Drowning in the Balkans: ‘His body went away with the water’

On this route to Western Europe, refugees and migrants brave perilous river crossings that often end in tragedy.

Border police inspect the Drina river, aiming to stop illegal border crossings in Zvornik, Bosnia and Herzegovina on September 29, 2020 [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

It was around two in the morning, Tahsan* remembers, when the man drowned. A group of around 35 men from Pakistan and Bangladesh had crossed the border from Bosnia into Croatia that night in March this year, the beginning of a two-week journey through dense forests and over snow-capped mountains from the Bosnian border to Italy. Refugees and migrants call these attempts to cross borders “the game”, but the trip is never undertaken lightly. All the clothes they owned, all the food they would eat for the next 14 days and much of the water they would drink, the men carried on their backs.

Just 20km (12.5 miles) past the border, the men reached the Glina river, which Tahsan, 22, remembers as being about 25 metres wide. Although it had been warm during the day, in March the temperature in the area drops to -1 or -2 Celsius at night. About 15 of the men jumped in and tried to swim to the other side, “but one man became very cold, and he couldn’t swim”, Tahsan, from Bangladesh, explains.

When we speak three months after the incident, close to his tent encampment in northwest Bosnia (the men never made it through Croatia), Tahsan is too frightened to reveal his real name because he fears retaliation not only from the authorities but also from the other men he was with that night who may be angry that he is even speaking about it.

He says he did not know the drowned man very well, but does know he was about the same age as him and from the Punjab region of Pakistan. The man screamed for help, but no one on the shore was able to come to his aid. There wasn’t time, Tahsan says, and, anyway, “the water was too cold. If other people tried to help him, they would have also died.”

It took only a minute for the man to drown. The current was very fast that night, Tahsan recalls, and “his body went away with the water”. The man’s friends still do not know what became of his body, or if it was ever retrieved.

A baby is pushed in a stroller as a family from Afghanistan approach Croatia’s border from the Bosnian side in an attempt to cross into the European Union on January 6, 2021. The family crossed into Croatia only to be pushed back to Bosnia by Croatian police a few hours later [File: Damir Sagolj/Getty Images]

Tahsan was travelling with five of his countrymen and around 30 Pakistanis, many of whom he says “did not properly know how to swim”. Half of the Pakistani men who had not yet crossed the river were so terrified by the scene that they decided to take a risk and walk over a bridge half a kilometre away where police could be waiting. Tahsan and the other Bangladeshis, well-versed in swimming from their youth spent playing in their country’s many lakes and waterways, braved the river crossing anyway.

They could not wait for daybreak or for the water to become warmer. Every minute counts “on game” – every moment with no sightings of police is an opportunity to move further west towards one’s destination. The 15 remaining Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis did not linger, Tahsan says, after the man drowned – they jumped in soon after his body disappeared from sight.

Those who managed to cross the river spent the rest of the night in dire conditions with only tents for shelter. The temperature stayed at sub-zero until after dawn. “It was very cold and our hands weren’t working properly. They changed to a black colour. I couldn’t open my bag myself to get my dry clothes because my fingers were too frozen,” Tahsan says.

In the end, the group’s efforts were all in vain. Croatian border officers caught the men the next day, drove them back to the border in two large vans, and returned them to Bosnia in what is known as a “pushback”.

‘On game’

Tahsan left Sylhet, a city in northern Bangladesh, two years ago for Western Europe, travelling through Turkey and Greece and then northwards through the Balkans. A young man with little education, he says he saw no future for himself in Bangladesh, which he views as “corrupt”. The current prime minister, he believes, was elected “unfairly” and has “created many problems for the country”.

While he does not regret his decision to leave, Tahsan misses home, especially the fish dishes his mother used to cook. He tries to conjure up these meals by carrying canned tuna and sardines with him when he goes “on game”. But the few types of river fish Tahsan buys in local markets – and certainly the canned tuna – fail to match up to the numerous delicious species found in his homeland’s many rivers and lakes.

