Volunteer aid worker Hannah Parry has worked closely with refugees making the perilous journey to Europe. In this piece she sheds light on some of their stories, and asks why their journeys are perceived so differently compared with people we typically consider adventurers.
The snow sparkles on Plješevica Mountain on the border between Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia, the whiteness concealing the mud and broken trees. Footprints show the way to a camp, sleeping bags placed around a tiny fire and a group of young men and boys huddled around it. This is the first day of the ten or twelve it will take them to reach Italy.
I’m full of admiration for people who complete amazing adventures. Cycling round the world, hiking the entire coast of the UK, running across the USA. Adventures can serve to push people to their limits and see what they are capable of, or give a different perspective on life by simplifying existence down to the bare essentials.
But what defines an adventure? Trekking a long-distance trail seems like an adventure, but what about walking the dog around a local footpath? Wild camping in the countryside is an adventure, but what about camping in the garden? Adventure is typically considered as something out of the ordinary that pushes our comfort zone by adding risk. The greater the risk, the bigger the adventure.
Running the Marathon des Sables, for example, could be described as an adventure. Doing so is dangerous. The marathon leaves competitors exhausted and injured, having endured multiple days in the desert - assuming they manage to finish.
By this definition, there is a whole community of adventurers in Bosnia right now.
The trek between the Bosnian city of Bihac and the Italian city of Trieste is a popular route. Much of it travels through the Dinaric Alps - a vast mountain range covering 654 square kilometres. The first day is particularly tough, climbing a thousand vertical metres through forest and scrubland over Plješevica Mountain. The probability of wildlife encounters is also high. Bosnia is home to many snake species, the most venomous of which is the colour-changing Horned Viper, often regarded as the most dangerous snake in Europe. Wild boar and Eurasian brown bears also roam the wooded slopes.
But this route is not hiked for its beauty or wildlife. Mount Plješevica marks the border between Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia: the gateway to the European Union. Refugees and migrants, leaving their countries for all kinds of reasons, make their way from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran and other countries via Turkey. The route to legally safe European countries brings them to Bosnia. It should be possible for these vulnerable people to claim asylum in Croatia upon arrival. However, the Croatian Border Authority is notorious for illegal pushbacks - forcing people back to Bosnia without giving them a chance to claim asylum. Slovenia, the next country heading west, also illegally pushes people back. The only way for refugees and migrants to be confident they will not be illegally pushed back is by reaching Italy.
Some asylum seekers and refugees have a name for their journey to safety: ‘the game’. This ‘game’ involves dodging the ‘commandos’: Croatian special forces dressed in black with black ski masks covering their faces. Detection by commandos is ‘game over’. “We try different tactics, sometimes in a big group,” says Waris. “Then we know some people will be caught but some will get away. Sometimes we go with a small group and hope they don’t find us.”
Waris is from Afghanistan. He is in his twenties, and fled his country after the Taliban threatened his life. His older brother had been part of the Afghan army fighting against the Taliban alongside NATO forces. Waris’ brother, along with his wife and children, was resettled to the US when NATO pulled out. Waris was not so fortunate.
I met up with Waris and his friends just before they were starting their latest attempt at ‘the game’. They were checking their gear and making sure everything was ready. They each had a sleeping bag and minimal spare clothing. Between the group they had a powerbank and a smartphone for navigation. The rest of each of their full backpacks was filled with high-calorie food: dates, nuts and chocolate bars were stuffed in every crevice, and plastic bags containing bottles of water and loaves of bread were ready to be taken too. “We have to not be seen at all,” says Waris. “If they see us, they will deport us.” In order to avoid any risk of being found, they have to assume that they won’t have any opportunity to restock for the entire journey. It could take two weeks to reach Italy.
Some of my young friends showed me TikTok videos of their journey: impressively running and jumping rivers, dancing around the campfire with laughing faces and making fun of each other when something unfortunate happens. Abdul, an athletic sixteen-year-old, is proud when I tell him that he must be very strong to leap a river so impressively.
