A Passion for Compassion
It was so convenient. The picture was finally painted neatly in black and white by most mainstream media in the West. On the one side were the bad Serbs, and then there were “all the others,” who were, on the whole, victims of Serbian aggression. It made sense, there were winners and loosers, good guys and bad.
Based on that it is difficult at first to fully appreciate the plight of the sad-looking bunch lined up outside an apartment building in Belgrade one cold morning in April. The compassion is initially dampened by some cynical doubts. After all, they´re just Serbs, aren´t they? If they have it tough – well, they have themselves to blame, don’t they?
But a closer scrutiny of the story behind these people makes it clear that this group of people are caught between a rock and hard place. Yes, they are Serbs, but these were the Serbs who lost without even trying to win. “Ethnically cleansed” over the past five years from their homes by Croats (and in some cases Bosnian Muslims), they have been forced to head East away from areas that are currently under Croatian or Bosnian control. With nowhere else to go they ended up in Serbia, the pariah state of the Balkans. Some are actually located in Montenegro, and while the two republics form the unrecognized Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, most observers agree that the Serbian regime in Belgrade rules supreme.
These refugees have lost almost everything, even their citizenship. They are now semi-citizens of a nation with about as much appeal as, say, Zaire as far as hospitality and possibilities goes. Some have called Serbia a corrupt, bureaucratic dictatorship, hated by its neighbors. Sanctioned off from the rest of the world it is challenged with an economy and infrastructure best described as “dead.”
Most agree that Serbia, as an abstract nation, has brought these troubles on itself by initiating the latest rounds of Balkan fighting and by maintaining an antiquated, inefficient, centralized system of government. But only a cynic would claim that the sorry-looking Serbs standing on Simina Street this morning could have been the cause of much unrest. They don´t look much like militant nationalists who have wreaked havoc across the Balkans, and they probably have few ambitions for a “Greater Serbia.” These are “plain and simply” plain and simple Serbs.
Whereever you go, there you are
According to unhcr (United Nations High Comission for Refugees) there are currently 617.700 asylum seekers in Serbia. Of these, 537.900 are considered by international law to be refugees. Forty percent come from Bosnia & Hercegovina, and left their homes (primarily in Sarajevo) either during the figthing early in the war or as a consequence of the handover of local authority to the Muslim-Croat federation with the signing of Dayton. Fifty-five percent are from Croatia the majority fled during the August ´95 Croatian offensive into the self-proclaimed republic of Krajina Srpska.
All told, that leaves half a million refugees in Serbia today. They´re not in good shape, and despite Dayton’s provisions for their return they are likely to be staying for a while, and the the current Serbian leadership can not or will not take the necessary steps to provide for them.
The strange thing is, you hardly ever see them. That’s a large part of the problem. They do not live up to our expectations of what refugees look like. They are not housed in huge camps, sitting around with flies in their eyes starving. They look pretty much just as depressed as all the other Serbs (which of course should give an indication of the state of the nation in general), and 90 percent are privately housed. That can mean anything from staying with friends or family, renting a place or sleeping rough in abandoned houses or sharing stables with farm animals. The other ten percent live in so-called collective centres, often just a euphemism for make-shift barracks filled with refugees. They, too, need a lot of help, but they are easier to find and administer to on a regular basis. The biggest challenge is helping those who are in need, but who, for one reason or another often simply pride or embarrasment choose to remain hidden and try to struggle by on their own.
Bread Of Life
Enter Bread of Life. Ostensibly a Christian humanitarian organisation, the small group operates out of two churches in the centre of Belgrade and are establishing distribution points elsewhere in Serbia. Their aim is to get whatever aid they receive from foreign donors to the Serbian refugees.
Overworked, but with the compassion and determination of true samaritans, the volunteers face an enormous logistical challenge trying to cope with the sheer number of refugees who come to Bread of Life asking for some help. They have set up a small pharmacy and have a volunteer doctor on hand assessing the need of individual refugees. They´re feeding and clothing as many as they can, but donations are scarce, and the people they help need almost everything. Bread of Life has designed its own allocation program in order to distribute the sparse supplies of food, clothes and medicine as evenly and fairly as possible.
The refugees are not obliged to join in the religous services at the church in order to get aid; the Serbs are mostly Serbian Orthodox, and it seems that most of the refugees only come to receive the material assistance offered, not the spiritual.
On one particular Thursday in April Bread of Life is celebrating their fifth anniversary; as usual, the basement under the church in Belgrade is packed and crawling with activity. Several hundred people have come at the designated hour to receive their aid parcels. It is a strange mix of old, frowning men in threadbare overcoats, wrinkled grandmothers in dark headscarves who have a curious blend of gratitude and dejection showing in their sky-blue eyes. There are younger couples, too, even mothers with children of school age. Some of these people are here for the last time. Seven visits is normally the limit, though in some cases Bread of Life may choose to extend the coverage.
