Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Report #7 – The wave of refugees coming into Europe.
By Peter Lippman
Fall, 2015

2015 Report index

Report 1 Introduction/overview, Sarajevo, activism.
Report 2Immiseration and resignation.  Prospects for activism.
Report 3:  Prijedor. 
Report 4:  Dodik's referendum, Dodik's corruption.
Report 5:  Srebrenica. 
Report 6:  Tuzla, Mostar, and activism.
Report 7The wave of refugees coming into Europe.

Previous journals and articles

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This wraps up my series of reports. Your feedback is welcome.

As before, I thank brother Roger Lippman for proofreading and for his feedback on the texts. The typos and mistakes are mine.

Thanks much for reading.


December 5, 1992

Refugee, exile, migrant…nobody and nothing in this world

I stand on platform number 7 at the main railway station in Salzburg. I look at the clock on the platform, time stopped a long time ago, I see only the temperature: -7 Celsius.
Cold air breaks through the summer jacket I'm wearing, with which I try to cover the splitting pants on my butt.
Moisture seeps through my torn-up tennis shoes, soaking my socks and pants up to the knees. And it freezes.
The wind carries my 54 kilos of misery along the platform, the cold penetrating into my bones. Gradually a madness overtakes me. I ask myself, "What the devil are you freezing here for, go home."
In one second the answer brings me back to reality: "You don't have a house or home anymore, what you have on you is all that you have!"
A tear rolls from my eye.
Somewhere halfway down my cheek it stops and freezes.
The thawing is still taking place.

Anto Tomi
ć, native of Prijedor, survivor of Omarska and Trnopolje, living in exile in Germany these last 23 years, wrote these lines this fall. More than most of us, he knows how the refugees who are part of the current wave going into Europe feel.


They left from north Africa and the Middle East, especially from Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya. They risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean or to escape into Turkey. Two million of them arrived there. By the tens of thousands they crossed in flimsy boats to Greek islands and made their way to the Macedonian border. In the face of brutality they crossed Macedonia to Serbia and headed north to Belgrade and then the border with Hungary.

Around this time I was going to Europe and expecting to be in this very area. Friends reminded me that I would be near the center of some of the events connected with the refugee influx.

So this last report is not mainly about Bosnia-Herzegovina, but about the phenomenon popularly called the "refugee crisis" of the past year.

I'm not sure whether it's even appropriate to call it a "refugee crisis." That takes the humanity out of the situation and makes it merely a logistical problem. Secondly, there is so much about the situation that was avoidable and is unnecessary, and is due to Western militarism and, later, political manipulation.

But, that's how crises are created. You could say, perhaps more accurately, that it's "crisis of the European Union," or even a "crisis of humanity."

It is obvious, first of all, that the wars that are producing all those refugees are the result of very short-term thinking on the part of the Bushes and Obamas of our world. Their mistake is to think that they can solve something by removing a dictator (one who is not to their own liking) without having any shred of a plan about how to maintain stability.

That error is ongoing, and the rest of the story is how various actors respond to the flood of desperate people, ordinary people, good people, trying to survive and find a new home.

Refugees flooding into Europe

By midsummer of 2015 over 20,000 people had applied for refugee status in Macedonia, three-fourths of them having come from Syria. At that time, there were 36,000 migrants huddled in just one refugee camp in Greece.

Macedonia had been attempting to prevent refugees from entering the country. But the refugees kept on coming. And in any case they, naturally, did not want to stay in Macedonia. They wanted to go to Germany.

By the end of July the Macedonian government changed its policy and allowed migrants 72 hours of transit time through the country.

Some quotes from refugees around that time:
I will never go back to Syria. Never again!"
--"My husband was in the Syrian Army. He lost his eye in a battle. We wanted to run away earlier, but we didn’t have money"
--"It took us four years to collect the money for this journey. A journey to a better life, I hope. We sold everything we had, now we own nothing. We just want to arrive safely in Germany."

