Since 2019, around a dozen migrants have been buried in the Humci cemetery in Bihac, but almost none of the graves are marked with names. Although authorities haven’t always been able to establish their identities, they have always determined their cause of death: None of them died "of natural causes."
The inscriptions on the tombstones at the Humci cemetery in Bihac show that the majority of the people buried there were born in the region. But at the bottom of the cemetery, a white headstone tells a different story. "Abdulhamed Noori, born in Herat, Afghanistan."
Next to it, several green headstones are marked with "NN Lice," which means "unidentified person" in Bosnian. On some of the headstones, the person’s place of death has been added. The bodies of "NN Lice 1," "NN Lice 2" and "NN Lice 3" – probably discovered at the same time – have been buried next to each other. Just in front of their graves a tiny headstone has been inscribed with only the year "2020", and the name "Noman". The grave belongs to a child who died before his or her first birthday.
None of the migrants resting in these graves, just 20 kilometers from the Croatian border, were older than 40 when they died. And "no one died of natural causes," Abdul Aziz Nuspahic, a Bihac imam, adds.
'Buried far from their homes and families'
Over the past two years, the imam says he has buried at least three migrants. "The first drowned in the river, the second died of an illness, and the third died of his wounds after being stabbed," he explains as he speaks to InfoMigrants in the red-carpeted prayer room located in the old Fethija mosque, in central Bihac.
In all three cases, the imam says authorities did not hand over the bodies until after they had taken the necessary steps try to identify the person and investigate their cause of death. The imam has then carried out the ritual ablutions, before reading out the Dzenaza, the Islamic funeral prayer.
"Around 20 people have been present at the migrant funerals I have carried out. I read the Dzenaza in Arabic, and then I say a few words in English about the deceased so that his or her friends understand. I also invite them to speak if they wish to do so," he says.
Even though funerals are part of his regular duties, the imam says he feels "very sad about the fact that these young people are being buried so far away from their homes and families." In some cases, in which authorities have actually been able to identify the deceased and contact their loved ones, the family has requested the body to be repatriated. In those cases, the embassy of the person’s country of origin will organize the repatriation of the body.
Most of the migrant bodies that have been found in and around Bihac so far have been discovered by members of SOS Bihac, a humanitarian aid group which regularly combs the region to help people in need. "Bodies have been found in the hills, near the camps, but also in the middle of the street," Zlatan Kovacevic, president of SOS Bihac, says.
According to Kovacevic, some of migrants have been murdered by the so-called "Ali Baba" – a group of robbers of foreign origin who target migrants as they try to cross the border into Croatia.
The migrants who try to defend themselves, risk being stabbed. "They’re not here to cross [the border], they’re just here to rob the refugees," the aid worker spits in a bitter voice.
The illegal border-crossing also poses a great risk to the migrants. Just south of Bihac, the Una River serves as a natural border with Croatia. It’s not uncommon for migrants to drown in the river, and the freezing-cold water is almost equally as dangerous for them. "A few days ago, our team found a young man suffering from hypothermia," Kovacevic recounts. "When we brought him into the car, he passed out. If we hadn’t found him in time, he would have died."
'The police don't even have torches#
Kovacevic says that whenever a migrant body is found, the police will open an investigation into the matter. When it comes to the murder cases he says that, although the suspects have been found on several occasions, the police lack resources to the point that such cases rarely go much further. "They need more staff, more cars… The police officers don't even have torches," he sighs.
Kovacevic, along with both the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the European Union, is calling for more camps to accommodate migrants in Bosnia. "This is the only way to keep them safer," he says.
Back in the Humci cemetery, in the area which has been reserved for migrant graves, there is a square patch of earth that has been turned. This is where the body of Borhanuddin, a young Afghan, used to lie before his remains were exhumed and repatriated to his homeland in mid-February, funeral director Damir explains. "After the exhumation, the body was placed in a metal coffin and sent to Sarajevo, and then flown to Afghanistan," he says.
In the Laghman province, east of Kabul, Borhanuddin's family were then able to pick up his body and bury it. The young man never fulfilled his European dream. He died in a Bihac hospital after being injured in a brawl. He was 24 years old.
By Julia Dumont, reporting for InfoMigrants from Bihac