Balkan route on K Magazine
(Italian version with pictures, here. Slideshow above)
Bihac, southern Bosnia, at the foot of the mountains on which the border with Croatia is drawn.
It is winter, but it is a beautiful day.
Camped along the river, a group of men, with backpacks and heavy shoes, take a rest.
One washes in the river, one fixes his backpack, while another eats something.
Seeing them feels like watching a scene from a movie set during World War II. A platoon of soldiers.
They could be Italians returning from prison, or Americans on reconnaissance mission in Normandy.
But no, they are Pakistani. And it's 2020, not 1944.
Mr. Chocolate is almost thirty years old, but he looks older. His two thick hands could be considered an illegal weapon.
Are you a boxer, I ask him? He smiles. "Yes."
I talk a little with everyone.
Mohammed is the eldest of the group. Around forty.
He explains to me that there have been two seasons of drought in his neck of the woods. He was a farmer and had accumulated $ 80,000 in debt. That's why he left. He has a contact in Brescia. A friend who will find him a job.
The others are all young. Between 18 and 25, it seems.
Suddenly three men get up, put their rucksacks on their backs. They greet the others, hugging them, and leave.
"We go game now. We go Croatia."
They are the explorers. They are leading the rest of the group. They go out and survey the route. They try to find out if the police will be checking today, if there are dogs, and If the road is clear, they'll phone the rest of the group to give them directions.
Hopefully they will meet again on top of the mountain, near an abandoned building, and in the middle of the night they will try to cross the border.
I leave with them. They walk fast. They seem to know the way, but it's only a result of the experience they've accumulated so far. They cut corners, take shortcuts that I don't even see. I struggle to keep up with them.
This is the game, what migrants traveling along the "Balkan Route" call their attempts to covertly cross the borders between the states they come across on their way to Western Europe.
From 2019 to today, I have visited a few places along this route. If you are willing to go all the way, I'll try to tell you who the people I met are, what drives them to set out, how they survive and how they manage make this journey.
Lesbos island, Greece. Not far from the city of Mytilene. One winter evening.
At the time of my visit Moria was about to explode. Shortly thereafter it didn't actually explode, but it caught fire, and today it no longer exists.
At that time it was one of the largest informal camps, where up to 30,000 people were crammed in.
It was originally a detention center, built to house around 3,000.
Converted into a reception center, a jungle was born around the containment camp, a settlement of tents and shacks built by those who could not be admitted to the actual camp.
By staying there, people still had access to basic services. Electricity, drinking water and food distribution, from the actual field.
People have stopped here because once they have set foot in Europe, the Dublin 2 treaty for the management of migratory flows requires that any requests for political asylum or requests for humanitarian protection must be presented in the country of first entry.
Since 2015, with the escalating civil war in Syria, and then in 2019 with the gradual recapture of Afghanistan by the Taliban, tens of thousands of people have shown up in Moria.
The system has become flooded, the waiting time to be interviewed by UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has become very long. Ten months even.
In the meantime, people have had to make do as best they could.
Staying ten months in a tent waiting for an answer is a torture I wouldn't wish on anyone. Ten months under scorching heat in the summer and cold rains in the winter.
Those having to endure this are people who for some reason had to give up everything. Who have probably lost everything. Who have great uncertainty about what the future holds for them.
Walking through Moria I have met many children. There are many families. From what I can see they make up half of the people there.
There were also numerous groups of young people. Small bands of friends, who left all together from the same village.
In the upper part of the camp live the Afghans, almost all Hazara.
A few months earlier Ghazni, the Afghan city center of this ethnic group, came under the control of the Taliban. Immediately a migratory flow began from that area to the west. And here they are.
To simply explain: the Taliban are of Pashtun ethnicity and Sunni religion, the Hazaras are Shiites and, whatever their origin, have Mongolian traits and are said to be the oldest inhabitants of Afghanistan. The Pashtuns have always persecuted them, and once again they have not missed the opportunity.
Seen on a mild day, with some sunshine, Moria seemed almost beautiful, a mountain village, perhaps Tibet or Nepal.
Along the steep streets the Hazara men are at work.
They disassemble the pallets for wood. They build barracks. They dig holes where they lower traditional terracotta ovens into.
A rudimentary bakery is created around each oven. The men go to Mytilene to buy flour, the women make bread the Afghan way, sticking it vertically to the walls of the oven with a firm slap.
They offer me one of those buns, and I taste it. It's good. Warm bread. I don't think too much about how it was cooked by burning wood from a pallet, soaked in chemicals. But I think about the fact that they live off this polluted bread, and feed it to their children.
