The man drowned at two o’clock in the morning, according to Tahsan*.
In March of this year, a group of roughly 35 men from Pakistan and Bangladesh crossed the Bosnian border into Croatia, commencing a two-week trip through dense forests and across snow-capped mountains from the Bosnian border to Italy.
Attempts to cross borders are referred to as “the game” by refugees and migrants, although the journey is never taken lightly.
The men carried all they possessed, all the food they’d eat for the next 14 days, and most of the water they’d drink on their backs.
The men arrived to the Glina river, which Tahsan, 22, remembers as being roughly 25 meters wide, about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) past the border.
Despite the fact that it was warm during the day, the temperature in the area dips to -1 or -2 degrees Celsius at night in March.
About 15 men went in and attempted to swim to the other side, but “one man grew very cold and couldn’t swim,” according to Tahsan, a Bangladeshi.
Tahsan is too afraid to reveal his true name three months after the incident, near to his tent encampment in northwest Bosnia (the guys never made it through Croatia), since he fears reprisal not only from the government, but also from the other men he was with that night, who may be unhappy that he is even speaking about it.
He claims he didn’t know the drowned man particularly well, but that he was around his age and from Pakistan’s Punjab province.
The man begged for assistance, but no one on the coast could help him.
There wasn’t enough time, and the water was too cold, according to Tahsan.
If others had tried to aid him, they would have perished as well.” The man drowned in less than a minute.
Tahsan recalls the current being quite strong that night, and “his body went away with the water.”
Friends of the man have no idea what happened to his body or if it was ever found.
On January 6, 2021, a family from Afghanistan pushes a baby in a stroller as they approach Croatia’s border from the Bosnian side in an attempt to get into the European Union.
[File: Damir Sagolj/Getty Images] Tahsan was traveling with five of his compatriots and roughly 30 Pakistanis, many of whom he claims “did not properly know how to swim.”
Half of the Pakistani men who had not yet crossed the river were so horrified by what they saw that they decided to take a chance and cross a bridge half a kilometer away, where police might be waiting.
Tahsan and the other Bangladeshis, who had spent their childhoods swimming in their country’s many lakes and streams, braved the river crossing anyway.
They couldn’t wait for the sun to come up or for the water to warm up.
Every minute “on game” counts – every moment without seeing a cop is an opportunity to advance further west toward one’s destination.
After the man perished, the remaining 15 Pakistanis and Bangladeshis did not loiter, according to Tahsan; they leaped in as soon as his body vanished from sight.
Those who made it across the river spent the night in dreadful conditions, with just tents for protection.
The temperature remained below zero until well after sunrise.
“It was bitterly cold, and our hands were numb.”
They went from white to black.
Because my fingers were frozen, I couldn’t unzip my bag to grab my dry clothes,” Tahsan recalls.
Finally, the group’s efforts were in vain.
The guys were apprehended the next day by Croatian border authorities, who drove them back to the border in two huge vehicles and returned them to Bosnia in a “pushback” operation.
‘Tahsan left Sylhet, Bangladesh’s northernmost city, two years ago for Western Europe, passing through Turkey and Greece before heading north through the Balkans.
He claims that as a young guy with no education, he saw no future for himself in Bangladesh, which he considers “corrupt.”
He believes that the present prime minister was elected “unfairly” and that he has “made numerous problems for the country.”
While he does not regret his decision to leave, Tahsan misses his mother’s cooking, particularly the fish dishes.
When he goes “on game,” he tries to recreate similar meals by bringing canned tuna and sardines with him.
Yet, the few types of river fish Tahsan buys in local stores – especially canned tuna – pale in comparison to the many wonderful species found in his homeland’s many rivers and lakes.
Tahsan has successfully arrived in Italy since the publication of this article, where he intends to stay and work in a restaurant or construction.
Over the course of nine months, he went “on game” a dozen times from Bosnia, and he understood how to prepare, carrying only a single change of clothes, bread, water, biscuits, canned fish, and lots of his favorite energy drinks, Ultra Black Monsters, to keep his mind sharp and his legs working.
