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How a Pakistani journalist became a refugee in Bosnia

Syrian refugees seen inside the Velika Kladusa refugee camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 12 August 2018
Syrian refugees seen inside the Velika Kladusa refugee camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 12 August 2018

Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

This statement was originally published on media.ba on 4 August 2018.

Notes from Adis Nadarevic's hours-long talk with Muhammad Yasir, a journalist whom he met among the nylon tents of the migrant camp in Velika Kladusa.

Twenty-seven-year-old Muhammad Yasir worked for six years as a cameraman and a reporter for the Pakistani TV Dunya News in his hometown of Faisalabad. In a modest but proud manner he shows photos back from the times when he worked alongside some of the most notable Pakistani journalists, holding his press pass cards and certificate of employment, as well as - ironically - a promotional flyer with a group photo of him and his colleagues marking World Press Freedom Day.

I said ironically because Muhammad is now a migrant who fled Pakistan due to the poor protection of journalists in the country which Freedom House deems as "not free" in their 2018 report on media freedom. Reporters Without Borders even say they see Pakistan as one of the "ten countries where it is not good to be a journalist". And, truly, with the exception of war-torn Syria, Iraq and Somalia, it turns out that only Mexico seems to be a more dangerous place to be a journalist than Pakistan. The facts are that there were 30 journalists killed in Pakistan between 2012 and 2016, which roughly averages to one murder every two months. For the sake of comparison, 46 journalists were killed between 2012 and 2016 in Iraq and 36 of them lost their lives in the civil war in Somalia during the same period. What makes the situation less favorable for Pakistan is the fact that journalists in Iraq, Syria or Somalia are mostly being killed while reporting from battlefields, while in Pakistan journalists are mostly victims of suicide bombers, targeted attacks and assassinations.

One such attack was what prompted Muhammad to make the decision to leave Pakistan. In November 2015, the Dunya News Bureau Office in Faisalabad was the target of a bomber whose attack left three of the channel's employees injured. The grenade was thrown from a motorcycle, what was recorded on CCTV footage Muhammad showed me on his mobile phone. The perpetrators were never identified and the responsibility for this attack was claimed by "Daulat-i-Islamia Khorasan", a radical terrorist group linked to ISIS.

Soon after the blast, the home of Muhammad's uncle came under a firearms attack that forced his family to leave Faisalabad and settle in a village nearby. He decided to leave Pakistan and seek a new life and employment in Europe. He is still keeping the message left by terrorists after the attack on his uncle's home which made him realize that his life in Pakistan was over.


Murders of journalists in Pakistan

Such cases of intimidations, abductions and murders of journalists and other media professionals are not rare in Pakistan, especially since the judiciary fails to deliver any efforts aimed to increase their safety. There were 55 murders of journalists in the last fifteen years and only two cases of murdered journalists were resolved. One of those cases was the murder of Geo News journalist Wali Khan Babar whose brother believes that his brother's murderers still elude justice. He claims that at least seven people - including informants, police officers and their relatives - were killed because they were connected to Wali Babar's case.

One could conclude that the murders linked with attacks or repression against journalists are probably even more common than what was suggested by international organizations' official numbers. Trully, it is not hard for journalists to get into trouble in Pakistan by simply doing their job in a professional way. Press freedom is limited by an official legal censorship that restricts contents that criticize or bring into ridicule the head of state, or members of the armed forces, or executive, legislative or judicial officals. In such circumstances it is rather easy for journalists to cross the border of their freedom, especially on social media. There are cases where some state and military officers have publicly accused journalists of sharing anti-state or anti-military propaganda, which only encourages extremist views regarding the media and freedom of expression. Also, such actions may put journalists in danger because of groups and individuals who could understand these accusations as a permission or a call for murder.


Fleeing Pakistan

Every threat needs to be taken with utmost seriousness, especially if it comes after a grenade being thrown and shots being fired. Muhammad did that when he embarked on a long drive from Faisalabad in Pakistan all the way to Istanbul, Turkey. After a short time in Istanbul he found a truck driver who offered to smuggle him into Austria for 5.000 euro. Yes, contrary to the European point of view - a cameraman in a "third world country" can save some money because the economies of those countries are more developed than we usually think. This said, the city of Faisalabad alone has an average annual GDP of 20.5 billion US dollars, which surpasses the GDP of the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina by four billion dollars.

Muhammad said he had no reason to leave Pakistan because of poverty or unemployment since he was making a pretty decent living there.

"I am not an economic migrant, I was earning enough in Pakistan. People are not seeking refuge only because of poverty but because of fear and a sense of constant danger," he said.

If anyone can trully understand him, those are the people in Bosnia-Herzegovina who are still leaving their country on a massive scale despite the fact that the war stopped in 1995 and the economy is recovering and has a modest but constant growth.

