The Game

‘The Game’, they call it. Sounds nice, right? Well, it’s not. I’ve just found out what it actually is. As it turns out, ‘The Game’ has a gruesome resemblance to ‘The Hunger Games’ – yet, it happens right here, in front of us, in Europe. K.*, 17, played the Game four times already, and will probably try again soon.

We are with thirteen ‘Europeans’ and one refugee on the call. There are people from the Walk of Shame team, and a few relatively new people (like me) from Poland, Italy, the Netherlands and France. We are talking with K. He is also in Europe, but can’t call himself a European yet – or ever, we don’t know at this point. For now, K. is stuck in a place where you find yourself when you can’t go back, but are not allowed to go further either.

Bira camp

K. tells us about his life in the camp. Sounds fun, right, a “camp” ? If you think about a school camp, then maybe, but not if you think about WWII of course. In K.’s case, the ‘camp’ is in Bosnia, and it is a refugee camp for minors. He is 17 and fled from Pakistan.

I am nervous about what questions we’re supposed to ask. Afraid of awkward moments, being so privileged, interviewing someone about his terrible life. Fortunately, one guy, Loïc, starts with this question: ‘What is a typical day for you?’.

We learn that K. lives in a room, or rather a container, gets food at certain times every day, has a very peculiar sleep rhythm and spends his days talking with some guys from the organisations working in the camp, and on his phone. He seems like a very sociable guy, making friends with everyone. During the lock-down, all the people in the camp are even more stuck inside then ever, but somehow the camp also provides a degree of safety: ‘I am happy in this camp,’ he says, ‘I do not like going out and then not getting in anymore. Outside are fires and fights.’ 

Someone else, Layla, asks what life is like for a teenager in the camp. K. answers that he misses his family. He is far away from his parents and loved ones – ‘It is very hard.’ He worries a lot about his mum and dad: are they okay? Are they safe? Are they healthy? Are they worried? Of course they are worried. Their son is here.

K.’s plan is to go to Italy and start a life as a teacher. Eventually, he would like to go back to Pakistan and move his career there. The thing is, he tried to get to Italy four times already. It’s a 25-day walk to the Italian border, or 10-day if you’re a fast walker. K. is not a fast walker, he says. If you have money, you can take a ‘taxi’ to pass through a part of the route. There are several possible ways to go through Croatia and Slovenia to reach Italy. The main obstacle, however, is the regional police. Once they catch you, they may use violence and sometimes take your belongings. I wonder how many people actually get killed in the process. I can imagine ‘accidents’ that happen and just never get reported. However, when you are caught and they let you live, you are ‘Game Over’ and ‘pushed back’ – as they put it –, back to the start. Back to Croatia, to Slovenia or just all the way back to Bosnia.

Back to the camp. Are the people allowed back into their camp? I ask K. ‘Before the coronavirus, it was like this: you’d need the camp ID card. Without the camp ID card, you couldn’t enter the camp. So you’d need to live outside the camp or in broken houses,’ K. explains. ‘But if you are outside the camp with no camp card, if the police catch you, they’d take you to camp Lipa. Camp Lipa is actually not for minors, I heard. If minors go there, the police will take them back to camp Bira.’

‘But if you do have a camp ID card, then when you go out of the camp, by showing that card you can again come in. Even when we went out to the Game and we were caught by the police, still we would have the card, we could come back into the camp again…’

‘Now, because of the coronavirus, everyone is on the list to go on a Game,’ says K. ‘It is pasted on the entry gates. I think the International Organization for Migration makes the list. And when it’s your turn you give your card to the security and go to the Game. Day by day, many are going to Game and the police follow them to make sure they don’t go in the centre of Bihać.’

It is even organised like a real Game! I am amazed.

The regional police officers allow the Game to happen. They accompany the ones on the top of the List on their way. The police officers of another region are the ones you should be afraid of, as they can push you back.

But for the ones who just run away from the camp, if they get caught by the same police around the camp, they are taken to camp Lipa. Apparently, camp Lipa is another step down. ‘I heard that a refugee who is not good with others can be sent to the Lipa camp too, and from there will be deported after 14 days, or whenever the lock-down ends.’ Lipa is the punishment if you’re bad, and the final stage before being deported back home. ‘Home’.

K. speaks about his life as if these things were just normal rules of life, as if he was explaining the rules of the Game of the Goose. Today, he’s quite tired and the wifi connection is bad, but he seems bright and handsome and doesn’t seem emotional about any of it. Even about his former roommate, who is in the Game as we speak, he does not seem be sad or worried. He doesn’t know whether or not his ex-roommate is being beaten or what is going on. It is a long walk, and K. is not sure whether his former roommate is going to make it. Perhaps ‘InshAllah’ is the best expression in this situation. If Allah wills it. 

I can feel how all of the Europeans here are horrified with this Game. 

Then Gerdina asks a question that almost makes me cry: ‘What gives you hope?’

No one can imagine K. even has a little spark of hope left in his body. Would it not make more sense that all of these refugees become apathetic and lethargically depressed in their containers, waiting for a death sentence or a miracle, being detained in jail while being innocent? ‘What gives you hope, if anything?’

K. is tightly holding on to his social contacts, partially online. That’s for sure. But hope is what he gets from his family’s prayers, he explains, and from all the moments of being in the Game when there’s no police in sight. Then, there is hope. 

‘My dream is not finished,’ he says. Every day, K. talks on the phone with Anna, an Italian activist who is also here on the video call. They chat about everything and he asks her questions about what he should do when he’ll arrive in Italy. K. has learned the Italian song “Bella Ciao” for her, recorded it and sent it to her. You can tell how Anna’s soul is touched deeply by this boy. She would do anything to help him.

Anna says there are great volunteers in Trieste, to help the people who’ve arrived in Italy after playing the Game successfully. They are there to clean peoples’ feet and bandage their legs.

Because that is what the refugees do. They don’t go on a well-prepared pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela with brand new mountaineering gear. They don’t eat in restaurants or sleep in hotels. They play the (Hunger) Game, walk the journey until their feet are bloody and broken, through a minefield of possible police attacks and with the hope that one day they will be admitted on the other side. The side of the privileged Europeans.

‘Alhamdulilah’. All praise is due to God alone.

by Sabine Wassenberg, philosopher, the Netherlands

*K.’s name was removed for privacy purposes.

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