War’s legacy and looming elections shape Bosnia’s response to migrants

Velika Kladusa Letter: Political mudslinging over migrants contrasts with public goodwill

There is a saying in and around Velika Kladusa in northwest Bosnia, the latest pressure point on the Balkan migration route, which captures the local view of its mayor, Fikret Abdic: "Voda tece kud Babo rece" (The water flows where Papa says).

During the 1970s and 1980s, Abdic helped turn a small farming company called Agrokomerc into one of the biggest firms in Yugoslavia, employing more than 13,000 workers, exporting goods to 22 countries and transforming living standards in a remote and impoverished region.

The epitome of a company town, Velika Kladusa developed thanks to the largesse of Agrokomerc, which built schools, roads and other infrastructure and paid at least one salary to nearly every local family – earning Abdic, its chief executive, his paternal reputation and nickname.

Abdic could only create such an empire with the backing of Yugoslav leaders, but amid shifting political winds Agrokomerc came under investigation in 1987 for accumulating debts of up to $500 million which it was unable to honour – a microcosm of the financial crisis that was then strangling the entire country.


“Babo” and his Bosnian Muslim (or Bosniak) allies blamed the scandal on scheming rivals, and he retained the affection and allegiance of people in Velika Kladusa through the dying days of Yugoslavia and the start of war in Bosnia in 1992.

As most Bosniak forces fought for survival against Belgrade-backed Serb militia, Abdic did something extraordinary – he came to terms with Serb warlords and Croatia and turned on the Bosnian government of his rival Alija Izetbegovic.

Twenty-five years ago this month, Abdic declared the independence of the Velika Kladusa area – naming it the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia – and brought in goods and weapons from Serb-run territory and Croatia while battling against the Bosniak army commanded from besieged Sarajevo.

Tried and jailed

When his fiefdom was overrun in 1995 he fled to neighbouring Croatia and the protection of its then president, Franjo Tudjman, but after his death Abdic was tried and jailed in 2002 for war crimes he had committed against fellow Bosniaks.

Sixteen years on, Velika Kladusa is back in the news and Abdic (78) is back in charge. He was elected mayor again in 2016, four years after his release from prison and to the fury of counterparts from several towns around Velika Kladusa, who refused to be sworn in with him. His relations are no better with Sarajevo and Bosniak leader Bakir Izetbegovic, the son of his wartime enemy Alija.

This lingering enmity complicates Bosnia’s response to the arrival this year of some 11,000 migrants – compared to just 755 in 2017 – most of whom have crossed into Croatia through the wooded hills around Velika Kladusa as they make for western Europe.

Velika Kladusa and Bihac, 55km to the south, are now home to more than 2,000 migrants from the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa, who are increasingly desperate to get to Croatia and beyond before winter takes hold.

Up to 1,000 migrants are in Velika Kladusa, most of them in a squalid shanty on scrubland near the border.

Efforts by the Sarajevo government and international organisations to move them to tents beside a former Agrokomerc warehouse have run into opposition from Abdic’s council, which seems unwilling to commit to helping the migrants ahead of Bosnia’s parliamentary elections on October 7th.

Suspicions of Sarajevo

Playing on old suspicions of Sarajevo, his party says Velika Kladusa is paying for Sarajevo’s mishandling of the situation, while Serb nationalists claim the migrants’ arrival is part of a plot to increase Bosnia’s Muslim population.

These power games and political rivalries – played out as a dangerous winter for the migrants approaches – stand in stark contrast to how many Bosnians have treated the travellers.

"The reaction of local people has been fantastic, especially when you consider the problems they already have," says Amir Puric, a journalist based in Velika Kladusa, where poverty's return has made the heyday of Agrokomerc a distant memory.

“People donate money, food and clothes and some let refugees stay for free in their homes. There’s been no violence between migrants and locals.”

It is a similar picture in Bihac, which was besieged for three years during the war – including by Abdic’s forces..

"Most of the burden of this crisis has been on us," says Maja Midzic of the Bihac Red Cross, where dozens of volunteers provide food and medical help to migrants.

“We’re well-organised, which is a legacy of the war,” she adds. “We accepted thousands of displaced people in Bihac then. I think that makes people here more compassionate towards the migrants.”