The Syrians are camped further down. Scattered around the camp you occasionally come across Somalis, who arrived in Turkey by plane and then mixed with the flow from the east.
Night falls, and my colleague and friend Alessandro and I drive off in our rented car.
Just outside the field, we almost run over a boy, lying on the street, unconscious.
We help him. He is alive. He had passed out.
We give him some water, and tried to figure out what happened to him. When he comes to his senses, he tells us about it.
He's in pieces. And he let himself go. He is a young Hazara man. He says he's 17, but he's confused. Shortly after he says he is 16, then 15. He probably remembered how it is convenient for him to say he is a minor, and then he exaggerates. Perhaps, like many Afghans, he doesn't even know exactly how old he is.
"I don't want this life anymore".
"Why has fate reserved only pain for me? Why did I have to work in the stone quarries in Iran at the age of 13? Why can't I go to school? I can't take it anymore. I don't want this life. It is better to die. What should I do? Do I have to die for them to notice me?"
The authorities did not believe he was a minor and so, he has to wait months before getting an answer to his asylum application.
Many like him can't wait that long. Nerves fail.
Doctors Without Borders, the only NGO offering medical services present in the camp at the time of my visit, provides data and information that would make you shudder. Self-harm. Minors trying to kill themselves. And some of them succeeding.
Whoever has the strength to wait, waits. Some give up and break, like him.
Still others decide to try their luck. To move forward, illegally, towards Western Europe.
From Lesbos, there are several ways to do this. One of these passes through Patras.
It's early summer when I get there, and it's already very hot.
From the port the ships set sail for Italy, to Brindisi and Ancona.
The game here is to be able to jump under a truck without getting caught by police controls, sniffer dogs and the thermal scanner. Almost impossible.
Right in front of the harbor, in the abandoned factories, where a few hundred kids live.
They spend the whole day on the side of the road, peering among the trucks that enter the port, for the right one, which will let you to jump on board without being noticed.
They look like a normal group of guys, hanging out at the wall chatting and killing time, but in reality they're always ready to go. On the fly. At any moment.
The outfit to overcome this challenge in the game is: black trousers and shirt (if they weren't black at the start they quickly become black, gloves of some kind to protect your hands, a bottle of water tied over the shoulder, under the sweatshirt. In a pocket, a plastic bag with papers, documents, some worn sheets of paper, to prove identity, origin and reason for the asylum request.
Nothing else. Any baggage would be too much, it would restrict the movements.
When the truck arrives, they are ready to go. Five or six boys take off running, dashing through the three-lane fast road trying not to get overwhelmed, without losing momentum they climb over the three-meter high Plexiglas barrier that borders the port.
Once inside the boys scatter and try to hide in or under the truck.
The Greek police, on motorcycles try to locate them, even the truck drivers, but the kids always outnumber the cops and so someone occasionally makes it.
Once you have managed to get into the trailer, the next step of the game is to pass the check point.
Almost all trucks are opened and inspected, on sight and with dogs. Some are scanned.
Getting through the check points is almost impossible. I think less than one in a hundred make it this way.
This is the free method. The alternative is to pay, and get put in the hold of a truck where the driver makes a deal with the smugglers.
Late afternoon. By now the boarding operations are over, and it is useless to wait any longer.
A Greek farmer passes in front of the factory with a rickety pick-up truck. He stops. The boys come up and buy some watermelons.
Back in the factory courtyard through a narrow passageway between two bent bars of the railing, first they play soccer. They are kids, and after all day spent running after trucks they still have strength and desire to play. After the game, some watermelon, and then home. That is, in the abandoned shed.
There is a modicum of management in this factory. When I enter, a man in his forties is preparing dinner in a large pot.
Shortly afterwards, the boys ate in small groups on the ground in the courtyard. Rice and cooked vegetables. Some cucumbers. A bit of bread. The water comes from a well that is there in the courtyard.
For the chance to sleep in these abandoned factories, the boys pay five hundred euros. To whom? To an organization made up of a mixture of the local underworld and smugglers.
With five hundred euros you are guaranteed a place to sleep in the factory and a chance to try to jump under a truck yourself. If you don't pay, things will end badly. The guys are afraid to talk about it, they merely hint at it. And there are parts of the factory where they won't let me go. I imagine the worst. The bodies of those who didn't pay are buried there perhaps? They are so scared that Ali, one of them, first gives me an appointment for an interview, but then thinks about it: "I'm in Athens, sorry" he writes. "They told me I absolutely shouldn't talk to you, I was scared and left."
