Police on my back
Violence on the border
Photographs Juliane Thiere
Text Pierpaolo Mittica

The Violence of the Croatian Police

Eight thousand migrants are currently being held up at the border between Bosnia and Croatia, a strip of Bosnian territory which runs from Bihac to Velika Kladusa. Approximately half of them live in refugee camps of which there are very few  and another 4000 migrants have been forced to camp in run-down buildings such as old houses and disused factories, with no water or heating in the freezing Bosnian winter. One example is an old abandoned factory on the outskirts of Bihac, Krajina Metal, an enormous ironworks complex closed at the end of the war and now for the most part falling to bits. Some 50 refugees live and survive here. Most of them are fleeing from war zones, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and are trying to reach Europe in an attempt to build a new future for themselves. However, crossing the border here in what they call “the Game,” is tough, and not only due to the freezing climatic conditions.

A migrant inside the abandoned factory Krajina Metal, Bihac, Bosnia

Crossing the border is not simple. The area is surrounded by snow-covered mountains and camps riddled with landmines, the deadly hidden residue of a Balkan war now forgotten. And the journey to Italy, across Croatia and Slovenia, lasts between 10 to 15 days on foot, often with no food or water. Yet in the end, paradoxically, the major difficulty is another one: getting past the Croatian police and surviving capture.

A warning sign indicates the presence of landmines near where migrants pass on the border between Bosnia and Croatia.

Anas, Ali, Raz and many other refugees have been confined to the old Krajina Metal metalworks factory for over two months. The cold here makes their bones numb, so they warm themselves using the wood from the factory’s collapsed roof. They have attempted “the Game” several times, but have always been caught and sent back by the Croatian police. Being turned back however  which is illegal, as Croatia should give migrants the possibility of asking for asylum  is the lesser evil. Migrants are also forced to endure frequent beatings and abuse which the Croatian police have systematically been perpetrating on them for over two years. Between 2017 and 2019 NGOs such as “Border Violence Monitoring Network”, “Human Right Watch”, “No Name Kitchen” and ”Amnesty International” received over 6,200 reports all documented and detailed of abuse on the part of Croatian police against migrants.

 

The abuse does not just consist in turning the migrants back; the Croatian police’s systematic response is an ongoing crime bordering on the limits of torture. Once the migrants have been caught the police regularly make them undress, humiliate them psychologically, steal what few possessions they have money, mobile phones  and beat them violently using a baton and kicking them and punching them. After such abuses the migrants are sent naked into the snow or thrown into the freezing waters of the Korana River separating Bosnia from Croatia, no matter what age or sex they are. Indeed, women and minors have also been through this inferno. Many of them have been permanently maimed or crippled and some have even died due to the beatings.

Ali Muhammad, 16 years old, showing his arm broken by the Croatian police, Bihac, Bosnia

“When they caught us on highway 71 they arrested us and beat us violently, then locked us up in a small room,“ recounts Raz Mohmmad, sitting in the freezing and desolate Krajina Metal factory. “It was very cold, they kept us there for one night. To this day the cold still makes my legs hurt. When they took us near to the border they asked us to get out of the car one by one and they asked how many of us were Muslims and how many Christians. We told them we were Muslims and they didn’t care whether we were adults or minors. They beat us because we are Muslims. They beat me on the legs with a stick and even now if I stand or sit my knees hurt. Raz Mohmmad is from Afghanistan. He fled the war two years ago when he was just 14. It is obvious from his appearance he is a minor, but not for the Croatian police, who turned him back. Things were worse for Ali Muhammad, who is also a minor (16 years):

19-year-old Anas Poyan from Afghanistan lives in one of the abandoned houses near the Croatian border that serves as a refuge for migrants before they leave for “the Game.”

“The second time I tried, the Croatian police caught me in the town of Delic and they took me to Delic police station. They wrote my name and they asked me my age and I told them my real age. But on their documents they didn’t write my real age, they increased it. On the documents they wrote aged 18 and they sent me back. During deportation they called us one at a time and they beat us. When they called me there were six police officers waiting for me on the street, all holding a baton, and they beat me so hard they broke my arm. To this day I still can’t stretch my arm out.”

Migrants cooking lunch inside the abandoned factory Krajina Metal, Bihac, Bosnia

Their stories are all the same, one after the other. All the refugees we met and interviewed tell the same stories of violence and inhumanity, cruelty and brutality. The Bosnian-Croatian border is not a simple frontier, or a “Game” as it is defined, it is utter defeat. Only a few are successful in reaching Italy.

On January 27, 2020 at the European Parliament’s commission for civil liberties, justice and home affairs, a number of European members of parliament including Clare Daly, Dietmar Koster, Cornelia Ernst and Malin Bjork showed the Croatian Minister of the Interior Davor Bozinovic irrefutable proof, through photos, dates, places and names, of the crimes regularly carried out by the police on migrants. They asked for an explanation and above all requested that the Croatian government which currently heads the Presidency of the European Union and should therefore be giving a good example  to stop this conduct that is on par with torture. The Minister’s awkward and confused answer in the end was a refusal of the accusations and denial of the facts and proof. The Croatian government, in 2019 alone, received 7 million Euros from Europe to patrol its borders. Of these, 300,000 Euros were to be used to set up an independent commission to investigate cases of abuse on the part of the police, a commission which Croatia never established.