The body of Soki Walladi, a migrant from Chad, was pulled out of the Korana River in 2020 and buried in Skakavac, a village near Karlovac. His life story is just another example of the tragic destinies of migrants, and his grave is just one of the many graves scattered throughout Croatia, on whose territory at least 62 migrants have died since the beginning of 2017

BY: Tamara Opačić / Novosti

Hossain Soki Walladi used to say that he had been born twice. The first time in the Republic of Chad, a country whose regime killed his father and brother and put him in prison. The second time in Sweden, where he tried to build a new life for himself. Soki was 15 years old when military forces stormed his village and escorted him to the police station. They asked him to reveal to them where members of his immediate family, supporters of the local resistance movement, were hiding. “Since I did not have the answers to their questions, they took it out on me. They beat me, put out cigarettes on my body, injured me with the remains of cans and pieces of glass,” Soki once testified. He was released after eight months of torture and learned that his older brother and father had been liquidated in the meantime. As soon as he took care of his mother’s funeral, who had passed away shortly after these events, he fled to Libya, from where he left for Europe in 2001. He arrived in Boden, where he sought asylum, when he was 17 years old. However, the Swedish migration system treated him as if he were of age, i.e., an adult.

– Such practice used to be common in our country. Swedish authorities simply ignored what was written in Soki’s birth certificate, the only document that he possessed. In addition to this, they could not find anyone who spoke the language of his tribe, so they presented him with a piece of paper that said he spoke Swahili and Arabic. Being illiterate and frightened, he signed it without asking any questions. This mistake followed him to the very end, because of it he was marked as unreliable – says in an interview with Novosti Soki’s long-time friend Anna, who met him at the premises of the Red Cross in Boden, where he volunteered with her mother.

Hossain Soki Walladi 1984 – 2020 (Photo: Private archives)

In the following years, with the help of a local teacher, Soki learned to write and speak Swedish, he adopted a cat which he called Nisa, and gained a wide circle of friends with whom he had travelled all over the country. For some time, he also volunteered in the Boden commune and as an escort to the infirm. Being a favourite among the commune beneficiaries, his supervisor once escorted him to the migration office, trying to help him to at least get a work permit. However, all these efforts were in vain because the competent court rejected Soki’s request for asylum on several different occasions. At the same time, his native country of Chad denied him permission to return. This went on until January 2018, when he was detained and deported soon afterwards to Central Africa.

– After so many years spent in Sweden, this was a very traumatic experience for Soki and for all of us who knew him – says Anna, who remained in contact with her long-time friend.

He would call her once a month, and whenever she would ask him about his situation in Chad, he answered brusquely. The last time they spoke was two years ago.

– As usual, he wanted me to tell him about my family and his other friends. We reminisced about some funny situations, so we ended the conversation laughing. He never once told me that he was on his way to Europe again. Not at all. He probably didn’t want us to worry. Because of this, I experienced a terrible shock when a few months later I was called by the Swedish police and asked if I knew anyone named Soki, the person who was found dead in Croatia with that name on a bank card – adds our interlocutor, who then helped the Croatian Ministry of the Interior (MUP), through Interpol, in the process of identifying the casualty.

On June 28, 2020, the body of Soki Walladi was pulled out of the Korana River in the Pavlovac area near Slunj. Although almost all the circumstances of his death have remained unknown to this day, it is to be assumed that he drowned after managing to cross the Croatian border from Velika Kladuša, and while trying to get back to Western Europe via Slovenia.

– In Boden, we still cannot believe that this really happened. We speak of him often and we miss him immensely. His small hands that prepared coffee and food for us, his big brown eyes, the smile and tenderness with which he showered us – Anna remembers her close friend, whose body was buried in Skakavac, a Croatian village 3,000 kilometres away from Boden.

In the cemetery, located in the village not far from Karlovac, we found Soki’s grave very quickly. Although it is located at the very edge of a large plot, it is almost impossible not to notice it. It is covered with a pile of earth from which two tall, wooden tombstones protrude. The brown one is marked 1-9-1C, under which Ait and Rachid, two Moroccans whose bodies were found in the Mrežnica River in the summer of 2020, are buried next to Soki. The grave next to theirs, with a green tombstone marked 1-9-1A, is the final resting place of four other young men: Ali from Bangladesh, Ratib from Syria, Yasser from Morocco, and Eslam from Egypt. Their graves are the only ones in that part of the cemetery with no flowers or candles.