Abid is also from Afghanistan. He and Waris chat in fast Dari as they prepare. Abid was a NATO translator, and was eligible for resettlement like Waris’ brother. But he left home before resettlement could be arranged - the Taliban had threatened his family - so he missed the opportunity to be legally taken to a safe country. “I was in the army, I don’t mind a hard life. Living outside is normal for me now,” says Abid.
Abid gave a report to the Border Violence Monitoring Network in which he describes being pushed back illegally. The Croatian authorities made a fire with his and his friends’ clothes, shoes and bags. Wearing only underwear, they were forced to cross back into Bosnia by swimming the Korana River. “Me and my friends helped each other with the swimming,” recalls Abid. “Some people couldn’t swim.”
Waris has tried to reach Italy over twenty times. He has prepared his backpack and hiked for day after day, only to be detected by the authorities every time. On one occasion he reached Slovenia after ten days of sleeping in the woods with only a sleeping bag. Venomous snakes and bears seem much more dangerous with little between you and them.
Waris had run out of food by the time the Slovenian police picked him up. I can’t imagine how demoralising it is to be so close to a potentially life-saving goal, only to have it snatched away. But Waris just shrugs, his serious face concealing any strong emotions. “The biggest problem is that they take all your things,” he says, referring to the Croatian authorities, which confiscate sleeping bags and backpacks, steal phones and money and burn clothing. “The wounds [inflicted by the authorities] heal, but we can’t get the money back to buy more.”
It is wonderful to celebrate the achievements of adventurers who set out to complete an expedition, and fascinating to watch and read about what motivates people to push their bodies to do extraordinary things. The admiration we offer adventurers, like the athletes running the Marathon de Sables, is rooted in their bravery, determination and skill in the face of hardship and peril.
But how should we think about the asylum seekers and refugees undertaking journeys that, in many ways, are incredibly adventurous? There are at least two crucial differences compared with people typically considered adventurers.
The first is that asylum seekers and refugees have little or no choice. Without a legal route to safety, or a method of claiming asylum from abroad, there is no other way but to undertake such a perilous journey with basic equipment. Return to their home country is typically impossible. Nobody leaves their family, friends, job and home without strong justification.
The second key difference is how these journeys, these feats, are perceived. The right-wing presses would have us believe that only criminals and misfits would be making this journey. They paint a malicious picture of groups of suspicious men sneaking around in the woods, coming to steal our jobs and claim our hard-earned taxes. The reality is that clever people - engineers, doctors, activists, writers and scholars - are lost in the crowd of nameless faces, overlooked by those that don’t wish to be confronted with the truth.
Reading an account of Fiona Oakes completing the Marathon de Sables, we see her determined personality shine through the narrative of the trials and successes of her race. Little chance is given for personal insights and stories in the way we hear about refugees. Refugees like Amir, a serious man and member of a persecuted minority in Iran facing imprisonment or worse if he were to return. Like Faris, a laid-back chef from Kurdistan - an unrecognised country and an unrecognised people. Like Saeed, an electrical engineer from Pakistan, with a job in Italy already in place, if only he can get there. And like Mohammed, a polite and helpful graduate from Afghanistan, fluent in five languages and ready to help everyone he encounters.
Political tensions in Bosnia Herzegovina, as well as Europe’s determination to ignore the problem, leads to no simple solution. But the least we can do is to publicise illegal actions against refugees and tell the stories of the people concerned - the stories of my friends.
A group of young men and boys, dirty and smelly, approach the city centre of Trieste. Their torn clothes hang off their thin bodies as they near a pair of police officers. “We want to claim asylum, we are scared for our lives.” The journey has finished, they can be safe.
To find out more about the situation for refugees and migrants at the edges of the European Union, follow No Name Kitchen and Hannah Parry. You can make a donation to help these vulnerable people here.
This interview is tied to our resolution to do more to cover political adventures in 2021. If you know about a story demonstrating the political power of adventure, we’d love to hear about it, either as a tip or a pitch.