By August refugees were crowding Belgrade, sitting in parks near the main bus station. One said, "We didn’t have a lot of options [about leaving]. For us it was really a case of the famous Shakespearian phrase, ‘To be or not be’. We didn’t came here because we were choosy…We met some girls on our way here who had escaped from Aleppo. It is really crazy in Aleppo. They are using really bad weapons there…grenades, bombs…everything. It is no place to live."

There is plenty of racism in Serbia, especially against the indigenous Roma, and certainly against Arabs and Muslims. But one policeman said, "The migrants are not causing any problems. But we do have problems with our own thugs. Especially at night. Some people try to rob them while they are asleep."

In late August a thousand refugees were crossing into Macedonia each day. The border authorities lost their heads again and began using stun grenades and tear gas to chase down refugees and control their movements. After a couple of days of that, and some very bad international publicity, they gave up and let the refugees go on their way.

And there were organized private citizens of Macedonia who were there helping the migrants find their way to the Serbian border.

By this time well over 350,000 migrants had arrived in the EU – something over 100,000 to Italy alone.

The foreign minister of Italy commented, "On immigration, Europe is in danger of displaying the worst of itself: selfishness, haphazard decision-making and rows between member states."

Around that time, a Slovakian spokesperson announced, "We will take care of about 200 refugees, but they have to be Christians."

On the other hand, prominent Croatian human rights activist Ivan Zvonimir Čičak said, "Why shouldn't some of those refugees stay in Croatia? Our Adriatic islands are empty. We try hopelessly to breathe life into those places for two or three months during the tourist season. Why shouldn't some of those people who have been left without a homeland stay on those islands permanently? Come to us, dear friends!"

In the same vein, though perhaps not as seriously, my friend
Švabo, the activist from Kozarac, said that the refugees should be allowed to inhabit every restored house in his region "gdje su roletne spuštene" – where the shutters are closed, that is, where people have restored their houses but leave them empty while living in the diaspora for most of the year.

However, during the summer it was reported that anti-immigrant demonstrators in Split, on the Dalmatian coast, carried a sign that read, "Izbjeglice, izbjegavajte od Splita!" – Refugees, stay away from Split!

In contrast, in Serbia for the most part authorities received the migrants well and treated them decently. And ordinary people came out to the parks and shared food with the travelers and just sat and talked to them. Police gave toys to the children. A photo of a cop holding an immigrant kid in his arms went viral. In Preš
evo local Albanians took refugees into their homes.

There are decent people in Serbia. And the country's leaders know what looks good, too. And for that matter, those migrants were never planning to settle in Serbia.

In Sarajevo a student organization mounted a drive to collect money, food, clothing, and hygienic items to send to the migrants.

By mid-year migrants filed nearly 70,000 asylum requests in the first EU country of arrival, Hungary. Not long afterwards, the right-wing government of that country, headed by Viktor
Orbán – Europe's Donald Trump, as one news article put it – decided to crack down on the influx of refugees, who were arriving at around 3,000 per day by early September. By this time some 200,000 migrants had walked into Hungary.

Hungarian police were moving the migrants onto trains, saying that those would take them to Austria. But it was a lie; the trains took them to a chaotic internment camp, where authorities marked numbers on the arms of migrants with felt-tip pens, and fed them like animals.

Orbán stated, "We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim…That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots." He warned that Europeans now stand to become a "minority in our own continent."

By early September Hungary was building a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia, and threatening a three-year jail term for anyone climbing over it illegally. Then Hungary closed the rail crossings from Serbia and declared a state of emergency in two border municipalities.

The last big influx into Hungary, and the greatest in one day, took place on the 16th of September, when 9,300 migrants crossed into the country. Then the route between Serbia and Hungary was closed, and there was chaos for a couple of weeks. People were stuck in Belgrade and in northern Serbia, without a plan and without a place to go. Some of them began crossing illegally into Croatia. They walked through corn fields, determined to continue on their way westward and northward to Austria and Germany.

Around this time, Austria temporarily suspended free passage of travelers between Schengen countries, that is, inside of the EU border-free regime, and began controlling its border with Hungary. And Slovenia panicked and did the same. A couple of days after the flow of refugees into Hungary was stopped, Croatia shut its border with Serbia.

Europe had reached a low point in its treatment of the refugees.