They line up and their quato meeted out at lightning speed. The volunteers on the other side of the table have lots of experience at this, and before long a steady stream of refugees are heading back up the stairs to the streets of Belgrade with their bags and boxes bulging with milk powder, soap, oil and other basic provisions. They don’t have much to look forward to, except of course their next visit to Bread of Life.
“No problem” used to be the catch frase heard on the streets of Belgrade, but not any longer. Few Serbian refugees today believe they will be able to return to their homes in Croatia or Bosnia & Hercegovina. But fewer still have any idea how they are supposed to survive by their own means in Serbia where a third of the population is believed to live at or below the poverty line. Nevertheless, the international community still has as a declared goal to repatriate the majority of the Serbian refugees. This is an essential part of the Dayton agreement, and this is why a Serb from Krajina is not a refugee, but an “expellee” a politico-technical term coined for the occasion that supposedly indicates his or her special status as forcibly displaced, if only temporarily so.
A changed description, however, does not change the fact that the person in question is a real refugee with a real need for housing, clothes and food. Today, almost two years after the signing of Dayton, there is no reason to believe that the majority of the refugees can ever be sent back. With every passing day the current state of affairs becomes less and less of an exception, and at some point the status quo will have to be dealt with as such, not as a temporary crisis. but for 1997 most relief organisations are choosing to cut down their operations in Serbia, or pulling out completely, leaving the refugees to an uncertain future at the mercy of a regime that has to concentrate on issues like survival in spite of its track record. Elections in September may see a change in leadership in Serbia, but it will not change the situation for the Serbian refugees in the country. And while it remains to be seen how much of Dayton will actually be implemented, there are fears of more refugees coming in from eg. Eastern Slavonia, where tension is still high and the risk of new outbreaks of conflict remains.
A safe place to die
Travelling from a town 80 km southwest of Belgrade, Stanko is bid welcome at the Bread of Life office. A Krajina refugee, he has come to ask for some warm clothes, and, as he realizes that Bread of Life have a doctor on hand, he also asks for some medicine for his sick wife. They could not afford two bus tickets, so he has come without her. Stanko heard about Bread of Life from a friend of a friend who had received some aid from the organisation, and he figured it was worth the time and price of a ticket. “What I´m wearing are all the clothes I´ve got,” he says, “and even they have been given to me by others.” Stanko is a proud 65 year old Serb with striking partisan features. His well-worn cap does a poor job of hiding the sad, yet determined look in his eyes. “God gives me health,” he proclaims, “but where should I go?”
He tells the story of how he and his wife left their village near Petrinja south of Zagreb in August of ´95. The convoy of refugees was bombed on its way through Bosnia. They were initially housed in a school building, but the local chapter of the Jugoslav Red Cross then tried to send Stanko and his wife a few hundred miles south to the Kosovo region along with other recently arrived refugees. “We´d rather die right here than go down there,” he told them, alluding to the fear most Serbs have of the Albanians who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population in ethnically tense Kosovo. He managed to pursuade the authorities to allow the two of them to stay on in central Serbia, and, left to their own devices, they have since found an abandoned house where they now live. By a stroke of luck they have tracked down their daughter who lives in the Southern part of Serbia. “Our living conditions are terrible,” he says. Stanko earns a few dinars now and again by chopping wood, but he and his wife depend on charity for their daily necessities. Back in Croatia he worked as a mechanic at a mining facility, well on the way to retirement when the war changed everything. His boss “a friendly Croat” warned him of impending trouble, and Stanko and his wife were able to get away in the nick of time. “But all that we owned is gone, even our garden gate, everything has been burned down,” he explains.
Like so many others in the Balkans Stanko supplemented his income with small scale farming. “I left six cows, three calfs, 35 sheep, five big pigs and 20 small ones,” he laments as he clutches his refugee card even harder in his hand. He now hopes he will eventually get his pension from Croatia forwarded, If so, he´ll be content with staying in Serbia. “A safe place to die is all I hope for,” he says and turns to tell the volunteer Bread of Life doctor which medicines his sick wife needs.
A million dollar effort
The good news is that International Rescue Committee (irc) was recently given a USD 1 mio. grant by an American government agency, which is to be spent on a project with Bread of Life as the local implementing partner and the Menonnite Central Committee (mcc) as project consultants. A select group of particularly vulnerable refugees are to be fed for the duration of the project, while a doctor connected with the program will see to the medical needs of the selected group.
This program started in April of ’97 and should ensure that the spirit of the Bread of Life commitment to humanitarian aid will live on at least until the end of the year.