Since the writing of this article, Tahsan has successfully reached Italy, where he plans to stay and find work in a restaurant or in construction. He went “on game” around a dozen times from Bosnia over nine months, and knew well how to prepare, packing a single backpack with only a single change of clothes, bread, water, biscuits, canned fish and plenty of his favourite energy drinks – Ultra Black Monsters – to keep his mind alert and his legs moving.

What Tahsan could never prepare for, however, was the weather in the Balkans, which he describes as “unpredictable” in spring – sunny one minute and pouring rain the next. The duplicitous elements were what Tahsan and his fellow travellers came up against that cold March night. Nothing they carried in their backpacks could have changed the course of events, he believes.

‘Many bodies will never be found’

Migrants and refugees transiting through the Balkans on their journeys to Western Europe travel across rough terrain. Many lose their lives through accidental injury, exposure or by stepping on landmines left over from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

But perhaps the most perilous junctures of these Odyssean journeys are the numerous rivers cutting through the countryside, which migrants must cross to reach their destinations in Europe.

Some of the rivers that migrants and refugees must navigate on their way through the Balkans [Al Jazeera]

While the plight of refugees drowning in the Central Mediterranean and the eastern Aegean is well documented, little attention is paid to these deaths in the Balkan rivers. Non-governmental search-and-rescue ships patrol the waters off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean and several international hotlines such as Alarm Phone and Aegean Boat Report operate continuously to receive distress calls in both the major seas.

In the Balkans, however, no such coordinated and consistent rescue efforts operate, and there is no centralised, publicly available database recording migrant drownings in the region, or accidental deaths in general. The reason, says Simon Campbell of the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a watchdog organisation, is because “drownings are one of the most complicated things to trace”.

“As long as the recording of migrant drownings continues to be done in the current way, with transit communities [the term Campbell prefers to use for migrants and refugees to avoid the stigma often associated with those words] and volunteers from different organisations inputting deaths here and there, I think you’ll only record half the actual number of deaths. Many of the bodies in these rivers will never be found,” he continues.

A man is seen in refugee camp Miral in Velika Kladusa, Bosnia and Herzegovina, March 4, 2020 [Antonio Bronic/Reuters]

One such organisation, The Danish Refugee Council (DRC), told Al Jazeera by email that it had recorded 19 cases of refugee or migrant drownings in Bosnian territory since August 2019. But this is just one snapshot. Volunteers and activists on the ground say the number is certainly much higher, although it is impossible to determine the exact figure.

“In the Balkans, migrants in transit drown in rivers both along national borders and in the interior,” Campbell says. “Migrants can’t use bridges because they’re in high-density areas, and people are trying to evade police controls.”

In Velika Kladuša, a town in northwest Bosnia on the Croatian border, which houses the Miral refugee camp for single men, dozens of interviews conducted by Al Jazeera with refugees and migrants showed that nearly everyone either knows someone who drowned or almost drowned, or has nearly drowned themselves. The fear of water is widespread, and as the summer season approaches, more plan to go “on game”, where they will have to traverse multiple waterways.

‘Your only focus is on surviving’

Refugees and migrants have innovative approaches to crossing rivers, tactics born of an extreme fear of a watery death that people know could come too easily. Some say they cross by means of a rope tied to a tree on the other side, moving along the rope hand over hand. One brave person must first cross by themselves to secure the rope for the others. Others use discarded car tyres as flotation devices. Those who cannot find or carry tyres tuck empty soda bottles under their armpits, praying they will keep them above water.

Some of the rivers they cross are as wide as 30m and have fast currents, but several are slow moving and only two or three metres deep. But many of those crossing are weak swimmers or do not know how to swim at all. As they attempt to traverse rivers mostly under the cover of night to avoid police detection, there is little hope of assistance if someone finds themselves in distress in the water.

“It’s dark, you’re afraid already, so you mobilise [her term for the rush of adrenaline which kicks a person’s body into high gear]. Your only focus is on surviving,” explains Katrin Glatz Brubakk, a Norwegian clinical psychiatrist who has worked with refugees experiencing water-related trauma on the Greek island of Lesbos.

