weeks without news from her I bumped into S., one of the guys with whom she had tried to cross. I asked him about HER. He told me that it had been barely a week since they had come back to Sarajevo. I managed to reach her on her phone.
Past two in the afternoon, I head towards a cafe close to where I was. There she was.
We were both glad to meet again, me, because I could see that she was ok despite her exhausted face, HER, because she could maybe feel supported by someone she already knew.
She told me that she was tired, that many of the guys with whom she had tried to cross had made it, but that SHE was back here, hundreds of kilometers away from her desired destination: Italy.
I take out my voice recorder, my notepad and a pen. She gets ready to tell me what had happened during the last Game, under the kind watch of S. and one other moroccan friend who shares the table with us.
On the 12th of March, around 20:00 they started to walk towards what they commonly called the “jungle jungle”. It was a group of six men, all of them Moroccan except for HER, who is Algerian.
After many hours enroute through the forest, a 4x4 Jeep appeared with the word “POLICIJA” written in big blue letters across it. It was around 9:30am. From within it, four policemen stepped out, wearing dark blue uniforms.
Between laughs and mockery, in croatian they asked them “Are you tired?”.
They made them get on their knees, in a line with approximately a meter distance between each other.
In that moment, she got up from her chair in the cafe and demonstrated the position in which they made them stay, a position that reflects the aim of showing submission and inferiority, which shows the vulnerability they faced in that precise situation.
She left me some time to write on my notepad, as accurately as possible, everything she was telling me.
She then continued to explain.
While one of the policemen was telling them one by one to give him their money, their phones and their battery packs and putting them in a black bag, another policeman was making a call on his phone, after which, within less than five minutes, another car shows up, this time with policemen dressed head to toe in black and wearing balaclavas.
One of them started to kick every one of the backpacks that were sitting in front of each of the six people that formed the human line.
He made them get up, one by one, under the careful and fearsome gaze of everyone, to pick up the items that he had previously kicked a few meters further.
“Fuck you””Fuck migrants””Stay in your country”
SHE barely speaks any english, but remembers vividly the words that were being said while she watched her friends and herself being pushed when they were picking up their belongings.
They made them get into the second car that had arrived, pushing them with a stick and, just before they got in through the back door, hitting them strongly on their backs. One by one, with the word “Go!” being heard after each hit.
She remembers that the car ride took around thirty minutes. I asked her about the details of their driving, because I had already heard numerous similar stories and I needed to know, precisely, how far the actions of this particular group of policemen had gone this time.
“The air conditioner was very strong. It was incredibly cold. We couldn’t see anything. They were driving in a very rough way so we kept constantly bumping into each other, into the walls of the car and into the grid that was at the back of it. From time to time they would open a small window that separated the driver’s part from the back, and you could see eyes showing up briefly before they would close it again”.
They arrived at a police station in a town of which they have no further information of knowledge to locate. They made them go into a room where there was already a group of around fifteen people who were mainly of afghani and pakistani origins.
“The room was very dirty. It was very cold inside. We were all on the floor. There was nothing on the walls, just pen writings in different languages and signatures of the people on the move who had already been there”.
At that moment she mentioned the video she had sent me some weeks before. She asked me to look for it on my phone. Sure enough, I could see each one of the details she was describing to me on my phone’s screen.
She told me they were in there for an hour, inside that dirty and cold room. It was then that one of the doors opened and between shouts of “HAJDE!” (a Bosnian word that means “let’s go”) they made them get into a car.
SHE looked at me. She told me something like “now comes the worst part”.
She recounts how all twenty four people found themselves locked inside that cubicle and, making a gesture to simulate how a key turning starts the engine on a car, she tells me: “They turned on the ignition on the car. Without starting the engine. They turned on the air conditioning very high. We were in there, like sardines, freezing, for two hours. The guys kept knocking on the doors but nobody helped us”.
After those two hours, the car started and, driving in the same way as she had explained before, stopped just before crossing into Bosnian territory, around seventeen kilometers away from Bihac. They made them get out of the car. A policeman was in front of the group and another one placed himself at the back, they escorted them for around a hundred meters until they got to a bonfire that had been lit up there, in the middle of the mountains. They made them throw their backpacks in the fire and, between shouts of “HADJE” and “FUCK YOU” they forced them to leave croatian territory and were pushed back illegally into Bosnia.
All three sit in silence for a few minutes. Only the cafe’s background music can be heard. All three of them have their heads down, nodding and shaking their heads, as if they were trying to corroborate everything that had just been said and expressing the difficulty of crossing that border that they knew so well.
“We are not lucky”
Their eyes reflect a mixture of courage and dismay. What started as the aim of reaching a life of dignity in Europe is turning into a suffering of more than six months that is bringing with it the profound desperation that pushes them to risk their lives with every try to set foot on Schengen territory.
Both them and every single one of us who is trying to help in this part of the world ask ourselves how someone is capable of torturing another human being, how Europe can remain a witness to this silenced tragedy, how someone can have a clean conscience having used violence against a pregnant woman or against a boy who is barely seven years old.
I ask myself at what point we decided to accept that exorbitant amounts of money be invested in mercenaries for these deadly borders; at what point is someone able to even shoot at another someone under the premise of “protecting” a country of the “danger” of another human being seeking a dignified life.
We work on taking their testimonies, collecting them with other colleagues in different points of the country, working on finding a common strategy to make these atrocities visible and denouncing the constant human rights violations happening across the Balkans, but it seems as though the call for help is not sensationalist or striking enough to generate change. Every day that goes by, the number of stories like HERS grows, every day the number of reports of pushbacks done around this place in the world gets higher, with strategies so grim that in some cases push people to give up on their dreams, as reality is made clear to them, like a slap across the face, showing them that EUROPE IS NOT A PARADISE.