Tahsan, on the other hand, could never foresee the weather in the Balkans in the spring, which he describes as “unpredictable” – sunny one minute, pouring rain the next.
That cold March night, Tahsan and his fellow travelers were confronted with the deceptive elements.
Nothing they had in their backpacks, he feels, could have affected the outcome.
‘Many bodies will never be located’ Migrants and refugees passing through the Balkans on their way to Western Europe traverse through difficult terrain.
Several people die as a result of accidents, exposure, or walking on landmines left behind from the 1990s Yugoslav wars.
The numerous rivers cutting through the countryside, which migrants must traverse to reach their destinations in Europe, are possibly the most treacherous junctures of these Odyssean treks.
While the issue of immigrants drowning in the Central Mediterranean and the eastern Aegean is well chronicled, less attention is devoted to the fatalities of migrants and refugees in the Balkan rivers [Al Jazeera].
Non-governmental search-while-rescue ships monitor the Mediterranean waters off the coast of Libya, and various international hotlines, such as Alarm Phone and Aegean Boat Report, receive distress calls in both the major seas on a continuous basis.
Nevertheless, there are no such planned and continuous rescue attempts in the Balkans, and there is no centralised, publicly accessible database monitoring migrant drownings or unintentional deaths in general in the region.
The reason for this, according to Simon Campbell of the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), is that “drownings are one of the most difficult things to trace.”
“I believe you will only record half the actual number of migrant drownings as long as the current method of recording continues, with transit communities [the term Campbell wants to use for migrants and refugees to avoid the stigma frequently associated with those words] and volunteers from various organizations inserting deaths here and there.”
He goes on to say, “Many of the bodies in these waterways will never be found.”
The Danish Refugee Council (DRC), for example, informed Al Jazeera by email that it has recorded 19 cases of refugee or migrant drownings in Bosnian territory since August 2019.
Yet, this is only a snapshot.
Volunteers and activists on the ground think the number is undoubtedly far higher, while an exact figure is impossible to calculate.
“Migrants in transit drown in rivers near national boundaries and in the interior of the Balkans,” Campbell argues.
“Migrants can’t use bridges because they’re in high-density areas, and individuals are trying to dodge police restrictions,” said Al Jazeera in dozens of interviews with refugees and migrants in Velika Kladusa, a town in northwest Bosnia close the Croatian border that contains the Miral refugee camp for single males. Nearly everyone knows someone who drowned or nearly drowned, or has nearl
The fear of water is pervasive, and as summer approaches, more people are planning to go “on game,” which would require them to cross many streams.
‘Your only goal is to survive.’ Refugees and migrants have devised novel ways to cross rivers, strategies borne of a deep fear of drowning, which they know is all too likely.
Some claim they cross using a rope connected to a tree on the opposite side and moving hand over hand along the rope.
To tie the rope for the others, one brave person must first cross alone.
Some make floating devices out of used car tyres.
People who can’t find or carry tyres stuff empty soda bottles under their armpits in the hopes of keeping them dry.
Some of the rivers they cross have rapid currents and are as wide as 30 meters, but others are slow moving and only two or three meters deep.
Yet, many of people crossing the river are inexperienced swimmers or do not know how to swim at all.
There is little possibility of aid if someone becomes stranded in the water because they attempt to cross rivers usually at night to escape police discovery.
“It’s dark, and you’re already scared, so you mobilise [her phrase for the rush of adrenaline that sends a person’s body into overdrive].”
“Your main concern is to survive,” says Katrin Glatz Glatz Brubakk, a Norwegian clinical psychiatrist who has worked with migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos who have experienced water-related trauma.
“Yet, this implies that you may not always make the best decisions.”
If you’re afraid of being apprehended by border patrol, you could push yourself to swim further than you normally would.
You might take more risks than you should or are capable of handling,” she adds.