Feirouz is also from Afghanistan. He struggles to speak English. His face and head marked by a few small scars. His nose a little flattened. Broken in the past. "Maidan Wardak is Taliban. Is trouble." And then he continues, "I don't know how old I am. I was orphaned as a child. My parents were killed. I was a few months old. My uncles raised me. Now I have no one in the world. No one. I have never had a happy day in my life. Never. Not one. Why?"
He remains silent for a while, then continues: "This is the second time I have traveled from Afghanistan to Europe. I arrived in England 5 years ago and stayed there for a while. Then, as soon as I came of age, they sent me back to Afghanistan. If they'd let me stay there maybe I could have studied. I would speak better English now. Maybe I could have become a lawyer, or a doctor. But now what will my life be like? My time has passed now".
Feirouz's difficult story hits me hard. The misfortune, the complete lack of opportunities, the hard journey, the disappointment of repatriation, the simplicity of his dreams: "I could have been a doctor or a lawyer...".
We say goodbye at night, while he goes to sleep in a large room, with other boys, between two blankets and some cardboard. In the next room other boys are praying. Others talk, sitting on the windowsill.
In front of them the ships, finished loading the trucks, leave for Italy, sounding their sirens.
I keep in touch with Feirouz.
Too difficult or too expensive for him to get on a ferry. So he chose the other way. The Balkan way. Through Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Italy. He writes to me for the last time from Serbia.
Then he disappears, stops responding.
A meadow on the edge of the town of Velika Kladusa on an autumn evening.
Three black-haired guys with some stubble and Asian features are sitting around the fire.
One makes tea in a large jar used as a pot. Another looks at a map on his mobile, using an application that shows not only the roads but also the paths, between woods and mountains.
One stands up. He does not speak, his gaze fixed on the flames.
The light plastic cover of the tent, black plastic, like a garbage bag, of the sturdy kind used for rubble, flaps in the wind and comes dangerously close to the flames. It seems impossible to me that it doesn't catch fire. But they are calm. "No" they tell me "it doesn't burn."
I sit with them for a while. They offer me tea and I reciprocate with some tobacco.
The itinerary of the trip is the same for everyone: Afghanistan-Iran, Iran-Turkey, Turkey-Greece, Macedonia, Serbia. Now Bosnia.
They mechanically list the crossing of borders, as if they were talking about the stopovers of a plane, the stops of a train, but in reality each crossing is followed by a stop of a few months, maybe even a year. Time to get back on your feet, scrape enough money together to tackle the next stretch, working, or waiting for someone to send the money from home. And the journey from Afghanistan to Europe, in the end, can take two or three years.
The Bosnia-Croatia border is one of the last obstacles, and one of the most difficult to overcome, due to the efficient controls of the Croatian police and the violence with which it pushes back migrants.
Entering Croatia without getting caught is the real challenge.
The boy sitting on my left, Ibrahim, the one who was checking maps on his cell phone, is sitting in a stroller. The camp is full of children. Most of the groups are in fact families. Young Hazara families.
All three of the boys sitting around the fire with me are Hazara.
Ibrahim often laughs as he tells me his story. He looks for the comedic side of things, to lighten them up. But then he pulls himself together, as if he sees or remembers something, and then he stops laughing.
His journey was fast enough. Until a few months ago he was still in Afghanistan. He had a job, and a cool job too.
He shows me photos on his cell phone, in one he is with Michel Platinì, soccer star in the 80s and then president of UEFA. “Really?!?”, I ask myself. Then other photos: him in Belgium, in a soccer field, him playing football, training kids.
"In Afghanistan, 5-a-side soccer is very popular at the competitive level, the national team is among the strongest in the world. And I used to work for the Federation. I'm a coach" And he tells about tournaments, travels, trips, retracing the last years of his life.
"Then the Taliban came back." He continues. "The president of the Federation, my boss, immediately sided with them, and to make himself look good he sent me away. He did it because I am Hazara, Shia. And he's Pashtun, Sunni. But that's not enough. After firing me he also sent someone to threaten me. To scare me. And make me leave. I managed to escape only by a whisker. If not, they would have killed me. He even had me chased when I was in Iran."
We talk about the fall of Kabul in August. I ask him why he thinks Karzai's and Ghani's governments failed to hold the country together, and fell apart in an instant. "They should have made us choose the President, not impose it. We would have chosen an ethnic Uzbek. Only an Uzbek would have been able to unite the country. Karzai and Ghani are Pashtuns, like the Taliban."
I ask him about Massoud's son, if he thinks he has any chance. He tells me "No. Panshir is too small a region. Isolated. It has no hope."
Where do you want to go now? I ask.
