A person pushed back every twenty minutes

Last week saw autumn rains sweep through Bosnia and Herzegovina, marking the season’s change. For most people, it means gradually escaping into their homes and into warmth; for the people-in-transit mired in northwestern Bosnia, a seasonal desperation sinks in. In spite of the brutal border regime of Croatia, Slovenia and their EU patrons, people keep moving in search of safety.

So too the local people of Bihać forge their way through this ongoing story. The northwestern city has kept a vigil now for over eighteen months, hearing the same cycle of empty promises around camps, facilities and change. Yet Bihać is bracing itself again for winter, and as before, people are forced to do things themselves.

Last week, a group of hikers, local residents and volunteers took to the hills around the city, following the ragged mountain paths bordering Croatia. They move, as they do almost every day, through the forest, cleaning the woodland floor by hand, and collecting the trail of rubbish left by people-on-the-move. Picking our way along SUV tracks and past stationed Bosnian border police, we follow them among the trees, listening to the shouts of woodcutters calling from the steep valley floors. With gardening gloves and bin bags, this is not a glamorous job. But what would one expect, sifting through the remnants of an illegal border practice?

Amid the canopy of pines, locals tell us how they pick wild mushrooms here in the autumn season, walking for hours on paths that no maps will reveal to you. Now together we pick trash from floor, sprouting up from the earth like grass. This is the flora of pushbacks, the human reminder of an ongoing story.

Tuna cans, chocolate bar wrappers, and the stray sock of a child all mark the pathway. People depart from Bosnia on a daily basis, regularly scaling these hills near Bihać. These are the first of many ascents before one can hope to secure due access to asylum. People-on-the-move know by now that Croatia and Slovenia are no place to claim asylum, and some too have experienced deportation from even further into EU territory.

In fact, this month, Croatia proudly announced it had “arrested and processed” 11,813 people who had attempted illegal entry into its territory, a number rising to 18,260 if you include the 6,447 who were returned from Slovenia into Croatia. These figures, which only cover the first eight months of the year, represent a startling reality. They point towards the scale of the pushback apparatus which, if these numbers can be taken seriously, mean a person is pushed back from Croatia every 20 minutes.

Perhaps it is even a conservative estimate to mark pushbacks at this frequency. By what can we measure the Croatian Ministry of Interior’s statements that these were indeed legally “processed” cases? The overwhelming majority of incidents recorded by the Border Violence Monitoring Network show little resemblance to procedural norms. Pushbacks themselves represent an unlawful and violent deviation from legislated standards. Many cases recorded reveal that the police did not even take the identity of the transit groups they were collectively expelling. More often than not, the police effort is directed towards the violent traumatisation of people, the burning of their possessions and cruel beatings, rather than adherence to the rule of law. This begs the question: how many more “unprocessed” cases can be added to this 18,260?

It is hard to tell how many people face pushbacks every day. Volunteers and activists can only capture a fraction of these cases in which vulnerable transit groups are pitted against the well-refined machine of violent refoulement. But out in the wooded hills of Bihać, the ground speaks of the volume of people swallowed by these violations.

The garbage from a last rushed meal becomes mixed in our bin bags with discarded water bottles, left with no hope of refilling. Bus tickets from Sarajevo lie among the ashes of a fire long gone out. Further up the hill, at the border, there is more scorched ground. Except, instead of a weary meal, these fires are for the burning of possessions, lit by the Croatian police who strip people of their clothes and shoes as they force them back into Bosnia.

We sift through the trash that remains: torn clothing, personal books and the meager food rations which were intended to sustain someone all the way to Italy. To destroy the few possessions a person-in-transit can carry in a backpack is both an arresting sight and an act of petty violence. At a hut further along the slope we meet some of the owners of these items, resting in a mountain refuge offered to them for free by the hikers. People poised to make their journey, or recovering from their last pushback, shelter in its porch and call hello to the locals. We encounter others, a family, walking up to the border with children in tow. It is steep and they make slow progress, passing the items of their predecessors strewn among the mossy rocks: nappies, sanitary pads, and empty cigarette boxes.

A child’s nappy found discarded on mountain paths of Bosnia and Herzegovina near the Croatian border.

Two young men pass us on their way down, walking back from the boundary with Croatia. “From Pakistan”, they reply as they sit with us, sharing a meal prepared by the walkers and their story. It is clear that these locals have not forgotten what it was like to be on the move. The woods stand now as a testament to the pushback regime, flowering with the many thousand artifacts of people affected by its brutality. But the woods also stand as an ongoing reminder of previous struggles. With us on the walk, one man from Bihać shares how he found a UN can of food in one such cleaning trip and jokes that it might have been his. There’s a consciousness that it is not the first time these hills have received people in flight.

Yet they go on picking flowers, the flowers of pushbacks; mixed among the remnants of past conflict and symbolic of the 18,260 people “returned” to Bosnia this year. The only question that remains is, how long will these flowers continue to grow?