Ines Tanović Sijerčić: People on the move will often tell you that they have never received so much help and support as they did from people living in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Photo: Nikola Blagojević (Spektroom) for Gracija

Ines Tanović Sijerčić, an art historian, former journalist and longtime worker in the civil sector, has been volunteering for six years, helping people on the move. The last two years she has been intensively helping people on the move trying to pass through Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

By doing what she believes in and not going against her own life principles, always with a “margin” as her own choice, she fights against the capitalist machine in which we live with solidarity and empathy.

If there were no people like her, it would be really difficult to expect anything from a government that is not able to take care of its own population and especially not the people who pass through BiH. She is always on the front line, reconciled to the fact that the precariat is her permanent condition. She chose humanity with all the challenges instead of project keyword selection.

By: Kristina Ljevak

In the worst situation in the last three years since people on the move were detained within the borders of BiH, you managed to enable the Kompas 071 day center, thanks to which people on the move can get a hot beverage, dry clothes, charge their phone, take a shower, and most importantly have a little human communication as well. After years of unsuccessfully literally begging the authorities to at least provide you with some space for an info point that would be a safe address for people, you managed to do much more. I guess without institutional support. How did you manage to realize this noble idea in the first place? Where is the day center? How are the costs of the facility financed? How can people help?

We never expected institutional support. How can you expect a city, canton or state to give you the space and support for this kind of work, when it is unable to do so for many other categories of the local population, such as artists or people working in culture in general? How long have there been ideas by many artists in our city to open social/cultural centers without ever being able to get any support, at any level of government? We were very aware of that and unfortunately, we gave up on such an idea at the beginning, although it is not the right way and such a fight should definitely not be given up, but it takes a long time, as everything in this country, and the needs on the ground are still much different and more urgent to depend on the mercy of some chief, mayor, or minister. We wanted to try and show that it is possible without the support of institutions, but with the support of local people, friends and acquaintances from all over Europe who share our values ​​and principles of work, and to whom every human being is equally valuable. “Stari” Kompas was opened last year in Sarajevo in Rajlovac by a group of Czech volunteers who wanted to work with people on the move in the Sarajevo area and provide some services that did not exist before, such as showers or laundry and drying programs. Unfortunately, due to the considerable distance from the city, and then the COVID-19 pandemic, the center stopped working in March last year. During that period, I worked with a group of friends in a small rented garage where we shared clothes, shoes, and food. At the beginning of the summer, the idea was live again, and together with colleagues from the Czech Republic we could re-launch the community center, but this time as a local organization with local volunteers, with the financial support of the Czech organization Pomáháme lidem na útěku (The Czech Refugee Help). The center is located in Pofalići, and we pay the overhead costs. We also received great support from the Luxembourg organization Catch a smile a.s.b.l, which also helps us financially in the purchase of clothes, shoes, food, but also providing necessary funds for the operation of the center (such as hygiene supplies, equipment, etc.). Since the center opened its doors in November last year, we have been contacted by a large number of organizations across Europe, but also individuals and organizations from BiH who want to support our work. For example, recently a friend of ours from Norway launched a humanitarian action to collect clothes and shoes throughout Norway and encouraged people to send packages to Sarajevo, in order to help at least one person or one family on the move. Colleagues from Sos Balkanroute sent almost a whole truckload of clothes, shoes, blankets, sleeping bags in solidarity with the center and people on the move in Sarajevo a few days ago. At a time when some 15 days ago we had no clothes, shoes, and food, colleagues from Catch a smile organized a large humanitarian action in Luxembourg, which included our diaspora, and in less than seven days clothes and shoes arrived in Sarajevo. There is almost no day that one of our fellow citizens does not stop by the center and bring food or clothes, or ask what is needed and what is missing. How to help? By volunteering, first of all. We are always in need of new volunteers because it is very difficult to find volunteers who can set aside 6 or 8 hours as the center works 5 days a week. It means to us if you can join us at least 2-3 hours a day because there is a lot of work, and the needs are increasing every day. Of course, every donation is important to us, and there is no small donation. It is sometimes important to emphasize that one meal, one hat or a jacket means a lot to someone.