Some notes from Andrea

My friend Andrea, a photographer and artist from Vienna, went at this time to Horgoš
, on the border between Serbia and Hungary, and to Tovarnik, on the border between Serbia and Croatia, to see if she could help the refugees. She went with a group of volunteers from her city. She also volunteered with refugees stranded in Vienna for a time.

Andrea was shocked by what she saw and experienced in those places. She wrote me in September of her outrage at media manipulation in its coverage of the "refugee crisis." She also wrote of the uselessness of international governmental agencies purportedly trying to help the refugees, and of the difficulty of well-meaning volunteers to cover the gaps in service. Here is some of what she wrote.

Note: Although Andrea's English is not "perfect," it is more than perfect – her writing has always been some of my favorite. You will see why; I share it here as is, with her permission.

Andrea wrote:
>>The main media, as usual, shows the "action" shots of almost setup 'stages' - especially in the night at streetcrossings where reporters and their sat.dishes set up their 'theatre' with big lights and maaaany cameras. Waiting for the 'riot' to start --- which of course isn't a riot. It's just the desperation of misplaced people who want to go west, in the only one bus there is - which is cordoned off by 100s of robocop-police. i had to pinch myself more than once in Tovarnik in the night cos i didnt believe where i was, nor the bizarrness of what was going on right in front of me.

>>The volunteers having to take on complex tasks they shouldn't have to!!!
It's ridiculous that a group of socialmedia friends w average age of 25 yrs or less, started - and still maintains after 2 months of activities - the immediate support for those arriving at our main train station in vienna, when the NATION DID NOTHING for weeks but weigh its head. Volunteers, these youngsters take care of people and organise not just the basic but also a lot more complex needs (medical help food and shelter, familiy reunions, legal information distribution and actual legal help). once you start to help there it's hard to get out. i see that with me. and with others too. you see its not enough what you do, you do more, you don't stop. that has consequences on your own life, on your relation to people, to your work.

…the volunteers are forced to learn on their feet, and very quickly, as all those complex logistical and legal problems get thrown at them. last wednesday i did a night shift at one ot the stadions (a bike track stadion!) converted into refugee 'shelter'. in one hall up to 300 families and kids.

>> after all those months this migration is taking place in europe, active responsibility of the european nations is still so dammit minimal. in the news it often says: the army helps here, the red cross there, they show lots of pictures of large tents and ok-looking people's faces, they say "no one has to sleep on the streets, we have shelters for all those people" It's just NOT true. yes there are big halls being converted to makeshift shelters, but 1. those are just transit-shelters with no followup plans and 2. again those shelters are run mainly by volunteers who are hardly ever educated in emergency relief work. and 3. right now there ARE still people in crap tents and NO tents in the pouring rain in austria, turned away of some official shelters and being told they have to look for shelter by themselves .. HALLO ?

…a place only 'run' by volunteers and the red cross is there during the day and with two people in the night -- but all they do is sit there. they are not allowed to hand over even an aspirin if someone has the flu!!!!!! the only purpose of their presence seems to be 1. their presence (and the suggested "safety" idea) 2. if sth really really terrible happens (health related only) they are allowed to bring that person to hospital.

i find it hugely provocative to send people in suits and uniform to represent safety --- without actually following up on that suggestion. what a mean trick of warfare ! gawd i get so angry.

same as when i was in Horgoš a month ago: excuse me - the UN did fuck all - wearing their blue vests, again suggesting hope to people … but they are just bare of any responsibility which comes with that damn blue colour !!! every time i talked to a blue vest person i hoped that one will be less in love with diplomacy .. they were friendly but every conversation ended with "sorry we cant help .. " being surrounded by such mess, i focused on the stuff i actually could do - and tried to find things where i was making sth or someone better. and ignored the socalled 'official organisations' and their fuck-all-job.<<

Quite movingly, Andrea wrote of a different problem, but still our problem: the private and public indifference of some of her friends and colleagues back home in Vienna. She starts with her own feelings upon return:

he actual thinking and understanding of the dynamics of what was going on there at the border, only happened when i was back in vienna in my safe flat. thats where i m now. not so happy.