“But that means you may not always make good decisions. You may push yourself to swim further than you would have, if you fear capture from border patrol. You may take more risks than you should or than you’re capable of dealing with,” she continues.

Many refugees and migrants do not make it.

A view of the Korana river on the Croatian-Bosnian border, close to the Bosnian town of Sturlic, where many refugees and migrants have reported that Croatian police have forced them into the water in ‘pushbacks’ back to Bosnia [Lucy Papachristou/Al Jazeera]

Testimonies published by BVMN from migrants who have experienced violence at the hands of border police are riddled with tales of drownings. In June 2019, for example, a group of Moroccans searched for hours in vain for their friend who drowned in the Kolpa river along the Croatian-Slovenian border. An Algerian man reported during the winter of 2018 that police officers denied him the right to see the body of his friend, who had drowned in Slovenia’s Reka river while they were “on game”.

Then there are the numerous testimonies of refugees and migrants who say Croatian police forced them to enter a river during a pushback – a common spot for this, they say, is the river Korana, close to the Bosnian town of Sturlic on the Croatian-Bosnian border.

“The abuse and humiliation of migrants and refugees is becoming more brutal and inhumane,” says Ilarija Bašić from the DRC. “People interviewed by the DRC said that the police were behaving violent[ly], beating them, taking off their clothes, destroying their personal belongings, and pushing them into the river, even though they informed the police that they could not swim.

“Unfortunately, the lack of safe and legal pathways for migration is increasingly pushing people to resort to more dangerous, clandestine routes,” Bašić adds.

Risking wild bears and mines to avoid the police

In recent years, sporadic efforts have been made by local activists to assist those in distress along these “clandestine routes”. Info Kolpa, an organisation based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which focuses on tracking and documenting border violence against refugees, set up a distress hotline on WhatsApp in the summer of 2018 because its organisers had a “very strong suspicion of gross violations of human rights” – pushbacks from Slovenia – “which demanded explanation”, says Miha Turk, a spokesperson for the group, which is also part of BVMN.

Info Kolpa launched the WhatsApp hotline for refugees and migrants who had entered the territory of Slovenia together with a non-profit law firm, which Turk says would prefer to remain anonymous due to the politicised nature of its work with asylum seekers. In the early days of the hotline, refugees and migrants living in other Balkan states who wished to apply for asylum in Slovenia were given the number and instructed to send a message once they had reached the country; later, news of the hotline spread by word of mouth. When people contacted the hotline, volunteers would ask their nationalities and if they wanted to seek asylum there, before passing on their location and information to the authorities, who were then meant to hear their asylum claims and register them as asylum seekers.

The group stopped the hotline after only a few months, though. “Slovenia is still quite liberal,” Turk explains, “and throughout all our work, we have never been scared … But you have to be very careful in a legal sense.”

By this, he means that contact with undocumented refugees and migrants in Slovenia who have not yet asked for asylum “is on the line between smuggling and helping. You’re always dancing in between.”

Turk points to Article 308 of the Slovenian penal code, which refers to those crossing state borders into Slovenia. One paragraph criminalises anyone who “smuggles aliens who do not have a permit to enter or reside in the Republic of Slovenia, transports them or helps them to hide, or who smuggles two or more such aliens across the border for payment” with a fine and up to five years’ imprisonment. Another paragraph provides for the same penalty for anyone who “organises illegal migration”, a broad classification. Turk says if volunteers were seen to be advising migrants in Bosnia, Croatia or elsewhere to “go north”, the activists could face prosecution in Slovenia under Article 308.

A family from Afghanistan walk in the rain after being pushed back into Bosnia by Croatian police, after they attempted to cross into the EU on January 6, 2021, in Bosnia and Herzegovina [File: Damir Sagolj/Getty Images]

“There were people stuck in swamps and in forests in Croatia and we could not answer them. We could not even guide them, even though we knew where they were because we were under very, very strict rules that we would not have contact with people until they entered the territory of Slovenia. It can be quite traumatic,” Turk elaborates.