Many migrants and refugees do not make it.
Several refugees and migrants have said that Croatian police have forced them into the water in “pushbacks back to Bosnia” [Lucy Papachristou/Al Jazeera] Testimonies provided by BVMN from migrants who have encountered brutality at the hands of border police are littered with accounts of drownings.
For example, in June 2019, a group of Moroccans looked for their friend who drowned in the Kolpa river near the Croatian-Slovenian border for hours in vain.
During the winter of 2018, an Algerian man claimed that police officers refused him access to his friend’s body, who had drowned in Slovenia’s Reka river while they were “on game.”
Then there are the countless accounts of refugees and migrants who claim that during a pushback, Croatian police forced them to enter a river – a common place, they claim, is the river Korana near the Bosnian town of Sturlic on the Croatian-Bosnian border.
“Migrant and refugee harassment and humiliation are growing more severe and terrible,” says Ilarija Basic of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“According to people interviewed by the DRC, police were behaving violently, assaulting them, stripping them of their clothes, trashing their personal things, and pushing them into the river despite the fact that they told the police they couldn’t swim.”
“Unfortunately, the absence of safe and legal migration ones is forcing people to turn to more dangerous, illegal routes,” Basic adds.
Local activists have made intermittent efforts to assist persons in difficulty along these “clandestine routes” in recent years, risking wild bears and mines to avoid the authorities.
Info Kolpa, a Slovenian organization that tracks and documents border violence against migrants, set up a distress hotline on WhatsApp in the summer of 2018 because its organizers had a “very strong suspicion of major violations of human rights” – pushbacks from Slovenia – “which deserved explanation,” according to Miha Turk, a spokesperson for the group, which is also based in Ljubljana.
Info Kolpa and a non-profit law firm, which Turk says would prefer to remain nameless owing to the politicized nature of its work with asylum seekers, developed a WhatsApp hotline for refugees and migrants who had entered Slovenian territory.
In the early days of the hotline, refugees and migrants from other Balkan countries who wanted to ask for asylum in Slovenia were given the number and told to send a message once they arrived; later, word of mouth spread about the hotline.
When they called the hotline, volunteers would inquire about their nationalities and whether they wished to seek asylum in that country, before reporting their location and information to authorities, who were supposed to hear their asylum claims and register them as asylum seekers.
The hotline was only operational for a few months before the group decided to shut it down.
“Slovenia is still quite liberal,” Turk explains, “and we have never felt scared in all our work.”
But you have to be extremely careful in a legal sense,” he says, referring to contact with illegal refugees and migrants in Slovenia who have not yet applied for asylum.
“You’re always dancing in the middle,” Turk says, referring to Article 308 of the Slovenian penal code, which deals with those who cross state borders into Slovenia.
Anybody who “smuggles aliens who do not have a permit to enter or live in the Republic of Slovenia, transports them or helps them conceal, or who smuggles two or more such aliens across the border for money” is subject to a fine and up to five years in prison, according to one paragraph.
Another paragraph imposes the same punishment on anyone who “organizes illegal migration,” a broad category.
Turk claims that if volunteers are seen counseling migrants to “move north” in Bosnia, Croatia, or elsewhere, they might be prosecuted in Slovenia under Article 308 of the Constitution.
On January 6, 2021, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, an Afghan family walks in the rain after being driven back into Bosnia by Croatian police after attempting to enter into the EU. [File: Damir Sagolj/Getty Images] “There were people caught in marshes and forests in Croatia, and we couldn’t answer them.”
We couldn’t even direct them, even though we knew where they were, because we were bound by stringent restrictions not to interact with individuals until they reached Slovenian territory.
Turk elaborates, “It may be extremely traumatic.”
Info Kolpa subsequently shut down the hotline after discovering that they were “simply assisting the police” in pushing refugees and migrants back.
Info Kolpa volunteers discovered that after informing authorities the locations of persons who wanted to ask for asylum, the same people ended up back in Bosnia – deported over two national borders in what is known as a “chain pushback.”