Although the crime reports in the local media and official statistics of various institutions as a rule treat their deaths as accidental, all seven of these men are victims of a relentless European migration policy that has prevented them from traveling to the West of Europe in search of a better life, of friends or relatives. Those like Soki Walladi, who for different reasons, most often related to war, were never able to obtain the necessary documents, such a policy criminalized and labelled them as illegal migrants. It also placed physical obstacles in front of them – razor wires, long border fences, armed police patrols – and thus de facto deprived them of the right to free movement and access to international protection. In other words, it directed them toward inaccessible border crossings, on a certain path of death intersected by rivers, seas, mountains, cliffs, railroad tracks, and minefields.

The grave of an unidentified person on Popović Brdo (Photo: Selma Banich)

Since the beginning of 2017, i.e., the turn in the EU’s attitude towards refugees from the Middle East, at least 62 migrants have died in Croatia: 37 drowned, nine froze, five died in traffic accidents, two in train collisions, two died of pulmonary oedema or lung failure, and as many from natural causes. One person was killed by falling into a pit or from a height, one from electric shock, and one from landmines. In one case, a man who died this year has still not had an autopsy, so the cause of his death remains unknown. In the same five-year period, a total of 140 migrants were injured, of which 83 slightly and 57 severely, according to the information we received from the Ministry of the Interior, noting that the statistics refer to “third-country nationals who entered the Republic of Croatia illegally through EU’s external borders and are residing here illegally.”

The largest number of migrants died in the Karlovac and Primorje-Gorski Kotar counties, but deaths were also recorded in the counties of Osijek-Baranja, Vukovar-Srijem, Sisak-Moslavina, Lika-Senj, Brod-Posavina, and Istria. Since the bodies are most often buried in local cemeteries closest to the place of death, their graves are scattered around the villages near Otok, Novska, Karlovac, Duga Resa, Ozalj, Ogulin, and so on. Only a small number have since been exhumed and returned to their countries of origin, partly because the deceased have no more family members left or because said members are scattered around the world due to armed conflicts, and partly because of the complex and expensive process, the price of which, depending on the distance and local bureaucracy, can reach amounts as high as several thousand euros.

Only in the area of the City of Karlovac, where the local utility company Zelenilo, Ltd. takes care of the burials, 13 migrants have been buried since January 2018. Their graves were visited by the researchers working on the European Irregularized Migration Regime at the Periphery of the EU (ERIM) project. At the invitation of Marijana Hameršak, a scientist from the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research and project leader, they were joined by artist and activist Selma Banich.

– Normally, it is common practice that the names of the victims in Karlovac County are not found on the graves, even when their identities have been determined. In addition to the fact that almost all graves are decontextualized, i.e., that they do not contain information about where the deceased people came from, when they were born, or what the cause of their suffering was, it was frightening to understand that these were the bodies of people who were persecuted in various ways. They did not have the right to free movement, access to the asylum system, liberty to choose the place and circumstances in which they could live their lives – says Banich and points out that only at the time of their death is there a complete turn in the attitude of the regime and its institutions.

– That is when hospitals, pathology units, utility companies, the police, and embassies start dealing with their corpses, which are buried in the same ground from which they were persecuted until yesterday. This is pure hypocrisy of this country, the European regime of migration control, capitalism, and colonialism – she adds.

During their first visit to the cemetery in Skakavac, says Selma Banich, they experienced complete shock, because they were not at all sure if something was a grave or just a ditch, or how many people were buried in each of them. This was one of the reasons for launching a public, commemorative gesture, which resulted in the creation of “Prijelaz / The Passage,” a memorial canvas with 36 portraits of people killed on their migrant journeys through the Balkans. Artists, scientists, activists, and other members of the Women to Women collective and the ERIM project took part in its creation.

– With this type of decolonial practice, we wanted to enable the local community to see the fatality of the oppressive migration regime through the process of public mourning so that it would start opposing it – Banich explains.