Info Kolpa eventually shut down the hotline because they found they were “just helping the police” to push back the refugees and migrants. Sometimes, after sending authorities the locations of those who wished to apply for asylum, Info Kolpa volunteers discovered that those same people ended up back in Bosnia – returned over two national borders in what is known as a “chain pushback”. In the end, says Turk, the hotline was “giving false hope” to people who wished to apply for asylum in Slovenia.

Ultimately, however, Turk does not think a distress hotline should be necessary.

“The terrain [of the Balkans] is what it is. People have been travelling for millennia. Now, there is a political component. People are forced to go through the most inhospitable terrain because other places are not safe [due to police presence]. Either you expect Slovenian or Croatian authorities to respect the law or you try to go into the wild where there are bears and mines … If there was political will [to operate search and rescue missions] there would be no need for them,” he says, pointing out that the government always manages to “save hundreds of tourists stranded in the mountains in flip-flops”.

Ultimately, Slovenian and Croatian authorities are breaking EU law, Turk says, by summarily pushing asylum seekers back across borders without allowing them to lodge an asylum claim, a basic right enshrined in international law. Questions from Al Jazeera to the relevant authorities about such pushbacks occurring in both Croatia and Slovenia went unanswered.

“People are more willing to risk self-harm than to trust authorities to act by the laws,” he concludes.

‘A circle leading nowhere’

Some refugees and migrants have decided that crossing rivers is not worth the risk. “I won’t cross rivers. Life is everything. You only have one. One chance,” explains Ali*, a 23-year-old Pakistani who lives in Miral, the refugee camp for single men in Velika Kladuša. He, also, is too afraid of repercussions if he gives his real name.

Ali has tried several “games”, hoping to reach Spain and find work. But he only crosses rivers over proper bridges, where he says he has usually been sighted by the Croatian police, who have then pushed him back to Bosnia. In Miral, Ali runs an informal business making potato samosas and selling them to other camp residents. It passes the time between “games”, and he is able to send between 50 to 100 euros ($60 to $120) every couple of months to his mother and 14-year-old sister in Pakistan, who have little other support.

Ali’s fear of water stems from a personal tragedy. Two of his close friends lost their lives last December while crossing the Drina river along the Bosnian-Serbian border. The young men, aged 18 and 24, were trying to return by land from Bosnia to Greece, where they hoped to find work and send money home to their families in Pakistan, Ali says.

The two men had tried for over a year to reach Italy on foot, but ran out of money and grew frustrated by the repeated and often violent pushbacks by the Croatian police. They had travelled through Greece on their way to Bosnia, and had found it easier to get work there, mostly picking fruit. Ali did not join them because he is still determined to reach Spain.

A police helicopter pilot patrols over river Kolpa at the Schengen border between Slovenia and Croatia, near Metlika on June 28, 2011 [File: Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters]

The night his friends drowned, Ali was awoken by a phone call in the early hours from another Pakistani who witnessed the events. “I lost your friends,” the man told him. “I cried, saying to him, ‘You are lying to me’,” Ali recalls.

“I slept with [the 18-year-old] for one year in the same bed [in Miral camp]. We ate together every day, talked to each other. We bonded like this,” Ali recalls, saying his friend was “very smart”, and a “simple, decent person”.

After the deaths, the same man who broke the news to Ali called the two men’s families in Pakistan and gently told them what had happened. Distraught, Ali reported the incident to staff at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which runs several of Bosnia’s refugee camps, including Miral, and the DRC, which also operates in Miral camp.

“For two months I spoke to IOM and DRC [about my friends]. I was crying when I told them. I showed them pictures of their camp IDs, passports and Pakistan ID cards,” Ali says. It is normal in refugee and migrant communities to carry pictures of friends’ documents, as well as the phone numbers of their families, in case a tragedy befalls them. But the bodies of the men were never found, and Ali has grown embittered about the lack of response to his pleas.

