Photo by Matteo Trevisan. Rimas with food given out by the Red Cross. Sometimes refugees in Bihac have to wait hours to eat.
Hussein, Rimas, Nassima and Lamia are from Iran and are trying to get to Germany, where they hope to find safety and a chance of a decent life. “We never thought it would be this hard”, says Nassima. The family of four has been on the move for four months. They’ve walked from Iran, crossing into Turkey, then Greece, and finally through the southern Balkans to Bosnia. But they are afraid that in this little town on the border with Croatia they may finally have reached a dead end.
Going back is not an option. The family are Ahwazi Arabs, an ethnic minority which has long been persecuted by Iranian authorities. “The people of Iran are very good”, says Hussein, “but the supreme leader is bad. We cannot live there”. Sitting on the edge of his bed Hussein scrolls through his phone, showing us photos of people kneeling on the floor, hands tied behind their back. “See, they arrest Ahwazi people.” He goes on to name a long list of relatives and friends who he says have been executed by the regime. “We speak Arabic, and we are Sunni”, chimes in Nassima, “so we are not accepted. We can’t get jobs and we are not free”.
This isn’t the first time the family has tried to leave Iran: back in 2003 they moved to Syria, where their great grandfathers had hailed from. They settled in, and both Hussein and Nassima obtained university degrees in business and management. Just as they felt secure enough to start a family, the war which has ravaged Syria for the past eight years broke out and they were forced to return to Ahvaz, in Iran. Rimas was born there in 2013.
“But we could not stay there”, says Hussein, “it was too dangerous”. Lamia worked as a hairdresser, but neither Nassima nor Hussein could find jobs, and they were afraid that their daughter would not have the bright future they wanted for her. So they started walking, certain that an EU country would grant them asylum.
Driven by their hope, the family struggled through what they thought would be the last stretch of their journey. Crossing the border from Bosnia into Croatia also meant crossing into the EU, where they had the legal right to request asylum.Soon it was going to be over, thought Hussein, and they would start living again. The family hiked through the forest, sleeping rough and keeping themselves warm by lighting campfires. “We pretended it was a game”, says Nassima, “but it was very difficult for Rimas, very difficult”.
After crossing the border into Croatia they went straight to a police station to request asylum. But they were never asked questions, or given forms to fill out. Instead the police drove them to a secluded spot and searched them, emptying their bags on the soaking wet ground and breaking their phones. The policemen demanded money and when Hussein refused to hand it over they kicked him to the floor and hit him over and over again, robbing him of 1000 euros. “The police beat me with sticks right in front of Rimas”, says Hussein, shaking his head in disbelief. “It was very bad.”
The family was physically pushed back across the border to Bosnia. Lost, without money or phones, they walked for days until they finally reached a small town, where locals offered food and warm clothes. When they reached Bihac a few days later, they met dozens of families from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Some had been in Rio Mare for months, and many had similar stories of violence along the Croatian border.