An Afghan migrant, age 17, drowned in a Bosnian river. Here's how citizens responded


A photo of Ajmal Khan on his way to Western Europe to find work, taken by a travel companion and sent by Khan to his family in Afghanistan via WhatsApp. The 17-year-old drowned when crossing the Drina River near the city of Bijeljina in Bosnia-Herzegovina — part of a common route for migrants as they head toward wealthier European countries. Photo by NPR - Family photo.

Thousands of migrants have died or gone missing in Europe — many of them in the Western Balkans. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, dozens of migrants have drowned in the Drina, a river between Bosnia and Serbia, as they try to reach wealthier nations. It is hard for relatives to find out what happened to their loved one. Bosnian volunteers try to help. They arrange to bury the bodies of migrants no one claims, take bone samples for future DNA testing to confirm the identity of a decedent and help with repatriation or funerals.

BIJELJINA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — "His mother begged me to find his body, so that his family could give him a proper funeral at home, in Afghanistan," says Stana Gul Ahmadzai, age 32, of Kabul. "But I had no idea where to start."

Ajmal's mother is a widow. Her 17-year-old son, Ajmal, drowned in the Drina, a river marking the border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, on July 31, 2022. It was one stage of a trek that would put him closer to his dream: to help his mother and two sisters by finding work in one of the wealthier countries of the European Union (EU).

The teenager decided to leave after the Taliban took over in August 2021. "Even people who studied could not get jobs, only Islamic scholars," says Ahmadzai. "It was also the prospect of living in a country without freedom of speech, that made him decide to make that difficult journey."

With the help of human traffickers in Turkey, Ajmal ended up in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a mountainous nation in the Western Balkans — part of a popular route to Western Europe because migrants believe that border police in Bosnia — a non-EU country — aren't as likely to target migrants who enter illegally as they are in the neighboring country Croatia, which is in the EU.

A friend who traveled with Ajmal informed the family of their son's death on via WhatsApp.

"His dream cost him his life," says Ahmadzai. "We did not know what to do."

The teenager is one of thousands of migrants who die each year on a journey from countries in the Global South to find employment in Western Europe. Many drown crossing the Mediterranean. Others die while traveling over land.

According to an International Organization for Migration (IOM) report, an estimated 29,000 individuals lost their lives along migration routes to Europe between the years 2014 and 2021. Since 2021, the IOM has recorded an additional 5,684 deaths on migration routes to and within Europe, on land and in the sea.

In the Western Balkans, since 2014, approximately 360 migrants have disappeared, according to IOM. Most come from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Syria. Around a third of them are believed to have drowned, says IOM.

How the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina try to help

For the families of the deceased, there is often no closure. If contact with their loved one comes to a halt, they may not be able to find out why. Even if they do learn that the family member died, they might not be able to arrange for a respectful burial in a foreign country many miles away – or cannot afford to bring the body home.

In Tuzla, the third largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a group of citizens is taking responsibility to help.

"When the media speaks about refugees, they use numbers and don't speak of people with human rights," says Nihad Suljić of Tuzla, who helps families of lost migrants: "Maybe in Bosnia we better understand someone searching for their loved ones because we searched for thousands in Srebrenica after the genocide" – when some 8,000 men and boys were killed in 1995.

The Drina, where Ajmal drowned, is a treacherous river. On average it's 700 feet from bank to bank, with swirling currents. There are bridges but for migrants who've entered the country illegally, the risk of being apprehended by police is too great. So they sometimes swim. Or they do what Khan did – attempt to cross in a flimsy rubber vehicle in the dark of early morning to evade police patrols. Khan's boat capsized.

The authorities have confirmed 45 deaths of migrants attempting to cross the Drina.

The bodies are usually spotted by citizens living by the river. The Bosnian Mountain Search and Rescue operations recovers the bodies. But it may be impossible to identify the body.

According to the local police, many migrants do not carry identity papers. They may have lost the documents while traveling. Or they may have believe that without proof of citizenship from a particular country they could somehow qualify for refugee status or avoid being sent back to their homeland by the authorities if they are apprehended for entering the country illegally.

When found in this part of Bosnia, the body will then be sent for autopsy in the Sveti Vračevi hospital in the city of Bijeljina. Dr. Vidak Simić, a pathologist, will store the body for a certain period of time in case the family reaches out; take a bone sample for any future DNA tests (carried out with the permission of a prosecutor) if the family does come forward and can submit DNA for a possible match.