He looks back on the process as “a circle leading nowhere”. “DRC said they would tell IOM [about the dead men]. IOM spoke to the police. The police spoke to DRC. I tried for two months, but nothing.”

Dead and missing in the Balkans

The lack of a centralised database and, therefore, accurate statistics, about refugee and migrant deaths in Balkan countries makes it all the more difficult to push for accountability from the authorities.

In Bosnia, local activists frustrated by this institutional failure have banded together and formed a private Facebook group called “Dead and Missing in the Balkans”. The aim of the group is practical: to share information about missing refugees and migrants, help families and friends reunite with their loved ones and facilitate the repatriation of the bodies of those who lose their lives along the route.

“At some point, families of people who were missing start[ed] making contact with volunteers and activists, asking for help to find their loved ones, and also with transport of the bodies,” the Facebook group’s administrators – two Bosnian women and a man from Western Sahara who wish to remain anonymous for fear of being criminalised for their work assisting refugees and migrants – explained in an email.

A 19 year old woman from Afghanistan crosses the Glina River from Bosnia into Croatia with the aid of a friend. Her husband, watching from the riverbank, planned to follow her soon after if she successfully reached Zagreb, but she was pushed back later that same day [Mana Sadeghi/Al Jazeera]

The group learned the lengthy repatriation procedure for the bodies of migrants who have died on their journeys “just by doing” it and have developed a protocol for handling these cases; a laundry list of necessary documents and forms. An official, government-accredited translator must translate the deceased person’s birth and death certificates, passport, and a document proving their citizenship in their home country into Bosnian, the protocol explains. Then, the volunteer must coordinate with a local funeral company, a logistics company, and the relevant embassy for authorisation documents to repatriate the corpse.

“[Repatriation] is a tricky, bureaucratic process,” Campbell from BVMN says. “It’s particularly difficult to navigate for companions and relatives, and certainly it’s hard to get the money sometimes needed to do so.”

In some cases, the relevant embassy covers part of the cost. The rest becomes the burden of the deceased’s family or friends, who more often than not are unable to afford it. Organisations in the person’s home country and local groups in the Balkans fill the gap.

One such group, Udruženje Solidarnost (Solidarity Association), based in Bihać, the capital of Una-Sana canton in Bosnia, posts fundraising appeals on its public Facebook page to raise money for repatriations.

“URGENT CALL: Need 3,000 KM [1,500 euros] to transport a dead migrant, Selman,” reads one post from September 2019. The 19-year-old from Pakistan had lost his life after being deported from Slovenia to Bosnia, the post explains.

“He got sick after his return. He threw up and had a fever. After two days of laying in camp, IOM sen[t] him to the hospital. He was in terrible pain and witnesses say he screamed. He was so upset that several people couldn’t help him,” the post reads, explaining that two days later the young man died in the hospital in Bihać.

“His dream and his family’s dream have forever stopped here in Bosnia. Instead of the news that he managed to reach his goal, they got the news that his young life was shut down,” the group wrote.

Solidarnost wrote that they had agreed to bear half of the total 3,000 euros ($3,550) cost of the repatriation. The rest was covered by the embassy of Pakistan in Bosnia.

In another case, Solidarnost appealed for part of the 3,500 euro ($4,150) bill to bring the body of another 19-year-old back to Pakistan after he died of meningitis in the same Bosnian hospital; again, the same embassy covered partial costs.

A man feeds a dog at a forest camp on January 4, 2021 where a group from Bangladesh found shelter near Velika Kladusa, Bosnia and Herzegovina [File: Damir Sagolj/Getty Images]

The embassy of Pakistan in Bosnia wrote in an email to Al Jazeera that the repatriation process, including the verification of the person’s nationality, the identification of the body by the family, and the transportation back to Pakistan is done “as expeditiously as possible” and that such cases “are accorded special priority”. The embassy did not comment on specific cases of repatriations.

The burden of cost, the embassy spokesperson explained, is sometimes borne by the Overseas Pakistanis Foundation (OPF), a government agency providing financial assistance to poor families of Pakistanis who die abroad.