Since 2015 and the beginning of the Balkan route, you have been dedicated to caring for people on the move. You have been present in places from Greece to Slovenia, and for the last two years you have been intensively helping people who are trying to pass through BiH and somehow survive on their journey. You and the people you are surrounded by in this noble mission act completely informally. What did the moment of the decision to dedicate yourself to people on the move to this extent look like, and this is not the first problem to which you are extremely committed?

I don’t think it was a conscious decision – now I’m going to do this and that, nor have I ever worked that way. In my 36 years, I have done various jobs, very often completely outside my profession or some “assumed” field of activity. It seems to me that I have always struggled in some way against something, very rarely for something, and that it marked my whole life. In 2015, I had the opportunity to stay for a short time on several occasions at the so-called The Balkan route in moments that were much different than today’s situation, when the borders were open and when the people on the move were “welcome”. In 2017 and 2018, I spent several months in Casablanca, Morocco, as part of a research project, and I had the opportunity to see up close the lives of young people in neighborhoods like Sidi Moumen, whom I found on the streets of Sarajevo upon my return. To me, unlike perhaps many of our fellow citizens, it was not at all strange to see them on the road to a better future (or at least they believe so) knowing what living conditions they are fleeing from, what poverty and life that is always on the margins. I have always strived to do what I believe in, what I see as meaning and what represents my life principles and values.

Among other things, personal readiness to accept minors on the move into one’s own home when there was no possibility of taking care of them speaks of commitment, such as the beaten victim of an attempt to cross the Croatian border… Such gestures are much more often the exception than the rule. Is a person born with empathy or can it be learned? How do you explain your own approach which, as I said, is not very typical?

We are born with something, but we learn a lot more in life. And we learn always and at all times. Growing up in war and post-war Mostar, being a child of parents who are in a so-called mixed marriage where I was exposed for years to a continuous re-examination of my own identity, feelings like non-belonging, alienation. For me, this “margin” has always been a natural state. And probably because of that I always had the need to stand by and fight for those who are marginalized and discriminated against in one way or another by society, whether they are people on the move or the LGBTIQ community or inmates or children with disability or workers. In the capitalist machine of life that we live, that is, strive to survive, solidarity and empathy are our tools and our form of resistance.

Although almost none of your activities are presented to the public, what you sometimes post on your FB profile can give the impression of the extent to which you are committed to caring for people on the go. How to selflessly help to such an extent and, on the other hand, to do something that provides the basic preconditions for one’s own existence?

Hard, because you have to make a living from something. I fought with myself for a long time in the decision to make an association because through many years of work in the non-governmental sector, I was disgusted with the way it is done and how it is done. Perhaps I was most disgusted by how much hypocrisy is all around us. Write a project, provide a few keywords and terms, get money, mark columns, write reports and so on in a circle. It is hard not to wonder what civil society is in this country and how much it has really contributed to some progress of this society all these years. Of course, there are civil society organizations in BiH that do a great job and my intention is not a generalization, but the facts on the ground speak otherwise. Many will probably find an excuse that donor policies are such and such, but it should be reminded that this is our society that we create, not donors, and that we should clearly and loudly oppose “external” authorities who think they know us better than we know ourselves. I would like that Kompas shows in the future that a different approach is possible. We all volunteer and will continue to do wo. We use the money we collect for those for the basic needs of the center. This is of course not easy and requires a lot of balancing between volunteering and the necessary work for one’s own survival. Personally, I have long ago come to terms with the fact that precariat is my permanent condition, and that the uncertainty and instability of such a life do not cause me as much anxiety and depression as before. Although, as I said at the beginning, the situation is never worse, and people on the move, in addition to being dehumanized and criminalized, again thanks to the solidarity of the local population, they are not resentful towards citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the contrary.

How does the support system work, how do you collect help, without any space of your own, how is help sent/brought, who helps? In one interview, you have mentioned help of diaspora, how is it organized?

