Katie Finn is a Jacksonville, Florida native and recent graduate of the University of Edinburgh, located in Scotland. She has spent most of her 26-years in the United States (U.S.) but has lived and worked in four Southern African countries, supporting rural socio-economic development. While completing her master’s degree in Scotland, she was introduced to the European Refugee Crisis and has since changed her career focus from development to humanitarian aid.
In 2020, she volunteered with a small Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in Bosnia and Herzegovina (most commonly known as Bosnia), providing emergency relief to migrants and refugees trapped in the country. She plans to return to Bosnia in March and continue distributing emergency aid.
*** All photos were taken by Katie Finn and are used with the subjects’ permission.
I crouched on the ground next to the fire and watched as the young man peeled his sock off his swollen foot. It was crusted with dried blood and he gasped slightly when I touched the skin around the wound. I looked up and saw six faces staring down at us, none of them older than twenty, but aged well beyond their years. The foot in front of me was obviously broken but there was no infection. Someone held a flashlight over us while I cleaned, treated, and wrapped the wound with a bandage. When he replaced his shoe and hobbled off, another man sat down on the log and offered me his own foot, as bloody and disfigured as the first. As I worked, we spoke quietly and the story behind their injuries unraveled; a horrifying glimpse into the depths of human cruelty set against the bleak backdrop of desperation.
Bosnia and Herzegovina have seen more than its share of violence and its people have gracefully shouldered their painful history. Now, more than twenty-five years after the Bosnian war, the nation is experiencing an influx of migrants. In the last three years, more than 70,000 migrants and refugees have entered the country with their sights set firmly on neighboring Croatia and the European Union (EU) beyond. They are fleeing civil war in Syria, violent terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, chronic hunger in North Africa, and relentless ethnic or religious persecution from which they are desperate to escape.
Most of the People on the Move in Bosnia are single men, often their family only hopes for eventual safety and relief. Under this immense pressure, these men and boys have traveled over 3,000 miles to the doorstep of the EU and have been stopped cold in their tracks. The final border lies between Bosnia and Croatia and it is testament to the strength of Fortress Europe. Although it is not impenetrable, the border is considered one of the most difficult and dangerous obstacles that men and families face on their journey to safety.
Croatian border police are outfitted with state-of-the-art technology to keep people out. When the thermal game cameras and heat-sensing drones fail, they deploy vicious attack dogs on men, women, and minors alike. The point is to inflict injuries and dissuade any more attempts to cross. However, they don’t fully grasp that these people are running from greater pain than their batons inflict. People on the Move will not stop coming because they move out of desperation; to stay is to die, to move is to hope, and hope is the hardest thing to destroy.
This story does not belong to me. Instead, I am humbled to be a voice for those who I met and served during my time in Bosnia. I was there for two months as a volunteer for a small, grassroots organization that supports People on the Move in Bosnia, Serbia, and Greece. Each situation has its challenges, but the local government proved to be the most difficult obstacle. I was stationed in Bihac, a small city just miles from the Croatian border. There, People on the Move stop to prepare for their crossing attempt. It is there they will return, broken and discouraged after failing.
In 2020, the local government in Bihac outlawed all distribution of aid to migrants and refugees. Unbelievably, we were at constant risk of deportation for giving clothes and food to freezing, hungry people. Worse, my first-aid treatment was punishable with jail time, so I did most of my work under the cover of night. I improvised by filling a huge backpack with food and clothes; I met groups in the forest camps and abandoned buildings where they lived.
I was always met with a cup of tea or offered a bit of food from their fires and as I treated wounds and handed out socks. I learned their names and their stories. To shake their hands and accept their thanks afterward was difficult. Although I never let them see, I was often overcome with the knowledge that they would sleep huddled together in the cold and face the next day with admirable, eternal optimism.
I have since returned to the U.S. and have been welcomed home with open arms by my family and community. When I tell people about the crisis in Bosnia and the friends who I have left there, I am often asked: “What will happen to them?” I do not know, but the question is always on my mind. When I place bags of flour and rice into open hands, when I fit a man for a jacket that is just a little too big, when they tell me a joke in broken English, my mind is working over this question, trying to find an answer that I can live with.
Like all major problems of our time, the migration and refugee crisis is terribly complicated. Indeed, it is a wicked problem, the source of which is seemingly insurmountable. I blame instabilities; the economic, financial, and social instabilities that have ruptured and poisoned entire nations. The results are failed states, but not failed spirits, and these spirits are making their way across seas and borders like a procession of candles in the dark.