Turk claims that the hotline ultimately gave people who wanted to apply for asylum in Slovenia “false optimism.”
Turk, on the other hand, does not believe a crisis hotline is required.
“The Balkans’ terrain is what it is.”
For millennia, people have been traveling.
There is now a political element.
Because other sites are unsafe [due to police presence], people are obliged to go via the most difficult terrain.
Either you expect Slovenian or Croatian authorities to follow the law, or you attempt to venture into the bush, where bears and mines abound…
“There would be no need for them if there was political will [to perform search and rescue efforts],” he argues, noting that the government always manages to “save hundreds of tourists stuck in the mountains in flip-flops.”
In the end, Turk claims, Slovenian and Croatian officials are breaking EU law by forcibly relocating asylum seekers across borders without enabling them to file an asylum claim, which is a basic right guaranteed by international law.
Al Jazeera’s questions to the relevant authorities on the pushbacks in Croatia and Slovenia remained unanswered.
He concludes, “People are more ready to risk self-harm than to trust authority to follow the law.”
‘A loop that leads nowhere’ Some refugees and migrants have decided that risking their lives by crossing rivers isn’t worth it.
“I’m not going to cross any rivers.”
Everything in life is important.
There’s just one of you.
“One chance,” says Ali*, a 23-year-old Pakistani who lives in Miral, a Velika Kladusa refugee camp for unmarried men.
He, too, is terrified of the consequences if he uses his true identity.
Ali has tried numerous “games” in the hopes of getting to Spain and finding job.
However, he only crosses rivers over legitimate bridges, where he claims he has been spotted by Croatian police, who have then pushed him back to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Ali runs an unofficial business in Miral, where he makes potato samosas and sells them to other camp inhabitants.
It helps him pass the time between “games,” and he can transfer between 50 and 100 euros ($60 to $120) to his mother and 14-year-old sister in Pakistan, who have little else.
Ali’s aversion to water is the result of a personal tragedy.
Last December, two of his close friends died while crossing the Drina river on the Bosnian-Serbian border.
The young men, ages 18 and 24, were attempting to return to Greece via land, where they intended to find job and send money home to their families in Pakistan, according to Ali.
The two men attempted to cross into Italy on foot for over a year but ran out of money and became frustrated by the Croatian police’s persistent and often violent rebuffs.
They had passed through Greece on their way to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they had found it easier to get work, usually harvesting fruit.
Ali refused to accompany them because he is still determined to get to Spain.
On June 28, 2011, a police helicopter pilot patrols above the river Kolpa at Metlika, near the Schengen border between Slovenia and Croatia. [File: Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters] The night his companions drowned, Ali was awoken by a phone call from another Pakistani who witnessed the events.
The man told him, “I lost your pals.”
“I sobbed and told him he was lying to me,” Ali recounts.
“I shared a bed with [the 18-year-old] for a year in Miral camp.”
Every day, we ate together and conversed.
“This is how we bonded,” Ali says, describing his friend as “extremely smart” and a “simple, decent person.”
Following Ali’s death, the same individual who broke the news to him called the two men’s families in Pakistan and gently informed them of what had occurred.
Ali, distraught, reported the incident to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which oversees several of Bosnia’s refugee camps, including Miral, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which also operates at Miral.
“I spoke to IOM and DRC [about my friends] for two months.”
When I told them, I was in tears.
Ali recalls, “I showed them images of their camp IDs, passports, and Pakistan ID cards.”
In refugee and migrant groups, it is common to carry photos of friends’ documents as well as the phone numbers of their relatives in case of disaster.
However, the men’s bodies were never discovered, and Ali has become enraged at the lack of reaction to his requests.
He describes the procedure as “a circle that leads nowhere.”
“DRC stated that they will inform IOM [about the dead men]
IOM had a conversation with the cops.
DRC was contacted by the police.
