Vucjak: the toxic camp where Europe discards its refugees

Il Manifesto Global – 25/09/2019

REPORTAGE. In the Vucjak refugee camp, people survive without assistance, between toxic waste and landmines from the Bosnian War. The lack of basic infrastructure and sanitation services in Vucjak is an egregious violation of the minimum standards set by the norms of the United Nations

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Bihac – Borici temporary reception center (photo credit Renato Ferrantini per One Life ONLUS)

di Federica Iezzi

Sarajevo – Nestled among the wooded peaks of the Plješevica mountains, surrounded by areas still full of landmines from the Yugoslavian wars, the Vucjak refugee camp in northwestern Bosnia stands as shocking proof of the crisis that is still raging at the European Union’s back door. The United Nations has recently described this refugee camp, located a few miles from the barbed-wire-fortified Croatian border, as totally inadequate to accommodate civilians.

There are no major international NGOs working in this refugee camp. It’s officially run by the municipalities of the town of Bihac and unofficially left in the hands of the volunteers from the local Bihac branch of the Red Cross.

It was built after the Bosnian authorities and the municipal governments of the Canton of Una-Sana decided that the migrants could no longer remain in public spaces or abandoned buildings, all located within city limits. Here, bits of plastic and glass, old clothes turned into rags and used tires litter the contaminated soil.

They are all toxic remnants of the past. The camp is located on the site of an old landfill, which was still in operation only a few years ago. The conditions are extremely troubling. Survival is constantly threatened by the non-drinkable water and the land soaked in poison dumped over the years, with the only assistance coming from the work of volunteers.

At least 1,000 migrants are crammed into this living hell. They come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Pakistan. Access to clean water is limited to 10 hours per day, as there is no permanent usable water supply.

Vucjak echoes all the inhumanity of the Calais refugee camp in northern France and the abject indifference of European governments. The lack of basic infrastructure and sanitation services in Vucjak is an egregious violation of the minimum standards set by the norms of the United Nations.

In the middle of the camp, an enormous map shows the location of the local minefields. Every day, several times a day, police trucks take Bosnian migrants who are outside the circuits of temporary shelters—those run by the International Organization for Migration—and dump them in Vucjak.

Like stray dogs, they are thrown out in the middle of the camp, after opening the rear door of the van, secured with a shiny new lock. It is strictly forbidden to film these scenes, so there are no photographs, videos or propaganda materials to show what is happening, but the practice goes on undisturbed.

Despite the humanitarian injustice being perpetrated, the migrants are not even complaining about the anti-personnel mines, their poor state of health or the lack of sanitation. Instead, they’re telling stories about the “passive” violence they suffer at the hands of the border police. In recent weeks, the Croatian police have introduced a new cruel twist: confiscating and burning the food, clothing, shoes, backpacks and cell phones of any migrants who try to “play the game” of crossing the border.

If you’re planning to cross the Croatian-Bosnian border, you’ll have to spend about 100 marks (just over €50) on food, mostly bread and similar basic foods. Often, those 100 marks represent months of savings, so burning the food is a sign of the most remorseless cruelty.

Emad fled from Syria with his wife and young son, just 2 years old. He tried to play “the game” and cross the border, but they turned him back to the Borici temporary reception center in the town of Bihac, after they robbed him of everything. While the medical staff from One Life, an Italian NGO, examined his son, Emad held out a plastic bag with a phone inside. He asked me if I wanted to buy it, so he could use the money to try again to cross the border with Croatia. The scene was heartbreaking.

Since January 2018, almost 36,000 migrants have entered Bosnia and remained trapped between the European policies designed to reduce illegal crossings and the political stalemate in Bosnia, which effectively prevents local authorities from offering any protection.

From Turkey and Greece, there are two main routes through Bosnia: one that crosses through northern Macedonia and Serbia, the other through Albania and Montenegro.

Standing in the Vucjak camp, among a crowd of abused bodies and broken bones, we are face to face with the appalling consequences of European geopolitics. As a result of the cynical effort by the Croatian government to prove that it has what it takes to join the Schengen free movement area, the country is rejecting migrants without following proper asylum procedures.

Gulraiz’s journey started in Kunduz, Afghanistan. We struggled to gain her trust. The loneliness that the migrants are steeped in is insurmountable. They smile, but their eyes are vacant. Month after month, they have been walking without rest and without any support. They travel together with occasional friends they make, mere companions along their path.

It cost her one mark to recharge her precious old phone in Vucjak. After telling us a few stories, she showed us on her phone the map that she would use to try “the game” once again, starting from the Plješevica mountain, crossing through the thick Bosnian forest, passing by the Bosnian town of Šturlic, then arriving in an area with circled granicni prelaz, the border crossing points. A constellation of red dots, places, coordinates and steps, all displayed using Google Maps’s “satellite” function.