After he had paid to be smuggled from Istanbul to Vienna, Muhammad spent two days locked in a truck with nothing to eat or drink. The truck doors opened in some place that looked like Vienna, but it was not. The truck driver deceived Muhammad, leaving him in not-so-migrant-friendly Budapest.

"I thought I was in Vienna but Hungarian police caught me and detained me. I asked to apply for asylum and they gave me some papers to sign. No lawyer, no interpreter. I signed the papers, I had no choice but to sign them", says Muhammad who, as it turned out, signed his deportation warrant. Although he entered Hungary from Romania, Hungarian authorities got him extradited to Serbia, with the documents he signed by deception.

He had spent more than two months in the refugee camp in Preševo, Serbia, which he sees as a waste of time. He left the camp and crossed the Drina River into Bosnia-Herzegovina, near the village of Brasina in the Serbian municipality of Loznica. According to Muhammad, there is an improvised pram that takes migrants from the Serbian to the Bosnian side of Drina while the border police of the two countries does not seem to be interested in this. There are claims in Bosnia-Herzegovina that the Serbian police is helping migrants to cross the border but Muhammad dismisses such claims: "No, they were not helping us but no one tried to stop us either. There were no patrols on the Serbian side."

Asked about the Bosnian cities on his way, he sad that he remembers going through Sapna, Tuzla and Sarajevo before taking a bus to Bihać and then to Velika Kladuša. Now, he is in the migrant camp in Velika Kladuša after his two attempts to cross the EU borders ended without success. In his first attempt he almost got to Italy while the second attempt ended several kilometers away from Velika Kladuša into Croatian territory near the city of Slunj.

"Slovenians handed me over to Croatian police who robbed me. They [beat] me, they were kicking my legs with heavy boots. They broke my mobile phone, took all my money and set all my belongings on fire. They burned my sleeping bag in front of my eyes," Muhammad explained almost in tears while showing the bruises from the treatment received by the Croatian police.

He does not feel safe in the improvised camp in Velika Kladuša where conditions are far from humane. There are about five hundred migrants sharing four showers and some outdoor toilets which are unusable. They have no other choice but to use bushes around the camp for the purpose of toilets.

"The whole area is one big toilet, it's a matter of time when diseases will start to spread," said one Afghani migrant in the camp. There are some foreign volunteers in the camp, but migrants are rather suspicious about their role. They are full of praise for the Bosnian volunteers and local people but they do not trust foreign volunteers. "What they mostly do is take photos and ask about our routes through the forests. I suspect that they are informing Croatian and Slovenian police about their findings," claims the same Afghani migrant who showed me around.

Muhammad Yasir says he will keep trying to reach his new life, maybe in Italy where his uncle has been living for years. He says he would be happy in any place where he could get a chance to live and work without danger. A return to Pakistan is not an option. Because, he is not - as migrants are sometimes portraited by media - a freeloader, a social-welfare-parasite, a thief, a junkie… he is a victim of his profession and a refugee from media unfreedom. That is why he is calling on all journalists' and media professionals' organizations to help him, since he did not have a chance to rely on protection and help in his homeland. His colleagues in the media are on the move, Muhammad is in Velika Kladuša and waiting for their solidarity and help.


What does the public in Bosnia and Herzegovina say?

They are not refugees. They are freeloading bastards who do not belong here! They need to be put on planes and taken back to where they came from. How can they be refugees when they keep coming from countries where no shots are being fired? The war in Afghanistan has ended long time ago. There's no war in Pakistan, all they want is to suck social benefits in Europe. If given a chance I would kick them out from Bosnia with a stick! They are bringing drugs and crime with them! The EU is trying to make us become a minority in our own country and to replace us with who knows… They are not fleeing away from anything. They are adult males who should return to their countries and fight.

The italicized sentences above were collected from a five-minute long session of reading the comments under one article dedicated to the current migrant crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Una-Sana Canton. This is how dehumanizing reporting on this problem creates the atmosphere of fear and hatred and brings out the worst from people. Besides the fact that such statements present us as inhumane and xenophobic people, they also show our lack of knowledge about other peoples and countries they are coming from. Even if we put common generalizations - to which everybody is more or less prone to when applying collective identities to individuals - aside, we still have to deal with our ignorance about situations in countries the migrants originate from.

Which of these countries are still involved in armed conflicts? Is the war in Afghanistan actually over? What is really happening in Somalia? Who is fighting against who in Syria? Is there a chance to end violence in Palestine? In which particular countries did the Arab Spring took place? Where in the world is Yemen and is that country in some kind of war? What about Pakistan, at least in Pakistan is everything okay, right?

These are some questions to which an average Bosnian comment-dropper usually has no answer. To be fair, some of them were a mystery to me too before my visit to the migrant camp in Velika Kladuša where I met migrants from many different countries of Asia and Africa. And no, things in Pakistan are not okay. At least this is what I have learned from several hours of talking with Muhammad, the Pakistani journalist I met among the nylon tents of a migrant camp.

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