A spokesperson for the OPF explained in an email to Al Jazeera that the agency has coordinated the return of five deceased Pakistanis from Europe since the beginning of the European migration crisis in 2015 – one from Greece, one from Slovenia and three from other, unspecified European countries. The agency added that it did not have “exact figures” on how many requests for repatriation have been made in recent years, as it receives more requests from the Middle East and the Gulf states than from Europe, where fewer Pakistani nationals live.

The transportation of the body is free of charge by Pakistan International Airlines, the country’s largest airline, the OPF said, but the agency sometimes foots the bill for the ambulance from the airport to the deceased’s hometown. The ambulance ride can run between 10,000 to 15,000 Pakistani rupees ($63 to $95), the OPF estimates, in a country where the average monthly salary is just under 19,000 Pakistani rupees ($120).

Flimsy inflatable paddling pools such as this one are commonly used by migrant and refugee families trying to cross dangerous rivers in the Balkans [Lucy Papachristou/Al Jazeera]

Spokespeople for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and IOM in Croatia both stated that their agencies are not involved in repatriations of deceased refugees and migrants. The Service for Foreigners’ Affairs (SFA), an independent administrative unit within the Bosnian Ministry of Security responsible for some aspects of the asylum process in the country, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera that it is “not directly competent for the repatriation of deceased migrants back to their countries of origin.” The SFA said that it did not contribute financially to repatriations, nor did it have statistics on how many migrants have drowned in Bosnian rivers. However, it added that 20 migrants had died in Bosnia between July 1 and December 31 2020 for ‘reason[s] unknown.'”

However, the Croatian Ministry of Interior outlined in an email to Al Jazeera the identification process for a deceased refugee or migrant in Croatia, detailing the logistical coordination between the police, forensic pathologists and relevant government ministries. The email did not include information about repatriations, nor did the ministry comment on how drownings and other accidental deaths could be avoided in the first place by a shift in migration policies.

Frustrated by what they describe as an “absurd situation” lacking proper accountability, the Dead and Missing Facebook administrators say they do not receive much support from authorities. They started the Facebook page, they explain, because “nobody else was even trying to help with [repatriations]”.

Water – ‘another trauma on a long road of traumas’

Bureaucracy in the Balkan countries – and perhaps in Bosnia in particular – is famous for its complexities, say the Facebook group admins. It is another issue which has made life even harder for refugees and migrants in the region.

“It is not clear who has the responsibility (if anybody) in Bosnia for many issues related to migrations. Is it the state (as by the law), or the EU and their partners here, like IOM, DRC, UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] … who are leading the process they refer to as ‘managing migrations’,” the group admins wrote in an email.

In recent months, those whose job it is to “manage migration” in Bosnia are seeing a marked shift in the demographics of people arriving in the country. Since 2017, when refugees began arriving in Bosnia in greater numbers, Una-Sana canton in the northwest has seen a large number of single men passing through.

Now, many families are coming to Bosnia from camps in Greece. Some have received a final rejection on their asylum claim and have been obligated to leave Greece. Others say they waited two or three years for their asylum interview in Greece, and, frustrated, decided to continue on to their destinations in Western Europe. But between them and their dreams of a safer and better life in Europe lie the Balkans.

Families with young children – many of them from Afghanistan – face additional challenges when trying to cross rivers. All those who lived in camps on the Aegean islands arrived there by boat, but many cannot swim at all. Braving another water crossing, no matter how smooth, can rekindle past experiences of trauma involving water, such as shipwrecks.

Glatz Brubakk, the Norwegian psychiatrist who is also a professor at Trondheim University, saw this trauma first-hand on Lesbos, where she has worked with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) and other medical non-profit organisations during nine separate volunteering stints over the past six years. She is not currently on the island of Lesbos and emphasises that she is speaking to Al Jazeera on a personal basis, not as part of MSF.

