For most migrants, Bosnia is but a pit stop on their way to western Europe. Many live in squats in the northwestern town of Bihac, preparing to cross the border to Croatia irregularly. Whenever the squats are cleared by police, the migrants are brought back to the overcrowded Lipa camp – further away from the border.
At the end of the deserted road that leads to the now-defunct Krajina Metal factory on the outskirts of Bihac, dogs can be heard barking. This is their home, and they share it with hundreds of migrants who have taken up refuge in the skeleton that remains of the former factory.
The ground is covered with mud and garbage. The windows that used to dress the former factory complex have been replaced with gaping holes, and in many places, the roof has caved in.
In the least damaged part of the factory, hundreds of migrants have set up a squat. While the larger space serves as a place to gather around the fire, the smaller spaces are used as dormitories. Twenty-six-year-old Abdullah from Afghanistan shares a small dark room with nine other people. He has fragile lungs – he has undergone a total of three surgeries in his life – and the smoke and the humidity of the squat is damaging to his health, he says.
The four windows of Abdullah's room have been covered up with tarp, and a dirty carpet and old clothes cover the floor to preserve as much heat as possible. In the back of the room, a tent has been set up to provide some of the migrants extra protection from the cold at night. "Life here is hell," says Abdullah, who arrived in Bosnia six months ago. His roommate, Gholestan, agrees. "We live like animals."
'Started walking as soon as we got off the bus'
But despite the harsh living conditions, both of them much prefer the squat to the Lipa migrant camp which is located some 30 kilometers northeast of Bihac. When police evacuated the squat and brought them back to the Lipa camp two weeks ago, neither of them hesitated to return to Bihac. "We started walking as soon as we got off the bus," Abdullah recounts.
For most of the 8,000 migrants currently living in Bosnia, the poor Balkan country is but a pit-stop on their way to Europe. Many of them therefore want to stay as close to the Croatian border as possible in a bid to eventually make the illegal crossing into Croatia, an activity dubbed the "game".
Living in the Lipa camp, which has been set up on a windy plain on the top of a hill overlooking the Bihac valley, just means they are further away from making the crossing.
On March 17, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated 935 migrants to live in the Bosnian-run camp. But according to the NGO No Name Kitchen, that number changes all the time. What remains constant, however, is the migrants' back-and-forths between Bihac and the camp.
Groups of migrants, wrapped in blankets or towels, can be seen walking along the winding road from Lipa to Bihac. By foot, that journey takes nearly five hours. The migrants are either on their way to Bihac to have a go at the game, or are returning to Lipa after a failed attempt.
New center in June
After a recent snowfall, the large white Red Cross tents that have been set up at the entrance of the Lipa camp are almost hard to distinguish from its white surroundings. A police van has been parked outside the camp to keep journalists from entering. Journalists need a permit from the foreign ministry to enter, but they are rarely granted access.
On December 23, shortly after the government announced that the Lipa camp would be closed down, the camp burned down, leaving hundreds of migrants living in the charred remains of Lipa for weeks on end. Although both IOM and the European Union demanded another camp be built, discussions with Bosnian authorities came to a deadlock, leaving the migrants with nowhere to go.
The government has now given to go-ahead for a permanent centre to be built on the remains of the Lipa camp. "Construction is expected to start in early April and we hope it will open in early June," Laura Lungarotti, head of the IOMs Bosnia mission, tells InfoMigrants.
'Days without heating'
The current living conditions in the camp are less than substandard, with no access to either running water or electricity.
In January, the Bosnian army set up a number of tents that could be heated by a generator. But the generator often runs out of gas. "Sometimes we go several day without heating," 24-year-old Bagram from Afghanistan explains. He has lived in the Lipa camp for eight months now.
He currently lives in a tent crammed up with 30 other people. But despite their best efforts to make everyone fit in, some migrants are left without a roof over their heads. Bagram says he has just met some migrants who will instead spend the night in a nearby mosque.
Bagram says the lack of food and running water is what he finds the most difficult in the camp. "We don't get enough drinking water, we have to drink dirty water which makes us all sick," he says. His brown eyes are hardly visible in between his face mask and the hood that he has pulled over his head.
Moments later, two men – wrapped in white and pink blankets – leave the camp. Wajid and his childhood friend were recently brought back to Bosnia by Croatian police after six days of walking. After spending just one night in the Lipa camp, they are now heading to Bihac again, where they will seek refuge in the same squat they stayed when attempting the game last time. "In 15 days, if the weather is better, we will try to cross again," Wajid says.
As they walk along the road, their silhouettes slowly disappear into the distance. In about five hours they will reach Bihac.
By Julia Dumont, reporting for InfoMigrants from Bihac