The solution to their suffering is in the hands of people and factors far removed from the lives that depend on it. In contrast, the work of volunteers and aid professionals is to help right now. Every day, my team worked to feed and clothe as many people as possible with limited resources. At one time, there were only three of us to buy, pack and distribute food for almost 450 people a week, which is still only a drop in the bucket.
In Bihac alone, we estimate that there are 2,500 people living in the forests around the city or in decrepit houses and abandoned buildings. They get their water from streams then cook over fires in the woods. If they don’t have wood, they burn garbage to stay warm and keep their fingers from freezing. They sleep on concrete or frozen ground and dream of life after Bosnia.
I’m told it is humiliating to exist in a place that doesn’t want you, to move among people who no longer welcome you, to accept clothes that don’t fit and food you don’t like.
I had a friend tell me that he sees his life as a great sacrifice. At 29, Ahmad left Morocco for an opportunity in Europe. He is very proud of two things: his Master’s degree in Engineering and his little brother, Abdullah. Ahmad is in his prime, sharp and ready to work. He yearns to contribute to a society that takes care of its own and pledges loyalty to a country that he can be proud of. He loves to learn and was accepted to a University in France in 2015.
Unfortunately, he could not secure a student visa. Now, he sleeps in a makeshift shelter of tarps and rope and teaches Abdullah English by firelight. When I spend time with him, I feel a sense of loss that I can’t quite explain. Perhaps it is for the years he has lost to endless, wasted days and shivering nights. Or for the irreplaceable moments with a family-like birthday, holidays, and joyful meals, or for his engineering career that he put on pause.
My work in Bosnia is just the beginning. Although I am not solving the problems of yesterday, I am sustaining lives that may have a chance to solve them tomorrow. If Ahmad and Abdullah make it to France and find jobs, they can lift their families out of poverty. Later, they can sponsor their younger cousins to come to study, and maybe they will return to Morocco better equipped to effect change and speak against the corrupt hegemony that cripples the country today.
The night that I tended to six pairs of broken feet, I was shocked and revolted by the human capacity for senseless violence. I sat stunned as those boys recounted their attempt to cross into Croatia the day before. They reached the border at night, a wide clearing marked by a dark green line on their Global Positioning System (GPS). They listened for movement beyond the trees and hearing nothing, they ran hard. While they spoke, I imagined their sprint, fueled by adrenaline, fear, and hope that their lives would truly begin just beyond the tree line. None of them would make it.
First, they heard the dogs in the dark and then their worlds went white, blinded by headlights. Border police were on them in an instant, throwing them to the ground with rough hands and knees on their necks. They were made to lay down in a line and wait while an officer took a baton to their bare feet, beating each until it was satisfactorily broken, one by one. Then, they were thrown into the back of a police van and driven for hours to a remote spot in the woods, on the Bosnian side. They were thrown out of the van, stripped of their jackets and shoes, and robbed of their cell phones and cash. The van drove away, leaving them alone to find their way back to civilization… slowly… painfully.
I left them that night, only to return time after time with medicine, clothes, and food. I consider them friends, we keep in touch and I’m happy to say that their wounds have mostly healed since then and they will try to cross again in the springtime. I have since let their story and those of others change the course of my life. As happy as I am to be home safely, I am haunted by my memories and the knowledge of what is happening in the Balkans. The injustice, the senseless violence, the friendships that persevere through it all…it is for these reasons that I will return to Bihac in March to continue my work.
I have designed a voucher system that will allow groups and families to shop locally for themselves and buy what they need with dignity. The benefits of such a program are two-fold:
- Vouchers allow people to shop with dignity while supporting local Bosnian businesses. I believe that channeling funds in this way will begin to change negative opinions about migrants and refugees while providing more effective support.
- The vouchers can be distributed electronically through social platforms like Facebook, via text message, and physically to those people returning from the border without cell phones.
The program is a practical and humane response to a dangerous situation. I will no longer risk my safety or theirs by carrying pounds of supplies in view of police. It is my hope that this program offers relief and choices to people who have had everything taken from them. I want people to remember that their decisions are worthy of respect, that their dreams are not unattainable, and that their hope will carry them forward to the life that they deserve.
If you would like to hear more about the crisis in Bosnia or support Katie’s work in Bihac in any way, please get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, you can donate to her relief fund directly here https://www.gofundme.com/f/clothes-and-food-to-freezing-refugees