Most migrants met their ends in rivers. Pictured here is the Dobra River (Photo: Tamara Opačić)

During that time, the Ministry of the Interior (MUP) points out that the Croatian police “are undertaking all activities in order to save migrants from dangerous situations.” “Activities of the Croatian police with the aim of intensified surveillance of the state border and prevention of organized criminal groups actions include not only preventing illegal migration and maintaining a favourable security situation at the state border, but also protecting the lives and safety of all persons, including those trying to enter the territory of the Republic of Croatia illegally,” states the response that Novosti received from the competent ministry. The Ministry of the Interior also spoke proudly of “too many cases to count, which were all covered by the media, when the Croatian police rescued migrants whose lives were endangered due to deep snow and hypothermia, moving through impassable mountains without proper equipment or injuries obtained by falling off cliffs, or who needed to be pulled out of rivers because they could not reach the shore given that the terrain configuration was demanding.”

However, Selma Banich reminds that many deaths of people on the move are a direct result of pushbacks, i.e., violent persecutions, as was the case with Madina Hussiny, an Afghan girl who died after being hit by a train in late 2017, just after the Croatian police forced her and her family back to Serbia. Testimonies obtained by activists gathered around the international organisation of NGOs and other associations – Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVM), prove that a large number of violent and illegal deportations, estimated at about 50 percent, are carried out by the Croatian police by forcing refugees into rivers and then walking or swimming to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). According to the BVM report for 2021, such practices are most common around the village of Šturlić near Cazin, where the Croatian-Bosnian border is located on the Korana River. In a testimony recorded last spring, five underage Afghans confirmed that they had been expelled by the Croatian police at that site. After they were caught on the territory of the Republic of Croatia and transported to the embankment by van, they were ordered to lie on their stomachs and the police started beating their legs with batons. They then forced them to cross the border over the river, which they could not do as the river was too deep in that part. “Some people had already drowned in that place, there were weak swimmers among us, but we had to jump into the water to stop the beating. It was terrible,” said one of the pushback victims.

– I speak from experience when I say that our local institutions are in the absolute service of the migration regime of the European Union and its member states, which has all the hallmarks of modern fascism. Croatia, which is currently assigned the role of the guardian of the area between Schengen and EU’s external border, is carrying out only part of the tasks of this complex system. Problems for people on the move do not begin or end in Croatia. In political terms, the root of the problem is the exploitation of entire communities and resources in their countries of origin, which is why they are literally forced to flee from poverty and wars, which are, after all, financed from the EU budget – says Banich.

– Even when they do manage to reach Western Europe, where many of these people have family members and friends, their lives are conditioned by residence, work, and other types of permits. They are most often exploited as cheap labour, modern slaves who pick vegetables and fruits for the shelves of our supermarkets – the artist adds.

A portrait of Ahmad Kahlil Ibrahim created as part of the artistic-activist project “The Passage”

The statistics of the Missing Migrants Project initiative, backed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), confirm that the fatal policies of the migration regime and the negligence of the media and the public regarding the deaths of people leaving their homes in search of security are not just a characteristic of Croatia. From 2014 until today, they have recorded 48,231 refugee deaths worldwide, in other words, at least 16 deaths per day. This is the lowest estimate because many bodies have never been found, especially those drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, a mass grave of the new age, in which at least 2,048 people died in 2021. In recent years, since the formal closure of the so-called “Balkan refugee route,” European rivers, from the Marica and the Drina to the Korana and the Kupa, are becoming increasingly deadly. As one of the key problems, IOM points out the lack of interest of governments and insufficient allocation of funds for finding and identifying the bodies.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, this is a complex process in which, in case of Croatia, several different institutions are involved. “When a dead person is found, the police conduct an investigation, after which the body is transported to the Clinical Institute of Pathology and Forensic Medicine. After that, a criminal investigation is conducted in order to determine the cause of death and injuries, and the competent state attorney’s office is informed about the event,” the police told us. Identity is established by finding personal documents, identification by those who reported the disappearance, and dactyloscopic and DNA analysis. “In cases when data about the person’s citizenship is available and known, the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs (MVEP) informs the foreign diplomatic and consular mission in the Republic of Croatia, which is then involved in further proceedings, both in informing the family and in further care of taking over the body. In cases when the identity cannot be determined by the stated procedures, the body is kept in forensic medicine until identification,” states the response of the Ministry of the Interior. The Ministry added that, according to the information available to the border police, identities of 14 people killed on Croatian territory have still not been determined.