A blond Bosnian policeman stopped us. His shirt was buttoned up to the top, he had a defiant air and a grim posture. He checked our documents. He wrote our names down in a crumpled notebook, without giving any explanation, seemingly trying to intimidate us.

There is a very thin line here surrounding the crime of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. We were forced to move along. I could not forget the image of Gulraiz’s satellite map. In my hands, I felt the weariness of Abdurahman, who was trying to mend his backpack with needle and thread after the inhuman journey that brought him here. And I kept seeing the eyes—wide with uncertainty—of the young people who weren’t lucky enough to have a badge granting them access to the “5-star resorts” (by comparison) of the temporary reception centers.

I left Bosnia with the image of Ibrahim, just over 3 years old, following right behind his dad with arms folded at the back, imitating his sad, weary posture.

Il Manifesto Global ‘Vucjak: the toxic camp where Europe discards its refugees’ di Federica Iezzi

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Voices from purgatory: ‘Why are we here?’

Il Manifesto Global – 22 giugno 2017

REPORTAGE. We went behind the bars of Abu Salim detention center in Libya, where thousands of migrants, including women and children, are held illegally. They’re forced to work, they’re raped and they aren’t provided proper medical care. The only way out is a bribe

Abu Salim Detention Centre - Tripoli (Libia)

by Federica Iezzi

Tripoli (Libya) – The same questions are asked over and over like a pounding litany, waiting for an answer that, at best, will arrive months later. The arbitrary detentions in Libya seem legalized.

Silence, darkness and solitude accompany the already arduous journey of thousands of families trying to escape war, persecution, violence and hunger.

Among cages, bars and temperatures approaching 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), the voices of the migrants ask in various dialects: “Why are we here? And when can I get out?”

We are enclosed in the vortex of the Abu Salim Detention Center, in the homonymous Tripoli district, where, according to estimates of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are at least 6,000 detained migrants.

The red tape for dozens of permits slows down health-related activities, monitoring and judicial processes in the 44 detention centers set up by the Libyans, including 24 managed directly by the al-Sarraj government. In the hours and hours of waiting, time does not exist. Time is the exact moment lived.

Departures of migrants from Libyan shores never stop. Thousands of people continue to arrive every day to Libya. Many try to hide, waiting to board an old fishing boat, after paying a smuggler the sum required. And then they brave the 470 kilometers of sea that separates Libya from Italy. This stretch has become a graveyard for more than 4,500 people in 2016 and more than 1,500 people already this year.

But most of the people are trapped in the limbo of detention centers. The legal situation in Libya winds its way through unconstitutional laws and transitional rules, the result of the ongoing conflict and the legacy of the Gaddafi era.

The result is that today’s migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are all considered illegal aliens and, therefore, are subject to fines, detention and deportation, based on the old 1987 and 2004 laws.

The fines can go as high as 1,000 Libyan dinars (about $730), and they skyrocket if the immigrant does not have any entry documents. The detentions involve forced labor and, almost always, end with expulsion from Libya. The term of imprisonment for a migrant is arbitrary and unpredictable, it can last from a few months to two years.

One cell, designed to hold four people, is shared by 20 women and 20 children, crammed next to one another. The four corners of the room are occupied by dozens of mattresses, thrown chaotically on the ground.

Mothers comb the hair of disoriented girls who proudly show their bare feet. There are no toys. There is not enough water for everyone. There are five bathrooms for 150 people. Often, the detainees are forced to urinate and defecate in their cells.

“I gave birth to my baby in one of these filthy toilets,” a mother named Naalia tells us. “He was covered in blood and was dying of suffocation.” She tells us about it while standing in front of those nauseatingly smelly latrines, a stench that stings the eyes. A mixture of acid, excrement and urine, washed with buckets of stagnant water.

“That image haunts me,” she says. No doctor assisted Naalia and her son that day. They did not receive any special treatment: The meal was barely 400 calories, and the milk was yellowish and diluted with well water.

Every prison guard carries a Kalashnikov. They swear they take the children out once a day, but in fact the children are let out once every four days. Outside, there is a large open area, where they roam around, doing nothing for a couple of hours, surrounded by barbed wire fences.

We sit with Victor beside the mattress on which he has slept for 10 months and he tells us: “They arrested me in Garabulli.” He wants to tell his family that he is still alive, but he cannot. During arrests, Libyan soldiers systematically confiscate all phones, so their only form of communication is interrupted.
Victor comes from the city of Kano, in northwest Nigeria. “I paid $2,000 to cross Niger, via the Agadez crossing. Then, I arrived in Sabha in Libya, and for another $700 I was led to Garabulli.”