"Anywhere. Wherever there is security."
I leave them and go to another small group, also gathered around a fire.
The Asian features on their faces are even more pronounced. Hazara too. They greet me, smiling, but without meeting my eyes. Even their mannerisms are oriental.
They are a family, but without parents. The eldest brother, Haji, is 23 years old and he has two sisters aged 13 and 15 and a brother aged 17. They also have a cousin with them. The latter, after Haji has answered my questions, plucks up the courage and asks me if I can film him, because he wants to say something.
A monologue follows, which I didn't understand at the time, but whose intensity is impossible not to feel. The flow of words is interrupted only when the boy bows his head, covers his eyes and bursts into tears.
As he speaks, the two girls also cry softly. Their faces covered by their hands.
Just think, Haji then tells me, “hundreds of years ago we welcomed Pashtuns as refugees in Afghanistan. They came from Pakistan. And look now, we are forced to flee.”
I went back to the camp the next morning.
As I had noticed the night before, it is full of children. Even very small.
One is sitting under a tent in front of a material collection point.
Bags, sleeping bags, clothing. Then I understand that these are the things left behind by those who left for the border today. We set off light, carrying only the essentials, so we can move quickly and not get tired in the march. The stuff left behind will be used by someone else.
I leave the camp thinking that as soon as it rains and it gets really cold, it will be a disaster here with all these children.
January. It's freezing cold.
With faces like those of the Second World War, Bosnians pass by pedaling on old and heavy bicycles on the provincial road which is dirty with black snow melted by passing cars and trucks. It feels like the past, and perhaps in fact we are still experiencing a post-war period. It is Bosnia today. The wounded heart of the Balkans.
Bihac is a small border town. Beyond the mountains, low, round, not much for us accustomed to the Alps, there is Croatia.
With the cold wind that comes from the east, the large number of wild animals that live there, the minefields that have been there since the 90s, can still be a death trap for those who try to cross them. Maybe on foot. Maybe at night. Hunted. Dress as best you can.
You can easily recognize the Migrants in the city.
All dressed in black. Usually in small groups. You see them turn the corner quickly and then disappear into a courtyard.
It's usually an abandoned factory. Also here.
It's early morning. A boy is washing outside, engulfed in steam. Next to him a pot of water heated over the fire. Another sits on his heels, shaving, looking at himself in a small mirror. The room I enter is almost welcoming. There is a stove. On the black soot covered walls is some writing.
Afghan boys. Huge, on the dirty glass, someone wrote: MISS YOU MOM.
A man, a European, is treating a boy's wounds.
Dirk is a German. He worked as a photographer during the Bosnian war and was traumatized.
He must have seen some terrible things, and he probably never recovered. Until one day, Zlatan, a resident of Bihac, tracked him down because of some photos Dirk had taken of his father during the war.
After making contact, he was invited, and so Dirk arrived in Bosnia. And he has never left.
After seeing the living conditions of the migrants he decided to stop and work as a volunteer. In spite of visas and residence permits, he stopped in Bihac and brought medical aid to those who have been injured during the Game.
This is a constant. I note this fact several times. In Bosnia, the people most willing to help children on the road are those who were most affected by the war in the nineties.
Zlatan, for example, has an artificial leg. He was twelve when he was hit by a Serbian artillery shell while playing in front of the house. Ado, another Bosnian, journalist, also an activist, who does his best to ensure that the tragedies that take place in the forests of Bosnia are talked about, has a badly damaged hand, walks with difficulty and has scars on his face.
When I meet Dirk, he's bandaging a guy's feet. An Afghan.
Not all the people I meet in Bosnia are Afghans. Many are Pakistani, many come from Bangladesh. But almost half are Afghans.
The Croatian police are one of the toughest obstacles in the Game.
Europe entrusts Croatia with the dirty work: Rejecting people. In the almost total silence of the Western media, every day dozens of people from Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, people with every right to be welcomed and to receive political asylum, are brutally rejected, without asking too many questions.
How brutally they are rejected is shown by the wounds of the boy Dirk is treating right now. The photos sent by Ado, the journalist, tell me this. Photos that, as a precaution, he sends me with Signal or Telegram, never with Whatsapp, and then deletes immediately.
Photos that cannot be published here. Photo of split heads. Corpses lying in streams, torn to pieces by forest animals. The Horror.
Lipa is the immigration camp set up by IOM, the United Nations agency for migrants. The one that organizes voluntary returns. If you leave but can't take it anymore and you want to go back, they will organize your return.
However, the camp is now managed by the Bosnian government.
It is located about thirty kilometers from Bihac, in a cold and windy place.