That number would have been even higher if part of the work, which should otherwise be done by state institutions, had not been taken over by volunteers and activists who help refugees and their relatives. Information and photographs, crucial for finding the missing and identifying the deceased, are most often shared through social media. In the Balkan context, the largest community is the Facebook group “Dead and Missing in the Balkans.” In one of the latest posts, a girl from Serbia is begging for information about Seif, a 30-year-old man from Tunisia. “He disappeared somewhere between Serbia and Bosnia. He last called his family on May 14, 2019. He has a tattoo on his arm. If anyone has any information, do not hesitate to direct message me,” it says under the young man’s photo.

Thanks to one such initiative, the identity of Ahmad Kahlil Ibrahim was determined, and his grave was found. From the first day, the life of this Palestinian man was marked by war, exile, and suffering. He was born in Syria, where his family fled during the Arab-Israeli conflict. In his new home of Damascus, where he worked as an electrician, Ahmad started a family. At the beginning of another war, their house was razed to the ground in 2013, and then 33-year-old Ahmad and his wife Rabah with their three children went into exile in Beirut. Due to the extreme poverty in which they lived in one of the Lebanese refugee camps, Ahmad left for Germany in the summer of 2017, with his two relatives. It took him a year to reach the Bosnian-Croatian border, from where he was pushed back by the Croatian police. Ahmad’s next attempt at the game (attempt to cross the border) was fatal. At the end of 2018, his body was found in the Dobra River, in the area of the Municipality of Generalski Stol. Since he did not have any documents with him, he was buried in the local cemetery in Lipa under the designation “John Doe.”

Silvia Maraone (Photo: Private archives))

It would probably have stayed at that if Silvia Maraone from the Italian non-governmental humanitarian organization IPSIA (Institute for Peace, Development, Innovation), which has been present in area of the former Yugoslavia since the late 1990s, had not joined in. Since the outbreak of the refugee crisis, she has been active on the Balkan route, and in addition to providing direct psycho-social assistance, she has also helped refugees by publishing useful information on her blog. At the end of 2018, she shared information on the dead and missing in the Balkans on there. That is why Ahmad’s relatives got in touch with her a few months later, asking her for help.

– Since I had no information about the man, I did not know what to do. But at the same time, I wanted to help, I guess thinking that everything would go smoothly – recalls Silvia Maraone, who started researching the case in January 2019.

She soon found news on a local portal about a missing migrant who fell into the river near the Skubin Waterfall, and she then addressed a number of institutions on behalf of Ahmad’s family, including the following: the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service, the Karlovac police, and the Syrian consulate in Zagreb. After the body of the then unidentified man was found in the Dobra River, she also mediated in conducting a DNA analysis, at the same time encouraging the family members of the deceased, who received conflicting information, to keep at it.

– Thanks to the Red Cross, which joined in on the case, Ahmad’s cousin from Germany arrived in Croatia and gave a blood sample. The identity of the victim was confirmed soon afterwards, but we still did not have the answer to another important question: “Where is Ahmad’s body?” A year later, we found out that he was buried in Lipa – Silvia tells us.

The grave of Ahmad Kahlil Ibrahim in Lipa (Photo: Tamara Opačić)

Right before the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and the closing of the borders, this Italian humanitarian went to the village of Lipa near Duga Resa, but as Ahmad’s grave was unmarked, she could not find it. Since it was a Sunday, she went to a nearby church, waited until the end of service, and then addressed the priest.

– We were soon joined by a woman, Valentina. She was the most valuable person I could find in that strange place and in this whole chaotic story. Because she was a nurse, who once actually volunteered in Syria, she was extremely empathetic. She took me to the grave where a cross stood, so I asked her if there was any chance we could arrange it in accordance with Islamic tradition and add a name tag to it. Although Ahmad’s identity was established months earlier, no one had informed the local community, most responsible for one wonderful gesture – our interlocutor adds.

After Silvia’s visit, the inhabitants of Lipa and the surrounding villages started revamping Ahmad’s last resting place. They placed decorative stones on the earthen grave and his name, surname, year, and place of birth and death were engraved on a wooden plate and decorated with flowers. Thus, Ahmad Kahlil Ibrahim was given back at least some of his dignity, which had been rudely taken away from him on the walls of the fortress of Europe two years earlier.

(To be continued)