Before risking death in the Mediterranean and before crossing the battlefields of the Libyan civil war, most West African immigrants go through Agadez, which travelers can reach by bus from almost anywhere. It is the northernmost edge of the area known as Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States), similar to Europe’s Schengen area, where people can travel without a visa.

In Agadez, all bus drivers stop and smugglers start moving people across the desert. Only a select few local drivers know which dunes lead to the Sahara and which ones lead to death. The trek to Sabha takes two weeks, without food or water.

Up to 2,000 Migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa go through Libya every week, from the border checkpoint located in the village of Tumo, between Niger and Libya, one of the three main points of entry patrolled by the Libyan army, along with Ghat and Ghadames.

When Victor recounts the details of his journey, his eyes seem unfocused. “No doctor comes to the center,” he says. It is impossible to obtain a detailed list of those held in the Abu Salim cells. No one is informed of the reason for their imprisonment. There is no formal registration, no legal process is performed and no one is allowed to talk to the judicial authorities.

Only once a month, a mobile clinic is admitted to treat skin diseases, diarrhea, and respiratory and urinary infections. The health system in Libya is close to collapse, due to chronic lack of medicines, medical equipment and personnel.

“After 4,000 km,” Victor continues, “I was ready to embark in Garabulli, along with hundreds of other poor bastards. Often, the coast guard, constantly threatened by the traffickers, close their eyes. This time, they captured us and we were taken to Abu Salim.”

There, he was forced to work on their agricultural projects, carry around sand and stones while wearing chains on his wrists, work on paving their roads and participate in the construction of waste collectors. He has been mocked, mistreated, raped and beaten. He was held in prison because he did not have enough money to pay off corrupt police.

How do they leave? The guards provide a phone to detainees and force them to call their relatives and ask them to transfer large sums of money to buy their freedom.

These chilling stories seep into your bones in the silence of the center. Each of these detentions is completely illegitimate.

Il Manifesto Global ‘Voices from purgatory: Why are we here?’ by Federica Iezzi

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“ISIS does not show mercy”

Il Manifesto Global Edition – 26 luglio 2016

REPORTAGE. An Il Manifesto reporter visited al-Hasakah, after its liberation from Islamic State rule. The Syrian city is breathing a tentative relief as the war continues

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di Federica Iezzi

Al-Hasakah (Siria) – “They have reduced houses, palaces and churches to ruins. They have damaged hospitals, barracks, universities and unleashed violence against thousands of unarmed people. They have destroyed lives, they have annihilated our hopes.”

That’s how Amal, just 15 years old, sees the war within which he has lived for more than five years. He lives, with his surviving relatives, in al-Hasakah, a city in the northeastern corner of Syria.

He lives in the basement of his old home, not because of the danger of bombing that now everyone has gotten used to, but because the old house was completely razed to the ground. And now, what was the floor of the original house has become the ceiling of the new one. In the al-Hasakah governorate, especially in the Jazira Canton, it all started with an offensive launched in February two years ago by fighters of the Islamic State, who have conquered at least 200 villages.

And at Tell Brak, one of these villages between al-Hasakah and Qamishli, the fighting between ISIS and a militia of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) started. Despite the isolation within the southern corridor of the provincial capital, the jihadists have laid down the law.

“At first, we only watched ISIS’s barbaric acts on television. Deaths, torture, violence were our nightmare every night. Then they arrived in our streets, in our bakeries, in our mosques. And suddenly there was no electricity, no medical care, no water and no food supplies, such as rice, sugar, pasta, nor gasoline,” Amal explains with a disarming precision. Through the network of Kurdish aid organizations, services have been provided with great effort. The Kurdish government has responded to the arbitrary suspension of electricity and the chronic shortage of drinking water with widespread distribution of food, medical supplies and water.

We talked to Amal during the Eid al-Fitr, the feast that follows the sacrifices of the fasting Ramadan month, while most of the shops of the central souk opened their doors with lights and colored drinks. People stroll around the souk, and they look almost inexplicably not intimidated. “We must continue to do those things that help us to make life as normal as possible.”

But what is normal in Syria?

But what is normal in Syria? They lost all the things most of us take for granted every day, from carelessly turning on the faucet and getting clean water, to going to a shop to buy milk. “And yes, I miss the most trivial things,” Amal says. “A hot shower, a bottle of Coca-Cola, going to school on my bike.”

The first to flee from al-Hasakah were the Christians, who lived in the area for decades. Nearly 4,000 families left their homes and daily lives. In a few days, the southeastern neighborhood of al-Nachwa was deserted. One hundred twenty thousand people have sought refuge in surrounding towns and villages, according to data reported by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“I slept in an open field under an unbearable heat. During the day, however we got refuge in churches, monasteries and schools,” recalls Sarah.

“I prayed, but I did not know what I was looking for with my prayers. Part of me was angry, another part was ashamed for the poor conditions I forced my children to go through.”