He records information on each body: gender, estimated age, scars and distinguishing marks, estimated time of death, where the body was found and a photo.

After a few days but typically as quickly as possible as the hospital has limited refrigerator capacity, the body is buried in a public graveyard in one of the cities or towns around Bijeljina. Simić notes the grave's location in his database, together with a number he assigns to the bone sample he took.

If the identity of the deceased is not known, the tombstone is simply marked with N.N., Nomen Nescio – "no name" in Latin.

How families learn the fate of their loved one

So how do family members back home learn of the death of a migrant – and then connect with the helpful people in Tuzla and Bijeljina if that's where the death occurred?

To learn more about their loved one's fate, relatives start to Google and social media for any clues.

The website of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) helps families locate missing migrants through its Family Links Network. FLN has an online tool called "Trace the Face," a virtual photo gallery. Family members of missing migrants can submit a missing relative's photo for inclusion in the hope that someone who knows what happened will reach out.

"We will do everything in our power to help a family in their search for missing loved ones," ICRC representative Marko Matović from the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo wrote to NPR in an email.

When a family registers a missing member with the Red Cross, the organization contacts the authorities (ministries, police, prosecutors, forensic institutions) who attempt to put the family in contact with the relevant parties.

But authorities don't always help or don't have the necessary information.

"It is the responsibility of the country's authorities to undertake actions needed to ensure an adequate tracing of a missing migrant," says Matović, but they "often, lack of standardized procedures and insufficient coordination between institutions hamper the tracing process."

This is where volunteers like Nihad Suljić come in.

When the authorities fail to find their loved one, some families turn to the Facebook group "Dead and missing in the Balkans."On March 16, for example, a family asked for help from "anyone who knows anything" about a young migrant from Afghanistan named Hanifullah Ahmadzah.

Suljić is part of this Facebook group and tries to track down details if the missing migrant was in the part of Bosnia where he lives. Sometimes, relatives also directly use social media of WhatsApp to reach out to Suljić, whose work has been covered by television and radio.

The search for the 17-year-old from Kabul

Stana Gul Ahmadzai eventually did discover the group "Dead and missing in the Balkans,"He posted a photo of his cousin Ajmal, stated his age and where he died, and asked if anyone had found the body.

In response, Suljić reached out to police sources to see if they had found a body matching the descriptions that Ahmadzai had shared.

These details could help family members identify a lost loved one. However, if the family wishes to bring the body home for reburial, an identification by phone would not be enough for the Bosnian authorities to release it.

If the family members can provide a DNA sample, Simićc will get permission to do a DNA test on the relevant bone sample he has stored in his hospital refrigerator.

Simić stores samples longer than the 6 months required by Bosnian law because he wants to give families in faraway places a fighting chance of finding their relative: "I'm breaking the rules a bit, but I'm not afraid," he says.

Ideally, a relative will come to Bosnia for a blood or saliva test. Otherwise, they can send a notarized test.

"We managed to identify several people, who were then returned to their hometowns," says Simić, who is proud of his work: "Last year I received photos from a cemetery in Afghanistan, where a young man that we identified was buried. One family is now at peace."

Ahmadzai is grateful for the help from Simić and Suljić.

He came into contact with Suljić online, and the police Search and Rescue operation found a record of a body matching the description of Ajmal.

Suljić asked Ahmadzai for a DNA test of a relative. It cost a substantial amount of money because the relative had to travel to Pakistan for the test and to have it notarized.

The results were sent to Dr. Simić by email to compare to the bone sample Dr. Simić had taken from Ajmal. It was a match.

Ajmal had been buried in the Bosnian city of Zvornik. Unfortunately there was a time lapse in getting the paperwork signed off from the prosecutors' office. When the family finally got his body, it was "damaged and unrecognizable," says Ahmadzai, who adds "governments should reform protocols for missing people, so delays can be avoided."

And while he and his family are grateful for the help, he notes that many other families of missing migrants still live in limbo.

"Many families [in Afghanistan] don't know how to read or write," he says. "Many don't have the money for travel or repatriation. How will they find their loved ones?"

Ingrid Gercama is a freelance investigative journalist and anthropologist reporting on current affairs, politics, conflict and social issues from the Western Balkans and Africa.

Vanja Stokić is a human rights journalist, based in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Copyright 2024 NPR