It was the middle of November, and a slightly balmy 20 degrees Celsius in Sarajevo. A long queue of people stretched outside the Istiqlal Džamija, awaiting one of two daily meals prepared by local Bosnian NGOs. I was back in Sarajevo documenting a new wave of visitors also in search of their ‘home’. An estimated 4,500- 6,000 migrants and refugees had entered Bosnia in October 2018, and most ended up finding themselves trapped in its capital city. After months spent on perilous journeys to Western Europe, they were now living rough on Sarajevo’s streets or in one of its many abandoned, war-ravaged buildings. Mohammed, aged 21 from Morocco, chatted to me as he ate:
“Sarajevo has been kind to us, at least no-one has beaten us here.”
Recently graduated with a degree in Sociology, Mohammed made the decision to leave his country after going for a job interview and being told he would need to pay a financial bribe to get a job (any job).
“I had tolerated Morocco for so long, the lack of democracy, the unemployment, the corruption, but then being asked to pay money just to get my first job? This was when I knew I had to leave.”
In the queue for food were a further 300 or so young men, and some families, who shared similar stories. Some were fleeing wars and persecution in Syria and Afghanistan, others from countries like Algeria and Pakistan fleeing corruption and poverty. Facing EU border controls and widespread reports of brutality by Croatian and Serbian border police, they had found Sarajevo to be their temporary home.
Rena, from Algeria, was living rough in the Dobrinja area of Sarajevo near the airport. Abandoned homes remain scattered across the area, and, like Nusret, Rena had made his home in one of these bombed-out shells. For four months, he had been sharing a room with four others, sleeping on filthy mattresses, all of their possessions in one or two plastic bags. There was no running water, no electricity, no heating, and there were no windows. When I asked Rena what his plan was, he replied:
“I don’t think I will ever make it out of this place. What am I doing living in these conditions in the middle of Bosnia? How did my journey in life end up here?”
Citing Sarajevo’s proud history of being a welcoming, humane and ethnically mixed city, Adnan Tatarević from Pomozi.ba, a Sarajevo-based NGO helping the migrants, says it is the city’s duty to respond and help. He recognises however that there is little support or will from the authorities to help the refugees.
“We are a transitional country, we are unable to look after our own people. It’s difficult but we are all good people and we are trying. We are often called the Jerusalem of Europe, so it’s normal to us here to have all these different people in our town. And we have experienced first-hand what many of these people have been through.”
For Rena and the other refugees and migrants, making any long- term future plans is a long shot. If they are really lucky, they might just make it out of Bosnia. But for all of those trapped in limbo in Sarajevo, the brutal winters of sub-zero temperatures mean that just staying alive can present a much more pressing concern. As thousands more refugees and migrants continue to arrive in Sarajevo, NGO workers are convinced that the cold winters will claim many lives, if more is not done to feed and house them.