It’s been a month since Croatia’s World Cup fairy tale ended in defeat to France. The national team returned home as heroes to a nation united in pride. It was a success story of a team up against the odds who overcame childhood adversity to perform on the world stage. They did their country proud and will be celebrated around the world for years to come.
But take a closer look behind the sporting success and there’s another story to be told. Far from the picturesque fairy tale set in Croatia’s beautiful hilltops and captured in the postcards which are sent home from the tourist hotspots of Dubrovnik and Split, the stuff of nightmares is happening and it’s going largely unreported.
Croatia and many of its Balkan neighbours are in the grip of a crisis for migrants and refugees, as allegations of beatings, torture, sexual abuse and this week news of migrant deaths emerge. Recently, two 12-year-olds were wounded after Croatian police opened fire on a van carrying migrants.
According to NGOs working in the area, stories of migrants beaten then chased back over the border by dogs, and robbed of what little money they had by Croatian police are common. Many of those seeking shelter have travelled through neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina from as far as Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Afghanistan only to be met by such callousness.
But the real sticking point is that, only twenty years ago, the same Croatian people accused of such brutality themselves suffered as refugees in similar circumstances as the Balkan wars raged, displacing tens of thousands of families.
Across the Croatian border, a mere 20 miles into Bosnia, lies the city of Bihac. It’s a place I know well and visited often as a child. I’ve returned too as an adult, in a strange half-native-half-tourist capacity.
It is in Bihac, a city crippled by poverty, that something extraordinary is happening. Admittedly I am biased but just as Croatians are bursting with pride for Luka Modrić and his team, I am equally proud of the team spirit and human response from everyday Bosnians in this city to what seems the very worst of humanity.
Everyday Bosnians like Enisa, a widow who makes ends meet reliant on her husband’s pension and help from family living abroad. Enisa (who in the name of full disclosure also happens to be my aunt) doesn’t have much. She lost her home in nearby Stari Majdan in the 90s. She has no job, no healthcare and there is no state-aid. But what she does have she shares, repeatedly opening the doors of her small flat to those in need of a bed and sanitation, despite caution from family members about her own safety. In her own words, she ‘recognises the fear on their faces in a way that other Europeans – the lucky ones – who have not experienced conflict and displacement, cannot fathom.’
Likewise, Asim Latić in neighbouring Velika Kladuša, has opened his restaurant to feed those in need. He started with one meal for one man with whatever he could rustle up in his kitchen - he will soon serve his 70,000th dish. If that doesn’t give you hope for the future of mankind, I don’t know what will.
And it’s not only members of the public. The mayor of Bihac, Šuhret Fazlić, is using what little resources the town has to house some of the migrants, so much so that word is spreading. It started with 70 people living in a half-finished concrete building, to more than 1,000 people being housed in the town. Fazlić says the local people can empathise, considering their own experiences two decades ago during the war.
That’s not to say that there aren’t those in Bosnia who oppose the influx of migrants. There are many. Discontent, particularly among young people, is growing and it’s easy to see why. Unlike its wealthier neighbour Croatia, Bosnia has failed to recover economically in the last two decades. There is little infrastructure, healthcare is scarce and opportunities for the young even more so.
This perhaps, then, is the reason that even the migrants want to leave and are heading to the Croatian border, despite the risks. Governmental authorities in Bosnia say that up to 40 per cent of the migrants entering the country have remained, the rest have used it as a mere stop gap, despite a Bosnian government pledge to accommodate all who apply for asylum.
It seems that despite the noble efforts of people like Enisa, Asim and Šuhret, they are not a substitute for effective and joint state action.
Meanwhile, for the migrants and refugees, the nightmare continues. It’s reported that over 100,000 migrants are on the move toward Bosnia and plan to cross into Croatia.
The national football team proved this summer that Croatia can achieve mighty things with team spirit. It now needs to apply this to its approach to the migrant crisis and work with its neighbours to help them, instead of chasing them away with dogs.
I may be biased, but Bosnia would be a great place to start.
Sabina Kadic-Mackenzie is an associate partner at Charlotte Street Partners