Today they continue to live in a maze of administrative processes. They live under warring authorities, afraid to cross into a territory governed by a different authority. And where the two authorities overlap, you must stay out of trouble.

“Al-Hasakah is divided between the Kurdish militia and forces loyal to President al-Assad. I live in a neighborhood controlled by the regime forces, and I avoid passing through a block controlled by the Kurdish militia because they would force me into compulsory military service,” says a frightened Abood, 19. He is a taxi driver, and he uses secondary roads and paths not marked on maps to move between al-Hasakah and Qamishli. “I have two drivers licenses: the first one issued by the Syrian government, in case, and the state police stops me, and the second is for the Kurds, in case I get checked by Asayish, the Kurdish police.”

Yana contributes to Abood’s story. Her parents own a small shop in one of the unfortunate areas in which both the regime and the Kurdish authorities have influence. “We paid the monthly government taxes and, surprisingly, a weekly fee to the Kurdish authorities to clean the streets.”

In August 2015, after prolonged fighting, the Kurdish forces have officially declared the liberation of al-Hasakah from ISIS insurgents. The campaign was conducted on three phases. “In the first phase, we surrounded the villages occupied by Daesh,” explains Felat, a commander of the YPG. “The second phase focused on cutting supply routes, denying the fighters freedom of movement. The third phase is the progressive recapture of neighborhoods from the suburbs to the center.”

“When the al-Hasakah-to-Shaddadah road was closed by the Kurdish army, we felt trapped in the middle of a deja vu. The fear of the siege has persecuted and oppressed us, while there were growing shortages of food, water and medicine. We were willing even to escape on foot through the steep mountain paths,” says Tejaw, a 25-year-old father of four children. “Even the Qamishli airport was inaccessible. Who could fly? Only those who had acquaintances who worked for the Syrian regime, in particular those working in the Air Force Intelligence Directorate. If you had these connections, you could get a ticket for a cargo plane flight for $160.”

Although fewer civilians are willing to discuss the current situation in Syria, Tejaw let us into the tent where he lives in the al-Hawl camp, east of al-Hasakah, and he begins by saying, “The regime’s supporters feel free to speak only in areas controlled by the regime and the opponents speak from the refugee camps.” This is his eloquent simplification.

“What were people dying from when the Caliphate stole our homes? Hunger, poverty, murder, rape, arrest, slaughter. ISIS does not show mercy: It doesn’t matter if you are elderly or young, man or woman. Every drop of blood spilled by our people, every wall that carried stories of generations destroyed, every old district swept away from the maps represents a lost history that will never appear in any book,” he continues.

The border with Turkey and Iraq

Al-Hasakah has always been one of the main objectives of the Islamic State. Considering the close links among Arab tribes on the border between Iraq and Syria, al-Hasakah is still the easiest way to further the trans-frontier expansion of the black caliphate’s possessions.

In the neighborhoods of al-Hasakah, the gradual reopening of markets, shopping and local activities, the restoration work in state institutions and in the security sector faces a city that has yet to come to terms with demolished buildings, houses, meeting points and unrecognizable streets.

Humanitarian efforts are underway to support over half a million of internally displaced people from neighboring cities, such as Deir Ezzor, al-Raqqa and Aleppo. The United Nations Program for Development has allowed at least 400 women to return to work and often the materials produced are distributed to residents in need, from clothing to blankets.

“ISIS has always imposed extensive restrictions on personal freedoms. All women, including girls, were required to wear the niqab, the full veil, or risk public stoning. No colorful veils, gloves, bags, shoes and accessories. The city was a giant prison. Internet at home was forbidden and most of the public networks were interrupted. Mobile phones were banned, and no one was allowed to smoke cigarettes in public places,” recalls Tejaw.

“We had to pay taxes to the caliphate officials, and also an extra voluntary gift of 2,000 Syrian pounds (about $10) was scheduled. People could not afford to buy anything. Many shops have closed and the price of fuel and gas increased five times. Some of my friends have collaborated with the militants for more food and fuel rations. Fifteen kilograms of flour and 10 kg of rice were the amounts a family close to ISIS received.”

Police and street cameras were the eyes and ears of ISIS in the conquered city. Propaganda and indoctrination were everywhere. From school programs to military recruitment. In schools, the teaching of history and law was banned. The classes were segregated, boys in one group, and girls in the other. ISIS militants patrolled primary and secondary schools, interrogating students on Islamic law.

Al-Hasakah had 20 hours of electricity a day, which was later reduced to eight, then six, then less than two. Each district of the city had water once a week. There was no food, the hospital had no doctors or nurses, and not even basic medicines could be found, Tejaw says.

Il Manifesto Global “ISIS does not show mercy” di Federica Iezzi

 

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