“Water is a reminder of the fact that refugees’ lives are in danger,” Glatz Brubakk explains. “They are in danger concretely when they go into water, where they are retraumatised. Then their life is in danger chronically because they are unable to live a proper life, and have to be alert and hypervigilant all the time. We mental health professionals know that this increases the risk of developing severe mental health issues,” such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression, she adds.

A worker installs a fence on the bank of the Kolpa river in Preloka, Slovenia on August 22, 2019 [File: Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters]

Living in camps on the Aegean islands, refugees who have survived a traumatic or life-threatening sea crossing from Turkey have generally had no opportunity to process what they have experienced. “There is nothing in the surroundings or in the way you are treated by guards or local people who harass you, to start that healing process. The impact of trauma just grows … [Water] is another trauma in a long road of traumas,” she explains.

Hamid*, 30, an Afghan man, left Lesbos Moria refugee camp last year and met up with his half-sister, Nahida*, 27, her husband and their two young sons, aged five and six. None of the family members wish to be named for fear of repercussions. Nahida and her family had been in Vial camp on Chios, another eastern Aegean island. They all reunited on the mainland of Greece and travelled together overland through Albania, Montenegro and into Bosnia, along with a friend of Hamid’s, a middle-aged, unmarried Afghan man who he met in Turkey. Now living in Velika Kladuša town, the family is preparing for what may be the last major hurdle in their years-long journey: the Croatian rivers.

The family is from Mashhad, a large city in Iran close to the Afghan border. Hamid and Nahida have been refugees all their lives – first as children in Iran, fleeing the war in Afghanistan, and now as adults in eastern Europe.

In his old life in Mashhad, Hamid worked as a carpet-weaver in a small factory, and Nahida in a beauty parlour. In the single room where the family now lives in Velika Kladuša, cheap rugs cover the floor of the 20-square-metre room where the six of them eat, sleep and live. Hamid fingers these poor reproductions while he describes the masterpieces he used to help create; he and his fellow weavers often spent a whole year working on a single carpet, he says.

Inflatable water toys available at China Market, a discount store in Bihac, Bosnia, which refugees and migrants buy to help them cross the rivers [Lucy Papachristou/Al Jazeera]

None of his eight siblings and half-siblings (his father had two wives) has ever been to Afghanistan, but Hamid says he would not dream of visiting his parents’ homeland. His maternal uncle was killed there by unknown armed men, and the last thing Hamid wants to do is risk his life. He has someone close to him now to care for – a fiancée – an Afghan woman he met in Iran and lived with in Moria. She is waiting for him in Germany after receiving asylum in Greece. (Hamid never received an answer to his asylum request.) When Hamid is able to join her there, he wants to marry her.

But before Hamid can reach his bride, whom he has not seen in about a year, he must get himself and his five companions to Zagreb and then into Germany, crossing the Glina, Kupa and Sava rivers along the way. In the Croatian capital, they plan to ask for asylum and rest in a family refugee camp before continuing on to Germany, where they all want to settle permanently. They have tried to get there already.

Risking the river with inflatables

Until this spring, the family, who have been stuck in Bosnia since last November, had never needed a boat; previously, back in the cold winter months, they hid under trucks destined for Italy, or bought tickets in small Croatian towns just over the Bosnian border for trains headed to Zagreb.

But these “games” never worked – they were always picked up by the police and pushed back to Bosnia – so now they are trying with a boat. None of the five family members can swim, so they have decided to do what many families and single men alike do, and purchase an inflatable from a local shop.

China Market, a discount store run by Chinese immigrants in Bihać, the capital of Una-Sana canton, displays water equipment at the front of the store. When Al Jazeera visited the shop in June to inquire about boats for sale, it was clear the store was used to refugees and migrants coming in to buy inflatables to cross rivers. A saleswoman asked, in a friendly tone: “Is the boat for you or for immigrants?”

The problem is, none of the “boats” on sale at this shop are proper boats. Most are small, inflatable paddling pools that children use in gardens during the summer months. The saleswoman says that dozens of refugees and migrants come by the store to inquire about boats, showing her photos of the inflatable pools that friends of theirs have used to successfully cross rivers and requesting the same models.

