Photographers' Blog

Tightening Croatia’s borders

Along the Croatia border

By Antonio Bronic

Two months ago, I started working on a story about Croatia’s border police preparing for the country’s EU accession and trying to prevent illegal migrants from crossing into Croatia. For a media person, it is indeed rare to hang out with the police for 24 hours and I was afraid they would be stiff and uncooperative. How wrong I was. They were friendly and nice and, in the end, even took pity on my efforts to capture something dramatic on camera.

I visited three border crossings, two in the south, with Bosnia and Montenegro, and one in the east, with Serbia. I was mostly interested in finding out who were the people trying to cross the border illegally. They were mostly poor and unemployed citizens of Afghanistan, Syria and Albania, who wanted to reach rich European countries through Croatia, in hopes of finding salvation there.

From talking with the police who have been patrolling the borders for years, I found out that some illegal migrants travel for two months from Afghanistan and are really starving, thirsty, exhausted and poorly clad once they are caught. In some cases they surrender voluntarily to the police, just to get some food. Those who are captured are returned to the country from which they crossed into Croatia but that often does not stop them from trying again. There have been cases of illegal migrants who have tried to cross the border for ten days in a row. One of the most interesting and amusing stories I heard while hanging out with the border patrol was that once illegal migrants mistakenly entered a police van, thinking it was their arranged transport that would take them to another country.

I was just as unfortunate.

During the ten days I spent there I did not manage to photograph a single illegal migrant in action. Just a day before my arrival on the border crossing with Serbia, one Afghan man was captured. One day after my departure, of course, the police seized nine Syrians and two Albanians who had been hiding in a nearby village and waiting for a bus to their next destination. Abandoned houses in local villages are often used as a temporary shelter in which the migrants change their clothes or take a nap, always in a hurry, and often leave their old clothes scattered around the fields.
For the police, it is certainly the most difficult to arrest mothers with small children, and such cases are unfortunately not rare, they said.

The crossings I visited were in sparsely populated ares, near villages or towns with only a handful of residents, all of them known to the police. Every new face was therefore easily registered and observed with suspicion, which I was able to feel upon myself. Because my license plates were not from the area, local police grew suspicious of me as soon as I came to a place and immediately had me checked by radio.

Neither Croat, nor Serb

Knin, Croatia

By Antonio Bronic

Ethnic conflict shook Croatia to the core during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Today, both Serbs and Croats in the country still bear the scars – something clearly visible if you visit the areas around the southern town of Knin. Before the war broke out, most of Knin’s citizens were Serbs. When Croatia declared independence in 1991, Serbs who wanted to remain part of Yugoslavia staged a bloody rebellion, and Knin became their stronghold. The town was recaptured by the Croatian army in 1995 and the Serb population fled in the thousands, leaving behind their homes, most of which were soon torched or blown up by the Croats.

After the war ended, some of the Serbs returned and Croatian authorities promised they would receive equal assistance in rebuilding their damaged properties. But 18 years after the conflict, many are still making do with basic or temporary living arrangements. Croatia, preparing to join the European Union on July 1, has told the EU that houses for returning refugees would be constructed. I thought I would go and investigate the situation, and after a bit of research and a few phone calls, I managed to find people to talk to both in Knin and the surrounding areas.

Among them, I found Croatian Serbs whose houses are still in ruins, who are struggling to make ends meet, and who have survived on welfare since their return. One of them is Sava Knezevic, who has been living in a barn next to his destroyed home for 17 years now, and ekes out a meagre living by collecting and selling discarded plastic bottles. Instead of a toilet he uses bushes around the back, he has one electric socket in the barn, a small bed and a wood burning stove – and these are all of his possessions.

Der Ball ist rund und das Spiel dauert 90 Minuten

“Der Ball ist rund und das Spiel dauert 90 Minuten” – the ball is round and the match lasts 90 minutes - words of wisdom from Sepp Herberger, known as the ’Miracle from Berne’, most famous as German national coach of the team which won the 1954 World Cup. 

The other night we had something like a miracle from Vienna – Michael Ballack struck a thunderbolt free kick to send an unconvincing Germany through to the quarter-finals of the European Soccer Championshop 2008 with a 1-0 win over co-hosts Austria. Ballack’s free kick, right-footed into the top corner and clocked at 121 kilometres an hour by a German TV station exactly describes, what acording to another German saying, is the whole point of the game, “das Runde muss ins Eckige – the round thing must go in the rectangular thing.

So that is easy enough – isnt it??

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1. Germany’s Michael Ballack (4thL) scores from a free kick during their Group B Euro 2008 soccer match against Austria at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna, June 16, 2008.     REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach.  2.  Austria’s goal keeper Juergen Macho fails to save a free kick by Germany’s Michael Ballack during their Group B Euro 2008 soccer match at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna June 16, 2008.     REUTERS/Christian Charisius