“I tried for two months, but nothing.” Dead and missing in the Balkans The lack of a centralised database and, as a result, precise information on refugee and migrant mortality in Balkan countries makes it all the more difficult to hold authorities accountable.
Local activists in Bosnia and Herzegovina have started a private Facebook page named “Dead and Missing in the Balkans” in response to this institutional failure.
The group’s goal is to exchange information on missing refugees and migrants, assist families and friends in reuniting with their loved ones, and enable the repatriation of those who die along the way.
“At some point, relatives of persons who were missing started making contact with volunteers and activists, asking for help finding their loved ones, as well as transportation of the remains,” the Facebook group administrators – two Bosnian women and a man from Western Sahara who desire to remain anonymous for fear of being prosecuted for their work supporting refugees and migrants – revealed in an emailed statement.
With the help of a friend, a 19-year-old Afghan lady crosses the Glina River from Bosnia into Croatia.
Her husband, who was watching from the riverbank, expected to join her shortly if she made it to Zagreb, but she was forced back later that day [Mana Sadeghi/Al Jazeera] The group learned the lengthy repatriation procedure for the remains of migrants who died on their journeys “simply by doing” it and established a methodology for dealing with these instances; a laundry list of necessary documents.
According to the protocol, the deceased person’s birth and death certificates, passport, and a document establishing their citizenship in their native country must all be translated into Bosnian by an official, government-accredited translator.
The volunteer must next work with a local funeral home, a logistics firm, and the appropriate embassy to obtain authorization documents to repatriate the body.
“[Repatriation] is a complicated and bureaucratic procedure,” explains Campbell of BVMN.
“It’s very tough for companions and relatives to traverse, and it’s certainly difficult to collect the money needed to do so.” In some situations, the relevant embassy covers a portion of the expense.
The rest is the responsibility of the deceased’s relatives or friends, who are frequently unable to pay.
Local groups in the Balkans and organizations in the person’s native country fill the void.
Udruzenje Solidarnost (Solidarity Society), situated in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital, conducts fundraising calls on its public Facebook page to gather funds for repatriations.
One post from September 2019 states, “URGENT CALL: Require 3,000 KM [1,500 euros] to transport a dead migrant, Selman.”
According to the post, a 19-year-old Pakistani man died after being deported from Slovenia to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“When he returned, he became ill.”
He vomited and had a temperature.
IOM took him to the hospital after he laid in camp for two days.
He was in excruciating pain, according to witnesses, and yelled.
He was so distraught that multiple people couldn’t help him,” the article says, adding that the young guy died two days later in a Bihac hospital.
“He and his family’s dreams have come to an end here in Bosnia.”
Instead of hearing that he had accomplished his aim, they learned that his young life had been cut short,” the group stated.
Solidarnost wrote that they had agreed to cover half of the repatriation costs, which totaled 3,000 euros ($3,550).
The Pakistani embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina took care of the rest.
In a separate example, Solidarnost requested reimbursement for a portion of the $3,500 ($4,150) fee to transport the body of another 19-year-old to Pakistan after he died of meningitis at the same Bosnian hospital; once again, the same embassy reimbursed a portion of the bill.
On January 4, 2021, a man feeds a dog at a woodland camp outside Velika Kladusa, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a group of Bangladeshis sought refuge. [File: Damir Sagolj/Getty Images] The embassy of Pakistan in Bosnia and Herzegovina noted in an email to Al Jazeera that the repatriation procedure, which includes the certification of the person’s identity, the identification of the body by the family, and the transportation back to Pakistan
The embassy declined to comment on specific repatriation instances.
The Overseas Pakistanis Foundation (OPF), a government body that provides financial support to destitute families of Pakistanis who die overseas, bears some of the cost burden, according to the embassy spokesperson.
Since the start of the European migration crisis in 2015, the OPF has facilitated the return of five deceased Pakistanis from Europe – one from Greece, one from Slovenia, and three from other, undisclosed European countries, according to an email from an OPF spokeswoman to Al Jazeera.