The experiences of Horgoš trip threw me into some strange place since i m back. i expected some effects. but y can't really prepare for those moments when you see humanity being dead - just dead, like it never existed. i wasn't in a post war place, nor at the edges of the dark. i was right in the middle of it, Horgoš.

There are consequences cos i was staring into that abyss, how to get back to that other daily life, how do i find enough energies and motivation to focus on working on seemingly banal things…I'm totally out of my 'routine' if i had any.

Since 2-3 weeks i wake up w refugees in my head, faces and stories. some i met and helped, many i only read about. my mornings are reading twitter feeds and refugee support lists over coffee. and trying to plan how i can do more again…mayb i m just a turning point again, some decisions need to b made where to go next. leaving that safety-pad-vienna again for good.

I tried to talk with a few people about my 'experiences', and found myself more often than not in the position of having to defend my urges to do sth and not just talk and make it a sport to exchange the latest refugeecrisis status quo -- how i hate that word <refugeecrisis>. what a manipulative way to summarise what was set up by the wealthy nations - the wealthy ones always being the suppressedagressive ones too .. suprisesuprise.

i understand the principle of not being bothered if it's not right in front of your doorstep - like literally *at-your-doorstep*. but this stuff happens about 5km-10km away from my flat! thousands of new arriving people in dispair every bloody day and night. so how can you not notice and FEEL PROPERLY BOTHERED and find other outlets of response but pub-gossip ? people here think the situation is being taken careof .. and many volunteers help, ahhh so good those vounteers. well and thats the end of addressing the topic any further. and then they talk about the weather again or their kids or the prices.

My social surroundings mainly feel uncomfortable around that topic. it's disappointing. and their responses hurt me more than what i see in a camp or at the trainstation. my social circles shrink, and in isolation grasping all that stuff isnt really working well. i keep wondering how fulltimejob relief workers handle that stuff. how do you ? <<

Chaos between Serbia and Croatia

With the border between Croatia and Serbia closed down, thousands of migrants were stuck in Vojvodina, the northern Serbian province bordering on Croatia. And Slovenia was turning back some of those who had managed to enter Croatia and travel through to the western border. The Croatian Minister of Internal Affairs addressed a message to the migrants: "Do not come here anymore, our capacities are strained. Stay in the collection centers in Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece. This is not the route to Europe and the buses cannot take you there."

By this time well over ten thousand refugees had entered Croatia. The president of the country called on the army to be ready to respond to the situation. Refugees were finding ways to cross into Croatia regardless of the closure; by three weeks into September, over 50,000 had entered.

The refugee issue in Croatia became part of the electoral campaign, with some people advocating for their rights, and others doing the Trump thing. Social-democratic Prime Minister
Zoran Milanović said, "What is happening in Hungary is disgusting. That will not happen in Croatia. We will not construct a wire fence, although in Croatia too there are those who would be most glad to see this done."

Relations between Serbia and Croatia, never particularly easy, were at a low point, and in this situation, it seemed that Serbia had the higher moral ground. And Croatian, Serbian, and other truckers, traveling in both directions, became collateral damage in the conflict, as they were forced to stand idle at the border, with their goods rotting.

The bad economics of border closure contributed to pressure on the Croatian government. The obstruction of truck traffic did not last long; the blockage of refugees lasted a bit longer. Finally, in October Croatia opened its borders; by mid-month at least 100,000 migrants had entered Croatia, with most of them heading directly – by bus, train, or by foot – for Slovenia.

From then on, the passage of refugees to Austria and Germany worked more smoothly, although there were periodic fits of tension when one country would threaten to close its borders, and the country to its south would threaten that country.

There was nervousness, meanwhile, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as to whether the stream of refugees could deflect and start entering what was probably the country least equipped to take care of a large influx of refugees. Mercifully, this never came true, as borders to the north remained open.

With the mid-November terrorist attack in Paris, demagogues began to blame the first victims of ISIL: the refugees. There was talk in Serbia of heightened surveillance and security measures with regard to those passing through the country. In Sarajevo the city observed a day of mourning for the victims in Paris.