Salah* shows the inflatable boat and single oar he has managed to source for a Kurdish family hoping to safely cross the Glina river in Croatia [Lucy Papachristou/Al Jazeera]

Hamid bought his paddling pool, which is about two square metres in size, in the same store in Bihać for 40 euros ($47), plus a pump to inflate it for an additional 7.50 euros (nearly $9). The family used the 10kg craft, which they carried for hours through the forest, to cross the Glina, just over the border inside Croatia in April this year.

But, once again, the family was caught the following day by the Croatian police before they reached the next major river, the Kupa, near the city of Karlovac. They had travelled the 25km between the two rivers on foot, over three days. They were driven back to the Bosnian border in Croatian police cars, Hamid recalls, and pushed back, returning once again to their single, carpeted room. Hamid says the Croatian police confiscated the boat and pump, a significant financial setback for the family who live off money sent by their relatives in Iran. For now, they are still planning their next “game”.

When asked if his sister is afraid of the water, Hamid smiles faintly and responds, “a little”. Nahida, who speaks poor English, understands this exchange and, shaking her head, her eyes wide, says in Farsi: “Kheyli”, meaning “very”. The boat Nahida, her husband and their children took to Chios, back when the boys were toddlers, took in water as it was approaching the shore, Hamid explains. While the craft did not capsize and the family was ultimately safe, the experience has stayed with Nahida.

Still, the family will take the risk with rivers this time around in Bosnia and Croatia. There is no other viable way for them to get to Croatia, they judge, and no future for them in Bosnia either. Besides, other families they know have successfully crossed these rivers before them. In front of her young sons, Nahida is able to swallow her fear and do what she feels needs to be done.

On a quest to find an inflatable boat

“If you’re severely traumatised by experiences on water, just being close to water will trigger your old trauma, and if your trauma is severe enough you won’t be able to cross the river [at all],” Glatz Brubakk, the psychiatrist, explains.

“Refugees arriving to Europe [with severe trauma] will need more help when they become our neighbours. From a human standpoint, border policies are obviously inhumane,” she says, referring to the overcrowded refugee camps in Greece where asylum seekers can languish for years waiting to be processed; the violent pushbacks in the Balkans and the infamous refugee detention centres in Libya, where torture, rape and murder are daily occurrences.

“From a purely economical view, these border policies are also stupid. We’re inflicting harm and damage where it could’ve been avoided,” she says. The trauma, she explains, will hamper the ability of refugees and migrants to become useful and productive members of society once they have settled.

Another young man – Salah*, an Iranian Kurd, who like others interviewed for this piece, does not wish to give his real name – says he is not afraid of the water at all. Earlier this month, Al Jazeera joined him on a quest around Velika Kladuša to buy two inflatable boats for two Kurdish families with children – friends of his.

Salah himself does not need a boat, he says. Proud of his years of training as an MMA fighter, the 24-year-old loves to tell the story of how he arrived on Lesbos. The rubber boat carrying him, his older brother and several dozen other asylum seekers from Turkey to Greece back in 2019 was close to the shore, but Salah grew bored of waiting for the nearby rescue boat to tow them in.

“Me and my brother jumped into the sea and swam to the [rescue] boat. When we arrived they thought we were crazy!” he recalls, laughing.

Salah has got this far on his journey through a combination of strength, youth and ingenuity. He boasts that he managed to leave Lesbos earlier this year by submerging his asylum paperwork in rubbing alcohol for several days to remove the coloured stamp denying his exit from the island. His asylum claim was still pending at the time and he did not have the correct paperwork to be able move freely around Greece.

Families with young children, however, are not as lucky, Salah recognises. Although he visited four local stores over the course of the afternoon, Salah only managed to purchase one boat for one of the families. The other family will have to travel to Bihać – an hour’s bus journey – to buy theirs.

Along with the boat, Salah bought a single oar, the last the store had in stock. He insists that only one oar is not going to be a problem. The family will find a solution, he says – they always do.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Source: Al Jazeera