The agency also stated that it does not have “precise numbers” on the number of repatriation requests it has received in recent years because it receives more requests from the Middle East and Gulf states than from Europe, where there are less Pakistani nationals.
The body is transported for free by Pakistan International Airlines, the country’s major airline, according to the OPF, although the agency sometimes pays for the ambulance ride from the airport to the deceased’s hometown.
In a country where the average monthly salary is just under 19,000 Pakistani rupees ($120), each ambulance transport can cost between 10,000 and 15,000 Pakistani rupees ($63 to $95), according to the OPF.
migrant and refugee families regularly use flimsy inflatable paddling pools like this one to cross perilous rivers in the Balkans [Lucy Papachristou/Al Jazeera] Spokespeople for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Croatia both indicated that their organizations are not involved in repatriations of deceased refugees and migrants.
In an email to Al Jazeera, the Service for Foreigners Affairs (SFA), an independent administrative agency within the Bosnian Ministry of Security in charge of some aspects of the country’s asylum procedure, claimed it is “not directly competent for the repatriation of deceased migrants back to their countries of origin,” and that it does not help financially to repatriations.
Yet, between July 1 and December 31, 2020, 20 migrants died in Bosnia for “unknown reasons.” The Croatian Ministry of Interior explained the identification process for a deceased refugee or migrant in Croatia in an email to Al Jazeera, detailing the logistical cooperation between the police, forensic pathologists, and relevant government departments.
The government did not mention repatriations in the email, nor did it address how drownings and other unintentional deaths could be averted in the first place if migration laws were changed.
The Dead and Missing Facebook admins are frustrated by what they call an “absurd scenario” that lacks sufficient accountability, and they say they don’t get much help from authorities.
They created the Facebook page because “nobody else was even trying to help with [repatriations],” they add.
Water – “another trauma on a long road of traumas” According to the Facebook group moderators, bureaucracy in the Balkan countries – and possibly in Bosnia in particular – is known for its intricacies.
Another problem has made life much more difficult for refugees and migrants in the region.
“Many issues relating to migration in Bosnia are unclear as to who has responsibility (if anyone).”
Is it the state (as required by law), or the EU and its partners in this area, such as the International Organization for Migration, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency]…
who are in charge of the’managing migrations’ process,” the group admins stated in an email.
Those tasked with “managing migration” in Bosnia have seen a significant shift in the demographics of those entering in the nation in recent months.
Una-Sana canton in the northwest has seen a considerable number of single men pass through since 2017, when refugees began arriving in greater numbers in Bosnia.
More families are now arriving in Bosnia from Greece’s refugee camps.
Some have been forced to leave Greece after receiving a final rejection of their asylum application.
Some claim they waited two or three years in Greece for their asylum interview and then decided to carry on to their destinations in Western Europe because they were frustrated.
The Balkans, though, stand between them and their dreams of a safer and better life in Europe.
When trying to cross rivers, families with young children, many of whom are from Afghanistan, confront additional hurdles.
Those who lived in camps on the Aegean islands arrived by boat, but many of them are unable to swim.
Attempting another water crossing, no matter how easy, can reawaken memories of earlier water-related traumas, such as shipwrecks.
Glatz Brubakk, a Norwegian psychiatrist and professor at Trondheim University, witnessed this trauma firsthand on Lesbos, where she volunteered with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and other medical non-profit organizations on nine consecutive occasions over the past six years.
She is not currently on the island of Lesbos and says she is speaking to Al Jazeera on a personal level, not on behalf of MSF.
“Water serves as a warning that refugees’ lives are in jeopardy,” Glatz Brubakk explains.
“They are in immediate danger when they enter water, as they are retraumatized.”
Then their life is in constant risk since they are unable to live a normal life and must constantly remain alert and hypervigilant.
She adds, “We mental health specialists know that this raises the likelihood of having significant mental health conditions,” such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression.