In that month, with cold weather coming on, the stream of refugees entering Europe diminished by one-third, but that still meant that nearly 150,000 came across the sea. And figures at year's end approached a million entering Europe, most of them having crossed the Mediterranean. This was almost five times people as many as had come that route in 2014. Over 3,500 of those who attempted the crossing drowned or disappeared. At least half of the immigrants were from Syria, and another fifth were from Afghanistan.


Probably half the people I know in Bosnia-Herzegovina are displaced people, or they were displaced or made refugees during the war. I spoke about the refugee situation with Beba Hadžić,
herself displaced from Srebrenica. When the big influx to Europe was starting up earlier in the year, Beba had traveled to Slovakia for a visit. On the way, she saw the crowds of refugees in Hungary.

Beba said, "It brings back all of what we lived through. When you're a refugee, it's a very humiliating situation. You don't have anything. You might be educated, and end up washing cars. All I had to work with when I had to flee Srebrenica was what I knew. I was lucky that my mother had always encouraged me to learn things. I had learned to drive. I even drove a Land Rover. And I was in a very responsible position in Srebrenica, in the school."

As we talked about this, I felt a feeling of dread and horror.

Beba continued, "When people are young, they say, 'I want to be a doctor; I want to be a teacher.' I don't believe anyone ever said they wanted to be a refugee. For a young child, it's hard to change from one bed to another, even in the same room. It's that much harder to change countries. No one leaves home of their own will."

It reminds me now of the poem by Somali poet Warsan Shire that soon went viral, which starts like this:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well read the whole poem, click

Some photographs

For just a few unsettling photos of refugees along their passage to Europe,
click here, the site of an article about the Serbian photographer Marko Drobnjaković. The title of the article is, "Refugees will make Europe nicer."

I particularly appreciate Drobnjaković's comment, thus: "I do not photograph anyone who does not wish to be photographed, whether they tell me this themselves, or I feel some tension or awkwardness when I lift up the camera. If someone needs help, then of course I will help and I don't care if I have the photo or not. I sincerely empathize with people who I am photographing, their fate affects me. If I consider that my presence in some situation would cause someone emotional pain or endanger them in any way, then I simply find something else to photograph. The pictures are everywhere, they are waiting for us to see them."

Wrapping up 2015 with a mixed record

The whole fiasco of the migrants' reception brings into question the meaning of "values," whether they be "Christian," "European," or whatever. I should point out here that the United States only looked better by virtue of its distance from the immediate problem – but by the end of November, since 2011 it had only accepted some 2,300 Syrians across its borders. This, while the governors of more than thirty states declared, illegally, that they would refuse entry to Syrian refugees, and hate crimes including attacks against mosques proliferated.

If we could think about humane values, without any other label, maybe we could remember that hospitality and concern about the suffering of fellow humans should be high on any list of anybody's values. It would be good to remember that being European, or white, or Christian, or a member of any other ethnicity, nationality, or religion, is not a moral category, despite what the demagogues would have us believe.

I would recognize one bright point in this whole story, and that is that ultimately – so far, at least – Germany has passed the test of humane-ness by keeping its borders open. That has prevented more suffering and political instability all down the route of migration.

This is partly due to pragmatic wisdom on the part of Germany's leadership; Angela Merkel is particularly aware of the possible repercussions of instability in southeast Europe. She had to pressure, and nearly threaten, her own government to keep the borders open.

One also hears that Germany, a country of low indigenous population growth, needs the labor force. Articles backing this up, with varying figures attached, proliferate. In this, central Europe is like the United States, which would have negative population growth were it not for immigration – including undocumented immigration, which is crucial to parts of our economy.

As if to corroborate this need Merkel, in a New Year's address, noted that Germany had received vast numbers of applicants for asylum in 2015, and commented that in the end it would all prove worthwhile, "because states have always had use for successful immigration, in an economic and social sense."

Various analysts predict that in 2016 the influx of refugees to Europe could be as large or larger than in the past year. Let us hope that humane values win out and that the process for their transit to places where they can be welcomed will be much smoother than this year.

That is the test to be passed. The world has already failed in the Middle East.


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