Velika Kladusa, Bosnia and Herzegovina – Unlike in other European countries, where protests against migrants and refugees have been taking place in recent years, Bosnians see their arrival as a test of humanity, having been in a similar situation in the early 1990s when war ravaged their country.
More than 14,000 have arrived in Bosnia so far this year, compared to just 755 in 2017. The migrants say they want to seek refuge in Western Europe.
Asim Latic is just one of many Bosnians that have been stepping up, providing humanitarian assistance to migrants stranded in Bosnia, a country that is still recovering from the war and has little resources of its own.
The 63-year-old has provided over 80,000 free meals since he closed his restaurant to locals in February, noticing that many of the refugees and migrants were hungry but had no money to pay for food.
Every day from 11am, 400 to 500 migrants arrive to eat at his restaurant in the small town of Velika Kladusa, by the Croatian border.
“They need help; they have no other option,” Latic told Al Jazeera. “In Bosnia, we experienced war for four years. We were hungry, thirsty … children as well. We sympathise with these people. They have nowhere to go. They’re looking for a better life.”
Latic provided free meals for the first two and a half months on his own with a team of four friends, relying on donations.
As word spread, more locals arrived, pitching in with food, supplies and donations. Now, the UN Migration Organisation (IOM) supports their initiative.
“They’re people who are seeking refuge. They want to work; they want to provide for their families just like us. They aren’t people who are looking to create problems,” Latic said.
A 10-minute walk from Latic’s restaurant, Hasan Coragic has invited the fourth refugee family to live in his house.
He had met the Syrian family at the local mosque and was moved when he saw children with them, homeless, with all their belongings in one bag.
“They’re in a much more difficult situation than I was [during the war],” Coragic said. “I was at least in my own country, but they don’t know where to go or what to do. They don’t know the language. They only have one bag and nothing else.”
Bosnians have been pitching in across the country.
According to Peter Van der Auweraert, Western Balkans Coordinator for the IOM, the Sarajevo-based NGO Pomozi.ba asked for donations for refugees and migrants for Eid al-Adha and received 80 tonnes of meat from Sarajevo citizens.
“This is absolutely remarkable,” Van der Auweraert said.
“No matter what the political rhetoric is in the country, there are fundamental European values that are shared across the population and that is something that is quite spectacular.”
‘A chance to be appreciated’
Hundreds of refugees and migrants, many of them women and children, have been living in makeshift tents on a field in Velika Kladusa with winter fast approaching.
The Kladusnica river poses an additional problem as it often floods the field following rainfall.
Authorities have not yet agreed where they can accommodate these newcomers.
Danica Jurisic, once a Bosnian minor refugee herself, helped collect 3.5 tonnes of blankets last spring which she shipped to Sarajevo from Paris, with the help of Pomozi.ba. She is currently collecting another 10,000 blankets to send before winter arrives.
She said nothing could have prepared her for what she witnessed in Bosnia.
“The images from Velika Kladusa are haunting me. It’s really worrying,” Jurisic said, from her home in Paris.
They also claimed their money and valuables were stolen and their mobile phones damaged beyond repair.
That’s why, before embarking on a 20-hour ride to Bosnia from Paris, Jurisic stuffed a suitcase with around 100 power banks for phones, seven smartphones and laptops as well as an odd purple box called “Jangala” that provides wifi in humanitarian emergencies, providing internet for about 200 users in a radius of 50 metres.
“We wanted to help those refugees just to try to recover from the violence. I brought several phones with me that were still usable so they can get in touch with their families. They’re completely cut off and isolated because they had no access to any kind of devices,” Jurisic said.
“We wanted to give them a chance to be appreciated.”
In stark contrast, in September, Josip Tomic, a Croatian Catholic priest living near the Slovenian-Croatian border advised locals against giving refugees and migrants food or water.
On a Facebook page he manages, with a stated goal to “promote history, Croatian culture, and the Catholic religion”, the priest described men fleeing war and persecution as “military deserters” and warned of “suspicious movements of women and children with the goal of settling in European cultural countries.”
“They are not ready to accept our tradition, customs and culture,” the priest warned, adding that locals should immediately report unknown people to authorities.
“For 500 years, Croatia was the bulwark of Christianity and a defender of Europe from Islamic heresy. Let’s continue this tradition and protect Europe from the invasion of illegal Islamic migration,” the priest said.
Similarly, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik stated in May that the arrival of refugees and migrants was part of a conspiracy concocted by a “hidden Sarajevo structure” to boost Bosnia’s Muslim population, declaring that he refused to have any stationed in Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb entity.
Despite political rhetoric, Bosnia’s population has responded in its own way.
Van der Auweraert, the IOM coordinator, noted that despite the influx in western Bosnia, no anti-refugee protests have been organised.
“I can tell you, if we would have the same situation in similar towns in Belgium, we would have had extreme right-wing demonstrations against migrants already a long time ago. We haven’t seen anything like that in either Velika Kladusa or Bihac,” he said.
“I have seen that Bosnia and Herzegovina citizens whether they are poor, middle-class, rich, whether they are Serbs, Croats or Bosniak – the overwhelming majority responded with solidarity, understanding and humanity.”
Van der Auweraert recounted a story of how a man, dressed in a suit, drove up in a Porsche Cayenne to the park in Velika Kladusa where refugees and migrants were camping.
He had come with his two children to donate sleeping bags and blankets to show his family what solidarity is.
“In Belgium, someone who drives a Porsche Cayenne doesn’t come close to a migrant camp in any sort of way, shape or form,” Van der Auweraert said.
For Jurisic, the Paris-based volunteer, seeing the refugees on the Bosnian-Croatian border brings up memories of her difficult time.
She recalls escaping her hometown of Sarajevo on May 1, 1992, the last week before Sarajevo was completely sealed off by Serb forces.
Only 16 years old, she managed to cross into Croatia on her own, without any documents, by hopping on a bus that was heading to the coastal city of Split.
Various military groups stopped the bus along the way but fortunately, they weren’t turned away.
Although safe from the shelling and sniper attacks in Sarajevo, life was still difficult as a refugee in Croatia.
“When I [arrived in Croatia], people weren’t happy with me as a refugee from Sarajevo,” Jurisic said, adding that she received threats from locals who told her that she was “contaminated with Muslim culture”.
“I would just like for people to start thinking, not about what is legal and what is documented and who has the papers, but just to remember that we’re all people,” Jurisic said.
“This is not about who is legal or who has the right to cross the border. This is about – are we going to save our humanity? How are we going to react?”