On August 22, 2019, a worker constructs a barrier on the bank of the Kolpa river in Preloka, Slovenia [File: Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters] Refugees who have survived a horrific or life-threatening sea voyage from Turkey have generally had no opportunity to comprehend what they have experienced while living in camps on the Aegean islands.
“There is nothing in the environment, or in the way you are handled by guards or harassed locals, to start that healing process.”
Trauma’s impact is only increasing…
“[Water] is just one more pain on a long list of traumas,” she says.
Last year, Afghan Hamid*, 30, fled the Lesbos Moria refugee camp and reunited with his half-sister Nahida*, 27, her husband, and their two young sons, ages five and six.
For fear of penalties, none of the family members want to be identified.
Nahida and her family had been staying in Vial camp on the island of Chios in the eastern Aegean.
They rejoined on the Greek mainland and traveled through Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina together, along with a friend of Hamids, a middle-aged, unmarried Afghan guy whom he met in Turkey.
The family is now based in Velika Kladusa, and they are preparing for what could be the next significant obstacle in their years-long journey: the Croatian rivers.
Mashhad, a significant city in Iran on the Afghan border, is where the family hails from.
Hamid and Nahida have spent their entire lives as refugees, first as youngsters in Iran fleeing the Afghan conflict, and now as adults in Eastern Europe.
Hamid used to work as a carpet weaver in a tiny factory in Mashhad, while Nahida used to work in a beauty parlour.
Cheap carpets cover the floor of the 20-square-metre room where the family currently resides in Velika Kladusa, where the six of them eat, sleep, and live.
Hamid points to these shoddy replicas while describing the beauties he helped construct; he and his fellow weavers would often work on a single carpet for a year, he claims.
Inflatable water toys sold at China Market, a budget store in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which refugees and migrants buy to assist them cross rivers [Lucy Papachristou/Al Jazeera] None of Hamid’s eight siblings and half-siblings (his father had two wives) have ever visited Afghanistan, but he says he would not conceive of going.
Unknown armed guys killed his maternal uncle there, and the last thing Hamid wants to do is endanger his life.
He now had someone to look after: a fiancee, an Afghan woman he met in Iran and lived with in Moria.
She has sought asylum in Greece and is now waiting for him in Germany.
(Hamid has yet to receive a response to his asylum request.) Hamid hopes to marry her once he is able to join her there.
But before Hamid can visit his bride, whom he hasn’t seen in almost a year, he and his five buddies must go to Zagreb and then into Germany, crossing the Glina, Kupa, and Sava rivers along the way.
They intend to apply for asylum in Croatia’s capital and stay in a family refugee camp before going on to Germany, where they all want to reside permanently.
They’ve already attempted to get there.
Taking a chance on the river with inflatables Until this spring, the family, who has been detained in Bosnia since November, had never required a boat; in the frigid winter months, they hid under trucks bound for Italy or obtained tickets for trains to Zagreb in small Croatian villages just beyond the Bosnian border.
But these “games” have never succeeded – they’ve always been apprehended by the police and deported to Bosnia – so they’re trying again with a boat.
Because none of the five members of the family can swim, they’ve chosen to do what many families and single men do: buy an inflatable from a local store.
Water equipment is displayed in the entrance of China Market, a bargain supermarket managed by Chinese immigrants in Bihac, the capital of the Una-Sana canton.
When Al Jazeera went to the business in June to inquire about boats for sale, it was evident that the shop had seen a lot of refugees and migrants buying inflatables to cross rivers.
“Is the boat for you or for immigrants?” a cheerful saleswoman inquired. The trouble is that none of the “boats” for sale in this shop are actually boats.
During the summer, most are small, inflatable paddling pools that children use in their yards.
Hundreds of refugees and migrants came into the store to enquire about boats, showing her images of inflatable pools that friends have used to safely cross rivers and seeking the same models, according to the saleswoman.
