The German KNA news agency spoke in great length with Zlatan Kovacevic, founder of the “SOS Bihac” charity. According to KNA, the 43-year-old has been working “day and night” alongside a number of volunteers in a bid to provide clothing, food and emergency medical treatment to migrant and refugees in dire need.

The Bosnian national highlighted various details about the plight of many migrants and refugees hiding out in the forests surrounding the town in the northwest of Bosnia-Herzegovina:

“Some people have been bitten by dogs, others have broken legs or arms. Some have also had teeth knocked out or wounds inflicted on their heads by Croatian police officers,” Kovacevic told KNA before adding that he and his co-workers had also found corpses and human bones around the area. Other groups have also previously stated that bodies had been found around Bihac.

From the Bosnian war to the refugee crisis

Kovacevic has a rather personal reason for helping migrants: He lost a leg in the war in Bosnian almost 30 years ago; a doctor in Zagreb saved his life, even though it was forbidden at the time for Croats to help Muslim Bosniaks. 

Zlatan Kovacecic now wants to pay that kindness of a stranger forward and assist those escaping from similar hardship and suffering: “Thanks to the help of others, I survived. Now I just can’t watch these people suffer,” he said. “We have to look at migrants as human beings. And every human being is loved by God.”

Zlatan Kovacecic’s personal story helped him overcome seeing differences in people | Screenshot: DW

But he has also had to listen to a great deal of criticism for helping migrants and refugees; the local population around Bihac was initially against his cause. Nowadays he even receives passive support, for example by locals living in the nearby mountains; they alert SOS Bihac when they spot new migrants hiding out in the forests, so his organization can help them.

Many of them have been victims of pushbacks in the past, during which authorities in Croatia and even Slovenia reportedly stole their shoes and jackets in order to make future attempts less bearable.

While there is more acceptance for his work today, Kovacevic told KNA that “there are still people who hate us. But that’s only a minority.”

100 years of ‘nothing’ for locals

Despite growing understanding for his work, Kovacevic still fails to attract active support by authorities both local and remote: “The EU has created this crisis situation, and is not offering reasonable solutions,” he said, adding that the 90 million euros in aid to Bosnia’s migrant situation had been “squandered by authorities and organizations that fail to provide people with reasonable living conditions.”

“You must know that the people of Bihac have received nothing from the state government in Sarajevo for the last 100 years — except for a fast train that brings 200 refugees here every day. The problem is simply shifted from the capital to another canton,” he stressed.

“Between 100 to 200 refugees arrive here each day who seek to enter the EU. Some manage to eventually cross the border between Bosnia and Croatia, while others are forcibly returned by the police to the region around Bihac,” Kovacevic explained, adding that this trend had continued in this form for the past three years.

Read more: Worse than Lesbos? Migrants in Bosnia in need of help

Children particularly at risk

Meanwhile, the Save the Children charity has urged the international community in a statement to show more support for refugee and migrant children stuck in Bosnia on the Balkan route into the EU. The statement read that solutions needed to be found to provide safe and appropriate accommodation for the roughly 500 minors in the area, who in many cases were unaccompanied.

The children’s charity also stressed that nearly 100 children were either homeless or housed in inadequate accommodations, such as places that were shared with adult men. As a result, they ran the risk of becoming victims of violence and abuse.

Save the Children also highlighted the fact that there had recently been slight improvements for migrant children; for example, they had been granted opportunities to take part in school lessons with local children. 

For Zlatan Kovacevic, however, there’s no end in sight to the dramatic situation: “Let me put it sarcastically: The EU should not give Bosnia any more money, but rather invest everything in its border protection agency Frontex, so that no one at all has the chance to cross over. At least that would be honest.”


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