A river passes through the camp and I saw the boys washing themselves in the snow.
The first day it was sunny. I was keeping my distance somewhat because I still didn't have permission to enter the camp.
I see a small group of four or five boys arriving loaded with sacks of flour and other provisions. They are different from all the others. Energetic, colorful, one even smiles at me, which is rare. We talk and I discover that they are coming from Nepal. Incredible. I had never seen anyone coming from there before. Everything becomes clear. They are different from others, they feel comfortable in the mountains. And today there is also a bit of sunshine.
"Okay" I tell myself, "come on, Lipa doesn't seem so bad to me."
I barely had time to think about it before I got roughly thrown out by two big fat private guards.
I went back the following day, finally with the authorization, and the impression I got was different.
The sky is gloomy. It is real cold now. The field has turned to mud, the tents are too full.
Soldiers are unloading diesel stoves and setting them up in front of each tent. It's February, and so, I think, there was no heating up until now. In Bosnia, it was already snowing at the end of November.
As I walk away, shaken by what I saw, a boy stops me and says: "Don't believe anything they tell you. It's hell. There is no water, there is nothing. Lipa is hell. . "
In fact, everyone escapes from Lipa. They prefer the abandoned factories of Bihac to the camp. Dangerous, freezing, with a broken asbestos covered roof (only I realized this), but still close to the city, to the supermarket, to the newsstands that sell telephone cards. And on the border. From there, you can try to leave.
They appear on the main road from a path. There are two of them. Very tired. Thin. Two prisoners of war. Runaways. And in a way they are.
I tell them to wait for me for a moment. They sit down, in a spot out of sight, sheltered by a small wall. I come back a little later with some water, bread and something else that I can't remember. They eat. They drink. They offer me some. And they tell me.
They've been walking for days.
"Are you sure?" question one. "We are in Italy?".
A short distance, but yes, we are in Italy. The border is barely a kilometer behind them.
Just the time to regain strength and then they get back on the road.
I meet them in the evening, in the square in front of the station.
Lorena Fornasir, together with the other volunteers of Linea d'Ombra Onlus, is taking care of them.
Feet first. It’s shocking how burned, wounded, and swollen they are, with furrows like lines in a orographic map.
Trieste is the end of the nightmare, the first place where they are welcomed with a little humanity.
"In Trieste we rest for a while, get our strength back," one guy tells me, "but Italy is not our destination." Almost everyone wants to go to France, Germany, England, The Netherlands, Sweden.
I stay in touch with many of the people I've met and interviewed on these trips. On Facebook and Instagram mostly.
I see other people in their profile pictures than the ones I met. In some I see family photos, clean faces, mothers, holidays, with shirts. In other photos, guerrillas, Afghan partisans. Soldiers, killed fighting the Taliban. Memes made of flags and singing poems of an Afghanistan that will one day be what it once was.
In others, I see what they would like to be. Simple dreams. Fashionable clothes. Instagram filters to enhance their faces, but also that make them unrecognizable to those who were looking for them. Fancy names.
On their profiles they post videos that tell the game. Pictures taken with the mobile phone during the trip. At times it could be the film of a group of boy scouts during a big summer trek, fording rivers and overcoming mountains. At times, however, tragic images appear, of friends who died along the way, accompanied by Eastern sounding music. With those slightly lamenting voices, a bit Neomelodic, with rhythmic and repetitive guitars. Very different from our taste and our imagination, the video, however, is a more truthful documentary than any reportage that we Westerners could produce, staying on the game's route for years and traveling it all from Kandahar to Paris.
Facebook confirms what they told me in the interviews. After a few months, no one is in Italy anymore. Almost everyone has somehow made it.
In Ventimiglia I met Monir, an Afghan of Tajik ethnicity, tall, with long straight black hair like a Native American. I had met him in Patras a few months earlier.
He was thinner now, and scared. Two passeurs had defrauded him by stealing 300 euros from him with the promise to take him to France.
A few days later, however, I saw a photo of him on Instagram. He had the Eiffel Tower behind him. And a proud expression on his face.
Ali, from Patras had also arrived in Paris and then later in the north of France, in what looks to me like Reims.
Feirouz, the boy who was left alone in the world, also made it.
From Serbia, he managed to get to southern England.
I was relieved to see it. I was afraid for him. Alone, with no one to help him, I was afraid he wouldn't make it.
In the photo, he was wearing a new pair of sneakers, which he complained about in Patras. "Look at my shoes! They are broken. How can I run?"
But above all, in the photo he was smiling. Maybe his first happy day. Something he told me he had never had in his life.