Salah* demonstrates the inflatable boat and single oar he found for a Kurdish family seeking to safely cross the Glina river in Croatia [Lucy Papachristou/Al Jazeera] Hamid bought his paddling pool, which is around two square meters in size, for 40 euros ($47), plus a pump to inflate it for 7.50 euros (almost $9) in the same store in Bihac.
In April of this year, the family utilized the 10kg craft, which they carried for hours through the forest, to cross the Glina, just inside Croatia’s border.
However, the family was apprehended by Croatian authorities the following day before reaching the next big river, the Kupa, near Karlovac.
They had walked the 25 kilometers between the two rivers in three days.
According to Hamid, they were brought back to the Bosnian border in Croatian police cars and shoved back, returning to their single carpeted chamber.
The boat and pump were impounded by Croatian authorities, according to Hamid, causing a huge financial hardship for the family, who rely on money received from relatives in Iran.
For the time being, they are continuing working on their next “game.”
When asked if his sister is terrified of water, Hamid replied with a slight smile and “a bit.”
Nahida, who speaks limited English, understands the conversation and says in Farsi, shaking her head and her eyes wide, “Kheyli,” which means “extremely.”
Hamid adds that the boat Nahida, her husband, and their children traveled to Chios when the boys were toddlers took on water as it approached the beach.
Despite the fact that the boat did not capsize and the family was eventually saved, Nahida’s experience has lingered with her.
Yet, the family will risk their lives this time in Bosnia and Croatia by crossing rivers.
They believe there is no other realistic method for them to travel to Croatia, and that they have no future in Bosnia.
Furthermore, they know of previous families who have successfully traversed these rivers before them.
Nahida is able to swallow her fear and do what she believes needs to be done in front of her little sons.
On the lookout for an inflatable boat, Glatz Brubakk, a psychiatrist, notes that “if you’ve been seriously traumatized by water experiences, just being near water can trigger your past trauma, and if your trauma is deep enough, you won’t be able to cross the river [at all].”
“When they become our neighbors, refugees arriving in Europe [with significant trauma] will require additional assistance.”
Border policies are clearly awful from a human aspect,” she argues, citing congested refugee camps in Greece, where asylum seekers can languish for years waiting to be processed; violent pushbacks in the Balkans; and the infamous Libyan refugee detention centers, where torture, rape, and murder are commonplace.
“These border policies are also dumb from a purely economic standpoint.”
“We were causing injury and damage where we might have avoided it,” she says.
She says that the trauma will hinder refugees and migrants’ ability to become helpful and productive members of society once they have settled.
Salah*, an Iranian Kurd who, like the others interviewed for this piece, did not want to provide his real name, says he is not afraid of the sea.
Al Jazeera joined him on a mission to Velika Kladusa earlier this month to acquire two inflatable boats for two Kurdish families with children who are friends of his.
Salah claims that he does not require a boat.
The 24-year-old, who is proud of his years of MMA training, enjoys telling the story of how he ended up on Lesbos.
Salah became tired of waiting for the neighboring rescue boat to transport him, his older brother, and several dozen other asylum seekers from Turkey to Greece in 2019.
“My brother and I dove into the water and swam to the [rescue] boat.”
They thought we were insane when we came!
” he laughs as he recalls.
Salah has made it this far because to a combination of strength, youth, and cleverness.
He boasts that he was able to depart Lesbos earlier this year by soaking his asylum documentation in rubbing alcohol for many days in order to remove the coloured stamp preventing him from leaving the island.
His refugee application was still pending at the time, and he lacked the necessary documentation to travel freely within Greece.
Salah recognizes that families with young children are not as fortunate.
Salah only managed to buy one boat for one of the families despite visiting four local businesses throughout the course of the afternoon.
The other family will have to travel to Bihac to purchase theirs, which will take an hour by bus.
Salah also purchased a single oar, the last one the store had in stock, in addition to the boat.
He insists that having only one oar will not be a problem.
He claims that the family will find a solution, as they usually do.
*In order to protect people’s identity, names have been changed.