You will often hear from many people on the move that nowhere on this route have they received so much help and support as from the people living in BiH. I have witnessed and am witnessing this on a daily basis. However, these stories are interesting to the media, nor will you often find them on the covers of web portals or printed media, and when they do appear somewhere – it is often in the manner of some unseen miracle or exception. And that is far from the exception. There is almost no city in this country that people on the move do not go through. In each city you have at least a few independent volunteers who, without any organizations and associations, help people on a daily basis. There are many people about who you will never hear about, who have opened their homes and hearts to those who need help. Of course, we must be aware that this is a country where the majority of the population survives from the first to the first day of the month on miserable wages or without any permanent income, and that it is neither realistic nor possible to expect our population to cover the needs of large numbers of people on the move, who have been passing or staying in our country for years. We collect help in various ways – actions that we have organized on the streets of Sarajevo, actions that are organized for us in different countries and cities across Europe, donations in money and similar. We also get great support from diaspora especially from Luxembourg and Switzerland who on several occasions organized actions and collected aid for people on the move in BiH, or come here to help us with the purchase and distribution. They know better than anyone else what it means to be a “migrant” or a refugee, to look for a better life, to live in a new society under new rules, and often to help family mebers left behind.

The migrant crisis has confirmed that the country BiH does not exist. Camp Lipa and the attempt to take care of people, we have seen that local communities can make decisions that the country should make. It is also pointless to talk about the hypocrisy of the international community and the engagement of international organizations in BiH in charge of taking care of migrants. Citizens, especially of the Una-Sana Canton, inadequately articulate dissatisfaction with the government, so it often seems that it is exclusively directed towards migrants (although of course there some of dissatisfaction is directed towards migrants). The Balkan route will not stop because migration will not stop in the 21st century. Do these people have any allies besides other good “ordinary” people?

It’s a difficult question, but they really don’t seem to have. As you said, there is no country, there is no government and we have known that for years. How can we expect that a country that is not able to take care of its own population to take care of some people who go through it?! Of course it should have to, but it is in vain to expect, which does not mean that we should not insist on it constantly and daily, no matter how much it seemed pointless. It is also not worth talking too much about the hypocrisy of the international community, the European Union or international organizations in BiH, because we know this very well from our own experience. The policy of the EU is the main culprit of everything that has happened and is happening, and we do not need to go far into the past to remember the colonization then and now, only by other means. Migrations will not stop, nor will there less of it. It can only get bigger because of everything that is happening in the world – poverty, destitution, inequality, climate change and beyond, and I am sure it will be one of the main issues we will all face and deal with together in the coming years and decades.

Media could be allies, but unfortunately there are few who still hold to the reputation of the profession. Unfortunately, the media really helps to criminalize people on the move. One of the titles you once mentioned was – a migrant stampede at the gates of the region, and a stampede is not exactly typical of the human species. How different would the overall atmosphere be if the media were more sensitized, but also if we worked with the population that would better understand what people on the move went through until their arrival in BiH?

As someone who has worked in the media for a certain period of my life, I am honestly not surprised by what I read and watch on portals or printed/electronic media in our country, when it comes to reporting on people on the move. It is enough to review the titles and understand what kind of human and professional mud we have fallen into. You will almost never find any positive news about them or a text that will deal with this topic in a serious or exploratory way. The inflammatory rhetoric we have been exposed to for years has only found another new channel. Of course, it would be much different if the media dealt with this topic in a professional and responsible way, if they brought the fates of these people closer to our fellow citizens, if they objectively reported on the causes and consequences of this situation. Perhaps the first step would be to stop labeling human beings as illegal.

As I mentioned earlier, migration will not stop, and a country like ours I don’t know when it will start doing its job. Until then, obviously as before, it is up to the volunteers to deal with people on the move. Burnout in activism is not uncommon. All professions (except activism is not a profession, it is a way of life) have their supervisors. Who helps you when it gets difficult and for how long do you think you can continue helping people on the move to this extent? Or as one of my friends would say, if you’re always on the front line, at least have someone add a blanket to you.

If you are not good to yourself, you can hardly be good to anyone else. I try to be guided by that sentence, although very often that is not the case, nor is it possible to separate emotions from a job like this, nor is it easy to stop, even though you know you have to. Burnouts seem to be an integral part of the story, but they shouldn’t be. Once you build awareness of yourself, of how much you can and want to, and how realistic and healthy it is, then you can also start looking for ways to “keep your head above water.” Psychological help for volunteers is very important and absolutely necessary. Being exposed to human suffering and pain, different life stories and paths on a daily basis, is not easy and there must be a way to channel all these feelings somewhere. Finding a balance in this work is difficult and very often none of us is able to do it alone. None of us can be on the front line forever without being wounded. It is important to deal with your own wounds.

The text was written as part of the “Unpredictable” project funded by the USAID’s Independent Media Empowerment Program implemented by CPCD and OM.